Top of most must-see lists for Spain is the Southern province of Andalucia. This large region has it all: Moorish palaces, traditional towns and villages, golden beaches and hot flamenco. Here are Gusto Guides’ picks of the towns that should be on any first-time visitor’s itinerary to get a real flavour of Andalucia.
The stunning city of Granada has seen a turbulent past, and was at the heart of an immense Moorish empire until the reconquista in the 15th century, following which the Spanish monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand promptly moved their capital here. It’s easy to see why. Nestled among some of Spain’s least-known but most beautiful mountains, the Sierra Nevada, Granada’s (and Andalucia’s) biggest tourist draw, the Moorish palace of the Alhambra, is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. Throw in some excellent bars, restaurants and flamenco along with a swathe of worthwhile museums and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Andalucia’s answer to the big apple, Seville has it all: excellent museums, great tapas and some of the most authentic flamenco bars in Spain. Top all of that off with the best Semana Santa celebrations in the world as well as May’s fabulous Romeria, and you have one heck of a destination for the culture vulture traveller. Must-sees include the stunning Moorish palace of the Alcázar, the stark gothic bulk of the city’s cathedral and the atmospheric Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz. A little further away, the Macarena neighbourhood across the river and to the North of the city centre, is the traditional gitano neighbourhood, and you may just be lucky enough to overhear the local children learning compás or the older folks showing them how it is done.
Salty, elegant Cádiz is widely believed to be the oldest constantly-inhabited city in Europe. Situated on Spain’s southern Atlantic coastline, the city has witnessed both the departures of the conquistadors and the Battle of Trafalgar from its sturdy sea wall. The Cádiz of today is a laid-back city that has it all: urban beaches, history, culture and friendly locals. Gusto Guides’ particular tip would be to head in to the city on a Sunday morning, see the fishermen selling spiny sea urchins and join the Gaditanos for a drink on one of the many plazas dotted around the old town while the local kids learn to ride their bikes. Don’t forget to check out the city beach, beautiful seafront promenade (paseo maritimo), well-preserved Roman theatre and, for stunning views over the city, the Torre Tavira.
Little-known to foreign tourists, Málaga has an unfair reputation as a hub for Andalucian travel, a city that you fly in to, and little more. How wrong can you get? Málaga is a gem of a city with an authentic Andalucian flavour, great food and a lively festival in mid-August. Birthplace of Pablo Picasso, the city boasts a brutal-looking Moorish fortress (the Alcazaba), a decent city beach, a Roman theatre and a swathe of decent art galleries, two of which are dedicated to Picasso himself. The best thing about Málaga though? Simple: enjoying Mediterranean street life, wandering around the city streets and enjoying excellent tapas with the locals.
One of the most beautiful towns in Spain (if not the whole of Europe), Ronda is an unmissable stop on any traveller’s itinerary in Andalucia. Famed for the dizzyingly steep gorge (the Tajo) that runs through the middle of town, Ronda is a hotspot for bullfighting (don’t miss the Plaza de Toros and Bullfighting Museum) and traditional food, as well as being a charming place to soak up the spirit of small-town Andalucia. As Hemingway said, ‘The whole city and its surroundings are a romantic set… nice promenades, good wine, excellent food, nothing to do.’ Enjoy it.
6. Jerez de la Frontera
Hardworking Jerez has had a difficult time in recent years, suffering terribly in Spain’s recent economic meltdown. However, the bodegas that produce the town’s most famous export, sherry (known as Jerez in Spanish) are still going strong and are well worth a visit for any wine lover. The 12th century Arab fortress dominates the centre of the town that is charmingly lived-in: this is an excellent place to get a taste of real life Andalucia, and join the locals for some of the best churros we’ve ever tasted (get in quick though, they’re all gone by midday!). Once you’ve filled up on the good stuff, check out the Andalucian Flamenco Centre for a jaunt through the history of this haunting folk music, and swing by the cathedral to sniff out the Zurbaráns before heading to the Royal Equestrian School to see the famed local horse riding tradition.
No visit to Andalucia is complete without a trip to Cordoba and its immense Mesquita: a Moorish mosque repurposed as a cathedral following the reconquista. Also be sure to take in the romantic Puente Romano (Roman bridge) for wonderful views of the city, as well as enjoying a leisurely stroll around the city’s Jewish quarter, complete with a beautiful, Mudejar-style example of one of Spain’s few surviving synagogues.
Cover photos: Flickr / Luis Irisarri