Always go for a city with interesting places nearby capable of being covered in a day. For instance, from Seville you can travel to Corboba, the fabulous Moorish city which like Seville is on the River Guadalquivir, from Madrid take the train to Toledo or Zaragoza, and from Valencia you can visit Malaga, famous Granada and the trendy Costa del Sol.
Spain's Cities: Seville, Valencia and Madrid
Visitors to Spain can only touch on one or two of its marvellous places, but which ones to pick? Top of my list are Seville, Valencia and Madrid, seen here with photographs.
Plaza de Espana, Seville
Little Senoritas Dressed for the Parade
The Easter Parade in Seville is the perfect way to enjoy the Spanish experience
My all time favourite because it has that very special Andalucian atmosphere, the people are friendly, and above all they love life. Go when the warm evenings tempt everyone outdoors and live the tapas culture, ambling from bar to bar and eating small portions (un ratión) of delicious food with a glass of wine or the local manzanilla. There is even a verb for it in Spanish, to tapear.
The old centre of Seville, the Barrio Santa Cruz, is a place of flower-filled courtyards and narrow streets just made for wandering. Too narrow for traffic, the lanes and squares of the Barrio Santa Cruz surrounded by deep pink and ochre houses, are heady with the scent of orange blossom during the season and when the trees are heavy with the fruit, it is enchanting.
In this area you’ll find the city’s most famous sights: its great cathedral and the Giralda, the Moorish tower. Inside it is huge, so huge that you can feel quite alone despite the other visitors to whom the tomb of Christopher Columbus is a focal point. The Giralda can be very busy, but don’t let that put you off because the view from the top over the city’s famous coloured tiled roofs is worth it.
Take a ride on a boat down the Guadalquivir River and see the city from another angle. Calming and serene, this is one of Seville’s best tours. After a morning’s sight-seeing on foot, there is no better way to relax than cruising down the river in a comfortable seat with a hat tilted against the sun while listening to a guide describing the passing scenery.
Don’t miss: The Bullring (think Carmen), Plaza de Espaῇa, the Alcazar, the Triana district, and the 16th century Casa de Pilatos, with fountains in every ante room. But walking around is the best way to absorb this intoxicating city: you’ll find your own special places hidden from view.
If you are there for a week or so and have time to go out of town, don’t miss Cordoba, the magnificent Moorish city just a short train-ride away. A day trip will enable you to get around it quite well and it will be one of the highlights of your stay in Andalucia, trust me.
Another good day trip is to the sherry city of Jerez where you can sample the golden nectar at several of the sherry houses that offer tastings and guided tours.
Best thing in Seville: the already mentioned tapas-grazing in the barrio with the sound of Flamenco echoing down the lanes.
Madrid, Capital city of Spain
Where nothing starts before 11 p.m.
Madrid is Spain’s capital city and Europe’s highest capital at 2,000 feet above sea level with gracious avenues, impressive architecture, fountains and squares bisected by streets lined with elegant shops and designer boutiques. It is a city for night-lovers as it comes alive around midnight. No one eats before ten o’clock and for a lot of Madrileῇos it can be midnight before they think of supper.
The symbolic central square of Spain is the Puerto del Sol where everyone eventually ends up. From there is only a short distance to the Plaza Mayor where underneath the famous arches, are restaurants and cafes, many famous as the haunt of bullfighters. In fact the square once hosted bullfights and public executions but is now the place where locals meet to eat and drink. Here you will find the famous bars selling Jamón Serrano, the massive joints hanging high up above the counters.
Art lovers are well catered for in Madrid. Velazquex, Goya, El Greco and Hieronumous Bosch are especially featured in the Prado while the Reina Sofia has an eclectic mix of old and new. The Reina Sofia however, has possibly the most famous of Picasso’s painting, Guernica, and if for nothing else, a visit to see this makes it well worthwhile. The Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery features Dutch masters to German expressionists.
Out of town and just 45 miles south is Toledo, a town long associated with El Greco, and easily reached by train (book ticket the day before). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a walk from the station affords magnificent views of the ochre coloured town with its imperious 13th-century cathedral. Craft shops, artist studios, galleries, restaurants and bars crowd the narrow medieval streets and it can be tempting to remain longer than planned.
Beach and Promenade at Valencia
Valencia - Rice fields, beaches and Ultra-modern City of Arts & Sciences
The contrast between old and new is startling but both are typically Valencian
It used to be the city that attracted only other Spaniards but nowadays Valencia attracts a wide variety of tourists from beach-lovers who can’t believe the size of the beach within walking distance of the city’s hotels, and architects and architectural students who come to admire the stunning City of Arts & Sciences designed by Santiago Calartrava. This wondrous city park of museum, aquarium, opera house and cinema is located just outside the city on a regular bus route but within walking distance for those who don’t mind the distance. But it indoor pursuits are not to your taste, just wandering around the complex is experience enough.
The famous Las Fallas, a festival of fire-raising when giant papier-mache sculptures are set alight in the city, takes place in March (check dates with the tourist board) and attracts thousands of visitors from both Spain and abroad. It is very special, very Spanish, and the festival is well worth the trip to Valencia.
Valencia’s sandy beaches with a delightful promenade running alongside are incredibly wide. Lined by restaurants the area is a favourite with the locals themselves and if you want a table at the week-end booking may be necessary. The local dish of paella is best tried here, washed down with a bottle of San Miguel or a glass of the local wine. Boat rides are available from the port and if you want to have a look at the coastline this is about the best way to do it.
The old city is dominated by The Cathedral and the Bullring which is nearby. The cathedral while not in the same class as that of Seville, is in many ways more approachable being slightly smaller. Throughout the old town area you will find buildings with curious inscriptions, gargoyles, beautiful doors and gates – especially The Silk House – and a walk through the narrow streets behind the cathedral will yield great photo opportunities. The craft market which takes place in the streets around the cathedral is a great place to buy locally made terracotta dishes and the painted Valencian plates. And if it’s fresh food you are after, The Mercado Central is one of Europe’s oldest markets and is a hymn to local food.
Trips to take from Valencia: To Gandia, home of the Borgias, Alicante and Benidorm the two best known resorts in Spain, but nearer to the city is Albufera with its distinctive architecture and roofed houses somewhat reminiscent of those in Madeira.