My journey to Extremadura began as so many of my trips through Spain do: with a car full of garrulous in-laws, Spanish pop songs playing on the radio, and a generous amount of eye-rolling after I asked if we could pull the car over again so I could take pictures.
It’s not my fault — really. Spain is too beautiful, too abundant in history, with too many unexpected gems. Over the past several years, I’ve been adding to my photo collection from the trips we’ve been taking as a family around the country. This time, after briefly considering Huelva (too far), Cuenca (too quaint), and Segovia (been there, photographed that), we embarked on a road trip through Extremadura, a fascinating region that runs along the country’s central-western border with Portugal.
Part of what makes Extremadura different is obvious at first glance: It’s perpetually sunny, pastoral, less trafficked, and much slower-paced than the country’s most famous cities. What’s not as obvious is its volatile climate, with searingly hot days that often turn into cold nights, fitting for a place whose name translates to “extreme hard.” Then there’s the unusual landscape, part grassy pasture, part dense forest, and part sand-swept plains. In Extremadura, you’ll find several beautiful parks, as well as some of Spain’s great cheeses, hams, and olive oils. Because its residents love a good gathering, you can also take part in a variety of food, music, and theater festivals throughout the year.
For a satisfying sampler of what the region has to offer, here are five must-see cities in Extremadura.
We used Cáceres as our home base for this trip, and stayed at the new Apartments Plaza Mayor 35 on the city’s main square. It has 10 chic, uncluttered accommodations, some with multiple bedrooms, views of the walled Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and amenities like rooftop patios.
The best-known city in Extremadura is also one of the most underrated destinations in Spain. Scenic, walkable, convivial, and cultured, Cáceres is everything I love about the country, without the crowds. A simple walking tour was a practical lesson in architecture, with a blend of Roman, Gothic, Muslim, and Renaissance design. There was the 18th-century Arch of the Stars, the main gateway to the monumental city. Bujaco Tower, an Arabic lookout that has become one of the most important symbols of Cáceres. Saint George Plaza, where a statue of the namesake saint slays a dragon, and the crosses atop the baroque Saint Francisco Javier Church sat slightly askew, thanks to a long-ago earthquake.
The newly expanded Helga de Alvear Museum was a strikingly modern counterpoint to the Old Town. Within its walls, we viewed Spain’s most significant private collection of contemporary art, from the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, and a range of Spanish artists. The museum is large but not overwhelming.
For food, we especially liked La Cacharrería, a lively and eclectic tapas bar, and Taperia Yuste, which features modern takes on typical Extremaduran cuisine. Torre de Sande, a new eatery in a historic Old Town tower, was a soothing spot for a glass of wine. It’s owned by Spanish restaurant royalty Juan Antonio Perez and Jose Polo, who also run the Relais & Chateaux hotel Atrio. Its restaurant boasts more than 25 dishes based on Iberian pork, and a 400-page wine list. The most expensive? A Bordeaux that runs a cool half-million dollars.
Pro Tip: Although there are many English speakers in Extremadura, the majority of tours are conducted in Spanish. If your group requires an English-speaking guide, be sure to contact the tour company in advance.
This unassuming town in the Sierra de las Villuercas mountain range is home to another one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, built in the 14th century.
A guided tour is the only way to see the interior, and it’s well worth the 5 euros, even if you don’t speak Spanish. Highlights include a large collection of paintings; a three-chambered sacristy with a metal lantern seized from a Turkish ship and the bones of saints preserved in glass boxes; a gallery containing a diminutive ivory Christ figure that might have been sculpted by Michelangelo; and the library, with its multitude of hand-painted books so hefty, they’re set on wheels.
We stopped for lunch at El Parador de Guadalupe. It’s one of 90 such inns around the Spanish countryside, all of which blend historic preservation, hospitality, and local gastronomy at surprisingly affordable rates. After lunch, we strolled the gently sloping streets and muscle-testing hills to view historic churches, the Jewish Quarter, and five medieval arches. At unassuming Tres Chorros Square, I photographed the circa-1400s fountain topped with an iron cross. On Calle Sevilla, the main commercial artery, we shopped for modern conveniences like bottled water, and traditional treats such as roscas de muédago, a sweet cake flavored with anise and honey.
