When you mention Spain, most people imagine golden sandy beaches, lively flamenco dancing and warm sunshine. Whilst the country is certainly home to all three of these things, Spain has so much more to offer in the way of culture.
For centuries, the country has remained one of Europe’s most important cultural centers, bursting with meaningful historic sites, fine art galleries, influential museums and magnificent architecture. With such a rich and colorful heritage, it’s no wonder that Spain is a top choice for culture vultures.
Spain has an extraordinary artistic heritage and has produced a huge number of internationally-renowned artists over the years, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Diego Rivera. Being home to so many inspiring artists, it stands to reason that Spain’s art galleries are some of the best in Europe.
Museo Nacional del Prado
Locally known as ‘El Prado’ in Madrid, this art gallery began life as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture in 1816, before it was transformed into the art gallery it is today. El Prado is currently the largest art museum in Spain, home to more than 8600 paintings dating between the 12th and 19th centuries. The most important painting you’ll see here is “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, although the paintings by Goya and Rubens are equally impressive.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Also located in Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is home to the private Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen collection which is comprised of more than 1500 paintings. When the Spanish government purchased the collection in 1993, it was one of the largest private art collections in the world, second only to the Queen of England’s vast assemblage. The building which houses the art is just as beautiful as the masterpieces themselves, with pink marbled floors and stunning annexes.
Museo de Bellas Artes
When the museum was founded in the 17th century, the government was in the process of confiscating all artworks from the convents and monasteries across the country. All the masterpieces which were seized from Seville were placed in this museum, where you’ll find art spanning from Medieval times up to the modern day, with a strong emphasis on the Seville School. The museum is housed inside a former church of the convent which features breathtaking architecture in the form of a stunning glass ceiling and cupola.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Spain boasts a staggering 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including three in the Canary Islands and two in the Balearic Islands. Of these 44 historic sites, 39 are classed as cultural, three are natural and two are a mixture (meeting both cultural and natural criteria). In 2013, Spain became one of the countries with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, coming third behind China (45) and Italy (49).
Possibly the most well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site in Spain, the Alhambra is a must-see if you’re ever in Granada. This structure was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century and saw a huge number of additions over the years, made by various rulers and invaders, including the Duke of Wellington. The Alhambra fell into a state of disrepair for several years, before it was finally restored to its full glory as one of Europe’s finest pieces of architecture.
Tower of Hercules
As well as boasting one of the most staggeringly beautiful coastlines in Spain, Galicia is also home to one of the best UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country – the Tower of Hercules. Stretching 187 feet into the sky, this tower is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain, dating back to the 2nd century. It was originally constructed by Romans and was enhanced in various ways during Medieval times before it was restored to its current form in 1788.
Using advanced hydraulic mining techniques, the Romans established a gold mine in Ponferrada, cutting aqueducts into the rocky cliffs in order to provide water for the operations. This site was mined for two centuries before it was abandoned by the Romans, who left behind the scarred landscape known as Las Medulas today. With jagged orange-hued mountains contrasting strikingly with the lush, green landscape, Las Medulas is one of the most awe-inspiring UNECO World Heritage Sites in Spain.
The Romans were the first group of people who began constructing some of Spain’s most marvelous architecture. While the arrival of the Visigoths saw a great decline in the construction of buildings, the following influx of Moors resulted in a radical change, with eight centuries of advancements in culture, especially when it came to architecture. Later in the 15th century, local architects experimented with Renaissance styles, before Spanish Baroque and Neoclassical styles became firmly established.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia was the idea of Josep Bocebella who decided to construct a church dedicated to the Holy Family in 1874. Gaudi was leading the building of the church (he was working in construction to finance his studies) when Josep Bocebella resigned over design and cost disagreements, many of which were changed as per Gaudi’s wishes. The artist worked on the building for more than 40 years before he died – his body is currently located in the church’s crypt. The church remains under construction, but it’s due to be completed by 2028.
The Roman Theatre in Cartagena is one of the earliest examples of Roman architecture in Spain today. Whilst the city is home to a number of ruins, the Roman Theatre is by far the most spectacular and well-preserved, constructed between 1 and 5 BC. In the third century, the site developed into a market, but in 425AD the town was ransacked by vandals and the market was completely abandoned and a fair amount of damage was done. In 1988, the Roman Theatre was discovered during construction work and was completely restored with the addition of a museum in 2008.
Plaza de España
Although it doesn’t date back quite as far as the two previous examples, the Plaza de España in Seville is still a masterpiece of architecture. Built specifically for the Ibero-American Exposition (a World Fair), the plaza was designed by Spanish architect Anibal González in 1929. It covers a semi-circular shape stretching for more than 164000 square feet, lined by a semi-circular building on one side and a north and south tower at either end. Various canals segment the plaza, earning the site the nickname “the Venice of Seville”. The canals are overlapped by four different bridges, representing the four ancient regions of Spain, and there are 48 alcoves and benches tiled with ceramics, each symbolizing a separate province.
This is just a small selection of the vast array of impressive art galleries, prominent heritage sites and architectural masterpieces which pepper the country. There are many, many more culturally-rich sites to explore in Spain, ranging from theatres and museums to cathedrals and other religious buildings. So whether you prefer delicate paintings, tremendous architecture or historical finds, Spain’s rich and diverse cultural heritage is sure to grab your attention.