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Spain off the beaten path: 20 hidden gems in Spain to discover

Updated: 11th January 2022

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The addictive echo of feet stamping to a flamenco rhythm, those first rays of daylight breaking over jagged peaks, bar counters drowning in Pintxos, waves gently lapping against tranquil islands, and a plethora of architectural styles from centuries gone by – welcome to Spain, a nation full of world-famous monuments and countless hidden gems. 

Here, the culture and landscapes are as delicious and varied as the dishes served across the country’s seventeen regions. While most travellers make a beeline to Barcelona, pack their party outfits for Ibizia, or settle in for some flamenco in Seville, there is a seemingly never-ending list of magical destinations to explore when you scratch below the surface. 

One of the greatest pleasures about living in Portugal has been popping over the border to discover more of my Iberian neighbour. While for many Spaniards this list of Spanish hidden gems might seem rather obvious, for my fellow friends in the UK & USA, I hope you’ll find somewhere a little more off the beaten path in Europe from some of my favourite Spanish destinations I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the last few years. 

The Roman aqueduct of Segovia
The Roman aqueduct of Segovia

Plasencia, for the grand Cathedral and natural wonders 

Plasencia will always hold a special piece of my heart. I have very fond memories of this small historic walled city in the lesser-visited Extremadura region. Whether it was strolling along the Jerte river before lunch on La Isla or wandering through the Parque de los Pinos surrounded by curious peacocks, it’s a place that firmly put a smile on my face. It might not have millions of attractions, but it will undoubtedly feel like a place you could stop, recharge, and enjoy for a while.

Compact and easy to explore on foot, Plasencia boasts some fantastic architectural attractions from its rich Roman and Arabic history. With a unique design from the 13th-century, the Old Cathedral is attached to the New Cathedral, where Gothic and Romanesque styles blend, just moments from the Episcopal Palace, a delight of Renaissance design. The Parador de Turismo, an old convent turned hotel, is a gorgeous building (the wooden decorated ceilings especially), and non-guests can visit to enjoy a drink in the courtyard. 

Your tastebuds will also be rewarded when you venture to Extremadura. Whether you are sipping the local Cherry beer, digging into the finest Jamon Iberico, or devouring the creamy Torta del Casar cheese coated in the local smoked paprika. Likewise, Plasencia is a great base to explore the surrounding wilderness of the Monfragüe National Park, a biosphere reserve of tranquil nature. 

Picos De Europa, for epic hikes

For me, Picos de Europa should be up there with the Dolomites when it comes to epic mountains and hiking locations in Europe.

Spanning across three different regions (Asturias, Cantabria and León) in the north of Spain, this natural playground is perfect for both epic multi-day hikes, Caminos, or simply village hoping to admire the views by car. While Torre de Cerrado, the highest peak of the range, only reaches the elevation of 2650 metres, even experienced mountain hikers can’t deny the beauty of this protected park. 

Pick a hike, breath in the fresh air, and soak up a completely different side of Spain. There are plenty of dreamy villages, with stone houses and epic vistas, such as Cosgaya, to make a day-hike base, while camping parks and Camino routes make for a great multi-day trip. 

The mountains of Picos de Europa at sunset with an old stone house in the foreground
The mountains of Picos de Europa

The Hidden Gems of the Balearics

While the nightclubs of Ibiza, or Magaluf, might be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the Balearic islands, between the four main islands, and many smaller ones, there are plenty of Spanish hidden gems to be found.

Ibiza, for example, long known for its hedonistic nightlife, is enjoying a moment in the spotlight. As islanders try to reimagine the destination as a year-round luxury offering, the island’s more untouched and nature-filled side is becoming more popular. High-end dining options and serene Ibiza villas are luring in a different type of traveller to the island more and more often. Whether you head to the quieter beach resorts of Santa Eulalia and Portinatx or to the peaceful interior, you’ll find a side of Ibiza a far cry from late-night parties. 

Likewise, even on the ever-popular island of Mallorca, there are pockets of calm to be found, whether it’s hiking in the Tramuntana mountains or taking a city-break in the capital of Palma, where refined cocktail bars and creative culinary restaurants off a totally different side of island life to the Magaluf strip. 

Murcia, for a magical wine route

One of my favourite lesser-visited parts of Spain, both the region of Murcia and the capital city of the same name don’t draw in too many foreign visitors, which more than adds to their charm. 

