10 Reasons to Visit Southern Spain Right Now

If your trip to Spain only covers Barcelona or Madrid, you're missing out on these incredible adventures in its southern region. So take our advice and add Andalusia to your bucket list.

By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

1: See Worlds Collide in Cordoba

For nearly 2,000 years, a Roman bridge has spanned the Guadalquivir River at Cordoba. At times, this mid-sized Spanish city has been a hub not only for Romans, but also Visigoths, Moors and Christians. There are few places in Europe where such a collage of cultures comes together.

You’ll find Cordoba’s signature attraction, La Mezquita, towering over the old Roman bridge. Inside, a cathedral now occupies the interior of the former mosque—which itself straddles a subterranean church built by Visigoths and cobblestone streets leading to Rome.

Second glance: The entirety of Cordoba's old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Take time to wander its narrow corridors, paying particular attention to the meticulously-planted patio gardens. If you look hard enough, you’ll even find the ruins of an ancient synagogue.

2: Pay a Visit to Highgarden

HBO’s Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but the filming location of Highgarden may be more fascinating than fiction. The real-life stronghold of House Tyrell—Castillo de Almodovar del Rio—has been standing on the site of a Roman fort for nearly 1,400 years. The castillo was meticulously restored in the early part of the 20th century, making it one of the best places in Europe to view an authentic, medieval castle in its prime.

Second glance: The Castillo is located just off of the A-431 between Cordoba and Posadas. Game of Thrones fans can still find photos from the show at filming locations within the castle walls. Admission is about $10.

3: Ride the Subbética Greenway

The Subbética Greenway plots a 35-mile course through the Andalusian countryside on the spine of an abandoned railroad track. On one side of the path, the peaks of the Sierras Subbética mountains mark the old boundary between Christian and Moorish settlements. On another side, an endless expanse of Spanish olive groves stretch for as far as the eye can see.

Here, cyclists can ride this obscure rails-to-trails project before filling up on jamón and Spanish wine.

Second glance: A ride on the Subbética Greenway serves as a cool down day on a REI Adventures tour of Andalusia. That tour covers some 240 miles of Southern Spain by bike, and ventures into the Subbética mountain range, along with many of the other destinations you see here.

4: Head to Hog Heaven in Jabugo

Spain is famed for its ham (or jamón), and many trace that legendary culinary tradition back to the tiny town of Jabugo. Hidden beneath its unassuming, ivory exterior, you’ll find the curing vaults of world-renowned ham makers, Cinco Jotas. Their team estimates that some 25,000 hams are housed within these underground vaults at any given time. Each ham cures for years before heading to consumers across the globe.

Second glance: The hills around Jabugo are covered in oak trees for good reason. The black pigs that graze on acorns dropped by the oaks are the only livestock Cinco Jotas uses to make jamón.

5: Soak Up Seville

If you’re flying to Andalusia from the United States, odds are that you’ll land in Seville. Before getting out of Dodge, consider booking a few nights in this underrated, historic city. Seville is the largest city in the region, and it’s here that you’ll be able to take in a top-flight Spanish soccer game, try your hand at flamenco dancing or pay a visit to a bull fighting stadium.

Second glance: Seville is famed for its warm weather, and locals know how to take advantage of it. Afternoon kayak tours through the city center are available for about $30.

6: Spend a Night in the Olive Groves

More than 40% of the world’s supply of olive oil is produced in Spain. Much of that comes from the country’s southern region. Flavor aficionados can sample local oils at almost any restaurant, and at numerous farms throughout the region. And the results may surprise you. Like wine, the taste of olive oil can be affected by the soil, terrain and climate where the olives are grown.

You can spend an evening in that climate by booking a room at a hacienda amongst the olive groves, sampling the surprisingly diverse flavors of the region's most prolific product.

Second glance: The city of Jaén is a focal point for the Andalusian olive oil industry. Consider overnighting there to catch sunrise views at Saint Catherine’s Castle, a 13th-century fortress high above town.

7: Explore Renaissance Relics in Ubeda

On quiet, weekday nights, the Renaissance-era streets of Ubeda can feel like a place frozen in time. This sleepy city remains largely undiscovered by American tourists. Amidst its winding, narrow streets, you’ll spot plenty of locals and European travelers sipping sangria at one of Ubeda’s plentiful cafes; but you’re unlikely to hear the tell-tale twang of other Americans here.

That leaves you free to enjoy this incredible city while feeling a world away from home.

Second glance: Ubeda’s Vazquez de Molina Square is bookended by Renaissance palaces and religious sites. It’s located steps away from a town center brimming with authentic, Spanish cuisine. Octopus, anyone?

8: Peruse Peaceful Pueblos Blancos

Remnants of North African architecture abound in Andalusia, most notably in the whitewashed, rural villages known as pueblos blancos. You’ll find a high concentration of pueblos blancos—like the village of Zuheros, seen here— in the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga. Many contain medieval, Moorish fortifications; and you’re practically guaranteed to find a delicious bite to eat in all of them.

Second glance: In general, you’ll need a rental car to make your way to the pueblos blancos. Most are located at least 50 miles from international airports in Seville and Granada. And, because these towns sprouted up around Moorish defensive outposts, they tend to be in remote, mountainous areas.

9: Get Lost in a Natural Park

Just because you left the States doesn't mean you have to leave your love for national parks behind. Due to Iberia's lengthy history of human inhabitation, national parks here function a little differently than the ones you may be used to in the United States. For starters, most parks here contain towns and villages—but that doesn't make their landscapes any less breathtaking than their American counterparts.

Second glance: Southern Spain is home to a host of parks that would make even Teddy Roosevelt envious. Natural parks like Sierra de Aracena, Sierra Subbética, and Del Estrecho function as national monuments. And the original Sierra Nevada mountains are home to Andalusia's highest peaks and its largest national park.

10: Absorb the Awe-Inspiring Alhambra

The Eiffel Tour, the Taj Mahal, the Roman Colosseum—some tourist attractions are worth fighting the crowds to see. Count Alhambra among them. Though tickets require an advance reservation, this UNESCO World Heritage site stands alone as the last remaining complex of great, Arabic palaces of the medieval era.

For centuries, Moorish kings, queens, scholars, botanists, scientists and poets all called this forbidden city home. It eventually fell to the Christian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella just in time for Christopher Columbus to receive his commission in one of its halls to set sail across the Atlantic.

Second glance: The Alhambra is more than an architectural marvel. Some interior rooms are covered in poetry from floor to ceiling. Search for a guide who can translate Arabic for a perspective that many tourists miss.

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