Ask anyone who plans to visit Spain for the first time which places they think they absolutely have to see and you are likely to hear: “Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and the Costa del Sol.” There is nothing wrong with those destinations. But it should be pointed out to them that leaving the “must see” path has great benefits insofar as they will get to see five gorgeous, underrated cities in Spain, full of culture and history. Not to mention fun and entertainment without having to stand in line for ages at museums or monuments or having to jostle with a tourist crowd, which in times of COVID is never is a good idea.
Here are my Top 5 recommendations for alternatives to the Big Four:
If it weren’t for the “Concert of Aranjuez,” a classical guitar concerto written by blind Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo in 1939, many people wouldn’t even have heard of the name, leave alone know that this is actually a town located on the river Tajo (Tagus).
Not just a town, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Spanish royals have had a penchant for Aranjuez since the times of King Felipe II, who started the Royal Palace of Aranjuez as a summer residence that – inspired by Versailles – ended up as a 300 room “little summer retreat.” It’s surrounded by equally sumptuous gardens with lakes and pavilions, all of it a joy to visit. In the same complex is yet another royal residence, the elegant 18th century neoclassical Casa del Labrador.
Want to see how the royals moved along the river? Museo de Falulas exhibits well preserved royal barges from the 19th century. There are many more buildings and monuments that justify Aranjuez’ World Heritage Site status.
For fun and entertainment, visit the Macaw sanctuary or hop on the Strawberry train. Around Aranjuez grow many strawberry fields and this train is a tourist attraction that runs to and from Madrid with actors in fancy costumes entertaining the passengers with music and baskets full of strawberries that are generously distributed.
Jerez de la Frontera
Just 12 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean in Andalusia sits Jerez de la Frontera, defined by three words: sherry, horses and flamenco.
In fact, when visiting Jerez, you might get tipsy just sniffing the air. This is the center of sherry production, also known as fino or manzanilla. The vapors emanate from the many bodeas, or wine factories, where sherry is made and stored in huge oak barrels.
Jerez is also home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art and a special breed called Carthusian is reared here. In fact if visiting Williams & Humbert, you can combine sherry tasting with watching the high art of dressage as they lay on a show whilst you knock back the fino.
What would the south of Spain be without flamenco? Incomplete! Forget the touristy flamenco shows in Granada and elsewhere and experience the real thing in the place where flamenco singing began.
Another town in Andalusia that is often bypassed for Granada or Seville. Divided by the river Guadalquivir and spanned by a Roman bridge, Córdoba’s Mosque/Cathedral dating from the 900s and becoming a church in 1236, is a sight to behold. Both cultures combine in the interior with arches and columns.
There is also the huge fortress of the Alcazar of Córdoba, but the real charm lies in the Old Town. Small and easy to manage on foot, you find cool plazas, small alleys and the famous courtyards and balconies full of flowers. In May they have a patio festival and competition.
Interesting is the Jewish quarter and my favorite: The Museum of Art on Leather. It’s located on a small plaza in the middle of the old town and dedicated to the Moorish art of Guadameici, works of art created from painted and embossed leather. Ring the bell, ask nicely if you can come in and be dazzled by the bright colors combined with gold and silver.
If you want a little shiver there is also a torture museum, easy to be found by the horrific piped sounds coming out the open door. They have a museum shop where they sell miniature torture instruments. I asked the girl if anyone actually buys such things and she dead panned: “Yes, for the mother-in-law.”
You might have seen pictures of the dizzying El Tajo gorge on top of which Ronda sits. But you may not know where it is and what there is to see. Ronda is located in the Province of Malaga and divided by the river Guadalevi. The river is also responsible for carving out the gorge, very steep and more than 100-meters deep.
Both sides of the town are connected by three bridges of varying age. Walk across any and visit the lovely park Alameda and the Renaissance Palace of the Marque del Salvatierra. It’s a museum exhibiting Renaissance art, furniture and artifacts. If you have seen Madonna’s video “Take A Bow,” you will know what it looks like.
Ronda is closely connected to the history of bullfighting and a yearly highlight (the first week in September) is the Feria Goyesca.You don’t need to approve of bull fights, but this festival is where everybody dresses up in traditional clothing taken from the painting of Francisco Goya, parades around town on foot or horseback and has a great time.
Ronda has always attracted artists because of the wild nature, among them Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. Walk across the bridge and find the historic Hotel Victoria where poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a permanent room.I f you like wine, visit the wine museum which documents the history of wine making in the area through the ages.
It’s not only in the south where you find this kind of underestimated places, there is one in the north too. That is Vigo, located in Galicia in the province of Pontevedra on the Atlantic Ocean. Vigo is an important port town that started out as a fishing village. Fish is a crucial word, because a must visit is La Piedra, the old part where stall after stall sells and shucks oysters that you buy directly there, then find a rickety chair and table in one of the many restaurants, order a drink, a plate and some lemon wedges and slurp away at your heart’s content.
From Vigo you can go on a day trip to the protected Islas Cies, large, white beaches, rocky paths to a lighthouse, no cars, no hotel and absolutely no litter. Pure nature. Castro Fortress towers over the city offering splendid views as far as Islas Cies and over the Ria, if you have the breath to climb up.
If you fancy dancing the night away, you can do that in Vigo too.
About the author:
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel-and-lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits, among many other publications. After several years in Turkey, she now lives on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Read more about Spain in our Dispatches archive here.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel and lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits among many other publications.