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25 Best Places to Visit in Spain for First-Timers

Best Places in Spain for First Timers

Thirteen years ago we were also looking for the best places to visit in Spain for first timers because we were new to the country. However, after living in Alicante, Spain and then returning to Spain a decade later, we are thrilled to share some of our favorite places in Spain for you to visit. 

And if you are visiting Spain as a family we have extra tips and ideas based on our own experience of living in Spain when our son was a toddler and then returning to visit when he was a teenager.  

Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links. If you click and purchase, we will receive a commission at no extra charge to you.  We only recommend activities or places we have experienced, and all opinions are our own.

25 Best Places to Visit in Spain for First-Timers

Madrid

One of the top cities to visit in Spain is Madrid. A vibrant city, Madrid has it all. With museums, city parks – including Casa de Campo which is five times as big as Central Park in New York – and tons and tons of good, inexpensive eats, you can not go wrong starting your Spanish journey in Madrid. 

There are so many things to see and do in this city, but here are a few can’t miss best places to visit in Madrid.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza in Spanish literally means square. So every city and town in Spain has a plaza mayor or main square. Although some towns call their main square by specific name. 

But in Madrid, the Plaza Mayor is a must see. Lined with cafes and shops, the Plaza is a great place to get a taste of Spanish life. But check out our tips about whether or not to eat here. 

And if you are visiting in late November through the new year, Plaza Mayor is home to a delightful Christmas market.

Palacio Real

The Royal Palace of Madrid is the largest palace in all of Western Europe. With 3,418 rooms, the space is staggering. 

While the Royal Palace is the official home of the king, the royal family mostly resides at Zarzuela Palace, just outside of Madrid. Making the palace one of the few official royal residences that are open to the public.

Every Wednesday and Saturday beginning at 11 a.m., you can see the changing of the guards. And you thought that only happened at Buckingham Palace! 

El Retiro

El Retiro was literally made for relaxing. Okay, not relaxation for the common person…but for the king. Now, anyone can take a breath away from the hustle of the city within the park’s 308 acres. 

The park has an iconic man-made lake that comes equipped with rowing boats you can rent, miles of paths to walk or ride, and the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace, an impressive greenhouse, was built in 1887 for the World’s Fair, originally to house plants from the Philippines – a Spanish colony – and should not be missed.

The Crystal Palace in Madrid is is a best place to visit in Spain for first timers

El Retiro park is so lovely, it was recently put on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of many, many UNESCO sites that you will find throughout Spain. 

Madrid’s Art Museums

Madrid’s art scene makes it one of the best cities to visit in Europe. And while Madrid has many, many art museums, these two top museums should be on the list of best places in Spain for a first timer. And the great news is that all state-owned museums in Madrid are free everyday during the last two hours of entry. 

Prado

One of Europe’s greatest museums, the Prado is home to the largest collection of Spanish paintings as well as other masterpieces. But with over 8,000 paintings on display the museum can be overwhelming. 

Prado Tip: The free guide highlights the most famous paintings in the collection on the map of each room or sala. While it might feel like a bit of a cop out to only hit the highlights, this museum has so many famous works, that even the highlights is a full education.

Reina Sofia

One of our favorite art museums in all of Europe, the Reina Sofia is a must see. Built to house Picasso’s “Guernica,” the museum, which opened in 1992,  pays homage to Picasso and other contemporary artists.

A renovated hospital, the museum itself is a work of art blending modern design with 18th century construction. 

Reina Sofia Tip: Don’t miss the courtyard. Not only a beautiful place to rest, the Calder sculpture is remarkable. 

Day Trips from Madrid

While Madrid is truly enough in itself, the location of the city is perfect for day trips to area towns that have their own history, landmarks and flavor.

Toledo

A beautifully preserved medieval town, Toledo, is the number one must go day trip from Madrid. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Toledo has 2,000 years of history that reflect the three beliefs of Muslim, Judaism and Christianity that have shaped the town and its important monuments.

The most visited site in Toledo is definitely the Cathedral. The Cathedral is known not only for its impressive Gothic architecture, but for the El Greco paintings inside.

If you are hunting for a unique souvenir, Toledo has been a traditional metal-working, sword-making place since the Roman period.

