Wondering how to get off the beaten path in Spain? We have you covered with this collection of secret spots and, perhaps more importantly, strategies to uncover the non-touristy parts of this land of fiery flamenco.
See also this article on unique things to do in Spain.
How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Spain
Disclosure: this article was produced in partnership with Tourism Spain as part of their slow travel project this summer. We love Spain and slow travel and always keep the right to write what we like. As ever, as always.
Years ago, with only six weeks notice, we moved to Seville. We were living in the south of France at the time and issues arose about how we could get our car across the Pyrenees and down to Andalusia. The smartest option, it seemed, was to pack all our worldly goods into a removal van and to drive the car ourselves.
And so our born-of-necessity road trip began, starting in Toulouse and heading through the mountains to the Basque country in northwest Spain. From there, we would zip down south with just a few overnight stays and catch up with our belongings at the end.
It was to be a dutiful, possibly dull, trip off the beaten path in Spain.
As I plotted out our route and scanned down the list of place names, nothing much stood out. Growing up in the UK means that many Spanish destinations are household names: Madrid, of course, and Barcelona, Valencia. Tenerife, Ibiza, Costa del Sol. But none of those were on our list.
As I was about to discover, the household names are nowhere near the full story...
The BEaten Path in Spain
Spain is one of the most popular countries in the world, with around 80 million tourists visiting each year. That's more than the populations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Malta, Croatia and Greece combined. Heck, it's nearly twice the population of Spain itself.
Yet most of these visitors stick to the same few spots. They congregate in Las Ramblas in Barcelona or throng to the nightclubs in Ibiza. Popular beach spots draw crowds in Tenerife and the Balearics, while sports fans clamour for Real Madrid and art fans hit the Golden Triangle.
Why you should head off the beaten path in Spain
Yet as that road trip to Seville showed me, Spain is far more than her fame. Hot air balloons rose over honeyed stone aqueducts in the central city of Segovia. Waves crashed onto the sand in the Basque country, where platters of pintxos waited on emerald ceramic bars and a floral dog stood guard over the curving steel of the Bilbao Guggenheim.
Olive trees flew past open gold plains and stone castles, as armoured horsemen and oil painting portraits watched over us as we slept. We sipped orange juice fresher than the tears of angels and watched sunsets chase us along bull-flanked roads.
What our road trip revealed, and years of travel in Spain afterwards emphasised even more, was three key things.
First, that travelling off the beaten path in Spain is beautiful. Second, that it is easier than you think. And third, that most of the country could be said to be off the beaten path.
There are, quite literally, so many unvisited destinations, overlooked activities and forgotten traditions, even in the most popular of cities.
It's more sustainable
What's more, heading off the beaten path in Spain, or indeed anywhere, is a good thing to do! It's a key part of travelling more sustainably by easing overtourism and spreading around wealth. And, just as importantly, it often offers a more enjoyable experience.
So. Here, in celebration of slow travel and sustainable tourism and together with this article on unique places in Spain, let's talk about how to get off the beaten path in Spain. From secret spots to failsafe strategies.
Strategies to Get Off the Beaten Path in Spain
Let's start by breaking it down into chunks.
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Finding Hidden Gems in Spain at a glance
- Visit destinations that most tourists miss
- Take a local tour
- Take a cooking lesson or handicraft lesson
- Join a local festival
- Plan a road trip through Spain
- Talk to people!
Getting off the beaten path in Spain, or indeed anywhere, can be a big bold gesture, a small diversion or the main approach to your trip, threaded into the journey itself.
Wherever you go, you can head off that beaten path. Or, you can choose a destination so overlooked everything is off the beaten path automatically.
Let me show you some examples...
Go somewhere different
This strategy for getting off the beaten path in Spain starts before you even book a single ticket or leave your house. You swap the beloved cities, beaches and areas for places where few tourists go.
And, even in Spain, there are plenty of destinations like this. In the north, you can travel through the regions of Asturias and Galicia, for example. In the centre, you can skip Madrid and tour through the rest of Castilla la Mancha. And further south, you can tour around Extremadura.
I've written more about these unexplored areas of Spain in more detail for you here.
Take a local tour
At the other end of the spectrum, you can get off the beaten path in Spain by taking a short tour of an hour or so. If chosen correctly, your local led tour can show you secret passageways (quite literally) and you'll be amazed at how easy it can be to escape the crowds, if you know how.
So how do you manage to have one of these great local tours instead of the prepackaged, salami style group tours which take over the town and annoy everyone around them?
How to find a good tour
First, look for group size. The smaller the better. Then, ideally, look for a locally led tour. You can sometimes find fantastic sustainable tours on the big sites like Viator and Get Your Guide but a personal recommendation is usually best. Context Travel offer tours run by academics, so the content goes into a lot of depth, way beyond a student simply reading from a script.
Tourist offices can also sometimes point you in the right direction and, as ever, check out your favourite travel bloggers. Good tour guides are hard to find and I always mention someone in person if they've been excellent.
