What Is Spain Famous For

What Is Spain Famous For ? 

What is Spain famous for, other than a warm climate, fantastic beaches, late dinners, all-night nightlife, joie de vivre, and the Mediterranean lifestyle? Oh, and siestas, fiestas, flamenco, extraordinary art and architecture full of virtuosity and flair? Good question.  Try our guide to 28 of the things for which Spain is most famous, from Ibizan chillouts to the Camino de Santiago. 

The Siesta 

Spain is famous for its lifestyle, especially the daily routine, which differs considerably from elsewhere in Europe.  The siesta is a period of rest – including sleep – following lunch, varying widely but usually between 2pm and 5 pm, avoiding the worst of the afternoon heat. 

Doing Everything Late 

At least compared to everyone else, that is.  Things in Spain just happen later than elsewhere in Europe. Work frequently starts late, at 10 am. After lunch, siesta time, then a resumption of work, which typically takes you through to 8 pm. Dinner often starts as late as 10pm, parties start late, kids stay up late. Everyone goes to bed late, and consequently gets up late. Welcome to Spain. 

Sagrada Familia

Image of Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Church Barcelona
The Nativity facade of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, one of the biggest building projects of modern times

One of the most famous Spanish churches is the monumental Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) in Barcelona. Construction of the church, to the designs of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, has been going on for a century, in the tradition of many great European medieval cathedrals. It’s one of his most radical buildings, much inspired by nature (the internal pillars resemble plant stems, for example) it is due to be completed in 2026. 

Barcelona 

Image of chimneys of the roof of GAudi's La Pedrera or Casa Mila building Barcelona
Barcelona is home to several other Gaudi buildings, including La Pedrera, or Casa Mila

Barcelona is one of the most famous cities in Spain, second in size behind Madrid, but in recent years many of its residents have thought of it as the capital of Catalunya (Catalonia) first. It’s one of the great Mediterranean cities, endowed with extraordinary architecture, and the nexus of the Catalan language and one of the oldest cultures of Spain.  The Catalan independence movement has grown exponentially over the last decade or so, but this writer can’t see it happening, as it could mean no more El Clasicos against bitter rivals Real Madrid. 

Spanish Fiestas  

The Spanish certainly know how to throw a party, and in a great many ways at that. You can watch firework effigies explode at Las Fallas in Valencia every March, or risk life and limb at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona in July. On the last Wednesday of August, there’s always the option of heading to Bunol, near Valencia, to partake in La Tomatina, and hour-long free-for-all tomato fight. Just remember to squash them before you throw them! 

Medieval Spanish Cities 

Image f the Giralda tower sand Cathedral in Seville Spain
The Giralda tower and Gothic Cathedral of Seville

Spain has an extraordinary wealth of medieval cities to explore. These include the ancient ’City of Three Cultures’, Toledo, the university city of Salamanca, stunning Segovia, the magnificent walled city of Avila and the Mudejar city of Teruel in Aragon. Smaller cities such as Merida and Caceres in Extremadura and the Andalucian Renaissance towns of Ubeda and Baeza also warrant going well out of your way.    

Islamic History And Influence 

Image of the Great Mosque, now part of the CAthedral in Cordoba Spain
The simple arc hes of the Great Mosque or Mezquita, now part of Cordoba’s Catholic Cathedral

Most of the Iberian peninsula and part of southern France made up the Kingdom of al-Andalus by the 8th century AD, and parts of the southern province of Andalucia remained under Moorish occupation until the culmination of the Reconquista in 1492. Under the Umayyads, the southern city of Cordoba flourished, becoming the largest city in Europe, and a learning centre of immense importance.  Cordoba is one of the best places to see Spain’s Islamic heritage, especially the arches of the Great Mosque, one of the great famous Spain landmarks, which have been incorporated into the city’s Catholic Cathedral. 

See Also: Things To Do In Cordoba 

Famous Spanish Food 

Image of salmorejo, a tomato soup from Cordoba Spain
Salmorejo, Cordoba’s answer to gazpacho

There is also so much food Spain is famous for.  The most famous Spanish dish of all is probably paella, usually called paella valenciana on menus after its city of origin. It’s traditionally made with chicken and/or rabbit and served with rice flavoured with saffron, and it’s also made with seafood.  

