Three times the size of Illinois, with a population of approximately 40 million, Spain faces the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east. Portugal borders it on the west, and the Pyrenees separate Spain from France and the rest of Europe. The southern coastline is only a few nautical miles from the north coast of Africa. It's difficult to generalize about Spain because it is composed of so many regions -- 50 provinces in all -- each with its own geography, history, and culture. The country's topography divides it into many regions: the Cantabrian Mountains in the north, Cuenca's mountains in the east, and the Sierra Morena in the south, which mark a high central tableland that is itself cut by hills.
Madrid & Environs -- Set on a high, arid plateau near the geographic center of Iberia, Madrid was created by royal decree in the 1600s, long after the much older kingdoms of León, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia, and long after the final Moor was ousted by Catholic armies. Since its birth, all roads within Spain have radiated outward from its precincts, and as the country's most important airline and railway hub, it's likely to be your point of arrival (although many international flights and European trains now arrive in Barcelona as well).
Despite the city's increasingly unpleasant urban sprawl, paralyzing traffic jams, and skyrocketing prices, Madrid remains one of Europe's great cities. Take in the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and perhaps the Royal Palace. Walk through historic neighborhoods around the Plaza Mayor (but beware of muggers). Devote time to one of the city's great pastimes, a round of tapas tasting. Plan on at least 2 days to explore the city and another 3 for trips to the attractions beyond the capital. Perhaps as important as a visit to Madrid is a day trip to the imperial city of Toledo, which brims with monuments and paintings by El Greco and is home to one of Spain's greatest cathedrals. Other worthy excursions include the Roman aqueduct at Segovia, such monuments as El Escorial, and the "hanging village" of Cuenca (site of a world-class museum of modern art).
Old Castile & León -- The proud kingdoms of Castile and León in north-central Iberia are part of the core from which modern Spain developed. Some of their greatest cathedrals and monuments were erected when each was staunchly independent. But León's annexation by Queen Isabella of Castile in 1474 (5 years after her politically advantageous but unhappy marriage to Ferdinand of Aragón) irrevocably linked the two regions.
Even Spaniards are sometimes confused about the terms Old Castile and New Castile, a modern linguistic and governmental concept that includes a territory much larger than the medieval entity known by Isabella and her subjects. Although it's easy to take a train to and from Madrid, we don't recommend that you try to see the regions' highlights as day trips from Madrid; it's better to treat them as overnight destinations in their own right.
Highlights include Burgos (the ancient cradle of Castile), Salamanca (a medieval Castilian university town), and León (capital on the northern plains of the district bearing its name, and site of one of the most unusual cathedrals in Iberia). If time remains, consider an overnight stay at the extraordinary parador (a government-owned inn) in Ciudad Rodrigo, as well as trips to Zamora, known for its stunning Romanesque churches, and Valladolid.
Extremadura -- Far from the mainstream of urbanized Spain, fascinating Extremadura lives in a time warp where hints of the Middle Ages and ancient Rome crop up unexpectedly beside sun-baked highways. Many of the conquistadors who pillaged native civilizations in the New World came from this hard, granite land.
Be prepared for hot, arid landscapes and smoking diesel trucks carrying heavy loads through this corridor between Madrid and Lisbon. You can see a lot in about 2 days, stopping off at such sites as Guadalupe, whose Mudéjar monastery revolves around the medieval cult of the Dark (or Black) Virgin; and Trujillo, where many of the monuments were built with gold sent home by native sons like Pizarro, Peru's conqueror. Cáceres is a beautiful, fortified city with one foot planted firmly in the Middle Ages, while Zafra displays greater evidence of the Moorish occupation than anywhere in Spain outside Andalusia.
Andalusia -- In A.D. 711 Muslim armies swept into Iberia from strongholds in what is now Morocco. Since then, Spain's southernmost district has been enmeshed in the mores, art, and architecture of the Muslim world.
