5 Unique Spanish Destinations Worth Visiting
Preparing for your holiday in Spain and want to get off the beaten path? These unique Spanish cities are worth a visit. These places don’t get as much tourist exposure, but they are absolutely worth making the trip. Check out the list below for recommendations for your next adventure.
Santiago de Compostela
The capstone landmark of the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims have made the collective journey here to see the resting place of St. James for hundreds of years. Santiago de Compostela is well worth the journey for pilgrims and tourists alike, but there is a sort of magic about concluding the Camino de Santiago in this city.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
This cathedral is magnificent (and I’ve seen my fair share of cathedrals). There are no other words. You can even see it from miles away as you approach the city. Not only is it massive, but there are all types of influences in its architecture. For pilgrims who have walked the journey to Santiago, the moment of arrival to the cathedral is a magical and spiritual moment. Get a taste of the city by taking this practically free walking tour!
Skip the line and take a guided tour of the Cathedral. If you wish, you can even stay for a pilgrim’s mass. The ceremony of the mass, along with the beautiful architecture and echoing acoustics definitely creates for a sacred feeling atmosphere. And don’t forget to look up – the swinging censer that fumes incense is one of the largest in the world!
Plaza del Obradoiro and Museo das Peregrinacións
Located immediately near the cathedral, this plaza is a place of celebration and excitement of tourists and pilgrims who have made it here. The huge square hosts musicians and performers whose songs echo across the walls. There are also beautiful hotels, wonderful shops and restaurants in the adjacent streets. Stroll along the square, or to the right to view a quiet sunset.
If you have enough time, check out the Museo das Peregrinacións, or the Pilgrims Museum. The space details some of the history and cultural significance of the Camino de Santiago worldwide.
Casco Antiguo / Old Town
Take a detour from the main attractions to go back in time. As its name suggests, the old town is the original part of the city where you’ll find historic museums, churches and buildings full of Gothic and Roman architecture. Get lost in the winding alleys and check out some of the cute shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. In fact, Casco Antiguo is known as a UNESCO World Heritage site due it its beauty and charm.
Looking for a larger city filled with nightlife and history? Léon is a beautiful city – situated near a river and plains. The town feels posh and comfortably large but isn’t overrun by tourists. While there is plenty of nightlife and cultural sites to keep you entertained for a few days, make sure you check out the following places during your visit.
Personally, this cathedral reminded me of a miniature Notre Dame in France. The cathedral sits high above the rest of the town and boasts some of the most beautiful stained glass images that I’ve ever seen! Similar to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the vibrant colors emanate from the biblical scenes that are depicted in the stained glass windows, and the multi-colored light dances on everything it touches. Be sure to get the audioguide that explains the history of the cathedral’s construction and soak in the beauty.
If tapas are what you’re after (and they should always be), Léon’s Barrio Húmedo offers some of the best. Tapas are small plates of cold or hot foods that are ordered with drinks. They originate from the word “Tapa,” which is the word for “lid” in Spanish. Long ago, it was customary to put a slice of bread over a beer to keep flies out of the drink. Over time, people began to add toppings to the bread, and so the tapas tradition was born.
Nowadays, tapas include fried foods, potato salads, veggie dishes and anything else you can think of! Around 10 at night, the winding alleys of Barrio Húmedo come alive with people visiting bar after bar for wine, tapas and dinner bites. I highly suggest that you wander around and find your personal favorite restaurants!
Take in the town’s scenery and city life by relaxing in the main square, Plaza Mayor. Surround yourself with the stunning architecture and stop for lunch at one of the many great restaurants and shops nearby. It’s a great place to pause before going on a short walk to Léon’s many museums, including the Museo de Léon and Casa Botines, which highlight’s the work of Gaudi, the architect who created Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.
Also known as Spain’s chocolate city, literally. Astorga was one of my favorite Spanish midsize cities. You can have leisure and culture as you enjoy their chocolate, museums and spas! If you like art and history, Astorga has the Roman Museum and the Palacio de Gaudi. It’s a perfect place to spend an extended weekend.
Chocolaterias and Museo del Chocolate
In its heyday in the 20th century, Astorga was known for being a major hub of the country’s chocolate production. The city still carries the tradition on, with many shops offering artisanal chocolate of all varieties. One shop, Chocolateria la Cepedana, has been famous for years for serving chocolate confections of all kinds. I stopped for the hot chocolate. It is super rich, thick and decadent and it doesn’t disappoint!
If you’d like to learn more about the history of chocolate (in addition to sampling it), don’t miss the Museo del Chocolate. It’s a bit of a walk from the main area of town, but this small museum packs a punch. The museum is still an operating chocolate factory, and the exhibit showcases chocolate manufacturing methods, as well as features a plethora of chocolate memorabilia like advertisements. Included with your admission is a free chocolate tasting too. Be sure to grab a bar (or a few) as wonderful artisan gifts for you to take home.
If you travel in Spain, then you know that the country celebrates the famous architect, Antonin Gaudí. Known for merging different styles, Gaudí created this Neo-Gothic modernist masterpiece that looks like it’s come to life straight out of a fairytale. Now, I’m not an art historian, but I really enjoy Gaudí’s play with light and form. His seems to blend lighter natural forms with the more heavy Gothic structures, which gives you the feeling that you’re in a friendly and fun castle.
If you have an hour or two, I recommend heading over and learning about the palace’s construction and Gaudi’s ascent to celebrity in Spain. Explore the garden grounds as well to really take in the exterior.
Roman Museum and Walls
Astorga is an old city, so old that it was a Roman outpost in the middle ages. The Roman walls surrounding the city are still intact, centuries later. Formidable and tall, they are at least 10 feet thick. On the north west side of the city, you can walk along the top of them and peer down for some excellent city views.
To take in more history, visit the Museo Roman La Ergastula. It’s definitely a good place to take in the history. Small but well-curated, it’s an easy way to immerse yourself in the long history of the town (and take a break from chocolate-related activities).
While Astorga has a little bit of everything, a welcome offering is the presence of hotel spas. A welcome session of R&R for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago and tourists alike, the spas offer saunas, thermal baths and pressurized showers to melt all the tension away. I’d recommend either of the options of spa resorts, but I personally stayed at the Hotel Spa Ciudad de Astorga by Portblue Boutique. I had the entire spa to myself and enjoyed a relaxing massage for quite an affordable price. The spa experience was a perfect ending to my time in Astorga.
Runner Up: Villafranca Del Bierzo
This quaint and super tiny town is nestled in the mountains and a river runs right through the center of it. It feels like time is completely paused, and by the time you descend down into it the main square, you feel like a character out of a storybook. This is a rural and mountainous landscape, so it’s an ideal destination for a quiet reset or retreat. Come and see the historic churches and the riverside beach, but stay for the main attraction: wine. In recent years, this small and sleepy region has become more known for crisp and acidic varietals.
For Camino pilgrims, the cold and flowing river was a welcome treat. Enjoy a sunny day out in nature and take in all of the scenery. Beautiful landscapes abound with valley level views of the surrounding mountains and greenery. Take a dip or put your feet in the water if you care to. Otherwise, simply take a stroll along the banks and embrace the quiet.
Although the town proper can point you in the direction of good local bottles, why not take a tour of one of the operating vineyards in the area. Demencia Wines offers artisanal and local varietals, along with vineyard tours and wine tastings.
So there you have it; a short list of unique Spanish cities to visit on your next trip. While I love Barcelona, Sevilla and Madrid as much as the next traveler, there is something to be found by venturing into the lesser-known locales.
Have you been to any of these places, or are you planning a trip soon? Let us know in the “Contact” section.
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