Like fashion, travel destinations are in and out of style. Spain is currently in the spotlight thanks to the expanding of Madrid’s renowned Prado art museum, the new America’s Cup Sailing Village in Valencia and the amazing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The country is attracting foodies too with its modern twists on classic food and Spain’s growing reputation for wines.
“The Guggenheim museum was like an earthquake that woke everyone up,” says Daniel Garcia, owner/chef of Zortziko, a Michelin star restaurant in Bilbao. A former shipbuilding port, Bilbao is now a “destination” city. “It’s like I’m traveling all over the world without leaving, because everyone comes here to see the Guggenheim.”
Covered in titanium and located along the river, this modern museum resembles a ship. Unlike the typical museum where guards prevent visitors from touching paintings, the Guggenheim encourages patrons to actively engage in exhibits, including whispering in the echo chamber and jumping on buttons that activate outdoor fountains.
Bilbao is the gateway to the Basque region of Spain, known for its gastronomy and natural beauty. No one knows where the Basque people originated, but everyone agrees they know how to cook. Pintxos (pronounced pinch-ohs) are a regional specialty. The Basque form of tapas, these appetizers are served with mini drinks. Small plates are currently trendy in the U.S., but chefs are just copying the Spanish, who invented tapas centuries ago.
After sampling one pintxo, diners move on to the next bar. “You start out with five friends going to a bar, and by the time you go to the last bar you are with 20 people, picking up folks in each place,” explained tour guide Angel.
Art aficionados will love the “golden triangle” of the Spanish Capital’s art museums, all located within a few blocks of each other. Considered by many to be the world’s finest art gallery, the Prado is filled with Spanish, Flemish and Italian masterpieces.
A few blocks away, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is known for its large display of 19th century North American paintings, a rarity in Europe. The Reina Sofía National Art Centre is dedicated to Spanish contemporary art including Picasso, Miró and Dalí. Recently expanded, it now includes a red-hot restaurant called Arola Madrid, where Chef Sergi Arola presents a modern twist on old-world Spanish cuisine.
You’ll have to adjust your eating times in Spain because lunch starts at 2 p.m. and Spaniards usually have dinner around 10 p.m. It’s worth staying up late, because Spain is on the foodie fast track. Even better, Bodegas (Spanish wineries) are just starting to open their doors to the public. Viavinum, the first wine tour company in Spain, lets guests take part in the harvest by grape stomping before sampling the bottled product.
Madrid also boasts the largest palace in Europe with more than 2000 ornate rooms and an army museum. American celebrities often stay at the Hotel Puerta America where chosen architects from an international competition were allowed total freedom to design floors.
The best place for souvenirs and people watching is Plaza Mayor, located in the old part of Madrid. Shops selling berets and espadrilles (believed to be invented by the Basques) are next to outdoor cafes tempting passersby with the aroma of fresh seafood in garlic sauce.
One of the fastest growing cities in Europe, Valencia offers something for everyone. After winning the right to host the America’s Cup international yachting races, the city transformed its industrial port into a small village with restaurants and luxury shops. Almost overnight resorts began lining the Mediterranean beachfront.
Famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was also instrumental in changing Valencia’s image with his futuristic City of Arts and Sciences museum complex. The exhibits are interactive and fun so children won’t even realize they’re learning while playing. The design of the buildings reflects their purpose; the science museum looks like a dinosaur, the planetarium is an eye that opens and closes and the aquarium’s shaped like a whale.
In the old part of town tourists line up to visit the Ceramics Museum and the Silk Exchange Building, (the country’s original form of currency), which has been declared a World Heritage Site. The Cathedral displays what many believe is the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
Valencia is the birthplace of Paella and you can take a tour where chefs in costume prepare the saffron rice dish over an outdoor fire in the traditional manner. Guests sip Sangria on the riverfront while waving to passengers gliding past in old-fashioned wooden boats.
Each area of Spain takes great pains to maintain their culture, so travelers feel as though they’re visiting several countries without crossing any borders. “Spain is still a little bit of an unknown-people seem to think it’s flamenco dancers with roses in their teeth,” says Gabriella Ranelli De Aguirre. “That’s still there, but there’s also a new sophistication in Spain that doesn’t always get into guidebooks.”