With so many places to visit in Spain, it would behoove travelers to allocate a month’s time to exploring the vast country side. Once you arrive in the country, you will get caught up in the lively, vibrant atmosphere and be intrigued by the multifaceted culture and people that inhibit Spain. There are many charming towns in Spain, from Zargoza to Bilbao, León to Valencia. Here, I will highlight my favorite places to visit in Spain and why they are worth exploring. If you plan your trip in late summer, you will be able to participate in some one-of-a-kind festivals.
Places To Visit In Spain: Buñol
The last Wednesday in August, the biggest food fight in the world is held in Buñol, a little village outside of Valencia. La Tomatina attracts tens of thousands of people annually. 130 tons of tomatoes are trucked in for this event. There is a $10 euro registration fee to participate and tickets should be purchased in advance.
As I walked the cobble stone streets to the center of town, Plaza del Pueblo, I was passed by people wearing face paint and goggles. One gentleman ran by wearing a hallowed out watermelon on his head like a helmet. I thought to myself “what am I getting myself into?” At this point, it was too late to change my mind; I was committed to taking part in the largest food fight in the world.
A shot rang out, echoing through the square as the sound bounced off the side of the buildings. The crowd began cheering. In the distance, the brave man wearing the watermelon helmet was trying to shimmy his way up a two story tall greased pole to retrieve the prized ham perched at the top. Once he reached the ham, the tomato fight would begin. He was having a tough time scaling the slippery pole so the crowd, anxious to start, began using their bodies as scaffolding to help the greasy climber reach the goal. He grabbed the ham and flung it into the crowd.
Suddenly, fire hoses began spraying the crowd and dump trucks full of tomatoes began to inch their way down the narrow streets. Standing in the road amidst thousands of people, I thought, “There is no way this truck will fit down this street.” I was wrong. The horn of the trucks blared as people were made into human pancakes squished against the walls and boarded up windows of the buildings. As we struggled to breathe, unable to bat an eyelash in such tight quarters, people in the bed of the dump truck flung tomatoes at us. It was at this point I wished I had googles and a watermelon helmet. These tomatoes were not ripe at all! They were actually quite hard.
The rule was that all tomatoes were to be crushed before throwing them at other participants…being smacked in the face with a rock hard tomato, I soon realized that not everyone had read their welcome packet outlining the rules. This was anything goes, full on war and people were aggressive. I found myself chucking tomatoes at strangers and getting covered in a sticky paste. A few minutes passed and another truck could be seen inching its way down the street, threatening to squish us along with the tomatoes under it’s tires.
Abruptly, ice cold water came raining down from the sky. The people in the apartments above the street were throwing freezing cold buckets of water out their windows on the crowd below and laughing about it. The street became a slurred mess. Repeatedly, I took a barraid of shots to the face, chest and arms. It was time to take cover. I looked for an out.
It wouldn’t be easy, but I saw a stairwell halfway down the street and made my way towards it. The stairwell was a gantlet. The people trying to escape were easy targets and the crowd took the opportunity to pelt them with tomatoes as they ran up the stairs to safety. The beating was worth the risk so I went for it, knowing that the short term pain would be nothing compared to staying in the trenches. The bruises forming on my skin were all the battle wounds I needed. This experience tops the list of places to visit in Spain.
Places To Visit In Spain: Pamplona
Of the places to visit in Spain, running with the bulls in Pamplona is a must. Running with the bulls in Pamplona takes place July 6-14 each year. Each day, visitors have the chance to risk life and limb to run with the bulls. This festival has been held annually since 1592. Running with the bulls is a time honored tradition in honor of Saint, San Fermín.
Running with the bulls in Pamplona takes place July 6-14 each year. Each day, visitors have the chance to risk life and limb to run with the bulls. This festival has been held annually since 1592. Running with the bulls is a time honored tradition in honor of Saint, San Fermín.
Running with the bulls is a bucket list experience for many. Some actually kick the bucket when they are gored by a bull charging after them in the streets. Actually, less people die running with the bulls then at the parties, so a word to the wise, run with the bulls and then skip the after parties.
Driving into Pamplona in our RV, we again had no clue what we were in for. Hundreds of people walked by dressed head to toe in white. The men wore white linen pants and t-shirts while the ladies were in long white dresses. Red scarfs were tied around their necks and waists. There are two different reasonings as to why such attire is worn. One explanation is that patrons wear white to honor the saint, San Fermín and the red scarf is worn because he was martyred. Another reasoning is that runners dress like the butchers who first began the tradition.
At 5 am, runners still hung over from the party the night before stagger to the start line as workers frantically hurry to construct the large wooden fence that divides the spectators from the participants. The fence is a map for racers, charting the course they will take. As the sun rises, streaks of red and orange wash over the sky as a beautiful water colored picture is painted of the morning. One could cut the tension in the air with a knife or a bull horn as the impeding race weighs on each persons’ mind. Officials comb the crowd, removing the weak and elderly; not everyone that wants to run is permitted to.
I was under the impression that runners raced down the street with one set of bulls charging after them. This was not the case at all. Waves of bulls are released from their holding pens throughout the race. Just when you think you are in the clear and the bulls have passed you, another wave of bulls come charging towards you. The half mile course seems miles long when a 2,000 pound bull speeds after you like rocket on your heels. The animal is pure muscle and high on adrenaline. You can feel the warm stertorous breathing on the back of your calves as the creature gasps for air and swings its head and horns at you to get out of the way.
