If you were to brainstorm Spanish cities to include on your next holiday, you would probably come up with Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville. If I asked you to dig a little deeper, you might land on Granada and Valencia as well.
While these are undoubtedly excellent destinations, they can often leave the more adventurous traveler a little bit dissatisfied; unfortunately they’re just so overcrowded with tourism.
Travel is supposed to be about experiencing something new, and immersing yourself in history and culture. But this is hard to do when you’re trying to appreciate Gaudí with selfie sticks blocking your view.
If you’re hoping to experience a more authentic side of Spain, away from the crowds, look no further than Extremadura. How this autonomous community has managed to stay under the radar is a wonder in itself, especially when you consider it boasts half a dozen locations that are recognized by UNESCO.
While Extremadura has something to offer every type of traveler (an amazing combination of food, festivals, history, and nature), my favorite thing about this region is its off-the-beaten-path World Heritage Sites.
Don’t Miss These UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Extremadura, Spain
Extremadura: Spain’s Hidden Gem
Tucked away in Spain’s southwestern corner along the border of Portugal, Extremadura often goes overlooked by most travelers. This, along with the fact the region is one of the least populated areas of Spain, allows you to easily escape the crowds and find a bit of relaxation.
If we rewind the sands of time, Extremadura’s capital of Mérida was one of the Roman Empire’s most significant cities. And it would give rise to many legendary Spanish conquistadors that set out to seek great fortunes.
Sons of the region include Hernán Cortés, who would end up conquering the Aztecs, and Francisco Pizarro, who would claim the lands of the Inca Empire for Spain. Also, Amazon explorer Francisco de Orellana, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who would end up being the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean.
Extremadura’s rich history has been recognized by its three World Heritage Sites which include Cáceres, Mérida, and The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe. In addition to these incredible sites, the region contains exceptional wildlife and natural landscapes.
Throw in a scattering of lively and exciting festivals throughout the year and it truly makes you wonder how Extremadura has managed to stay such a secret Spanish gem.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, visiting Cáceres feels as though you’ve stepped back in time, or at the very least, onto the set of a medieval movie. And it’s for this very reason that Game of Thrones chose Cáceres as a filming location.
The cobbled medieval streets, 12th-century Moorish walls, towers, and fortified houses of Cáceres made it a perfect fit for several episodes of the series during its seventh season. Fictional places such as Casterly Rock were shot at Trujillo’s Arab castle, while Barruecos Natural Park became the setting for legendary fictitious battles.
Cáceres has been inhabited since the Middle Paleolithic period, evidenced by paintings found in the Maltravieso Caves, discovered in the mid 1900s. Scientists have dated the ancient cave paintings to be around 60,000-70,000 years old. Some of the hand stencils within the caves are some of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered.
Eventually the ancient Romans would settle in the area and founded the city of Cáceres in 25 BC. Many relics and architecture from the Romans and the Moorish occupation can still be seen to this day, and during the Renaissance, exquisite palaces and courtyards were constructed.
One of Spain’s Most Well Preserved Old Towns
Cáceres is easily one of Spain’s most well preserved old towns. Transport yourself back in time as you check out a number of the area’s museums such as the Fundación Mercedes Calles y Carlos Ballestero, the Cáceres Museum, and the Vostell Museum in the town of Malpartida de Caceres which isn’t too far away.
Be sure to check out the Jewish quarter, Santa Maria Cathedral, and the Plaza de San Jorge. Dozens of Arab towers can also be seen including the exceptional Torre del Bujaco. When getting lost in the timeless beauty of the Old Town, keep an eye out for the giant nesting storks who now rule the ancient towers.
If visiting in May, don’t miss the exciting WOMAD Festival which takes place annually. If you happen to be tackling the famous Camino de Santiago walk, you will also find yourself passing through Cáceres if taking the Via de la Plata or Silver Route.
This is the longest Camino de Santiago route, which runs from Seville through Extremadura en route to Salamanca and Zamora.
Mérida is the capital of Extremadura, founded by Octavian Augustus. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, it also holds the title of an Archaeological-Historical Complex.
Long before the city became the capital of Extremadura, it was the capital of Lusitania. Dating back to 25 BC, the sheer amount of ancient Roman architecture in Mérida is staggering, and today it offers more important Roman monuments than any other Spanish city.
The city boasts Roman amphitheatres, stadiums, and aqueducts. You won’t want to miss sites like the Milagros Aqueduct or the Roman Temple to Diana. The grand amphitheatre once used by gladiators would have seen roughly 15,000 cheering spectators in the stands.
Puente Romano is the longest Roman bridge to be found in the world, measuring a nearly 800 meters across its 60 spans. The incredible bridge was constructed around 140 BC and is now reserved only for pedestrian traffic.
The 8th century saw the city conquered by the Muslim leader Musa bin Nusair and later in the 13th century it would be ruled by Christians. Many of the city’s monuments would take a beating during the Napoleonic invasion and it would also become a battleground during the Spanish Civil War.
Today, Mérida is a much more peaceful place where it hosts the annual International Festival of Classic Theatre during the summer months in the Roman Theatre.
#3 The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Just outside of Trujillo lies The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, declared a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 1993.
Set at the foot of the mountain range known as Sierra de las Villuercas, the monastery is located in the town of Guadalupe in the province of Cáceres. It is still an active monastery after having had its origins in the late 13th century.
