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La Albufera de Valencia

10 of Spain’s most underrated destinations to visit this year

Done Barcelona? Tired of the Costa del Sol? Try these alternative Spanish holiday ideas that’ll take you way off the beaten track

Written by
James Manning
A. Martín Larios
Noelia Santos

Spain is never a bad idea. With its incredible food, landscapes of almost surreal beauty and many of Europe’s best beaches, it’s a guaranteed winner – hence the 84 million tourists who visited in 2019. But sun, sea and sangria are just the start. If you want to dive deeper into the culture of Spain (which, trust us, you do), you need to get off the beach and follow the locals to the Spanish holiday destinations you won’t have seen on Instagram.

Of course, we love Spain’s thriving cities and sunsplashed Costas. But here, our Time Out editors in Madrid and Barcelona have picked ten Spanish holiday ideas that’ll help you escape the crowds and explore a side of Spain that only locals see. On the itinerary: history, hiking, art and nightlife – from mountainous landscapes to medieval spa towns, and from the shores of Asturias to the lakes of Extremadura – plus plenty of wine and tapas. (We’re not skipping any of the good stuff.)

So forget Torremolinos, Magaluf and Lanzarote. Read on for the holidays in Spain you never knew existed, and start planning your next adventure.

Spanish holiday ideas to try once in your life

Discover the Spanish Golden Age in Jaén
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Discover the Spanish Golden Age in Jaén

Located in the province of Jaén, less than four hours by road from Madrid, the towns of Úbeda and Baeza are home to some of the best and most striking monuments of the Spanish Renaissance. So much so that they were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2003.

Less than six miles apart, in a natural setting dominated by olive groves, the twin towns reached their peak in the sixteenth century. In Baeza, the impressive public and religious architecture includes the cathedral and university buildings, the old seminary and Jesuit College, the ornate facade of the town hall and the plaza del Pópulo. Meanwhile, Úbeda reflects the wealth of the Spanish nobility: palaces of bigwigs like the Dean Ortega, the Marquis de Mancera or Juan Vázquez de Molina.

Of course, you’ll need some fuel to get through all that culture – so stop off for drinks at the towns’ many low-key bars, and a classic flamenquín (fried pork roulade) at Meson Restaurante Navarro in Úbeda. This region is a treat for all the senses, especially when the towns come alive with pageantry and parties for Holy Week.

Explore the lakes of Spain’s Siberia
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Explore the lakes of Spain’s Siberia

‘La Siberia’ was named after the Russian wilderness in the nineteenth century, and while this frontier region of Extremadura is just a bit teenier than its name might suggest, it feels almost as wild. A little over two hours’ drive from Madrid, this land of lakes boasts the largest freshwater coastline in Spain, a wealth of birdlife and a massive, clean sky that attracts stargazers from far and wide.

Set your sails for a boat trip across the García Sola reservoir and dock at Cerro de la Barca to boggle at the Neolithic dolmen of Valdecaballeros: it’s as old as the Egyptian pyramids. Back on shore, head to the stargazing centre in Helechosa de los Montes to watch the constellations rise.

It’s also well worth spending some time around Herrera del Duque, La Siberia’s capital – whether it’s to climb the castle of Puebla de Alcocer to see one of the region’s best views, or to set out on a hiking trail dedicated to local cheese and wine.

Catch a wave in Asturias
Phoograph: Shutterstock

3. Catch a wave in Asturias

No matter the weather, Ribadesella on Spain’s northern coast is the perfect place to learn to surf (or at least to stay on your board for more than half a second). The surfing beach of choice here is Santa Marina, although there are plenty of others nearby.

Whether you’re a seasoned surfer or a total newbie, you’ll want to check out Surf Camp Ribadesella, where you can stay in a stylish beachside bungalow and take a two-hour daily surfing lesson, with equipment made available all day so you can practise. There’s also other fun like paddleboards, longboarding, a games room and a barbecue. Insurance is bundled in too (better safe than sorry!).

4. Take a tapas tour of Léon

Its impressive Gothic cathedral and Roman wall, its lively old town and – above all – its incomparable tapas bars make the northwestern city of León a splendid alternative to Seville or Granada.

Once a stop-off for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Léon is famous for buildings like the ancient Basilica of San Isidoro, Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Botines and the Convent of San Marcos, now a state-run Parador hotel. But beyond the monuments, León is also home to one of Spain’s most varied and inexpensive tapas scenes.

You’ll find its focus in the streets surrounding the Plaza de San Martín in the Barrio Húmedo, where bar after bar dishes out local specialities such as morcilla blood sausage and cecina beef jerky. The essential stops include Rebote, El Llar, La Bicha, Monalisa, El Flechazo and (if you’re still standing) Jamón Jamón.

Go way beyond wine in La Rioja

5. Go way beyond wine in La Rioja

It’s famous around the world for exporting massive quantities of red wine, but the Rioja region is becoming an increasingly popular low-cost getaway for the trendier sort of Spanish urbanites. Its capital, Logroño, mixes up relaxation, fun, culture, eating and drinking in more or less equal parts. After dark, the place to be is Calle Laurel: stop off for drinks and pinchos at Soriano, Lauros, El Muro and Pulpería La Universidad.

