Spain seduces explorers with its sun-soaked cities, immaculate beaches and tastebud-tingling tapas. But that’s not all. Mingled among the balcony-clad streets and green countryside vistas, lies another beautiful (and perhaps underrated) attraction: Spanish architecture.
We caught up with Alexandre ‘Alex’ Rodrigues – a Travel Director with over 10 years’ experience running Spanish tours with Trafalgar – to find out what makes it so special.
5 unmissable pieces of Spanish architecture, by Alex Rodrigues
Local expertise always wins; see Alex’s top recommendations to target on your Spanish trip.
1. Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
When you think of Spanish architecture, you think of the The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, this is the climax of the Catalan Modernism – defined by its dynamic curves, rich decoration and colourful mosaics and ceramics. But despite its grand stature, dazzling interior and intricate outer façades it actually remains an unfinished ‘work-in-progress’ (since 1883). I find this incredible because in today’s world (where time is money and most buildings are built quickly with straight lines), this wonderful church follows the original projects of Gaudí closely and his nature theme. For example: the pillars represent trees.
Today the temple has three major façades: the Nativity Façade (almost completed with Gaudí still alive), the Passion Façade (begun in 1952) and the Glory Façade (yet to be completed). It will have 18 towers when it is finished: representing 12 apostles, 4 evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ (which will be 550 feet tall). And the interior will be formed by innovative sloping arborescent columns and vaults based on hyperboloids and paraboloids seeking the optimal shape of the catenary. It is estimated that it will be able to take in its choir 1,500 singers, 700 children and five organs!
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2. The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia
The City of Arts and Sciences is an architectural, cultural and entertainment complex located in the city of Valencia, Spain. It is a wonderful example of contemporary Spanish architecture built in the old course of the river Turia, which was diverted to the outskirts of the city. Visitors are spoiled for choice here. From kayaking and pedal boating in the surrounding water to roaming the nearby Turia gardens: a long park with sports facilities and lush gardens. Admire bronze sculptures outside. Then venture inside to explore the massive opera house, 3D concave cinema and interactive science exhibits.
But before you go… make time for the l’oceanogràfic. This is the largest aquarium in Europe, full of 45,000 living creatures and species 500 different species including dolphins, belugas and sea lions. Incredible fun for the family.
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3. Alhambra in Granada
The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex located on a rocky hill in Granada, Southern Spain. Combined with the neighbouring Generalife (a beautiful garden villa) and the Albaicín district, they constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nicknamed the ‘The Red Castle’, the Alhambra truly is a sight to behold.
Its mix of Medieval Islamic and Renaissance Christian architecture speaks to its history of Muslim and Christian occupation (at different times). It fortress of enclosed palaces and courtyards housed the monarch of the Nazaries dynasty in the 13th century and the court of the Kingdom of Granada. And like many Muslim works of the time, the interiors are its outstanding attraction. Particularly the marble floors, stucco-work, colourful azulejos (tiles) and elaborate wooden ceilings. Without a doubt, this is the number one attraction to visit in Granada if you love Spanish architecture.
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4. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Located in the Basque city of Bilbao, a 15-minute walk from the centre, you cannot miss the Guggenheim Museum. One of the most visited sites in Spain and a unique icon of Spanish architecture.
It was born from a collaboration of the Basque Institutions and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to revitalize Bilbao’s urban art and culture scene. Despite doubts from experts during its construction (1992-1997) who questioned how it was possible to use complex shapes with twisting curves, it rose to the challenge and proved many people wrong – succeeding in its mission. I love that this piece of Spanish architecture challenges all logic of construction and gives us an unusual and impressive beauty on Bilbao’s renovated Nervión riverfront.
Visitors must take time to admire the outside (including the sculptures); before exploring the modern and contemporary art exhibitions inside. As well as the futuristic section and famous car exhibition.
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5. Plaza de España in Seville
Plaza de España is a square in Parque de María Luisa, Seville. A stone’s throw from the city centre, this beautiful park was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. It is a striking example of Regionalism in Architecture, which mixes elements of Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Mudéjar and Spanish architectural styles.
When you arrive, head off on a gorgeous walk anywhere around this 494,410 square foot semi-circle to gaze at botanical gardens, elegant buildings and the grand fountain in the middle. You will spot 52 painted tile frescoes that reflect Spain’s 52 unique provinces – each full of exquisite detail. There’s also a chance you’ll stumble across a flamenco show and violinists in action!
Plaza de España is must visit in Seville (in southern Spain’s Andalusian region) especially in the morning when it is still cool.
Attracted by Spanish architecture? Head to our Spain destination page to start your adventure now.