I studied abroad in Madrid and with three day weekends and a two-week spring break, I got to travel throughout the country, as well as to nearby countries including Portugal and Morocco. Since then, I’ve been back, and got engaged in Ibiza. Needless to say, Spain holds a special place in my heart, and I have lots of advice and strong opinions. I also tend to use the Spanish names for cities because those are the names I knew when I fell in love with them.
A short summary – Barcelona is awesome. Madrid has lots of incredible art in its museums. Rioja is the major wine region and is stunningly beautiful. The architecture throughout the country is incredible, particularly in Bilbao, Sevilla, and Cordoba. Toledo/Segovia/Avila are all near Madrid and super cute. Each can be a day trip. Segovia/Avila is a commonly combined day trip through many tour providers. Sevilla in the south is pretty cool. Cordoba has an amazing mosque that was turned into a cathedral and is a doable day trip from Madrid on the high speed train. Grenada is supposed to be wonderful and will be on my list the next time I go back (I haven’t made it there yet).
Ibiza was far more fun than I thought it would be. A lot of the Mediterranean coast (at least where I went) is touristy. People on the coast are awesome and friendly. Madrileños are a breed of their own, think New Yorkers meet Parisians. I am lucky that I speak Spanish, but I believe most people throughout the county speak some English, especially in the touristy areas. We did run into folks in Castilla, particularly in wine country, that seemed to only speak Spanish.
Spain is in the EU and uses the Euro. They are on the same time zone as the rest of the continent, so the sun rises and sets later in the day, which is glorious (at least to me). By and large, tap water is safe to drink except on the Balearic islands (or at least in Ibiza). Electric outlets are standard European plugs. Be wary of pickpocketers. Keep an eye on valuables and don’t put things in back pockets of backpacks. I never had any issues, but a lot of my classmates did.
Eating and Drinking
Spaniards eat late. A typical day in Madrid would begin in the morning with a café con leche (coffee with warm milk) and some cookies. Breakfast isn’t a big deal here. Lunch is later, usually around 2ish, followed by siesta-nap time! Most shops close during this time (2-4pm). Restaurants close after lunch and reopen around 6pm in touristy areas, 8pm otherwise. Dinner is usually 9ish. Spaniards hit up the bars from after dinner until 12-1am, at which point the clubs start up and go until dawn. The clubs in Ibiza and Madrid are world-renowned. After you leave the club, grab some churros con chocolate before caching the first metro of the morning.
You have to eat tapas in Spain! Tapas started as small snacks on top of your drink in bars. Some traditional bars still give you a tapa with a drink, but it was rare when I was there and can’t imagine it’s gone the other direction since then. My favorite tapas are Tortilla Española (egg and potato dish similar to a frittata), patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), pimientos de Padrón (fried Padrón peppers, some are hot, some are not!), and gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic). Everyone raves about Spanish ham and chorizo. I don’t eat it, but jamon (ham) is truly ubiquitous in this country. You can even get ham flavored potato chips! Spaniards love seafood, and they have wonderful seafood dishes you should try. The salted cod (bacalao) is very good. I love it as croquettes. On the coast, paella is amazing! Try a variety! It’s great with squid ink. Sangria in Spain is unmatched. I personally love cava sangria (cava is Spain’s sparkling wine). You will never look at sangria the same again! Red wines from Rioja are amazing, and I swear they keep the best in the county!
Traveling Within Spain
Renfe is the official Spanish site for local and regional trains. The AVE high speed trains (Alta Velocidad Española) are a good alternative to flying between cities. ALSA runs bus services throughout Spain. Buses and regional trains are a good option for travel between nearby cities, whereas AVE trains/planes are better for longer distances. Spain is a fairly big country, so don’t think it’s odd to fly between locations since they are often so far apart you have to do an overnight train. Flights through discount carriers such as EasyJet are widely available.
Destinations within Spain
Barcelona is incredible, and if you are only going to go one place in Spain, I’d recommend Barca. It’s one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited. Barca has a great beach that’s right in the city. It’s a truly wonderful place and, in my opinion, the best city in Spain with Bilbao and Sevilla as close runner ups. There’s so much to do, much of it standard “must sees.” I also just loved walking around and taking in the architecture! In no particular order, here are the things I loved:
- Sagrada Familia is amazing. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, construction began on the cathedral in 1882. It’s still under construction, but is getting a lot closer to being finished than when I was there over a decade ago. I want to go back to see it again because construction has progressed so much since I was there! I can’t get over the progress since I was there.
- Walk around the gothic quarter. The narrow roads and architecture are great. The cathedral is nice too.
- Parc Guell is really cool. The views are great and the art and Gaudí designed buildings throughout the park are awesome.
- Placa de Sant Josep Orial has lots of restaurants and is a nice spot to hang out in the evening.
