Spain Overtakes France as Europe’s New #2 Tourism Hotspot

Post originally Published December 23, 2023 || Last Updated December 24, 2023

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Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Barcelona Leads the Charge as Top Travel Destination

Spain Overtakes France as Europe’s New #2 Tourism Hotspot

Barcelona has emerged in recent years as Spain's top travel destination, outpacing longtime favorites like Madrid and Seville. As the capital of the Catalonia region, Barcelona offers a unique blend of Mediterranean beaches, world-class art and architecture, and a vibrant food scene.

According to Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index, Barcelona welcomed over 9 million international overnight visitors in 2021, making it the fifth most visited city in Europe. The alluring city saw massive growth in tourism in the 1990s around the Summer Olympics and has continued to build its reputation as a can't-miss stop on any European itinerary.
So what exactly is drawing travelers in droves to Barcelona? For starters, the city boasts an unbeatable location between the sea and the mountains. Visitors can spend the morning lounging on Barceloneta Beach then head up to Montjuic Hill for sweeping views over the city. The mild Mediterranean climate means outdoor cafes are packed year-round.

Barcelona's architecture is another huge draw. Antoni Gaudí's fantastical buildings like La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, and Park Güell showcase the city's Art Nouveau style. The Barri Gòtic's medieval streets contrast beautifully with the modernist facades on Passeig de Gràcia. Simply wandering aimlessly provides an open-air museum experience.
Foodies flock to Barcelona to indulge in tapas and pintxos while sipping on cava and vermouth. The city spoils visitors with fresh seafood, jamón ibérico, and regional Catalan specialties. The famed Boqueria Market offers a glimpse into Barcelona's culinary soul.
While packed with historic sites, Barcelona also has an energetic nightlife scene. Revelers flock to beach clubs in the summertime while hip bars and live music venues keep the party going late. Neighborhoods like El Born and Gràcia come alive at night for those seeking local flavor.
Recent investments in tourism infrastructure and affordable flight routes on low-cost carriers like Vueling, EasyJet, and Ryanair have opened up Barcelona to new markets. Visitors can now fly direct on a budget from cities across Europe and even North America.

What else is in this post?

  1. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Barcelona Leads the Charge as Top Travel Destination
  2. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Madrid Museums and Markets Lure International Visitors
  3. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Costa del Sol Beaches Become Vacation Hotspots
  4. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Seville and Granada Showcase Moorish History and Flamenco Culture
  5. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Food and Wine Drive Tourism to Basque Country
  6. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Canary Islands Provide Year-Round Sun and Surf
  7. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Balearic Islands Ibiza and Mallorca Attract the Jet Set
  8. Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Cheap Flights Open Up Spain to New Markets

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Madrid Museums and Markets Lure International Visitors

While Barcelona grabs headlines as Spain's tourist darling, the capital city of Madrid has steadily gained ground as a top European destination in its own right. This should come as no surprise given the incredible variety of museums, markets, restaurants, and nightlife packed into the sprawling city.

One major attraction bringing people to Madrid is the unmatched collection of world-class art on display. The Prado Museum tops the list as one of the finest painting galleries on earth with masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, and more Spanish greats. The Reina Sofía Museum modern counterpart houses Picasso's anti-war Guernica plus works by Dalí and Miró that showcase 20th century styles. Smaller gems like the Thyssen Museum and Sorolla Museum delight art lovers without the crowds.
Beyond museum hopping, Madrid's neighborhoods burst with local flavor. The mix of old and new in Malasaña charms with indie boutiques and curbside cafes. La Latina's street art and bustling El Rastro flea market offer a glimpse of daily Madrileño life. And the majestic Plaza Mayor acts as a backdrop for free shows and events.

Madrid's two largest markets give visitors a taste of the region's fresh produce and culinary specialties. The San Miguel Market's tapas bars pack in foodies sampling plates of jamón, manchego cheese, and shrimp gambas al ajillo. The sprawling Mercado de San Antón mixes gourmet food stalls with a hip imported beer shop on the upper level terrace.
When the sun sets, Madrileños come alive in the city that never sleeps. Locals bar hop till late in cool neighborhoods like Chueca and Las Letras. Live flamenco shows infuse passion into the night at venues new and old. And the city’s green spaces provide refuge during long summer nights – Retiro Park turns into an open-air party after dark.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Costa del Sol Beaches Become Vacation Hotspots

Spain’s Mediterranean coastline has always been a favorite for European travelers looking for sunny beaches. Yet the Costa del Sol has emerged in recent years as the region’s most in-demand vacation hotspot luring sunseekers from around the globe. Stretching over 150 miles from Nerja to Gibraltar, the coast packs in resort towns, water sports, and of course miles of pristine sand beaches.

