Destination Spotlight: Palaces, ports and pistes of Andalusia
As you may already know, Andalusia is a vastly varied region in terms of geography and landscapes – imagine the finest attributes of Florida, Vermont, Arizona, Montana and California, all packed into an area the size of Maine. You’ve got snow-capped mountains, rolling hills, beaches, lakes, even deserts (the only one in Europe, no less).
So when you’re planning your trip to Spain, be sure to spend at least a week in Andalusia, where you can chill out on a deserted beach, hike through sun-dappled chestnut forests, and stroll around white-cube villages perched picturesquely below Moorish castles. And you can even, if you’re here in winter or early spring, whizz down the pistes. OK, so it’s not Aspen, but where else can you swim in the sea, and then ski – downhill, cross-country or freestyle – on the same day?
Note that each province’s capital city bears the same name –for example Seville city (known as “Sevilla capital”) is the main conurbation of its province, and so on.
Huelva province – beaches, hills, marshland, and ham
Columbus set off from the port of Palos de la Frontera on his voyage to the New World in 1492 – you can visit the historic monastery where Señor Colon stayed while planning his great adventure. Fans of jamón iberíco, made from pure-bred acorn-fed pigs, can meet the beasts in their natural habitat of oak-covered meadows, and then see how the sweet, nutty ham is made. Tiny, ancient villages with steep cobbled streets in the Sierra de Aracena take you back in time to the era of communal outdoor laundry areas and stone wheat-threshing circles, while Huelva’s pristine beaches are a well-kept 21st-century secret – at El Rompido, you can take a boat over to a long, narrow, uninhabited island with golden sand and turquoise waters. The wild-west town of El Rocío, next to birdwatcher’s heaven Doñana park, has sandy streets and posts outside the bars to tie up your horse.
Seville province – Roman ruins, baroque architecture, traditional pastries
Venture beyond the eponymous city (best time to visit: spring and autumn) and you’ll find stunning baroque cities such as Osuna (where, like in Sevilla capital, Game of Thrones was filmed) and Ecija. Explore the Roman ruins of Itálica (host to the GoT’s last-ever scene) and Carmona, where a vast Moorish fortress is one of the most impressive paradors (state-run hotels). In Estepa, almond and honey cookies are a centuries-old specialty, as well as superb olive oil. For aniseed liqueur and good wines, head to the Sierra Norte, while Morón and Utrera are the cradle of true cante jondo flamenco.
Cadiz province – kite-surfing, white villages, seafood and sherry
The crazy, fancy-dress spectacle of Cádiz carnival, with its satirical singing groups and flocks of priest-frocked and diapered revelers, is not for the faint-hearted; the rest of the year, it’s a charming seaside city which was chosen as one of New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2019 (must try: tortilla de camarones, or shrimp fritters). A short hop away is Jerez, home to sherry, fortified wine made in vast “wine cathedrals” (foodies: bag a table at nearby three-Michelin-star pescatarian‘s delight Aponiente), while Bolonia is a laid-back beach town with a massive sand dune, and Tarifa is the draw for kite-surfing dudes – and jumping-off point for Morocco, a one-hour boat trip across the Straits of Gibraltar. White towns like Arcos, Vejer and Medina Sidonia still feel like African settlements, while Grazalema has superb hiking high above emerald-green lakes.
Cordoba – Moorish architecture, wine
Smaller than Seville, but just as charming, Cordoba city has the religious-architectural curiosity of a cathedral inside a mosque – La Mezquita. Over 800 columns of marble and jasper were designed to transport you to a forest; other delights here include flower-bedecked patios and paradisical gardens with fountains and pools at the Alcazar palace. Outside the capital, Medina Azahara is a ruined hillside city built by Moorish Caliph Abderraman III as the magnificent heart of his kingdom, originally boasting golden fountains and exquisite carvings – it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018. Moving to other worldly pleasures, Montilla-Moriles is a yet-to-be-discovered area which produces unusual fortified wines (golden, nutty amontillado sherry originated here).
This video has an excellent CGI recreation of Madinat Al-Zahra
Granada – hilltop palace, unspoiled mountains, winter and water sports
Of course, no one should visit Andalusia without seeing the wondrous Alhambra, the Nasrid palace whose rich interiors are bedecked with jewel-colored ceramic tiles and intricate painted stucco; pools whose reflections are a work of art, and the rest of this magical city with a strong Moorish-Jewish heritage. Discover the literary legacy of Spain’s most-lamented poet, Federico Garcia Lorca; drive up to the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s most southerly ski resort; snake around terraced slopes of the Alpujarra mountains whose villages bear exotic names – Capileira and Pampaneira; and wonderful beaches on the “Costa Tropical” with marine adventures galore, from scuba-diving to sailing.
Málaga – museums, beach resorts, shopping
The family-friendly resorts, golden sandy beaches and warm, gentle waters of Malaga’s Costa del Sol are famous throughout the world, as are the glitzy clubs, designer boutiques and super-yachts of Marbella, Puerto Banús and Sotogrande. The city of Malaga itself is a cultural hub, with countless museums and chiringuitos (beach restaurants) – try the espeto (barbequed sardines). When you leave the coast behind and go inland, it gets more low-key: rural vineyards on slopes (stop for a tasting), raisins drying in the sun, and avocado fields in the rugged Axarquia hills. Lake Viñuela is a storybook sight, cerulean waters backed by tree-covered peaks and azure sky, and nearby Vélez Málaga is one of those perfect small-scale, manageable towns with a lively cultural scene and stunning architecture. The pretty coves near Nerja present an alternative type of coast.
See also: Best beaches in Andalusia
Almería – virgin beaches, mini Hollywood, desert
The most south-easterly point of Spain, Almeria feels cut off from the rest of Andalucia, and closer to Africa. The capital has a magnificent Alcazaba (fortress) which perches proudly above the city looking out to sea. While a desert may not be the most obvious choice of holiday destination, Tabernas featured in Game of Thrones (remember those Dothraki horses thundering across the valley?), and has two quirky Hollywood film sets, complete saloon bars and shoot-outs. with Beach bunnies will love Cabo de Gata’s remote beaches – no mod cons (toilets, showers or chiringuitos), and sometimes a walk away from the car park.
Jaen – olives, Renaissance architecture, national parks
This province is all about one thing: olives. It produces more olive oil annually than the whole of Italy. Jinense producers – Castillo de Canena, Oro Bailen, Oro del Desierto – regularly sweep all the international EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) prizes. Popular olive types include picual, arbequina and hojiblanca – at cutting-edge Terra Oleum museum in Mengibar, you can learn more about this so-called “liquid gold”, and do a tasting. Two Renaissance gems, Ubeda and its smaller neighbor Baeza, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, boast impressive buildings; a highlight is the Palacio de Jabalquinto in Baeza. For nature-lovers, Cazorla Park is a haven of wildlife.
Spain Savvy travel programs: the Best of Andalucia
This is a guest post written exclusively for Spain Savvy by travel journalist and photographer Fiona Flores Watson.