There are many big cities in Spain that are worth a visit: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia… but what about the smaller, often overlooked towns?
After years of travel, I got tired of the tourist traps. I felt like I was seeing the same things over and over again, so I set out in search of places with quaint beauty. Because, let’s face it, Spain truly does have it all. Colorful hills, the best beaches, and never-ending valleys of beautiful flowers---not to mention a culture rich in history, with delicious local foods, distinct dialects, and friendly people.
But I’ve discovered that true beauty is not obvious, it’s hidden in the places we wouldn’t expect. Spain is no different. So I’ve listed a few of the most beautiful small towns here for your discovery:
1 . Mijas
The first thing you’ll notice in Mijas is its whiteness. This Pueblo Blanco (White Towns) is one of many that sprawl the Andalusian hills. To me, it adds to the charm! White instinctively reminds us of purity, relaxation, cleanliness, and with the bright sun reflecting off the buildings against the blue sky, it reminds me of the ocean.
I’m not sure if that was the goal, but it certainly adds to the attraction of Mijas-Costa, the 12km (7.5 mile) shore that lines Mijas-Pueblo, the town situated in the hills. While there is obvious draw to the cost, Mijas-Pueblo has history completely unique to this city. The Church of Immaculate Conception is rich with history, a must-see in the village, along with the Grotto of the Virgin de la Peña (Virgin of the Cliff).
The grotto contains a beautiful shrine to the patron saint of the village and adds legendary value to the town’s character. And, of course, the best way to get around in Mijas is by Burro-Taxi! Hop on a cart and let the burro take you to unique shops, back to the coast, or on a relaxing ride through the hillside streets.
Attractions: La Iglesia de Immaculada Concepcion (Church of Immaculate Conception), Grotto of the Virgin de la Peña, bullring, Flamenco show, beaches
Location: Mijas is a municipality in the Province of Málaga, in the community of Andalucia on the South-Eastern coast of Spain.
How to get there: Málaga has the closest airport, with about a 40 minute car ride. The closest main city is Fuengirola, which is a 10 minute car ride.
2. Santiago de Compostela
If you’re looking for history, Santiago de Compostela cannot be beat. This gorgeous urban city is the final stop on the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James), a pilgrimage millions of European Christians have completed for centuries. They come from all over Europe, and the world, to pay respects to St. James the Greatest, one Jesus Christ’s most beloved apostles.
His body lays rest at the immaculate cathedral in the heart of the city, which is well worth a visit. The cathedral is absolutely stunning. It’s pretty much impossible to take a bad picture of the city if you include the cathedral, and luckily they make it easy!
There are many viewpoints all over the city for a picturesque view. The cathedral stands alongside many other homes, buildings, and shops that are architecturally unique to the city. While it was being built, pilgrims came from all over Europe and brought their individual cultures with them, making this one of the most culturally diverse Spanish towns. Its dialect, gallego, is distinct to this region. Keep your ear open to hear its Italian tones and nods to Catalán.
Attractions: Cathedral, Cathedral Museum, San Domingos de Bonaval Park, Sarela River Walkway, Food Market
Location: Santiago de Compostela is in the northwest corner of Spain, in the region of Galicia.
How to get there: You can, of course, make to the pilgrimage on foot by using one of these routes. The closest airport is in Lavacolla, and is a 15 minute car ride. You can also get there by train, bus, or car.
3. Santillana del Mar
While you’re up north, make a stop by Santillana del Mar! A small town on the Camina de Santiago, it is widely known as one of the most beautiful towns in Spain, and I agree! One of my favorite things about this city is that it’s a standing irony. Affectionately known as “The City of Three Lies,” Santillana del Mar is not the home of a saint (san), it is not at all flat (llana), and it is not by the sea (del mar), as its name would suggest.
This tiny medieval village has a population of little over 4,000 locals, all of whom have taken great lengths to keep its history perfectly preserved. Cobblestone streets are lined with homes and shops that are centuries old, but be sure to wear your best pair of comfy shoes---only village workers and locals are allowed to have cars here, and you’ll be thankful when you see the picturesque hills on your walk down Calle de Juan Infante (Juan Infante Road).