With a rolled up newspaper in hand, the goal and the deciding factor if you are a real man or woman is if you touch the bull with your newspaper. A risky proposition I am unashamed to admit is that in this definition of being a real woman, I am not. I did not get close enough to a bull to touch it with a newspaper and instead a cowarded on the side of the fence praying not to get gord.
Then I saw the most manly man in the world. A man that seemingly did not have a healthy fear of death or he was still drunk from the night before. Either way, he was crazy. The raging thunder of the bulls hooves intensified moving closer to where I cowered. This man was running in-between two bulls with his bare hands nonchalantly sitting on their backs like old friends do. Like in the movies, the crowd parts and everyone turns their focus to the hero as he emerges, time slows down for a brief second and everyone watches, awe struck. As quickly as he appeared, he is gone, ushered down the street by the bulls to the finish line—the arena where the bullfights take place.
Spectators pack into the arena to watch the matadors “toy with the bulls,” I mean fight the bulls before they are slaughtered. Super soaker water guns are filled with sangria from the large buckets the crowd has brought with them. Spraying the sangria into the air the crowd is drenched in the sticky, sweet, red mixture. The red liquid staining the white clothes the crowd is wearing, we now look like the butchers we are dressed as. The matador enters the arena and the crowd erupts into a Spanish chant and boisterous cheering. Sadly, the bull will soon be dead. In its last few moments, I find myself cheering for the bull to win, to somehow make it out of the arena alive. I know this will not be the case. The difference between bullfights in Spain and those held in Portugal is that, in Spain, the bulls dies while in Portugal they no longer kill the bulls. Earlier in the day, there were protests against the killing of the bulls but for now, the tradition continues.
Places To Visit In Spain: Barcelona
There are two big cities that make our place to visit in Spain list. To be candid, I prefer Barcelona over Madrid. The artistry is what makes this town special. Every tile on the facades of each building are unique and tell a story, which brings to life the Spanish culture. The renowned artist Antoni Gaudí has masterful and quite intriguing pieces of artwork sprinkled throughout the city. Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church, has been under construction since 1882 and is not set to be completed until 2026.
The hop-on hop-off bus (32€) also operates in Barcelona and is a good option for travelers. The metro can also be easily navigated from one attraction to the next and averages 2.15€ per ride. The entrance fees are moderately priced and should be factored into your travel budget.
Places To Visit In Spain: Madrid
Madrid is the capital of Spain and a bustling metropolis as the third largest city in Europe. There is much to see in the city as the country has done a great job at preserving the infrastructure of the historic city and, in such, the feel of this ancient yet modern town. The Madrid City Tour bus, at 21€ for a 24 hour pass, is great way to get an overview of all this city has to offer. At your leisure, you can get off at stops to learn more about the monumental landmarks. The night life in Madrid makes this one of the places to visit in Spain, it is not to be missed. Dance floors come alive as men and women move their bodies to upbeat latin music. You will get hot and sweaty whether you’re dancing or observing. Hotels can be quite pricy so I suggest booking a room through Airbnb or a hostel. (For a $25 credit towards your next stay with Airbnb visit: www.airbnb.com/c/sstolba1?s=8 Hostels will also be able to give you discount admission prices to many local attractions).
Places To Visit In Spain: Granada
At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the city of Granada. Rich in history, Granada is most commonly known as the home of its prize jewel the Alhambra. In the hillside outside of the city, visitors can experience one of the most beautiful palace fortress complexes in the world. With the attention to detail in the architecture of the Alahambra, the layout of the grounds and the placement of this magnificent structure, it is no wonder that 8,000 people a day visit this site each year. 55 euros will get you a guided tour, which brings to life the rich history of this famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even with the hefty price tag of this tour, everyday it sells out, so be sure to book your tour well in advance.
Places To Visit In Spain: Málaga
Near Granada, you will find one of the oldest cities in the world, the port city of Málaga. This artsy town was the birth place of Pablo Picasso. Today, you will still find local artists featuring and selling their work on the roadside. My favorite aspect this quaint stop are the tapas. Tapas are small plates of food otherwise known as appetizers in America. In Malaga, you get a free tapas with each drink you order. Sitting at a table under an umbrella in the summer, months of watching people move to and fro while sipping on a red wine from the Rioja wine region in northern Spain and nibbling on delicious Spanish cuisine is perfection. Everyone loves free tapas which is why this destination makes our places to visit in Spain.
Places To Visit In Spain: Toledo
Next, on our list of places to visit in Spain is Toledo. This town is southwest of Madrid. The narrow, winding, cobble stone streets are enchanting. The ancient buildings surrounded by the old city walls transport you back to a much different time. The town, though modernized, still has an old time feel, allowing you to picture yourself living centuries earlier.
It took on the nickname Holy Toledo as the Christians, Muslims and Jewish religions converged in the city. The phrase “Holy Toledo” is said to have sprung from the concentration of churches, which made the city holy. Many religious buildings in the area have preserved the history and architectural treasures of the Gothic, Renaissance and Spanish Mission decor. A guided day trip is a great way to experience the city.
The memories you will take away from your time in Spain will be memories that will be cherished and recounted for the rest of your life. If you haven’t booked a trip to Spain yet, you need to do it today. Heck, let me know when you are going and I might just join you and add more stories to the fond memories I have of this amazing country. The places to visit in Spain listed here are a great start.