Spain – A Travel Guide
This post is a recap of a recent trip to Spain that I took with my wife. I’ve tried to put together a scrapbook and guide that catalogs and combines my research before going, experiences during our stay, and recommendations from friends who’ve also visited Spain. I hope this list of places to stay, see, and dine comes in handy to you if you are considering a trip to the Iberian peninsula. I am only going to cover the more popular areas of the country. I hope to make a return trip in the future to explore the Basque region, Canary Islands, and more. I would also love to come back and watch the Running of the Bulls in mid-summer. I also didn’t list every single place in the sections below but I am curating a more detailed list on Foursquare which is available here.
A couple Spanish traditions to go ahead and get your mind wrapped around are the afternoon Siesta and Late Dinners. Most cities in Spain really do shut down anywhere between the hours of 2:30 pm and 6 pm. We found many stores, businesses, restaurants, and other locations closed up while locals went out to grab a lunch, run errands, or grab a nap. It’s an interesting concept that I wish America would adopt. Lastly, if you like French Press, Aero-Press or just drip filter coffee, you may struggle to find a coffee shop in the style that many in the US have become accustomed to. Most here drink straight espresso, caffè con leche, or with a splash of liquor as a quick break and pick me up. So, I have included a couple of coffee shops which offer filter coffee for when you want to slow slip and get a break from espresso.
You should definitely take advantage of the Siesta because when it is time to eat it will most likely be around 8 pm and you’ll be tired from all the sight-seeing. In fact, many restaurants do not open until 8:00 pm for dinner service and 10 pm is the prime time for many restaurants. So explore a lot before Siesta, take a nap, then go crazy on tapas and wine later that evening. However, don’t sleep in the next day, the Siesta is there to help you recover. Also, with dining out, tapas is king, but don’t trust most places with “Tapas” in their name and not all lines outside of a restaurant mean anything. Stay off the beaten path and find small boutique places where the locals go. It’s also customary to go from place to place sampling a tapa or two with a glass of wine throughout the night.
Lastly, some quick last tips. Learn and practice some Spanish. I’ve been to many countries and the Spanish are by far the most accommodating and patient at helping you practice their language. Also, you help yourself by knowing some navigational phrases so you can venture further out on your own without a tour group. Then there is the European shower to deal with. These setups usually involve a half-door partition that leaves the shower/tub open to the rest of the bathroom. The idea here is to not leave the shower running while you are in there or else you will soak the floor. Only turn it on for initially soaking and rinsing. Anyway, on to the guide.
I suggest budgeting at least two weeks with a travel day on either end, if you plan to explore the major cities and popular attractions in detail. Spain is one of the larger and more geographically diverse countries in Europe. During our visit we stuck to the major cities and barely scratched the surface with still more to see on return trips. Below our the cities we visited and my recommended stay in each.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
We took advantage of an amazing travel deal with Delta that cost us $390 round trip per person from the East Coast. The flight from either Atlanta or NYC is under 7 hours and goes directly into Madrid. Follow The Points Guy to find similar travel deals to Spain or just about anywhere else in the world. The best time to go is May through September, with July being the busiest month.
Atocha train station in Madrid is a Grand Central type terminal with lots of food and shopping options while you wait for your train. You can print your Renfe tickets at the 2nd floor machines. There’s a €0.50 charge to use the washroom which is true at most of the rail stations. The trains are pretty nice with outlets in the seats for charging devices, fold down tables, luggage racks, etc. The restrooms are clean and spacious. I would travel by train all the time if America would wake up to alternative forms of transportation.
Start your day at the Mercado Lonja del Barranco. It is a modern market with over 20 vendors of all types of Spanish food. Moreover, it sits off the water for great patio dining. After breakfast/lunch it’s an easy walking route to see all the major exhibits. Maestranza Bullring, Cathedral de Seville, La Casa del Flamenco, Royal Alcazar and so many more.
To get to Ibiza we flew one of the regional low-cost carriers out of Seville, Vueling. Like other European airlines, the base price is low, but expect to pay for every little thing you would normally get included with a full-fare. There are sailing options but those take the better part of the day. When you get there, I recommend renting a small car to get around in. There are lots of little remote areas to explore and getting around even in a taxi is not easy depending on where your hotel is. Taxis from the resorts to Old Town run about €10 each way.
Note, once you are on Ibiza, nothing is cheap. You’re on an island so they have you by the wallet. You can still find great dining and shopping but most places are looking to maximize profits from tourists. If you are going to practice your Spanish, then Ibiza is a good place to start. Tourism is a major part of the economy so the hospitality is excellent. you really don’t need to lift a finger while you’re on the island.