This is also a perfect destination for children, with a zoo, prehistoric caves that offer hands-on experience, and (my personal favorite) horseback riding through the hills. There is something for everyone in this little ol’ treasure!
Attractions: Calle de Juan Infante, Caves of Altamira, Santillana Zoo
Location: North of Spain, in the Cantabria region
How to get there: The closest airport is in Santander, which is a 24.1km (15 mile) drive. More info on how to get there can be found here.
I have incredible memories of Luanco. My best friend and I stopped in this charming little town in between a few strenuous hiking journeys, and it could not have been more perfect for a few relaxing days by the sea. I am a huge seafood lover, so Luanco was also perfect for my palate! Luanco is first and foremost a fishing town that offers fresh, delicious seafood with a beautiful view.
After our dinner, we were able to watch the boats resting on the calm water with vino (wine) in hand. We learned local customs, mostly nautical, and Emma learned how to tie knots from a local fisherman! The people are so kind and welcoming here, we never wanted to leave. I have always been drawn to the ocean, so the numerous trails to spectacular viewpoints, as well as an aquarium and maritime museum, were perfect spots for me.
Luanco also has quite a few 5-star hotels (including The Plaza Hotel, which is a beautiful sight itself) both facing the ocean, and more inland. I can’t wait to go back!
Attractions: Gijón Aquarium, San Lorenzo Beach, Ferrera Park, Maritime Museum, The Plaza Hotel
Location: North Spanish shore in the Asturias region.
How to get there: The best way is by car from any of the surrounding cities (Oviedo, 33 minute car ride; Gijón, 25 minute car ride). The closest major airport is in Asturias, which is about an hour car ride.
Situated in the beautiful southern region of Andalusia, Córdoba is home to some of Spain’s oldest treasures. The “Thousand Year Old City” was once the largest city west of Constantinople, making it a natural melting pot of European cultures. It has kept its ancient charm and architecture, but has added quite a few modern amenities for more upscale travelers. My absolute favorite part of Córdoba are the romantic cobblestone streets lined with homes and flower pots.
It reminds me of the Spain we always see in movies, but so much better! Emma was with me on this trip too, and we learned from a local to peek through the keyholes along the streets to see the lush, colorful gardens, gracing the town for centuries.
A major draw to the city includes the immaculate Mosque-Cathedral, often cited as one of the most beautiful locations to visit in Spain. Hundreds of years ago, when Muslims ruled the country, the former Catholic Cathedral was halved: one half a Mosque, the other remained Catholic. It maintains its splendor to this day, and is considered one of the most impressive architectural achievements of its time.
Attractions: Mosque-Cathedral, Roman Bridge, The Alcazar (palace gardens), Calleja de las Flores (the Street of Many Flowers)
Location: Córdoba is in the southern Spanish province, in Andalusia
How to get there: This city is linked with numerous transportation routes, making travel to the town quite easy. More information can be found here.
If you’re trying to learn Spanish, be immersed in Spanish culture, or just eavesdrop on locals speaking their romantic language (no judgement here), Salamanca is the place to do it.
This city is known for its historic charm, as well as its dialect, “Castellano,” which is considered the purest form of Spanish in the world. Enjoy a wonderful night-life alongside the local students, whose University is the third oldest in the country (established in 1218). In 2002, Salamanca was honored as one of the two “European Cities of Culture” for its authentic dance, music, food, and language.
The celebration for such an honor can still be felt years later, keeping this small “college town” young, despite its years.
Attractions: Palacio Ducal (the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain), Sierra de Béjar, Plaza Major, the University in Salamanca
Location: Western Spain in the region, Castilla y León
How to get there: The closest major city is Madrid, just an hour car ride. More information can be found here.
Legends say this small town was founded by the Vikings… but is now overflowing with beautiful Spanish charm! The colorful buildings line the streets, and if you follow them, they lead right to the ocean (I guess the Vikings built their way up!).
I loved how these buildings are tiered, so I could see all of the colors from the crystal blue ocean. It’s such a great contrast unique to the village. Once a thriving fishing village, many fishing customs still hold value to the locals, which are generously shared with visiting travelers.
Cudillero is also along the Way of Saint James, but is on the coast for those who love the beach! It’s a pretty small town, but still worth a visit for its beautiful coast and historic lore.