Located in the Jerte Valley in the north of Extremadura, Plasencia’s city center is a cultural site full of historic buildings and a Roman aqueduct. Of the two main churches, the Gothic and elaborate New Cathedral is the more spectacular, with its vaulted ceilings and gold-painted reredos. We also enjoyed the Pérez Enciso Ethnographic Textile Museum, which displays more than 5,000 artifacts and objects related to textile making, including folk costumes, lacework, and religious vestments.
The natural jewel of the region lies a short distance southwest, in an imaginary triangle formed with sister cities Cáceres and Trujillo. Monfragüe National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that’s home to all sorts of flora and fauna, from cork oaks and wild olive trees to imperial eagles, black storks, lynxes, and otters.
Stop at the visitor center in Malpartida de Plasencia, or download a digital version (in Spanish) here. It will help you more efficiently get to and from the main points of interest, like Monfragüe Castle, the bird center, and the observatory.
For a moderately challenging hike with lots of beautiful scenery, take the 4.3-mile Ruta Roja (Red Route) to Mirador Salte del Gitano. This lookout point, atop a 300-meter quartzite cliff, has stunning 360-degree views of the Río Tajo gorge and the Peña Falcón crag, where griffon vultures nest.
In 25 B.C., Roman Emperor Augustus founded his eponymous city, Augusta Emerita, on land confiscated from Iberian tribes. It was a retirement community of sorts for soldiers discharged during the Cantabrian Wars, and eventually became the capital of Lusitania. As the Roman empire crumbled, it was conquered first by the Vandals and Alans, then the Visigoths and the Moors. By the time of the Christian reconquest in the 12th century, the once-powerful city was little more than a pueblo.
Today, travelers can visit 30 impressive monuments that make up the Archaeological Assemblage of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage site. What makes Mérida distinctive among Roman sites, save for Rome and Pompeii, is the sheer variety of its structures: a theater and amphitheater, places of worship, homes, funerary buildings, street grids, and four different aqueducts that delivered life-giving water to the city. The superb National Museum of Roman Art provides context on it all.
Among the sites, my favorites were the roman theater, the House of the Amphitheater (which has a fully accessible pathway), the misnamed Temple of Diana (it was used for imperial worship), and the Roman Bridge, which spans the Guadiana River at one of its widest points.
The intense sun sent us scurrying for cover. We took refuge at Barbarossa, a design-minded restaurant and boutique hotel on Plaza de Espana, Mérida’s main square. Under the awnings, with a slight breeze cooling the back of my neck, I sampled a variety of local foods updated for modern palates, such as potato salad with cod and wakame, and a tortilla — Spanish omelet — with tuna and grana padano cheese.
The home of conquistadors such as Francisco Pizarro González, Hernán Cortés, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Trujillo was once a city of wealth and prestige. Today it’s small — only about 10,000 people — but it still bears a range of cultural influences, including Celtic, Roman, Moorish, and African. Trujillo is friendly and unpretentious, a place where strangers at one café table chat at length with their neighbors at another.
After parking about a quarter-mile outside the city center, where there are plenty of unmetered spots, we visited Plaza Mayor, the site of a major cheese festival each spring. Upwards of 100,000 people visit to sample 300 types of cheese from around the globe. Calle de Tiendas was a sweet spot for gift shopping, including at Nuevo al Grano, a small grocery with a lovely selection of regional specialties, and Papelería Solita, a cozy stationery store.
Then it was on to the old town, another UNESCO World Heritage site, for a self-guided tour. More impatient glances accompanied my attempts to capture the perfect shot of the Tower of the Needle, a rectangular structure topped with a colorful, tiled dome and a skyward-pointing metal rod; House-Palace of the Marquis of the Conquest, a Renaissance mansion; and the humble-by-comparison house of Maria de Escobar, a 16th-century Trujillan who first introduced wheat production to the New World.
At the top of the granite hill on which the city is built, we came face-to-face with Trujillo Castle. It’s the highest point in town and was built between the 9th and 12tb centuries over a Muslim citadel. From the rear of the castle, we took in 360-degree views of dusty plains sprinkled with smaller castle ruins and the remains of centuries-old walls zigzagging between properties.
We paused, breath caught in our throats, appreciating the extraordinary beauty of an underappreciated place.