The Murcia wine route, which takes in the towns of Bullas, Jumilla, and Yecla, will see you enjoying the scrumptious local grape Monastrell. A mix of modern and funky, through to traditional and heritage vineyards and tasting rooms, awaits. Great tasting menus paired with wine are as low as €40, making this a relatively affordable wine region to sample. 

Combine this with the unique accommodations options at affordable prices, such as staying in castles, vineyards, or even windmills in orchards, and you have a region of Spain that deserves far more attention. 

Cuenca Spain
The sun sets on Cuenca

Cuenca, full of charming historical streets 

This seriously underrated hidden gem in Spain was my final trip of 2018, and what a place it was to discover. While most online discussion around this medieval city is on the Casa Colgados, the hanging houses which seem to dangle off the side of the rock, the whole old city is magical and deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status.

Perched upon a rock and with a history that can be traced back around 1300-years, the colourful houses, castle ruins, and Cathedral packed with architecture spanning various time periods come together to provide another world like feel. Stepping into Cuenca is like stepping back in time. The surrounding nature of the karst mountains, coupled with the crystal blue river, provides an incredible adventure playground alongside your city break.

Salamanca as seen from the river at blue hour
Salamanca as seen from the river

Salamanca, a dreamy University city 

Home to one of the oldest universities globally, Salamanca is a place that just feels good. The red calligraphy that decorates the buildings, the sandstone coloured architecture that rises from the narrow streets, the greenery and parks along the river – it’s somewhere I am desperate to go back to, as my weekend visit just didn’t seem long enough.

The most famous sights, like the Grand Plaza Mayor, which truly comes alive after dark, and the two cathedrals, will have you taking far too many photos. The Casa de las Conchas, uniquely decorated with shell shapes, and the numerous churches around the city all add to the grandeur.

One of my favourite places in the city is the Art Nouveau museum, Casa Lis, which houses an exciting array of Art Deco work. Still, the main draw is undoubtedly the magical stained glass windows and ceiling, which are sublime. 

San Sebastián’s underground food scene

While San Sebastián is certainly a famous destination already, thanks to its prime position on the Basque coast, and wonderful mix of city and beach, it wasn’t until I took a 10-day food tour through Spain that I learned about the gastronomic world lying hidden in the basements of these streets.

There are, in fact, around 150 Gastronomic societies (txoko in Basque) in San Sebastian. Due to the small houses and apartments in the city, these communal member-only cooking spaces flourished as a perfect place to host large family get togethers over a delicious feast. You could say gastronomy runs in the blood of the residents of San Sebastián, and these spaces are testament to that. Each member has their own key and 24/7 access. Different families will often be cooking simultaneously, sharing recipes and dishes over laughter. 

While you need to be invited by a member to enter one of these societies, some tour options, like I did, will get you privileged access to enjoy a home-cooked feast in these spaces. 

The Alcazar of Segovia on a cloudy day perches on a hill
The Alcazar of Segovia

Segovia, for an architectural feast 

An easy day trip from Madrid, although you may want to spend longer in Segovia, one of my most recent lesser-visited Spanish destinations. 

A visit to Segovia will reward you with a whole host of architectural gems, so be sure to pack the camera. The almost Disney-like Alcázar de Segovia, dating from the 12th-century, has been lovingly restored and used over the years as a fortress, castle and even a prison. Now, inside, you’ll find an interesting museum. However, for the best view, scramble up the hill across the other side of the road to the Mirador del Alcázar.

Other notable sights are the vast and impressive Roman aqueduct, the Cathedral, which towers above the rest of the city. The perfectly presented Royal Palace of La Granja of San Ildefonso sits just outside the city proper. 

The coastline of Tossa de Mar
The coastline of Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar, for a beach escape 

The Costa Brava has long been a popular destination for visitors seeking sunshine, fun and a cold beer – so including somewhere from this stretch of coast on a list of Spain, hidden gems is a bit of a stretch. 

However, I adored this place, and thanks to the medieval fortress of Vila Vella, which rises above the sandy bays on either side, it has something a little more special to it than the modern high-rises beach resorts that we often associate with the southern Spain coast. 

