Spain is a popular destination among travelers, tourists and backpackers alike. Unfortunately, most visitors stick to the popular destinations of Barcelona, Madrid and Ibiza, overlooking the heart and soul of the country, Andalusia . This southern sun-drenched region serves as the cradle of Spanish culture and the birthplace of everything that’s synonymous with the country: flamenco, tapas, sangria and bullfighting. This region also has a long and complicated history that began with the Romans which then fell to the Moors in the 8th century only to be reclaimed by the Christians sometime around the 13th century. Andalusia is a cultural melting pot of Spanish history which is reflected in its architecture as grandiose cathedrals stand tall next to Moorish palaces. To this day, this region seems to be frozen in time as these ancient traditions are still incorporated into everyday life, including siestas. This region stills pauses around 2pm every day to take a nap after their midday meal.
From my travels throughout this region, I believe that the cities that best encompass everything quintessentially Andalusian are Seville, Granada and Cordoba.
Here are the top 15 experiences that Andalusia has to offer
As the capital of Andalusia, Seville also serves as the cultural capital of the region as well. A city that is as rich in its traditions as it is with its architecture and history.
1. Visit Christopher Columbus’s tomb.
The Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic Cathedral and the third largest church in the world. A fact that would make its former architects beam with pride as back in 1402, when this medieval project broke ground, they proclaimed, “we’re going to construct a church so large, future generations will think we we’re mad.” This grandiose building also contains the mausoleum of Christopher Columbus
- Learn from the best! Take a Flamenco class at the only Flamenco Museum in the world
Seville, which is said to be the birthplace of Flamenco, is home to the only Flamenco museum in the world, Museo del Baile Flamenco. This museum is inside the beautiful 18th Century “Casa de Palacio” in the heart of the historic district, the Santa Cruz Quarter. This place allows you to immerse in Andalusian culture and educate yourself about the long history of this art form with interactive exhibits showing the origins and evolution of Flamenco, covering the various style s of the music and dance. The museum also offers a variety of workshops including dance and percussion classes. So after giving it a go yourself, sit back and watch how the professionals do it. The museum also holds daily Flamenco shows in an intimate setting on the Central Patio, under the direction of Cristina Hoyos, world renowned Flamenco dancer.
- Attend a Cultural Festival
Seville is famous for its festivals with the two most recognizable being Semana Santa and Feria de Abril. Semana Santa, or Easter week, is a holy celebration in which the city returns to its medieval Christian roots as processions of beautiful floats carrying religious statutes fills the streets. And of course there’s “Feria de Abril” or April Fair in which Sevillanos gather in the city’s fairgrounds to dance Flamenco and consume vast amounts of sherry over a week long fiesta.
There’s also the El Rocio Pilgrimage which I was fortunate enough to see during my time in Seville. Beginning 50 days after Easter, this pilgrimage starts in the tiny town of El Rocio and ends in the village of Almonte. This pilgrimage attracts over one million people with several starting points across Andalusia, and one of those happens to be Iglesia de El Salvador Church in Seville. The pilgrims are decked out in Flamenco gear with beautiful horse drawn carriages.
- Watch a bullfight at Plaza de Toros
This is one classic Spanish activity that gets mixed reviews, while some animals rights activists deem it as cruel, others claim it as their favorite immersion into Spanish culture. Even if you don’t watch a fight, you should enjoy the beautiful architecture as this elegant bullring stands as one of the oldest in the country.
- Indulge in tapas and sangria
Seville is known for its obsession with tapas so it’s the most appropriate place in all of Andalusia to indulge in these tiny plates intending for sharing while washing it down with homemade sangria. Wander the ancient cobble stone streets of the historic district, hunker down in a café ad join the locals in appreciating the cultural staples of tapas and sangria.
- Wander through an ancient Moorish Palace at Seville’s Alcazar
This site is a prime example of a time when Spain fell under Muslim rule, as it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful palaces in Spain as well as the best example of Moorish architecture in the country. Although declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, the upper levels of the palace still serve as the official residence of the royal family during their time in Seville, making it the oldest royal palace still in use.
