Granada, Seville, and Córdoba are just starting points for exploring the best of Spanish culture, history, and landscapes.
By Liliia DeCos
Don’t hate me: I just wrapped up four years of living and traveling through Spain.
We saw it all—and it was fabulous!
We walked the Camino de Santiago and traveled to Santander, Bilbao, San Sebastián, Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo, Valencia, Alicante, Caceres, Merida, Murcia, Pamplona, as well as countless, countless little villages, national parks, nature preserves, and beaches.
Reflecting on all our wanderings, I believe Andalucia is the heart and soul of Spain. The country’s southernmost region is home to Granada’s Alhambra, Seville’s palace, Córdoba’s cathedral and epitomizes Spanish culture—it’s the birthplace of flamenco, bullfights, and tapas as well as iconic Spanish architecture, castles, fortresses, olive tree plantations, and vineyards. (The notorious Spanish mañana is also best represented in Andalucia as well.)
With the luxury of time, we were able to uncover many Andalucian gems.
Settling in Spain
My husband is Spanish-American, but he had never lived in Spain or called it home. The idea to reconnect with his roots was always in the back of his head. In 2016, after doing a one year trip around Asia, we were ready to settle down for a while and decided to give Spain a chance. The decision was easy to make, since we’d been to Spain several times before on vacation and we really liked its climate, food, and people.
Choosing what part of the country to settle wasn’t hard, either. After four years of living in Finland, we were tired of the cold and rain, so we were looking for something warm and sunny. For that reason, we wrote off the north, even though that’s where my husband’s family is from.
We excluded Barcelona and Valencia because of the language. I was just not ready to learn Catalan. Did you know that besides the official language, Castilian (known as Spanish for most people), there are four other official languages in Spain? Catalan in Catalonia (where it’s capital is Barcelona) and the Balearic Islands (the best-known islands being Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza), Basque in the north, Galician in the northwest, and Aranese, spoken in the northeast.
Madrid, despite being one of my favorite cities, proved to be loud, busy, expensive, and too far from the sea and mountains. So we wrote it off as well.
In the end we chose Granada, in Andalucia, the most southern part of Spain, as our home base.
The Best of Andalucia for Families
If you come to Spain for a two-week vacation and you still want to jam in Barcelona and Madrid (And I don’t blame you!), make sure you visit at least these three cities in Andalucia as well.
Granada will always have a special place in our hearts. Seriously, where else you can go skiing one day and the next day go swimming in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean? And find amazing architecture, history, and culture?
Keep in mind that Granada is not a typical Spanish city. In fact, it was the last Spanish stronghold of the Islamic Empire. In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered the Americas, the Spanish army entered Granada, occupied its main palace, the Alhambra, and officially took possession of the Islamic state of al-Andalus. The Alhambra represents the Moorish legacy in Spain and today it’s the primary reason tourists from all over the world come to Granada.
What to See in Granada Besides the Alhambra
Get lost Albaycin is a charming maze of streets, squares, and houses that still retains much of its medieval feel. You won’t find another Albaycin anywhere else in Spain.
Explore the caves Sacromonte is a remote district notorious for hundreds of caves that were used as homes by the Roma (gypsy) population who migrated to Spain from India in the 14th century. If you’d like to experience living in a cave, you can book accommodations in a cave on Airbnb. There is also a Cave Museum of Sacromonte worth visiting.
See ’em dance the night away This hot-and-heavy dance hails from Sacromonte and is a cultural staple of Spain. Flamenco was created by Spain’s Gitano community hundreds of years ago in these caves. You can enjoy flamenco in Barcelona, Madrid, Córdova, and other cities, but nothing can compare to seeing the dance performed in its original setting, in a cave in Sacromonte. There are many restaurants that offer an evening show throughout Sacramente and Albaycin in general. All of them are pretty good, but our favorite place is El Perro Andaluz.
Eat your way through town The cathedral area and the elegant, Baroque old town around it filled with old churches, squares, restaurants, and bars are also a must-see and eat! Remember that world-famous Spanish tapas originated in Granada and to this day Granadinos respect the tradition of serving free food, sometimes small portions and other times huge, when you order a drink. When our friends and family would come to Spain to visit we would always go on a tapas crawl around the city, and get full without even ordering dinner!
Have a dunk in the Arab baths The hammams in Granada are another Moorish legacy, and a great way to spend a relaxing and unforgettable afternoon.
Learn while having fun! If you have curious kids that long for some kid-centered science, Granada has a wonderful interactive science museum, Parque Sciencias. We used to go there with our kids every week and it was always a good time.
Seville, the capital of Andalucia, is gorgeous! You can easily spend a week here, but if you can allocate only a day or two, make sure you visit…
Alcázar Palace This is the royal palace built on the site of a Muslim fortress. To this day, the royal family uses the upper rooms for a personal residence.