The appeal of the Costa del Sol starts with its exceptional climate. Thanks to over 300 days of sunshine per year, the peak summer season from June to August sees temperatures hovering in the 80s. But fall, winter, and spring also offer mild weather ideal for beachgoing, golfing, and sightseeing. This makes the Costa del Sol a true year-round destination.
Holidaymakers flock to major resort towns that dot the coastline like Benalmádena, Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Marbella, and Estepona. High-rise hotels and apartment blocks pack the waterfront to accommodate the masses of tourists during the summer months. English and German are heard as frequently as Spanish in most resort towns.

Yet it’s the beaches themselves that make the Costa del Sol a vacation hotspot. Playa La Carihuela in Torremolinos charms with old-school seaside charm and chiringuitos beach bars. Playa El Cristo in Estepona impresses with soft sandy coves tucked beneath cliffs. And Playa La Fontanilla lets Marbella visitors live the high life with beach clubs and jet skis.
Families flock to Costa del Sol beaches thanks to warm shallow waters and plenty of activities. Kids love searching for shells and hermit crabs in the sand or playing beach games. Parasailing, jet skiing, and pedal boating offer ways to get out on the water. And beachside promenades lined with ice cream shops and restaurants keep groups fueled up for fun.

But the Costa del Sol also caters to couples and groups of friends with its lively beach club scene. Nikki Beach Club, Ocean Club Marbella, and Puro Beach Marbella offer poolside cocktails, gourmet bites, and pumping DJ beats. Day passes grant access to luxurious loungers and cabanas right on the beach for a taste of Mediterranean opulence.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Seville and Granada Showcase Moorish History and Flamenco Culture

Beyond beaches and city breaks, Spain's Andalusia region seduces culturally curious travelers with its Moorish architectural legacy and authentic flamenco traditions carrying visitors back in time. The UNESCO sites of Seville and Granada immerse you in eight centuries of blended Islamic and Christian influences that shaped the soul of Southern Spain.

Seville casts a spell on visitors as they wander the Alcázar palace complex echoing a golden age under Moorish rule. Elaborate geometric mosaics, tranquil fountains, and fragrant gardens evoke an exotic past drawing inspiration from Granada's Alhambra. Climb the Giralda bell tower for Instagrammable panoramas over the city's sea of red-tiled rooftops. The adjoining Seville Cathedral amazes as the largest Gothic church ever built with its ornate interior and Christopher Columbus's tomb.

By night, passionate flamenco performances bring Andalusian culture alive. Flamenco dancers in swirling ruffled dresses stomp and twirl across the stage at venues like Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus. Between numbers, singers belt out mournful ballads speaking of love, loss and struggle while guitarists aggressively strum driving rhythms. This intensely raw artform uniquely melds diverse cultural influences from the Roma people, Moors, Jews and Spanish lower classes, distilling the Andalusian spirit for centuries.
Make the quick day trip to Granada to explore the mighty Alhambra palace and Generalife gardens, the most visited attraction in Spain. This sprawling Moorish citadel complex transports you to the 14th century Nasrid Dynasty through royal chambers lavished with intricate stalactite-filled ceilings and poetic inscriptions. Its flawless integration of art, nature and architecture amid tranquil fountains and cypress trees reveals hidden sophistication that still captivates.

Ticketing logistics make pre-booking Alhambra tickets essential, so don't leave it until the last minute! Once inside, be prepared for massive crowds shuffling through photo ops in the main Nasrid Palaces areas. But taking time to linger in areas like the Generalife gardens rewards with glimpses of bygone opulence free from selfie sticks.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Food and Wine Drive Tourism to Basque Country

Tucked into Spain’s verdant northeast corner, the Basque Country tempts travelers with a unique culinary tradition and vineyards producing some of Spain’s most distinguished wines. Food and drink here feel worlds apart from tapas and Rioja in other parts of the country. Venturing to Basque Country lets you dive deep into the region's distinct cultural identity - best discovered one bite and sip at a time.

