The Iberian Peninsula is the westernmost piece of land in Eurasia (Europe and Asia together). Around the world, it is famous for its Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches, its mountains, hills, plains, its mild subtropical climate, and its Spanish and Portuguese cultures and history. Its two main countries Spain and Portugal and so tightly connected that it is worth to be explored together. In this guide, we will detect the geographically most interesting places to visit in Spain and Portugal, to help you to build your Iberian Peninsula itinerary.
Building an itinerary for explorers and backpackers
If you have never been to this part of the world and want to explore it, you have to draw a proper itinerary that includes the key places to visit and things to do there. And the best help comes from geography and history.
If you are in these subjects (and every explorer must be!), you can identify the most representative places of the country, as well as the most important phenomena. You can mark them as “key places to visit”. Then, it would be more easily to draw a route between them. And finally, you can also easily plan the best ways to experience these places- “best things to do”.
So, let’s do it with the Iberian Peninsula.
The basic geography of the Iberian Peninsula
The Iberian Peninsula is a significant part of Europe and the westernmost land of continental Eurasia. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean from the north, west, and partially south; and from the south and southeast- by the Mediterranean Sea. This forms a very long coastline, where you can expect a lot of beaches, rocky shores, and other specific local coastline formations and phenomena. In other words, your itinerary must include coastline points.
Let’s look at the interior. We can see the Pyrenees Mountains in the north, like the peninsula’s “northern wall”. South of these mountains, we can see many other mountain chains, most of them shorter and lower. But one of them is higher than all of them- this is the Sierra Nevada, located in the southern part of the peninsula. Everything else consists of plains and plateaus. And all of this is divided by several big rivers- Guadalquivir, Douro (Duero), Tagus (Teju), and Ebro.
The climate is subtropical almost everywhere (except in the high mountains), and mainly humid. Most of the land is covered by subtropical forests- evergreen or seasonal (in higher altitudes). We can see olives, oranges, and other Mediterranean cultures. There are also some drier areas without forests, but only bush.
Azores, Madeira, Canary, and Balearic Islands?
These islands are exotic parts of Spain and Portugal. But they are these countries’ parts only politically. Canary and Balearic Islands belong to Spain, Azores and Madeira belong to Portugal. But geographically, they are not a part of the Iberian Peninsula.
And since now we are looking exclusively at the geographical Iberian Peninsula, we will not focus on these islands. They would be subjects of other articles.
The history of the Iberian Peninsula is long and complex, but let’s make it simple by a short historical timetable list below:
- Prehistory and distant history (unknown to around 7-8 century BC). local Iberian people and unknown civilizations
- Carthaginian and Greek colonization (7-8 century BC to 205 BC). a large part of the peninsula was colonized by the Carthaginians and partially by Greeks.
- Roman period (205 BC to 430 AD). The Iberian Peninsula is a part of the Roman Republic (partially), then the Roman Empire (fully).
- West Gothic period (430 to 711). The Roman rule is replaced by several kingdoms, created by Germanic people- West Goths (Visigoths), Vandals, and Suebians.
- Islamic and Reconquest period (711 to 1492). Most of the peninsula is ruled by the Arabs, who gradually retreat to the south by the new growing Spanish and Portugal kingdoms.
- Spanish Empire period (1492 to 1812). The whole peninsula is initially united under the Spanish Empire, then Portugal separates from it as another kingdom. Finally, in 1812, the first modern Constitution of Spain was issued.
- Modern period (1812 until today). Both Spain and Portugal pass through kingship, dictatorship, and democracy. Eventually, today they are a part of the European Union.
All of these historical periods have left a lot of remnants across the whole peninsula- fortresses, ruins, castles, and modern buildings. There are also a lot of museums with high educational value worth visiting. So, it is worth including them in your itinerary.
Culture and politics
As a result of the above-described geography and history, today the Iberian Peninsula is divided into two main countries- Spain and Portugal. In addition, there is also a dwarf country in the Pyrenees- Andorra, as well as the small British territory of Gibraltar.
Culturally and ethnically, most of the population in the peninsula is from the Roman (Latin) group- Spaniards, Portuguese, and Catalonians. But there is another ethnic group with an unknown origin that lives in the northwest- the Basques. So, to penetrate deeper into their culture and daily life, it is worth visiting the big cities, the more representative villages, as well as some ethnographic museums.
In conclusion- the Iberian Peninsula has rich geography, history, and culture. And there are a lot of points, representing the most important of it. So, let’s identify these points, draw our itinerary, and go on a journey!
Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar
Since we are human travelers, we still have to follow the imagery of human-made “geography” that divides the natural surface of the Earth into “countries”, moreover, most travelers have a “countries-dividing” set of mind.
Spain is the largest country on the peninsula, and as such, it includes more of the geography, history, and culture in its territory. The country includes also the Canary and Balearic islands, but they are geographically not a part of the Iberian Peninsula. So, most of the points of interest in your itinerary would be located in mainland Spain.