If you’ve got an eye for history, make time for a trip to nearby Laguardia: a walled town of cobbled streets that’s a timewarp to centuries past. The spectacular polychrome portico of the church of Santa María de los Reyes is worthy of any highbrow’s Insta feed.

Breathe clean air in the Valle del Jerte
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Breathe clean air in the Valle del Jerte

The flowering of the the Jerte Valley’s more than a million and a half cherry trees isn’t just Spain’s most striking natural spectacle – it’s world-famous. The peak of the blossoms between late March and early April attracts a higher number of visitors every year. But from spring till autumn, there’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had in the form of hiking, picnics and spectacular nature, all without the hordes of blossom-hunters.

Among the ten municipalities that make up the valley, Cabezuela del Valle, Piornal and Navaconcejo stand out for their well-priced rural accommodation, as well as bars and restaurants where you can enjoy local dishes like migas (fried breadcrumbs) and kid stew.

While you’re in the area, don't miss a visit to the Yuste Monastery, where the once-mighty Carlos I, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, retired after surrendering his crown for a life of prayer. Carlos, we feel you.

Hike Madrid’s Sierra Norte
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Hike Madrid’s Sierra Norte

Just outside Madrid but a world away from the capital’s hectic rhythms, there’s fresh air and relaxation to be had in the Sierra Norte de Madrid. This region’s wealth of nature and 42 municipalities full of history and heritage place it among the most essential stretches of Spanish countryside. In fact, its towns and landscapes are so beautiful that it’s been likened to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, only without the goblins.

The medieval town of Buitrago de Lozoya is the Sierra’s crown jewel, and one of the most photographed spots in the whole of Madrid province. Nearby is the imposing El Atazar reservoir, the largest in the region; for lakeside hiking trails and other outdoorsmanship, base yourself in the town of El Berrueco. Not far away lie other beauty spots like Patones and La Hiruela. Finish your hobbit-like quest with a meal at Restaurante Pinos Aguas in the town of Rascafría, gateway to the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park.

Ride through the vineyards of La Mancha
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Ride through the vineyards of La Mancha

Stand aside, Bordeaux and Tuscany: La Mancha in Spain is Europe’s largest single wine region, and it’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. In the middle of a sea of vineyards, the small town of Socuéllamos is home to one of the continent’s biggest wine producers: Cristo de la Vega. (Another, La Virgen de los Vinos, is just down the road in Tomelloso.)

Wine is inescapable here, thanks to the vast metal wine tanks dotted across town – the modern-day equivalent of Don Quixote’s windmill giants. The same goes for wineries: of all the 300-odd producers that make up the La Mancha Wine Route, Socuéllamos has almost half.

Make the most of it by saddling up for a horseback riding tour through the vineyards of Bodega El Refugio, whose Quorum wine is one of the ten best in the region. Then break for lunch at Cocedero de Kiele. It’s a well-kept local secret, tucked away on an industrial estate and famous among cognoscenti for its anchodinas (sardine loins).

Take the waters in Olmedo
Photograph: Manuel Charlon

9. Take the waters in Olmedo

Sometimes you don’t want to rush around ticking off sites – you just need to chill the eff out. Well, Olmedo is the place to do it. This ancient village in the Valladolid region is surrounded by Verdejo vines and famous for its cultural heritage and Islamic-influenced Mudéjar architecture. But many visitors nowadays pass through its medieval gates for another reason: to take the town’s mineral waters, which are said to have anti-stress properties. Sound good?

Built into the twelfth-century convent of Sancti Spiritus, the Balneario de Olmedo spa has repurposed the former nuns’ kitchen and Mudéjar patio into spaces both dry and humid. You’ll be hard pressed to find a hydrotherapy circuit anywhere with a richer history than this. Once you’re thoroughly relaxed, head to the spa’s high-end restaurant El Hontanar to give your stomach a pampering too.

Follow the footsteps of Sorolla in Valencia
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Follow the footsteps of Sorolla in Valencia

Joaquín Sorolla was once billed as ‘The World’s Greatest Living Painter’ – and he was born and raised right here in the seaside city of Valencia, which goes some way to explaining his incredible depictions of water and light.

To get a different view on this ever-popular city, you can retrace Sorolla’s steps on a route organised by the Mundo Amigo agency. It starts at 8 Calle Mantas, where the painter was born, and travels through the places that marked his life, such as Cabanyal – formerly the fishing beach where Sorolla spent his holidays, and now one of the city’s coolest neighbourhoods.

The tour includes the sites that inspired some of the painter’s iconic images, from the Llotja de la Seda (on whose steps he set his revolutionary painting ‘The Shout of the Palleter’) and even extends beyond the city to the Albufera lagoon and the rocks of Jávea. Of course, you’ll also visit the Museum of Fine Arts and the Tavernes Blanques Museum, where paintings by the Valencian painter are currently on display. And when you’re done? Well, you’re in the home of paella. Enough said.

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