Below you will find a list of some of the better Spanish cities I’ve visited outside of Madrid, with a short commentary on each:
Granada- Old city with heavy Arabic influence definitely worth a visit. Check out the Alhambra, the Albaicin (the old Arab quarter), the Turkish baths, and the main drag off of the main plaza. Most bars give out free tapas if you purchase a drink (even soda), and the tapas in Granada are much better than those in Madrid. The nightlife in Granada is famous and most clubs don’t close down until after 7 AM. There is a cool club called Kamborio in the Albaicin and another called Granada 10 (pronounced Granada Diez) off of the main drag.
Barcelona- Much more cosmopolitan and fun than Madrid during the day in my opinion. I took the double-decker tour bus around the city and thought it was a good way to see all the sites in a short period of time. Check out the Barrio Gothic, Las Ramblas, the yacht harbor, the beach, La Sagrada Familia cathedral and all the other works by architect Gaudi. The restaurant crowds get huge at two pm for lunch, so try to beat the rush. Port Olympico is a good area for nightlife, filled with bars, cafes, and many English-speaking tourists. It’s also right on the water, which adds to the atmosphere.
Marbella/ Puerto Banus- Two of the nicest towns I’ve visited in Spain. Within five miles of each other, both beach towns are filled with resorts, expensive homes, first-rate shopping, big yachts, and a wide variety of restaurants. After you’ve had enough traditional Spain, these areas are a nice change. Almost everybody speaks English, the buildings are relatively new, and you’ll feel like you are back in the first world.
Tarifa/ Morocco- Tarifa is the windsurfing capitol of Europe, and the city resembles a California beach town. It’s a great place to learn to kitesurf (two day minimum for lessons), windsurf, or go canyoning (climbing and sliding down water falls- with a guide). Tarifa is also a good jumping off point for a daytrip to Morocco. I took a guided tour of Tangier, which was really inexpensive and fun. The downside to the tour is that they push you into their own bazaars, rush you at times and try really hard to sell you carpets and spices. Even so, everyone on my tour agreed the day trip was worth doing. An overnight stay would give you a much better chance to see the city.
What I’d Skip on a Short Vacation
Cadiz- Tacky beach town with a cool history. The city is pretty run-down and not really worth a special visit.
Segovia/ Toledo- Unless you plan to spend a long time in Madrid, don’t waste your time on either. Segovia was cooler than Toledo, although a little harder to get to. Segovia has good food, a cool castle, a Roman aqueduct, and not much else (5 hours worth of stuff max.). Toledo is similar to any other old village in Europe, and its museums are really lacking. There is a historic synagogue, a small museum dedicated to El Greco, and a big Cathedral.