Our son, O, wandered the city for hours until finding the perfect antique store in the Jewish quarter to find his sword. A souvenir from a place he will not ever forget. 

The view from the public library in Toledo is stunning

And finally, if we can let you in on a little secret, we think the very best stop in Toledo is actually the public library.

The library has a cafe high above the city with the best views of the town, cathedral and surrounding area. The library also has the most reasonably priced cup of coffee in the entire town. 

Getting to Toledo from Madrid

The cheapest way to get to Toledo is by bus. Buses leave every half hour from Plaza Eliptica. However, we chose the train because it is fastest and most convenient as trains depart from Atocha station hourly. 

You can also grab a tour from Madrid that provides transport to and from and a bilingual guide to show you the town. Tours cost around $25 per person. 

El Escorial

An enormous building built by Phillip II to honor his father’s final wish to be laid to rest with his wife, El Escorial is now the burial place of the majority of Spanish monarchs since Charles I. 

But the site is so much more than a mausoleum. An excellent example of the Spanish Renaissance style of architecture, the site houses a monastery, basilica, a royal library, and a royal palace. 

We definitely recommend packing a lunch (which is one of the ways we save big while traveling) and heading out to the enormous gardens. The view is absolutely breathtaking. 

The beautiful view at El Escorial is a great place for a picnic

After you take in the site, wander the streets of the nearby town of San Lorenzo de Escorial. Stop by one of the cafes with a view of El Escorial for a coffee. 

Then wander through the park below the site. If you have more time before heading back to Madrid, you can visit the two houses of the princes, which are found in the park. 

Getting to El Escorial from Madrid

If you want to go on your own, you can travel either by bus or train. We chose the Cercanias train because, again, being so close to Atocha station, it was an easy trip. The train trip takes about 40 minutes each way. 

If you prefer a bus, you need to get to Moncloa station where you can take the 661 bus to El Escorial. The bus does get you a bit closer to the site itself with only a 10 minute walk. 

The train station is about a 20 minute walk, mostly uphill. But again you are walking through a beautiful park so the walk is actually a great part of the experience. 

However, if you want to also visit both the nearby Valley of the Fallen – a Francoist monument and basilica, built as a “national act of atonement” – and then El Escorial, we recommend a tour

The Valley of the Fallen is one of Spain’s most controversial sites. Franco said it was to honor both sides of the bloody Spanish Civil War. But most believe Franco built it as a monument to himself and his victory. 

Segovia

The Roman aqueducts of Segovia are a best place to visit in Spain for first timers

Just 30 minutes by high speed train from Madrid, Segovia is a world away from the busy city life of Spain’s capital. While there are many things to see in this quaint town on your day trip from Madrid, the most notable are the 2,000 year old aqueducts that welcome you to the city.

The other most famous site of Segovia is the Alcazar. The fortress turned into a royal residence, the Alcazar could be the model for the Disney castles. It is just that perfect. 

Segovia also has the last Gothic cathedral built by the Spanish. And the Plaza Mayor is a great place to grab a coffee and take in the sites of this charming Roman and medieval town.

Getting to Segovia from Madrid

Regardless of whether you go by bus or train, it will take you about an hour from Madrid. 

Trains to Segovia leave from Charmartin station. If you are like us and are staying in central Madrid near Atocha station, be aware that Charmartin is about a 40 minute metro ride away. We did not plan our time well and missed the first train. 

Once you arrive at Segovia’s train station, you will need to grab a city bus into the town. The ride is a couple of miles and takes about 15-20 minutes. 

You’ll take the 11 bus. They time the buses so that they are literally waiting outside the train station to take you into town. So don’t stress, it works really well. And the cost is around €2 per person.

Or you can take a bus directly from Moncloa station in Madrid. The bus ride is slower, but takes you more directly into town. 

You can also get a tour that takes you to both Toledo and Segovia. The tours are full day experiences that cost around $50 per person. The tour pick up is in central Madrid. And they offer private van transfers and a guide. 

Barcelona

The most visited city in all of Spain, Barcelona is known for its lively culture, architecture, food, and Mediterranean climate. It is hard to imagine a list of best places in Spain for first timers that does not include this beloved city. 

Basílica De La Sagrada Familia

It is actually impossible to not see Sagrada Familia. When it is completed the tallest spire will reach an amazing 564 feet. And you can see this impressive structure from multiple vantage points throughout the city.  La Sagrada Familia is the most-visited site in Spain, with approximately 5 million visitors each year.

