Five Places in Spain that Surprised Me

When you’ve criss-crossed Spain as I have – both on four wheels and on foot – you’re bound to see a number of sites, of cities, of open road. While Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada are the cities most synonymous with a ten-day itinerary through Spain, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the, um, surprises in lesser-known cities and towns we’ve hit along the way.

Some have been planned, others were by pure luck or a because of a tummy rumble, or the place where I’d planned to rest my head. If you’re planning a trip to one of Spain’s big cities, there are plenty of other stops to consider not too far away:

Don’t go to SEVILLA: go to Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)

Sitting smack dab in the sunflower fields between coastal Cádiz and Seville is Jerez de la Frontera, a city renowned for its sherry and purebred Andalusian horses. Their fair is open to the public, their pubs fun and cheap, and the city is a gateway to the pueblos blancos in the region (as well as the beach!). I love Jerez because it’s like Sevilla lite – all of the andalusian salsero without the cost or the snobbery.

read more about Jerez.

Don’t go to OVIEDO: go to Avilés (Asturias)

Choosing a place to start the Camino del Norte last year was easy: we had two weeks, so we counted back 14 stages and ended up in Avilés, the third largest town in Asturias. While we’d heard that the city was smelly, industrial and a little unwelcoming, Hayley and I explored the town on foot the night before starting the big hike and found it a beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and up-and-coming. The food choices were outstanding, the buildings colorful and there were small pocket plazas and green spaces throughout the city center. It’s a quick FEVE ride from Oviedo and worth an afternoon.

Read more about Asturias

Don’t go to CÁCERES: go to Garganta la Olla (Cáceres)

After a disappointing visit to the Yuste monastery in the backwoods of Extremadura, we steered our car down the steep, cherry-blossom covered hills to the hamlet of Garganta la Olla. Rumor had it that it was one of Spain’s most beautiful villages – and it was – but it won me over with its bountiful free tapas, its dilapidated wooden porches and its local legends. It’s a bit out of the way, but a wonderful little place to wander through.

Read more about Extremadura

Don’t go to BARCELONA: go to Girona

I ended up in Girona after booking two flights with a long layover in the RyanAir hub of the same name. I expected to find an airport with something to keep me entertained, but instead saw little more than a snack bar. Plan B: get my poor culo to Girona and walk around to kill time. The city’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the river, and its medieval alleyways and religious statues provide plenty of entertainment. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best dining! I don’t like Barcelona, but Girona is a quick escape away.

Read more about Cataluña

Don’t go to BENIDORM: go to Calpe (Alicante)

I was psyched to be invited on my first blog trip, #Calpemoción. I knew very little about the beach destination, other than that it was just north of Benidorm. From our first glimpse of the Ifach to the fresh seafood to stand-up paddle surfing, it was a beach escape worth repeating. What stood out about Calpe were the people we met, who had worked hard to be sure that tourism – while the city’s lifeblood and its most important sector – didn’t take away its charm.

Read more about Calpe

Spain is most like itself in its small towns and off-beat destinations. There are plenty of other places I’ve really enjoyed – Murcia, Cádiz, Alcalá de Henares – and others that are pure hype. Sure, Madrid has its museums and Barcelona has Gaudí, but getting out of the big cities makes trips more and candid. Thanks to a new house, I’m sticking close to home for my next few trips – Valverde del Camino, hiking in the Sierra Norte and a quick jaunt to Madrid with a visiting friend.

This post was brought to you by Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There – Top Destinations to Go There, and I’m encouraging other bloggers to take part. So let’s hear it, Jessica | Mike | Tiana | Kaley | Courtney!

What’s your favorite city or town in Spain? Why do you love it? Have you been to any of the places listed above?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. I’ve had ganas to check out Garganta la Olla ever since I read about it on your blog! Since I liked Merida and Trujillo, I am eager to explore more of Extremadura.

    One place in Spain that really surprised me was the small village of Oropesa in Castilla-La Mancha. There were medieval-themed murals everywhere, some of which were even painted by the local kiddos! (I have some pics of them here:
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    • I remember reading about Oropesa (brilliant name, as well!). There are so many places I’ve yet to visit in La Mancha – Uclés barely counts, and Toledo was so long ago!

  2. great that you mention Murcia at the end of the blog post…we exist… we are part of Spain even if the rest of Spaniards don’t care about us….in fact sometimes we are not even mentioned on the TV weather forecast…strangely the guy jumps from Valencia to Andalucia and viceversa, ignoring Murcia, haha

    i’ve been to Calpe many a time years ago along with lots of other coastal places….Calpe is beautiful, but i also recommend Altea and its lovely “casco antiguo” (old centre).

    never been to Girona, but you know what? Cataluña is a place that i don’t like at all, although it’s got beautiful places, but then there is a different thing that can ruin “las ganas” to visit it :)

    • You know I really enjoyed Murcia! Cartagena and Jumilla nearly made the post! Altea is also supposed to be great, but I was on a blog trip and we don’t have time for anything but Calpe.