During the 900s, Andalucía (as it is called in Spanish) blossomed into a sophisticated society -- advanced in philosophy, mathematics, and trading -- that far surpassed a feudal Europe still trapped in the Dark Ages. Moorish domination ended completely in 1492, when Granada was captured by the armies of Isabella and Ferdinand, but even today the region offers echoes of this Muslim occupation. Andalusia is a dry district that isn't highly prosperous, despite such economically rejuvenating events as Seville's Expo.
The major cities of Andalusia deserve at least a week of exploration, with overnights in Seville (hometown of Carmen, Don Giovanni, and the barber); Córdoba, site of the Mezquita, one of history's most versatile religious edifices; and Cádiz, the seaport where thousands of ships embarked on their colonization of the New World. Perhaps greatest of all is Granada, a town of such impressive artistry that it inspired many of the works by the 20th-century Romantic poet Federico García Lorca.
The Costa del Sol -- The Costa del Sol sprawls across the southernmost edge of Spain between Algeciras to the west -- a few miles from the rocky heights of British-controlled Gibraltar -- and Almería to the east. Think traffic jams, suntan oil, sun-bleached high-rises, and near-naked flesh. The beaches here are some of the best in Europe, but this can also be an overly crowded, crime-filled region.
Unless you travel by car or rail from Madrid, chances are you'll arrive by plane via Málaga, the district's most historic city. The coast's largest resort town is distinctive, Renaissance-era Marbella, the centerpiece of 28km (17 miles) of beaches. Today it's a chic hangout for the tanned and wealthy. Nerja is just one of the booming resorts that has kept its out-of-the-way, fishing-village feel. The most overcrowded and action-packed resort is Torremolinos. One modern development that has managed to remain distinctive is Puerto Banús, a neo-Moorish village curving around a sheltered marina where the wintering rich dock their yachts.
Valencia & the Costa Blanca -- Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain, is rarely visited by foreign tourists because of the heavy industry that surrounds its inner core. More alluring are such resorts as Alicante and Benidorm or the medieval town of Elche (where some of the world's most famous ancient Roman statues were discovered). Unless you opt to skip Valencia completely, plan to see the city's cathedral, the exterior of its Palacio de la Generalidad, and as many of its three important museums as you can fit into a 1-day trip. For the Costa Blanca, allow as much or as little time as you want to spend on the beach.
Barcelona & Catalonia -- Barcelona's history is older than that of its rival, Madrid, and its streets are filled with Gothic and medieval buildings that Spain's relatively newer capital lacks. During the 1200s it rivaled the trading prowess of such cities as Genoa and Pisa, and it became the Spanish city that most resembled other great cities of Europe. Allow yourself at least 3 days to explore the city, with stops at the Picasso Museum, the Joan Miró Foundation, the Gothic Quarter, and a crowning triumph of early modernista (or modernisme) architecture, the Eixample District, where you'll find many of Antoni Gaudí's signature works. Make time for a stroll along Les Rambles, one of the most delightful outdoor promenades in Spain.
Don't overlook Catalonia's other attractions, all within easy reach of Barcelona. A short drive to the south is Sitges, a stylish beach resort that caters to a diverse clientele ranging from freewheeling nudists and gay party crowds to fun-seeking families. Other destinations are Tarragona, one of ancient Rome's district capitals; and Montserrat, the "Serrated Mountain," site of one of Europe's best-preserved medieval monasteries.
The Costa Brava -- This is Spain's other Riviera, a region with a deep sense of medieval history and a topography that's rockier and more interesting than that of the Costa del Sol. The "Wild Coast" stretches from the resort of Blanes, just north of Barcelona, along 153km (95 miles) of dangerously winding cliff-top roads that bypass peninsulas and sheltered coves on their way to the French border. Despite hordes of Spanish and northern European midsummer visitors, the Costa Brava resorts still manage to feel less congested and less spoiled than those along the Costa del Sol.
Sun worshipers usually head for the twin beachfront resorts of Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar. Travelers interested in the history of 20th-century painting go to Figueres; Salvador Dalí was born here in 1904, and a controversial and bizarre museum of his design is devoted exclusively to his surrealist works.