Sagrada Familia is the best place to visit in Spain for first timers and it is the most visited site in all of Spain

The basilica is the awe-inspiring work of native Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí. Although Gaudí died only 40 years into the building of the basilica, he left behind hundreds of sketches and models assuring that the finished site would reflect his unique style. 

The details and complexity of the Nativity facade against the austerity of the interiority, make Sagrada Familia a place of rich contemplation. To see such human innovation and creativity in pursuit of the divine is breathtaking regardless of your beliefs. 

La Sagrada Familia is an absolutely must see for anyone visiting Spain. We visited it 13 years ago when we lived in Spain. Only to return to it over a decade later and have a completely different experience. After 144 years of construction, the basilica is finally slated to be completed in 2026. 

Tickets are best bought in advance, especially during Spain’s high season of June-August. 

If you travel in late November through Christmas, you will also find a lovely Christmas Market just across the street from the basilica. 

Parque Güell

Seven of Gaudí’s designs, including Parque Güell, are UNESCO Heritage Sites. Gaudí was given the assignment by Eusebi Güell in 1900 to design the park.

Park Guell in Barcelona is a best place to visit in Spain for first timers

The park was intended to be part of a gated community. And both Güell and Gaudí lived in Gaudí designed homes inside the park. However, after Güell died, his heirs offered it to the city. In 1926, it became a public park although there is a fee to enter.

La Rambla

La Rambla is perhaps tourists’ first introduction to Barcelona. La Rambla is simply the Spanish name for a wide boulevard. But Barcelona’s is famous both for its length at just under a mile and its liveliness.

The Rambla runs from the port through the heart of the city. A pedestrian walkway any first timer to Spain should take time to stroll in the Spanish style. 

But do be a bit careful. With a high level of tourists comes pickpockets, so be smart. And like plaza mayors–see tips below–we don’t necessarily recommend stopping at a cafe along La Rambla as you are more likely to pay more for less good service. 

Boqueria Market

La Boqueria entrance at Christmas time

Along the Rambla, is Barcelona’s oldest market. Started in 1217 as a huddle of stalls, the market has evolved to host over 200 stalls. 

Here you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood. And of course, Spain’s national dish of jamon. We recommend starting with a lovely fruit smoothie that is offered at many of the stalls. Then walk the market if not to buy anything then just to take in the colors, sights, and smells.

If you have more time in Northern Spain and want to experience true Basque culture, we recommend a day or two in San Sebastian, otherwise known as Donostia in Basque. 

We had pretty much the most perfect day there enjoying Pintxo (the Basque word for tapas) in the old town. Visiting Spain as a family, we had a whole plan to see the beach, go to the aquarium and ride the funicular, but then our toddler fell asleep in the stroller. 

And it was bliss. So we can’t recommend much to do there besides stroll the beautiful streets of the medieval quarter, enjoying food and drink. But sometimes in life just that is everything. 

Valencia

The third largest city in Spain, Valencia is often overlooked for its bigger siblings of Madrid and Barcelona. But we think Valencia is definitely one of the best cities to visit in Spain, especially if you are visiting Spain as a family. 

Ciutat de La Artes I Les Ciencies

City of Arts and Science in Valencia is a best place to visit in Spain for first timers
photo courtesy of Canva

We explored Valencia’s Ciutat de La Artes i Les Ciencies when O was a toddler. And it was a full day of greatness for the whole family. 

The Ciutat is a huge complex that offers six different areas. The site includes the Hemisfèric with an IMAX theater, a museum of Science, and Europe’s largest aquarium.

If you choose to see it all, the tickets are around €26, which is a little costly. But we guarantee if you are visiting Spain as a family you will spend the entire day here. 

La Lonja de la Seda

La Lonja was established as the silk market of Valencia until 1533. It is known as one of the best examples of late Gothic architecture. 

In addition to its three main areas, La Lonja has a beautiful garden. Coming into the main gates, you are immediately greeted by orange trees. Oranges are grown throughout Valencia and their bright color is a hint at the beautiful silks that were sold here hundred of years ago. 

Mercado Central

Next to La Lonja is the Central Market. When we lived in Spain, going to the central market for your daily fruit, vegetable, and meat was a part of life. 

