Spain's One-of-a-Kind Festivals Worth Traveling to See
Thanks to Ernest Hemingway, the most famous festival in Spain is Pamplona’s San Fermín hubbub, known the world over for its chaotic running of the bulls. But that event is dangerous for humans and has a very unhappy ending for the bulls, who eventually have to face a matador. We recommend experiencing the following Spanish festivals instead. Involving everything from an epic food fight to human towers several stories high, these one-of-a-kind street parties show just how much fun can result from several centuries of mingling cultures, strong religious traditions, and a fondness for setting stuff on fire.
Pictured above: La Mercè in Barcelona
Every March, the Mediterranean city of Valencia ushers in spring by filling the streets with hundreds of enormous, wood-and-papier-mâché sculptures called ninots. The multiday event also has parades, fireworks, street food, elaborate traditional costumes, and a huge flower tower honoring Valencia’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Forsaken.
No event better demonstrates Spain's rich equestrian traditions. Each May, the entire city of Jerez becomes one enormous riding ring for the presentation of dressage and jumping events. Wearing ornate costumes, riders demonstrate the stern, carefully controlled movements developed during medieval battles.
Seeing Córdoba in bloom is one of the highlights of an Andalusian spring. During the city’s Patio Festival in May, locals open their homes so visitors can admire their traditional interior courtyards hung with potted geraniums.
To celebrate the summer solstice in June, bonfires blaze through the night in Alicante, signaling the start of several days of parades and fireworks. Stacks of flammable objects, including discarded finery and cardboard replicas of sinners and witches, are all set alight.
Every year on the last Wednesday in August, nearly everyone in town, along with thousands from neighboring villages, joins this tomato war. The local government sponsors the festival, bringing in truckloads of tomatoes totaling more than 88,000 pounds of edible artillery. Local bands provide accompaniment for dancing and singing. Don’t worry: Portable showers are installed for participants.
Every year for centuries, the citizens of Elche in southeastern Spain have staged a medieval religious drama at the Basilica de Santa María, home of a Virgin Mary statue with reputed mystical powers. The play’s accompanying chants and songs are in a dialect so archaic that even Castilians can barely understand. Competition is fierce for seats during this August event, so plan ahead.
This September celebration honors Barcelona’s patron saint, Our Lady of Mercy. The festival showcases some uniquely Catalonian ways of having a good time, from building human towers several stories high in the Plaça Sant Jaume to throwing night parades called correfocs (“fire runs”), during which locals dressed as devils and animals set off handheld fireworks, often spraying spectators with sparks.