Logroño, for a Pinchos bar crawl 

The capital of the Rioja wine region, the atmosphere of Logroño is sure to captivate you under its charm – especially after your first pincho crawl.

These bite-sized skewers of food, often served on top of bread, are delicious mixes of meat, cheese, seafood and local flavours – all perfectly washed back with a glass of vino tinto. Head to Calle Laurel, pick a starting point and hop from one hole in the wall spot to another like your typical bar crawl. 

Dishes are either passed through the window or enjoyed at cute little bars oozing with character – the only difference being the focus is on the food and atmosphere as much as the drinking. You’ll be in outstanding company, as this is a favourite past-time of the locals too – for the best bite in each place, simply ask what the signature dish is, as each establishment will have its own famed option.

Beyond stuffing your face, the Rioja Museum, ancient church and impressive Cathedral will fill your time between the lunch and evening Pincho crawls!

Potes, for a medieval mountain escape

One of Cantabria’s most dreamy villages, Potes invites you to slow down and step back in time. Set against a backdrop of verdant mountains, with the soundtrack of the river running through, you get a real mix of nature and civilisation.

Be sure to hit up the market in the square, where stallholders will shower you in samplings of local cheeses and cured meats, perfect for crafting a picnic in the nearby mountains. Then, stroll through the ancient streets marvelling at how some of the old wooden framed houses are still standing.

Cartagena, a coastal city of history 

This hidden gem in Spain, situated on the coast of the Murcia Region, was somewhere I had zero expectations of before I visited – and it’s fair to say I was pleasantly surprised. Founded by the Carthaginians some 2200 years ago, history is stacked upon history here. 

The Roman Amphitheatre, now bizarrely sandwiched in between graffiti stained walls and tapas restaurants, is, of course, the star of the city. However, the vast collection of museums and Roman ruins that can be visited, fantastic gastronomy and wine scene, and the almost criminally low prices when compared to, say, Barcelona, make this a city I just feel into the rhythm of.

Make time to visit the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology, where you can admire shipwrecked artefacts. Step inside the now roofless ruins of the Old Cathedral of Cartagena, and explore any of the countless historical museums and sights dotted around the city. 

The ancient city of Caceres
The ancient city of Caceres

Caceres, the Moorish walled city of towers 

Ringed by Moorish walls, the medieval city of Caceres, capital of the region with the same name, is postcard-perfect from every angle. Extremadura is such an underrated Spanish province, and I’m sure, like me, once you discover it, you’ll want to keep unearthing all its treasures.

Luckily, the relatively compact old town is straightforward to explore on foot; however, on arrival to the modern and slightly busy new town, you might be wondering if you have even arrived in the right place. Once surrounded by the historic buildings and narrow streets, though, you’ll instantly forget the modern world outside and understand why it has been declared a World Heritage City.

You are spoilt with an array of architectural styles inside the old town. Roman, Moorish, Gothic blend together, from the famous towers dating back to the Islamic periods to the Roman artefacts on display and magnificent Cathedral. With barely any residents in the old town itself, a solitary walk at sunrise or late at night will have you feeling like you are the royalty of this historic land. 

Valencia, and her Silk Road history 

It’s fair to say that Valencia isn’t really a hidden gem of Spain, but on my last visit to this modern city, especially having just returned from the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, I was surprised to learn about the Silk Road history right here in Valencia.

La Lonja de la Seda, the silk exchange of Valencia, is a fascinating and intricately designed building, so much so it has been listed with UNESCO status. Here, you can learn about the history of silk trading and later production in the third-largest city in Spain.

A fantastic stand-alone city break, you are spoilt for choice in Valencia come rain or shine. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, just outside the centre, hosts various museums and a cinema focused on the arts and science. The 13th-century Cathedral is fascinating in the old town thanks to the vast array of historical architectural styles, which gives it a unique look. Round all that sightseeing off with a mouth-watering paella, for it is here in Valencia that the dish was conceived. 

Cabrales, and the hidden cheese caves

When you think of going off the beaten path in Spain, do you imagine yourself in a damp cave eating a rather intense cheese? Well, in Cabrales, set amongst the mountains of the Asturias region, that is precisely what awaits.

