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The infinite variety of street life, the nooks and crannies of the medieval Barri Gòtic, the ceramic tile and stained glass of Art Nouveau facades, the art and music, the throb of street life, the food (ah, the food!)—one way or another, Barcelona will find a way to get your full attention. The capital of Catalonia is a banquet for the senses, with its beguiling mix of ancient and modern architecture, tempting cafés and markets, and sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches. A stroll along La Rambla and through waterfront Barceloneta, as well as a tour of Gaudí's majestic Sagrada Famíliaand his other unique creations, are part of a visit to Spain's second-largest city. Modern art museums and chic shops call for attention, too. Barcelona's vibe stays lively well into the night, when you can linger over regional wine and cuisine at buzzing tapas bars.
Málaga is one of southern Spain’s most welcoming and happening cities, and it more than justifies a visit. Visitor figures have soared since the Museo Picasso opened in 2003 and a new cruise-ship terminal opened in 2011, and much of the city has had a well-earned face-lift, with many of its historic buildings restored or undergoing restoration. The area between the river and the port is being spruced up and transformed into the Málaga Arte Urbano Soho (MAUS Art District), and in 2015 three new art museums opened, underlining the city's aim to become one of southern Europe's centers for art. Alongside all this rejuvenation, some great shops, and lively bars and restaurants have sprung up all over the center.
True, the approach from the airport certainly isn’t that pretty, and you'll be greeted by huge 1970s high-rises that march determinedly toward Torremolinos. But don’t give up: in its center and eastern suburbs, this city of about 550,000 people is a pleasant port, with ancient streets and lovely villas amid exotic foliage. Blessed with a subtropical climate, it's covered in lush vegetation and averages some 324 days of sunshine a year.
Central Málaga lies between the Guadalmedina River and the port, and the city’s main attractions are all here. The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo sits next to the river; to the east lies the MAUS district, slowly being hoisted from its former seedy red-light reputation to a vibrant cultural hub with galleries and up-and-coming restaurants. Around La Alameda boulevard, with its giant weeping fig trees, is old-town Málaga: elegant squares, pedestrian shopping streets such as Calle Marqués de Larios, and the major monuments, which are often tucked away in labyrinthine alleys.
Eastern Málaga starts with the pleasant suburbs of El Palo and Pedregalejo, once traditional fishing villages. Here you can eat fresh fish in the numerous chiringuitos and stroll Pedregalejo's seafront promenade or the tree-lined streets of El Limonar. A few blocks inland is Málaga's bullring, La Malagueta, built in 1874, and continuing west, Muelle Uno (port-front commercial center), whose striking glass cube is now home to the Centre Pompidou. It's great for a drink and for soaking up views of the old quarter.
With the Atlantic Ocean on three sides, Cádiz is a bustling town that's been shaped by a variety of cultures, and has the varied architecture to prove it. Founded as Gadir by Phoenician traders in 1100 BC, Cádiz claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western world. Hannibal lived in Cádiz for a time, Julius Caesar first held public office here, and Columbus set out from here on his second voyage, after which the city became the home base of the Spanish fleet. In the 18th century, when the Guadalquivir silted up, Cádiz monopolized New World trade and became the wealthiest port in Western Europe. Most of its buildings—including the cathedral, built in part with wealth generated by gold and silver from the New World—date from this period. The old city is African in appearance and immensely intriguing—a cluster of narrow streets opening onto charming small squares.
Casablanca is Morocco's most modern city, and various groups of people call it home: hardworking Berbers who came north from the Souss Valley to make their fortune; older folks raised on French customs during the protectorate; devoted Muslims; wealthy business executives in the prestigious neighborhoods of California and Anfa; new and poor arrivals from the countryside, living in conspicuous shantytowns; and thousands of others from all over the kingdom who have found jobs here. There is also a fair-size expat population, including many French people. The city has its own stock exchange, and working hours tend to transcend the relaxed pace kept by the rest of Morocco.
True to its name—casa blanca in Spanish (white house), which, in turn, is Dar el-Beida in Arabic—Casablanca is a conglomeration of white buildings. The present city, known colloquially as "Casa" or "El Beida," was only founded in 1912. It lacks the abundance of ancient monuments that resonate in Morocco's other major cities; however, there are still some landmarks, including the famous Hassan II Mosque.