- Admire Spanish Architecture at the Plaza Espana
This plaza, located in Parque de Maria Luisa, is the finest example of Andalusian architecture as it exemplifies the Renaissance and Moorish revival styles. It was built in 1929 for the World’s Fair that was held in Seville and is definitely a must see. This plaza has even made its debut on the big screen as its been used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones. This is the perfect spot to bring a book and relax.
- Take a day trip to Matalascanas, where history meets the beach
Who says history has to be confined to dark and gloomy museums. This little beach-side tourist village is just a short day’s drive from Seville and is known for having an ancient upside down tower on the sea shore called Torre la Higuera. This originally was one of the defense towers built by Phillip II in the 16th Century to protect the coast from invasions by Turks, North Africans and pirates but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, after which it broke off and rolled into the sea. It’s Mediterranean climate and golden sands make it perfect for soaking up the warm sun that Andalusia is known for.
The Andalusian city is located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is full of rich history.
- Explore the Alhambra
A massive hilltop fortress containing royal palaces and reflecting pools from the Nasrid Dynasty. It’s the only medieval palace of its kind to survive anywhere in the world.
- Stroll through the gardens of Generalife
This site was once the summer palace of the kings of the Nasrid Dynasty. The palace was originally connected to the Alhambra by a covered walkway across the ravine that now divides them. This palace is full of gardens and is considered the oldest surviving Moorish gardens and is definitely worth the visit.
- Watch a Flamenco Show in a gypsy cave
The Sacromonte district is home to Granada’s Roma (or gypsy) community. Gypsies have lived in Granada since the 15th century and have made their homes in cave dwellings that were excavated from the soft rock of the Sierra Nevada foothills. It is said that flamenco flourished in these caves as a secret art form during the Spanish Inquisition, as various groups fled to the caves to avoid persecution. Together, the gypsies, Jews and Arabs influenced the styles of Flamenco we see today. Tourists can now go to these caves and witness history come to life as modern day gypsies perform the dance of their ancestors. Not to mention, this district has amazing views overlooking all of Granada.
This city is truly one of the gems of Andalusia. Cordoba first came onto the scene as an important Roman City after which it was invaded by Islamic armies in the 8th Century and then became the capital of the Islamic Emirate of Cordoba. By the 10th Century, Cordoba was the most populous city in the world and became known as a center for education. At this time the city contained the best libraries, medical schools and universities. Today the historic center of the city is known as an UNESCO world heritage site.
- Admire the beauty of Cordoba’s Islamic heyday
The most iconic image of Cordoba is the La Mesquita, also known as the grand mosques of Cordoba. This mosque is one of the most prestigious buildings in Arab-Muslim culture. The site was originally a Catholic church but when the Muslims conquered Spain in 711, the church was first divided into Muslim and Christian halves. This sharing deal lasted until 784, when the Christian half was purchased by Muslim ruler, Ab dal-Rahman who demolished the original structure and built the grand mosque. Cordoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista and the building returned to a Catholic Church, but the architecture remained untouched. This beautiful building with a maze of curved bi-colored arches makes for a great photo op.
- Linger through the ancient streets of La Juderia
Once the home to the ancient Jewish community, it’s now a labyrinth of narrow cobble stone streets filled with horse drawn carriages and lined with flower filled courtyards. This district takes you back to ancient Spain.
- Catch up on history at the AL-Andalus Living Museum
This museum is located in an old Moorish fortress located opposite of the Great Mosque at the end of the Roman bridge. It’s aim is to provide an inside look into the Muslim-controlled Cordoba between the 9th-13th centuries, a time of great cultural, artistic and scientific achievements.
- Take a weekend trip to Morocco
Andalusia’s location in southern Spain makes it easy to take a quick weekend trip to Morocco. Just 8 miles off the coast, many southern Spanish cities offer inexpensive ferry rides to the northern Moroccan city of Tangier, in which you could go for a short weekend or even just a day. Some of the most popular places to catch these ferries are in the Spanish port towns of Tarifa or Algeciras.