We flew Ryanair from Ibiza to Barcelona. This was the first time using the European low-cost travel king for both of us. Ibiza airport is a breeze but offers few amenities. at the very least it is clean and efficient. Ryanair groups everyone pre-boarding by seat assignment. Similar to Southwest but with real seat numbers. Valencia is also a close flight or boat ride away, so you may want to go there before going to Barcelona. It’s about a 20-30 minute cab ride into town for about €30.
The Metro transit system is actually quite clean and easy to use. You will need the Google Maps app to navigate around on it with ease. Instructions are in multiple languages. Unlimited single and multi-day passes are available for about €7.50 per day. The passes are good on all forms of transportation within the system. You can also get around with taxis, pedicabs, or use the Hop On Hop Off Tour (red bus).
When flying in, it is about a €30 cab ride from Madrid airport to downtown. Most taxis take credit cards. We decided to take the Renfe train from Barcelona to Madrid. The train takes about 2.5 hours and costs around €120 per person depending on what package you choose. There is a flight option also that is shorter but we wanted to see the country side. The reverse route from Madrid to Barcelona is said to be the busiest in Europe. Make sure you take one of the “AVE” high-speed trains that only make one stop. The station is Barcelona Sants. Unlike airports, you don’t need to be there hours before. 30-45 minutes before your train leaves is plenty.
Once you get to Madrid Atocha station there are plenty of taxis to get you to your hotel. Paseo de la Castellana runs north and south through the central part of Madrid so try to stay near it. There is a great transit system available to use much like the Barcelona system but more crowded. Ask an attendant and they can help you buy the right multi-day tourist pass. Taxis are always available too and are fairly inexpensive. On the flip side, when going from downtown Madrid to the Airport allow at least 45 minutes to get there during rush hour. Also, terminal 4 and 1 are far away from the other terminals. About a 5-10 minute connecting bus ride away. So double-check your terminal before heading to the airport.
NOTE: most restaurants are either closed or have limited service (drinks only) on Sunday’s. It’s best to grab some food from the market the day before and picnic in one of the parks like the locals do. For more Madrid insights read this quick guide before going, “8 Things No One Tells You About Madrid.”
WHERE TO STAY
– Hotel Alfonso – lovely historic boutique in the heart of Seville. You will find lots of museums are within walking distance. You will feel like Royalty while staying here.
– AC Hotel Ciudad de Sevilla – a Marriott Property in a historic building with modern upgrades inside. The hotel is closer to the university and old town. You will get to see how the locals live and eat in the area around the hotel. Expect to take a cab to the main attractions which will run you about €6 each way. The staff is great and the hotel features a rooftop pool.
– Airbnb – Group of eight can stay comfortably at this amazing Airbnb in top location next to the Cathedral.
– Destino Pacha Ibiza Resort – an ultra-luxurious beach resort with a high price tag. However, if you’re in Ibiza, you might as well go all the way. We’re pretty sure we were among some of Europe’s rich and famous based on the exotic cars, Botox, and glimmering jewelry hanging off all the other guests. The staff makes everyone feel like royalty though. The resort features amazing amenity kits and poolside service for anything you may want. There are two nightclubs on the property, hiking trails nearby, and great dining options as well. Picturesque views of Ibiza can be found from all angles of the property.
– There are no major hotel chains on the island, so every option will be an experiment, so use TripAdvisor to weed out the bad ones.
– Renaissance Barcelona Hotel – a Marriott Property within a mile or less walk to Las Ramblas, Plaza de Catalunya, the Town of Grácia, La Sagrada Familia, and Passeig de Gracia metro Station & shopping area. The hotel offers a great lounge, rooftop bar, first class room service, and easy access to the metro. It’s very modern and the rooms are very well-appointed.
– The W on Barcolenetta Beach – this place looks like something out of Dubai. It sits at the edge of Barcolenetta beach and probably offers some of the most stunning views. However, it is a bit away from everything else, so expect to taxi a lot.
– AC Hotel Carlton Madrid – a Marriott Property near the Atocha rail station and walking distance to Retiro Park. A site with multiple attractions like the Observatory, Crystal Palace, and Botanic Gardens. There is a train station close by that has the #3 line which will take you to Plaza Mayor Square in a few stops.
– Hotel Vincci – nice rooms, rooftop bar, and great location.
