Most people’s idea of Spain as a tourism destination involves some form of a nice sunny beach, as well as cheap food and drink. But there is so much more to do than just that! Spain’s history as a country is very rich, so in order to do it justice, here are five cities that are not typically “touristy”, or perhaps as well-known abroad as the beaches of Málaga or the Canary Islands. These five little gems are all easily accessible from Madrid via train or bus, as a thriftier option.
At just under 130,000 inhabitants, León is a small, walkable city packed full of history. Founded as a Roman legion over 2000 years ago, there is quite literally a building for every period of art history. Roman baths, Romanic churches, a magnificent Gothic cathedral, or even Renaissance palaces. As a plus, tapas are free with any drink in the old town. What is more, the province of León is one of the few places in Spain where you can see buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí, like Casa de los Botines (which has recently opened to the public!).
Another city born out of a Roman enclave, Mérida is full of architectural wonders from the Roman era. For this reason, it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, especially thanks to its well-preserved theater and amphitheater. After visiting these in the flesh, spend some time admiring objects in the Roman History museum.
Salamanca is a university town, which makes it a youthful, vibrant city where drinks are usually cheap and the parties fantastic. The University was founded in 1218 and many historical buildings form part of its central campus. These and a great number of buildings in the old town have been built using freestone from the nearby village of Villamayor, therefore providing it with a homogenous aesthetic. In the summer, tourists, students and residents alike sit on the warm stones of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor to enjoy an ice cream.
Nested among preserved city walls and towers, Toledo’s oldest quarters are home to an intersection of cultures. Dominated by the astounding sight of the Alcázar, winding narrow streets leading from mosques to synagogues to cathedrals, all hundreds of years old. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, a mere 70 km from Madrid, it is a must-see!
San Sebastián de los Reyes, Donostia in Basque, is a different sort of coastal city. It is located in the north of the country, in what is known as “Green Spain”— its surroundings provide very different views to the barren deserts of Andalucía. Go for a lovely stroll on the promenade in Playa de la Concha; maybe even a dip in the Bay of Biscay if you are brave enough to stand the cool water. For the culturally inclined, San Sebastián holds a yearly international film festival in September.
Pictured in the lead: Plaza Mayor, Salamanca.