Map of Spain & Travel Guide
– Few countries have done as much to shape our world today as España. From San Francisco to Santiago de Chile, Spain has exported its language and culture across the planet. Though the atrocities committed by the Conquistadors in America were deplorable, Spaniards formed the first global empire and tore up the old maps.
Map of Spain
Today, Spain is a relatively small country of only 47 million people but an amazing wealth of historic and natural attractions. Go there to see the palace where Christopher Columbus met with Queen Isabella, one of the oldest and most beautiful university cities in the world, and a city awash with stunning modern architecture.
Airports & Entry
It’s possible to enter Spain by air, land, or sea. The best method depends upon where you want to arrive in Spain and where you’re coming from.
If you’re traveling a long distance to Spain, the best way to go is by air. Spain has 47 public airports and there are many international flights to all parts of the country. When booking your flight, have two things in mind: what you want to see in Spain and where the cheapest flights go. You can check flight prices to different Spanish cities on comparison websites like Omio.
For example, I was planning a trip recently and wanted to see Barcelona, Madrid, and Granada. I discovered that flights from London to Granada were relatively expensive when I wanted to fly, but flights to the two busiest airports in Spain, Madrid-Barajas and Barcelona El Prat, were cheaper. So, I decided to fly to Barcelona and use it as the start and endpoint of my mini tour of Spain.
If you’re traveling from Portugal or France to Spanish cities close to their borders, a high-speed train is also an option. For example, you can travel from Lisbon in Portugal to Salamanca in Spain within 6 hours 28 minutes for as little as $25 if you book in advance.
For travelers on a budget with oceans of time, you can also take buses between these countries. For example, a coach from Toulouse in France to Barcelona in Spain takes 6 hours 15 minutes and can cost as little as $18!
There are also ferries to Spain. For example, you can catch a ferry from Portsmouth in England to Santander in Spain that takes 28 hours 30 minutes for €219. However, you’d probably only want to take that long if you were taking your own vehicle along, which would cost at least €408.
The most popular ferry to Spain is the crossing from Tangier in Morocco to Tarifa in Spain. This short crossing only takes 1 hour and costs around €40.
History of Spain
Prehistory & Roman period
The earliest evidence of modern humans in Spain are cave paintings found in Cantabria created between 35,600 BCE and 13,500 BCE. During the last Ice Age, the Iberian Peninsula became a refuge for humanity escaping the cold. Toward the end of prehistory, there were two cultures living on the peninsula: the Iberians to the east and the Celts to the west.
Sometime between 210 BCE and 205 BCE, the Romans began to invade the Iberian Peninsula. Their invasion was piecemeal, and it took almost 200 years. The Romans remained for over 600 years and called the peninsula Hispania, from which we get the modern name España, or Spain. The previously Celtic and Iberian people were completely Romanized, and much of Spain’s culture today comes from the Roman period—the language (which is an evolved form of Latin), religion (introduced during the 1st century CE, and the basis of Spanish law.
During the 8th century, the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by the Moors from North Africa. They conquered vast areas between 711 and 718, but resistance began almost immediately. During the Moorish presence on the peninsula, a unique mixed Roman and Moorish culture evolved, and many beautiful monuments were built, including the fortress of Alhambra built in 889 atop an old Roman fort and converted into an amazing royal palace in 1333.
The Moors retained a presence in Iberia for over 800 years, but in 1492 the last Moorish territory surrendered to the joint monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They united many previously independent countries and made the Alhambra their palace. It was from there that Isabella sponsored Christopher Columbus on his expedition to find a new route to India in the west.
Also in 1492, Columbus arrived in the New World, and the great Spanish Empire began. The empire grew so vast that today Spanish is the second most common first language in the world behind Mandarin (English is third, though it’s popularity as a second language has made it the most common language in the world).
For almost 300 years, Spain was the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. However, from 1793 onward it ran into what I can only describe as a catastrophic sequence of unlucky choices. First, it decided to declare war against the new French Republic and lost. Second, it then decided to join with France in the early Napoleonic Wars only to lose its naval fleet at the disaster of the Battle of Trafalgar. Third, it invited French troops into Spain to attack Portugal only for those French troops to take over all the Spanish forts and conquer Spain against zero resistance.