And my final tip for this is to take a food tour. Good food tours visit several bars and restaurants and so they can't take too many people or else the tour won't work. Plus, you'll learn so much more about Spain by understanding its food properly, you'll make new friends and, well, it's fun!
Take a course
Expanding on the idea of getting off the beaten path in Spain by pairing up with a local guide, the next step is to take some kind of course. One of my favourite options is to take an afternoon or evening cooking class or dinner in someone's home.
These are the perfect ways to break the ice. There is nothing that bonds people quite so much as sharing a meal, even with a language barrier.
I've made fideuà in Barcelona, paella in Valencia and olive oil in Andalusia. And each time, I've learned more about the country, other people and, though it's cheesy, myself.
On the more flamboyant end of the scale, you can also take a short course in dancing, with flamenco, for example (and yes, I've done that.) Or sign up to learn some Spanish (or Catalan, Basque or Valencian, depending on where you are.) And si, I have done that too.
Join a festival
It is often said that Spain has more public holidays than there are days in the year and, while clearly some must overlap, the essence of this is true. Spain loves a good festival, creating parties and events from key dates in the calendar, involving everything from throwing rotten tomatoes to, allegedly, goats.
When you immerse yourself in one of Spain's main festivals and events, like Semana Santa in Seville, you'll see a wholly authentic side of the country. It's a cultural or even spiritual way to get off the beaten path in Spain.
Plan a road trip
While I'd argue that Spain has some of the best fast trains in the world, to head out to the smaller villages or pueblos, it helps to have your own set of wheels. Taking a road trip is one of the best ways to get off the beaten path in Spain, simply because so much of the country remains unexplored by tourists. Leave the congested areas behind and explore some of Spain's National Parks or visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and biospheres that don't lie on the standard tourist path.
Read a good travel blog
OK, so I'm biased here! But seriously. Some of the best hidden gems and secret spots in Spain that I've found came from reading good travel blogs and following local experts on social media. And while it's not quite a blog, I'd also recommend checking out Spotted by Locals for in-depth, behind the scenes recommendations for popular places.
I've saved the best until last. The number one way to find out the best secret spot in town is to talk to people. All kinds of people. And, luckily, Spain is a country where people love to talk!
So, don't hold back. Get chatting with fellow passengers, with taxi drivers, with people in a bar, the concierge, friends, people you meet on tours and cooking lessons. Chat to experts you follow on social media.
The world changes fast and sometimes the best route to slow travel means keeping your finger on the pulse.
Plus, again, it's more fun. And it's part of why travel can be a force for good.
Hidden Gems Spain: Stunning Yet Overlooked Regions
For the quickest way to get off the beaten track in Spain, travel to one of these less well known regions and provinces.
Asturias sits on the northern coast of Spain as the green coast. Quite literally, as Spaniards calls it the Costa Verde. It's rich in beautiful stone villages which few visitors see, plus some innovative new projects like the Oscar Niemeyer Complex in Aviles.
One of the most romantic ways to travel off the beaten path in Spain involves boarding the Transcantabrico train and watching the green fields roll by beneath Celtic crosses in a vintage cabin reminiscent of the time of Agatha Christie.
Apples are also big business in Asturias, with frothy cider poured from great heights and restaurants sitting guests inside giant barrels. It's no place for slouching, though. The froth of the cider disappears quickly, so you're expected to drink it up fast.
Also high on the north coast, the coastline of Galicia zigs and zags in and out, around and down, up and back in again like the sutures of a skull. It's home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site the Tower of Hercules, the oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the world, built by the Romans and still working today.
While most of the world knows Galicia for Santiago de Compostela, if they know it at all, the people who live there know there is much more than that. Beyond the main pilgrimage route, you'll also find smaller places of pilgrimage, windswept cliff edges, the striking Cathedral Beach and some of the strangest looking seafood in the world.
Ask for percebes, or dinosaur claws, and see what I mean.
Castilla La mancha
Most people visit Castilla la Mancha on a day trip from Madrid. They zip down to the old capital of Toledo and back again before the sun sets. But if you spend a few days touring around this autonomous region, you'll realise that it's one of the best ways to get off the beaten path in Spain.
Don Quixote, the star of the world's oldest novel, roamed around Castilla la Mancha first, tilting at windmills and creating literary history. You can visit the real windmills, which stand squat and proud today, as well as visit the author's home where the ghost of Cervantes is said to linger still.
Plenty of people know the name La Rioja from the wine. But not so many turn that into a visit and an education all by itself!
Not that you have to enjoy wine to enjoy La Rioja, of course, but it helps. With over 500 bodegas or wineries, you can keep yourself busy on a wine route or you can branch out and take a hot air balloon ride or indulge in a spa trip. I hear the most popular treatment is to bathe in a pool of wine...
The Basque Country
Two of my favourite cities sit in the Basque country in Spain: San Sebastian with its broad expanse of sand and incredible array of pintxos in bars, and Bilbao, with the swirls and whirls of the Guggenheim art museum. The Basque people and their cultural identity straddle the modern day borders of France and Spain, and there's no doubt that things are different here.