Head towards Las Arenas, and here you’ll find the Cueva del Queso de Cabrales museum. You’ll be walked through the production method and taken inside the caves for a tasting of this award-winning blue cheese, still produced by rural farmers until this day. Not only is the setting a nature-lovers dream, here it is all about slow travel, regional produce, and great hiking trails and is best included as part of a trip to the Picos de Europa mountain range. 

Laguardia, one of Spain’s most beautiful villages 

While beautiful Laguardia might be somewhat of a hidden gem to most British visitors, the regions wine, Rioja, is certainly one many of us know – but that is far from the only reason to visit.

This walled town, albeit with slightly less intact walls since the last war, really is one of those fairytale destinations. The five imposing entrance gates will bring you into a maze of tiny streets, now home to only a few thousand people. Due to the nearly 250 tunnels underneath these streets, vehicles are essentially banned to stop them from collapsing.

Of course, you wouldn’t be doing Laguardia justice if you didn’t indulge in a bit of wine tasting. To do this, you’ll get the chance to see some of those underground tunnels up close, where wine is still produced and stored. Head into Bodega El Fabulista to learn about the traditional methods and for a tasting of their fabulous wines. Then, enjoy a fantastic lunch set amongst a vineyard just out of the walls, at Villa Lucía Espacio Gastronómico.

An adorable square with nice flowers in Laguardia
Laguardia, on the border of the Basque Country

A Coruna, for a seafood degustation 

While most travellers to Galicia find themselves marvelling at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, head to the region’s second city of A Coruna for the hidden gems of the Spanish coast. 

Famed for the daily fresh catch and passion for Seafood, your taste buds are guaranteed a treat in A Coruna. The Galician culture and language are on full show here too, and one of the greatest joys for me about travelling through Spain is learning the differences between the regions. Did you know, for example, the traditional instrument of here and northern Portugal is the gaita, a type of bagpipe?

In the city itself, admire the impressive Plaza de María Pita or dip into the fascinating Domus Museum, focused on the human body. Later, head out to the coast for rugged, windswept trails and the oldest lighthouse known, the Tower of Hercules.

Girona along the river
Girona along the river

Girona, Catalonia’s second city 

Sadly, Girona became one of those budget airline airports as a gateway to Barcelona for many Brits, who rarely visited. But, in part thanks to Game of Thrones, the city is starting to become a popular weekend break of its own, and it’s easy to see why.

Distinctively Catalan, the second city of the Autonomous Region, sprawls out from the old town, where colourful houses and bridges cross the Güell River. Allow yourself to get lost in the labyrinth of streets in the Jewish Quarter, one of the best-preserved in Europe. Indulge your Game of Thrones superfan status at the Arab Baths or the stairs of Girona Cathedral, and be sure to walk the city walls for some of the best views on offer. 

Merida, to step back to Roman times 

Extremadura is perhaps one of the most off the beaten path Spain destinations for Brits, and Merida, the region’s capital, is a genuine Roman gem.

Here you’ll find some of the best-preserved Roman sights in the whole country and even the world. It’s well worth investing in the multi-attraction ticket so you can explore them all, and at least allow yourself an overnight stay, so you have two days to visit everything on offer.

The amphitheatre still stands proud in excellent condition, and while you can tour it in the day if you have a chance to see a concert here during your visit, you simply must take it – especially in July and August when the Classical Theatre Festival takes place. 

The nearby National Museum of Roman Art hosts a vast collection of mosaics and artefacts. At the same time, aqueducts, the impressive Temple of Diana, and various other architectural gems around the city will transport you back in time. 

The impressive amphitheatre of Merida
The impressive amphitheatre of Merida

Oviedo, for cider and museums

Oviedo, the capital of the Asturias region, is also known as the capital of cider, or sidra in Spanish. This region is famous for its apple orchards. Although much of the production takes place outside of the city (well worth taking a trip out to one of the traditional pressing houses), you’ll find plenty of Chigre (cider houses in Asturias or Sidrerias in the rest of Spain) around the city to enjoy this delicious tipple.

Uncarbonated, the taste is different from your mainstream ciders. The serve – expertly poured by an escanciador – is delivered from up high, so once it hits the glass, air bubbles have made it into the drink, ready for immediate consumption.

Beyond the famous apple brew, the city is a delightful place to spend a couple of days soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the medieval old town or as a base to explore the local countryside. The free Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias is well worth a visit to admire, both for the collections and the buildings it occupies.

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