Portugal is smaller in area (it also includes the Azores and Madeira archipelagos, but again, they are not a part of the Iberian Peninsula), therefore, the points of interest here would be less in number. It is not always a valid principle, but in this case, it is.
Andorra and Gibraltar are too small, and they can be considered as single points of interest by themselves, and it is really worth including them in your itinerary too.
Now, let’s start with continental Spain.
Places to visit in Spain
To identify the places to visit in Spain, let’s divide the country into four regions- Central, Northern, Eastern, and Southern Spain. There are hundreds of interesting points in this country, but depending on your availability, in most cases, you would choose only some of them. And they are not necessarily the most touristy.
This area includes the central regions of Spain- Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, Castile and Leon, and the capital Madrid. Geographically, it is the central interior of the Iberian Peninsula. Its terrain consists mainly of plateaus and plains, as well as some mountain chains. The highest of them is the Cordillera Central.
Culturally and politically, here is the capital of Spain- Madrid. Other important cities are Toledo and Valladolid. The region has a rich history and many remains can be found there. So, let’s identify the most interesting and representative points.
Nature of Central Spain
If you want to explore the natural face of Central Spain, you would search what points of interest best represent it, and what are the most beautiful and significant phenomena. You should look for mountains, forests, and national parks, probably lakes, canyons, caves or more. And yes, you can find them in this region.
This is the highest mountain range in this region. Although there are more mountains, this one offers the best hiking experience. The highest peak in Cordillera Central is Pico Almanzor (2591 m, 8501 ft). There are many other peaks over 2000 m in height, and the whole mountain range is rich in valleys, mountain gorges, and deep forests with wildlife. So, it is worth planning a hiking route in the Cordillera Central that includes Pico Almanzor.
National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries
Most of the area of Central Spain is relatively flat and covered by agricultural fields. But there are some forest areas with well-preserved local wildlife, presenting the local subtropical geographical zone. These areas are not only covered by forests and other natural formations but also include interesting terrains- gorges, hills, and rock formations.
The three best national parks in Central Spain are located southwest of the capital Madrid, near the city of Guadalupe.
Monfrague National Park is located along the upper valley of the Tagus River. It features interesting rock formations, caves with prehistoric paintings, and beautiful forests, but it is best known for its birdlife.
Cabañeros National Park is significant as the best-preserved and largest Iberian subtropical forest in the peninsula, as well as its geological diversity.
Tablas de Daimiel is the smallest national park in Spain, created to protect the last surviving example of floodplain wetland on the Iberian Peninsula.
Lakes, rivers, waterfalls, canyons
Central Spain is the birthplace of the largest Iberian rivers- Tagus and Douro, as well as the upper section of Ebro. There are not too many lakes, but two of them deserve attention.
Laguna de Gallocanta is a beautiful lake in Zaragoza Province, presenting rich wildlife. And Lagunas de Ruidera is a chain of small lakes forming wonderful landscapes- today designed as another national park.
There are not too many notable waterfalls in Central Spain, but one of them is really stunning. This is Cascada de Nocedo– a hidden waterfall under a natural bridge near the city of Leon.
Also, there are not too many canyons, but a good to visit place is Las Calderas near the town of Quintanar de la Sierra.
For those who like caves, there are two caves worth exploring. The first one is the Cave of Wonders in Zaragoza Province, and the second is actually a cave system, called Valporquero Caves.
This is the most essential of the nature in Central Spain. Now, let’s take a look at the human-made places.
History and culture of Central Spain
The region is very rich in human activity sites- from ancient remains to big modern cities. And Madrid, the capital of Spain is located here. So, let’s start with the cities.
The biggest cities
The biggest city in Central Spain is Madrid, but there are many other big cities that are also rich in historical and cultural sites. Let’s see some of them.
Madrid is the capital of Spain, and one of the largest cities in the whole Iberian Peninsula. It not only represents the country but it has also a lot of historic and cultural landmarks to visit. Also, this is one of the best places where you can try some of the well-known Spanish traditions like bullfight watching, flamenco performances, and other symbols of Spain.
So, it is worth placing Madrid as one of the first destinations in your Iberian Peninsula itinerary, and planning at least 2-3 days to explore it.
This is one of the biggest cities in Spain, known for its folklore, cuisine, splendid cathedrals, and other buildings. Some of its buildings are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city is also famous for its Fiestas del Pilar festival.
This is one of the middle-sized cities in Spain with rich history, presenting many sites mainly from the Middle Ages. Today, it has a beautiful Old town worth visiting and exploring, as well as interesting museums.
Burgos is another middle-sized city, famous for its Cathedral of Burgos, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also known as the “Gastronomy City”.
Salamanca is known as being the city with the oldest university in Spain. Besides this, it is famous for its Old town- another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is another middle-sized city full of splendid architecture. There are many historical buildings- mostly churches and monasteries, and also some buildings with modernist architecture.
