10 months ago

Art can be a fantastic enhancement to travel. Seeing somewhere you’ve read about in a favorite story come to life is one of travel’s great pleasures. Standing in the very spot you’ve seen in a movie can be a special and surreal feeling, while exploring sites and places that played a part in the lives of great artists can be just as exciting and revealing. This is true of many destinations—visit any European city and its culture and history will likely dominate your to-do list. But for sheer eclecticism and depth, it’s hard to beat the cities of Spain for consistently stunning cultural highlights. To help you prep for a Spain tour, we’ve put together some of the best ways to get excited about everything this dynamic country has to offer.

From books that will inspire you to seek out hidden watering holes to movies that add extra life to crumbling castles and iconic streets, here are our essential ways to make the most of Spain’s best cities.

Essential viewing: On the trail of Luis Buñuel in historic Toledo

Talk about a peerless legend of Spanish cinema and one name should spring instantly to mind: Luis Buñuel had an impact on movie-making that few directors worldwide can rival. He’s best known as a pioneer of surrealism thanks to his 1929 landmark, Un Chien Andalou, but Buñuel’s career later came to focus on epic realist dramas. And, though he spent most of his life abroad after the Spanish Civil War, many of his most prominent works are ones that are inextricably linked with Spain and Spanish identity.

Where to visit

Adapted from a classic novel by the great Spanish author Benito Pérez Galós, Buñuel’s Tristana starred Catherine Deneuve and is essential watching for a visit to the historic city of Toledo. Various scenes take place in the city’s charmingly ancient streets, with the dramatic opening credits showcasing the spectacular cityscape, overlooking the Tagus River.

Get a feel for the place

Just under 50 miles south of Madrid, Toledo is an essential stop on a tour of Central Spain. The city is most famous for its impressively multicultural heritage, as demonstrated by myriad historic sites and monuments from Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures, and an impressive High Gothic cathedral. As a bonus, Toledo is also in the Castilla–La Mancha region. On a tour around this area you can expect to see the windmills immortalized in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

What to watch before you go: Tristana; Viridiana

Essential reading: Uncover Hemingway’s Madrid
No English-language writer is as intimately linked with Spain as Ernest Hemingway—both through his life and his writings. Hemingway’s interest in bullfighting is well known, and documented in Death in the Afternoon. Its main setting and the home of bullfighting culture in Spain is Pamplona, but Hemingway’s relationship with Spain and Spanish culture is best explored in Madrid.

Where to go on a Madrid tour

Ask around and most bars in the city will claim that Hemingway once drank there. However, when touring Madrid, there are a couple of essential spots that can lay a genuine claim to a significant link with the writer. One ever-present stop on Hemingway tours is Cerveceria Alemana, a beer bar that has Hemingway’s favorite marble-topped table preserved.

Less well-known is La Venencia. Read any of Hemingway’s typical barroom depictions and their chiseled minimalism immediately comes to life the moment you enter this irresistibly authentic sherry bar. All dark-wood paneling and vintage posters, it’s like walking straight into a Hemingway story. During the Civil War, this bar was a favorite haunt of Spanish Republicans and the sense of historic and cultural significance is palpable.

For a trip full of authentic regional food and drink experiences, take a look at our wine and culinary journey through Spain and Portugal.

What to read before you go: Death in the Afternoon; For Whom the Bell Tolls; The Undefeated

Essential watching: Flamenco, Spain's ultimate performing art

It’s perhaps the archetypal Spanish artform; flamenco dancing instantly draws associations with steamy Spanish nights filled with drama and passion. And though it may be thought of as typically Spanish in general, flamenco is very much a regional phenomenon of the south, and the best place to experience it for yourself is undoubtedly Seville.

Where to visit

In addition to Seville’s cathedral, the Moorish Alcázar Palace, and the Plaza de España, the city’s flamenco bars are among its top attractions. There are few better things to do in Spain to truly understand its regional identity and artistic expression than taking in an authentic flamenco show.

You’ll find plenty of stage shows in bars and nightclubs around the city, but to really appreciate the folk roots of flamenco, it’s best experienced up close in a small bar. With this kind of traditional flamenco show you’ll find yourself shoulder to shoulder with the performers. Casa Anselma is one such show—the flamenco experience here is less about a showy performance and more about locals sharing traditional songs and dances that have been handed down over generations. It's the perfect way to end an evening spent touring the city’s famous tapas bars.

Another essential spot is the excellent Flamenco Dance Museum in the city’s historic center. As well as exhibitions that walk you through the history of flamenco, the venue hosts stage shows that provide a more polished spectacle than the intimate bar experience. For more ideas of how to explore the city’s culture, read our Andalusia Highlights tour itinerary.

What to watch before you go:

La Chana, a documentary about a flamenco dancer who comes out of retirement for one final performance after mysteriously disappearing at the peak of her career 30 years earlier.


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