All we heard last summer was about the side effects of mass tourism and overcrowded monuments. Countries and cities are reaching their tourism limit and are trying to limit the number of visitors.
From towns that put up fences to avoid selfies to cities that introduce a tourism tax, always more countries are taking measures against overtourism.
I get it, if the major landmarks are so crowded, there must be a reason. As a matter of fact, they are indeed always huge masterpieces. But if you have to queue for hours and then can’t enter anyway, what’s the point, really?
Of course, there is always the option to travel at a different time. For example, Europe is usually much quieter in fall than in spring or summer.
There is also something else that travelers can do on their own to avoid the crowds and to better enjoy their trip, especially if they are traveling during the high season.
Spain receives millions of visitors annually, and most of them visit iconic monuments and UNESCO Heritage sites that you can see everywhere online, like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Alhambra in Granada (each with millions of yearly visitors of their own!).
They took 4 of the most visited and most famous Spanish monuments located in 4 of the largest Spanish cities and found 4 nearby, overlooked monuments that are as beautiful and worth a visit. All the alternative landmarks are also UNESCO World Heritage sites and all are less visited with under 700.000 visitors per year.
Ready to find out where you can escape the crowds?
Madrid: Paseo del Prado vs. Monastery and Gardens of El Escorial
Paseo del Prado (6.050.000 annual visitors)
The Paseo del Prado is such an iconic place in Madrid: every tourist who visits the city also walks along this beautiful promenade.
Here you can find world-class museums like the Prado and the Thyssen, as well as other historical buildings.
The Paseo gained the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its economic and cultural importance since the 16th century.
Nowadays, you can stroll along the boulevard and enjoy the incredible architecture, street performances, and much more.
If you still want to visit the Prado Museum, I recommend booking a private tour with a skip-the-line entrance.
Alternative: Monastery and Gardens of El Escorial (607.457 annual visitors)
Only a short drive from Madrid, you can find another stunning natural space: the gardens of the Escorial Monastery.
This monastery dates back to the 16th century, and while the garden initially started as a vegetable and herb garden to feed the monks, it gradually became much larger and much more varied.
Now it is a massive botanical garden with plants from all over the Mediterranean and South America.
While you’re there, don’t miss out on the interior of the monastery either, the chapel and library are particularly impressive.
Barcelona: Sagrada Familia vs. Palau de la Música Catalana
Sagrada Familia (3.781.845 annual visitors)
The Sagrada Familia cathedral is one of the most famous monuments of Spain and iconic of Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona. The building has been under construction for more than a century, and will finally be completed in 2026.
With an intricate design and a big cultural significance, it’s no surprise that it was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1984. The cathedral is the most visited monument in Spain, with almost 4 million visitors last year.
While it’s worth braving the crowds to visit this masterpiece, on some days, especially in summer, there are so many people that it’s impossible to get inside.
Of course, I understand if it’s your first time in Spain and absolutely want to visit such an iconic monument. In this case, I recommend booking a private tour inclusive of VIP access to skip the long queue, especially if you are staying only 2 days in Barcelona.
Alternative: Palau de la Música Catalana (206.042 annual visitors)
If you want to escape the crowds at Sagrada Familia but still enjoy some stunning architecture, head to the Palau de la Música Catalana.
At only a short walk from the Sagrada Familia, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is easy to reach and yet overlooked by many tourists.
The theatre was designed by famous art nouveau architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and has a bold and impactful design.
Granada: Alhambra and Generalife vs. Caliphate City of Medina Azahara
Alhambra and Generalife (2.385.461 annual visitors)
As a monument to Spain’s rich cultural heritage, the Alhambra has always impressed visitors from all around the world.
From its elaborate arches to the hidden corners in the gardens, the Moorish palace is absolutely enchanting.
The Alhambra was one of the first monuments to gain UNESCO World Heritage status and has since been extremely well protected.
Tickets are in high demand and limited per day, so anyone who does not plan in advance risks missing out on one of the most popular highlights of Granada.
Like for every other major landmark, booking your ticket online ahead of time or joining a private tour is your best bet to visit the site without sacrificing the whole day in line.
Alternative: Caliphate City of Medina Azahara (203.374 annual visitors)
If you are in Granada and forget to plan ahead, you can still enjoy a piece of Moorish architecture nearby.
The Medina Azahara is a Moorish city just outside of Cordoba, only 1 and a half hours by train from Granada. Perfect for a day trip.
The Medina Azahara is a true hidden gem, not yet known by most tourists who visit. You can explore the ruins of the city by yourself or take a guided tour.
Walk along the beautifully restored buildings and see what the city would have looked like in its heyday.
Seville: Cathedral de Santa María de la Sede vs. Archivo de Indias
Cathedral de Santa María de la Sede (1.700.000 annual visitors)
Together with the Alcazar palace, the cathedral is one of the most important landmarks in Seville.
This stunning building is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the best example of Gothic architecture. Even the doors are absolute works of art.
The main building, the interior patio, and the iconic Giralda bell tower are all open to visitors. The Giralda Tower is especially popular with tourists because it has the best view of the entire city.
If you want to visit, you do need to be patient because the waiting line in high season often wraps around the entire building!
Just like most popular landmarks, if you really want to visit them, I suggest booking a private tour with a fast-track entrance to the main sights including the cathedral and the Alcazar.
Alternative: Archivo de Indias (277.458 annual visitors)
If you want to skip waiting lines altogether, you only need to walk a few meters and find another UNESCO World Heritage Site that many tourists fail to notice.
The Archivo de Indias is located in a building that looks rather unassuming from the outside, but inside you will find beautiful Renaissance architecture and historical documents, artifacts, and tapestries that paint the picture of the Spanish Empire’s exploits in America and Asia.
It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds and spend the morning exploring the hallways of the archive.
More offbeat destinations in Spain
A thriving trading port in the 16th century, Cadiz has more than 100 watchtowers, including the iconic Torre Tavira that you can visit.
Even if you are visiting Cadiz only on a day trip, don’t miss the beautiful 18th-century cathedral built with a mix of baroque and neoclassical features.
A trip to Spain’s Basque Country is a charming experience between natural landscapes, wine trails, and vibrant cities.
While you will still meet some tourists here and there, especially in the cities, nowhere will be like Barcelona or Granada.
If you are heading to the Basque Country, you might want to rent a car so that you can include places like Bilbao, San Sebastian either independently or with a private tour, Rioja Alavesa, and Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Another less touristy destination in Spain is Zaragoza. Even though much less crowded than Spain’s major highlights, Zaragoza boasts some 2000 years of history under its collective belt and offers plenty of opportunities for an utterly beguiling trip.
Between Roman ruins, stunning churches, and majestic palaces, make sure to include Zaragoza if you want to have a more off-the-beaten-path Spanish experience.
Here are some experiences you can book in Zaragoza: