Inside Gaudi's mind.
While I left my heart in San Francisco, I definitely left my taste buds and soul all over Spain, spread out evenly across the Iberian peninsula. Spain is a feast for the senses, the food is simple yet incredible, the people are welcoming, fun, open minded, they love a good party, and have one every week in the form of a festival in some form or another. It is also safe, affordable, transportation is easy, dependable and it takes you everywhere in the country. Each region has a different feel, as in the past it probably was a different country with culture all of its own.
Perhaps my favorite city in the world, it is almost a dream. There are depths and layers to the city, each neighborhood is a travel spot in its own right. Catalans have strong pride for their region and are not afraid to show it, flaunt it. The beauty of Barcelona is in its architecture, food, warm people, high energy, blend of many cultures, and a general expectation that you should enjoy life…outside, eating and drinking alongside friends and strangers. Barcelona is crowded in it of itself and tourists are present almost year-round. Tourism is big so there are many vendors and services, public transportation is very reliable and efficient and it will take you anywhere you need to go, just watch your pockets.
- Sagrada Familia: a must do, a one-of-a-kind superlative basilica, and the brain-child of Anthoni Gaudi, it is filled with marvelous and hypnotic detail that requires time to indulge in, so get tickets online to avoid standing in line. There is a separate tour to go up the tower, it is worth it, do get it ahead of time as well as there are capacity limits.
- Park Guell Tibidabo: beautiful park built by Gaudi as well, there isn't much other than the structures, but it is still a great sight to take in, the view of the city is great as well.
- El Gotico (gothic Quarter): this barrio is the center of Barcelona, filled of gothic architecture it is full of businesses, entertainment, good food, nightlight, etc. Do not miss the Picazzo Museum.
- Montjuic: site of the olympic village, if you are into that, there is also a Castle of the same name at the top and the Museum of Catalan archeology at the foot of it.
- La Rambla (plaza Catalunya to Monumento a Colon) & Paseo de Gracia (Jardins de Salvador Espriu to Plaza Catalunya): two great strolls filled with great places to eat, drink, shop. The famous Mercado de la Boqueria is here, make sure you stop by. You will also find Casa Batlo & Casa Mila (La Pedrera), the other two architectural icons of Gaudi, they can be toured.
- Barceloneta: seaside neighborhood with public beaches, boardwalk, bars and restaurants.
- Camp Nou: Soccer stadium.
Quick Day trips:
- Sitges: about 20 minutes south in train, Sitges is a beautiful beach town, and an easy weekend destination for many Catalonians (and europeans).
- Monserrat: about 1 hour from Barcelona, it holds a monastery and a chapel with the 'black madonna' in it. This mountain is captivating and the place is almost unreal. Take the 'cremallera' up to the top.
- Figueres: Figueres is home to Dali's original and largest museum.
Eat at: Can Paixano, Cerveceria Catalana, La Paradeta, Ciudad Condal, Bwok Shabu Shabu, La Pepita, Arume, Tapeo, El Quim de la Boqueria.
Madrid > Toledo > Segovia > Bilbao > San Sebastian > Pamplona > Madrid
While obviously a metropolis, the different neighborhoods in Madrid feel like small towns themselves, each with a mind of its own. You need at least 3 days to see Madrid, as some of the main venues will consume half a day. Here are the main neighborhoods:
- Centro & Retiro: this is the core of Madrid, check out El Prado Museum and get tickets ahead of time, also get there when it opens so you beat the crowds. El Prado is one of the largest museums in the world, so plane ahead as it is very large, there are 'short' options where you skip certain less popular rooms and you get to see the highlights. Once done head over to el Retiro park, its huge, but you can rest at plenty of places (I napped on a bench once), look for the Estanque and Palacio de Cristal, or the Lucifer statue if you are into that. Museo de Reina Sofia is another great option for art, there is a mix of contemporary and other ages/styles and it does not require as much time as El Prado. On the west side of Centro is Palacio real, Jardines de Sabatini, Teatro Real, Plaza de Oriente.
- Chueca: gay neighborhood, plenty of restaurants and bars, it comes alive at night and everyone pours in for drinks and tapas.
- La Latina: laid back area, it comes alive at night, as it has nice restaurants and bars.
- Casa de Campo: it houses some attractions like the zoo, aquarium, the teleferico, a lake and number of ruins scattered across the park.
Eat at: El Botin, Gastromaquia, El Ñeru, Chocolateria San GInes, Bar la Campana, La Casa del Abuelo, Bodegas Ricla, Casa Revuelta, Taberna el Sur, Estado Puro, Alhambra, La Descubierta, Majaderitos Cafe, Serafina, Casa Labria, Mercado de la Reina, Las Bóvedas de Cibeles, Tasca Celso y Manolo, Revoltosa, Bocaito.
