Spain could be Europe's most exotic country. From soulful flamenco and delicious food to avant-garde architecture and cities, Spain is a beguiling mix of stirring and often curious traditions, live-for-the-moment hedonism and a willingness to embrace the future with a relentlessly adventurous spirit. Here are the top 10 places a good time is almost guaranteed.
If you only have time for one sightseeing outing, this should be it. The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família inspires awe with its sheer verticality and, in the true manner of the great medieval cathedrals it emulates, it's still not finished after more than 100 years. Work is proceeding apace, however, and it might be done by anything between the 2020s and 2040s.
Stretched along the top of the hill known as La Sabika, the Alhambra is the stuff of fairy tales. The Palacio Nazaries is the Alhambra's true gem, the most brilliant Islamic building in Europe, with its perfectly proportioned rooms and courtyards, intricately moulded stucco walls, beautiful tiling, fine carved wooden ceilings and elaborate stalactite-like muqarnas vaulting, all worked in mesmerising, symbolic, geometric patterns.
3. La Mezquita de Córdoba
It's hard to exaggerate the beauty of the Córdoba mosque, one of the great creations of Islamic architecture, with its shimmering golden mosaics and rows of red-and-white arches disappearing into infinity.
The Mezquita hints at a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians live side by side and enriched their city with an interaction of diverse and vibrant cultures. It's likely, however, that a less glamorous reality prevailed, with medieval Córdoba brimming with racial and class-based tension.
4. Celebrate Easter in Seville
Return to Spain's medieval Christian roots and join Seville's masses for the dramatic Easter celebration of Semana Santa. Religious fraternities parade elaborate pasos (sculptural representations) of Christ around the city to the acclamation of the populace.
5. Sleep in luxurious paradores
Spain's state-owned paradores are far more than a place to sleep. From former palaces to one-time castles and convents, paradores offer nights of grandeur and historical charm. Most are also magnificently sited, none more so than in Ronda and Granada. Ronda is perched on an inland plateau riven by the 100m fissure of El Tajo gorge and surrounded by the beautiful Serrania de Ronda, Ronda is the most dramatically sited of all the pueblos, blancos. Just an hour north of the Costa del Sol, it is nevertheless a world away from the coastal scene.
6. Laze on Menorca beaches
Menorca is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve with beaches that defy description. Some assert that reaching them by sea is the height of pleasure, but happening upon them from the interior bring equal joy. Among the best are Cala Macarelleta and Cala en Turqueta.
7. Toledo of Three Faiths
Toledo is a gorgeous place, like a city-sized version of a medieval Spanish hill-town with just the right combination of grand moments and twisting narrow lanes in which to get lost. It's also like walking through a history book written in stone with churches, mosques and synagogues.
Like Spain's equivalent of a downsized Rome, Toledo's labyrinth of lanes, plazas and inner patios is also reminiscent of the medinas (towns) of Damascus, Cairo or Morocco's Fez, although the historic diversity of Romans, Jews and Muslims equals an intriguing combination of synagogues and churches, as well as mosques. Add to this a lofty setting, high above Rio Tajo, and it's no surprise that Toledo is one of Spain's most visited cities.
Segovia is a town of all gold, honey stone under sun. Unesco World Heritage-listed, it always has had a whiff of legend about it – was it truly founded by Hercules? Nowhere else in Spain has such an impressive aqueduct, a monument to Roman grandeur, and art that has imitated life - Walt Disney is said to have modeled Sleeping Beauty's castle in California's Disneyland on the Alcazar. Whatever it is, the effect is stunning: a city of warm terracotta and sandstone hues set amid the rolling hills of Castilla and against the backdrop of the Guadarrama.
9. Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada forms an almost year-round snowy southeastern backdrop to Granada. The upper reaches of the range form the national park, with a rare high-altitude environment that is home to about 2100 of Spain's 7000 plant species. The mountains and the Alpujarras valleys comprise one of the most spectacular areas in Spain, and the area offers wonderful opportunities for walking, horse riding, climbing, mountain biking, and in winter, good skiing and snowboarding.
10. Tour La Rioja wine country
Get out the glasses for La Rioja and for some of the best red wines produced in the country. Wine goes well with the region's ochre earth and vast blue skies, which seem far more Mediterranean than the Basque greens further north. The bulk of the vineyards line Rio Ebro around the town of Haro, but extend also into neighbouring Navarra and the Basque province of Alava.
La Rioja wine rolls on and off the tongue with ease, by name as well as taste. All wine fanciers know the famous wines of La Rioja, where the vine has been cultivated since Roman times. The region is classic vine country and vineyards cover the hinterland of Rio Ebro.