The common Spanish people resisted French occupation, and the word “guerrilla” is a Spanish word that came into English when it was used to refer to the resistance fighters that helped Portuguese and British troops in their war against France in the Iberian Peninsula. Despite Napoleon’s defeat, Spain’s bad luck and frequent side changing left the nation politically divided, unstable, and bankrupt.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began. This bitter three-year struggle was a precursor for WWII. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported General Franco’s Spanish Nationalist forces against the Republic. And the Republic was supported by the Soviet Union and international volunteers of people who loved freedom, like George Orwell and Pablo Neruda.
Mainly due to Great Britain’s shameful appeasement policies and refusal to join the fight, Franco won and a dictatorship was formed that lasted until his death of natural causes in 1975. In the years following Franco’s death, the nation slipped gradually back into democracy with the adoption of the 1978 Constitution.
A Fact File of Spain
- Location: Southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula.
- Population: 46,733,038 (2018)
- Ethnicity: Indigenous Spanish 88%, Latin American 5%, North African 2%, Eastern European 2%, Sub-Saharan African 1%, and others 2%.
- Area: 195,360 square miles.
- Capital city & largest city: Madrid.
- Climate: Much like its cuisine, Spain’s climate is largely divided by three regions: Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Interior. Along the Mediterranean coast and stretching far inland, the summers are hot and dry and winters mild. Along the Atlantic coast, an oceanic climate results in cool summers and mild winters. And some interior regions experience a semi-arid climate.
- Official language: Spanish. 74% of Spaniards speak this as their mother tongue.
- Other languages: Catalan 17%, Galician 7%, Basque 2%, and Occitan (only 5,000 speakers). The Spanish constitution requires every Spanish citizen to be fluent in Spanish but at the same time provides legal protection to these 4 other languages as official languages of Span.
- Religion: 70% Roman Catholic, 25 atheist, and 5% other.
- Current head of state: King Felipe VI.
- Current Prime Minister: Pedro Sanchez. There are also two “presidents” in the Spanish government, but they are ranked below the King and Prime Minister.
- Time zone: Central European Time, which is UTC+1.
- Currency: Euro €.
- Country dialing code prefix: +34.
- Emergency numbers: 112. There are other numbers you can use, but 112 is easy to remember and gets you everything.
Getting Around Spain
The three easiest ways to get around Spain are by train, plane, or bus.
Spain boasts the most extensive high-speed railway network in Europe, with trains reaching speeds of up to 190 mph. That means that often the best way to travel around Spain is by train. If you’re on a budget, you can purchase a second class Eurail One Country Pass to enjoy 8 days unlimited regular trail travel within a one month period for only $319. However, note that you must pay an extra booking charge to travel on the high-speed trains and Europeans cannot buy a Eurail ticket. But Europeans can purchase an Interrail Ticket.
Although trains are usually the cheapest option, it’s always best to check on a comparison website like Omio. For example, from Barcelona to Madrid, I can buy a Renfe high-speed train ticket for $64 and the journey will take 2 hours 30 minutes. But I could purchase a Vueling flight for $46 that takes 1 hour 20 minutes. Of course, you then have the hassle and extra expense of getting from the airports to the city centers, so take this into consideration when deciding what’s best for you.
Overall, I’d say if you’re only visiting a few cities that are far apart, like Barcelona and Granada, then flying between them might be best for you. And if you want to travel to the Canaries or the Balearic Islands, then flying is essential. But if you hope to spend a month in Spain and travel everywhere on the mainland, a Eurail pass will save you money and conveniently take you from city center to city center.
I would not generally recommend exploring Spain by bus because trains are much more comfortable and quicker. However, if you have plenty of time and a tight budget, long-distance coaches are often much cheaper. For example, that journey between Barcelona and Madrid would cost only $39 on an ALSA coach and take you from city center to city center. But that journey would take you 7 hours 35 minutes.
Two good reasons to travel by bus are to see more of the countryside up close and to explore remote, rural places the trains don’t reach.
Accommodation in Spain
Hotels in Spain are generally affordable, with basic rooms for around $50 a night and standard rooms about $100. However, you’ll find accommodation in Barcelona and Madrid much more expensive than the average. Rates are also seasonal, but high season is different in different areas so you’ll have to research conditions in the places you want to visit.
Book in advance to ensure you get the kind of room you want where you want it. Online booking almost always provides the best deals.
The top luxury hotels in Spain are called paradores. These are often converted historic mansions or castles situated in the most beautiful locations. For example, the Parador de Santiago de Compostela is reputed to be the oldest hotel in the world and occupies a 15th-century hospital. And the Parador de Siguenza occupies a castle with a long history stretching back to Roman times.
