From paella to playas, cities to soaring mountains, Spain’s diverse cultures and landscapes reflect a country proud of its traditions, heritage and history.
With vistas as varied as the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea and with customs as vibrant as fiestas and flamenco, visiting Spain by train is the perfect way to take in the colourful collage of cultural and natural delights it has to offer. Here are some of the best places to visit in Spain by rail.
A lively port city often overlooked by tourists, Almería in Andalusia is famed for its splendid coastline and mountain wilderness. The city centre is dotted with palm-fringed plazas, museums, churches and tapas bars and, although not as famous as Granada’s Alhambra, Almería boasts an impressive Moorish fortress, the Alcazaba. Almería’s beaches are famously pristine, with the most unspoilt stretches found in Cabo de Gata Natural Park, easily reached by bus from the city centre in 1 hr 30 mins. Almería is also gateway to Europe’s only desert, the Desierto Tabernas, a wild expanse of hills, mountains and sand dunes, 35 mins from Almería by bus or a 1 hr 30 mins cycle.
Capital of Catalonia, Barcelona has always welcomed artists and creatives to its sweep of streets and shoreline. Its cultural arts, architecture and passion for sport give Barcelona the life and colour that defines its bohemian edge. While its superb rail connections make Barcelona ideal for a weekend visit (just 6 hrs 41 mins from Paris, for example), this is a city that deserves more time for wandering down its ramblas, basking on beachesand exploring its colourful neighbourhoods.
Visits to Gaudi’s greats such as the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló and Parc Güell are musts, as is taking the time to explore the city’s barrios like Barri Gòtic and El Born. Barcelona is also a great base for many day trips, which you can read about in our day trips from Barcelona blog.
Sprawled at the feet of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada is an enchanting city where Islamic architecture stands alongside churches, counterculture graffiti, traditional tapas bars and bohemian cafes. Of all Granada’s many attractions, the Alhambra is its most famous. This Moorish palace, built between the 8th and 15th centuries, sits high atop the Darro Valley and contains some of the best-preserved Islamic art in the world. Explore the Albaicín, Granada’s old Arabic quarter that stretches up the hillside opposite the Alhambra and Sacromonte, the city’s Roma quarter nestled in the hillside above Albaicín where residents still live in traditional cave homes carved into the cacti-coated hillside.
Madrid, Spain’s bustling capital city, is characterised by culture, style, sport and many of Europe’s best bars, clubs and cafés. It’s a city that deserves a week or more to explore all its cultural and gastronomic treasures, but even an overnight stay is enough to get a taste of Madrid. Madrid’s golden triangle of art museums houses some of the world’s most priceless pieces, while La Latina neighbourhood, one of Madrid’s oldest quarters, proffers plenty of tapas bars and cantinas within its maze of narrow lanes. Read more in our best things to do in Madrid blog. It’s also worth remembering that Madrid is a great jumping off point for day trips to Toledo, Ávila, Segovia and other scenic spots. Read more about day trips from Madrid by train in our blog.
Ordesa National Park
For a break from cities, take a train journey to Ordesa National Park. Located within the Aragonese Pyrenees, the Ordesa y Monte Perdido is one of the world’s first national parks, established in 1918. Marked by soaring peaks, waterfalls, glacial lakes and a wide variety of wildlife, the park holds both UNESCO World Heritage and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. With myriad walking trails of different levels, hike up to rocky heights and through lush green valleys. At the heart of Ordesa stands Monte Perdido, a 3,355m calcareous massif and one of the Pyrennees’ highest peaks. Ordesa National Park is within easy reach by rail, the closest main city being Huesca, and the nearest train station being Sabinanigo.
The capital of Andalucía, Seville’s old town, medieval alleys, tapas taverns and flamenco clubs make it a scintillating city that captures all the beauty and flair of the Spanish South. Many consider spring to be the best time to visit Seville, when its two biggest festivals take place: Semana Santa de Sevilla and Feria de Abril. This is also the season to see Seville in full bloom, when its streets are perfumed with the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms. The city’s rich Moorish history is seen in its many monuments, including its UNESCO-listed cathedral and Real Alcázar, a sumptuous palace still used by the Spanish royal family. Of all the places to visit in Seville, don’t miss wandering the streets of Triana, a neighbourhood known for its flamenco, tapas and ceramic shops.
Home to paella, playas and almost permanent sunshine, Valencia is a vibrant city with some of the most striking architecture and culture in Spain. Located on the Mediterranean and surrounded by a vast huerta, a fertile area of market gardens, Valencia is also one of Spain’s gastronomic greats with plenty of restaurants and food festivals. Walk around the city’s old town to see its imposing cathedral and central market and explore the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences built on a former river bed. Don’t miss visiting Valencia in July for the Fallas Festival, an annual celebration in honour of Saint Joseph marked by fireworks, bonfires, giant papier-mâché figures and plenty of paella.
Image credits top to bottom: Parque Natural Cabo de Gata Flickr Commons (cropped and enhanced) ©Oliver, Güell Park in Barcelona iStock ©Gatsi, the Alhambra iStock ©WillSelarep, Cibeles Fountain in Madrid iStock ©GoranQ, Ordesa Flickr Commons (cropped) ©Phil Fiddyment, Seville Cathedral iStock ©Tao_Shen, Art Nouveau architecture in Valencia Flickr Commons (cropped) ©Ronald van der Graaf
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