The Andalusia region in the south of Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe. Beyond the crowd-pleasing attractions of a warm, sunny climate and more than 500 miles of coastline, the area is renowned for bountiful and diverse landscapes, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a modern, energetic vibe.
Andalusia, which is about the size of Portugal or Indiana, is made up of eight provinces, and the capital city is Seville. One of the most fascinating aspects is that the region was under Moorish rule for 700 years, between the 8th and 15th centuries, before Christian monarchs came into power. The Moors were banished, but remnants of their era remain through magnificent landmarks and architecture.
I have toured extensively throughout Europe and Spain, on personal and media trips, and Andalusia is a definite favorite. Here, in my view, are the seven best things for you to do in Spain’s Andalusia region, listed in no particular order:
1. Mosque-Cathedral Of Cordoba
The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is a unique religious monument that reflects centuries of Spanish rule and conquest. An imposing Islamic mosque, built in Cordoba in 785 A.D., it was expanded several times. It was overtaken by Christians in the early 1200s and ultimately renovated with a resplendent Catholic cathedral in the middle of the prayer hall. Both world faiths are represented in the architectural features and finishes of the immense building, which is an eclectic mix of Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and other styles of architecture. The mosque-cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Throughout the prayer hall is a forest of about 1,000 red-and-white arches poised upon stone columns. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption, the formal name of the cathedral, is crowned with an Italianate dome. The bell tower was built atop the remains of the former minaret. Mass is celebrated daily.
Interestingly, archaeological excavations of the foundation suggest a Christian church may have existed on the site even before it became a mosque.
2. El Tajo Gorge
A small city where author Ernest Hemingway spent many summers, Ronda is best known for its dramatic location divided by a very deep gorge. The geological wonder, El Tajo, or “the deep cut,” was formed eons ago by the flow of Rio Guadalevin more than 300 feet from the top.
Connecting the Moorish-era old town, La Ciudad, and the modern part of the city, El Mercadillo, is Puente Nuevo. The “new bridge,” as the translation goes, is a solid stone-arched bridge built into the sides of the gorge. The name is somewhat misleading, however; it was built in the late 18th century. Two smaller, older bridges cross the river further away from the city heart, but Puente Nuevo is the tallest and most famous landmark.
From the bridge, you’ll capture sweeping views of the verdant valley beyond. There’s also a trail to the bottom of the gorge that starts at the Plaza de Maria Auxiliadora. You can get great photographs of the entire bridge as you’re looking upward.
3. Museo Picasso Malaga
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881, so there’s not a better place for viewing his work than in his hometown. The artist, both celebrated and controversial, wanted to establish a museum in Malaga, but not while Francisco Franco was ruling the country. Sadly, Picasso died in 1973, just 2 years before the dictator did.
In 2003, Museo Picasso Malaga opened in a renovated 16th-century courtyard palace with generous support from the Picasso family. Within its collection are pieces from across the artist’s eight decades of making art in multiple genres. Many art museums hold a few Picassos, but this one immerses you in representations from his lifetime oeuvre. It’s almost mind-boggling to see in one location the romantic naturalism of The Three Graces (1925), outrageous surrealism of Bather (1971), and various rustic small animal sculptures, and to realize they came from the same hands and vision.
4. The Alhambra And Generalife
Rising above the city of Granada on a rocky hillside is the Alhambra, a well-preserved fortress and palace complex from the Islamic era. Catholic monarchs rebuilt portions and tore down others, then added the Roman-Renaissance-style palace. The site was later abandoned to disrepair, earthquake, and war. Restoration and conservation began in the early 1800s and continue today.
A few of the must-see highlights: the original outer walls, towers, and ramparts; the collection of Spanish Islamic art on display in the palace; the magnificent honeycombed dome, a pristine example of Moorish stalactite work, in the Hall of the Two Sisters; the Patio de los Leones, or “Patio of the Lions,” an open space paved in white marble and lined by columned arcades; the centerpiece of the patio, a restored marble fountain circled by 12 lion statues.
Also within the complex is Generalife, also known as the Architect’s Garden. It’s a summer estate that dates to the 14th century with three levels of terraced gardens, orchards, and pools that overlook the city. To get there from the Alhambra, follow the pathway through a peaceful gantlet of giant cypress trees. Both the Alhambra and Generalife are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
5. Paseo Maritimo
A former fishing village on the Costa del Sol, or “Sun Coast,” Torremolinos has evolved into a bustling destination for fun, sand, and food. Paseo Maritimo, also known as the Promenade, is a fashionable, palm-tree-lined walkway that runs about 4 miles through the midst of it all. It takes you past vast beaches, mid-rise hotels and apartments, sand sculptures, and lively restaurants and bars.
Insiders tell me the best beach is Playa Bajondillo, on the north end of the Promenade, whether you want to dip in the Mediterranean Sea or catch some rays. You’ll also find myriad culinary options, particularly seafood, like espetos — fish grilled beachside on a spear. We stopped for dinner at Restaurante Juan, where we enjoyed our fish traditionally baked in a salt crust.
Another highlight is at the northernmost end of the Promenade. A vehicular roundabout named Plaza del Lido is the site of an immense bronze sculpture of two joyfully prancing women. The work, Women Running on the Beach by Salvator Garcia, is a three-dimensional interpretation of a 1922 Pablo Picasso painting of the same name.
6. Plaza De España
Standing on the eastern border of Maria Luisa Park in Seville is the mammoth architectural beauty, Plaza de España. It was built as exhibition space for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World Fair to showcase Spain’s leadership in technology and industry.
The main building is semi-circular in footprint and richly ornamented with a stately colonnade, intricate mosaics and ceramics, and a wedding-cake tower at each end. In front, a gracious canal follows the curve of the facade and four arched bridges link the building to the vast plaza and fountain. Rent a small boat and cruise the canal.
7. Real Alcázar
With a history spanning more than 1,000 years, the Real Alcázar, or “Royal Alcázar,” palace complex in Seville has the distinction of still being used today. Upper-level apartments are the official residence of visiting monarchs when they are in town. That leaves plenty of magnificent architecture and tile decoration for you to gush over.
A former Moorish fortress, the site was rebuilt with a royal palace inside its walls after the Christian takeover starting in the early 1300s. It has been expanded and renovated several times since, resulting in a fusion of architectural styles. Two of the standout areas are the tranquil Courtyard of the Maidens, flanked by parades of pointed arches around a long, narrow reflecting pool; and the Hall of Ambassadors, crowned with a gilded domed ceiling of wood carved like lace.
For a touch of modern-day history, the palace was a filming location for the HBO television series, Game of Thrones, as the Water Garden of Dorne. Real Alcázar is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Take time to meander the extensive gardens, ponds and fountains, parts of which originated during Muslim times. Watch for the resident peacocks strutting their stuff.