Basque people call the area Euskadi and a trip through this area is one of the best ways to get off the beaten path in Spain.
- Read about why you shouldn't call pintxos tapas in San Sebastian here (plus the best places to eat.)
- Plan your San Sebastian itinerary here.
Snuggling up to Portugal, and far from the coast, Extremadura is Spain's best kept secret. The capital, Mérida, has hauntingly beautiful crumbling Roman ruins. And the region produces Spain's most popular food product: high quality Iberian ham.
Despite its perceived sleepy status, it has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites plus a plethora of atmospheric villages with whitewashed walls and red stone arches. You can sleep in former castles, like the Zafra parador, and hike or drive through mile after mile of beautiful, unspoiled countryside.
It's one of the most beautiful road trips in Spain.
How to Get Off the Beaten Path in the Popular Cities
You can take each of strategies about how to get off the beaten path in Spain and apply them to her main cities. But to get you started, let me outline a few ways you can go about it in the heavyweights of Barcelona, Seville and Madrid.
Beautiful Barcelona showcases exactly why it's good to learn how to get off the beaten path in Spain! This magnificent beachside city has popular spots. And, boy are they popular.
Yet with just a little inside knowledge, it is easy to see Barcelona off the beaten path. While crowds stare up at the (deservedly) world famous Casa Mila, you can take a walking tour with Context along the exact same street and see even more architecture - alone. While hordes jostle along Las Ramblas, just two blocks over you can be tasting octopus and sipping cerveza by yourself.
Or, you can head into the surrounding countryside by staying in one of these luxury villas near Barcelona with a private pool.
Finally, stick with the city vibe and head to Catalunya's beautiful city of Girona. There you can enjoy a real city break, with medieval walls, world class food and cute walkways, and you'll still feel as though you're off the beaten path in Spain.
As the hottest city in Europe, Seville swishes and swaggers onto the map with an intoxicating mix of seduction and swelter, the home of many of the stereotypes about Spain. In Seville, people do take siestas: it's just too hot work in the afternoon.
They invented flamenco, although prefer the dance sevillanas, they invented gazpacho, but prefer the local salmorejo and the sombre processions of Holy Week are followed by the city wide party of Fería afterwards.
Yet despite the queues, it's still easy to get off the beaten path.
Start by crossing the Guadalquivir river to the Triana neighbourhood to visit the "wrong side of the tracks." Check out this list of unique things to do in Seville. And then, strange as it sounds, check out the drain covers.
More on Seville
Truthfully, it can be hard to get off the beaten track in Madrid. At least at first. Unlike certain other cities, like Venice, where people crowd onto a single walkway, visitors spread out in Madrid. But really, not that much.
To get away from the tourist crowds in Madrid, I'd highly recommend checking out the Spotted by Locals guide to the city. Also, pair up with a local guide who will show you the spots that most tourists miss. I loved my tour through the Golden Triangle of Art in Madrid. While there are huge crowds of people jostling to see Las Meninas at the Museo del Prado and Guernica at the Reina Sofia, these huge museums also have galleries which stand virtually empty.
With just a little local information, you can have the place practically to yourself.
How to Get Off the Beaten Path in the Popular Islands
Here's how to find hidden gems and secret spots in Spain's most popular islands.
The Balearic Islands float in the Mediterranean Sea off the eastern coast of Spain. While each island has its own identity, many visitors are drawn to the clear, clear waters and soft sand beaches that linger around the coast.
Most head to Mallorca, the biggest island in the archipelago, or Ibiza, the island famed for its nightlife.
So to head off the beaten track, travel instead to the island of Menorca, a smaller, quieter affair.
There, you can visit prehistoric archaeological remains, visit gin distilleries and sugar dusted bakeries. And yes, you can also swim and just relax on the beach.
The Canary Islands
I have a confession to make. When it comes to visiting Spain's Canary Islands, which glimmer off the west coast of Africa, I have only been to one: Tenerife.
Now, I have visited several times but for various reasons, I haven't yet made it to Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. At least not yet.
And while Tenerife is one of the most popular places in Spain for Brits to visit, you can still very easily get off the beaten path.
In fact, I'd branch out and say that it's far more enjoyable to get off the beaten track in Tenerife. Allow me to explain...
Tenerife in Focus
Most visitors who head to Tenerife do so to fly and flop on a beach in Playa de las Americas. And that's fine if that's your thing.
However. Hire a car and venture beyond the beach to discover the UNESCO World Heritage City of La Laguna, the first grid like city in the world. Lace up your hiking boots and venture into the UNESCO Biosphere Anaga Natural Park. And, if you have a strong stomach, drive the winding roads that lead to the cave houses or caseiros in Chinamada.
You will find so many surprising and unusual things to do in Tenerife, you'll wonder why on earth everyone else spends so long sat on the beach in one place. Even the food is something special, from the patatas arrugadas to the dish that really is called mojo.
More on Tenerife
- Read our Tenerife food guide and the dishes you need to know here.
- Whale watching in Tenerife: your perfect antidote to crowded beaches.
- Uncover more unusual things to do in Tenerife here.
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