Start by indulging in pintxos, the Basque take on tapas. These petite morsels perched atop crusty bread showcase local ingredients and global influences. Creamy seafood bites like Bacalao Al Pil Pil, shrimp skewers, and smoked salmon bilinis greet you when strolling through San Sebastián, a pintxos paradise. Beyond the coast, expect hearty meats like fried pork belly, chorizo in cider sauce, and oxtail croquettes that reflect the inland terrain. Wandering between packed pintxos bars tasting as you go makes the perfect activity to connect with locals.
Visiting one of Basque Country’s many Michelin-starred restaurants takes the culinary experience up a notch. Celebrity chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and Andoni Luis Aduriz lead a movement of cutting-edge Basque cuisine. Their restaurants blend innovation with phenomenal ingredients from land and sea. Be ready for multi-course tasting menus with boundary-pushing plates that are as much modern art as sustenance. Budget travelers can opt for tasting menus at lunch for a more affordable star-powered dining experience.
No pintxos crawl or fine dining affair is complete without raising a glass of txakoli, a crisp dry white wine hailing from Basque Country. The appelation stretches from Bizkaia to the French border, with coastal Getaria recognized for producing the most elegant examples. Txakoli’s naturally bright acidity and gentle spritz make it an ideal partner for seafood. The wine even enjoys some fame beyond Basque borders as a stellar pairing for oysters. Visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to enjoy txakoli at its source, served ice cold in tumblers along the San Sebastián seaside.

Beyond txakoli, wine enthusiasts find much to love touring Basque Country vineyards and wineries. Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita draws comparisons to Bordeaux with its sophisticated red blends produced near Laguardia. Elciego is home to the showstopping Marqués de Riscal winery—its futuristic Frank Gehry-designed hotel makes an ultra-modern base for wine tasting. And hilltop village Hondarribia Hondo boasts Spain’s highest concentration of wineries, many offering tours and tastings for under 10€.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Canary Islands Provide Year-Round Sun and Surf

With their warm climate and idyllic beaches, the Canary Islands have become a prime destination for travelers seeking sun, surf, and sand. Located off the northwest coast of Africa, this Spanish archipelago enjoys pleasant temperatures throughout the year, averaging around 72°F even in January and February. For sun seekers looking to escape the cold winter months, the Canaries provide a convenient European option to find your vitamin sea.

The largest and most developed islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and Lanzarote offer the greatest variety of beach options. Those on the hunt for big waves flock to Pozo Izquierdo on Gran Canaria’s southeast coast, where the powerful eastern trade winds whip up double overhead breaks ideal for advanced surfers. In contrast, the shallow sandy beach Playa Chica near Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote creates smaller swells perfect for beginner and intermediate surf lessons.

Windsurfing and kitesurfing reach peak conditions on Fuerteventura, the second largest Canary Island. Offshore winds averaging 20-30 knots blow consistently on the east coast around Corralejo, fueling speed demons to ride sonic booms over the water. Meanwhile at Flag Beach on the west coast, side shore winds deliver more moderate gusts for wave riding maneuvers. With world-class conditions almost every day, it’s no wonder Fuerteventura hosts major international windsurfing and kitesurfing competitions.
Beyond water sports, the Canaries charm beachgoers with over 100 sun-soaked stretches of sand. The iconic Playa de las Canteras city beach in Gran Canaria’s capital Las Palmas delights urbanites with nearly 2 miles of golden sand hugged by a vibrant oceanside promenade. Tenerife’s most stunning beach Playa de las Teresitas near Santa Cruz attracts families with its calm, clear waters and soft yellow imported sand. And tranquil Papagayo Beach on Lanzarote woos visitors to its half dozen secluded coves surrounded by volcanic cliffs.

Thanks to the consistent pleasant weather, anytime is beach time on the Canary Islands. While summer high season between June and September sees more crowds, winter low season appeals to many looking for space to stretch out on the sand. Off-season visitors also take advantage of discounted hotel rates and cheap flights dropping as much as 50%. The ocean temperatures hovering around 70°F even in January make swimming completely comfortable for most.