- La Rambla is the good place to see and be seen. No visit to Barcelona is complete without walking La Rambla!
- The Picasso museum is a must see! One of the best collections of his work in the world. I loved the variety of pieces from various parts of his career.
- There are random buildings throughout the city Gaudí designed. It’s cool walking around and spotting them. Here’s a list of 10 from Arch Daily to spot on your walks.
- La Barceloneta is the neighborhood along the mediterranean sea. There’s a nice promenade along the sandy beach.
- There are many vineyards nearby that you can day trip too. We went to Torres and loved it! Check out this Once in A Lifetime Journey post for a detailed breakdown of some options and more about wine regions in Catalonia.
- While I haven’t been, my friends recently went to Sitges for the day and absolutely loved it. I want to mention it, since it’s on my “next time” list for Barcelona.
Living in Madrid for five months left me with mixed feelings about the city. Madrid has incredible history and museums. It’s centrally located and provides easy access to most of the country. The night life is legendary. On the other hand, the people can be a bit harsh, and judgmental. Many of my friends and I experienced street harassment and discrimination. Knowing a little Spanish is probably helpful to ease relationships with Madrileños. If nothing else, learn how to politely ask if someone speaks English, “¿perdoname, habla ingles?”
- A trip to Madrid isn’t complete without appreciating the city’s art collection. Madrid’s art museums are legendary and contain many many famous paintings including Picasso’s Guernica (at Reina Sofia) and Velazquez’s Las Meninas (at El Prado). El Prado and Reina Sofia are the best art museums. I personally prefer Reina as its a more modern collection, but Prado is a must see for any art aficionado. El Prado is free on Sundays and after 6pm on other days, but it is extremely crowded during those times. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is smaller and less crowded, and has a nice collection.
- Parque del Buen Retiro is the central park of Madrid and is wonderful! It’s fairly close to El Prado. Save money by picking up some Manchego cheese, jamon serrano, bread, and a bottle of wine and have a picnic in the park!
- El Rastro is the main market in Madrid. Go, but be careful. It’s rife with pickpocketers and thieves. Keep a hand on your bag, don’t put things in your back pockets, and never leave your belongings unattended. It’s truly a great flea market though! One of the best I’ve been to in Europe. El Rastro is only Sunday’s and public holidays. It’s near Puerto de Toledo on the metro.
- If you have time, the palace in Madrid is lovely. However, if you are short on time you can definitely skip it, particularly if you’ve been to other palaces.
- I enjoyed simply walking around the city when I lived there! There’s wonderful architecture, especially in the areas around Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor.
- The cave bars/restaurants underneath Plaza Mayor are sort of fun to go to, despite being a fair bit touristy.
- Sesamo is the greatest sangria bar of my college life and recent travelers assure me it is still there and every bit as seedy and delicious as ever.
Around Madrid – Toledo, Ávila, Segovia, and El Escorial
All three of these are great day trips from Madrid. There are a lot of package tours that do a Segovia/Ávila combo, but all three are easily accessible from Madrid via local train service (Renfe). Ávila might not be enough on its own for a day trip, and thus is a great addition to Segovia.
- Segovia has a much better castle than Madrid. It was one of the castle’s that served as inspiration for Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. There’s also a Roman aqueduct that was likely built around 50 AD that is remarkably well preserved. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Segovia is a little over an hour drive or two hours by train from Madrid)
- Ávila is nearby Segovia. It’s a cool little walled city. You can walk the walls and feel like you stepped back to medieval Europe. Until I went to Dubrovnik, this was the coolest walled city I’d ever visited. (Ávila is an hour and twenty minute drive or an hour and half by train from Madrid)
- Toledo has a fascinating history having been the heart of moorish Spain and capital of Castilla. It’s such a cool historic town! The cathedral and alcazar are both awesome to visit. The Jewish quarter has lots of history too. I loved losing myself in the narrow winding street. Toledo has enough to see and do to merit its own day trip. (Toledo is about an hour drive or an hour and half by train from Madrid in the opposite direction of Segovia and Ávila)
- The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is another day trip option. Completed in 1584, the former royal residence and monastery has a fascinating history and is a lovely complex in an idyllic setting. Many tours combine a trip to El Escorial with a stop at the Valley of the Fallen, itself with a controversial history.
Andalucía – Cordoba and Sevilla
Believe it or not, the high speed train brings Cordoba and Sevilla within reach for a long day trip. I went to Sevilla with my class and Cordoba with my parents, each on a day trip. Both were very cool. If you aren’t into aggressive day trips, you could easily go to Cordoba for a day, then continue on to Sevilla for 1-2 days.