Old cities, towns, and villages
There are many other bigger and smaller cities in Central Spain, but some of them are of special significance with their historical and ethnographical value. The first of them is Toledo.
Toledo is considered the historical heart of Spain. The whole city is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom. And the next ages left a lot of buildings and sites that remained in the city, turning it into a place for “time travel”.
A worth to visit a place not far from Toledo is Consuegra Windmills. These are the windmills that Don Quixote from the famous Cervantes’ novel fought with. Today, they are a tourist landmark worth visiting.
Other old towns and villages
There are many other old towns and villages around Central Spain. They are like open-air museums. Among them worth mentioning are Buitrago del Lozoya and Sepulveda near Segovia, Arevalo near Avila, Siguenza near Guadalajara, Frias near Burgos, Peñafiel and Urueña near Valladolid.
Spain is also well-known for its splendid Medieval castles. Many of them are located in Central Spain, and you should include at least one of them in your itinerary. Among the best castles I would mention Alcazar de Segovia and Castle of Castilnovo near Segovia, Castilla la Mota near Avila, and the Moorish Castle Gormaz near Guadalajara.
Prehistoric and Roman sites
Finally, to make your itinerary full, you should include a historical site from more ancient times, left from the Romans or from the people before them. Among them I would strongly recommend visiting the Roman Archaeological reserves in Merida, the Roman tunnels Las Medulas near Leon, and the Roman ruins of Segobriga near Cuenca. Another ancient phenomenon is Los Ojos de la Mora– carved eyes on the cliffs by unknown people.
This is the most significant of Central Spain- as you can see, there is a lot to explore. Let’s go to the north and research Northern Spain.
This is a long but thin area that includes everything between Central Spain and Portugal from the south, and the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay) from the north, as well as the mountain range of the Pyrenees. However, politically it also includes the French part of the Pyrenees, but in this case, we will limit our exploration only to the political border of France. And on the east, this area reaches the border of Barcelona Province.
Culturally and historically, Northern Spain has its own unique face. It shares the same history as the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, but here the Muslim presence has been the least, some of the counties have never been conquered by the Arabs. And the most amazing of everything is the presence of the Basque people- an ethnic group with mysterious origins and unique language with no relation to any other known language that exists on Earth.
Nature of Northern Spain
Northern Spain is a very beautiful land, with a greatly diverse nature. Here you can enjoy stunning beaches at the ocean coast, high alpine mountains, fantastic lakes, gorges and forests, and pastoral hills. The mountain range of the Pyrenees rises in the northeast, but other, lower mountain ranges extend westward to the westernmost points of the region.
This is the highest mountain range in the region. Its northern part is located in France, but the rest is in Spain and the dwarf country of Andorra. The highest peak is Pico d’Aneto (3404 m, 11 168 ft). The whole range is divided into Eastern, Central, and Western Pyrenees, as the Central is the highest sub-range.
The Pyrenees feature alpine peaks and valleys with a glacial origin, some mini glaciers (mainly in France), and alpine grasslands and rocks in the highest parts. And the lower areas are mostly covered by mountain forests. There are a lot of hiking and climbing opportunities, and a lot of natural phenomena.
Pico d’Aneto hike
This is one of the highest peaks in the Iberian Peninsula (the highest is in the south of Spain). The peak and the surrounding mountains are great places for hiking and climbing. Thus, it could be a great way of “visiting the Pyrenees”- one of the worth trying destinations. But there are more significant destinations in the Pyrenees
National parks in the Pyrenees
There are two national parks presenting the best of the Pyrenees.
Aiguestortes (Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici) National Park includes four natural zones, from the lower subtropical forests to the alpine grasslands and glaciated rocks. Here you can see some of the most beautiful lakes in Spain- Lago de San Mauricio,
Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park is one of the oldest in Spain. It is established around one of the most beautiful canyons in the Iberian Peninsula- the Ordesa Valley. The neighboring Canyon de Anisclo is also worth exploring. You can also see one of the most spectacular waterfalls- Cascada de Cotatuero.
More of the Pyrenees
The Pyrenees extend much more beyond these two national parks and include many more parks and natural reserves, not only in the high alpine areas but also in the foothills. One of the most spectacular places, located south of the Central Pyrenees is the canyon of Congosto de Olvena.
The Cantabrian Mountains and Galician Massif
This is another chain of mountains, located west of the Pyrenees, south of the Bay of Biscay, reaching the western coasts of the Iberian Peninsula in Galicia. Although it is lower than the Pyrenees, here you can find some fantastic places- lakes, canyons, waterfalls and many more, surrounded by lush forests.
Picos de Europa National Park
This is the most spectacular national park in the highest part of the Cantabrian Range. Here you can reach the highest peak of this range- Torre de Cerredo (2648 m, 8688 ft). And the most adventurous area of the national park is called Espeleo Aventura, featuring climbing spots, canyons, and more. There is also an incredibly beautiful lake nearby- Lagos de Covadonga.
