The Spanish Empire lasted from the time of Christopher Columbus to c. 1900 and in that time was the starting point for many of the famous European explorers and the home of an empire that, for hundreds of years, ruled most of the Americas.
For hundreds of years, the Moorish people (Muslims from Northwest Africa) controlled parts of Spain. Eventually, however, Christian leaders - ultimately led by just-married monarchs Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon - pushed the Moorish rulers off the European continent, concluding the Reconquista, and forced Muslims and Jews to convert or leave, enabling the ruling couple to claim the title Los Reyes Católicos and to focus on exploring new lands. The Spanish government supported Christopher Columbus' voyage to the west, which resulted in the "discovery" of the North American continent (of course, the Native Americans, and later the Vikings, had already discovered North America).
The Spanish took advantage of Columbus' discovery and the posterior circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan, and quickly got large portions of the Americas and the Pacific islands under control; the British and the French would lag behind the Spanish until the 1600s. Spain's empire became huge, and remained so until the early 1800s, when Latin America became independent from Spanish rule.
However, a mere look at a map can be deceiving and while the Spanish Empire did indeed declare (and in many case have said declarations recognized by other European powers) rule over vast swaths of territory, often they just replaced the very top layer of native society with Spaniards and only slowly spread their rule and the Spanish language further, sometimes even relying on Native languages like Nahuatl in Mexico or Guaraní in what is today Paraguay. Some countries had to engage in "nation building" or even outright conquest of de facto indigenous polities even after independence. Nicaragua only got control of Caribbean Nicaragua a hundred years after the Spanish Empire lost control over Central America and Chile only subdued its southernmost parts after independence. During most of the reign of the Spanish Habsburgs, which came to an end in 1700 after the death of the severely inbred and childless Charles II, Spain spent untold treasures trying to hold onto the "Spanish Netherlands" today largely the country of Belgium but also parts of the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The Spanish Empire largely ceased to exist following the 1898 Spanish-American War, when much of Spain's final colonial possessions (notably among them Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines) were surrendered to the United States. It retained control of its African colonies, however: Equatorial Guinea until 1968, and Western Sahara until 1975. Western Sahara has been in a state of limbo since then as a disputed territory; part of it is controlled by Morocco, and part of it is controlled by the unrecognised Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The Coat of Arms of Fernando de Aragón and Isabella de Castilla, which has elements still part of Spanish royal iconography today, shows a few aspects of Spain's history and political claims. The yoke (Latin iugum) and the arrows (Spanish flechas) at its base stand for a claim to power; as well as the first names "Fernando" and "Isabela" of the ruling monarchs, they also formed the symbol of Spain's ruling fascist party under Francisco Franco much later. This iconography is reminiscent of the fasces of fascism. The castles on the Coat represent Castille, while the lion represents the Kingdom of León. The red and yellow stripes (today part of the flags of Spain and Catalonia) represent the Kingdom of Aragón, which is combined with the eagle of Sicily to form the Coat of Arms of Aragonese Sicily. The Pomegranate (Spanish Granada) at the bottom symbolizes Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Andalusia, which the Catholic Monarchs had conquered in 1492. In many Spanish Coats of Arms, from the reign of Fernando and Isabella's grandson Charles V Habsburg (known as Carlos I in Spain) onwards, there are also two columns which symbolize the Strait of Gibraltar and the words Plus Ultra, Latin for "[There is something] further beyond", implicating Spain's claim to the Canary Islands and the Americas. Before European contact with the Americas, it sometimes said non plus ultra ("there is nothing beyond") symbolizing the belief that the world ended where Spain ended.
As put by modern historians, whereas the "body politic" of the Spanish Empire is no more, its "body historic" is very much alive and thriving. Spain continues to control the Canary Islands just off the western coast of Africa, as well as territories in North Africa, and is also home to large communities of Latin American origin, as a legacy of its former colonial empire.
Regions once part of the Spanish Empire
- Mexico was called New Spain in the Spanish Empire.
- Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado and quite a few southwestern states in the United States were once part of the Spanish Empire; some eventually were part of the Mexican Empire after Mexican independence in 1821 and before the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War (see Old West).
- South America, excluding Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
- Central America, excluding Belize, and parts of the Caribbean (Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico)
- Philippines - named by Ferdinand Magellan after his patron Philip II
- Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish colony in Central Africa
- Western Sahara, one of Spain's last colonies whose "messy divorce" with the mother country — and subsequent Moroccan invasion — created an enduring conflict that has left the area divided with an uncertain future
- The Netherlands and Portugal
- Guam, which was ceded to the United States after the 1898 Spanish-American War, along with the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
- Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and Quito, capital of Ecuador, have well-preserved Spanish colonial central sections.
- Cuzco, Peru, where colonial architecture is built on Inca foundations.
- El Escorial is a massive palace-monastery built on behalf of Philip II, namesake of the Philippines, as a mausoleum for his father Charles V. While the palace is gargantuan (and must've cost a pretty penny) his own "office" from which he ruled half the planet is pretty modest. In the "basement" there is also a burial chamber and "national shrine" of sorts housing the remains of most Spanish kings and queens who gave birth to kings from Philip's time onward. As "Valle de los Caídos" is close by - perhaps intentionally as Franco chose the site - the two can be done on a single day-trip. Valle de los Caídos used to house the corpse of Franco and still houses the remains of many dead of the Civil War, as well as the corpse of Juan Antonio Primo de Rivera, a leading fascist executed by Republicans in 1936.
- Madrid became the seat of the Spanish court at a similar point in time as the rise of Spain to global power occurred and it is thus full of signs of the wealth and power of former Spanish monarchs. The current Spanish monarch as well as Spain's government and parliament are also found here.
- Seville became an economic powerhouse, as its port monopolised the transoceanic trade, and it shows in its rich architectural heritage. To this day the main archive on the Spanish colonial history is housed here, making it a favorite destination for researchers of the colonial era.
- Missions on El Camino Real in California, United States, many of which can still be visited as museums or churches.
- Santa Fe (founded in 1607) and Albuquerque (funded in 1706) in New Mexico.
- Pensacola (founded in 1559) and St Augustine (founded in 1565) in Florida.
- San Antonio (founded in 1718) in Texas.
- Cádiz and A Coruña were the sites of the "singeing of King Philip's beard" raid by Sir Francis Drake in 1587. He occupied the harbours and destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships. About 20 km south of Cádiz is Cape Trafalgar, off which was fought the famous 1805 naval battle.