Aragón -- Except for Aragón's association with Ferdinand, the unsavory, often unethical husband of Queen Isabella, few foreign visitors ever thought much about this northeastern quadrant of Iberia. A land of noteworthy Mudéjar architecture and high altitudes that guarantee cool midsummer temperatures, it's also one of the foremost bull-breeding regions of Spain.
Aragón is best visited as a stopover between Barcelona and Madrid. Stay overnight in Zaragoza, the district capital, and take a series of day trips to Tarazona ("the Toledo of Aragón"), Calatayud, and Daroca, all important Moorish and Roman military outposts. Visit Nuévalos/Piedra, the site of an extraordinary riverside hotel built in 1194 as a Cistercian monastery. Also worth a trip is Sos del Rey Católico, the rocky, relatively unspoiled village where Ferdinand was born.
Navarre & La Rioja -- This strategic province, one of the four original Christian kingdoms in Iberia, shares a border, and numerous historical references, with France. One of France's Renaissance kings, Henri IV "de Navarre," was linked to the province's royal family. Many Navarre customs, and some of its local dialect, reflect the influence of its passionately politicized neighbors, the Basques. Celtic pagans, Romans, Christians, and Arabs have all left architectural reminders of their presence. The province contains nine points where traffic is funneled into and out of Spain, so if you're driving or riding the train, say, from Paris to Madrid, chances are you'll get a fast overview of Navarre. The province's best-known destination is Pamplona, the district capital and annual host of the bull-running Fiesta de San Fermín.
One small corner of Navarre is composed of La Rioja, the smallest autonomía (semi-autonomous province) of Spain. Irrigated by the Ebro River, it produces some of the country's finest wines. If wine tasting appeals to you, head for the town of Haro and drop by several bodegas to sample local vintages.
The Basque Country -- This is the native land of Europe's oldest traceable ethnic group. The Basque people have been more heavily persecuted than any other group within Spain, by Madrid regimes determined to shoehorn their unusual language and culture into that of mainstream Spain. The region of rolling peaks and fertile, sunny valleys hugs the Atlantic coast adjacent to the French border. It boasts the best regional cuisine in Spain.
Unless you want to spend more time relaxing on the beach, allow 3 leisurely days for this unusual district. Visit San Sebastián (Donostia) for its international glamour, Fuenterrabía (Hondarribía) for its medieval history, Guernica for a sobering reminder of the Spanish Civil War, and Lekeitio for its simple fishing-village charm.
Cantabria & Asturias -- Positioned on Iberia's north-central coastline, these are the most verdant regions of Spain. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims passed through here on their way to Santiago de Compostela -- a legacy evident from the wealth of Romanesque churches and abbeys in the vicinity. Come for beaches that are rainier, but much less crowded, than those along Spain's southern coasts.
Enjoy such beach resorts as El Sardinero and Laredo, as well as the rugged beauty of Los Picos de Europa, a dramatic mountain range that is home to rich colonies of wildlife. Sites of interest include the Caves of Altamira (called "the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art," although admission is strictly regulated), the pre-Romanesque town of Oviedo, and the architecturally important Old Quarter of Gijón. The region's largest city, Santander, lies amid a maze of peninsulas and estuaries favored by boaters. In summer it becomes a major beach resort, although San Sebastián is more fashionable.
Galicia -- A true Celtic outpost in northwestern Iberia, Galicia's landscape is often compared to that of rainy, windswept Ireland. Known for a spectacularly dramatic coastline, the region is wild and relatively under-populated. Spend at least 2 days here enjoying some of the most scenic drives in Iberia. Stop at historic and religious sites like Santiago de Compostela or the ancient Roman outpost of Lugo. Perhaps the region's greatest city is A Coruña, the point of embarkation for Spain's tragic Armada, sunk by the English army on its way to invade Britain in the late 16th century.
The Balearic Islands -- "Discovered" by English Romantics in the early 19th century, and long known as a strategic naval outpost in the western Mediterranean, these islands are sunny, subtropical, mountainous, and more verdant than the Costa del Sol. They have their pockets of style and posh, although Majorca and Ibiza are overrun in summer, especially by British and German travelers on package tours. Ibiza attracts a large gay crowd. Minorca is more fashionable, although more inconvenient to get to.