More natural wonders- canyons, waterfalls, lakes
This area is full of wonderful waterfalls. One of them is the highest in the Iberian Peninsula with more than 400 m in height. It is called Salto del Nervion. Other notable waterfalls are Nacimiento del Rio Ason, Cascada de Orbaneja del Castillo, and Fervenza do Toxa.
If you are looking for lakes, go to Lago de Sanabria. Not far from this lake is the spectacular Sil Canyon. Both of them are located in the Galician Massif.
Now, let’s take a look at the ocean coast.
At the coastline of the Atlantic
Most of the coastline of Northern Spain- the coastline between Portugal and France extends along with mountainous areas. So, you can normally expect relatively rugged sea coasts. There are stunning pristine beaches, and also high and sharp cliffs. If you travel along the coast, you can see a lot of known and hidden pieces of paradise. But let’s choose and focus on some of them.
If you are looking for nice beaches, you can find a lot. But at least two of them deserve special attention.
Playa de Las Cathedrales is located near the town of Foz, and its name suggests something magnificent. And indeed, here you can see gorgeous rock arches and caves that somehow remind you of cathedrals.
Playa del Silencio is another beach with a name that shows some image- the image of silence. And indeed, this is a small beach, locked between high rocky cliffs that somehow “protect” it from noise.
Rock cliffs and islands
There are a lot of cliffs at this coastline, but some of them are really notable and worth visiting. They are called The cliffs of Vixia Herbeira and are known as the highest cliffs in Europe, with more than 600 m of height!
If you are looking for islands- there are not too many of them along the coastline of Northern Spain, but the small islands near the western coast of Galicia are also worth visiting. They are included in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park and feature great sceneries of cliffs, small beaches, and fishing villages.
That’s the most important from the nature of Northern Spain. Let’s see what humans have made for the last centuries and millennia on this beautiful land.
If you are exploring the human culture and history in Northern Spain, you can’t skip one of the most unique cultures in Europe (and in the world), in the Land of Basque people, called also Euskadi.
The Basques are considered descendants of people who have lived on the Iberian Peninsula before the Romans and even before the Iberians, people with unknown name and language. Somehow, the Basque language survived through the whole millennia-long history until today, preserving also their unique culture.
The best place to explore the Basque culture is the capital of the Basque Country- the city of Bilbao. There is not a “Basque ethnic village” or other sites of this type, but if you go to the historical center of Bilbao, called Casco Viejo, you can feel the specific atmosphere of the local culture.
Other worth visiting towns and villages in the Basque Country are San Sebastian, a former “Cultural Capital of Europe”, and the picturesque Hondarribia town.
Other big cities
There are not too many big cities in Northern Spain, but two cities can draw more attention.
A Coruña (La Corunna) is a nice seaside city and resort with vibrant local culture. It is also a good starting point for exploring the region of Galicia.
Pamplona is one of the main cities in Navarre, still within the greater Basque cultural region. It is famous for its bullfight San Fermin Festival that is held every year in July.
That’s the most important in Northern Spain. But let’s not forget another small piece of land that is out of Spain but still within the same geographical region- Andorra.
Andorra is one of the smallest countries in the world. Due to the specific historical process, this place remained an independent state. It is located in the Eastern Pyrenees and the whole of its area is mountainous.
The capital of the country is Andorra la Vella– a calm city where you can see a lot of historic buildings. There are several other towns and villages, and the mountainous nature around them is great for hiking.
Now, let’s move to the eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
This piece of land is located entirely in Spain, along the Mediterranean coast of the country. So, you can expect a lot of coastline formations like beaches, promontories, and cliffs. And there really are a lot of excellent beaches worth visiting and enjoying.
Concerning the interior, there are not too many and too high mountains, but most of the area is relatively flat. Ebro River flows into the sea here.
Culturally, this area is predominantly Catalan. Again, the history of Eastern Spain is just a part of the whole country’s history. Just the Muslim period is longer in the south, compared to the north. One name comes to mind for many travelers to this part of the world. This is Barcelona… but let’s dive into details.
Nature of Eastern Spain
The terrain of Eastern Spain is mostly hilly. In the northern end of this region, the easternmost branches of the Pyrenees reach the Mediterranean Sea. South of them is the valley of the Ebro River. And further south- relatively lower hilly and mountainous areas, united under the name Sistema Iberico. One of the highest peaks there is Peñarroya (2028 m).
Concerning the long Mediterranean coastline, it is divided into several sections. From north to south, these are Costa Brava, Costa Daurada, Costa del Azahar, Costa Blanca, and Costa Calida. From there the coastline proceeds into Andalusia in Southern Spain.
There are many known and unknown local natural sites in Eastern Spain, but let’s focus on the most typical and most interesting of them.
