From bullfighting and tapas to shimmering Mediterranean islands, Spain is a dream come true. The third-most visited country in the world, this Iberian wonder has a vibrant culture, history, and culinary scene—not to mention its boundless vistas. While the majority of visitors flock to Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Ibiza, southern Spain has an allure all its own. This unique region houses some of the country’s oldest historic sites, most intricate architecture, and a tantalizing cuisine found nowhere else on Earth.
Spain’s southernmost region, Andalusia, is a fascinating blend of Moorish and Roman influence. It’s also geographically diverse, with alpine peaks, golden deserts, fertile plains, and a sun-drenched Mediterranean coastline. Visitors can lounge on a beach or hit the ski slopes—all within an area the size of South Carolina.
If you’re heading to southern Spain, be sure to check out the following destinations:
Jerez de la Frontera
A small city in the southwest, Jerez de la Frontera is quintessentially Andalusian. It’s the birthplace of flamenco dancing and fortified sherry wine and rests at the heart of Spanish horse culture. Check out the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art where dancing horses put on an impressive show several days a week. Visit a tabanco—a store that sells wine directly from the barrel. Once you’re properly fortified, you can spend your time exploring Jerez’s palaces and Moorish fortress.
Believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe, Cádiz sits southwest of Jerez on the Atlantic coast. Phoenician sailors established the city 3,000 years ago, and Cádiz played a vital role in Spanish exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, chalk-white buildings overlook turquoise waters dotted with fishing boats. Waves crash over ancient seawalls, flamenco dancers twirl through the streets, and visitors gorge on fresh seafood. For a real treat, visit the week before Ash Wednesday. This is when the city hosts one of the largest Carnival celebrations in the world.
The birthplace of Pablo Picasso, Málaga emits an artsy vibe and boasts a range of compelling galleries. The food here is impressive too, with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to seafood shacks. Be sure you pack your dancing shoes, as Málaga’s nightlife is something to behold. The city also features a Roman theater, the Moorish fortress of Alcazaba, and the 11th-century Gibralfaro Castle.
The Sierra Nevadas
Towering over the city of Granada, the Sierra Nevada mountain range contains 20 peaks that top 11,000 feet, including Mulhacén, the highest. Though Andalusia is among the warmest places in Europe, you can ski here from late November until early May. Sierra Nevada National Park also offers rock climbing and hiking, and nurtures a large population of Spanish ibex, boars, wildcats and a variety of birds. Small, whitewashed villages within the park contain mineral hot springs that are open to the public.
Julius Caesar founded a city called Acinipo here in the first century AD. Moorish conquerors changed the name when they blazed through 700 years later. Today, the ancient ruins of Acinipo are located 20 miles outside Ronda, which overlooks a deep ravine surrounded by lush valleys. Perched on the top of a cliff and connected by a series of bridges, Ronda is one of the most beautiful places in Spain. You’ll have unparalleled views of the El Tajo gorge as you walk across the Puente Nuevo, the 18-century bridge that connects the old Moorish city to the newer section. Modern bullfighting is said to have gotten its start in Ronda, and the Real Maestranza bullring is one of the most picturesque in Spain. Ernest Hemingway drew inspiration for several novels from this dazzling city.
Granada is a breathtaking city nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Visitors come here to see the Alhambra: part-palace, part-fortress, and part-garden built by Nasrid sultans in the 14th century. The Moorish influence remains strong here. Spicy aromas, horseshoe arches, and teterías (teahouses) abound in the Albayzín district. Granada has a decidedly bohemian vibe with a good deal of student-driven nightlife to enjoy.
The capital of Moorish Spain, Córdoba sits in the center of Andalusia on the Guadalquivir River. Its footprint is small enough that visitors can easily walk from one site to the next. The crowning jewel is the Mezquita, the mosque-cathedral that stands as a symbol of the city’s multicultural history. Gardens and patios throughout Córdoba are enticing destinations for visitors to rest and smell the orange blossoms. Córdoba also houses the Alcázar, the Moorish palace that served as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Visitors can admire its Roman mosaics, Arab courtyards, and lovely fountains.
A sunny resort town on the Costa del Sol, Nerja is a great place to relax. Walk along the Balcón de Europa for exquisite views of the Mediterranean Sea and Sierras de Tejeda. Sun yourself on beaches and and float in hidden, cliffside coves. Listen to concerts in the Cueva de Nerja, a cavern where that also contains 10,000-year-old paleolithic paintings. If you’ve had enough relaxation, hike up El Cielo. From the top of the 5,000-foot mountain, you can see all of the Costa del Sol and across the sea to the North African coastline.
Seville is Andalusia’s capital and the most-visited city in southern Spain. It houses the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and a palace and gardens that appeared in Game of Thrones. Seville draws visitors from around the world looking to experience the city’s historic, charming neighborhoods and tasty tapas bars.
Though visitors often overlook the south in favor of the iconic attractions of northern and central Spain, this is a region begging for exploration. Rich in history, culture and natural wonders, southern Spain should feature in every traveler’s itinerary. Start planning your trip today!
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