One of the meccas of European architecture Spain is a country that those with a deep appreciation of historic construction must absolutely visit. Of course, there are many other compelling reasons to visit this fabulous country. Spain also boasts incredible museums, spectacular beaches, exciting festivals, great music and delicious food. Okay, so you’re convinced. You want to go to Spain. Next question: Which cities should you visit? To be honest in my opinion you’ll enjoy yourself no matter where you decide to travel in this great country. However, for first time visitors to Spain there are some destinations not to be missed. Depending on your time and budget you’ll want to hit at least a few of these spots. Read on as I count down the top 10 best cities in Spain:

10 – Santiago de Compostella

The only major tourist attraction in Northern Spain, Santiago de Compostella was a site of pilgrimage dating back as far as the ninth century. At its peak some two million people a year journeyed to the city to visit the Tomb of St. James. It’s status as a holy place rivaled such destinations as Rome and even Jerusalem. Spain’s war with England in the late 16th century, coupled with the reformation of Europe saw the number of pilgrims visiting dwindle significantly, however even today the city remains one of pilgrimage and spirituality. If you do visit, don’t forget to take a short stroll on the bridle path to experience walking in the footsteps of the millions of faithful who’ve made the journey before you.

Even if you are not interested in getting in touch with your spiritual side Santiago de Compestella still has many compelling reasons to visit. The architecture is breathtaking, particularly the Santiago’s Cathedral, towering above the golden granite of Santiago Square.

9 – Cordoba

A jewel of scintillating beauty in the south of Spain, Cordoba (or Cordova) will steal your breath away whether you are a first-time visitor or one of those fortunate enough to return to the city on a regular basis. Famous monuments in the city include the famous Arabian Mezquita (mosque) and the Archaeological Museum. The surrounding countryside features an array of wonders both natural and man-made, including baroque churches and historic fortresses.

Those with a taste for white wine will be in their glory in Cordoba. The region is famed for its dry whites, so if you like your vino arid definitely indulge in some wine-tasting on your visit.

8 – San Sebastian

Just 20 kilometers away from the French border, San Sebastian sits perched overlooking the Bay of Bisque. Naturally, its location makes it a popular beach resort, and if worshiping the sun is among your list of things to do in Spain then a visit to San Sebastian should fit the bill nicely.

Sports fanatics of all kinds should enjoy a visit here. Not only will water sports enthusiasts get their fill of fun, but San Sebastian also features some of Spain’s finest golf courses, and its close proximity to the mountains makes it a great home base for winter visitors wanting to do some skiing.

7 – Salamanca

Home to Spain’s oldest university, Salamanca has played host to those looking for higher learning since the year 1,218. Now, almost 800 years later the University of Salamanca has approximately 30,000 students enrolled. It’s reputation as one of the best places to learn the Spanish language has made it a popular choice with international students, and that has helped give the city more of a multicultural flavor than most other destinations in Spain.

Like all ancient cities there is no shortage of impressive architecture to marvel at, including a number of cathedrals and monasteries, all of which seem to glow due to the high iron content of the stone used in their construction.

6 – Bilbao

Two words: Guggenheim Gallery. Yes, Bilbao is the home of the world-renowned museum of contemporary art. Designed by architect Frank Gehry the building itself is even more popular than the treasures contained within. The exterior of the building was designed with a series of random curves and it has been hailed by at least one fellow architect as the greatest building of our time. The Guggenheim has put Bilbao on the map and it is now a bustling, modern city with plenty of entertainment and world-class accommodation choices.

Of course, not everything in Bilbao is modernistic. The city does hail back to the 1300s, and their is plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into as well.

Speaking of sinking teeth into, don’t forget to try some of Bilbao’s famous pinchos during your visit. This local take on the tradition Spanish tapa more closely resembles a skewer and often includes some tasty bread. Delicious!

5 – Valencia

One of Spain’s oldest sites still in existence the city of Valencia dates way back to 150 BC. Want to try some Paella? Valencia is the place to do it. Spain’s signature dish originated here many, many moons ago.

That little bit of trivia aside, Valentia has many more “claims to fame” than giving birth to Paella. The influences of Baroque, Roman and Gothic architecture can be seen throughout Valencia and show how the city changed over the vast years of its existence. Attractions in the city include the La Lonja Silk Market, the City of Arts and Sciences and the celebration of las Fallas which you can witness if visiting in March.

4 – Granada

Both a city and the capital of the province Granada, this majestic city is nestled at the foot of the Sierra mountains. At over 700 meters above sea level it is a popular ski mecca, yet it is just an hour away from the Mediterranean coast for those who want a little beach time in the summer.

There are multiple historic attractions in Granada with the most notable being the Alhambra, a Moorish citadel that was built over the span of hundreds of years. Perhaps the most famous construct in all of Spain, Alhambra is equally renowned for its magnificently landscaped gardens and its waterfalls.

Though the Alhambra itself is reason enough to visit those looking for even more culture can also take in the Cathedral of Granada, the Royal Chapel and the Charterhouse Monastery.

3 – Seville

Getting a little tired of strolling through palaces, monasteries and mosques? Ready for a little fun? If you want to amp up your visit to Spain a couple of notches then a visit to Seville is definitely in order.

The birthplace of Flamenco music, Seville serves up great entertainment, delicious food and spectacular festivals in equal measure.

If you are visiting in the summer prepare for the sweltering heat. Temperatures can surpass 40 degrees Celsius in the summer – not exactly a recipe for a relaxing, enjoyable stay. If you don’t want to spend your whole vacation seeking shade then a visit in the spring or in autumn is recommended.

2 – Madrid

The country’s capital comes in at number two on the list of the best cities in Spain. Madrid is a near perfect melding of ancient history and modern technology, and visitors will be wowed at how seamlessly the two distinct eras have been intertwined in Madrid’s design.

Much like other great cities of the world like New York, Paris and Rome you will never find yourself lacking for things to see or do. If history and culture are your bag then take in Madrid’s world-renowned trio of museums: Museo Nacional del Prado, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Just want to unwind and take a breath from the city? Grab some eats and head El Retiro Park. If sports is your thing then you can try (good luck) to get tickets to see Real Madrid’s football club play. Even if you can’t see them live you’ll have no problem finding a bar that is airing the game. Just don’t the mistake of cheering for the other team 🙂

1 – Barcelona

As great as the above cities are, the crown jewel of Spain has to be Barcelona. The site of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona is the home of arguably the world’s richest deposit of historical architecture. Today’s architectural masters have made their mark as well and some of the contemporary buildings hold their own quite well against their Renaissance-era brethren.

Right on the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona is also famous for its glorious beaches, and if you are fortunate to have a lengthy stay in the city they make for a great day of relaxing. The city’s beaches are also the place to be at night, with music and laughter spilling out of the seaside restaurants and nightclubs.

Don’t forget to hit La Rambla during your visit to Barcelona. A tree-lined pedestrian mall stretching over a kilometer, the boulevard is a great spot to take in all the sights and sounds of the city, and locals and tourists can be found in equal measure.

As you can see there is no shortage of incredible cities to visit in Spain, and no matter where your tastes lie each one of them offers an abundance to see and do for shoestring backpackers and luxury vacationers alike.

Featured image by rick ligthelm