Stories About Spain
My 5 Favorite Towns in Spain to Visit
Written by: Jonathan Harris
Spain’s big cities are full of excitement and amazing attractions, from the Plaza del Sol in Madrid to the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. With literally thousands of restaurants to choose from and hundreds of attractions to visit, there is always something new to discover. But after a day or two of the hustle and bustle, I begin to yearn for a slower pace and a deeper connection. Then it is time to seek out the smaller treasures of Spain, villages and towns with their own special charms.
Today I want to share five of my favorite places to visit outside of the famous cities. These towns and villages move more slowly, and visitors get a chance to know the people and culture that make them special. Each one has its own special kind of beauty and is well worth the effort.
Our first stop is at the top of a ridge in Galicia - the tiny village of O Cebreiro. A winding road reaches higher and higher until you come upon a group of prehistoric-looking stone houses with hand-cut thatched roofs. These ‘pallazos’ are Celtic dwellings where large families used to live in close quarters with their animals, with a communal fire to fend off the chilly wind and the frequent misty fog. Incredibly, local villagers lived this way for over 1,500 years until the 1960s. My parents, Don and Ruth Harris, visited during that period and witnessed the last generation that followed the old ways.
The tiny hamlet has been restored with modern amenities, but it still takes me back to another time. The aroma of wood smoke and farm animals envelops you as you wander the stone paved streets. From its high vantage point you can take in the verdant countryside rolling off into the distance. Often veiled in mist, O Cebreiro can take on a magical aspect, transporting you back centuries.
The village church, Santa María la Real, is an important stop on the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. When the weather is particularly misty the bell of the church is rung to help pilgrims find their way. Legend has it that the church holds a Holy Grail! In the 14th century, a village priest was performing mass when the wine in the chalice turned into blood. Certified an official miracle by Pope Innocent VIII, this Holy Grail can be viewed to this day in the sanctuary. Now, this is not THE Holy Grail. The true chalice from the Last Supper now resides in Valencia, of course (look it up on Google!)
On the edge of the village is a pilgrim hostel with dozens of bunks to house the weary hikers. A few rustic restaurants cater to the pilgrims, offering humble but hearty meals. Don’t miss the Caldo Gallego, the classic Galician stew with local greens (grelos), potatoes and beans seasoned with smoky chorizo and jamón.
Next let me transport you to the picturesque town of Chinchón, just 45 km outside of Madrid. The unusual name of the town translates as a bump you might get on your head and was probably named after the hill in the center of town which is topped by an imposing cathedral. [Correction - a bump on the head is a chichón without the 'n'. Thanks to our readers for letting me know!] I love the Plaza Mayor, a medieval square surrounded by elegant wooden balconies. There are many traditional restaurants lining the square featuring wood-fired ovens for roasting traditional meats like suckling lamb and morcilla sausages. I can think of no better way to spend a lazy afternoon in Spain than sipping red wine and enjoying a traditional feast with friends overlooking this beautiful plaza.
These balconies are most in demand during late summer when the whole square is transformed into a bull ring. The first running of the bulls takes place on July 25th. Other important events are the Chinchón Anis festival featuring the local anisette liquor, and the Fiesta de Ajo featuring the special white garlic of the area.
You can stay in style at the Parador de Turismo hotel, just steps away from the main square. This former Augustinian monastery is beautifully restored and features a stunning central courtyard and antique furnishings.
About an hour from Madrid, this lovely hilltop town is close to my heart. I love to walk up the cobblestone streets to the fairytale castle that perches above the village. This impressive fortress dates to the 5th century. It was expanded by the conquering Moors, then retaken in 1123 and has seen many battles and expansions over the centuries. In 1976, it was restored to its former glory and converted to another excellent Parador hotel.
Sigüenza is home to a beautiful Gothic cathedral with impressive artwork and sculptures, including the famous 'El Doncel', an alabaster sculpture of a young night who died in the battle to retake Granada. During the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, Franco’s forces besieged a Republican force in the cathedral, firing down from the castle, and you can still see bullet holes pocking the ancient stone walls of the cathedral tower.
It is hard to believe that Sigüenza endured so much conflict over the centuries as you sit at a table in the picturesque main plaza, sipping on a beer as you watch the locals taking their evening strolls. Sometimes I will book a room in the castle-Parador for the night before my flight back home. It is a great way to relax and absorb a bit of traditional Spain before my journey, and it sure beats a generic hotel near the airport!
Heading south into Andalucía we reach the elegant city of Carmona. Only 30 minutes outside of Seville it is easy to get to and a world away from the big city. Perched on a ridge overlooking miles and miles of fertile countryside, it has served as a strategic location for civilizations going back to the time of the Phoenicians.
