The choice is dizzying in this land of plenty that ranges from arid desert in the east to undulating sierra clad in olive groves to dense oak forests nudging the border of Portugal. Then there’s the necklace of the Mediterranean and the breezy Atlantic – making Andalucia a destination like no other. Here are ten reasons to go.
1. The Alhambra, Granada
This architectural jewel is top of everyone's list, the most iconic sight of the region which synthesises Moorish Spain. The American writer, Washington Irving, was the first to encapsulate its magic in English back in 1832 after camping inside the semi-ruined palace, but since then much renovation has taken place.
Perched high on a bluff above Granada, backed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, this palace cum fortress started with the austere 11th century Alcazaba (fortress) and culminated four centuries later in the sensual treasure of the Nazrid Palace. You can’t fail to be dazzled by walls of geometric mosaic, soaring cupolas of intricately sculpted plaster, carved ceilings, and patios where water vies with vegetation. Spend half a day exploring, have lunch on the terrace of the Parador, then return for a nocturnal visit to the Generalife – the summer palace whose lush gardens overlook the sparkling city below. Entry slots must be booked in advance online – and it’s hard to avoid the crowds.
2. The Mezquita, Cordoba
At the heart of Cordoba’s labyrinthine Moorish quarter stands the Great Mosque (mezquita), the only survivor of its kind from Al-Andalus. Started in 785AD, it was extended four times to become one of the largest in the world. Enter through the arcaded Courtyard of Orange Trees, a restful spot of trickling fountains, even better in April when the fragrance of orange blossom fills the air.
Inside you are greeted by rows and rows of horseshoe arches supported by 824 columns, altogether designed to give a sense of infinity. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted mihrab (prayer niche), oriented towards Mecca, from which the imam once led worshippers, and where Quranic texts are engraved into marble and formed in mosaic. Andalucia’s greatest anomaly lies at the centre of the mosque: a still-functioning Renaissance cathedral planted by the Catholic kings.
3. The Tabernas Desert
If Spaghetti Westerns are or were your thing, then head to Europe’s driest, sunniest region in southeastern Andalucia. Here, a short drive north of Almeria and inland from the volcanic beaches of Cabo de Gata, unfold vast lunar landscapes of gullies, karst limestone, palm trees and canyons that have been inhabited since Neolithic times. These ‘badlands’ were chosen for filming dozens of Westerns in the 1960-70s, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and even Lawrence of Arabia and Anthony and Cleopatra. Today you can explore three old film sets, meet the sheriff then ride into the sunset – or rather visit the world’s largest research centre for solar technology: Almería Solar Platform.
4. Baelo Claudia, Playa de Bolonia
These Roman ruins are on the wild sands of Playa de Bolonia, washed by the Atlantic. Baelo Claudia was built in the 1st century to exploit proximity to Tangier, just across the strait in Morocco; as the Roman Empire at that time stretched as far as Turkey, trading ports were key. Not only that, this section of coast south of Cadiz was famed for the annual passage of Bluefin tuna which the Romans proceeded to salt for export – a technique used by the Phoenicians centuries earlier. Have a drink at the chiringuito (beach bar) then visit the informative modern museum before exploring the fish factory, theatre, forum and baths, all of which overlook the Atlantic surf – a magical spot.
5. Mercado Central, Cadiz
Covered food markets abound in Andalucia, with the best overall being Malaga’s Atarazanas and Seville’s Triana and Encarnación. However seafood fanatics should head for the dreamy walled part of Cadiz to revel in its buzzy Mercado Central, said to be Spain’s oldest covered market – complete with Doric porticoes. The mouth-wateringly fresh seafood section displays mountains of glistening dogfish, lobsters, crabs, Carabinero king prawns, red mullet, octopus, cuttlefish, swordfish and tuna straight from the Atlantic. Even better, a large side plaza is lined with small outlets selling freshly prepared food and drinks which you can enjoy at a table outside. Time for a sherry?
