Spain is one of the top European countries that many people hope to visit, but cities like Barcelona and Madrid are often the main destinations for travelers. However, southern Spain, known as Andalucia, is an absolute treasure trove of beautiful cities, incredible UNESCO World Heritage sites, charming small towns, and relaxing beaches. Discover some of the best places to visit in southern Spain and why they will absolutely capture your heart.
Andalucia is particularly fascinating thanks to the mix of more traditional European and Islamic influences you’ll see in the architecture – the region was inhabited by the North African Moors for hundreds of years (generally 700-1300 AD, but exact dates vary by city).
You’ll be able to admire the gorgeous Mudeljar architecture thanks to the Islamic rule.
Best Cities in Southern Spain
Southern Spain has several larger cities, each with a very distinct style, history, and vibe. All of these cities are incredible destinations and absolutely worth a visit when you visit Andalucia.
Seville is an absolutely stunning city, and the capital city of Andalucia. The buildings all throughout the city are painted in vibrant colors and the Mudeljar influence is strong here – you’ll see tiled mosaics and arched doorways throughout the city center, interspersed with the many tapas bars serving some of the best Andalusian cuisine in the city.
During your stay in Seville, you absolutely must stop in the Real Alcazar, a royal palace dating back to the 1200’s filled with colorful mosaics on practically every surface, grand courtyards, and beautiful archways.
One of my favorite spots in Seville is the Plaza de España, a relatively new plaza built for the Ibero-American Fair in 1929.
This is truly one of the most gorgeous squares in Europe, with a curved building lined with a colonnade, bridges crossing a canal, towers on each end, and blue, white, and yellow tiled mosaics throughout.
The tiled alcoves underneath the columns – each dedicated to a different region in Spain, are particularly delightful.
You can also visit Seville to see the Cathedral and La Giralda Bell Tower (built on a former mosque), the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) that stands proudly along the Guadalquivir River, and the expansive Maria Luisa Park.
Visits to the Casa de Pilatos and Palacio de las Dueñas, two of many private palaces in the city, highlight the wealthy and historic nature of the city.
During Holy Week (the week before Easter), the city is filled with visitors who come to experience “Santa Semana,” a big traditional celebration in Spain.
Seville is one of the top places to experience the processionals of Santa Semana, where “penitents” take to the street with bands, floats, and elaborate costumes to celebrate the Passion of the Christ. It’s a cultural experience that’s definitely worth having.
Of all the cities in Andalucia, Granada has one of the most well-preserved and truly jaw-dropping sites from the Moorish time period. Granada is home to the Alhambra which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the top most visited sites in Spain.
Alhambra is essentially a city complex, composed of multiple palaces, a military fortress, many beautiful gardens, and a medieval village. Alhambra was built in the 13th century by the Moors and inhabited until the 16th century, when the Christians invaded.
Of all the spots in Alhambra, the Nasrid Palaces are indisputably the most beautiful. You’ll walk through room after room of stunning, intricately carved stucco sculptures covering the walls and ceilings, with tiles on the floor and columns everywhere. The Moorish architecture is absolutely opulent and one of the most stunning European palaces I’ve ever seen.
Besides Alhambra, Granada is most famous for the Albaicin neighborhood, a historic, all-white neighborhood on the hill opposite Alhambra. This neighborhood is full of narrow, winding cobbled streets and beautiful sunset views.
Nearby is Sacromonte, another historic white neighborhood, known for the cave houses built right into the cliffs that the streets back up to. It is said that Flamenco dancing originated in these caves in Sacromonte, and even today you can go see a cave flamenco show when visiting Granada.
Cadiz is a historically significant port city, believed to be the oldest standing city in all of Europe. The city is seriously steeped in history, with influences from Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, and Spanish cultures.
Some of the top attractions include sites like the Cádiz Cathedral, Roman Theater, and Castillo de San Sebastián to explore this rich heritage. You’ll definitely want to stop by the Torre Tavira, a watchtower, walk along the coastal promenade, and visit the beautiful beaches along the Mediterranean.
Cadiz boasts beautiful, white-washed buildings, charming plazas, access to great waterfront activities, and delicious seafood. It is also where Spain’s first constitution was drafted in 1812. If you happen to come in February, Cadiz also boasts one of Spain’s biggest Carnival celebrations.
Malaga is one of Spain’s beloved Mediterranean cities along the Costa del Sol, offering a tantalizing mixture of historic city and beachy vibe. It’s long been heralded as one of southern Spain’s best beach towns.
The top thing to see in Malaga’s historic center is the Alcazaba, a historic Moorish palace. Unlike many of the other palaces you’ll visit in southern Spain, the Alcazaba is semi-ruined and is made up of bricks and stone, which truly only adds to its charm.
