Spain has such a complex and rich history and culture. Visiting the vibrant country will bring you into contact with so much, from Flamenco music and dance, to incredible cuisines and fascinating folktales. The different regions of Spain are also vastly different from one another, so you’ll come across different cultures and local traditions in every town.
With a history full of conquests and reconquests, battles, upheavals and alliances, you’ll be surrounded by monuments to a proud past wherever you go. But there are certainly some historic attractions that stand out.
We’ve put together all the top Spanish landmarks. From famous attractions to lesser-known but beautiful and historically significant monuments.
Note: Many of these attractions are currently closed due to Covid. We recommend checking before you visit over the next few months.
Famous landmarks in Spain
Some of Spain’s most popular landmarks are, of course, also the most beautiful and historically fascinating. That’s why they’re famous! So here are some of the most famous landmarks in Spain, with a bit of info on why you should visit.
Alhambra & Generalife Gardens
Opening times: Monday – Sunday; October – March, 08:30 – 18:00 | April – October, 08:30 – 20:00
Cost: Adult – €14 | Under 12 – Free | EU citizens over 65 or with youth card – €10 | People between 12 – 15 or with disabilities – €9
One of the most phenomenal monuments in Spain – and all of Europe – the Alhambra is unmissable. It towers over the city of Granada, and you can see it from almost anywhere in the area.
The Islamic monument houses six palaces, of which two remain in good condition. The name ‘Alhambra’ translates directly to ‘Red One’ – and particularly when the sun is low, its glowing redness is striking enough to deserve the name.
Built on the site of ancient Roman ruins, the first Alhambra was originally built in 889 AD. But the structure you’ll see now was constructed in the 13th and 14th century by Muhammad ben Al-Ahmar – a member of the last Muslim dynasty to rule on the Iberian peninsula.
The intricately beautiful palace became the royal palace to the Sultan of Granada. Then in 1492, after the Spanish Reconquista, the site was partially altered in the Christian Renaissance style, and became the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella. It’s also where Christopher Columbus was given royal endorsement for his famous expedition!
In later centuries, the palace fell into disrepair and was actually home to squatters. It’s almost unimaginable now, as you explore the exquisitely detailed and immense structure, that it could have been ignored for hundreds of years.
Today, the Alhambra houses an incredible museum of Hispano-Muslim artefacts spanning 600 years. We definitely recommend dedicating a full day if you can, to exploring the structure, its museums, and the beautifully curated gardens where kings and sultans once strolled.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Opening times: Basilica open daily 10:30 – 18:45 | Museum open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:00 – 14:00
Cost: Basilica – Free | Museum – €12 for adults, €10 for students & pensioners, €2 for cauldron under 12
Completed in 1188, this historical Cathedral is an incredible example of the eclectic influences on architecture at the time.
It’s really interesting to visit it as a look into how the masses were once taught through visual media. Without the ability to read, statues, relief sculptures, paintings, tapestries and stained glass were used to educate pilgrims on the Catholic edict, and their divine message.
In the famous crypt, for example, painted relief sculpture is used to depict Christ separating the damned being led to hell, and the blessed, on their way to Glory.
It’s a fantastically beautiful church both inside and out, and an opportunity to witness almost 1000 years of history. If you can, be sure to visit the museum. This showcases sculptures, paintings, tapestry and textiles from the church and the iconic Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It’s really the best opportunity to learn about Spain’s long, difficult and beautiful religious history.
Alcazar de Segovia
Opening times: April 1 to October 31, 10:00 – 20:00 | November 1 to March 31, 10:00 – 18:00
Cost: €8 for adults | $3.50 for students, seniors and children | Free for children under 5
Like a fairytale castle out of a book, the Alcazar is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Spain. It sits on a cliff overlooking Segovia, on a site that has been used for fortifications since the time of the Ancient Romans.
With a long history, the medieval castle has been a royal palace, a military academy, a state prison, and its original purpose, a fortress. It houses a museum, but you’ll want to explore beyond that, to the Hall of the Kings, the Throne Room, the Royal Chamber, and other striking rooms, which retain much of their medieval furnishings and charm.
Segovia is just over an hour’s drive from Madrid, making it the perfect day trip from the capital city. Be sure to spend some time exploring the vibrant town and trying the local delicacies.
Great Mosque of Cordoba
Opening times: November – February, Monday to Saturday, 08:30-18:00 | March – October, Monday to Saturday, 10.00 – 19:00 | Sundays and religious holidays, 8:30 – 11:30 and 15:00 – 18:00
Cost: €11 for adults | €9 for students & seniors | €6 for children between 10 – 14 years | Free for children under 10 and Cordoba locals
A unique combination of Christian Renaissance church and Islamic mosque, the Mesquita (as it is commonly known) is a must-see Spanish landmark.
