Cities to see in Spain that are not Madrid, Barcelona, or Sevilla

When people think of Spain, a few things usually come to mind — Barcelona and Madrid, flamenco, sangria, late nights, and sun.  Of course, this is a generalization, but tends to summarize the key things that pop into many people’s heads when they think of Spain.

Yes, Spain does have all of that, but Spain is so much more than this is so many ways.

One of the best ways to really get to know a country is to visit smaller cities. Spain is filled with beautiful, urban, liveable smaller cities, each one with its own culture significance, typical food and drink, architecture, and character.

Yet, as different and unique as all these cities are, you see the distinct threads of Spanishness throughout — appreciation for the simple things in life, making time for  family and friends, excellent food and drink that is widely accessible.

Here are 5 cities I recommend visiting to get off-the-beaten track a bit.

León

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Enjoy drinks and tapas with León locals in Plaza de Omaña, in the center of the Barrio Romantico

The second biggest city in the Castilla y León region, León is a great city to visit for many reasons. It is small — around 120,000 inhabitants — and has a beautiful, easily walkable old center city with one of Spain’s most beautiful Gothic cathedrals.

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A stained glass window in Leon’s famous gothic cathedral

León has a thriving bar and tapas scene and is one of the only cities in Spain where you get a free tapa with your drink at any bar across the city. In fact, Spanish newspapers regularly name León as one of the best cities for tapas in Spain.

León is also a stop on the Camino de Santiago French Route. During the summer, the the city is filled with peregrinos, or pilgrims, coming into the city to spend a day on their way to Santiago.

The city is also a great home base to spend a few days in while taking day trips to surrounding wine areas. It’s easy to rent a car and reach the wineries of Toro, Ribera del Duero, and the Bierzo.

To do and see in León:

  • Stroll up the beautiful, pedestrian Calle Ancha on your way to visit León’s famous gothic Cathedral which has the second largest ratio of stained glass to stone only behind Chartres Cathedral in France;
  • Have a pre-lunch aperitivo at Bar Madrid in the Barrio Romantico. Then, have the penultimo, or the second to last drink (because Spaniards never have the last drink) at El Pajarín and enjoy the people watching in the quaint Plaza de Omaña;
  • Spend a night out in the Barrio Humedo bar hopping to sample the city’s best tapas and try a different tapa in each bar.

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    Enjoy cañas (small beers) and tapas at one of León’s many bars

Granada

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A view of the Albaycin from the Alhambra

Granada, possibly the most romantically beautiful city in Spain, has everything you could want from the Alhambra — the stunning Moorish palace and fort — to a beautiful mountain range, and a lovely downtown with great shopping, bars and restaurants. Perhaps my favorite part of Granada are the beautiful neighborhoods and plazas that make up the city, with distinctive architecture and beautiful flowers and gardens. It is city bustling with life, yet very walkable and liveable.

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The Alhambra as seen from the Mirador San Nicolas in the Albaycin

The Alhambra is the most visited tourist site in all of Spain and for good reason. It is one of the best examples of Mudejar architecture that was characteristic of the Moors in Spain. The Generalife gardens next to the Alhambra are a must-see as well.

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One of the gardens in the Generalife Palace, part of the Alhambra compound

To do and see in Granada:

  • Spend a day touring the Alhambra. How could any list involving Granada not start with visiting the Alhambra?!
  • Spend an afternoon walking around the Albayzin neighborhood — the old Moorish quarter of the city — exploring hilly, winding streets and taking in white-washed houses, beautiful patios and flowers,  and popping into bars for a refreshing caña and a tapa when needed;
  • Watch the sunset from the Mirador San Nicolas, a beautiful look out in the Albayzin neighborhood that looks over the city, for a stunning view of the Alhambra
  • Walk along the Paseo de los Tristes, which literally translates as the Path of the Sad ones, along the river that runs below the Alhambra
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A view of the Albaicin neighborhood taken from the Alhambra

Cadiz

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Cadiz rooftops from above

Cadiz is a spectacular city in the very south of Spain, in the Andalucia region, on the Atlantic coast. The beaches are long and open with calmer surf than the more rugged beaches on the Northern Atlantic coast.

This part of the Atlantic coast of Spain is called the Costa de la Luz, or the Coast of Light, because of the excellent weather and sunshine. If you want a vacation or just to spend several days on beautiful beaches with reliably good weather while being in a city and enjoying food, culture, and history Cadiz is the place for you.