You’ll be able to explore the large complex full of charming little corners, hidden passageways, towers, gardens, and courtyards.
You also must visit the Castillo de Gibralfaro, the military fortress that sits on the hill, overlooking the city, as well as the massive Cathedral of Malaga.
Finally, Malaga is the birthplace and childhood home of Picasso, and so the Picasso Museum in Malaga is really a must visit. As someone who has really never particularly liked Picasso’s work, I found this museum to be a fascinating look at the evolution of his work over the course of his life.
Just steps from Old Town, you can find the popular Malagueta Beach, a long, wide stretch of beach that is always filled with sun worshippers during the hot summer months. More lovely beaches can be found along the coast near Malaga as well.
Cordoba is a small city with a small town feel that is one of my favorites in all of Spain. This town is known for two main things: its flower-filled patios throughout the Jewish quarter, and the incredible Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral.
The Mezquita is a massive historic mosque that was built in the 987 and was the second-largest mosque in all of the Islamic world when it was finished.
Today, the size is still astounding, and it is particularly unique thanks to the rows and rows of red and white striped arches that fill the interior.
Thankfully, when the Christians conquered the region, the Mezquita was left largely untouched, although some Catholic elements were added to the mosque to turn it into a cathedral. This is an absolute must visit place in southern Spain.
Besides the Mezquita, Cordoba is also known for her patios – gorgeous, privately owned courtyards in the middle of buildings that owners will decorate with colorful flowers, often hanging flower blue flower pots up the sides of the walls, and incorporating elements like staircases, fountains, wells, and ladders into the design.
These patios are small and intimate, and you can visit many throughout the year. However, the Patio Festival in May is a great time to visit Cordoba, as over 50 patios are open to the public and residents go all out in decorating for the festival.
A few other interesting sites in Cordoba include the Roman Bridge, dating back to the 1st century AD; the synagogue, one of only three synagogues left in Spain; the charming Calleja de las Flores flower alleyway, and the Palace of the Christian Monarchs, a lovely palace with beautiful gardens.
Ronda is one of the smaller cities in southern Spain, but it offers an awe-inspiring architectural marvel in Andalucia.
Ronda is a popular tourist destination thanks to the Puente Nuevo, a massive bridge that is 98 meters (321 feet) tall and spans the El Tajo gorge, which separates the Old Town and the New Town of Ronda that is built on the cliffs above the gorge.
This bridge is THE thing to see in town and a photo spot in Southern Spain that you don’t want to miss. There are multiple viewpoints of the gorge and the bridge from above, and you can actually walk down into the gorge to admire it from below. I think it’s totally worth visiting Ronda just to see this bridge – it’s really amazing to witness.
Best Villages to Visit in Southern Spain
The villages of Andalucia are known as “pueblos blancos” or “white villages,” as almost every village in this region is painted fresh and bright white.
This really gives these towns a distinctive look and feel, and makes for some really unique views and shots. Following the Route of the Pueblos Blancos is a popular road trip itinerary when visiting southern Spain, and you can’t visit without making it to at least a couple of these incredible villages.
The following are some of the top white villages and places in southern Spain that you definitely can’t miss.
Frigiliana has often been called one of the most beautiful towns in Spain, a title that it does its absolute best to deserve. Frigiliana is truly an idyllic little village, with pristine whitewashed houses, colorful door and window frames, and flowers and plants in pots sitting out along the streets.
The cobblestoned lanes are particularly delightful here, as the stones are arranged to create patterns on the streets. There is a reason that many consider Frigiliana one of the best places in southern Spain.
There are several viewpoints throughout town that look down over the village, the valley below, and out to the sea – as Frigiliana is only about seven kilometers from the coast.
While in town, stop in the San Antonio de Padua parish, look for the Fuente Vieja, a fountain supplying fresh water to the people and animals in town, walk through the Santa Fiora botanical garden, and drive up to the ruins of the Castle of Frigiliana, where you can get great views over the entire village out to the sea.
Frigiliana is also home to one of the only sugar mills that produces sugar cane honey in Europe. Sugar cane honey, though similar to molasses, is more flavorful and has been processed less than molasses.
While you can’t visit the sugar mill itself, you can buy some of the unique sugar cane honey that this town is known for in the shop next door.
Setenil de las Bodegas
Setenil de las Bodegas is one of the most unique and interesting towns that you will ever visit. Setenil has a long history as a troglodyte village, meaning that the homes are like caves – built into the cliff walls that the town is built around.
There are many troglodyte villages throughout the world (indeed, Granada has some cave houses, as we discussed above), but what makes this village so unique is that the cliffs go down over and around the houses and the streets.
There are many streets in the village that are covered by a massive rocky overhang, and wandering the town and discovering all of these super charming and picturesque spots is definitely the best thing to do in Setenil de las Bodegas.
