Whether you’re deciding on a location for your year abroad or simply looking for your next holiday destination, this mini-guide is the perfect place to start exploring Spain. As you’ll find out, there’s far more to Spain than bull fighting and sangria. The way of life, culture and even languages spoken are as varied as you would find from one country to the next, so it’s fair to say that I’ve only been able to scratch the service on this beautiful country, and that’s without mentioning some of its most famous areas like the Balearic and Canary Islands, and some of its hidden treasures like Galicia. But not only is each region different from the rest in its own way, within these areas you’ll find enough variety to keep an Erasmus year filled with weekend trips, or enough excuses for a holiday maker to keep coming back.
This region is probably the most alike to the image many people associate Spain with, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s known for being the most traditional and patriotic Spanish region, with plenty of red and yellow flags adorning every window and shop front. And with the incredible Costa del Sol, this is probably the most popular holiday destination in mainland Spain. But it’s so much more than beautiful beaches, incredible food and flamenco (although these are unmissable attractions). Some of the region’s best attractions are actually away from the beach. One of the many ancient mountainous villages like Frigiliana or Nerja that surround Malaga are the perfect day trip to escape the city and experience a truly authentic Spain.
This area is even responsible for some of Spain’s most famous art and culture. Malaga is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and the incredible architecture in these cities will keep you in awe of the region for days. As you may already know, a large portion of Spain was ruled by the Muslim empire, and it’s held onto this Arab influence from centuries past. The most popular places of interests in this region come from this era: Malaga’s Alcazaba, Seville’s Real Alcazar and Granada’s Alhambra, to name a few.
The Basque Country
The Basque Country, or País Vasco, is arguably the most unexpectedly unique province in Spain. Situated on the border of France, not only does combine the severe landscapes of the Pyrenees and the delicate beauty of Spain’s architecture, it even has its own completely individual language, Euskara. What’s more, unlike much the rest of Spain, this region is renowned for its miserable weather. Nonetheless, the Basque Country has some of the most beautiful landscapes and beaches Spain has to offer: try San Sebastian for some surfing, or even visit the place where Game of Thrones’ Dragonstone was filmed in Zumaya.
But despite the myth that the Basque Country is cold and unfriendly, here there seems to be a warm sense of community. In the depths of October on a cloudy Sunday afternoon you can find severe looking locals having a caña (a small beer) and pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) along one of medieval streets of the Basque capital, Bilbao. All the bars spill out into the narrow roads, with people playing music and dancing along, creating a warmth and lightness that gave this place its special charm.
Catalonia and the East Coast
News of this region’s tumultuous independence vote has dominated international news surrounding Spain recently. For many, the desire for independence is routed in this area’s individuality, with this province seeing itself has almost entirely separate from the rest of the country. Whilst many argue against the legitimacy for the vote, the regions’ uniqueness is indisputable. Like the Basque Country, Catalonia has its own official language: Catalan. And whilst the Catalonian people may not be as patriotic for Spain as the Andalusians, there is a universal pride amongst them for Catalonia.
On the top of many people’s list on their visit to Spain is the world-famous city of Barcelona. It’s a bustling location with culture and beach all in one city. Although, with all of this considered, it’s popularity has made it expensive and unbearably touristy. That’s why if you’re looking for metropolitan and playa combined, Valencia is a beautiful alternative. As the birth place of paella, its cultural routes are firmly set in food, but it’s also got its fair share of edgy cafes and bars. This city is the perfect size to be able to explore in just a few days, or to easily make it feel like home for those looking to live here, with lots of museums and an incredible nightlife. Further south of this region you can find the arid and vast Murcia, which is the perfect place to escape and a popular holiday destination for many.
As I’ve been lucky enough to call this place home for the past four months, I might be bias in saying this is the best region Spain has to offer. Although it may not have the costa del sol, its lakes and many, many rooftop pools more than make up for the lack of beaches. It’s held onto so much of its traditional Spanish heritage but is still exciting and modern. This city is a hub for art, cinema and culture: it hosted LesGaiCineMad, an international LGBT+ film festival amongst many other exciting exhibitions and festivals. Boasting clubs like Goya Social Club and Mondo Disko, the nightlife here is set to compete with that of London and Berlin.
There’s also much more to Madrid than just its city. The community of Madrid (in the same way that there’s the City of London and Greater London) consists of the breath-taking Sierra, a mountain range that offers stunning hikes and skiing for those wanting an escape from the metropolis. But if you did want to know more about the varied neighbourhoods of Madrid, take a look at this foreigner’s guide to Madrid’s barrios.