Spain's diverse landscapes stir the soul. The snowcapped Sierra Nevada rises improbably from Andalucía's sunbaked plains, the wildly beautiful cliffs of Spain's Atlantic northwest make for a spectacular drive, and pretty old villages of timeless beauty perch on hilltops.
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What To See
La Sagrada Família
If you have time for only one sightseeing outing, this should be it. La Sagrada Família inspires awe by its sheer verticality, and in the manner of the medieval cathedrals it emulates, it’s still under construction after more than 100 years. When completed, the highest tower will be more than half as high again as those that stand today.
The sheer red walls of the Alhambra rise from woods of cypress and elm. Inside is one of the more splendid sights of Europe, a network of lavishly decorated palaces and irrigated gardens, a World Heritage Site and the subject of scores of legends and fantasies.
It’s impossible to overemphasise the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably peaceful and spacious interior. The Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a lavish and refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city and surroundings with a heady interaction of diverse and vibrant cultures.
In true Spanish style, cultural events are almost inevitably celebrated with a wild party and a holiday. Among the festivals to look out for are La Tamborrada (Festividad de San Sebastián) in San Sebastián on 20 January, a short but rowdy event where the whole town dresses up and goes berserk. Carnaval takes place throughout the country in late February; the wildest are said to be in Sitges and Cádiz. In March, Valencia has a week-long party known as Las Fallas, which is marked by all-night dancing, drinking, first-class fireworks and colourful processions. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the week leading up to Easter Sunday, and is marked by parades of holy images through the streets; Seville is the place to be if you can get accommodation. In late April, Seville's Feria de Abril is a week-long party counterbalancing the religious fervour of Semana Santa.
The last Wednesday in August sees the Valencian town of Buñol go bonkers with La Tomatina, in which the surplus from its tomato harvest is sploshed around in a friendly riot. The Running of the Bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín) in Pamplona in July is perhaps Spain's most famous festival. Along the north coast, staggered through the first half of August, is Semana Grande, another week of heavy drinking and hangovers.
When to Go
Spain can be enjoyable any time of year. The ideal months to visit are May, June and September (plus April and October in the south). At these times you can rely on good-to-excellent weather, yet avoid the extreme heat - and the main crush of Spanish and foreign tourists - of July and August. But there's decent weather in some parts of Spain virtually year round. Winter along the southern and southeastern Mediterranean coasts is mild, while in the height of summer you can retreat to the northwest, to beaches or high mountains anywhere to escape excessive heat. The best festivals are mostly concentrated between Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) and September to October.
In general you can rely on pleasant or hot temperatures just about everywhere from April to early November (plus March in the south, but minus a month at either end on the northern and northwestern coasts). In Andalucía there are plenty of warm, sunny days right through winter. In July and August, temperatures can get unpleasant, even unbearable, anywhere inland (unless you're high enough in the mountains). Snowfalls in the mountains start as early as October and some snow cover lasts all year on the highest peaks.