In Sevilla, the cathedral and alcazar are the draw. The cathedral is one of the most stunning I’ve ever visited. It’s the third largest in the world. The royal palace, the Real Alcazar, is beautiful. Established in 913, the residence housed the Caliph of Cordoba, Castilian rulers, and Spanish kings in queens. The moorish architecture is incredible. The archways, courtyards, and windows throughout the complex are beautiful, and show the Arab influences. The palace feels otherworldly. Game of Thrones producers felt so too, turning the alcazar into the Dorne’s Water Palace. Sevilla is a little over 3 hours from Madrid on AVE.
Cordoba has an incredible mosque that was converted into a cathedral–La Mesquita Catedral de Cordoba. Built in the late 700s on the site of a Christian church, the mosque went through several expansions and additions. Then, in 1226, during the reconquista, Cordoba was conquered and a Catholic church was built in the center of the mosque. The result is a space that is super trippy and beautiful and humbling and sad all at once. It’s worth the trip to Cordoba just to see the it. This is a theme of most cities in Spain, but Cordoba also has incredible architecture and it is great to walk around and explore. The Roman bridge coming into the city is also cool and served as Volantis’s long bridge in Game of Thrones. Cordoba is 2 ½ hours from Madrid via AVE.
Wine and Architecture – Rioja and Bilbao
I personally loved the Rioja region and Bilbao. It’s very different from Madrid and areas south of Madrid, not as touristy, and beautiful. I spent a long weekend in the area and other than Barcelona, this was my favorite part of the country! I also had some of the best food I ate in Madrid in Haro. Obviously, I also drank the best wine here.
In Rioja, we took the bus to Haro and did the wine museum and stopped at a vineyard. The scenery is stunning! I want to come back and rent a car and road trip through the wine region, taking time to stop and enjoy the vistas. There’s also apparently dinosaur footprints somewhere in the region!
In Bilbao, the Guggenheim is incredible. We walked around the outside of the museum taking it in from every angle for about an hour. The collection is supposed to be great, but they were turning it over when we were there so we didn’t really get to see much. The Funicular is cool too, climbing to the top of Mount Artxanda, the views of the city are stunning. There are beaches around as well, but since these are Atlantic ocean beaches, it was too cold when I was there. Yet another thing for when I go back.
Beaches Beaches Beaches – Valencia, Costa Blanca, Ibiza
Spain has plenty of beaches, with long coasts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as the Balearic Islands. Although Spain is known for its beaches, I have mixed feelings. So far, I’ve yet to find a European beach better than a Caribbean beach. I’m not sure I would make a trip to Spain from the U.S. just for the beach, but if you are like my husband and like to squeeze in a few beach days whenever possible, there are some nice spots. Here are the ones I’ve been to and thoughts:
- Valencia – Other than the beaches, the main draw in Valencia is The Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences). The building is an architectural marvel. It houses a science museum, an IMAX theater, and an aquarium. We didn’t go in, but its supposed to be nice. Beaches are accessible on public transportation.
- Costa Blanca – 120 miles long, Spain’s white coast is on the mediterranean, south of Valencia. We went to Benidorm, which was like the Spanish Ocean City, MD, or Seaside Heights, NJ, sans rides. Name your standard beach town and you know what to expect in Benidorm. We got a great deal on a hotel and knew what we were signing up for. The pool and beach were nice, and we had a great weekend!
- Ibiza – I was pleasantly surprised with Ibiza. I was expecting it to be a lot like Benidorm (and part of it absolutely was) but there are all kinds of hidden alcoves and beaches away from the hordes that were awesome! The old city is beautiful! It’s 1,000 years old and the walls are still standing. The views from the walls were lovely. Walking around reminded me a lot of Toledo, with the narrow alleyways and winding streets. The beaches around San Antonio were ok, but I particularly enjoyed Cala Gracio Beach given its location off the main strip. Make sure to check what DJs are in town, as the clubs on the island get the best acts in the world. Go to the sunset bars in San Antonio early to get a table, they fill up quick! There are a few more bars around the point from the main bars. Their view isn’t as grand, but its a nice alternative.
Beyond Spain – Monkeys and Desert Dreams – Gibraltar and Morocco
A final thought, Spain is a jumping off point for Morocco and is home to the rock of Gibraltar, even though it’s owned by Britain. If you are heading to Morocco on the ferry, make the effort to swing by nearby Gibraltar, it’s a truly unique place.
What I would have done differently:
I love that I got to spend so much time in Spain and travel so widely. That said, if I could do it again, I would have picked a different beach than Benidorm. I also would have spent more than a long weekend in Bilbao and the Rioja region.
What I want to check out next time:
There are so many places I still want to go to in Spain! I didn’t make it to Grenada and Salamanca, so they are top of my list. I also want to go back to the Rioja region and find the dinosaur footprints and check out Logroño and Zaragoza. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage is on my bucket list. And I’m sure in any of these trips, I’ll make some time to keep exploring Spain’s beaches.