With its 3,000 miles of coast, fabulous gastronomy and easygoing Mediterranean lifestyle, Spain has grown into one of the world’s most popular destinations since its tourism industry was born in the mid-20th century.
According to research by Madrid’s Universidad Europea, the country could receive a record 263 million tourists in 2023 – higher than pre-pandemic. Domestic travellers aside, it is British visitors who are leading the way, making up around 23 per cent of all international tourists to Spain.
Many understandably head straight for Spain’s traditionally popular areas – Barcelona, the Balearic Islands, the larger Canary Islands. But, in recent years, some of these regions have raised overtourism concerns.
In efforts to manage visitor peaks, both the Balearics and Barcelona have introduced a tourist tax aimed at channelling funds back into local projects; Valencia has announced similar plans from late 2023, too.
For anyone keen to sidestep the crowds and help spread tourism benefits by directly supporting local communities, there are plenty of quieter, lesser-known pockets of Spain that are worth seeking out.
Ribeira Sacra, Galicia
Hidden in south-east Galicia, just 90 miles from the pilgrim hot spot of Santiago de Compostela, the Ribeira Sacra region is making a name for itself with its powerful red wines, which are grown on steeply sloping hillsides along the Sil and Miño river gorges and often involve rare, revived local grapes.
Along with visiting small-scale vineyards (such as respected Ponte da Boga), there are rewarding hiking routes, hushed medieval monasteries and stone-built villages.
Sleep in a sensitively converted 10th-century monastery at the Parador de Santo Estevo (around one hour, 40 minutes’ drive from Santiago airport), which has a popular restaurant serving Galician dishes. Doubles from €170 (£146).
Sierra de Aracena, Huelva, Andalucía
Around 60 miles north-west of Seville (and around 70 minutes’ drive from Seville airport), Huelva province’s lesser-visited Aracena hills offer a tranquil, rural-Andalucían escape.
Walking trails weave between honey-coloured villages and rippling cork forests. And some of Spain’s most-prized jamón is produced here, so it’s no surprise that a low-key Huelva-driven food scene has recently emerged.
In the village of Alájar, Posada San Marcos has six sunny rooms in a two centuries-old, geothermal-powered house overlooking a rainwater-fed pool. B&B doubles from €106 (£91).
Cáceres & La Vera, Extremadura
Combine a 16th-century Unesco-protected old town with one of Spain’s most thrilling gastronomic scenes (spearheaded by three Michelin-starred Atrio) and a major contemporary art gallery (the Museo Helga de Alvear), and it is easy to see why Cáceres wins over anyone who ventures into untouristy Extremadura.
Get here from Seville or Madrid, both just under three hours’ drive, or take a three-hour rail journey from Madrid to Cáceres. Also within driving distance of Cáceres is Alcántara, which has a Roman bridge dating to the second century AD.
Time permitting, add on north-east Extremadura’s La Vera valley, with its timber-clad villages and ancient Yuste monastery.
Several Gothic palaces make up the evocative Parador de Cáceres, in the heart of the Ciudad Monumental. Doubles from €130 (£112).
La Herradura, Granada, Andalucía
Often overshadowed by Málaga’s busy Costa del Sol, Granada’s Costa Tropical is a laid-back beauty, with cliffs cascading into the Mediterranean and low-key beach towns where Islamic-era castles hide among whitewashed lanes.
A sweeping horseshoe-shaped bay sets the scene in La Herradura, a locally popular watersports hub just 50 miles south of Granada. The closest airport is Granada-Jaén, which is a one-hour drive from La Herradura. The town borders the protected Paraje Natural Acantilados Maro–Cerro Gordo, where you can kayak, sail or paddleboard to wild pebble beaches, such as nudist-friendly Cantarriján and heavenly El Cañuelo (both with great chiringuitos).
On La Herradura’s cliffs, El Nido is a Mediterranean-feel villa with a sea-view pool, for up to five. From €190 (£163), short stays available on request.
Parque Natural de Somiedo , Asturias
Escape into the wild, remote, Unesco-protected Somiedo mountains in south-west Asturias, around 50 miles from Oviedo. Asturias Airport is a 75-minute drive to Pola de Somiedo, the region’s main village.
This little-visited area has high-altitude glacial lakes, traditional thatched huts and wonderful hiking, but is best known for its rare Cantabrian brown bears, whose numbers are now slowly increasing thanks to local conservation efforts. Join a bear-spotting trip with Somiedo Experience – the ideal time for this is mid-September, but seek advice on autumn trips.
Palacio Flórez-Estrada offers rustic-style rooms in a centuries-old mansion in Pola de Somiedo. B&B doubles from €85 (£73).
El Hierro, Canary Islands
The tiny, isolated, little-touristed westernmost island in the Canaries is something special.
Just a 40-minute flight from Tenerife (or a three-hour ferry), El Hierro offers superb diving and snorkelling, along with natural sea pools and a blossoming Canarian food scene. Walkers will love strolling through the ancient laurel forests or tackling the 18-mile Camino de la Virgen pilgrimage trail.
Ancient vines frame a reimagined bodega with boho-cool casitas and a yoga studio at El Sitio, on El Hierro’s north-facing coast. Doubles from €54 (£46).