On the coastline
The coastline of Eastern Spain is beautiful, but the most beautiful things to see and enjoy there are the beaches. And there are a lot of beaches, but let’s focus on some of the best.
If you are looking for long beaches, you can go to the Gulf of Roses coast- a 16 km uninterrupted sand strip. Another beach chain is the sand strip at Calella, more than 20 km long, not far from Barcelona. South of Valencia, you can find a narrow beach chain between the sea and a beautiful lagoon, almost 28 km long. Platja de Xeraco is another long beach, near the town of Gandia.
But if you prefer other kinds of beaches- small, calm, surrounded by cliffs, or with nice towns or other sightseeings beside them, the best of them you can find in the northeast- Cala sa Boadella and Tossa de Mar.
Finally, a very special beach chain, different than every other in the region is Playa de Trabucador and Far del Fangar, combined with the mouth of Ebro River and its lagoons.
Other special natural places
If you look for something in the interior, you can find many nice places, especially in the mountains of Sistema Iberico and the Eastern Pyrenees. Yes, it is beautiful, but four places deserve special attention.
Coves de Sant Josep is a cave. But not like most of the other caves. One of the longest navigable underground rivers flows through it in a fantastic underground world.
Laguna Rosa is a lake. But again, not like most of the other lakes. While the other lakes are blue, bluish, or greenish, this one is pink. Naturally pink. It is located south of Alicante, almost where Southern Spain begins.
Olive is a traditional agricultural tree in the Mediterranean. And the best place to see it is the Millenary Olive Trees in Xert (Castellon). Palms are beautiful too. And the best palm “forest” can be seen in Elche, not far from Alicante.
Now, let’s focus on the human-made places of interest.
Culture and history of Eastern Spain
The main type of culture in this part of the Iberian Peninsula is Catalan. It has specific traditions and image, and it is formed by the long history of the region. This history has left a lot of ancient and newer remains, and now the Catalan culture can be best seen in the big cities of Eastern Spain, as well as in the countryside.
The big cities in Eastern Spain
There are three big cities in Eastern Spain- Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante. There are also many other smaller cities and towns, and if they are at the seacoast, usually they are also resorts. Some of them present beautiful old traditional culture and history.
This is the second-largest city in Spain, and one of the most famous tourist destinations in Europe. Barcelona is well-known for its rich culture and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Barcelona Cathedral are only some of the world-class attractions that draw visitors from all over the world.
Barcelona is a coastal city, and besides being famous for its history and culture, it is also a sea resort. Its metropolitan area includes a lot of resorts and beaches that attract tourists during the high season.
This is the third-largest city in Spain. It is located at the Gulf of Valencia, and being a coastal city, it is a sea resort too. Valencia has one of the largest “old towns” in Spain, with a long history and rich culture. It is known also for its numerous festivals.
Alicante is smaller than Valencia and Barcelona but is still one of the important coastline centers in Eastern Spain. Again it is a sea resort, but it also has a long history, more influenced by the Moors in Medieval times.
And since focus on history, let’s see some more historical sites in the region.
More historical sites in Eastern Spain
If you are looking for some old towns and villages, aside from the historical centers of Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante, you can find them in the towns of Pals and Tossa de Mar, located in the far northeast of Spain, near Girona.
But if you want to visit something older, I would recommend the Roman aqueduct of Tarragona– one of the largest in Europe.
Now, let’s proceed further south.
Southern Spain- Andalusia
This is an incredibly interesting region of the Iberian Peninsula, with some “African” fragrances, presented by the autonomous community of Andalusia. The Strait of Gibraltar separates it from Africa, and its coastline is divided into Mediterranean and Atlantic sections. With its specific culture and history, it has a lot to offer travelers.
Nature of Southern Spain
Geographically, the territory of Southern Spain is divided into two zones. The southeastern part of the region is dominated by the mountains of the Baetic System that runs along the Mediterranean coast and inside the peninsula. And the rest of this land is lower, consisting mainly of the Guadalquivir Valley and the lower mountains of Sierra Morena.
Here, in the Baetic System is the highest point of the whole Iberian Peninsula- Pico de Mulhacen, the highest peak of Sierra Nevada.
The whole region of Southern Spain is entirely within the subtropical geographical zone, and its nature is closest to the nature of nearby Morocco. And the combination of mountains, plains, coastline, and subtropical nature suggests a lot of interesting natural spots to visit.
This is the highest mountain range in the Iberian Peninsula, rising magnificently over the surrounding plains, valleys, and lower mountains. Its highest peak is Pico de Mulhacen (3479 m, 11 414 ft).
The mountain range has distinctive natural altitude zones, from subtropical forests to alpine tundra around the highest peaks. There are some remnants of ancient glaciers that have remained on the northern slopes of the highest peaks, mainly hidden in rocks.
Today, Sierra Nevada is turned into a national park, and there are a lot of great hiking trails that of course include Pico de Mulhacen and the other high peaks.