As you enter the town, narrow alleys weave their way past whitewashed dwellings until they reach the stunning Alcazar del Rey Don Pedro. As you walk through the portcullis and imagine tunicked guards pacing the towers above you, you reach the castle entrance and enter another amazing Parador hotel. Stroll through the courtyard and glance at the suits of armor, then proceed to the hotel bar with a balcony that sits a hundred feet above the valley. There are few better places to enjoy a drink with a friend and take in the stunning views. If you are planning on staying the night, I also recommend the Casa Palacio de Carmona, a delightful 16th century Renaissance palace converted to a hotel and managed by our good friend Felipe Guardiola. Be sure to say hello to Felipe for me!
Wandering back through the town I like to visit the Plaza Mercado, a colonnaded square with restaurants and shops. It is a great place to stop for a tapa and relax. Leaving the Plaza, you can visit several churches in the Mudejar style as well as the Jewish quarter with its pretty streets and balconies. Outside of town you can visit a 1st century Roman amphitheater and necropolis.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
At the mouth of the Guadalquivir river sits the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. This laid-back beach town in Andalucia sits on Atlantic next to the beautiful La Doñana national park. It is famed for its excellent sherries and amazing seafood. The Bajo de Guía waterfront strip is home to some of the finest seafood restaurants in all of Spain. My favorite is the 60-year-old Casa Bigote where you can feast on pescaíto frito (fresh fried fish), almadraba tuna and delectable langostinos de Sanlúcar shrimp.
The least known of the three “Sherry Triangle” cities, Sanlúcar is known for its crisp, dry Manzanilla sherry. Manzanilla is aged in bodegas built very close to the beach and the mild sea breezes add a briny note to this refreshing wine that can only be made in Sanlúcar.
For centuries, Sanlúcar was the gateway to Sevilla and all of the treasures of the Americas sailed past the here on their way upriver. In fact, the town across the river is fittingly named Bonanza. Another historic event starting in Sanlúcar is El Rocio. Every year over a million people travel to the La Doñana nature preserve to visit the Virgin of El Rocio, and many of the pilgrims dress in historic garb and ride horses and carriages into the sandy wilderness.
When I visit, I like to stroll down the beach for a while and then head to the quaint Plaza Del Cabildo in the center of town. A must visit is the classic Casa Balbino seafood restaurant. Customers order from the counter as a half dozen waiters dash to-and-fro passing out drinks and tallying bills with chalk on the countertop.
Once I get my order of acedias fritas (tiny fried flounder) or tortillitas de camarones (fried brine shrimp pancakes, the best in Spain), I settle under an orange tree with a frosty glass of manzanilla sherry. As the sea breezes rustle the leaves, I watch children chase pigeons near a delightful fountain.
Every time I get a chance to visit one of these wonderful towns, I find myself recharged, at home in a community with a slower pace and a strong sense of place. Prosperity and modernity have transformed Spain in so many ways, often for the better, but I am happy to know that many towns and villages have retained many of the best parts of their histories and cultures. I hope you get a chance to visit one of these special places soon.
"Just returned from three weeks in Spain, loved all of it and now your five-village blog has taken me there again. It would be a wonderful trip to visit each of these villages next time. Thank you!"
"You forgot Albarracín "
"Thank you! I need to add Albarracín to my next itinerary."
"Love Frigiliana and Rio Frio in Andalucia !"
"I enjoyed reading it! Beautiful article!"
"You missed one of the greatest cities in Cantabra...Santander "
"Gracias - I will put Santander on my list!"
"thank you as considering finding my roots,,,, in Zaragozza or Toledo. These sound very interesting. "
"A chichon is a bump on the head....not a chinchon. Growing up I was always told that Chinchon was famous for the making of aguardiente, chinchon is also a card game. I was born and raised in Toledo."
"Ah, thank you for the correction! I will adjust the article."
"My dad was in the Air Force and was stationed at a radar site in the Sierra Morena just north of the town of Constantina. When we would go down to Sevilla we would pass through Carmona. I remember visiting some Roman ruins there and sometimes stopping at a venta for drinks and tapas. My siblings and I would have a soft drink and my parents some vino tinto. The tapas were usually pinchitos, olives, gambas aljio, etc. "
"The bump in your head is a ”chichón”, without the ”n”. Nice selection of small towns. "
"Thanks for the correction, I updated the article!"
"I know and love four of these five towns. Another favorite is Guadalupe. And of course, I recognized the Galician town just by its spelling, though I haven’t visited that one. On another side topic, I can’t find anyone selling Chichon anis any more ! Perhaps you can become a distributor. Please let me know if you do ! And gracias. "
"Hola! I have never visited Guadalupe, it looks like a lovely town. I wish we could offer the Anis de Chinchón, but we are not able to distribute hard alcohol. Another reason to book a flight to Spain!"