With a hall of over 850 double-arched columns, and incredibly beautiful Muslim and Christian artworks spread across it, the immensely impressive structure makes Cordoba one of the most popular day trips from Madrid.
The site was originally a Roman temple, possibly dedicated to the double-faced god Janus. It was later replaced by a Christian Visigoth church. When the Moors took Andalusia in 711 AD, this church was actually divided into two halves, and used by both Christians and Muslims as a place of worship.
This uncommon religious peace was broken seventy years later, when the church was torn down and work began on the massive mosque.
After two centuries of construction, Cordoba’s mosque was the second largest in the Islamic kingdom. For a while it was also home to the bells of the above Santiago de Compostela, which had been taken and melted down into lanterns. This was, until Cordoba was recaptured by the Christains in 1238, and the lanterns were returned to the iconic church, and melted back down into bells. A little interesting back and forth!
Monastery of El Escorial
Opening times: October to March, 10:00 – 18:00 | April to September, 10:00 – 20:00
Cost: €13 for adults | €7 for students & seniors | Free for children under 5 years
Otherwise known as the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, this landmark is a historical residence of the king of Spain, and continues to serve as a basilica, monastery, pantheon, museum, library, and even university. In fact, even a hospital!
The El Escorial was built in the 16th century during a Golden Age in Spain. It was commissioned by King Pillip II to commemorate the recent victory over the French, and as a necropolis (or ‘city of the dead’) for his family line. It has since served as the final resting place for many Spanish kings.
The large structure unites Spain’ royal and religious powers, with a monastery and basilica being two of the site’s main draws. Its surrounding landscapes make it even more worth the visit, and we recommend spending the day exploring the nearby villages and local haunts. You never know what gems you’ll find!
Basilica La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Opening times: Saturdays and Sundays, 09:00 – 15:00
Cost: €18 for adults | €13 for students & seniors
A newer landmark than the others on this list is Gaudi’s famous Basilica La Sagrada Familia. Since Antoni Gaudi is an absolutely iconic figure in this beautiful city, his religious masterpiece couldn’t be excluded!
Surprisingly, this basilica is actually still incomplete. Its construction began in 1882, and was taken over a year later by Gaudi after the original architect resigned. Of course, the project was totally transformed, and Gaudi combined his uniquely quirky style with strongly Gothic and Art Nouveau forms.
Gaudi dedicated the last 43 years of his life to the basilica, and died with only about a quarter completed. This slow progress was partially due to the interruptions of the Spanish Civil War, and slow private funding.
Ten years after his death, revolutionaries broke into Gaudi’s workshop and partially destroyed his models and plans for the project, as well as setting fire to the basilica’s crypt, where he was buried. It took sixteen years to piece those fragments back together, and finally resume construction.
In 2010, the Sagrada Família finally passed its halfway mark, and was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI.
This church is one of the most unique buildings you’ll see anywhere in the world. You’ll find that, particularly in summer, it’s a very popular attraction. So we recommend this handy skip-the-line guided tour.
Museo Nacional del Prado
Opening times: Monday to Saturday, 10:00 – 20:00 | Sundays, 10:00 – 17:00
Cost: €15 for adults | €7.50 for students & seniors
This national Spanish art museum houses so many amazing Spanish artworks, some dating as far back as the 12th century. The building itself is an important landmark, having opened to the public in 1819 by King Ferdinand VII and Queen Isabel.
The building was originally designed as a science centre, commissioned by Carlos III in 1785. But construction was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, and only completed when King Ferdinand came to power. The king and queen then repurposed it to display the Royal Family’s art collection and showcase Spain’s beautiful art traditions.
Today, the striking museum exhibits many thousands of artworks and has been expanded to fit them all. You could easily spend a whole day exploring it, admiring the phenomenal artworks and learning about the inspirations and artists behind them.
Palacio Real/ Royal Palace of Madrid
Opening times: Monday to Saturday, 10:00 – 18:00 | Sundays 10:00 – 16:00
Cost: €6.50 for adults | €3.50 for students & seniors
While Spain’s royal family have moved to a far more modest home, the immense Palacio Real remains the official royal residence. It has 3,418 rooms, and is the largest royal palace in all of Europe!
Construction on the site began in 1738, after the former Alcazar burnt down in a devastating fire that lasted four days and ruined many priceless artefacts and artworks.
Tours through the Royal Palace take you through about 50 of the most ornate, art-filled and historically interesting rooms. The route is changed every few months, but always includes the Royal Armoury, which houses armour and weapons used by the kings and royals of Spain since the 13th century. As well as the Painting Gallery, with works from Caravaggio, Velázquez, and Goya, among others. And (very exciting, but that might just be me?) the Royal Kitchen, which is the oldest well-preserved royal kitchen in Europe.
