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Historically, Spain has been an important crossroads: between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, between North Africa and Europe, and as Europe beginning colonizing the New World, between Europe and the Americas. As such, the country is blessed with a fantastic collection of historical landmarks - in fact, it has the 2nd largest number of UNESCO Heritage Sites and the largest number of World Heritage Cities of any nation in the world. In the south of Spain, Andalusia holds many reminders of old Spain, from Cadiz, regarded as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in western Europe and nearby, Ronda, a beautiful town situated atop steep cliffs and noted for its gorge-spanning bridge and the oldest bullring in Spain. Cordoba and Granada hold the most spectacular reminders of the nation's Muslim past, with the red-and-white striped arches of the Mezquita in Cordoba and the stunning Alhambra palace perched on a hill above Granada. Seville, the cultural center of Andalusia, has dazzling collections of sights built when the city was the main port for goods from the Americas, the grandest of which being the city's cathedral, the largest in the country.
Moving north across the plains of La Mancha into Central Spain, picturesque Toledo stands as perhaps the historical center of the nation, a beautiful medieval city sitting atop a hill that once served as the capital of Spain before Madrid was built. Not far from the Portuguese border, Merida contains well preserved Roman ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site. North of Madrid and an easy day-trip from the capital city is El Escorial, once the center of the Spanish empire during the time of the Inquisition; Segovia, noted for its spectacular Roman aqueduct which spans one of the city's squares; and the beautiful walled city of Avila. Further north, culture tourists will enjoy Burgos, with its beautiful Gothic cathedral and the world famous archaeological site of Atapuerca; Leon, whose Gothic cathedral was the first national protected building; Salamanca, known for its famous university and abundance of historic architecture; and Soria, with the nearby pre-roman archaeological site of Numancia.
Galicia in northwestern Spain is home to Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the old Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrimage route and the supposed burial place of St. James, with perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in all of Spain at the heart of its lovely old town. Northeastern Spain has a couple of historical centers to note: Zaragoza, with Roman, Muslim, medieval and Renaissance buildings from throughout its two thousand years of history, and Barcelona with its medieval Barri Gòtic neighborhood.
Today, Spain's two largest cities hold the lion's share of Spain's most famous artworks. Madrid's Museum Triangle is home to the Museo del Prado, the largest art museum in Spain with many of the most famous works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya as well as some notable works by Italian, Flemish, Dutch and German masters. Nearby sits the Reina Sofía, most notable for holding Picasso's Guernica but also containing a number of works by Dalí and other Modernist, Surrealist and abstract painters.
Barcelona is renowned for its stunning collection of modern and contemporary art and architecture. This is where you will find the Picasso Museum, which covers the artist's early career quite well, and the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudi, with their twisting organic forms that are a delight to look at. A day trip from Barcelona is the town of Figueres, noted for the Salvador Dalí Museum, designed by the Surrealist himself.
Outside of Madrid and Barcelona, many of El Greco's most famous works lie in Toledo, an easy day trip from Madrid. The Disrobing of Christ, perhaps El Greco's most famous work, sits in the Cathedral, but you can also find work by him in one of the small art museums around town. Valladolid is home to the National Museum of Sculpture, with an extensive collection ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Bilbao in the Basque Country of northern Spain is home to a spectacular Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry that has put the city on the map.
Spain is divided into autonomías or autonomous regions, plus two independent cities. Some of the autonomías - notably the ones which have other official languages alongside Spanish - are regions with their own unique historical tradition. These include the Basque Country or Euskadi (Basque), Galicia (Galician), Catalonia or Catalunya, the Valencian region or Comunitat Valenciana, and the Balearic Islands or Illes Balears (Catalan), but also Andalusia. Travelers to these parts of the Iberian Peninsula should respect their history and language. The Canary Islands lie off the coast of Moroccoand are geographically part of Africa, as are the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
Spain has hundreds of interesting cities. Here are ten of the most popular:
- Madrid — the vibrant capital, with fantastic museums, interesting architecure, great food and nightlife
- Barcelona — Spain's second city, full of modernist buildings and a vibrant cultural life, nightclubs, and beaches
- Bilbao — industrial city, home to the Guggenheim Museum
- Cadiz — oldest city in Western Europe with nearly 4,000 years of history, celebrates a famous carnival
- Cordoba — The Grand Mosque ('Mezquita') of Cordoba is one of the world's finest buildings
- Granada — stunning city in the south, surrounded by snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, home of La Alhambra
- Seville — a beautiful, verdant city, and home to the world's third largest cathedral
- Valencia — paella was invented here, has a very nice beach
- Zaragoza — fifth largest city of Spain that held the World Expo in 2008
- Costa Blanca — 200 km of white coast with plenty of beaches and small villages
- Costa Brava — the rugged coast with plenty of seaside resorts
- Costa del Sol — the sunny coast in the south of the country
- Gran Canaria — known as "a continent in miniature" due to its many different climates and landscapes
- Ibiza — a Balearic island; one of the best places for clubbing, raving, and DJs in the entire world
- La Rioja — Rioja wine and fossilized dinosaur tracks
- Mallorca — the largest island of the Balears, full of amazing beaches and great nightlife
- Sierra Nevada — the highest mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, great for walking and skiing
- Tenerife — offers lush forests, exotic fauna and flora, deserts, mountains, volcanoes, beautiful coastlines and spectacular beaches