With over 75 million foreign visitors, Spain was the third most visited country in the world in 2016. It's also been ranked the most tourist-friendly country by the World Economic Forum. But let's face it, foreigners mostly flock to the same few cities: Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. Those cities are well worth a visit, but there's more to Spain than that -- 17 autonomous communities to be exact. Each one offers a unique experience and some remain relatively untouched by tourists. So if you're looking for something different on your next visit to España, explore the history, beauty, and cuisine of these lesser visited but equally enchanting destinations.
This northern region is known best for three things: “mar”(sea), “montañas”(mountains), and “manzanas”(apples). Whether you’re looking for a beach vacation, rugged adventure, or city escape, you can find it all in Asturias. As a former kingdom before Fernando and Isabella created Spain, and the heart of the nation’s reconquest, it’s also teeming with history. In fact, the friendly Asturianos, medieval architecture, and picturesque scenery often make visitors feel like they’ve stepped into a place unchanged by time. You’ll surely want to don your wooden “madreña” clogs, fill up on smoked “fabada asturiana” stew, and jump right in. With its incredible cathedrals, fine art museums, and world-class restaurants, capital Oviedo is the perfect place to start. Despite taking center stage in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and appearing as if its straight from a fairy tale, this city doesn’t actually get many tourists. You’ll feel an intimate connection despite the city’s size.
You’ll also want to devote some time to the defining physical feature of Asturias: the Picos de Europa. It may look like The Alps, but we guarantee this is Spain. Driving through the lush, pristine wilderness, you could catch a glimpse of bears, wolves, and eagles in addition to the snow-capped peaks. You’ll also see lots of cows, who you can thank for the region’s incomparable cheese like Cabrales, Gamoneu, and Los Beyos. The colorful villages of the wild Costa Verde are worth a stop too, and no where showcases traditional Asturian life better than the artisan workshops of Taramundi. The lengthy seaside promenade and enormous botanical garden in Gijón, historic center of Llanes, and natural caves in Ribadesella should also be on your list. Of course no trip would be complete without drinking lots of Asturian cider poured dramatically from a great height. Be sure you visit a “sideria” in every city, town, or village you see.
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Aragon is best known for its intricate Moorish architecture and imposing Pyrenees mountainside. It was once the seat of a powerful kingdom which encompassed much of the Mediterranean coast. You may have heard of Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and first wife of Henry VIII. Since the region’s power has declined and population dropped, few visitors make the trip. But the natural scenery, historical significance, and bustling cities of Aragon definitely warrant a visit. Capital Zaragoza on the Ebro River is full of religious landmarks and home to the 11th century Aljafería Moorish palace. Its Plaza del Pilar is the perfect place to soak up the region’s unique culture — and some local wine. Even if Aragon isn’t as famous a wine producer as Rioja or Ribera del Duero, it has several DOC-certified regions offering cariñena, garnacha, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon. If you want to visit a wine town while you’re near, try the winery- and warehouse-lined streets of Cariñena.
For more small-town wonder, head to Huesca, Aragon’s old capital which now acts as the home base for the Romanesque Loarre Castle and ski trips in the Pyrenees Mountains. The partially restored Old Quarter is dominated by an impressive Gothic cathedral and the nearby Miguel Servet Park features a wide range of sculptures and fountains. An hour farther north, Jaca also serves as a great starting point for mountain adventures. For some art history, head to Fuendetodos, where the artist FranciscoGoya was born. His 18th-century home is now open to the public so visitors can get a sense of his early life. All the exploring got you hungry? Traditional Aragonese fare includes trout, rabbit, and locally-raised lamb, but the region’s best dish is called “migas.” Unlike the tacos of Texas, Spanish migas is made from breadcrumbs, bacon, chorizo, garlic, onion, and paprika and served with grapes.
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Bordered by Castile y León to the north, Andalusia to the south, and Portugal to the west, Extremadura is the fourth-largest community in Spain, but also the least populated. It takes its name from the word “extremar,” which means “to go to extremes.” And extremes it is full of — along with ancient Roman ruins, elegant Gothic monuments, mysterious medieval towns, and dramatic landscapes. The only thing it doesn’t have is tourists. Capital Mérida is great for viewing old Roman splendor from theaters and temples to villas and burial grounds, but the real magic awaits in Badajoz and Cáceres. Badajoz with its contemporary art museums and admirable old plazas and Cáceres with its Moorish mansions, Renaissance churches, well preserved medieval walls, and lively students. The Old Town of the latter has even been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its diverse history and architecture.