The Cathedral Also make sure you stop by the Cathedral of Seville. The cathedral is quite a view by itself, however I suggest you go for a different reason—the tomb of Christopher Columbus is lying inside the Cathedral. [Actually, due to posthumous travel, Columbus’s bones are entombed in two locations an ocean apart—the Seville Cathedral and the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.]
Barrio Santa Cruz After visiting the Alcazar Palace and the Cathedral, stop by for a drink (with tapas, of course) in the Barrio Santa Cruz, the former Jewish quarter and the most vibrant and exquisite of all neighborhoods in Seville.
Córdoba is the third city on my must-see list. People come to Córdoba to see one very unusual sight, the Mezquita-Catedral, a fascinating structure that looks like a mosque and a cathedral at the same time.
When the Moors captured Córdoba in 711 there was already a church in the city, but after the conquest, the church was split into two parts—one for Christian worship and one for Muslims. In 794, the church was destroyed and work began on a great mosque. The building was eventually completed in 987, by which point Córdoba was the most important city in the Islamic world. When the city was reclaimed by Christians in 1236, the mosque was converted into a church. When we lived in Granada, we went to Córdoba specifically to see Mesquita and never regretted our decision.
Besides Mesquita, Córdoba offers other interesting sights: a Roman temple and bridge, another Alcazar (the Castle of Christian Monarchs), Palacio de Viana, numerous museums, art galleries, plazas, courtyards, patios, and amazing restaurants for enjoying your tapas after an eventful day.
Off-the-Beaten-Track Destinations in Andalucia
And if you have more time and a desire to get truly “Spanish,” check out the following list of compelling stops.
Caminito del Rey Once known as an extremely dangerous hike, the Caminito del Rey is a 100-year-old pathway that stands 350 feet above a river. It was built in 1901 for the construction workers of the nearby hydroelectric plants. When the construction of the plants was over and the workers left in 1920, the pathway wasn’t maintained and fell into disrepair—and became quite a treacherous walkway over the years. Instead of avoiding this place, crowds of adrenaline junkies and rock climbers were drawn to it. After several people died, the Andalucian government closed down the path for renovation in 2000.
The walkway was reopened in 2015. It’s now much safer, but still spectacular. You can book your tickets online here. Kids under age 8 are not allowed.
El Torcal de Antequera El Torcal de Antequera is one of Spain’s most unique natural landscapes. These peculiar, stacked rocks were formed over 150 million years ago by the movement of tectonic plates beneath the ocean. Now it’s a natural reserve with breathtaking views, especially during sunset.
Admission is free and three fairly easy, color-coded walking trails show off the park’s highlights—the one mile Green Route; the one-and-a-half mile Yellow Route, which climbs nearly a mile to the Las Ventanillas lookout point; and the approximately three-mile Red Route, which also has an elevation gain of about a mile.
We went to El Torcal with our 2-year-old daughter and we all had a blast. Just remember to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. The Spanish sun is a serious matter.
The White Villages of the Alpujarra Las Alpujarras is a region in Sierra Nevada not far from Granada, known for its ancient white villages. There are over 50 of them scattered throughout cliffs, valleys, and gorges. Also, since they are in the mountains, the temperature is a couple degrees cooler than the Granada Valley; a welcome respite in summer.
Culturally, these villages are pretty unique because they were the last stronghold of the Moors. When Spaniards took back Granada in 1492 (remember the Alhambra?), all the city’s Moors were forced into Christianity. Those who refused went to the mountains, settling down in this harsh and previously inaccessible area. Eventually, the Moors were forced out of the area in the 16th century, and the villages were resettled by Christian Spaniards from the north. To this day, they’re some of the only places in Spain where the architecture has a Moroccan look and feel.
The villages are stunning, and easy to fall in love with. If you want to get the best quality ham, honey, chocolate, wine, or souvenirs, this is the place.
It’s hard to pick the most beautiful villages, but the easiest to access from Granada are Pampaneira, Bubión, and Capaleira. (My personal choice is Capaleira.)
If you’re into hiking, there are several multiday hikes that run between villages. There’s also a famous hike with a trailhead at Capaleira, which leads you to the mountain peak of Mulhacen, the highest mountain in mainland Spain.
Cabo de Gata, Nijar National Park This Biosphere Reserve is one of the few places left in Spain that is underdeveloped, not very touristy, and definitely not crowded.
Cabo’s volcanic origins make it one of the most spectacular places on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. And in summertime, it is an important place for several migratory birds, including flamingoes, wading birds, and seagulls.
Our favorite beach in Spain is also at Cabo de Gata—La Playa de los Muertos—named after the pirate raids that killed many residents of nearby villages centuries ago.
