Córdoba was for centuries a strategic hub, from where wine and olive oil were shipped to the Roman Empire. The Puente Romano bridge is an ancient wonder that still spans the river Guadalquivir.
If ever there was a city to excite the senses, Seville is it. A mind-opening blend of old cultures, the capital of Andalucía is endowed with more than its fair share of inspirational monuments, capped by a fabulous tapas tradition. The jumbled streets of the Santa Cruz quarter invite aimless dawdling. Flamenco is almost a religion here.
Seville’s immense Gothic cathedral is packed with treasures and stands on the site of a mosque, of which the exquisite 12th-century Giralda minaret remains. Nearby, the Reales Alcázares is a beautiful palatial complex featuring intricate carvings and tilework as well as exquisite gardens. The oldest parts date from the 10th century, but the structure was largely rebuilt by Mudejar craftsmen 400 years later.
If you really want to get into the swing of Seville, follow one of the routes that trace the stories of the great operas set in the city: Carmen, Don Juan or Figaro.
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Granada is dominated by the Alhambra, the palaces of the Nasrid dynasty, where the perfume of orange blossom and jasmine wafts you back to the exotic days of the sultans who once lived there. This set of Moorish palaces, dating back to the 14th century, are complemented by lovely gardens and fountains.
Below the Alhambra lies the Realejo district, originally the Jewish quarter, where a wealth of renaissance and baroque monuments were built following the expulsion of the Moors. Now the streets are packed with tapas bars and there is a buzzy vibe at night. Or wander over to the Albaicín the former Moorish area opposite the Alhambra where Moroccan tea houses alternate with traditional bars. At dusk, head for the Plaza de San Nicolás for the most romantic view of the Alhambra.
Over on the Atlantic coast, the ancient city of Cádiz has been spruced up to celebrate the bicentenary of the Spanish Constitution in 2012, which was drawn up there in 1812, and also for its role as the IberoAmerican Capital of Culture. The old town, shaped like a clenched fist, is at the end of a long peninsula. You are never more than a mile from the sea, always discernible in the pale gold light shimmering at the end of the long, straight streets, flanked by elegant mansions in pastel shades. Many are topped with turrets, where merchants installed telescopes to spot their ships returning from the New World.
Cádiz makes an excellent place for a few days. The top of the 18th-century baroque cathedral, with its distinctive yellow dome, offers great views over the city, with its fine array of palaces and parks.
Huelva is infrequently visited by tourists, meaning you’ll have plenty of room to explore its Phoenician and Roman heritage, before sampling superb Atlantic seafood.
To many, Málaga is simply an airport giving access to the glitzy Costa del Sol.
Picasso would not be amused: his links with this elegant maritime city are so great that there’s now a brilliant museum dedicated to the modernist master. Several exceptional monuments, including a baroque cathedral and Roman theatre, make Málaga a fine base.
East of Málaga lies La Axarquía, an alluring area of mountains, valleys and hilltop towns. Cómpeta, way up above 2,000ft, is an appealing base from where any number of walks can be arranged. Closer to the coast, the spine-like village of Frigiliana has exquisite narrow alleys.
A great way to get an overview of Jaén is from the Santa Catalina castle up on the hill above, looking down over steep lanes and out towards lofty mountains. Your eye will be drawn, inevitably, to the mighty cathedral, which took more than 200 years to complete.
Almería is guarded by the immense Alcazaba castle. The city’s gothic-renaissance cathedral was fortified to resist pirate attacks and holds several art treasures, while another claim to fame is the troglodytic dwellings – homes dug into cliffs.
While away a sunny afternoon in one of Andalucía’s dazzling pueblos blancos South of Seville – the village of Grazalema is one of the most beautiful pueblos blancos (white towns) and provides a great base for walking and hiking in the mountains.
Venture east of Seville and hidden gems include Osuna and Antequera, two of the most gorgeously preserved small towns in Andalucía. Amid their baroque and renaissance treasures, ornate casas señoriales (grandees’ mansions) sit alongside 16th-century monasteries and palacios. Although little known compared with the major cities, Antequera has an astonishingly rich heritage, including some of the most important Neolithic dolmens in Europe, Roman sculpture and a cluster of renaissance and baroque churches.
Still further east is Ronda, the famous white town perched on a clifftop in the Sierras beside the spectacular Guadalevin gorge. Often seen as a gateway to the other white pueblos of the region, this little town was adored by 19th-century Romantics such as Victor Hugo and Richard Ford, as well as Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. Hemingway liked nothing more than to while away an afternoon or evening with a brandy or sherry in hand and equally impressive is the small sherry-producing town of Jerez de la Frontera, just north of Cádiz.
Jerez is also one of Spain’s key centres of flamenco. Among the winding streets of the Barrio de Santiago in the old town, you’ll find small bars or peñas with unscheduled performances by some of the most authentic artists in Spain.