Andalusia is quintessentially Spanish. From the mighty Sierra Nevada to the desert of Almeria and the iconic ‘pueblo blancos’, this region of Spain is spectacularly beautiful, full of love, life and color. Take a road trip and visit these must-see Andalusian cities for a true flavor of southern Spain.
1. Seville: The Capital of Andaulsia
Seville is the most gloriously Spanish city in Andalusia and one of the most important cities in Spain. Irresistible and captivating, Seville is exactly how you image Seville to be. Visit in spring if you can, for an extra dose of atmosphere and flamboyance. Semana Santa (Easter week) is a true spectacle in Seville, when candle-lit processions, haunting music and Catholic passion abounds. Followed closely by the giddy exuberance of the Feria de Abril (April Fair), when round-the-clock flamenco, wine and song takes over, Seville in spring is a wonderful place to visit.
Head for the old city where you’ll find the trio of Seville’s great monuments; the superb Gothic Cathedral, Giralda Tower and the stunning Alcazar. Seville’s cathedral is vast, sited on the old mosque and completely rebuilt in the 15th century. Designed to express dominance and power, this cathedral is the largest in the world. The Giralda Tower is adjacent to the Cathedral and dominates the Seville skyline. You can climb the tower for an incredible view of the city and inner workings of the bell chamber.
The Alcazar was home to the rulers of Spain for centuries and was used by Franco when he visited Seville. Beautifully restored, airy and cool, take your time wandering the rooms and patios. The building is striking in its simple structural design but everywhere you look you’ll find striking decor; intricate carvings, frescoed ceilings and ancient tilework. Don’t miss the Patio de las Doncellas, where one hundred Christian virgins were presented in tribute every year, to the Moorish kings who occupied Spain. Now returned to its original 14th century state, it is an evocative and haunting place.
The narrow alleys of the Barrio Santa Cruz are the heart of Seville’s vibrant tapas culture, which the city claims to have invented. Whether they did or not, the tapas here is the best in Andalusia, and possibly Spain. Sevillanos eat tapas on the go, standing at the bar with a small beer or fino sherry and taking their tapas directly from whatever is on display. Be mindful though, costs can mount up quickly and portion sizes are not usually generous. Good jamon Iberico (ham) can be as expensive as caviar! As you bar hop, look up and admire the Baroque architecture and flowers spilling out of window boxes on every building. Head south from here and you’ll reach the Plaza de Espana, where the bright tiles surrounding the space pay homage to all of Spain’s regions.
To the north, through the buzzing shopping streets of the Centro quarter, you’ll find the very modern Metropol Parasol, the largest wooden structure in the world. This slatted light wood structure is enormous and shades much of the square in which it stands. Make your way to the top viewing platform to admire the form and design of the parasol and enjoy fantastic cityscape views of Seville.
2. Granada: Beauty in The Foothills
“Nothing in life could be more cruel than to be blind in Granada” reads an inscription on a wall inside the Alhambra, Granada’s spectacular Moorish palace that sits high on a hill above the city. This treasure of a palace is simply breathtaking in its beauty, with typical Moorish symmetry, smooth stone arches and beautifully proportioned rooms, designed to stay cool but remain light. It would be easy to spend days inside but the gardens, known as the Gereneralife, are just as stunning as the interiors. Shaded and leafy with running water at every turn, the enclosed walkways and patios are highly expressive; it’s easy to imagine what life as a Sultana might have been like here.
The best time to visit the Alhambra is in the winter, when snow on the ground in the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains only heightens the beauty of this magical place. Whenever you decide to go, book online and well in advance. Numbers are strictly controlled and only a few tickets can be sold on the day.
Head downhill into the city of Granada, along the Cuesta de los Chinos, a shaded and pretty path that will take you into the heart of the medieval Albaicin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest such quarter in Spain. Head for the Plaza de San Miguel Bajo, a delightful tree lined square and stop for a glass of something cold before climbing uphill beyond the city walls to the church of San Cristobal. Here you will find a fantastic view of the Alhambra, for one last look before leaving the city.
3. Málaga: A Masterpiece of Andalusian Cities
Malaga is the second city of Andalusia (after Seville) and is crammed full of bars, restaurants, cafes, and people! It is also a large and busy sea port and one of the poorest cities in Andalusia. If you look beyond the overt commercialism and high rise and ugly buildings you will find a charming and historic city that will welcome you with open arms.