– The Castellana or Salamanca Neighborhoods – any of the hotels in the Castellana or Salamanca neighborhoods are nice. These are two of the more reputable and upscale neighborhoods near the city center.
WHERE TO EAT
– La Pitarra – small eatery in a quiet neighborhood in Seville. Order the Solomillo de Cerdo (whiskey pork tenderloin).
– Bar Alfalfa – small and cozy spot in the middle of one of the busy nightlife squares. Great Sangria and tapas.
– El Traga – a beautiful sit-down dinner place with a notable wine list and deserts to die for. The atmosphere is energetic and staff is great.
– San Marco – one of my favorite places in all of Seville. Eclectic and lovely Italian restaurant built inside of a 12th century Moorish style building in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. If you get there early, get one of the tables under the slightly open roof.
– Old Town – There really are lots of shops, restaurants and bars to explore. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Ibiza so I don’t have a long list. Bar hopping is the real joy here. Live music, tapas, and wine at one place after another.
– Pizzeria La Nonna – Italian pizzeria in the heart of Ibiza. Try their Diablo pizza and Caprese salad. They have a great sidewalk patio that’s excellent for people watching.
– 2254 Restaurant – great modern concept in the heart of downtown. Notable wine list and multiple prix fixe menu options. Great community dining table just in front of the chef also, which is a great way to meet locals.
– Cal Pep – a must for seafood lover’s. Get their early and enjoy the chef’s choice menu in the Old City.
– Els Quatre Gats – the menu typically has some traditional Catalan items featured and its historical relevance is that it’s where Picasso and other artists, musicians, and architects would hangout at such an awesome place! It’s over 100 years old and has a really cool ambiance.
– La Pepita – a great tapas spot frequented by the locals. The chef and his partner have infused a French influence into traditional tapas. The restaurant sits at the edge of Grácia and doesn’t take reservations. So go exploring Grácia and then get in line for a seat around 7:30/7:45. They also own another concept called La Cava, that is a “Vermuteria” which are all the rage at the this time in Barcelona.
– Black Remedy – great coffee and lunch spot in the heart of the Gothic Quarter where you can take a nice break from exploring. They offer different beans from all over and a chill layout where you can catch locals working on various startup projects.
– Nømad Coffee Lab & Shop – somewhat hidden coffee shop in a quiet alley where lots of startups call home. No food or snacks, just coffee. Come in patient as the line gets long.
– Botin – oldest restaurant in the world, enough said.
– La Castela – great wine selection for drinks before dinner.
– Calle de la Cava Baja – amazing street where you can grab sample tapas from all over as you make your way down the street.
– Casa Benigna or La Paella de Reina: some of the best paella in the world is in Madrid. These are two of the recommended locations. If you have not had paella before, the portions are huge, so come hungry.
– Lateral – a great modern infusion tapas restaurant near Santa Ana Square. They have a station where they make the freshest Mojitos and Sangrias. Expect a wait if you have a crowd. Afterwards there are lots of bars that you can hop around in the same square plus an outdoor market.
– Boconó Specialty Coffee – a great coffee shop just outside of the same square that El Rastro is held in. It’s the perfect place to grab a coffee before, during, or after shopping among the crowds.
THINGS TO DO
– Cadiz – a beautiful beach town that is a 1.5h train ride away.
– Flamenco Show – a great Flamenco show near the heart of downtown. There are a lot of Flamenco show options and some include food and drinks. I recommend this one because the setting is the most intimate.
– Royal Alcazar de Sevilla – for Game of Thrones fans, House Dorne scenes were filmed there. It’s also one of the most stunning palaces spanning centuries and styles. An absolute must.
– Seville Cathedral – climb the tower for a nice view over the city – to avoid lines, go early or late.
– Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla – oldest still active bullfighting ring in Spain. Take the tour at the very least even if you can’t watch bullfighting.
– Palace of Dukes of Alba – cute palace with stunning gardens turned into museum by the family.
– Plaza de Espana – I think this was built for some type of world fair, but the grounds are enormous and very pretty.
– The Metropol Parasol – a cool structure. A little further out but a stunning architectural achievement.
– Pacha Nightclub – the club scene really only runs in the summer months between May and August. When you’re here just look up what famous DJ is in town and go to that party.
– Teatro Pereyra – great love music spot with great bar. Bring a business card to leave under the table, it’s a tradition.
– Barceloneta Beach – built when the Olympics were in Barcelona. Try La Guingeta for an afternoon lunch in the sun.