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A view of the old city of Cadiz at sunset

Cadiz is famous for its beaches,  both within the city, and for the small, neighboring towns and cities that have their own stunning beaches. Many of the

To do and see in Cadiz:

  • Spend a day on Playa Victoria, the main beach in city center of Cadiz, enjoying the waves and the beautiful, long and pristine beach and in the evening, take a walk down the length of the Paseo Maritimo, or the boardwalk to see the beach on side with the city on the other;
  • Change up your beach routine and spend a day on Playa La Caleta, a much smaller, cove-like beach that is still easily accessible from the city and just a bit farther down on Playa Victoria;
  • Enjoy tapas in the city center while you admire the Cathedral and enjoy the quaint, winding streets;
  • Take a day trip, or two, to the famous Pueblos Blancos around Cadiz, like Arcos de La Frontera, Grazelema, and Jerez de la Frontera to see beautiful, hill top villages filled with white-washed homes, beautiful gardens, and more.
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Gaditanos as the locals from Cadiz are known, enjoying an afternoon aperitivo in the city center

San Sebastian

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The bay of San Sebastian

San Sebastian is undoubtedly one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world. It is also renown around the world for its gastronomy and is home to ten Michelin star restaurants, including three with three stars. In fact, after Kyoto, Japan, Sen Sebastian is the city with the highest number of Michelin star restaurants per square meter.

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La Concha beach, right in the center of San Sebastian

You do not have to pay a lot of money to eat well in this city and don’t need to make it to one of those restaurants to enjoy the local gastronomy. If you can, by all means do have the meal of a lifetime at one of the Michelin star restaurants, but even if you do eat at one of these places, make sure to enjoy the local pintxos scenes with the regulars because this is really what makes the San Sebastian culinary scene shine .

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Comb of the Wind sculpture

To do and see in San Sebastian:

  • Enjoy the legendary pintxos (what tapas are called in the Basque Country) and drinks in the casco antiguo, or the old quarter of the city;
  • During the summer, after spending a day on La Concha, the main beach in the city,  dry off and head to straight to a tapas bar in the casco antigugo for an aperitivo and then to lunch in any one of the cities amazing restaurants.
  • Spend an evening strolling along the paseo maritimo, or the boardwalk, enjoying the view of the city on one side, and the bay on the other,  and walk down to see the famous Comb of the Wind sculptures
  • Hike up the Monte Urgull, the hill that appears in the middle of the bay, for amazing views of the entire city.

Logrono

Logrono is a delightful city. It is extremely walkable, has a beautiful, old city center,  and is the only city in Spain to have two Parador hotels. The Paradors are historic buildings converted to hotels and run through a public-private partnership with the Spanish government. It’s a way to preserve historic buildings, while making them accessible to the public and being able to afford upkeep. Most cities are lucky to have one, but Logrono has two!

Like Leon, Logrono is another small to mid-size city in Spain that is basically right in the heart of another wine region, perhaps the best known wine region in Spain, La Rioja. Logrono is also on the Camino, much closer to the beginning of the French route within Spain, and is also known for an incredibly tapas bar scene.

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Vineyards in the Rioja wine region near Logroño during the winer

To do and see in Logrono:

  • Enjoy an evening of tapas and drinks on Calle del Laurel to immerse yourself in the local food scene with people of the city or, for a calmer less busy alternative, try Calle del Laurel for a pre-lunch aperitivo;
  • Take a day trip or more to one of the nearby bodegas, or winieries, in the Rioja region (the possibilities are infinite here and you could spend days upon days visiting bodegas) and taste some of the best wine Spain has to offer, and learn about the history of the region and the wine making process;
  • Walk around the history center of the city and vist the Logroño’s cathedral, Catedral de Santa María la Redonda, the Iglesia de San Bartolomé, and the museum dedicated to Rioja wine, the Museo de Rioja
  • Cross the Puente de Piedra, or literally the stone bridge, also known as the bridge of San Juan de Ortega, which leads the way into town and keep your eyes out for pilgrims doing the Camino de Santigo as this is the way into the city on the pilgrimage route.

 

Each of these cities is filled with amazing and unique places and experiences. Because they’re a bit off the beaten track and not as popular and well known as some other Spanish cities, they’re a great way to get to experience tapas culture, see pilgrims doing the Camino de Santiago, explore centuries old Spanish churches, and more.

 

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