      • i know that you have enjoyed Murcia, and that’s something to appreciate, but you know that a lot of bloggers fall into the Spain’s stereotypes of Madrid, Barcelona, bullfighting or flamenco, and they fail to know the real Spain in places like Murcia, etc

        by the way, i also recommend you the lovely town of Peñiscola and its majestic old will love it for the rest of your life, and beyond life, haha….sadly i visited those lots of coastal places due to work, not as a holiday maker, so i didn’t enjoy them at all.

      • I’ve pinned a few pictures – it looks lovely! Shame that the east coast is so far away from me!

  3. Good post! I was surprised to hear you say skip Sevilla, but I get your reasoning.

    As far as CyL, I’d say skip Valladolid/Salamanca and visit Avila or Leon or Zamora or Segovia. (I know you studied in Valladolid and may not feel the same.) I just like their smaller-town feel and beautiful architecture.

    Other cities I’d skip would be Barcelona and Alicante. Well, you could go to Alicante for just the beach, but skip the town.
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    • Rather than skip big cities, cut down on the number of activities you want to do and travel to a smaller town! I would also skip Valladolid (I love it, but it’s not for everyone) and choose a smaller city like Segovia, and wasn’t thrilled with Alicante’s beaches. My favorite beaches down south are Los Caños de Meca and La Antilla.

  4. Jamie Gunter says:

    We thoroughly enjoyed Calpe! It was so laid back compared to benidorm and the beaches were just as beautiful! And of course climbing Ifach was an experience in itself!!

    • I completely agree! I was on a blog trip and was pleasantly surprised but all it had to offer. The best part was that locals joined in on the events, so it wasn’t just a bunch of influencers eating and drinking for free. Made the whole thing feel more intimate.

  5. Val Duquette says:

    Girona was definitely a pleasant surprise! On the recommendation of Young Adventuress, aka Liz, I knew I had to visit Besalú on a day trip from Barcelona (which I hate too btw). Besalú is one of the most charming, medieval towns I’ve ever been. Girona was a close second, even if I only had a few hours in each. I also adore Nerja. Frigiliana and Mijas Pueblo.

    • After TBEX Girona, I had to make it to Besalú as well – it was gorgeous, and I met a whole bunch of others who weren’t originally from Cataluña. Have heard great things about Frigiliana, as well.

      • Val Duquette says:

        Frigiliana is definitely worth a visit! Very cute and charming, and great mountain views! Don’t need more than an afternoon there though. I found Girona to be a melting pot too. Found lots of generosity there as well. I met a girl on the bus back to Girona from Besalu who offered to be my tour guide in Girona until I had to catch my train. And while at the bus station in Girona, I met a really nice man from Morocco who had moved to Spain. We talked for almost two hours almost completely in Spanish (which for me, was a huge accomplishment). I have so much wanderlust for the rest of northern Spain!

      • I’ve heard wonderful things about Frigiliana. Have a friend visiting next week, and perhaps we’ll make it out there!

  6. I’ve never been to any of these cities you recommended (yet), but since you speak so highly of Avilés I’ll have to make a daytrip there when I hit up Oviedo. Girona is also high on my to-see list…it looks like one of the most beautiful provincial capitals in the country!

    In Galicia, I would recommend skipping the big cities of A Coruña and Vigo in favor of Santiago de Compostela (I’m biased, yes, I know), Lugo, or Ourense–or any of the small fishing villages along the Rías Baixas.

    In Aragón, while not nearly as large as the bustling metropolis of Zaragoza, medieval Teruel and Huesca really stole my heart when I was there last March.

    In Andalucía, I’d visit Almería over Málaga (cheaper prices, better beaches, free tapas) and stick to Úbeda and Baeza over other small villages in the Guadalquivir river valley (again, I’m am VERY biased here hahaha).
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    • I haven’t been to many other big cities in Galicia (just Coru, Santiago and Vigo), though the Lugo province won me over while I was doing the Camino. Hoping to see more or Aragon someday, as well as Castilla-La Mancha. And I’ve still not been to Almería, Jaén or anything that far east!

      Big travel plans this year?

      • Jaén eeeeek! Hope you can make it there this school year :)

        Well, I’m planning some trips to Asturias and Catalunya (so Girona and Avilés are duly noted), as well as various weekenders to Castilla y León and the usual daytrips within Galicia. My family is coming to visit me over Christmas so I don’t have any grand international escapades in the works, although I am planning a trip to China in June!
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      • China will blow your mind…in a weird, weird way!

  7. Great “alternatives”! The only one I’ve been to (so far) is Jerez. Ang and I both felt like we needed more time there after only having a few hours to eat/walk around before heading back to Seville from Arcos.

    We look forward to hitting up Jerez again, and maybe some of the others as well.
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  8. I loved Girona! We ended up staying there unplanned, as we didn’t know that was where the airport was, but it was beautiful and I loved it. Second favorite place in Spain so far, after Ronda.