Although Arrecife has fully 50,000 of the 130,000 people that live on Lanzarote, this small city remains a place where life moves at a more sedate pace than it does in bustling Santa Cruz or Las Palmas. The coastline here is strung with line after line of rocky reefs (in fact, "reef" is what arrecife means in Spanish). While you're here, don't miss its two castles or its inland saltwater lagoon, Charco de San Ginés, where there's a gorgeous fleet of small fishing craft. A stroll around the back streets near the lagoon gives you an idea of the old Arrecife. The local Playa del Reducto is a good place to get in some beach time if you’re spending the day here.
From Arrecife, you might want to walk or bike to Puerto del Carmen along the 12-km (7½-mile) seafront promenade, which takes in lovely stretches of golden sand and views of the Ajaches mountains in the south. You can stop for a bite to eat in Playa Honda. Take the bus back if you’re not up to the return trip.
Las Palmas is a long, sprawling city, strung out for 10 km (6 miles) along two waterfronts of a peninsula. Though most of the action centers on the peninsula's northern end along the lovely Las Canteras beach, the sights are clustered around the city's southern edge. Begin in the old quarter, La Vegueta, at the Plaza Santa Ana (don’t miss the bronze dog statues), for a tour of interesting colonial architecture. Then make your way into the neighboring quarter of Triana, a treasure trove of small shops and cafés and restaurants. It's quite a walk from one end of town to the other, so at any point you may want to hop one of the many canary-yellow buses. Buses 1, 2 and 3 run the length of the city.
When colonists arrived in Madeira in July 1419, the valley they settled was a mass of bright yellow fennel, or funchal in Portuguese. Today the bucolic fields are gone, and the community that replaced them is the self-governing island's bustling business and political center. Funchal is the only town of any size on the island and the base for the the bulk of its tourism thanks to the plethora of hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés, phenomenal coastal and hillside views, and—of course—Madeira wine.
Despite the tropical vegetation, Funchal’s center feels decidedly Portuguese, though there's a heavy British influence, which is a holdover from the mid-16th-century marriage of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Bragança to England's King Charles II. The marriage contract gave the English the right to live on Madeira, plus valuable trade concessions. Charles in turn gave Madeirans an exclusive franchise to sell wine to England and its colonies. The island's wine boom lured many British families to Funchal, and many blue-blooded Europeans and famous vacationers such as George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill followed the pack to enjoy the mild winters.
Spread over a string of seven hills north of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) estuary, Lisbon presents an intriguing variety of faces to those who negotiate its switchback streets. In the oldest neighborhoods, stepped alleys whose street pattern dates back to Moorish times are lined with pastel-color houses decked with laundry; here and there, miradouros (vantage points) afford spectacular river or city views. In the grand 18th-century center, calçada à portuguesa (black-and-white mosaic cobblestone) sidewalks border wide boulevards. Elétricos (trams) clank through the streets, and blue-and-white azulejos (painted and glazed ceramic tiles) adorn churches, restaurants, and fountains.
Of course, parts of Lisbon lack charm. Even some downtown areas have lost their classic Portuguese appearance as the city has become more cosmopolitan: shiny office blocks have replaced some 19th- and 20th-century art nouveau buildings. And centenarian trams share the streets with "fast trams" and noisy automobiles.
Lisbon bears the mark of an incredible heritage with laid-back pride. In preparing to host the 1998 World Exposition, Lisbon spruced up public buildings, overhauled its subway system, and completed an impressive second bridge across the river. Today the former Expo site is an expansive riverfront development known as Parque das Nações, and the city is a popular port of call for cruises, whose passengers disembark onto a revitalized waterfront. Downtown, all the main squares have been overhauled one by one.
In its heyday in the 16th century, Lisbon was a pioneer of the first wave of globalization. Now, the empire is striking back, with Brazilians and people from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa enriching the city’s ethnic mix. There are also more than a few people from other European countries who are rapidly becoming integrated.
But Lisbon's intrinsic, slightly disorganized, one-of-a-kind charm hasn't vanished in the contemporary mix. Lisboetas (people from Lisbon) are at ease pulling up café chairs and perusing newspapers against any backdrop, whether it reflects the progress and commerce of today or the riches that once poured in from Asia, South America, and Africa. And quiet courtyards and sweeping viewpoints are never far away.
Despite rising prosperity (and costs) since Portugal entered the European Community in 1986, and the more recent tourism boom, prices for most goods and services are still lower than most other European countries. You can still find affordable places to eat and stay, and with distances between major sights fairly small, taxis are astonishingly cheap. All this means that Lisbon is not only a treasure chest of historical monuments, but also a place where you won’t use up all your own hard-earned treasure.
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