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Look beyond Barcelona. Here’s where locals travel in Spain

Spain is one of the world’s most-visited countries, drawing more than 83 million travelers in 2019, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization.

In terms of international arrivals, that makes it second only to France.

But the Spanish are also avid travelers within their own country, with nearly 93% choosing to travel within Spain in the first quarter of 2022, according to Spain’s National Statistics Institute.

From where to eat to new luxury hotels in Madrid and desserts celebrating different saints’ days in Barcelona, Spanish residents told CNBC where they love to go.

Northern Spain 

Spanish Hotelier Pau Guardans got to know his country as a child, when his family would spend vacations road-tripping in a red and white Volkswagen “Kombi” van, a popular bus-style vehicle in the 1970s.

Now, he likes to go on vacation to the Costa Brava region of Catalonia on Spain’s northeast coast.

“I would recommend visiting any of its beautiful ‘calas’ [coves] and eating in its ‘chiringuitos’ [beach bars] with good fish and rice dishes. In the interior, it is worth discovering the magnificent gastronomy of the area with products from the countryside,” he said.

The Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees mountains, a range that runs along the French-Spanish border.
Artur Debat | Moment | Getty Images

Guardans, founder of Unico Hotels, a luxury group that includes the Grand Hotel Central in Barcelona and the Principal Madrid, recommended eating at Can Salo, a restaurant in a 16th-century farmhouse in the village of Palau-Sator.

Further inland, he suggests Eth Triton, a restaurant in a valley in the Spanish Pyrenees called the Val d’Aran, for “good food in a family atmosphere — and a good wine cellar!”

Northern Spain is also home to two of the country’s wine regions. “For autumn trips, without a doubt, I love to visit the wineries in Ribera del Duero or La Rioja,” Patricia Alonso, a marketer living in Madrid, said in an email to CNBC.

The village of Brinas in the La Rioja region in northern Spain. The area has more than 500 wineries, around 80 of which welcome visitors.
Julio Alvarez | Moment | Getty Images

For summer, Alonso said she prefers the Asturias region along the Bay of Biscay, noting the sheltered Playa de Toro beach in the town of Llanes as a particular favorite.

Southern Spain

Alonso said she also loves the south of Spain, and the province of Cadiz is a favorite, known for its long sandy beaches, whitewashed towns and the sherry made from the vineyards surrounding the city of Jerez de la Frontera. Cadiz is part of the autonomous community of Andalucia, the region most visited by Spaniards.

Alonso recommended the popular windsurfing beach Valdevaqueros, close to the town of Tarifa, the southernmost point of Europe. She also likes Bolonia, a wide curve of pale sand with dunes, and the remains of Baelo Claudia, an ancient Roman town right by the beach.

Bolonia beach, close to the town of Tarifa, the most southerly point in Europe.
Miguel Sotomayor | Moment | Getty Images

The Cadiz province is also a pick for Fabian Gonzalez, the founder of travel conference Forward_MAD whose parents live close to the region’s capital city, which is also called Cadiz.

“Cadiz province has probably the best white sand and crystal water beaches in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as an incredible fish-based gastronomy. When in Cadiz province, a must is Casa Bigote restaurant, in Sanlucar de Barrameda, where you can try the best prawns in the world,” Gonzalez told CNBC by email.

Gonzalez also recommended the bluefin tuna at Taberna de el Campero in Zahara de los Atunes, a fishing village around an hour’s drive south of Cadiz city.

On the southeast coast, the town of Javea in the province of Alicante is a pick for Marina Valera, a social media manager living in Madrid. “Although it’s very crowded in the summer, Javea has a landscape that is worth the visit — it inspired the paintings of the famous Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla, and Cristobal Balenciaga spent his last days there,” she told CNBC.

“It doesn’t have the usual flat landscape that you might think because of the Montgo, a mountain that dominates the skyline for miles around,” she added.