The natural wonders in Ronda and Ardales
This is a mountain area in the western part of the Baetic System. Ronda and Ardales are small cities, located in the valleys of the mountainous area. And here you can find several fantastic natural wonders, attractions for many travelers.
The Gorge of the Gaitanes is famous for its breathtaking El Caminito del Rey– the King’s Pathway, a bridge hanging about 100 m above the bottom of the gorge.
Not far from it is the rock formations of Torcal de Antequera– an amazing karst area featuring rocks in wonderful shapes and sizes, as well as many caves.
Further southwest, near the city of Ronda you can see the spectacular canyon El Tajo de Ronda that splits the city in two, and the nearby Cascade de Ronda waterfall.
Lakes and deserts
There are a few lakes in Southern Spain and one of them is more special. This is Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, not far from Ardales- the largest lake in Andalusia. Laguna de Fuente is a saline lake, famous for its flamingo colonies.
And there is a small desert in Spain too- a distant echo from Sahara in Africa. It is called Desierto de Tabernas and is located not far from Almeria. It is not a sand desert but still reminds of the landscapes in nearby Morocco or the Wild West of the USA.
The coastline of Andalusia
The coastline of Andalusia is long and diverse. It is divided into two main sections- Mediterranean and Atlantic. And the Mediterranean itself is divided into Costa Almeria, Costa Tropical, and Costa del Sol. The whole coastline is full of beaches, cliffs, and other natural formations- in other words- full of beauty.
There are more than a hundred beaches on such a long coastline, but let’s focus on the best of them.
Playa de Nueva Umbria and Playa de la Antilla, divided by the Piedras River and located near the border with Portugal are some of the longest sand strips in Spain. But if you are looking for the longest one, you have to go a bit eastward. Here you can find a 40 km long sand strip (Playa de Castilla) between the mouths of the Odiel and Guadalquivir rivers.
The Mediterranean side of the coastline doesn’t offer such long beaches, but you can find different ones- smaller and exotic. The best of them are Nerja Beach and Puerto Banus Beach.
Coastal rock formations
There are many coastal rock cliffs on this coastline, mainly in the mountainous Mediterranean section.
Not far from Nerja Beach you can find amazing fjord-like cliffs, called Acantilados de Maro-Cerro Gordo.
But maybe the most interesting from the geographical point of view, as well as the most spectacular are two spots.
The first one of them is the famous Rock of Gibraltar. It is a giant monolithic rock promontory that rises to 426 m altitude, forming a high rock cliff, like a marker between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
And the second one is Cape Tarifa– the southernmost mainland point of Europe. By the way, west of the cape you can enjoy another excellent beach- Tarifa Beach.
Now, let’s take a look at the human-made places of interest in Southern Spain.
Culture and history of Southern Spain
The culture of Southern Spain is a type of classical Spanish, but more heavily influenced by the Moorish presence because this is the area that has been the longest time under the Moorish rule. So, today we can see a lot of splendid architectural Moorish jewels, and still, many other Spanish classical jewels.
But let’s start first from the big cities again.
The big cities of Andalusia
There are many big cities in this region, but four of them deserve special attention- they are all famous landmarks, full of culture and history.
Seville is the fourth largest city in Spain. It is famous for its old town containing three UNESCO World Heritage sites- the Alcazar Palace, the Cathedral of Seville, and the General Archives of the Indies. The city also presents some sites from ancient times like the Roman Amphitheatre of Italica. Today, it is a modern city with a rich cultural atmosphere.
Granada is best known for one of the most famous landmarks in Spain- the Alhambra citadel and palace. It has been the last Muslim city that has been conquered by the Spanish king. The city is located at the foot of Sierra Nevada and it is a traditional starting point to the mountain.
Malaga is a coastal city, known as one of the oldest cities in Spain, hence with rich historical inheritance. It is also the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas.
Cordoba is the third-largest city in Andalusia and capital of the Medieval Caliphate of Cordoba. In 1236 it became a part of the Christian world, and now it contains a lot of UNESCO World Heritage sites that include its Old town and buildings like Mezquita-Catedral. Special attention also deserves the palace of Medina Azahara, located west of the city.
Other relatively big cities in Southern Spain are Almeria, Cadiz, Huelva, and more. But we should mention a place that is not politically part of Spain, however, geographically is part of the Iberian Peninsula. This is Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, officially taken from Spain in 1713. It is located at the strategically important Strait of Gibraltar, and for tourists, it is mostly famous for its Rock of Gibraltar mentioned above.
In general, this is the most important of Spain. Now, let’s take a look at the last main part of the Iberian Peninsula, separated as a different country- Portugal.
Places to visit in continental Portugal
Portugal is one of the main Roman-culture countries in Europe, located in the west-southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Its capital is Lisbon. Naturally, the land of Portugal is just a part of the whole Iberian land. The mountains, plateaus, rivers, and valleys from Spain just extend into Portugal, reaching the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. The subtropical climate and natural zones are the same as in the rest of the peninsula too.