Tapas 

Spain also gave the world a way of serving food – the tapa. The word comes from tapar, meaning to cover – in the 19th century, innkeepers would serve small snacks, most often bread or a slice of jamon (ham), which would then be used as a cover for a glass of sherry, keeping flies away in the process. The range of snacks gradually expanded to include famous Spanish dishes such as patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), gambas al ajillo (prawns in garlic), olives, Manchego cheese and a great many more. 

Famous Spanish Drinks 

There’s also a great range of Spanish drinks to enjoy with your tapa. The most famous Spanish wines are from the Rioja region in the north of the country, while the southern region of Andalucia is famous for producing sherry, especially around the city of Jerez de la Frontera. Sangria is a popular drink all over Spain, with recipes varying from bar to bar – the main ingredient is wine, and fruit and sometimes liqueurs or spirits are added to give it extra flavour and kick.  The most famous Spanish beers include Mahou, San Miguel and Barcelona’s Estrella Damm.  

Some Of Greatest Gothic Cathedrals In The World

Image of the Gothic Burgos Cathedral Spain
The splendid Cathedral of Burgos

Some of the most famous Spanish landmarks are its great Gothic cathedrals.  They range from the stunning Toledo Cathedral, which dominates the skyline of this wondrous ancient city, to the twin-spired masterpiece of Burgos, one of the greatest churches in Europe, in the far north of Castile & Leon. You’ll find other magnificent Spanish cathedrals in Leon, Segovia, Salamanca, Palma de Mallorca and, the largest of all, down south in Seville. 

Tourism – One The Most Visited Countries In The World  

Image of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Spain
The spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Spain has come a long way from the days of the package holidays by the beach in the 1970s. Gradually, more and more aspects of this fantastic country – its cities, history, architecture, cultures, mountains – have become more widely known.  Add in famous Spanish food and famous Spanish art and you have one of the very best countries in Europe to visit.  

Modern Spanish Architecture  

Image of the City of Arts and Sciences Valencia Spain
Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in his hometown, Valencia

Some of the most famous Spanish architecture dates from the last 25 years or so.  The titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry was at the vanguard, shortly before the Millennium, and soon afterwards Santiago Calatrava added the gleaming white City of Arts and Sciences on the outskirts of his home city, Valencia. He is one of the most famous Spanish architects of recent times, and been responsible for a host of projects worldwide, from the fourth bridge over the Grand Canal, Venice to the WTC Hub in New York City. 

The Alhambra, Granada 

Image of the Alhambr Palace Granada Andalucia Spain
Sunset on the Alhambra and distant mountains of the Sierra Nevada

The Alhambra Palace in Granada is one of the most famous Spanish buildings, a complex of palaces, gardens and a fortress built by the Nasrid dynasty of the Moors near the end of their period of rule in the Iberian peninsula. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in Spain, a spot of earthly paradise in the shadow of the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. 

Long Life Expectancy 

Image of palm trees and sunny weather in Cordoba Spain
Well, the weather helps….

On average, Spanish people live to the age of 84, the seventh most in the world and joint second in Europe along with Italy, a few months behind Switzerland. This is partly attributable to the Mediterranean diet, and also the warm Mediterranean climate, including relatively mild winter, that it also enjoys. The relaxed Spanish way of life, with a strong emphasis on close family ties, contributes to people’s overall wellbeing. 

Ibiza and the Balearic Beat 

Ibiza clubs, playing a variety of house, rave and dance music, grew in influence in the mid-1980s, attracting more and more visitors keen to experience the beach and party vibe. This influenced the likes of Manchester’s New Order, especially their 1989 album Technique. The music associated with Ibiza has changed a great deal since then, with considerably reduced bpm counts and much more of a chillout feel. 

Canary Islands 

One of the things Spain is famous for is its winter sun, and the place to seek it is the Canary Islands (Islas Canarias) off the coast of North West Africa. The Canary Islands beaches are the main draw, especially in the off-season, but there’s much more to seek out – the volcanic landscapes of Tenerife and Lanzarote, the precipitous valleys and whistle-calls of La Gomera and the beautiful old centre of San Cristobal de la Laguna. 

Camino De Santiago 

One of the most famous things about Spain is the long-distance ancient pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, which runs across the north of the country. There are several different routes originating across the border in France, before heading west through the Basque Country, Asturias and Galicia, or south via Castile & Leon, culminating in a visit to the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.   

