Where are the best places to travel in Spain? See what the locals are saying
Spain is one of the most visited countries in the world, attracting more than 83 million travelers in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
In terms of international arrivals, this places it just behind France.
But Spaniards are also frequent travelers in their own country, with nearly 93% choosing to travel to Spain in the first quarter of 2022, according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics.
From where to eat to new luxury hotels in Madrid and desserts celebrating different saints’ days in Barcelona, Spanish residents have told CNBC where they like to go.
North of Spain
Spanish hotelier Pau Guardans got to know his country as a child, when his family vacationed on the road in a red and white Volkswagen “Kombi” van, a popular bus-style vehicle in the 1970s.
Now he enjoys vacationing in the Costa Brava region of Catalonia, on the northeast coast of Spain.
“I would recommend visiting one of its beautiful ‘calas’ [coves] and eat in his ‘chiringuitos’ [beach bars] with good fish and rice dishes. Inside, it is worth discovering the magnificent gastronomy of the region with products from the countryside,” he said.
The Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees, a chain that runs along the Franco-Spanish border.
Arthur Debate | time | Getty Images
Guardans, founder of Unico Hotels, a luxury group that includes the Grand Hotel Central in Barcelona and the Principal Madrid, recommended dining at Can Salo, a restaurant in a 16th-century farmhouse in the village of Palau-Sator.
Further inland, he suggests Eth Triton, a restaurant in a valley in the Spanish Pyrenees called the Val d’Aran, for “good food in a family atmosphere — and a good wine cellar!”
Northern Spain is also home to two of the country’s wine regions. “For fall trips, without a doubt, I love visiting wineries in Ribera del Duero or La Rioja,” Patricia Alonso, a marketer living in Madrid, said in an email to CNBC.
The village of Brinas in the La Rioja region of northern Spain. The region has more than 500 wine estates, of which about 80 welcome visitors.
Julio Alvarez | time | Getty Images
For summer, Alonso said she prefers the Asturias region along the Bay of Biscay, noting the sheltered Playa de Toro beach in the town of Llanes as a particular favourite.
Alonso said she also loves southern Spain, and the province of Cadiz is a favorite, known for its long sandy beaches, whitewashed towns and sherry made from the vineyards surrounding the town of Jerez de la Frontera. Cadiz is part of the autonomous community of Andalusia, the region most visited by Spaniards.
Alonso recommended the famous windsurfing beach of Valdevaqueros, near the town of Tarifa, the southernmost point of Europe. She also loves Bolonia, a wide curve of light sand with dunes, and the remains of Baelo Claudia, an ancient Roman city just off the beach.
Bolonia beach, near the city of Tarifa, the southernmost point in Europe.
Miguel Sotomayor | time | Getty Images
The province of Cádiz is also a choice for Fabian Gonzalez, the founder of the Forward_MAD travel conference whose parents live close to the region’s capital, also called Cádiz.
“The province of Cádiz has probably the best beaches of white sand and crystal clear water in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as an incredible gastronomy based on fish. In the province of Cádiz, a must is the restaurant Casa Bigote, in Sanlucar de Barrameda, where you can taste the best shrimp in the world,” Gonzalez told CNBC via email.
Gonzalez also recommended bluefin tuna at Taberna de el Campero in Zahara de los Atunes, a fishing village about an hour’s drive south of the city of Cadiz.
On the southeast coast, the town of Javea in the province of Alicante is a choice for Marina Valera, a social media manager living in Madrid. “Although it gets very crowded in the summer, Javea has a landscape that is worth seeing – it inspired the paintings of the famous Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla, and Cristobal Balenciaga spent his last days there,” she said. told CNBC.
“It doesn’t have the usual flat landscape one would think of because of the Montgo, a mountain that dominates the horizon for miles around,” she added.
Enjoying paella by the sea is a must, Valera said. Chiringuito Montgo di Bongo is located directly on the beach, and its website offers daily opening hours from 10:30 a.m. to sunrise. Valera suggested making a reservation well in advance.
Cala Granadella cove in Alicante is popular with Spaniards. Locals advise going early in the morning or out of season to avoid the crowds.
Sergio Formoso | time | Getty Images
“Just off Montgo di Bongo, La Siesta…is the place to see and be seen with beautiful people, whimsical decorations and dancing music. If you prefer something more down to earth, my favorite is [Taverna] Octopus, a bar located on El Arenal beach with rock music and good vibes,” she added.
Valera’s advice for avoiding the crowds on the beach? “I advise you to go very early! And of course September is better than July and August… I also prefer to go to Benisero beach: since it is a pebble beach, it is not not as comfortable as the sandy beach of El Arenal, but less crowded.”
What to do in Madrid
Alonso recommended Matadero Madrid, on the banks of the Manzanares River in the Spanish capital, an artistic development in a former slaughterhouse and cattle market. She described it as having a “typically Spanish atmosphere”, in which visitors can enjoy a traditional cana – a small glass of beer.
The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid. The hotel, which is over 100 years old, reopened after a three-year renovation in April 2021.
Cristina Arias | Coverage | Getty Images
Gonzalez, who lives about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Madrid, likes to stay in the city a few times a year, “as if I were a traveler”, he said, trying hotels such as The Edition and the Four Seasons. – both new to the city – or the recently restored Mandarin Oriental Ritz.
“The Del Prado or Thyssen museums, the musicals of Gran Via or an authentic flamenco show at El Corral de la Moreria are my top recommendations for enjoying the bustling city like a local,” he said.
The Museo Del Prado houses Spain’s national art collection, while the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum houses Old Masters as well as modern art. El Corral de la Moreria offers flamenco shows every night with dinner options.
The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) seen in the background in Madrid.
Jorg Greuel | Stone | Getty Images
“A brunch at the aparthotel Jardines de Sabatini, which offers one of the best views in the city, is a must,” added Gonzalez. The hotel’s rooftop terrace overlooks Madrid’s Royal Palace and has its own classic car museum.
What to do in Barcelona
Barcelona, where hotelier Guardans lives, is very popular with foreign visitors. To orient himself, he recommended seeing it from a high vantage point to see that it is “a small town surrounded by two mountains and the sea – with its old Roman quarter and its spectacular modernist ‘Ensanche’ quarter. “.
Ensanche, or Eixample, is notable for its octagonal block structure and grid-like appearance crossed by a diagonal avenue, while Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is home to the remains of the Roman Temple of Augustus.
Residential buildings in the Eixample district of Barcelona.
Alexander Spatari | time | Getty Images
The Palau Nacional, or National Museum of Catalan Art, has a rooftop terrace included in its 2 euro ($2) admission price.
“Barcelona is a city that is very well discovered on foot. It has a human scale and its architecture is the best open-air museum. I would recommend getting lost in its beautiful streets full of history,” said Guardans.
Several holy days are celebrated in Barcelona, and each is accompanied by a commemorative cake.
During the feast of Sant Jordi (Saint George), the panaderias – or bakeries – are filled with pastries decorated with the red and yellow of the Catalan flag, for example. Guardans recommends La Colmena in the Gothic Quarter, founded around 1849, or the Mauri pastry shop in Eixample, with its painted ceiling from the 1920s.
The Festival of Sant Medir, known as a feast of sweets, is celebrated on March 3. Meanwhile, the Revetlla de Sant Joan, celebrated on Midsummer Eve (June 23 in 2023), is marked by bonfires as well as a bread-style cake, known as coca de Sant Joan , which is made with candied fruit.
“You will have no choice but to come back to town to continue enjoying their delicious desserts!” said Guardians.