The cavernous 100-metre tajo – gorge – that splits this town in two is another of Andalucia’s picture-postcard eye-poppers. Luckily it’s spanned by a bridge, but as Ronda is close to the tourist haunts of the coast you will not be alone in crossing it. This influx gives the centre a lively atmosphere and a glut of tapas bars to add to sights such as the beautifully crafted Palacio de Mondragón where the monarchs Fernando and Isabela once stayed, the neo-classical bullring, the quirky private Museo Lara which showcases the Inquisition beside other eclectic exhibits, or the hulking Almocabar gateway – leading to a less touristy area to eat. Above all, don’t skip the downhill trek to the 13th-century Arab Baths, a remarkable example of this sophisticated custom left by the Moors.
7. Setenil de las Bodegas
From Ronda, a road winds north through rolling sierra to the idiosyncratic pueblo blanco of Setenil, one of Andalucia’s most extraordinary urban sights. Cascading down the hillside from an old Moorish watchtower, a web of streets encompasses dozens of cave houses built into limestone cliffs, often fronted by narrow lanes shaded by huge overhanging boulders. Extended from natural caves over the centuries, these houses now offer perfect troglodyte accommodation (including holiday rentals) as well as tapas bars and specialist food shops spilling on to the pavement outside. Most day-trippers stick to the riverside streets but if you climb to the top of the town you’ll be rewarded with enchanting corners, churches and stunning views.
8. Caminito del Rey
If you need to walk off some of the delicious jamón and wines you’ve been consuming, then this hiking trail high above the Guadalhorce river and canyon may be the answer. Again, it is near Ronda. With a total length of 7.7km which includes access paths, vertiginous footbridges, forest tracks and the gorge that shrinks to just 10m wide, it certainly tests anyone’s mettle. The name derives from King Alfonso XIII who inaugurated the walkway in 1921 to enable locals on foot, bicycle or horseback to negotiate these rugged mountains of Malaga province. Four to five hours are needed, however as the route is linear you need to arrange a pick-up or use the coaches that connect the two ends.
9. Casa de Pilatos, Seville
Seville, Andalucia's capital, breathes life, colour and history like no other. But once you've been dwarfed by the overwhelming scale of Seville's Cathedral, its towering Giralda and the neighbouring royal palace, you may feel like somewhere more intimate. The Casa de Pilatos is the answer, an exquisite mansion where the aristocratic Medinacelli family still occupies a wing. Luckily the best part is open to the public, a rare showcase of Renaissance architecture harmonising with Mudejar stuccowork, coffered ceilings, patterned tiles and marble floors as well as a fine collection of Roman busts and statues. A welcome extra is the cool, peaceful garden with fountain - a perfect retreat for Seville's baking summer afternoons.
10. Eating at Andalucia’s finest
Over the last decade, Andalucia’s chefs have progressed by leaps and bounds, making the region a salivating destination for foodies. Top of the class with three Michelin stars is the chef Angel León, whose restaurant Aponiente rules the waves in El Puerto de Santa Maria, near Cadiz. Expect an out-of-this-world pescatarian experience. Close behind is Ronda’s unpretentious Bardal where Benito Gomez presents local, seasonal produce of high quality in strikingly innovative ways. Also with two Michelin stars is Noor, in Cordoba, where Paco Morales reinvents Moorish dishes in a slick, theatrical setting. Over in Malaga, José Carlos Garcia was one of the first to offer creative, high-end cuisine, and his restaurant in the revamped port remains a favourite, focusing on local produce from the Axarquia hills and the fruits of the Mediterranean. All these restaurants require advance booking and offer tasting menus. Buen provecho!
Currently the best route to Andalucia from New Zealand is to fly to Madrid (via Dubai with Emirates, Santiago with LATAM, Dallas Fort Worth with American Airlines, or New York’s JFK with Air New Zealand), then hire a rental car or take a connecting flight to Malaga. Talk to your travel agent for the best option for you.