Hotels and hostals
Hotels in Spain are either hotels (with a full range of services) or hostals (budget hotels). You won’t find much difference in price or standard between a 1-star hotel and a hostal. Above 3-stars, you’ll start to see big differences in quality, and 5-star are plush, luxurious hotels.
You’ll find pensions, fonda, and residencia in Spain. Pensiones are budget guesthouses, but fondas have a restaurant attached. Bed & breakfasts are becoming common in Spain. Watch out for signs outside regular houses saying “habitaciones” (rooms) or “camas” (beds), though many guesthouses just use the English B&B sign.
Villas and apartments
You’ll find lots of villas and apartments around Spain available to rent for a week at a time. Most of these are around the traditional family holiday hotspots, like the coastal resorts or the Balearic Islands. You can find lots of holiday rental agencies online, such as Simply Owners.
If you love the great outdoors, you’ll be happy to hear that there are hundreds of authorized campsites across Spain that generally charge around €6 per tent and then an additional €6 for each person staying. However, the most popular sites may be significantly more expensive.
Because of Spain’s rich history with Roman, African, and Mediterranean influences, you’ll find a broad range of dishes around the country. There are three obvious divisions: Mediterranean around the eastern and southern coast, Atlantic along the northern coast, and Inland Spanish food.
Spanish Mediterranean food features lots of seafood and several signature dishes. Andalusia is Spain’s most southerly region, so on hot summer’s days they love to eat cold soups like gazpacho. In gazpacho, you’ll find crushed cucumber, onion, pepper, tomato, and garlic with the olive oil so predominant in Mediterranean cuisine.
You can’t talk about Mediterranean cuisine and forget to mention calamares a la Romana. Battered, deep-fried squid is a popular dish along the coast served with lemon and salt.
And you’ll also find rice-based dishes like arros negre from Catalonia and the more famous paella from Valencia. In a truly traditional Valencian paella, the important ingredients are rabbit and chicken. However, many other coastal areas feature seafood paellas.
Along the Atlantic coast they eat hot, fish or vegetable-based stews like fabada Asturiana, marmitako, and caldo Gallego. And chorizo is a popular sweet and spicy sausage usually made with plenty of garlic. You’ll find specific chorizo recipes around the region, like chorizo Riojano. And chorizo is a key ingredient in fabada Asturiana, a white-bean stew from Asturias.
In the central regions, you’ll find lots of preserved food, like Manchego cheese and Spanish ham. Thick, hot soups and stews are also popular, such as cocido madrileño. Traditional jamon Iberico dry-cured ham is made from Black Iberian pigs and features a distinctive rich, savory taste.
The 7 Top Things to See & Do in Spain
When I think of Spain, the first place I think of is Granada and its famous Alhambra Palace. Sitting on a hill above the city, this breathtaking Moorish fortress and royal palace is one of the best-preserved examples of early Islamic architecture. It features marble fountains, beautiful mosaics, and stunning vistas.
The complex is an amazing monument to Spain’s rich history. It began life as a Roman fort before the Moors constructed a larger fortress over the Roman remains in 889. And that fortress was transformed into this amazing palace in 1333. It’s the palace where Queen Isabella met Christopher Columbus and sponsored his crazy mission to find a western route to India.
The Grand Mosque of Cordoba
The Alhambra was not the only Moorish building to survive the Reconquista. The Grand Mosque of Cordoba was originally built in 784 but saw considerable expansion before the city of Cordoba fell back into Catholic hands in 1236.
Fortunately, instead of demolishing this beautiful building, the Church converted it into an amazing cathedral. Its prayer hall features nineteen aisles, and its rounded Moorish arches and rows of columns form perfect symmetrical patterns to please the eye.
Seville is the most beautiful city in Spain and the capital of Andalucía. It’s famous for its energetic flamenco dancing and amazing architecture. It contains the Alcazar, a royal palace with stunning gardens originally built as a Moorish fortress in 712 and converted into a royal palace following the local Reconquista in the 14th century. And La Giralda tower is the symbol of the city—built as a minaret but now all that remains of the Grand Mosque of Seville.
Seville Cathedral is one of the largest in Europe and renowned for its gilded altar statues. It’s also where you’ll find Christopher Columbus’ monumental tomb.