Don Quixote And Windmills 

Spain is known for Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote, which follows the quest of a nobleman from La Mancha to uphold the values of chivalry. It’s considered one of the greatest novels of all time, and one of the foundations of modern literature.  In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, believing them to be beasts. To get a sense of place, head for the town of Consuegra 65 km south-east of Toledo, where a famous row of white windmills overlooks the ruined castillo (castle).  

Famous Spanish Art 

Image of Joan Miro's Dona i Ocell sculpture in Barcelona
Dona i Ocell by Joan Miro

There is an abundance of famous art in Spain to seek out, and an enormous range at that. The Baroque-era paintings of Diego Velazquez are a great place to start, and Francisco Goya, once a royal court painter, is considered one of the last of the Old Masters, working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. More recently, Malaga-born Pablo Picasso is one of the great names of 20th century art, and Surrealist Salvador Dali took things off on a completely different, often exuberant tangent. 

Bullfighting 

La corrida – the bullfight – is deeply ingrained in Spanish culture, and remains popular in Spain despite the opposition of many who see it as animal cruelty. In Spain, it is seen as ritual performance art, judged on technical, artistic and aesthetic merit.  It is less popular, however, among younger Spanish people. I once went to a corrida in La Maestranza, the famous bullring in Seville, and wouldn’t repeat the experience.  

Flamenco  

Another of the things Spain is famous for is flamenco, a uniquely Spanish form of music and dance that, ironically, may be a combination of several outside influences – gitanos (gypsies), Africans and the Moors may all have contributed to its development. It coalesced into recognisable styles in the 19th century, with performances consisting of guitar playing, singing and dancing. Andalucia is the heartland of flamenco, but it’s grown into a worldwide phenomenon – there are now more flamenco academies in Japan than Spain. 

Beautiful Beaches & Coastline  

Spanish beaches were the first thing about the country that northern Europeans discovered, and it became one of the main European beach destinations, especially for package holidays. The Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Brava and Mallorca are among the most popular tourist areas in Spain, but there are amazing beaches all around its near-5,000 km (3,000 mile) coastline, from the sublime La Concha beach at San Sebastian to the vast beaches and dunes of the Costa de la Luz in south-west Andalucia. 

Famous Spanish Actors 

The most famous actors in Spain include Antonio Banderas (with a huge CV ranging from The Mask of Zorro to Spongebob Squarepants) and Penelope Cruz, who has starred in several Pedro Almodovar films and numerous Hollywood productions. Her husband, Javier Bardem, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2011 for his portrayal of vicious villain Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. More recently, Mario Casas has emerged, especially in his lead role in The Photographer of Mauthausen.   

AVE – One Of The Fastest Train Systems In The World  

Spain’s AVE – standing for alta velocidad española, ‘high speed Spanish’ – network is the largest fast train network in Europe, with over 3,100 km (almost 2,000 miles) of high-speed routes around the country. They certainly make travelling around Spain considerably quicker, with the run from Madrid to Seville taking an average of 2 hours 30 minutes, and Madrid to Barcelona taking around 3 hours. 

White Villages – Pueblos Blancos

Image of a whitewashed square and church in Cordoba Spain
A typical whitewashed square and church in Cordoba, Andalucia

One of the first images that came to mind when pondering what Spain is famous for was that of the pueblos blancos, or white villages.  These are most frequently found in Andalucia, the hot, often arid south of the country. The buildings are all painted white to reflect the fierce heat, and the sight of a white village nestling below a mountain is one of the most enduring images of Spain. Some of the best pueblos we’ve found include Olvera, Zahara de la Sierra and Arcos de la Frontera. One of the easiest to reach is picturesque Casares, a short drive or bus ride inland from the Costa del Sol. 

Spanish Football – La Primera Liga 

The Spanish first division – known almost universally by its Spanish name, La Primera Liga, has one been one of the strongest football leagues in Europe and the world. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the perennial big-hitters, but Atletico Madrid have also recently won the league.  For decades the Spanish national team failed to live up to the strength of the Liga, but that changed when they won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.  

Spanish Cinema  

Spanish cinema has been at the cutting edge of film making for almost a century, since the daring Un chien andalou (An Andalucian Dog) debuted in 1929. Bunuel in turn inspired Pedro Almodovar, who has been the most prominent Spanish film director since the 1980s. Relatively few famous Spanish movies have become mainstream international hits but in terms of quality, Almodovar’s films are right up there, with MatadorVolverAll About My Mother and Women On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown all classics.  

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.