But the market in Valencia has the honor of being the largest market in all of Europe.  With over 1,200 stalls, you will certainly find something to give you a beautiful taste of Spain.

Food in Valencia

Okay it is not a place, but a thing. But trying this food is a necessity of any visit to Spain.

Valencia is home to Spain’s famous rice dish, Paella. And you should definitely, definitely not leave Spain without trying some. Each region of Spain has its own Paella speciality and Valencia’s is Paella with rabbit. 

But hot tip: The Spanish eat Paella as a part of their lunch, not as a heavy supper. So if you want to avoid looking like tourists on your first visit to Spain then order it mid day only. 

Seville

Spain is divided into regions. And while both Seville and our next final town are in the region of Andalusia, they are very different. 

If you are limited on time when visiting Spain, we slightly prefer Granada as the Alhambra is truly remarkable. But there is also so much about Seville to make it onto your list. 

Alcazar of Seville

Since Andulsia is in the south, you really get a sense of the 700 year reign of Muslim rulers in Spain. And the Alcazar, along with Granada’s Ahlambra, are two excellent examples of Muslim architecture and innovation.

Originally built in the early 900s, the Alcazar is famous for its amazing tile decorations. And the beauty of the ceilings will nearly make you cry. 

Seville Cathedral

After St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, the Seville Cathedral, officially known as Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Sede is the 3rd largest church in Europe. 

But again what makes the Cathedral remarkable, perhaps more than its size, is that like many important sites in Spain, it was built upon an Islamic mosque. While the mosque was mostly destroyed, they kept the original Giralda tower.

Today, you can climb the 341 foot tall tower to get a great view of the city. 

Plaza de España

What makes this plaza so special? Well first it is curved on a canal and it is massive in size. 

The Plaza De Espana in Seville is definitely a best place in Spain for first timers
photo courtesy of Canva

The plaza has over 50 benches to enjoy the Andulsian sun. And the plaza is decorated with 52 frescos representing the 52 provinces of Spain. So even if you can’t travel to all of Spain, you can get a quick taste of the diversity and beauty of Spain just by visiting this remarkable plaza. 

Granada

The sun-inspired city of Granada is home to the most beautiful and important site of Moorish architecture, delicious tapas and, of course, flamenco.  

The Alhambra

Alhambra in Grenada is a must see place in Spain for first time visitors
Photo courtesy of Canva

The Alhambra is the second-most visited monument in Spain. At the Alhambra you will see several palaces, ancient walls, beautiful gardens, and so much gorgeous tile work. 

Home to the Nasrid sultans from the 13th-15th century, what we were struck by was just how much innovation it contained. 

Set in the dry hills of Andulsian, the Alhambra is alive with so much water. Fountains and pools are around every corner. Perfecting the Roman aqueduct design, the builders of the Alhambra brought fresh water into the palace for drinking, bathing, and gardening. 

There is more to do in Granada than just visit the Alhambra, of course. An afternoon wandering through the narrow streets of the Albayzín, the old Moorish quarters of the town, is wise. As is a visit to the Granada Cathedral, second in size only to Seville’s.

And yet, even if you just go to Granada for the Alhambra, and you don’t eat their amazing tapas or spend an evening watching flamenco, the Alhambra is enough. 

When we lived in Spain, it was the only place we traveled to twice. It was just that important to experience. 

Best Time of Year to Visit Spain for First Timers

June-August is the high season. So, if you can, avoid coming during the summer months. But if you are visiting Spain as a family with school-aged kids, we understand that may not be possible. 

We love Spain year round, but our favorite is definitely late November after the rush of the summer and early fall. In late November, the Christmas markets have opened and town and city streets are adorned with hanging lights. 

But if you are coming to Spain for the beaches of Barcelona or Valencia, then you may want to risk the crowds in the summer.

Best Places for Visiting Spain as a Family

We have been all over Spain as a family. And have been welcomed everywhere. Spanish culture is very, very kid friendly. Even the smallest town will have a park for little ones to run and play. 

And one of our favorite things about living in Spain when O was 3 was the expectation that he would just come along. Unlike what we had left in the United States – where babysitters were a must for an adult night out – our friends in Spain would encourage us to just bring him with us. And it was easy to see why since all the other families would be doing precisely the same thing.