But culturally and historically, the nation of Portugal has separated from the other nations and ethnic groups in the Iberian Peninsula from medieval times. After the Muslim rule and during the Reconquista, while the other ethnic groups united under the same kingdom- the Kingdom of Spain, Portugal remained separated. It was only temporary a part of the Spanish Empire, but later again remained as an independent country.
Anyway, let’s look at the nature of Portugal.
The nature of Portugal
The territory of Portugal physically can be divided into the hills and mountains north of the Tagus River, and the lower hills and plains south of the same river. So, if you are looking for mountains, forests, canyons, and other mountain-related formations, you should look at the north. But if you are looking for warmer subtropical landscapes, also for longer beaches, you should look at the south.
Let’s begin with the mountains.
Mountains and national parks
The highest mountain in Portugal is Serra da Estrela (1991 m, 6532 ft). It is actually one of the westernmost subranges of Cordillera Central, and this is not a clear peak, but just the highest point of a plateau. Anyway, it is a good place for hikers and nature lovers.
Peneda-Geres National Park is located at the northern border of Portugal with Spain. It includes several mountain ridges and valleys, and lush subtropical to moderate forests. The area is also great for those who like canyons. They can find the canyons of Carcerelha and Rio Arado. The waterfall of Fisgas do Ermelo is also nearby.
Douro International Park is located not far from Peneda-Geres, at the northeastern border with Spain. Here you can enjoy the most picturesque part of the Douro River valley.
More natural spots
There are more wonderful natural spots in Portugal that you can include in your itinerary. But let’s take a look at some of them.
Pulo do Lobo is the highest waterfall in the southern part of Portugal. The waterfall and the narrow gorge of the Guadiana River form a spectacular landscape.
Mira de Aire caves are a cave system in a limestone area, included in the Serras de Aire National Park.
Ria Formosa National Park is located in Algarve, along the southern coast of Portugal. It features fantastic landscapes of lagoons, beaches, and river canals, full of local wildlife.
There are not too many lakes in Portugal. However, three of the lakes are really beautiful and worth visiting. All of them are located in a plain area near the Atlantic Ocean.
Lagoa da Vela is a quiet place, excellent for hiking in the nearby forests. Pateira da Fermentelos is located in the northern part of Portugal and is known as the largest natural lake in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. Lagoa de Obidos is a lagoon on the Atlantic coast with great landscapes that include beaches.
Now, let’s look at the coastline of Portugal.
The coastline of Portugal
It is entirely washed by the Atlantic Ocean. Its longest section is the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula, and there is a short section at the southern side of Portugal and the whole peninsula. The coastline is full of beaches, some of them very long. And there are also cliffs and rock formations, mainly in the north.
Beaches and other coastline spots
Praia Baleal is a beautiful beach, divided into a northern and southern parts that are separated by an island (actually- peninsula, connected to the mainland by sand)- Ilha do Baleal.
Praia da Falesia is one of the most beautiful beaches in Algarve, the southern coast of Portugal- a straight 5 km sand strip.
Sines-Troia Beach, located south of Setubal, with its 63 km of length is the longest beach in Europe.
Nazare is known as the best surfing place in Europe, with the highest wave swell (of course, if you go there in the right season).
Praia do Camilo is a small, but unique beach, featuring amazing rock formations.
Benagil Caves is another fantastic place, where you can see cave-shaped rock formations, combined with the sand of the beach.
Finally- Cabo da Roca is a place with geographic value- this is the westernmost point of the whole continent of Eurasia (Europe and Asia).
Now, let’s focus on the human-made destinations, established in this beautiful land.
Culture and history of Portugal
Portugal has its own unique history. Although its history is closely related to the history of Spain, Portugal still walks on its own way. And its culture is different too. The country’s history and culture can be best seen in the big cities, some old or ethnographic villages, as well as some ancient ruins. Let’s start with the cities.
Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest living cities in Europe and in the world. It is an amazing city with a lot of places to visit and things to do- from its old town to the most modern areas, from ancient ruins to old churches and monasteries, from city attractions to parks, gardens, and viewpoints.
Among the most popular places to visit in Lisbon are Castelo de Sao Jorge, the old monastery Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the tower Torre de Belem, the Imposing Cathedral, the ruins of Igreja do Carmo church, the Roman aqueduct Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, as well as more than 10 themed museums.
Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal. It is famous for its Old town- the historical core of the city declared as UNESCO World Heritage site. Its historical part also includes Luiz I Bridge and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar. Porto is also famous as an export center of fortified wine.
Braga is an important center of the historical and cultural Minho Province. It has a long history and has been the capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia. Today, there are a lot of historic landmarks that are worth visiting.