The palace is still used for large royal functions, and King (then prince) Felipe and Letizia Ortiz were married here in 2004. It’s a popular attraction to visit, and includes beautifully manicured gardens you can stroll through and enjoy.
Quick tip: If your budget is tight, the palace is free Monday to Thursday for the last two hours of opening times. However, this is only for citizens and residents of the EU and Latin America. You can check other free entrance options here.
Historic landmarks off the beaten track
Want to experience Spain’s history – and the incredible architecture and artistry that comes with it – without the crowds?
Not all of Spain’s beautiful and historic attractions are well known. In fact, leave behind the major cities, and you’ll find far fewer people around. Not to mention, some of the best preserved and most interesting places in Spain.
So, what are the best of them?
Altamira Caves, Santillana del Mar
Opening times: May to October: Tuesday to Saturday, 09:30 – 20:00 | Sundays, 09:30 – 15:00
November to April: Tuesday to Saturday, 09:30 – 20:00 | Sundays, 09:30 – 15:00
Cost: €3 for general | €1.50 reduced | Free on Sundays, and to students, children and pensioners, as well as on Saturdays after 14:00
If you want to take it back to deep, deep history, this World Heritage site is perfect. It contains some of the best and most well-preserved examples of prehistoric rock art in the world, dating back roughly 14 000 years.
You could explore both the real cave and a perfect replica, where you can get a better idea of what the artworks looked like originally. With a helpful guide and English plaques, you’ll be able to learn so much about primitive life here, and the methods used in these intricate monochromatic paintings.
Be aware, not everyone who visits gets to see the original ancient cave – otherwise too much damage would inevitably occur. So call ahead and find out whether you’ll have the chance.
The Altamira Caves has an array of free options, making it perfect for budget travellers. Of course, if you can pay, that €3 goes towards maintenance and research of the caves, so we don’t want to suggest that everyone avoids the fee!
Toledo’s Old City
Opening times: None
While it’s not a single attraction, the historic center of Toledo is one of the most wonderful in Spain. It was even declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Toledo has such a long and rich history, with its known origins dating back past 193 BC, when it fell to a Roman general.
When the Romans withdrew from Spain, Toledo became an important Visigoth center, before being conquered by Moorish powers in 711 AD. The city launched several rebellions against Moorish rule over the years. That is, until it was reconquered by Christian, Castilian rulers in 1085 AD.
Toledo became the capital of Castile, and remained a political, economic and cultural powerhouse until the Spanish Court moved to Madrid centuries later, in 1560. The existence of three religions here – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – has led to a complex, eclectic culture unlike any other. As well as a beautiful mix of architectural and artistic styles.
Only about an hour away from Madrid, a visit to Toldeo’s Old City makes for a perfect day trip from the capital.
Roman ruins of Merida
Opening times: Dependant on specific attraction and time of year
Cost: Roman Theatre & Amphitheatre entrance is €12 | €6 for students, teens & seniors | Free for children under 13 years
We all know by now (unless you’ve skipped to this point) that Spain was occupied by the ancient Romans. The small, little-known city of Merida is home to the best-preserved Roman ruins in the country!
Merida was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC when Augustus conquered the north of Hispania and founded a colony here. It was modelled on Rome and became the capital of Lusitania.
Stroll through the city center, and you’ll find Puente Romano, a 2000-year-old bridge that still looks surprisingly sturdy, and is the longest remaining bridge from the period. The Roman Aqueduct is not quite as well preserved, as people used to take its stones for other projects around the city. But it remains a really impressive landmark.
You’ll also find the Amphitheatre, where gladiator combat and other forms of entertainment was hosted.
The Roman Theatre in Merida is actually still used today, making it the only Roman landmark in the world to still serve its original function!
Hanging houses of Cuenca
Opening times: None
Image courtesy of Y Anderson
The autonomous community of Cuenca is a beautiful place to visit, where you could spend the day and see no other tourists. The town itself is stunning, with charming little streets and old buildings.
But its main attraction is its ‘hanging houses’. Also known as Casas Colgadas, they cling to the cliff above the Huécar River.
These historic homes are built right on the ledge of the gorge cliff, some even hanging over that ledge. They are the few remainders, but between the 15th and 18th centuries, many houses in Cuenca were built this way. This is because Cuenca’s topography – essentially a city atop a tall hill – made it impossible for the city to spread.
Cuenca is a heritage site for a good deal more than the hanging houses, making it so worth a visit for anyone interested in the less-explored parts of Spain. Surrounded by natural beauty, it also has a medieval fortress, a still-standing fortified city wall, and Spain’s first Gothic cathedral.
Last thoughts on Spain’s historical sites
So, what do you think of Spain’s most impressive historic landmarks? Did I miss any that you were awed by, and think should be added to the list? I hope you enjoyed learning about these impressive places as much as I did!