Arantzazu, Basque Mountains, Basque Country
An hour’s drive inland from beachy San Sebastián and arty Bilbao, at the foot of the Aizkorri massif, Arantzazu is the site of a revered sanctuary with 15th-century roots that was rebuilt by Basque architects in the 50s. This is a superb area for hiking, with view-laden trails threading through woodlands and across upland meadows to the Basque Country’s highest peaks.
Bilbao airport is around an hour’s drive from Arantzazu, and several airlines offer direct flights from the UK.
Opposite Arantzazu’s basilica, Goiko–Benta Ostatua occupies a 500-year-old stone-walled inn with 10 smartly refreshed rooms. Doubles from €83 (£71).
Sierras, Subbéticas Córdoba, Andalucía
Halfway between Córdoba and Granada, the under-the-radar Subbética region is home to a clutch of less-explored pueblos blancos (white villages), a craggy parque natural and some of the world’s finest olive oils. It’s a place to take things slowly, enjoy the locally rooted gastronomy, cycle along the 80-mile Vía Verde del Aceite (a converted railway), hike through olive groves and explore Priego de Córdoba’s spectacular Baroque churches.
Stay in a stylishly restored olive-fringed farmhouse at serene, sustainability-driven Casa Olea, near Priego. Granada airport is 70 minutes’ drive from Casa Olea, or fly into Málaga (90 minutes from the accommodation). B&B doubles from €163 (£140).
Vall de Boí Lleida, Catalonia
Carved into the Spanish Pyrenees near the Andorran border, Catalonia’s remote Vall de Boí might be a 190-mile drive from Barcelona’s airport, but you will instantly see why people escape to this evocative mountain wonderland year-round. Explore World Heritage-listed Romanesque churches in stone-built villages, such as Taüll, Boí and Erill la Vall, or head out walking in the lake-filled Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, which wows in autumn colours.
Wake up to views across Erill la Vall’s church at cosy Hostal La Plaça. Doubles from €63 (£54).
The Aljafería Palace – Spain’s most dazzling Islamic monument outside Andalucía – a monumental Baroque basilica hugging the Río Ebro and the legacy of Francisco de Goya make Aragón’s elegant capital a tempting city break – just a two-hour flight from London. Zaragoza’s tapas bars happily rival Madrid and Barcelona, particularly in the lively El Tubo area. And for a taste of Aragón’s immense natural beauty, head two hours’ drive north to the Pyrenees’ Ansó and Hecho valleys, still off-radar for foreign travellers.
Just steps from Zaragoza’s Mercado Central, Hotel Avenida is a soothing, cream-toned boutique haven set around light-filled patios. Doubles from €78 (£67).
Cedeira, Rías Altas, Galicia
Galicia might be slightly more on the map these days, but its northern coast remains a lesser known, naturally spectacular treat.
Stretching north-east from A Coruña, the Rías Altas take in soaring sea cliffs, swirling river mouths, wild golden surf beaches, and windswept coastal paths where you can hike for hours.
Base yourself in the riverside fishing town Cedeira (around an hour’s drive from A Coruña airport), which has a string of seductive sandy strands.
Cedeira’s Hotel Herbeira is a design-forward, Nordic-inspired joy, with 16 ocean-view rooms and a lavender-edged pool. Doubles from €75 (£64).
Zamora, Castilla y León
Easily reached by fast train from Madrid (75 minutes), Zamora is known for its Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions at Easter time, but it is also a wonderfully engaging Castilian city. Its 20-odd medieval churches, ancient defensive walls and Romanesque cathedral mingle with a wave of early-20th-century Modernista buildings on the banks of the Río Duero. Just north-west, near the Portuguese border, you can go Iberian wolf-spotting in the Sierra de la Culebra.
NH Zamora Palacio del Duero has crisp, contemporary-design rooms in a reborn 14th-century convent. Doubles from €89 (£76).
Cazorla, Jaén, Andalucía
One of Europe’s largest protected spaces, the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas in Jaén province feels worlds away from Andalucía’s monument-filled cities, but it is only 90 miles north-east of Granada (two hours’ drive from the city’s airport). More than 800 square miles of mountain wilderness await discovery, with inspiring walking and mountain-biking routes, quiet pueblos blancos (white towns), including activity hub Cazorla, and the chance to spot crag-hopping ibex, wild boars or rare lammergeier vultures.
In Cazorla’s old town, Casa Rural Plaza de Santa María is a converted 17th-century home with castle views and nine colourful rooms. Doubles from €50 (£43).
Parque Natural Saja-Besaya, Cantabria
Inland from the surf-washed Bay of Biscay (popular with Spanish tourists), the small northern region of Cantabria is crammed with tranquil green countryside.
Easily combined with buzzy Santander, medieval Santillana del Mar or the Picos de Europa mountains, western Cantabria’s protected 95 square mile Saja-Besaya park reveals forested hills, less-trodden walking routes and stone-walled villages dripping with bright flowers, such as Bárcena Mayor and Carmona. The nearest airport to Carmona is Santander. You can also take a 33.5-hour ferry from the UK to Santander.
Carmona’s La Infinita has four rustic-charm rooms in an 18th-century country house. B&B doubles from €110 (£94).