Taking up more than a third of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, which it shares with Portugal, Spain is vast and diverse in terms of both geography and culture. The country has 17 autonomous regions with proud populations boasting their own dialects and customs. Spain’s capital city, Madrid, makes a good jumping-off point for travel; sitting near the center of the country, the major metropolis is home to the Spanish Royal Palace and the famed Prado museum. While Madrid is an obvious historical and cultural must-see,  Spain’s countryside and coastal regions are equally immersive — and perhaps more intimate. Encounters with locals and their traditions await thoughtful travelers.

La Mancha Has More Than Windmills and Don Quixote

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Located southeast of Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha is a region in central Spain made famous historically as the setting of Miguel de Carventes' 17th-century novel "Don Quixote." La Mancha’s semi-arid plains are sprinkled with vineyards, castles and windmills, all within view of surrounding mountain ranges. The regional capital, Toledo, is known for the Alcázar de Toledo, an imposing fortress that today is home to a military museum. Nearby, paintings by Renaissance artist El Greco are on view at Toledo Cathedral. The region’s Ruidera Lakes also have historic significance and are mentioned in “Don Quixote,” but today the lakes are part of the La Mancha Humeda Biosphere Reserve. A UNESCO site since 1980, the reserve includes the Tablas de Daimiel National Park wetlands area and Alcazar Lake. Home to countless wildlife species, the preserve also provides outdoor recreation activities for humans.

Succulent Seafood Awaits in Galicia

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Galicia is an autonomous region in northwest Spain. With its abundant agricultural bounty and Atlantic coast locale, it is a foodie paradise — especially for seafood lovers. In fact, you should plan to make octopus part of your diet while traveling here, as it is the regional specialty. Thousand of tons of shellfish, octopus, squid and fin fish are brought to shore through Galicia's ports each year; razor clams, mussels, shrimp and fish of every variety are also available, but the octopus is venerated above all else here here — specifically the simple, boiled octopus dish called pulpo a la feria. Literally meaning “fair-style octopus” in the Galician dialect, the tentacle fare is the focus of numerous festivals throughout Galicia. (Perhaps the most notable fiesta is held in O Carballiño, in the province of Ourense.) After being boiled in large copper kettles, pulpo is traditionally served alongside boiled potatoes and seasoned just like the tentacles, with olive oil, salt and paprika.

Don’t Miss Spain’s Excellent Wineries

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Wine grapes grow best in tough conditions. Searching deep in the ground for water through root systems, for example, actually helps strengthen the vines. It makes sense, then, that the hot, arid portion of Spain produces world-class wines. Two of the most prominent regions are Rioja and Ribera del Duero, with the latter region so named because it stretches along the Duero River. Vineyards of almost exclusively red wine grapes occupy an elevated plateau in the Burgos province of Spain’s southern plains. An area of extremes, Ribera del Duero has moderate to low annual rainfall and long, hot summers, with brutal winter weather. All of that makes for some deep, dark red Tempranillo, a radically robust red wine. Known locally as Tinto Fino, it’s the varietal that put the area on the world wine map. Not all Spanish wines are big, bold reds from the middle of the country, however. In the coastal hills of Serra del Garraf, for instance, cooler temps bring bracing acidity to white wines from the Penedes region. The most famous is Cava, a sparkling wine that rivals in quality some of the best Champagne from France.

If You Can Avoid it, Don’t Travel to Spain in Summer

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Spain’s high elevation means the country has relatively extreme seasons, with frigid winters and scorching summers. While summer resort hotspots near the ocean beaches — like Barcelona and San Sebastian – receive some cooling breezes, inland temperatures can soar above 100 degrees. So if your schedule allows, skip summer and hit Spain in spring. From March through May, sunny, not overly warm days and long nights make this time of year an excellent time to visit. Culturally, a great deal happens during springtime as well. Festivals such as Valencia’s Las Fallas de Valencia (Festival of Fire), which is held annually for five days in mid-March, are one highlight. The fiesta features whimsical and fantastical characters parading through the streets. Meanwhile, the Fair of Seville takes place for an entire week in April, celebrating Andalusian art and culture, such as Flamenco dancing and guitar.