Malaga lives on the seafront where all of life takes place. Head for Pedregalejo and stroll the paseo (walk), where you will find pescaito frito (freshly caught grilled seafood) being served from chiringuitos (beach bars) on the beach. Visit in the sweltering heat of August and you will also find the wild Feria de Malaga rocking the city with music and color.
Picasso was born in Malaga and although he never painted there, his heritage is a great source of pride for the city, alongside the Museo Picasso which houses 204 of his works.
4. Marbella: The Hidden Gem of Andalusian Cities
Slap bang in the middle of the Costa del Sol, Marbella is more tasteful than Malaga. It retains a charming, partially walled casco antiguo (old town) and three immaculately kept beaches. Make for the Plaza de los Naranjos (Orange Patio – it sounds so much better in Spanish!) at the centre of the old town and enjoy a coffee whilst watching the world go by. Marbella’s old town has yet to be swallowed up by tourism, you can still find traditional tapas bars and cafes, which is where you should definitely head for lunch.
The nightlife in Marbella, the best on the Costa, is one of its biggest draws. Plaza Puente de Ronda in the old town has the best bars and clubs.
5. Cadiz: The Vibrant Andalusian City by the Sea
This atmospheric and beautifully faded sea city is a fascinating place to visit. Although you can get to Cadiz via several impressive bridges, by far the best way to arrive is by boat. Take the catamaran from El Puerto de Santa Maria and admire the view of the sparking city from the sea.
The faded grandeur of Cadiz is caused by the effect the sea air has on its buildings, causing the facades to crumble and pale. This lends the city a sad and sombre feel which belies the true character of the place. Visit during Carnaval in February and Cadiz comes alive for ten days of the most riotous and naughty carnival in Spain. If you are heading to Cadiz in February book your accommodation in advance and remember it’s mandatory to dress up!
Outside of Carnaval time, Cadiz is a fabulous city for simply wandering and soaking up the atmosphere and architecture; tall houses with painted facades, narrow back streets and a few impressive churches await you. One particular delight is the Plaza de las Flores, alive with color and scent from the many flower stalls that line the square. This is also a perfect spot for lunch, at one of the authentic restaurants in the side streets between here and Plaza de la Libertad.
6. Cordoba: The Most Architecturally Stunning of Andalusian Cities
Cordoba is an intimate and beautifully formed city, rich in Moorish architecture and atmosphere. People visit Cordoba for the world famous Mezquita (mosque-cathedral), a building for which there are few words adequate enough to describe its magnificence. Step inside and you will experience a truly speechless moment as you take in the polished marble floor and iconic red and cream pillars and arches stretching in every direction, as far as the eye can see.
This incredible building is the result of a mosque built well over a thousand years ago, added to numerous times before being consecrated as a cathedral by the reconquistadors who freed Spain from the rule of the Moors in 1248. The result is an astonishing mix of Moorish and Renaissance architecture that blends to create an aesthetic unlike anything else in the world. It would be easy to lose yourself for a day or more in this fascinating building, but Cordoba offers other delights that should not be missed.
The Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos should be visited for the gardens alone, laid out in the typical symmetrical style common to Moorish outside spaces. With tinkling water, majestic palms and cypress trees, this is a perfect spot to stop and relax for an hour or so. If you enjoy gardens, then head down river to the Jardin Botanico, worth a visit for the rose garden and hothouses full of exotic plant species. Take a stroll across the beautiful Puente Romano, thought to be built in the 1st or 2nd century, for a fabulous view of the old town, particularly impressive in the early morning light.
Wander through the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter, and you’ll find twisting lanes and pretty squares. Many of the whitewashed houses are covered in blooms from window boxes providing the perfect images; one of the most famous streets is Callejon de las Flores which is literally filled with tumbling hot pink and red geraniums in summer. Stand at the northern end, and this view frames the bell tower of the Mezquita, a perfect snap to sum up the beauty of Cordoba.
7. Jerez de la Frontera: Flamenco and a Glass of Sherry
Jerez de la Frontera, surrounded by beautifully laid out fields of vines, has been the home of sherry since the 14th century. The distinctive local soil, the climate and grape variety come together to create this complex and often misunderstood drink.
The initial wine produced from the grapes is nothing special, but place it in an oak barrel and let in a bit of air and magic happens! Flor or yeast develops on the surface of the wine and prevents oxidation and feeds on the natural sugars. The bodegas store the barrels six high, add brandy and then let out a small amount from the bottom barrel, replacing it from the barrel above and so on until the top, and newest barrel is reached.