Yet the only major downside of a winter beach getaway comes when heavy rains hit. Low pressure systems streaming down from North Africa can dump inches of rain in just hours, especially on the northwest islands. Stormy "cold drop" weather causes rough seas and beach erosion, washing away the powdery sand. After the storm passes through, mild sunny conditions quickly return allowing beach cleanup and repairs. So even an off-season trip is likely to deliver plenty of Canary Island sunshine and swimming weather.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Balearic Islands Ibiza and Mallorca Attract the Jet Set

The Balearic Islands have long been a playground for Europe's jet set, with Ibiza and Mallorca earning reputations as flashy party destinations. But beyond the throbbing club scene, these two islands offer exclusive enclaves that cater to luxury travelers seeking a refined Mediterranean escape.

Ibiza's remote north coast shelters secluded coves like Cala Xarraca, where superyachts drop anchor so their billionaire owners can enjoy unspoiled nature far from the madness of Ibiza Town. Neighboring island Formentera recent welcomed the Six Senses luxury resort, with just 70 suites starting at €1,600 a night. The property's world-class spa, farm-to-table restaurants and private yacht for guest use ensures complete indulgence.
Over on Mallorca, the moneyed flock to Port d’Andratx to dine al fresco at Michelin-starred restaurants like 1597 by Fera and access mega-yachts docked in one of Europe's most exclusive marinas. Luxury boutique hotels like the 100-year old Gran Hotel Son Net nestled in the Tramuntana Mountains spoil guests in historic five-star style surrounded by cypress trees.

For those seeking to rub shoulders with celebrities and royalty, Santa Ponsa on Mallorca's southwest coast attracts big names to its stylish beach clubs. Fancy Nikki Beach Mallorca with pristine white loungers and pulsing DJ beats has welcomed the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Usain Bolt and Cristiano Ronaldo. Nearby hip El Chiringuito beach club is a favorite of Spanish soccer stars and Formula 1 drivers looking to party in privacy.
But Mallorca's ultimate symbol of extravagance is found inland at the sprawling estate of La Fortaleza. This landmark James Bond villain lair mansion hosted stars like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones before its 2019 purchase by Rihanna for €32 million. The 1,200 acre estate centers around a 17th century fortress with eight bedroom suites, spas, cinemas, swimming pools, gardens and a mini-village. Rihanna's expected renovations will likely elevate it to one of the world's most decadent private compounds.
For jet setters who don't require 24/7 opulence, Ibiza Town offers discrete luxury touches to complement the party scene the island is known for. Boutique hotels like the 7 Pines Resort Ibiza with just 53 suites grants direct golden hour views over Talamanca Bay. Manifesto Ibiza channels tropical sophistication with Balinese decor just steps from buzzing Marina Botafoch. Private daybeds at beach clubs like Amante soothe hangovers with Mediterranean views and premium bottle service.

Spain Overtakes France as Europe's New #2 Tourism Hotspot - Cheap Flights Open Up Spain to New Markets

In the last decade, the rise of low-cost carriers like Vueling, EasyJet, and Ryanair has been a game changer in opening up Spain as an affordable destination for travelers on a budget. These airlines have rapidly expanded routes between Spain and major European cities, encouraging weekend city breaks along with traditional beach getaways. Now new markets across the Atlantic are getting a taste of Spain thanks to ultra-low transatlantic fares from Norwegian and Level.
I'll never forget a few years back when I spotted Norway-based Norwegian Air advertising $199 one-way flights from New York to Barcelona. It seemed too good to be true. Sure enough, after some digging, the fare was legitimate but full of catches. You needed to book months in advance, fly mid-week, and pay extra for any checked bags or seat assignments. But for under $400 roundtrip all-in, the deal still blew my mind.

Plenty of budget-savvy travelers jumped on Norwegian's rock bottom fares to finally make a Barcelona trip financially feasible. The NYC route was just part of the airline's rapid transatlantic expansion out of smaller airports with little competition. Norwegian ultimately grew too fast, falling into bankruptcy in late 2019. But the airline did prove markets exist for discount transatlantic travel.
Now in 2022, Norwegian is slowly rebuilding its long-haul network under new ownership. And Spanish carrier Level has picked up the torch, advertising Barcelona flights from New York for as low as $179 one-way this spring. I regularly see deals in the $250-$300 roundtrip range when availability opens up. That equals cheap Europe within reach for American travelers on a tight budget.
Level is following the basic low-fare playbook, flying to secondary airports and charging extra for amenities many travelers now view as basic. Their fleet consists entirely of fuel-efficient Airbus A330 aircraft to control costs. Still, those willing to pack light and not be too picky on quality come out winners.

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