Travelers who find themselves in Spain during the Christmas season will discover another side of the country. Regional traditions (like Catalan markets and Basque folklore) hold strong, while contemporary approaches to celebration take stage in cities like Madrid. But no matter which way you turn it, it’s all in the spirit of Feliz Navidad.
People flock from far and wide to Barcelona to look up at the perpetually unfinished Sagrada Família, or to get lost in the enchanting Park Guëll. Christmas in the city is no less unique. Head to La Catedral (a Gothic church complete with gargoyles) for the Fira de Santa Llúcia—a large market that wraps around the cathedral and puts both Christmas as well as nonseasonal gifts up for sale. Be on the lookout for Tió de Nadal, the city’s main Christmas character: a wood log with a smiling face who sports a red barretina (a Catalan hat). He's Barcelona's answer to Santa Claus.
Spain’s capital is also one of Europe’s largest cities, and it's here you'll find significant cultural institutions like Museo del Prado. While all of the city’s neighborhoods have their own decorative themes, each year the city council asks a designer to create an innovative light display to crown main streets like Calle Serrano. One past exhibition featured Spanish designer Purificación Garcia’s suspended, glittering cubes.
Bilbao—in Basque Country—has its very own Christmas tale. On December 23, Olentzero, an old farmer, departs from Gran Vía (the city’s main thoroughfare) and heads to the baroque Teatro Arriaga, handing out gifts along the way. If Bilbao had New York’s Christmas Day Parade, this would be it. The whole city turns out to watch the procession, but the season kicks off just a few days earlier with the Santo Tomás Fair. This farmers’ market in the city’s old quarter draws local artisans from the nearby countryside, selling everything from talo (Basque tortillas) to txakoli (the region’s signature, slightly effervescent wine).
In Valencia, Christmas is all about the show. Circo Gran Fele runs its seasonal act from Christmas Eve until January 6, featuring classic circus fare like acrobatics, elaborate puppet displays, and tightrope walkers. If you can’t get enough, there’s also Circo Gran Wonderland and Circo de Nadal (which presents a new theme each year). The less theatrically minded should head to Plaza Ayuntamiento for tastefully done lights. Be sure to stick around until New Year’s Eve, when music and fireworks fill the square.
In Spain’s south things are just a bit warmer, which coaxes Málaga’s Christmas revelers outside. Perhaps the most important event is the Verdiales Music Festival just beyond the city limits, where costumed couples compete to see who outdoes all others when it comes to verdiales—the regional flamenco dance. For a sweet taste of the season, head to Casa Mira in downtown for turrón, Spain’s quintessential Christmas treat: a nougat made with almonds.