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Visitors to Spain tend to flock to the monumental cities of Madrid and Barcelona, the Moorish Alhambra palace in Granada, or the sunbaked beaches of southern Andalusia, where flamenco tunes rule the airwaves and the sky is perpetually blue. While each of these places is well worth a visit, Spain has far more to offer intrepid travelers willing to step off the typical tourist trails and explore overlooked corners of this fascinating country, richly varied in culture, history, and natural wonders. Here are five less-visited Spanish destinations not to be missed.
Santillana del Mar, Cantabria
Thirty miles west of Santander (a city well worth a stop of its own) in Spain’s northern Cantabria region, the quaint medieval and Renaissance village of Santillana del Mar is filled with hilly cobblestone streets, inviting plazas, and stunning stone architecture at every turn. Surrounding the town is one of the most noteworthy collections of historic monuments on the Iberian peninsula. A mile north, the Altamira Caves — dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art and a UNESCO World Heritage Site — are covered with paintings that display remarkable artistic shading, form, and technical skill for the time period. (The earliest paintings date from 36,000 years ago.) Although the Altamira Caves are now closed to visitors to protect the delicate ecosystem within the walls and prevent further damage to the paintings, the Altamira Museum displays impressive copies, and is open year-round.
A bit further inland, the hamlet of Puente Viesgo was founded in the Middle Ages and is known for its curative waters and spa. Several caves, including Cueva del Castillo and Las Chimeneas, are open to visitors and contain vivid red-pigment paintings of bison, bulls, and figurines dating back up to 40,000 years.
For something a little different (or distincto, as Spaniards say) from the usual cities and historic sites, head to the wide open expanses of Tabernas in the southern Almería province. Considered mainland Europe's only desert, this is where dozens of Spaghetti Westerns from legendary directors such as Sergio Leone were once produced. At Oasis Mini Hollywood, the self-proclaimed most original Mediterranean theme park, you can wander right into the actual Western movie set first built here in the 1960s. The site is still occasionally used for filming (including Nickelodeon’s recent Lost in the West series), but for locals and visitors, the Oasis offers a thrilling step back in time. Dust off your cowboy boots when you come to explore the Wild West town straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a Clint Eastwood classic that was among the many great Westerns filmed here. The park also features a large zoological reserve and an impressive aquatic zone with numerous pools to cool off in the desert heat.
Valencia, Costa Azahar
The serene city of Valencia is located on the Costa Azahar (the Orange Blossom Coast, named for the abundance of citrus groves in the area), three-and-a-half hours south of Barcelona. Though it is Spain’s third-largest city, it doesn’t typically land on the usual tourist circuit. Valencia was founded over 2,000 years ago by Roman legionnaires looking for a holiday escape. It’s easy to see why they chose this location, tucked between rocky hillsides and the Mediterranean Sea, with miles of sunny beaches suitable for families, paddle boarders, and boaters alike.
Throughout the year, Valencia and nearby towns host captivating cultural festivals, from the firecracker-heavy Fallas held each spring to the famous tomato-throwing Tomatina festival in the ancient town of Buñol each August. The city offers a world-class music scene, an impressive hands-on science museum, the largest aquarium on the continent, and many unique monuments and museums to explore, including the National Museum of Ceramics. Perhaps most notably, Valencia is also home to arguably the best paellas in all of Spain — after all, it’s where the famous grilled rice dish was first invented.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might have felt like to be an ancient Roman, the impeccably preserved town of Mérida in southwest Spain, a relic of Roman rule over the peninsula, will fulfill your fantasy. And if you visit at the start of summer, you can witness a full-blown Roman festival, an homage to the founders of this UNESCO-recognized site. Gladiators battle, bards perform, and legionnaires parade, making for a spectacular and memorable experience.
In addition to the longest-surviving bridge from ancient times, Mérida houses Spain’s National Museum of Roman Art, where a large collection of historic statues, murals, mosaics, and busts are on display. The city’s massive Roman amphitheater offers an even more immersive experience: Take a moment to sit on the same stone benches where up to 14,000 enthralled spectators in togas once sat more than 2,000 years ago. Finally, don’t miss the Moorish Alcazaba, a ninth-century Islamic stone fortress built above Roman walls. It's considered the oldest Islamic fortress on the Iberian Peninsula, offering a view into another important chapter of the region's rich, diverse history.
Menorca, Balearic Islands
A quick hop away from busy Ibiza and Mallorca, the smallest Balearic island of Menorca is a UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve site, unassuming and surprisingly undiscovered, despite its countless natural wonders. Among them are pristine beaches of clear, warm turquoise waters, lined by limestone cliffs and sandy shores, and miles of rolling farmland dotted by old stone walls. Aside from tasty local wines and gin, the island has many unique offerings, including snail-shaped, sweet or savory Balearic pastries called ensaïmadas; delicious, nutty Mahón cheeses, which are flavored by the cow’s milk and the salty sea air; and stylish, locally designed avarcas sandals.
For the more adventurous, don’t miss a horseback ride along the Cami de Cavalls, an ancient 115-mile bridle pathway that encircles the island. The guided adventures range from two hours long to three- to five-day treks, and offer unparalleled views of this Mediterranean paradise. The island even has its own breed of horse, the Menorquin horse, and if you visit during summer, you can catch a local show displaying these animals’ tremendous strength and grace.