Enjoying paella by the sea is a must, Valera said. The chiringuito Montgo di Bongo is right on the beach, and its website boasts daily opening hours of 10:30 a.m. to sunrise. Valera suggested making a reservation well in advance.

The beach cove Cala Granadella in Alicante is popular with Spanish people. Locals advise going early in the morning or off-season to avoid crowds.
Sergio Formoso | Moment | Getty Images

“Right next to Montgo di Bongo, La Siesta … is the place to see and be seen with beautiful people, fancy decorations and dance music. If you prefer something more down to earth, my favorite is [Taverna] Octopus, a bar located on El Arenal beach with rock music and good vibes,” she added.

Valera’s tip for avoiding beach crowds? “I’d recommend going super early! And of course, September is better than July and August … I also prefer going to Benisero beach: as it is a pebble beach, it is not as comfortable as the sandy beach of El Arenal, but there are fewer people.”

What to do in Madrid

Alonso recommended Matadero Madrid, on the banks of the River Manzanares in Spain’s capital, an arts development in a former slaughterhouse and cattle market. She described it as having a “typical Spanish atmosphere,” in which visitors can enjoy a traditional cana — a small glass of beer.

The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid. The hotel, which is more than 100 years old, reopened after a three-year renovation in April 2021.
Cristina Arias | Cover | Getty Images

Gonzalez, who lives around 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) outside Madrid, likes to stay in the city a couple of times a year, “as if I were a traveler,” he said, trying out hotels such as The Edition and the Four Seasons – both new to the city — or the recently restored Mandarin Oriental Ritz.

“Del Prado or Thyssen museums, the Musicals of Gran Via or an authentic flamenco show in El Corral de la Moreria are my best recommendations to enjoy the vibrant city like a local,” he said.

The Museo Del Prado holds Spain’s national art collection, while the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum houses Old Masters as well as modern art. El Corral de la Moreria has nightly flamenco shows with dinner options.

The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) seen in the background in Madrid.
Jorg Greuel | Stone | Getty Images

“Having brunch at Jardines de Sabatini aparthotel, which has one of the most beautiful views of the city, is a must,” Gonzalez added. The hotel’s roof terrace overlooks Madrid’s Royal Palace and has its own classic car museum.

What to do in Barcelona

Barcelona, where hotelier Guardans lives, is very popular with overseas visitors. To get oriented, he recommended seeing it from a high viewpoint to see that it’s “a small city surrounded by two mountains and the sea — with its old Roman quarter and its spectacular modernist ‘Ensanche’ district.”

Ensanche, or Eixample, is notable for its octagonal block structure and grid-like appearance with a diagonal avenue running through it, while Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is home to the remains of the Roman Temple of Augustus.

Residential buildings in Barcelona’s Eixample district.
Alexander Spatari | Moment | Getty Images

The Palau Nacional, or National Museum of Catalan Art, has a rooftop terrace included in its 2-euro ($2) entry price.

“Barcelona is a city that can be discovered very well on foot. It has a human scale, and its architecture is the best open-air museum. I would recommend getting lost through its beautiful streets, full of history,” Guardans said.

Several saints’ days are celebrated in Barcelona, and each comes with a commemorative cake.

During the festival of Sant Jordi (St. George), panaderias — or bakeries — are filled with pastries decorated with the red and yellow of the Catalan flag, for example. Guardans recommended La Colmena in the Gothic Quarter, which was founded around 1849, or the pastry shop Mauri, in Eixample, with its 1920s painted ceiling.

The Sant Medir Festival, known as a feast of sweets, is celebrated on March 3. Meanwhile, the Revetlla de Sant Joan, celebrated on midsummer’s eve (June 23 in 2023), is marked by bonfires as well as a bread-style cake, known as a coca de Sant Joan, that is made with candied fruit.

“You will have no choice but to come back to the city to continue savoring their exquisite desserts!” Guardans said.

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