Among the legacy left by Celts, Romans, Arabs and Catholic Monarchs are spectacular sites such as the Cordoba Roman Bridge, Santa Eulalia Basilica and El Escorial. Other popular sites tend to include Belchite, Lugo Roman Walls and the weirdly wonderful La Sagrada Familia, found in the heart of Catalonia – Barcelona.
The Romans laid the foundations for modern Spanish culture and identity. Spain was even the birthplace of important Roman emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian or Theodosius I.
In the early 8th century, the Visigoth Kingdom – who had taken southern Spain from the Romans – was invaded by the Umayyad Caliphate, ushering in over 700 years of Muslim rule. During this period, Al-Andalus became a major economic and intellectual centre.
Yet Christian kingdoms would soon emerge to reconquer Spanish lands, and from the 16th century would control one of the largest and richest empires in the world.
Showcasing this fascinating legacy through its cultural locations, landmarks and monuments, we’ve put together an experts guide to the 10 Best Historic Sites in Spain.
What are the 10 Best Historic Sites in Spain?
Built by the Romans in the 1st century BC, the Roman Bridge of Cordoba, Spain, as described in around 1140 by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, ‘surpasses all other bridges in beauty and solidity’.
Rather than simply an object of beauty which it undoubtedly is, the bridge was a vital player in the city of Cordoba’s battles with, amongst others, the ominously-named Peter the Cruel in the 1350s.
Cordoba Roman Bridge was built in the 1st century BC and straddles the 657 kilometre Guadalquivir River. The bridge has 16 arches supported by irregular semi-cylindrical buttresses and is 247 metres long by approximately 9 metres wide.
Calat Alhambra or the “Red Fortress” in Granada is an incredible complex of royal palaces, mosques, baths, shops and other buildings surrounded by an imposing 2 kilometre fortified wall.
Today, the Alhambra is open to the public. You can tour its palaces, including the Palacio Nazaríes and the 16th century Palace of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The Alcazaba or “citadel” is another highlight of the Alhambra, this being the main element of the complex’s fortifications.
The Alhambra is centred on two main courtyards: the Court of the Lions and the Court of Myrtles, the former with a fountain and the latter with a long pool. Its beautiful Generalife gardens and buildings are also worth visiting, while the Alhambra Museum offers everything from Nasrid art to archaeological finds.
An impressive gothic structure and, with a total area of 11,520 square metres, Seville Cathedral is only beaten in size by London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Rome’s St. Peter’s. Some even argue that it is actually the largest when comparing volume.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, the cathedral is an incredible historic site where visitors can appreciate the sheer scale of the building from inside, including its central nave which stands at a grand forty metres high. With its ornate, gold-laden interiors and eighty chapels, the scale of Seville Cathedral alone is quite a sight, coupled with the wealth of architectural influences, ranging from Gothic and Baroque to Mudejar.
The tomb of Christopher Columbus also offers a big draw to tourists, who flock to see the final resting place of this famous explorer.
Santa Eulalia Basilica in Merida is an Ancient Roman church the remains of which lie under the present 18th century church.
The namesake of Santa Eulalia Basilica was a 13 year-old girl who was martyred upon being burnt at the stake during the Christian persecutions under Emperor Diocletian. According to legend, she is buried nearby.
The Santa Eulalia Basilica’s particularly interesting feature is the crypt, within which you can see the 20 centuries of Merida’s history through the Roman mausoleums, a tomb sealed with mosaics, or tombs from the Visigoth period sealed with marble.
Intended to mark the celebration of Spain’s victory over the French in the Battle of St Quentin, El Escorial was constructed between 1563 and 1567 by Juan Bautista de Toledo, a Spanish architect who had spent much of his career in Rome. It would go on to serve as the king’s palace and the seat of his empire.
The basilica is the central part of the complex: look out for the gorgeous white Carrara marble statues and paintings by El Greco, amongst other 16th, 17th and 18th Spanish and Flemish artists.
It’s worth getting a map and plotting out highlights – there’s a vast amount to see in the imposing buildings and you can easily spend a day here.
El Miguelete (The Micalet Tower) is an iconic gothic bell tower built in 1381 and joined onto Valencia Cathedral in the 15th century. El Miguelete means ‘Little Michael’ and comes from the name of its biggest bell made in 1532 weighing over 10 tons.
Construction of the Valancian cathedral’s bell tower, El Miguelete, began in 1381 directed by master builder Andreu Julià of the Valencian Gothic style. The imposing design and size of the cathedral and bell tower reasserted Valencia’s Christian identity after Muslim dominance from the 8th to mid 13th century.
However, it was El Miguelete’s complex design, including a helical stairwell and fine mouldings, that meant the tower took a long time to construct.
The Toledo Sephardic Museum (Museo Sefardi) is a national museum dedicated to the history, culture and legacy of the city’s Jewish population.
From Roman times to the 15th century Jewish expulsion, the Toledo Sephardic Museum covers the long Jewish history in Spain. The building in which the Toledo Sephardic Museum is located was itself a part of this heritage, built as a synagogue in the 14th century.
Arguably, Peter of Castile allowed the building of the synagogue to show his appreciation for Samuel ha-Levi’s service as a royal councillor and treasurer. He may also have allowed the synagogue as a type of compensation for the destruction on the Jewish community in 1348 during the anti-Jewish pogroms during the Black Death.
Either way, Samuel ha-Levi eventually lost the king’s favour and was executed in 1360.
Officially titled Santa Maria de Montserrat, Montserrat Monastery is an important medieval abbey and one of the most important religious sites in Catalonia. Sitting high among the mountains of the Catalan countryside, the monastery offers visitors stunning views of the surrounding area as well as eye-catching architecture and history.
In 1811, the monastery was burnt down and sacked by Napoleon’s troops. The monastery would see violence again during the Spanish Civil War, with many of the priests and religious men and women living there killed. Under Franco, Montserrat Monastery was seen as a sanctuary for scholars, politicians and artists while Franco’s men stood waiting for those outlawed down the road.
Badajoz Fortress is a 12th century fortification captured by the British during the Peninsula War.
The fortress as it now appears was built by the Almohads in the 12th century, though it probably existed from the 9th century, when Badajoz was founded.
During the Peninsular War, the British made 3 attempts to breach Badajoz Fortress to capture it from the French.
The third attempt, known as the Battle of Badajoz, took place between 16 March and 6 April 1812 and saw an Anglo-Portguese force led by Arthur Wellesley, the (future) Duke of Wellington, besiege and eventually breach the thick curtain walls of Badajoz Fortress.
La Sagrada Família is an iconic yet incomplete church in Barcelona with UNESCO status, and is the final resting place of its designer, Antoni Gaudi.
Works on La Sagrada Familia were begun in 1882 under the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, then continued under Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona’s most famous son. Gaudi spent over 43 years working on La Sagrada Familia – he saw it as his holy mission, pouring his own money into the project when funds from the original commission disappeared.
Nevertheless, despite its incomplete state La Sagrada Familia’s incredible architecture draws in hordes of tourists each year. From its beautiful facades to its looming towers and inherent symbolism, La Sagrada Familia is an iconic part of Barcelona.