Hiking and wildlife enthusiasts won’t miss a stop to Monfragüe National Park, which hosts more than 200 species of fauna ranging from boar to lynx and including a wide variety of birds. Heading through the eucalyptus scented plains, visitors should also spend time in Zafra or “little Seville,” whose fortress is full of narrow, white streets and delicious tapas bars. Guadalupe’s Royal Monastery of Santa María is another spot an Extremadura traveler shouldn’t miss. Some consider it a point of pilgrimage, since it’s home to the Black Madonna supposedly carved by St. Luke himself. The beautiful town of Trujillo, where Francisco Pizarro lived before he left to conquer the Americas, offers incredible views of the region from its towering castles and churches. Wherever you choose to see, don’t leave without a taste of the region’s simple but delicious food like cured Serrano ham and Torta del Casar sheep’s cheese.
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Galicia may not have endless sunshine or mega metropolises, but the Spanish region due north of Portugal has more than enough natural beauty and inviting people. Though the region has Celtic connections, the language currently spoken is like a marriage between Castellano and Portuguese. The perfect word to describe Galicia is “verde,” as the regular rains keep the landscapes lush. The second word that comes to mind is probably seafood as the region produces arguably Spain’s best “pulpo” (octopus), “chipirones” (baby squid), and “percebes” (goose barnacles). And local chefs know their way around more than the sea; they also make delicious “raxo” (pork loin and friend potatoes, “bombas” (giant croquettes), and “tarta de Santiago” (almond cake). True Gallegos will wash their meals down with “licor café”(coffee flavored liqueur) or wine from Ribeira Sacra.
Beyond delicious food and legendary landscapes, Galicia is known to many as the end of a world-famous pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago. The route ends in Santiago de Compostela, whose cathedral supposedly holds the remains of St. James. Its pedestrian streets and epic plazas make it one of Galicia’s best destinations, but its fame also makes it the busiest.For something just off the beaten path, Galician travelers should head northeast to A Coruña, a port city with loads of charm. In addition to the compass rose, Tower of Hercules, and renowned science museum, it’s also where Zara started and remains expectedly fashionable. Eager for more? Lugo has incredible Roman walls, Finisterre’s views of the Atlantic helped the city earn its title as the end of the world, Vigo maintains a lively fishing culture, Ourense has revitalizing thermal baths, and the northern Praia das Catedrais is full of incredible stone arches and grottos. The dune beaches and sprawling “rías”(estuaries) in between all offer worthwhile trips as well. Galicia even has its own group of idyllic islands, the Illas Cíes.
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If you’re looking for unspoiled beaches, scroll no further. Murcia, which is sandwiched between Valencia and Andalusia, has over 150 miles of golden sand and crashing waves along its Costa Cálida. And since it has a Mediterranean climate and receives more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, Murcia is a pleasant destination during every season. The hyper-saline water here is also known for therapeutic qualities so spa lovers will rejoice. The whole region has a very laid-back lifestyle, but it comes alive at night. The region’s capital, also known as Murcia, is great for a “paseo” (stroll). Commercial streets like Trapería, Platería, and la Avda offer prime window shopping while Paseo del Malecón will make you forget the hustle and bustle of the city. This city is home to some of Spain’s best tapas bars, serving inventive dishes made with local market produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables from Murcia are actually shipped all over Europe. If fish is your meal of choice, plan a stop in the fishing town of Águilas.
Once visitors gets their fill, they should head to one of Murcia’s new galleries, museums, or art spaces. They city’s grand baroque cathedral and still-used Roman theater are also on the don’t miss list. Those itching for some relaxing time in the sun will love La Manga del Mar Menor, while history-loving beachgoers may prefer Cartagena. The Roman remains, city walls, Archeological museum, and Underwater Archeological museum will keep you busy between sunbathing sessions. If aquatic adventure sounds appealing, Los Alcázares is a good spot. For incredible mountain views, travelers should head further to the Moreras range in Mazarrón. There’s also the opportunity to learn about the area’s mining history inLa Unión. The former Workers’ Lyceum, which was built in 1901, has since transformed into a museum. Visitors can ride a mining train into an old mine.
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