This university city in western Spain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting the third oldest university in the “West”. The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218 and became the first university in the world to be granted official university status by the Vatican. Because Spanish is such an important language today, Salamanca attracts thousands of language students from around the world.
If you’ve ever visited Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard, think about buildings like those on Acid. I mean, much more ornate, colorful, and flashy, like the difference between the interiors of a Catholic and a Baptist church. The university is quite simply sublime.
From Seville, explore the small white towns scattered across the hilltops in this region. Arcos de la Frontera is a breathtaking town with a labyrinth of cobbled streets and traditional craft shops where you can buy local ceramics. It also features a Moorish castle, orange and almond orchards, and a beautiful plaza with a Gothic church.
Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park is a great location to experience the local landscape and see picturesque, hilltop villages of white houses. And the karst limestone geology of the region means there are many fascinating caverns to explore.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an iconic structure of glass, limestone, and titanium that must be seen to be truly appreciated. No photograph can completely capture its magic. Inside the Guggenheim Museum you can discover a permanent collection of 250 pieces of modern art alongside a constantly evolving display of visiting exhibits. This building alone has transformed Bilbao’s fortunes, making it one of the top tourist destinations in Spain and recipient of the Best European City at the 2018 Urbanism Awards.
Barcelona is Spain’s second city and may well be a capital in its own right if the Catalan Independence Movement. The city is rich in history but more famous for its stunning modern architecture. In particular, Gaudi’s renowned Sagrada Familia minor basilica.
This fantastic yet incomplete church is a strange combination of Gothic grandeur and surreal art. Because it is such a huge construction project, it will not be completed until around 2026. But, unfinished as it is, it is Barcelona’s most famous landmark. You can see much more of Gaudi’s work around the city, including Gaudi’s Casa Mila and Parc Guell.
But there’s more to Barcelona than just modern art. The La Rambla tree-lined boulevard in the city center is a wonderful place to stroll on a warm summer evening. It’s where you’ll find the living statues, street musicians, and pavement artists that remind you art isn’t just history in Barcelona—it’s here and now!
Visiting Spain Safely
Spain is a relatively wealthy and safe country, and few travelers experience problems. The obvious exception concerns the huge number of youths who descend upon the Balearic Islands during summer every year, where alcohol-related violence caused by tourists in coastal resorts can be an issue. But people on family holidays or backpackers exploring the cultural sites see little crime.
The main problem you might encounter is petty theft by pickpockets, bag snatchers, hotel room break-ins, and muggings. This is not because it’s Spain, but because this kind of thing happens in any big city. In the cities, especially Barcelona and Madrid, you should avoid deserted streets or parks after dark and stick to public places with lots of people.
If you can, look less attractive to opportunist thieves. Keep valuables out of sight, store your money in a money belt or your front jeans pocket, and try not to look like a tourist. When taking cash from an ATM or using a card to pay, cover your hand when you input your PIN code.
If you are in a hire car, the decals and number plate give you away. Some thieves have operated by puncturing tires at gas stations or rest areas then pretending to offer help while stealing your stuff.
When visiting a bar or going on a tour, tell a friend or relative where you are going and arrange to check in when you return to your accommodation. Don’t accept drinks from strangers and keep an eye on the glass of wine you have bought. If you must go to the restroom, finish your drink first or abandon it.
Be careful crossing the road—you cannot assume that road users in Spain follow the same rules you grew up with. Avoid wearing earphones that distract you and limit your situational awareness.
Before you set off on your vacation, it’s always a good idea to check with your own government’s foreign affairs department concerning conditions in the county you’re traveling to. If you’re American, this would be the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Sometimes there are specific issues, such as planned demonstrations or terrorist threats, that affect the citizens of a specific nation when traveling abroad.
What I Love About Spain
Personally, I love ancient architecture. In places like Granada, you can see some of the most beautiful early Islamic buildings and monuments in the world. Because many of these structures have remained relatively untouched since the Reconquista, they’re better preserved than similar landmarks in Arabic countries. What’s more, Spain is a safe place to visit when compared with other places with comparable monuments, like Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
Robert loves nature and history. As a child, he drove his parents crazy on vacation begging to visit museums and castles instead of beaches and theme parks. Now his children send him insane by demanding to visit beaches and theme parks.
He became interested in travel while studying archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University. He volunteered on archaeological excavations all around the British Isles then enjoyed a year exploring and learning about China.
Today, he loves writing about the places he’s visited and still spends time exploring museums and castles.