The older sherry ‘educates’ the younger sherry until the bottom barrel reaches the quality, taste and consistency required, which remains the same year after year. It is a fascinating process, with minute changes at each stage to produce the ultra dry fino, through to the sticky sweet Pedro Ximinez and everything in between. You cannot visit Jerez without visiting a bodega, taking a tour with a tasting session at the end.
In stark contrast to the size and heft of the bodegas and the Catedral de San Salvador, the ancient Barrio de Santiago gitano (gypsy) quarter is an authentic warren of tiny streets and alleys climbing up the hill to the north of the old town. This is a fascinating place to wander and admire the many old churches in the area.
As well as sherry, Jerez is also famous for its flamenco tradition. Passionate, seductive and literally translated as ‘hell-raising’, flamenco is considered an art form in Spain. You’ll find penas (clubs) aplenty in the Santiago quarter, but don’t turn up before 10pm; most locals will just be sitting down to dinner at that time!
8. Ronda: An Andalusian Mountain Retreat
Situated between the natural parks of the Sierra de Grazalema and the Sierra de las Nieves, Ronda is surrounded by dramatic and stark mountains. The city is split by the huge 120m deep river gorge of El Tajo, which is spanned by the incredible, arched Puente Nuevo. Best seen from one of the many gardens or miradors which line the steep walls of the gorge, the bridge even has its own tourist office in the former prison, which was built over the central arch. Prisoners were sometimes thrown from the bridge to their deaths on the limestone rocks of the gorge below.
The founder of the modern corrida (bullfight), Pedro Romero was born in Ronda and continued bullfighting into his 80’s. Love it or loathe it, bullfighting is a much adored tradition in Spain which sees no signs of abating. The Plaza de Toros in Ronda should be visited for it’s fine architecture and fascinating museum, as well as its history as the first bullring to see bullfighting on foot. In the museum, you will learn about the bullfighting tradition, the rules, and even the history of the matador’s flamboyant outfits. The great bullfighters of Spain are celebrities and much revered by the Spanish people for their courage, recklessness and showmanship.
From Ronda you are perfectly situated to visit the pueblos blancos (white towns) in the surrounding mountains. If you only have time to visit a few, then Setenil de las Bodegas, known for its cave like streets and Arriate, famous for its bell-ringing should be at the top of your list.
9. Almeria: Natural Wonder Among Analusian Cities
In the far eastern part of Andalusia, Almeria is both city and province. The city itself is largely modern with a long stretch of beautiful sandy beach. Other than the imposing Alcazaba, one of the best Moorish military fortifications in Spain, the city’s major attraction is its proximity to the stunning natural park of the Cabo de Gata.
This protected area covers 71,500 acres of volcanic mountains, beaches and wetlands. The landscape appears barren but is in fact home to many varieties of flora and fauna, which thanks to its protected status, remain pristine. If you have time to visit, make your way to Playa de los Genoveses, one of the most unspoiled and beautiful beaches in Spain. Just along the coast you’ll find the weird and wonderful rock formations and sea caves around Los Escullos, perfect for kayaking or paddle boarding on a calm day. The water is crystal clear and turquoise and the sea life, all the better to watch the abundant sea life.
10. Antequera: Full of Beauty and Mystery
Situated in the triangle between Seville, Malaga and Cordoba, Antequera makes a great overnight stop. This pretty market town is a busy local center for farmers and traders and has a superb food market every Tuesday morning. Enormous olives, bright red peppers and the freshest tomatoes always taste better when sourced locally.
If you happen to be here in August, the annual feria (fair) takes place in the third week. Unlike other Andalusian feria, this one has a harvest festival feel, with plentiful fresh local produce, bullfighting and parades.
The dolmen cave burial chambers here are within walking distance of the center and are among the most important megalithic monuments in Spain. The Cueva de Menga, dating from around 2500BC has a roof formed by enormous stones, the biggest of which weighs in at 180 tonnes! If you stand just inside the entrance of this fascinating dolmen, you can see the Lovers Rock, perfectly framed in the entrance way.
It is thought that this view was planned, lending some sort of religious or ritualistic significance to the rock. Adding further weight to this theory is the fact that the sun rises behind the summit of the rock on the summer solstice and shines its light right inside the dolmen. There is another local legend which gives the Lovers Rock its name. The story tells of a Muslim girl and her Christian love, who throw themselves, hand in hand, from the rock rather than renounce their love or be separated.