  9. Great post, Cat! The small towns are typically the most memorable, I find. I was floored by the mountainous beauty of Soria and the villages in the area (Vinuesa, por ejemplo), and in my former rincón, I adored Cartegena and the surrounding, quiet calas. Besos desde Bruselas!
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    • Hello you! I haven’t made it up to Soria (save driving through and stopping in San Esteban de Gormiz, which is JAW dropping!), but Cartagena was a nice surprise for me, too. I also enjoyed Jumilla a lot!

  10. I’m very intrigued as I haven’t heard of most of these. I’ll be in Cadiz for just a quick day stopover late October and was wondering if there was somewhere interesting to go to that was closer than Seville. With your recommendation Jerez de la Frontera, I think that may be just what we need. Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Hey John, Cadiz is easily two hours by train from Seville, whereas Jerez is just under an hour. You can also check out Arcos de la Frontera, which is a beautiful hilltop town and only about 30 minutes by bus. Enjoy!

  11. Though I haven’t visited any of the places you recommend, I have heard good things about a few of them. I’d particularly like to see Girona and Jerez. Hopefully, I’ll get to see a bit more of Spain this year and in future I’ll even be able to make some recommendations.
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    • I’d love to hear other recommendations! I saw a whole load of places last year that I’d never expected to fall in love with.

  12. I haven’t yet made it to Spain yet, but I’m convinced the whole country is gorgeous and you need years to explore it properly. Great suggestions.
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    • It really is, Adelina. One thing I love about living here is just how different every province is, both in culture and in landscape. I”ve been here seven years and have plenty more to see!

  13. I say for me it was Sanlucar; many told me I would probably find it boring after a day but I found it to be quite charming and I ate myself into a coma, loving every bit of it.

  14. I love Salamanca but maybe i’m biases as i’ve studied there. I think the plaza mayor in Salamanca is the most beautiful i’ve seen in Spain and the cathedral and university buildings are must sees.Betanzos is worth the stop if you’re in Galicia and want to try the “best tortilla in Spain” and its a cute little village for an afternoon of exploring. Its kind of a big city but i think if i had to choose between the big ones i would pick Valencia. It seems somehow different from the rest of Spain and the food was all delicious for my weekend there, and of course they have that amazing futuristic architecture. It was also nice biking through the city especially through the green belt and along the coast.

    • My boyfriend is also biased after having studied there (I was nearby in Valladolid). Have also been to Betanzos for their medieval fair – gorgeous!

  15. Thanks for this great post, referred to me by Wagoners Abroad. We arrive in Spain on Tuesday for a scoping trip to see if we want to make it home and this info has really helped. Will definitely check out some of the towns you have listed.
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    • My pleasure, Emma! Spain is a wonderful place to live (also American, been in Seville for seven years), and I would push for smaller cities if you’re looking for a community. Buen viaje!

  16. Well, apart from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, of course, we’d have to say our favourite Spanish city was Seville. Of the ones you mention, we’ve been to Jerez de la Frontera. And we can see why you rate it so highly.
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  17. You Spain pro, I’ve never even heard of any of these cities apart from the obvious Barcelona.
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  18. Looks like I just found some new places in Spain to visit this year! Thanks, Cat! The closest I’ve been to any of these are Barcelona and Sevilla, and ironically, I was just talking about visiting Girona last night with someone.

    Thanks for the nomination too! I’ll be writing it up soon. Not having internet in my place has been a bit of a change…
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  19. Great to see some different selections for Spanish destinations. I’m visiting Girona next week and very much looking forward to it! Would you recommend staying there the night so that I give myself a decent amount of time to explore it? :)
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    • Spain has loads of great places. I’m hoping to make it to a few pueblos blancos this weekend with a visiting friend! Jus one day in Girona is enough to see the sites and stroll around, though if you’re into food, the city boasts some top joints. Nearby Besalú is beautiful, too!

  20. I love Girona! Didn’t realize it was “offbeat” until now.
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    • I wouldn’t say it’s terribly offbeat, but most people concentrate their time on Barcelona without remembering all of the wonderful places around the area – I’d love to get to Cadaqués and some of the coastal towns, too!

  21. i have never been to the cities that you have mentioned, but your post has diverted my attention towards Girona and Aviles.. i would love to visit these cities.. Thank you for sharing Love :)

  22. What a neat list! I have a post about how Barcelona didn’t live up to my expectations, and I wish I’d read this article before going!
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    • I remember reading that article, Lillie! Barcelona has a lot of high points, but the city felt too overwhelming to me (not to mention the prices for its big attractions!). Girona was far more likable, in my opinion.

  23. I’ve been to Barcelona and I agree, I liked it, but I’m not planning on going back. I’d love to see Girona. Great list. I was recently in a small town in upstate NY and it surprised me! I think an open mind is essential!
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