When we started our travel business in 2000, we were planning lots of “once-in-a-lifetime” trips to Spain and our job was to make sure that all the “must-sees” were included on each itinerary. So much has changed since then. Because air travel has become much more affordable and it’s so easy to fly into new regional destinations, many of our clients are actively looking to avoid the “must-see” sights in exchange for something much more personal, new and fresh. They are looking for more boutique destinations in Spain.
Why are Boutique destinations in Spain So Popular?
We know that before our clients step on Spanish soil, most will already have their own favourite Spanish wine, know the name of at least one Spanish chef and regularly eat tapas out in their home cities. We work with that knowledge when planning each trip and encourage clients to factor in elements of what they already know and love about Spain.
How and Why “Boutique Spain” Works
When we sense that our clients are up for something completely different, we like to suggest that they eschew the safety net of the best-known cities, and try one of our favourite Spain boutique destinations. Why should anyone do this? Well, we’ve realised that for many people – a holiday in Spain means chilling out, tasting some great food and wine, and sitting at one of the many great sunny squares to soak up the atmosphere and Spanish way of life. And we believe that Spain’s smaller cities offer a more relaxed setting for exactly that.
Here are some examples of the places we recommend…
Segovia instead of Madrid
Flying into Madrid but not really looking for a big city vibe? You can be shuttled by private driver to the relaxing and atmospheric Parador at Avila, Segovia or Alcala de Henares. Each of these three boutique destinations in Spain has jaw-dropping architecture, lovely family run restaurants and bars, artisan quarters, food markets and you are still near enough to the capital to take a high-speed train into downtown Madrid to see the Plaza Mayor and take a tour of the Prado if you feel the urge.
Tarragona or Girona instead of Barcelona
Visited Barcelona already and liked what you saw but want to explore a bit of the region? Fly into Barcelona Airport or one of the regional airports such as Reus or Girona. Closeby both in Tarragona and Girona, you’ll find wonderful UNESCO sites, plenty squares to explore Spanish life and lots to see and do. Foodie fans will want to have a meal at the world’s best restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, north of Barcelona. Architecture nuts will want a tour of the Jewish quarter and a walkabout Girona’s city walls. Lovers of Dali will book a driver to visit the triangle of nearby sites at Figueres, Pubol and Cadaques/Portlligat. South of Barcelona – Tarragona is another great second-tier city and is especially popular with aficionados of Roman aqueducts and amphitheatres. And those of you who like visiting wineries have the Penedes wine region on Tarragona’s doorstep. And if you feel the urge, you can easily take a day-trip into Barcelona to do some sightseeing or shopping.
Malaga instead of Seville or Madrid
We adore Seville and Madrid and can’t recommend both highly enough but if we are talking ‘boutique’, then Picasso’s Malaga is a great destination for those of you seeking a few world-class art museums by the coast. You’ll find plenty of Picasso’s work and you’ll want to visit the Thyssen Museum that opened in 2011. And of course, the new kids on the block: the pop-up gallery run by the Centre Pompidou and a sister space for St Petersburg’s State Russian Museum are worth checking out too. Malaga is THE airline hub of the Costa del Sol so it’s easy to access. And you’ll find good overland connections to see the many marvellous UNESCO sites throughout Andalusia at Seville, Cordoba and Granada. And Hemingway’s Ronda is also closeby. We expect Malaga to transition from boutique to mainstream over the next year or so, so grab your chance while you can. If you travel at Easter, prepare yourself for some amazing Easter celebrations.
San Sebastian and Santander
We organise a lot of group and family tours into San Sebastian and the Basque Country. It is, of course foodie heaven, and well worth a visit. It’s been a “boutique” destination for the past decade and you’ll find many excellent “foodie” tour guides and tapas tastings companies operating there plus a selection of amazing Michelin star restaurants to choose from. And you really can’t beat a few days break by the Concha beach. But all the international media exposure has meant that capacity can often be an issue and we have recently found ourselves substituting foodie weekends on the Basque coast with trips over the border into Cantabria. Why, you might ask? Both Santander and San Sebastian have the same belle-époque feel and have excellent city beaches plus charming ports and both were the favourites with the Spanish royals. You can fly direct into Santander airport (or nearby Bilbao and programme a quick visit to the Guggenheim). Cantabria is home to many welcoming food and drink producers that really know how to offer a great visit. And the bustling 100% authentic fish market in Santander is as good as you’ll find anywhere in Spain. Definitely one to consider! You can read more about San Sebastian here and Cantabria here.
The One and Only – Extremadura
There’s another boutique destination that we always highlight to clients embarking on a self-drive holiday from Madrid. Extremadura, on the border with Portugal, is like a Spain within Spain. Although it’s home to some stunning UNESCO sites, it’s quite low key, 100% authentic and there are no long queues anywhere. You might not be familiar with the names of places such as Trujillo, Plasencia, Caceres and Merida– but if you are up for a fresh look at Spain, you’ll love it. The gastronomy is amazing and the pace and quality of life can’t be beaten. You’ll also find some great boutique hotels plus some of the best Paradores in the land. We’ve written about the region here so have a look at what you could be enjoying and think about what type of trip you want to plan.
Complimenting the “Must-Sees” with “Would-Never-Have-Seen-on-our-Own”
Of course, when we talk about boutique destinations in Spain, you don’t have to turn your back on the country’s big draws such as the Alhambra, the Prado or the Sagrada Familia. We can plan boutique or bespoke visits to the larger cities too! We do that with the help of our own tried and tested specialised tour guides that know how to make your visit feel very personalised and unique. (In the spirit of boutique travel, we love to compliment a visit to one of the big sites with a lesser-known one. Take for example a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid followed by a visit to one of the city’s niche museums that both you and your tour guide feel a particularly strong personal connection with.) These highly personalised tours are always the experiences our clients email us about when they are waiting to board their plane back home…
Unlocking Spanish Regional Gastronomy is the Key a Boutique Trip to Spain
Understanding not just what the Spanish eat but how and when they do it is an important part of any “boutique” visit. We have always provided detailed written guides on where to eat and can also reserve tables at our favourite restaurants in every destination – but like to take it a little further by encouraging our clients to learn about the culture of Spanish gastronomy. That’s why we write about how to share food in Spain, when to eat out in Spain and the more unusual aspects about eating out here. But that’s not enough for a boutique trip. We like our clients to take advantage of our links with top chefs and food producers. We love to devise bespoke food market tours, visits to food-producers and cooking classes for our clients because there is no better way to actively engage with the Spanish culture than by meeting people who are 100% passionate about what they do. That’s how our clients get to experience the real artistry in Spain’s cuisine. It’s a big part of what we do when we travel ourselves and the feedback from clients who participate in our “foodie” experiences is always really positive.