There are also multiple viewpoints over the town that give an alternative vantage point to the village, and a few cute churches to pop into. Setenil is a top village to visit in the south of Spain, and is an easy day trip from Seville.
Olvera is a bit of a hidden gem white village in southern Spain that doesn’t see nearly as many visitors as some of the other villages. Yet this charming little town has several interesting attractions to offer.
First of all, Olvera has a really impressive “skyline,” where the regular town buildings all sit on a relatively flat area, and then the absolutely huge Cathedral of Olvera sits on a small hill, totally elevated above the town.
Just next to the cathedral is the Castillo Arabe, an old castle on an even slightly higher hill. The castle is unique in that it was designed to meld itself to the contours of the rock, so it’s a very irregular shape.
Behind the cathedral is the super cute Barrio de la Villa, a historic section of Olvera that was inhabited by the Muslims. The streets here are filled with flowers and narrow lanes, and beautifully decorated doorsteps.
You can also pick up the Via Verde de la Sierra at the edge of town. This is a beautiful greenway for biking or walking (but particularly popular with bikers) that extends 36 kilometers through the countryside between Olvera and Puerto Serrano.
You can rent bikes in town or bring your own, and bike the numerous aqueducts and tunnels along the path.
Jaen is not one of the white villages of Andalucia, but is rather a very medieval-looking city without a lot of the Islamic influence seen in other cities in Andalucia.
Jaen is particularly notable, though, as being the olive oil capital of Spain. Spain is actually the #1 producer and exporter of olive oil in the entire world, and as you drive through the countryside, you’ll literally see olive trees everywhere, as far as the eye can see through the Iberian peninsula.
Jaen has the highest concentration of olive oil and many olive oil mills, and you can take a tour of these mills when you visit the town.
Other points of interest in Jaen include the enormous Cathedral of Jaen, the Arab baths, and the Villardompardo Palace.
Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez de la Frontera, is only an hour from Seville and is home to the world-known Royal Andalusian School where you can watch a horse ballet!
These shows feature the famous Andalusian breed horses, and are accompanied by traditional Spanish music and riders in historical costumes. It’s a unique and incredible experience to watch equestrian art in southern Spain.
Jerez is in Spanish wine country and boasts many wine cellars. Many are available to visit and you can learn about the production of sherry wine in Andalucia (Jerez is the birthplace of sherry wine) and sample a couple of varieties.
Jerez de la Frontera is also considered one of the cradles of Flamenco dancing, so you should definitely catch a performance while visiting.
Finally, explore the city enjoying the many parks, gardens, and historical sites like Alcázar of Jerez de la Frontera, a Moorish fortress dating back to the 11th century.
Marbella is a popular, upscale resort town right on the Mediterranean Sea. The city has gorgeous beaches, a lovely old town full of beautiful buildings, and plenty of luxury and boutique shopping opportunities.
Marbella boasts some of the most stunning beaches in Spain, with golden sands and crystal-clear waters. Playa de la Fontanilla and Playa de Nagueles are the two most popular and in addition to enjoying some relaxing beach time, there are numerous chances to do water activities like snorkeling or jet skiing.
While the old town features the classic southern Spain style of whitewashed walls with colorful flower pots, much of the town focuses on luxury and is popular with high-end visitors.
Along with the luxury shopping options, expect to find golfing, luxury spas, Michelin star restaurants, yachts in port, and a vibrant nightlife. Marbella also hosts an international film festival.
Caminito del Rey
The Caminito del Rey isn’t a village, but it is located in the mountainous countryside in southern Spain. The Caminito del Rey is actually a really fun and exciting hike along a gorge through the mountains.
A wooden walkway is attached to the side of the cliffs, so you’re walking high above the base of the canyon, where a blue-green river flows by.
Sometimes the pathway is fairly high up and the gorge is narrow, while at other times the pathway is closer to the ground and the canyon opens up. At the very end, you’ll cross a high suspension bridge.
The whole hike takes just a few hours and is one-way (downhill), making it a quite easy hike. This was truly such a cool hike and offered incredible views and an overall wonderful time, and works very well as a day trip from Malaga.
Plan a Trip To Southern Spain!
Andalucia is such a vibrant, beautiful region of Spain. Visit Southern Spain for the delicious food, amazing historical sites, charming architecture, and the incredible vistas of the Costa del Sol, plus many other destinations than we could cover here. There are so many things to do in southern Spain!
So, while Barcelona and Madrid are certainly worth places to visit in Spain, consider adding at least a few of these cities or villages to your Spain itinerary – I am certain you’ll be as wowed as I was by this gorgeous region.
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Stephanie Rytting is the author of the travel blog The Unknown Enthusiast, where she writes about exciting travel destinations around the world.