Legend of The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
A young shepherd by the name of Gil Cordero found a hidden statue of the Virgin Mary along the Guadalupe River and would go on to build a chapel on the site, thus laying the foundations for The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe. It is said that the Virgin Mary asked Cordero to build the church on the land after miraculously bringing one of his cattle back to life.
The monastery remained one of Spain’s most significant monasteries for nearly 400 years. And it was here where Christopher Columbus gave thanks for his safe return after having just discovered the America’s in the 15th century.
Kings and Queens throughout history have visited this monastery, and some like Queen Isabella would even reside there for short periods. It is rumoured that the whole idea for Columbus to sail west in search of Asia was proposed after he met with Queen Isabella at the monastery.
Natives of the Americas were brought back to the monastery to be baptized and it may have been the first location where American corn was first grown in Europe. This link with the discovery of the Americas is why you find many locations in the Americas named Guadalupe, especially in the Southwest United States, Mexico, and Caribbean.
What to See and Do Here
When visiting the monastery, the star attraction for many is the chance to view the small statue of The Virgin of Guadalupe which is made from cedar wood.
You can also witness the giant choir room books as well as the 400-year-old paintings in the 14th-century Mudéjar cloisters. A collection of masterpieces from Spanish artists such as El Greco and Goya are featured in the monastery and Henry IV of Castile has been laid to rest at the site.
All up, there are three museums to explore including the Museo de Bordados, the Museo de Libros Miniados, and the Museo de Bellas Artes. The sacristy holds giant hanging canvases painted by Francisco de Zurbarán and the Relicario-Tesoro contains old relics of famous saints and lavish treasures like a jewelled crown and pearl-laden cape.
#4 Royal Monastery of Yuste
Classified as European Heritage, the Royal Monastery of Yuste is definitely worth mentioning too.
Set on the slopes of the Sierra de Gredos, it may not be as highly regarded as The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, but this didn’t stop it from being the chosen residence of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain).
Founded during the 15th century, the monastery features two cloisters, one Gothic and one Renaissance. Charles V devoted his life to prayer in the monastery after abdicating the Spanish crown to his son Philip II of Spain.
The crown of the Holy Roman Empire was handed to his brother Ferdinand I. He would live out the last two years of his life at the serene monastery.
Not too far from the monastery is the Valle de Jerte, famous for its beautiful springtime cherry trees. The nearby Valley of La Vera on the other hand is known for producing the finest paprika to be found in Spain.
Food and Drink in Extremadura
Extremadura is known for producing some of the best ham in the world. The famous jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) comes from the Iberian pig farms not too far from Mérida (one town being Montanchez). Extremadura is also known for producing wonderful goat cheese, honey, and chestnuts.
Of course, you’ll find delicious wine to wash down all that great food with. Extremadura offers up Spain’s second largest wine producing region along with producing great quantities of cork via its cork oak forests.
Extremadura’s wines fall under the designation of origin called Ribera del Guadiana, which is made up of six different sub zones. The varying elevations within Extremadura equates to around two dozen grape varieties being grown to make exceptional whites and a few great reds.
Expect to sample white wines produced from Alarijen and Borba grape varieties as well as red wine crafted from Tempranillo grapes.
Nature and Wildlife in Extremadura
Extremadura offers two Biosphere Reserves; Monfragüe National Park and the International Tagus River Natural Park (Parque Natural Tajo Internacional).
Monfragüe is a must for serious birdwatchers, as it offers up the chance to spot over a dozen species of raptors or birds of prey. Nowhere else in the world offers up such large numbers of imperial eagles and Eurasian black vultures as Monfragüe.
You might also be lucky enough to spot griffon vultures, giant Eurasian eagle owls, and Spanish imperial eagles. Extremadura is also well known for its offering of storks. Of course it’s not all about feathered creatures, as you might spot deer, wild boars, foxes, or possibly even an elusive Iberian lynx.
Extremadura is also home to the Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Geopark, which contains fossils that date all the way back to the Ediacaran period which represents a time some 600 million years ago. The mountain range’s highest peak called La Villuerca offers up incredible views of The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe.
If travelling during spring, be sure to check out the snow-colored blossoms of the cherry trees in the Jerte Valley.
Festivals in Extremadura
There are plenty of festivals and events happening in Extremadura throughout the year to keep you well and truly entertained For instance, you can catch the Jarramplas Festival every January in the town of Piornal.
I mean, why settle for throwing tomatoes in the Valencian town of Buño when you can throw large turnips at someone dressed in an eccentric, yet colorful costume with horns??! Over 20 tons of turnips will be thrown at the poor person in the heavily armored suit as they attempt to brave the pain and play a tambourine.
In Cáceres’ Jarandilla de la Vera, you can witness Los Escobazos every December 7th, where you can watch people hit each other with flaming brooms late into the night before the day of the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Summer brings out the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico, which takes place at Mérida’s Roman theatre. Most of the plays are Greek and Roman classics however there are also features from the Elizabethan theater, French neoclassical theater, and the Spanish Golden Age.
Another notable event includes the WOMAD Festival which was created by world renowned British singer Peter Gabriel and focuses on music, art, and dance. Don’t miss the Extremadura Birdwatching Fair at Monfragüe, the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, and the Badajoz Carnival.
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