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Spain: Places to See

Spain is filled with lush valleys, sandy white beaches, imposing mountains, historic towns and plenty of adventures. Amid a sweeping mix of diverse landscapes, cultures and spirituality, you'll never catch yourself in a dull moment in this vibrant country.

Situated 2,180 feet above sea level is Spain's capital, Madrid. Though it has served as the nation's capital since 1561, Madrid is a strikingly modern city, combining contemporary infrastructure, glamorous amenities and highflying nightlife with centuries of fascinating Spanish culture. Art lovers can admire the works of Spanish masters in the Prado Museum, take in Picasso's Guernica and modern pieces from the likes of Kandinksy and Dali at Museo Nationale Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, or view the Royal Palace's rooms, filled with art treasures and antiques. Wander Madrid's many bustling squares, including Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Espana with its monument honoring author Miguel de Cervantes, and Plaza de Cibeles housing the Cibeles Fountain. The city is also a shopper's delight -- find upscale stores amid the grand edifices of Gran Via or look for bargains at El Rastro Market on Sundays.

From Madrid, journey to the plateau region of Castile-La Mancha, made famous by Cervantes’ literary hero, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Four centuries later, the La Mancha of Cervantes' book is much the same, filled with castles, windmills, olive groves and wheat fields. Here you’ll also find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Toledo, the Imperial City. Perched upon a rocky ridge above the Tagus River, the city’s mosques, synagogues, churches and museums are heaped on winding cobblestone streets, a well-known scene from El Greco’s “View of Toledo.” Visit a replica of the home of El Greco and its accompanying museum or head to the Church of Santo Tome for its Mudejar tower and El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz.” The Cathedral of Toledo offers beautiful gothic architecture, while the Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue is an exhibition of Arab-influenced architecture featuring horseshoe arches, ornamental horizontal moldings and enchanting filigree workmanship.

Andalusia is the country's southernmost region and the birthplace of bullfighting, tapas, flamenco and the Spanish guitar. You'll find pristine beaches, green hills, white-painted villages and vast nature reserves here, as well as trendy restaurants, sizzling nightlife and hip boutiques.

Built on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Seville is the capital of Andalusia. Narrow, winding lanes and romantic, hidden plazas are interspersed among historic buildings and colorful districts where Roman, Islamic, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences are found. Visit the Cathedral of Seville, the largest Gothic cathedral and home to the Giralda Tower and Christopher Columbus' tomb, or take in the Alcazar, a royal palace -- once a Moorish fort -- set among fragrant gardens. South of Seville, you can sample sherry and watch the dancing stallions of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, then visit the city of Ronda, split atop both sides of the 400-foot-deep El Tajo gorge.

Andalusia's ancient city of Cordoba, a World Heritage Site, is a living legacy of the diverse cultures that settled in it throughout history. Stroll through the historic quarter of Cordoba and discover the alleys, squares and whitewashed courtyards arranged around the Mezquita -- famous for its 850 pillars of porphyry, marble and jasper. This eighth-century mosque is now the city's main cathedral, as well as one of Islam's most important pieces of architecture outside the Arab world. Near the Mezquita you can cross the Roman bridge to see the Tower of La Calahorra.

Granada sits in the shadows of the mighty Sierra Nevada in eastern Andalusia, at the merging of four rivers. This city was the last great capital of the Moors in Spain before it was surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, known as the “Catholic Monarchs,” in 1492. An important cultural center for centuries, nowadays Granada boasts a hip, youthful atmosphere hosting a nonstop calendar of cultural and leisure events. The city’s biggest draw is the Alhambra, a spectacular Moorish palace, and its exotic water gardens of Generalife. You can also explore a maze of alleyways in the old Arab quarter of Albayzin or study the abstract expressionist works of Granadian-born Jose Guerrero at Centro Jose Guerrero. East of Granada are the troglodyte cave dwellings near Guadix.

Costa del Sol stretches for miles along the Andalusian coastline. Warm, translucent waters make this area ideal for water sports such as sailing, scuba diving, fishing and swimming, while more than 70 golf courses in the area tempt the sport’s enthusiasts. Saunter through whitewashed villages, sunbathe on the beach or enjoy a daytrip to the Rock of Gibraltar to see the Barbary apes and St. Michael's Cave.

Moving up the Mediterranean coast and past the lemon groves of Murcia and palm trees of Elche brings you to the crystal waters and coastal mountains of Valencia. The alleged home of the Holy Grail, Valencia harmoniously combines ancient remains and avant-garde buildings. Enjoy a drive along wide avenues lined with fig and palm trees, then make your way to the Gothic houses and narrow streets of the old quarter. Be sure to also visit the bullring, cathedral and the Serrano and Cuarte towers. Along Valencia’s coast is Costa Blanca, a premier resort area with a lively social scene and some of Europe’s best beaches.

North of Valencia is Castellon and its Peniscola Castle, built by the Knights Templar in the 14th century. The promontory on which the castle and town are located is a reminder of medieval times. Continuing north through orange groves and seaside resorts brings you to Catalonia's vivacious capital, Barcelona. Barcelona is a sprawling metropolis home to sandy beaches, wonderful art, historic architecture and excellent cuisine. Of Roman origin, the city has a rich historic and artistic heritage that encourages innovative trends. See Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral and Park Guell, visit the Picasso Museum and explore Plaza Sant Jaume, Plaza de Catalunya and Via Laietana. Travelers can walk the cobbled lanes of Barcelona’s oldest district, the Gothic Quarter, or take in Barcelona’s buzzing street life on La Rambla, a boulevard packed with performers, artists, open-air markets and cafes. Head to Montjuic for hilltop views of the city and to visit the 1992 Olympic Games Complex.

In nearby Montserrat you can see the shrine to the Black Madonna, and to the north of Barcelona are Costa Brava’s Greek ruins of Empuries, the Dali Theatre-Museum, La Garrotxa Volcanica Zone Natural Park and Lloret de Mar beach.

Offshore in the Balearic Sea fringing Valencia and Catalonia are the Balearic Islands, which include the raging party island of Ibiza and serene Mallorca, with its attractive historic quarter, plazas and cathedral set among graceful coves and cliffs.

Traveling west from Catalonia will bring you the Baroque city of Zaragoza and its Basilica of El Pilar, as well as renowned Pamplona at the foot of the Pyrenees, where bulls are left to run the streets freely during the San Fermin festivals. Near Pamplona are the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao in Basque Country. San Sebastian is a resort town bordering the Bay of Biscay, while Bilbao is a port town housing Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, considered one of the 20th century's great architectural masterpieces.

On Spain's northwestern coast, discover Santiago de Compostela. Its historic center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the top pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages. Visit the city's cathedral, where behind the high altar lay the relics of St. James the Apostle.

From here, travel along the ancient "Way of St. James" to Burgos in Castilla y Leon to see the magnificent limestone Cathedral of Santa Maria, where the legendary El Cid is buried. Also in Castilla y Leon is the rugged Sierra de Guadarrama and the city of Segovia, set upon a rock formation at an altitude of 3,280 feet and famous for its Alcazar and the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct. East of Burgos is Rioja's wine country.