There’s much to see while travelling around Spain — the destination is rich in religious and cultural history, delicious foods and glorious centuries-old churches — but there’s more to the country than its major cities. If you’re willing to hop on a train or bus to get beyond the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, you’ll discover these charming off-the-beaten-track gems.
If you’re in: Barcelona
Skip Gaudi’s cathedral and hop on the train heading northwest to Montserrat, about 45 kilometres from Barcelona. The word literally means “serrated mountain,” which is the best way to describe the town’s jagged hilltops. At 1,200 meters high, the views are breathtaking and the photo opportunities are plentiful. Montserrat is known for its gothic-style basilica, founded in 1025. It is elaborately decorated with colourful mosaic windows and remains a top religious destination in Catalonia. The world-renowned L’Escolania boy’s choir still performs there daily. Montserrat is also the home of the region’s patron saint, Our Lady of Montserrat, known as the Black Madonna. And if you’re an art fan, the Museum of Montserrat features historical and modern paintings, ranging from Catalan artist Josep Niebla to Pablo Picasso.
Getting there: Montserrat is approximately 90 mins from Barcelona by train. Take the R5 line toward Manresa. Get off at the Montserrat-Aeri stop, and take the cable car about 10 minutes to the top. To skip the line after the train, buy tickets to the Aeri cable car online.
If you’re in: Pamplona
There’s much to learn about Pamplona, especially for fans of American writer Ernest Hemingway, whose classic novel The Sun Also Rises was set in the charming city. However, about a two-hour train ride south will take you to the historical town of Zaragoza. The Aljafería Palace, which has UNESCO World Heritage status, is a must-see for architecture enthusiasts, showcases the beauty and intricacy of its 11th-century designs, like geometric patterns and the use of bold colours. But the beating heart of the city is the stunning Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica, beside the Ebro River. The expansive church still hosts mass and is open to the public.
Getting there: Zaragoza is accessible by train from major cities in northern Spain. There is also an airport located about a 15-minute drive from the centre of town.
If you’re in: Madrid
The Royal Palace is a site to see, but if you’re hoping to have a site all to yourself hop on a bus to Chinchón. The traditional town, about 50 kilometres south of Madrid, is known for its church, Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, which houses a Francisco Goya painting, and overlooks the main square. The scenery is serene, with Spanish rooftops and narrow cobblestone streets. The restaurants and the dessert shop in the square have authentic Spanish cuisine and delicious delicacies. The star ingredient in most dishes is anise, which tastes like black liquorice. Don’t skip out on dessert, either: Check out the Dulceria de Chinchón, which offers up Tetas de Novias — unique pastries shaped like a woman’s breast. There is also the Parador de Chinchón, a 17th-century convent converted into a hotel, one of the best-rated paradors in all of Spain. If you need more excitement, plan your trip during one of the town’s lively festivals, when the square turns into a temporary bullring.
Getting there: Chinchón is approximately 40 minutes from Madrid by bus. Take the bus 337 from the Conde de Casal metro station in Madrid toward Chinchon.