You may also like these photo galleries
Just half an hour away from Madrid by high-speed train, Segovia has two utterly spellbinding attractions worth going for alone. The Roman aqueduct, made without any mortar to hold it together, crosses the lower end of town in towering fashion. Then, at the other end is the hugely Disney-esque Alcazar, a castle with witch-hat turrets, ridiculously OTT interiors and killer views out over the city and plains. Segovia is also a pork-lover's heaven; the city is recognised throughout Spain as the home of suckling pig. Stay at the 15th-century La Casa Mudejar, from €55. See lacasamudejar.com.
An alternative, more relaxed Catalonia to Barcelona's irrepressible energy, Girona embraces its history while still doing a pretty good job on the nightlife front. The pretty riverside setting and the eminently strollable medieval walls play a big part in the charm, but the atmospherics really strike home in the old Jewish quarter. The Museu d'Historia dels Jueus de Girona does an excellent job how the medieval Jewish community provided the city's heartbeat before being driven out in 1492, but the narrow streets are ideally suited to aimless meandering. Stay at the historic meets teched-up modern Hotel Llegendes from €170. See llegendeshotel.com.
In a country full of beautiful main squares, Salamanca's stunningly uniform Plaza Mayor takes the top prize. Its two interconnected cathedrals – one vast and Gothic, the other more homely, art-packed and Romanesque – also add to the grandeur. But it's Spain's oldest university that really drives the city, with the students adding high energy to the tapas-crawling scene and the glorious honeyed sandstone buildings. Salamanca is also the city where the Spanish language is regarded as being at its purest – hence the large collection of language schools. Stay at converted Dominican convent, the Hospes Palacio de San Esteban from €90. See hospes.com.
JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA
While Seville and Granada pull in most visitors, Jerez arguably does the best job of capturing the Andalucian spirit. It has a strong claim to being the home of the flamenco – with the local style being more upbeat than Seville's woe-drenched seriousness – and it is most definitely the home of sherry. Tasting hops around the bodegas should be considered mandatory. Alongside the usual castle and cathedral combo, there's also the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art, where dancing white horses and their riders put on exquisite shows. Stay at friendly, beautifully restored mansion Casa Grande from €85. See casagrande.com.es.
The home of Spain's still-powerful Catholic church, but once home to a thriving mixed Christian, Muslim and Jewish community, Toledo wears its heritage proudly. The old city is crammed onto a hilltop in the middle of a particularly scenic loop in the River Tejo, and packs an awful lot in. Mosques, synagogues, shops selling locally made swords, monasteries, churches, Roman baths and art museums are squeezed into the warren of narrow streets. The cathedral is truly exceptional. It seems bare and Gothic until you see the altarpiece and choir – which are so heavily decorated you could spend hours exploring them. Stay at homely hillside Hotel Medina from €51. See hotelmedina.com.
Few cities are as hugely atmospheric as Cordoba, once the home city of a vast Islamic caliphate and premier centre of learning. The streets are narrow, the buildings ripened with age, the Jewish quarter crammed with several excellent restaurants. But the real reason to visit is the Mezquita, an excellent contender for the title of most extraordinary building in the world. It is a vast former mosque, filled with mesmeric red brick and yellow stone archways. Yet within this is, neatly segmented into the middle, is the city's gloriously ornate cathedral. It's an unsurpassable combination of age, historic import, beauty, weirdness and majesty. Stay at converted 18th-century mansion NH Collection Amistad from €89. See nh-hotels.com.
David Whitley was a guest of NH Hotels and Hospes.