(Note: After you park your car, there’s a rather steep 20 minute walk down to the beach, so you may end up carrying your littles.) When we visited the beach in May, there were hardly any people besides us, and we really felt lost in nature.
Caves of Nerja During our last year in Spain, we lived on the coast in a charming village named La Herradura, and it was only a 20-minute drive to these caves. We finally overcame our laziness and visited days before we left Spain for good. I regret we didn’t go there earlier!
The Nerja Caves boast incredible numbers of stalagmites and stalactites in an extensive cave system, more than three miles worth, and it’s home to the world’s largest stalagmite column. The only way to visit the caves is to join a guided audio tour. We all loved the tour, including the kids. Your visit will last about 45 minutes, including viewing a short movie about the caves.
(Pro tip: Before or after you visit the caves, stop for lunch or dinner in Nerja, a charming town nearby.
Cádiz Cádiz is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Western Europe, and traces of previous civilizations still can be found in the old city. Cádiz served as a gateway to the Mediterranean and thus played a very important role in this part of the world. (If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll see Cádiz mentioned in the fourth film, On Stranger Tides.)
Today, Cádiz is pretty much an underdog among Andalucian cities. I think the reason is simple … it’s just a little too far, on the other side of Gibraltar.
But if you make it here, you won’t leave disappointed. Plenty of tourist sites, archeological ruins, beaches, and fine seafood characterize Cádiz.
Once in town, make time for a day trip to what is considered one of the most beautiful white villages in Spain, Vejer de la Frontera, in case you missed the ones near Granada in La Alpujarra.
Oasys MiniHollywood Theme Park Once a filming location where more than 100 movies were shot in the 1960s and 1970s, including famous adventure films like A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Oasys is now one of the most original theme parks in Europe.
Visitors can enjoy a mock bank hold-up, a staged shoot-out, and a can-can show at a Western-style saloon. There’s also a swimming pool and a pretty impressive zoo. We went to MiniHollywood when our kids were young, and they enjoyed it very much. I’m sure older kids will have even more fun!
Ronda Ronda is my second favorite small city after Granada. We’ve been there three times and I’m looking forward to going again just as soon as we can.
Ronda is simply beautiful. The town is notorious for its spectacular bridge, The Puente Nuevo, and its El Tajo gorge. Ronda is also considered the home of modern-day bullfighting. The Real Maestranza bullring is one of the oldest and definitely one of the most picturesque in all of Spain. Other points of interests are the Arab baths, Cuenca Gardens, Palace of the Moorish King, the Water Mine, Mondragon Palace, spectacular lookouts, endless plazas, and cute restaurants.
Only one hour’s drive from Seville, and you’ll find yourself among a moonlike landscape. Spain’s Red River has been a mining location for iron, copper, gold, silver, and other metals and minerals for thousands of years.
If you or your kids want to learn more about mining in the area, there’s an illustrated exhibition dedicated to the development of mining from prehistoric times to the present day at the Museo Minero de Riotinto. Otherwise, this is simply a peaceful place without crowds.
If you’re in Seville, Red River is definitely worth the drive. You don’t get to see red rivers every day, right?
I’d looked down on Malaga for quite a long time. To me, it just didn’t feel “Spanish” enough. But before we left Spain last year, we decided to give it another chance. We ended up spending a whole week in the city—we loved it!
First of all, it did turn out to be Spanish enough, even though it does have a modern feel. There are plenty of typical Spanish sites: an old city with churches and a cathedral, an alcazar (fortress) with beautiful views, numerous parks and plazas, dozens of museums. We also really enjoyed the Picasso museum. (Picasso was born in Malaga.) You can enjoy the beaches of the famous Costa del Sol; spend an entire day in the waterpark nearby; or walk in the botanical garden too.
It’s also a great home base for any day trips around Andalucia. There are also very cheap flights to and from Malaga (we usually fly to New York from Malaga), and it’s one of the cheapest places in the country to rent a car.
More Tips for Traveling Andalucia
Getting Around The easiest way to get around is to rent a car, especially if you plan to see off-the-beaten-track sites such as the white villages, the Red River, or Torqual de Antequerra. If you choose not to drive, check out the very modern ALSA buses and trains.
When to Visit Keep in mind that the summer months are very hot. It is not unusual for the temperature to rise to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. For that reason, I’d recommend visiting southern Spain from April to May or September through October.
Family Friendly? Hands down, Spain is one of the most welcoming countries for travel with children. There are countless children’s discounts on transportation, accommodations, and activities. Playgrounds are everywhere, even on the beach!
But the most noticeable aspect to us is that kids are welcome everywhere: at every bar, restaurant, or café. No one ever will give you the stink eye if your kid is fussing or running around. When we lived in Spain, we were going out for dinner with our kids as late as 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. (the typical Spanish time) and our kids always had other children to play with.
Liliia DeCos – July 2021
ROAM Executive Editor
Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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