And every evening before supper (see tips for eating times), we would spend hours at our local park with our friends. Each of us helped the other look out for their kids. It was a pretty magical time.

However, if we did have to pick a specific location in Spain that was particularly kid-friendly, it would be Valencia. The Ciutat de La Artes i Les Ciències is just that good. 

Traveling Around Spain

In addition to 25 major airports throughout Spain, the country has really great train connectivity. With over 3,000 km of track, Spain’s high speed trains operate on the longest track in Europe. 

But be aware that the high speed trains in Spain, hub mostly out of Madrid’s Atocha Station or Chamartin Station. So, for example, if you are in Valencia and you want to go to Barcelona, you will need to go through Madrid if you want to travel by train. 

While we always advocate for train travel as it is more sustainable and often easier, as trains leave out of the city center, there are times when travel by plane is easier. For example, when we lived in Alicante, Spain, which is near Valencia, it was far easier for us to fly to Barcelona than to train. 

Tips for Visiting Spain for the First Time

Be Aware of The Siesta

The siesta is a break in the day, usually between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. where Spanish workers literally take a break from their jobs. In smaller less touristy towns, like where we lived in Alicante, shops are closed.

While the siesta suggests a nap, most Spaniards don’t actually sleep. But there is a cultural expectation for workers to have a long lunch, run errands, return home if they live close enough, or do whatever it is they need to do in the middle of the day. 

There are always current conversations to end the practice of siesta as it actually creates longer working hours for the Spanish. But so far it has held on.

If your time visiting Spain is mostly in tourist areas, you may not see evidence of the siesta. Shops and sites visited by tourists stay open through siesta. Siesta will only become a part of your daily rhythm if you are in smaller, less touristy places.

Plan to Eat Late

When we first moved to Spain, the biggest adjustment for us was the eating times. The Spanish tend to eat their midday meal around 2 p.m. and their evening meal after 8 p.m.

I will never forget the horror on my Spanish friend’s face when I suggested we meet at 7 p.m. for dinner. “It is not fashionable,” she told me, “to even consider dinner before 9 p.m.” And in truth, many restaurants don’t even open for dinner service until 8 p.m.

Of all the cultural aspects of traveling in Spain, their late dinner is definitely the hardest to adjust to if you are traveling in Spain as a family.

If you can’t imagine adjusting to such a late meal, we recommend either eating lunch around 2 p.m. and then eating a lighter dinner at your rental. Or, if you want to eat your evening meal out, you can always enjoy a meal made up of tapas. It is common for the Spanish to stop briefly at their local bar or cerveceria after work around 7 to grab a caña (small beer) and a tapa (small plate).

If you find a great local spot, you will never regret a night of trying a variety of Spanish tapas and soaking in the culture.  It can also be fun to hop from place to place, sampling a variety of dishes and locales.

Don’t Eat in the Main Squares 

Listen, we get it. Who doesn’t want to have that Insta-worthy moment in one of the most beautiful squares in Madrid or Barcelona? But cafes and restaurants in these main squares not only charge more, they often don’t provide good service.

And it makes sense. The people who frequent these squares not only don’t know any better, they also will never return. So why should the staff go out of their way? 

It is better to find that restaurant or cafe whose outside tables are full of locals. No, you may not have the plaza at your back, but we guarantee you’ll have a better meal at a far better price. 

Best Places in Spain for First Timers

Frequently Asked Questions About Traveling to Spain the First Time

What is Spain’s Climate and Weather?

Spain is the most climatically diverse country in all of Europe. The large size of the country, its mountains in the North, and Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines all shape its diverse climates. So where you decide to go will really shape what to pack.

If I only have a week in Spain, what should I visit?

If you have a short time in Spain, we recommend that you split your time between Madrid and Barcelona.

Should I tip in Spain?

In general, tipping is not common. This is especially true in more casual restaurants. In fancier restaurants, tips are more common. However, be sure to check your bill that it doesn’t have the tip built in. It will be listed as “servicio incluido.”

What is the most visited site in Spain?

La Sagrada Familia Basilica is the most visited site in all of Spain. Prior to the pandemic, the Basilica had nearly 5 million visitors in a single year. A close second is the Alhambra in Grenada with approximately 3 million visitors each year.

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