Honored for their “cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity,” Spain boasts a whopping 45 UNESCO sites—the third most after Italy and China. While Barcelona, Seville, and Granada are noteworthy classics, consider trading some of the usual tourist stops for these lesser known destinations.
Doñana National Park: A Natural Paradise
Nestled in the middle of three southern provinces, Doñana National Park is one of Europe’s most significant conservation areas. The 209-square-mile biosphere reserve is a jigsaw puzzle of lagoons, marshes, lakes, cliffs, woodlands, and long stretches of pristine beaches untouched by human development.
With miles of trails throughout the park, visitors can spend hours hiking, biking, and birdwatching, with hundreds of species to admire. For the most dedicated nature enthusiasts, guided tours venture to areas of the park that are usually closed to the public.
Toledo: The City of Three Cultures
Situated on a hilltop in Castile-La Mancha, Toledo is the quintessential image of a fortified medieval city. While shops dedicated to the art of sword-making and armor reveal its reputation for metalcraft, it is most notable for its history of religious tolerance.
The city’s gothic-style cathedral, arched mosques, and the Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue—one of Europe’s oldest standing Jewish temples—are testaments to a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully. These coexisting influences earned Toledo its nickname, “The City of Three Cultures.”
In addition to exploring the city’s rich history and beautiful architecture, a visit to Toledo would be incomplete without admiring the work of its most famed resident: El Greco. The painter’s work can be found in churches and galleries throughout the city, and a reconstruction of his home is also open to the public.
Alcalá de Henares: A Bibliophile’s Playground
Alcalá de Henares is quite literally the world’s first college town, planned around a university and its students. With its long history of scholarship, it’s no surprise that this quaint town is known for its literary and cultural contributions to Spain.
Alcalá de Henares is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most distinguished writer and author of Don Quixote. Cervantes himself may be long gone, but his lasting legacy makes this town a bibliophile’s playground.
Visitors can begin their Cervantina experience aboard the Cervantes Train, which departs from Madrid. During the journey enjoy stunning views of the countryside and live performances of Don Quixote’s most iconic scenes. Once in Alcalá de Henares, costumed tour guides lead guests down cobblestoned streets and manicured plazas, making stops at the childhood home of Cervantes and University of Alcalá.
Antequera: An Archaeological Complex
In the heart of Andalusia, and less than two hours from every major city, Antequera is the ideal starting point for exploring southern Spain.
Inscribed in 2016, this World Heritage site is comprised of both manmade and natural archeological remains. The manmade, megalithic tombs of Menga, Viera, and El Romeral are considered among the best preserved dolmens in Europe—an impressive feat considering their Neolithic and Bronze Age origins. Antequera’s natural monuments, La Peña de los Enamorados (Lover’s Rock) and El Torcal, are celebrated for their uniquely shaped rock formations that seem to defy gravity.
Visits to all five monuments are free, but a trek up Lover’s Rock is recommended for more experienced hikers.
Salamanca: Where Old Meets New
Salamanca may host one of the oldest universities in Europe, but it has an undeniably youthful atmosphere. In a unique blending of old and new, well-preserved examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture share the city limits with modern shops and hip cafes filled with young college students.
During the evenings, the glowing light of the setting sun washes over the sandstone buildings, confirming why Salamanca is nicknamed “The Golden City.” The Plaza Mayor, widely considered the most beautiful plaza in Spain, is the city’s crowning jewel. Though impressive at all times of day, visit at night to see the square light up and fill with people of all ages.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Atapuerca: Unearthing Our Shared Roots
Deep in northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains, a startling discovery turned what was once a 19th-century coal and iron mine into one of the most significant archaeological sites in Europe. The remains unearthed at the site reveal the course of human evolution, from our ancestors from over a million years ago to modern day homo sapiens. In addition to human remains, the site contains ancient tools, animal bones, and traps—evidence of how the earliest humans hunted and performed daily tasks.
Various guided tours are available, which offer visitors a more in-depth understanding of artifacts found at the archaeological site. The Human Evolution Museum in the nearby city of Burgos also hosts a permanent collection of fossils.
Ibiza: More Than a Party Island
Ibiza often evokes images flashing nightclubs, crowded beaches, and neon-clad partygoers, but this small island off the eastern coast of Spain is more than just a party town.
Ibiza is one of only two Spanish World Heritage sites inscribed for both its natural and cultural features. A dive into the island’s turquoise waters showcases one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in Europe, home to over 220 species of coral, brightly colored fish, and Posidonia, a species of seagrass found only in Mediterranean basin.
In addition to its biodiversity, Ibiza earned its double classification for its Renaissance military architecture found in the island’s fortified Upper Town, and the ancient Phoenician ruins of Sa Caleta and Puig des Molins.