Setubal is located not far from Lisbon, on the beautiful Setubal Peninsula. Its urban area is beautifully combined with the surrounding nature- the ocean coastline and the hills nearby. The city also has its cultural and historical image, featured by some landmarks like the Monastery of Jesus and Sao Juliao Church.
Coimbra is another big city, most known for its historical heritage. It has been an important center during Roman times, and the temporary capital of Medieval Portugal. All of this has left a lot of historical landmarks, from ancient to Medieval times.
Other cultural and historical sites
There are many other cultural and historical sites worth visiting. They are dated from ancient history to recent times. Some of them are beautiful towns, others are ancient ruins. Let’s focus on the best of them.
Sintra is known mainly for its gardens and beautiful architectural style. Historically, it brings us to not-too-old periods. Its best-known attraction is Pena Palace. But there is still a glimpse of older times- the Moorish Castelo dos Mouros from the 10th century.
Tomar is a nice town with historical sites that takes you back to the times of the Templars. Here you can see the Medieval fortress and church Convento de Cristo. In addition, here you can see the best-preserved synagogues in Portugal.
Evora is another UNESCO World Heritage site, full of landmarks. These landmarks come from different historical periods. Among them, you can see the Roman Temple of Diana, the Medieval Chapel of Bones, the ancient Royal Palace of Evora, and many others.
This town is known as the “birthplace of Portugal” because here the first Portuguese king Afonso Henriques was born. It also has a lot of Medieval landmarks, and the whole atmosphere here is like a travel in old times.
It is a nice town, located near the border with Spain. It is well-known for its preserved and still used Roman Bridge. Chaves has hot mineral springs and has attracted people from all historical periods. Among the other historical landmarks are the medieval square and a 14th-century castle.
This charming town is a sea resort, not only for modern people but also for Portuguese aristocrats from older times. As a result, here you can see a lot of old traditional architecture. The museums in Cascais are also worth visiting.
This is the best of the Iberian Peninsula, divided by regions and types of places to visit. Of course, there is a lot more to explore, but for a basic impression of this part of the world, the above destinations are the best choice.
Anyway, the above-described places to visit are already too many, so how to choose among them to build an itinerary?
Best Iberian Peninsula itineraries
So, if you want to explore the Iberian Peninsula, you have to plan your itinerary that would include at least some of the main places to visit. And of course, it depends on many things- your time, your budget, your direction (starting point, ending point), and your preferences (nature, sea, hiking, history, culture, etc.).
If you come to the Iberian Peninsula by air, most probably, your starting point would be Madrid, Barcelona, or Lisbon. Or, if you come on land, you would enter Spain from France. Same as your ending point.
Then, you have to draw your route around the peninsula, and most likely it would include the two main countries Spain and Portugal.
A draft itinerary
Let’s make a draft itinerary, based on the following:
- Your starting and ending point is Madrid.
- You have 20 days for your journey.
- You have enough money to cover your trip, and it is budget, not luxury.
- And you go there in summer.
20 days is a too short time to explore the Iberian Peninsula, but on average, this is usually the time that most people have. So, let’s do it.
I would arrange at least 2 nights in Madrid. Then, on the third day, I would rent a car and would make a trip to Toledo.
From Toledo, I would back to Madrid and immediately, on the fourth day, I would travel to Bilbao, to visit the Basque country. After a night in Bilbao, I would explore the city, and on the sixth day, I would proceed to Benasque for a trek in the Pyrenees, reaching Pico d’Aneto.
Then, I would go to Barcelona, spending at least one night there. And on the 10th day, I would travel to Alicante, just for a night, and on the 11th day- to Granada.
After exploring Granada, I would make trekking to Pico Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada. Then, on the 13th day, I would go to Gibraltar, to see the Rock of Gibraltar.
On the 14th day, I would drive to Portugal, reaching the beaches of the Algarve. I would stay there 1-2 nights.
Then, on the 16th day, I would travel to Lisbon. And I would arrange at least 2-3 days for Lisbon, Cascais, and Sintra.
Finally, on the 19th day, I would back to Madrid, I would return the car, and on the 20th day, I would leave the Iberian Peninsula.
Of course, your time could be more limited. Or, you just don’t like such an intensive style of traveling, you would like to relax more and stay in one place for a longer time. If this is the case, probably you would include the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Lisbon, only one hike (the Sierra Nevada or the Pyrenees), and only one beach. Or even less.
Or, you can focus on only one region- for example only Northern Spain, only Andalusia, or only Portugal. That would be ok too. And if you have a longer time, you would visit even more places. At least, if you know the most important places of interest on the Iberian Peninsula, you could easily draw your itinerary, calculating also the transportation, accommodation, budget, and every other detail.
This is the Iberian Peninsula in short. There are also many other interesting places, and there are a lot of travel tips that you would like to know, but I hope what I described above could give you a good impression about a future journey around this wonderful land!
Get more impressions from the Iberian Peninsula from the video below:
Check out some travel books about the Iberian Peninsula!
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.