Attractions: Faro Vidio, Fundación Selgas-Fagalde, Cabo Vidio, Playa de Silencio, also along The Way of Saint James
Location: north of Spain in the province of Asturias
How to get there: The best way to get to Cudillero is by bus from Asturias. More information here.
Travelers come from all over the world to visit this town’s ancient castle, including me! I had seen this castle in a picture and knew I had to see it in person. Alquézar the city gets its name from the Arabic word for “fort”, al qaçr, and is named for the massive castle that the city surrounds. The castle once served as a fortress for the neighboring city, Barbastro.
Luckily for Emma and me, it is also widely known for its location inside the Sierry y Cañones National Park. Remember that strenuous hike I mentioned in Luanco? Yep. This is where it happened! Outdoor enthusiasts make the trek to the park to enjoy the scenery and take in the mountain air, but also to participate in extreme sports of all kinds. There is even a competition for extreme sports that happens annually in the park!
Emma and I decided to stay somewhat low-key, camping in the forest, a few easy and a few tough journeys through the mountains for views of the many waterfalls (so worth it!). The people of Alquézar are drawn to the outdoors, and rightly so! Their village is perfect for all kinds of activities with breathtaking views from the top of their royal limestone mountain.
Attractions: Sierra y Cañones National Park, Collegiate Church of Santa Maria
Location: municipality in the province of Huesco in northeast Spain
How to get there: the best way is by bus from the neighboring city, Barbastro. Find more information here.
Nestled in the mountains of Aragon rests another romantic town in the hills. I fell in love with the buildings made of stone, wood, and plaster, all lined and decorated with shades of pink paint and flowers. At first, I was pretty intimidated by the fact that this town is fortified. There is a giant wall that wraps the entire city, as well as most of the remaining area around the city. But once inside the walls, it is so worth the view!
This is also a very outdoorsy city. Its mountains are perfect for hiking, horseback riding, and even a simple picnic. One of my favorite things to do in this city was the Cultural Park. Albarracín’s old city is actually designated as a Property of Cultural Interest in Spain, so I knew it would not disappoint! Its Cultural Park holds post-paleolithic art that is both beautiful and historic, and is also walking distance from the El Salvador Cathedral.
Built in the 16th century, it is full of historic value… and flamenco tapestries! The Cathedral holds the Diocese Museum which has the tapestries on display. Head over to the square for picturesque views of the Guadalaviar River, and the city itself.
Attractions: Plaza Mayor, El Salvador Cathedral, Albarracín Cultural Park, Alcázar Fortress, Andador Tower
Location: In the autonomous region of Aragon in the Teurel province
How to get there: Albarracín is a half-hour drive from Teurel, the best way to get there is by bus.
As if that picture isn’t enough! The Mediterranean lines this city for breathtaking views and a beautiful beach. I went here during the annual comedy film festival and never wanted to leave! There were so many opportunities for pictures, and I loved the feel of the charming town. It is also the home of one of the most popular resorts in the region, which is also beautiful, and a fortified castle where Pope Benedict XIII (also known as Papa Luna (Father of the Moon) decided to stay in seclusion before working to unify the Catholic Church.
The walls surround the historic area of the city, but right outside the walls is a very modern, residential area. The best view by far is from the lighthouse! Definitely go to the top, it’s well worth the view!
Attractions: Peñiscola Castle, Museum of the Sea, lighthouse
Location: the autonomous region of Valencia in the province, Castellón
How to get there: the closest airport is in Castellón, which is a 50 minute bus ride. More information here.
So, as you can see, Spain is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe (or maybe the world, depending on who you ask!). These cities have been highlights on my journeys and adventures, but I’m always looking for suggestions! Spain is the perfect country for exploring and discovering new towns.
The people are always willing to share their culture, introduce you to new food, help with your understanding of the language, or just provide a friendly face. Each city has its own dialect and food favorites, so you’ll never run out of cultural nuances to learn and embrace.
Before you pack your bags to head off to the towns listed above, make sure to grab your copy of this Spanish Phrasebook with audio.
Which is your favorite small town in Spain? Feel free to comment and add to our list!