– Montserrat Monastery – a unique Monastery on a mountain overlooking Catalonia. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Downtown and you can take a cable car or rail car up to the top . There are multiple dining options on the mountain including a full-service restaurant with a prix-fixe menu. The path there from downtown involves a few train switches so here is a quick guide.
- Take the Metro to the Plaça Espanya Station.
- Purchase tickets for Montserrat at Plaça Espanya Station in front of Renfe Line R5. Let them know you want Roundtrip tickets.
- There are two options for getting up the mountain once you reach the end of R5:
- Then take Renfe Line R5 towards Manresa (about a 50 minute ride).
- Option A: cable car ride up to the monastery (Get off at R5 train stop Montserrat Aeri).
- Option B: Track Train ride up to Montserrat Cremallera funicular (Get off at R5 train stop Monistrol).
- NOTE: The entire trip from Plaça Espanya Station to Montserrat is about 1.5 hours each way. But as you can see in the view below, it is worth the effort.
– Castell de Montjuic – an old military fortress, converted into a park & recreational area. It is built on top of Montjuïc hill in Barcelona, and overlooks the downtown area. Also, the Olympic facilities sit below Montjuic, so you can go and explore those at the same time.
– Gaudi Architecture – Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia are key Gaudi attractions. Make sure you get your tickets online ahead of time.
– La Rambla – It’s the central attraction in Barcelona. Try to catch a futbol match when you’re there.
– Clubs and Nightlife: Shoko, Opium, and Bling Bling
– Grácia – a small township within the city of Barcelona. All of the little shops and cafes are cool and it’s not touristy at all. There are tons of courtyards with pubs and small restaurants all around. We even caught a couple of local performances and traditional Catalan dance being performed by the locals.
– Sitges – nearby town that is about a 45 minute train ride away. About €10 euros roundtrip. Quintessential Mediterranean beach town.
– El Masnou – 20 minutes train ride away. More beach space and fun Chiringuitos (little beach huts that have tapas and drinks).
– Figueres – a day trip to the largest Dali museum and great town.
– 8 Things to Know Before You Go to Barcelona – a very helpful inside look at Barcelona from the team at The Points Guy.
– Mercado de San Miguel – cool spot to wander around and snack among the food market with tons of stalls and different types of food.
– El Rastro Market – open air flea market in Madrid that is held every Sunday and public holidays during the year. It is located along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores, between Calle Embajadores and the Ronda de Toledo. Shop for all your Spanish souvenirs here and don’t be afraid to haggle.
– Plaza Mayor – Madrid’s main square, a must. A big arcaded square in the center of Madrid, surrounded by all types of shopping.
– Palacio Real de Madrid – the Royal Palace of Madrid along with the Almudena Cathedral comprise one the most beautiful spots in all of Madrid. Take a tour and find some great photo opportunities. Also, on the first Wednesday of every month around noon they perform the Channing of the guard in front of the Royal Palace. It is a nice traditional spectacle to watch.
– Las Ventas – the famous bull fighting ring built in the Moorish style in the northeast corner of town.
– Estadio Santiago Bernabeu – one of the most famous stadiums in the world and home to Real Madrid. Try and catch a game while you are there.
– Casa de Campo – a massive park on the western side of the Royal Palace and Manzannes River. The park stretches almost 6 miles in every direction. Golf courses, the Zoo, a theme park, and more can be found within its boundaries. It even makes New York’s Central Park seem a bit small by comparison.
– Park Retiro and La Galeria Bar & Restaurant – the smaller of the two major parks but just as beautiful. Multiple museums and monuments are in the park including Palatio Cristal. Even more exciting is the La Galeria which is an all-purpose bar, restaurant, and night club in one spot. The night club runs from 11 pm to 4 am.
WHAT TO PACK
- Sandals & Sneakers
- External Battery
- Beach Towels
- Light Sweater
- Sunblock & Hats
- Tep Wireless Device or pre-paid SIM card.
- International Driver’s License Visa (If Applicable)
- Euros (not everyone takes cards, especially AmEx)
I love to travel and have visited the many cities and countries. Barcelona is my favorite city I have ever been to. We have already said we could live there and would take the steps to master Catalan/Spanish to do so. Moreover, Spain is now my favorite country. The richness of the culture, well maintained infrastructure, food, and available activities makes it as complete as any place is capable of being. I thought California was the place with everything but Spain blows it away. Again, I recommend you start with Madrid, take that to Seville, then onto Ibiza, and finally Barcelona.