A day trip from Madrid, it is only 1 hour away on train, Toledo is a compact town where many different cultures and religions blended; Jewish, Catholic, Muslim. It is, as much of old europe, a series of unplanned zig zagging streets going in all directions, the cobblestone and steep angles make it hard on the legs so bring comfy shoes. Toledo is beautiful, but it is a daylight town as it shuts down early at night unlike most of Spain, so plan dinner ahead if you plan on staying. Here are a few things to see and do:
Mirador del Valle: you can either take the bus or a taxi, watch the sunset or sunrise.
Museo del Greco.
Museo del Ejercito & Alcazar de Toledo.
Iglesia de los Jesuitas (San Ildefonso): make sure you go up the stairs towards the bell towers for stunning views of Toledo
Sinagoga Santa Maria la Blanca.
Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes.
Catedral Primada de Toledo.
Ermita del Cristo de La Luz (Mosque): circa 999, quite small, but intimate and not too crowded, go behind and check out the view from the garden.
Sinagoga del El Transito.
Eating: Mercado de San Agustin, Restaurante Alfileritos 24, Colección Catedral, La malquerida de la Trinidad. For a more curated list, head to ViaMichelin for top Restaurants in Madrid.
Segovia & Avila
North of Madrid is Segovia, known for 3 main things; the Roman Aqueduct, Alcazar de Segovia and sulking pig!
- The aqueduct crosses the town and can be easily accessed from the road at Plaza Oriental, make sure you head up towards either edge for some vantage point views.
- The Alcazar de Segovia is known for being the inspiration for Cinderella's castle, the best views are from the Mirador de la Pradera (prime spot for a a quick picnic) or from my favorite, Mirador del Alcazar y Los Dos Valles, you can get there by walking up the mountain along side Calle Cuesta de los Hoyos, I like the vantage point because you are at the same level as the Alcazar, plus it is quite. While at it, check out the Iglesia de la Vera Cruz and Monasterio Santa Maria del Parral.
- Suckling Pig: while not a spot, a number of different restaurants in town serve this delicious dish, don't miss it.
A great day trip from Segovia or Madrid is Avila, a walled up old city with plenty of character. the main things to see besides the wall itself surrounding the city are: Cathedral de Avila, Real Monasterio de Santo Tomas, convento de Santa Teresa de Jesus. Head to Cuatro Postes (west of the city) for a panoramic view and to la Puerta del Carmen for a view of the wall from the grassy field.
Bilbao & San Sebastian
Located in Basque Country or Pais Vasco, these two cities have a different flare and feel compared to the rest of Spain, they start having a more 'French' flavor in their architecture, it is colder in temperature, and the food is at a different level, and it is no coincidence you will find several Michelin starred restaurants here, so gobble up.
If you are headed to Pais Vasco from Segovia/Madrid you will probably go through Burgos and Vitoria-Gasteiz, make a stop and check out the Cathedral de Burgos, eat at La Mejillonera for the best mejillones (mussels) and beer/wine for cheap, go to Mirador del Castillo and Castillo de Burgos. In Vitoria, stop by Plaza de Espana and Plaza de los Fueros.
Bilbao's main attraction is the Guggenheim museum, but the city has plenty more to offer. The Guggenheim is piece of art in it of itself so spend time walking around it before heading in. The museum, while big in size, carries exhibits that are mostly large in size and it is not overloaded with pieces like other museums, so it is very easy to enjoy the entire place rather quickly. After the Guggenheim was built a lot of new architecture started popping out all over the city, so make sure you catch some of it: Zubizuri, Puente Euskalduna, Pasarela Pedro Arrupe, Bilbao arena, Palacio Chavarri.
Check out Plaza Nueva, Arenal, Mercado de la Ribera, Casco Viejo and Abando neighborhoods, and Getxo which is outside the city.
Eat at: Gure Toki, Los Fueros, Nata Lisboa, Berton Pintxos Bilbao, Colmado Iberico, EL Globo, LA VIÑA DEL ENSANCHE, Udon Bilbao Abando, Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao
San Sebastian (Donostia)
Michelin-stars Mecca, bring your hunger and money. The food quality here is second to none, and the city itself has a great beachy yet cultured vibe. Check out la Concha and Ondarreta beaches, make it all the way to Peines del Viento, head up to the Mirador del Monte Igueldo via Funicular. Spend as much time in Casco Viejo as you can, specially at lunch and dinner, but do check out Mount Urgull and the neighborhoods south of Casco Viejo and east (across the bridge) of the river, that triangle is where the magic happens in San Sebastian!
Eat at: Alameda (Irun), Mirador de Ulia, Bodegon Alejandro, KOKOTXA, A fuego Negro, Atari Gastroteka, Ganbara, Topa Sukalderia, Gandarias, Khotao (coffee), Korta-T (Coffee), Bardulia Donostia. Grab a Michelin guide and start booking!
Cast Viejo Vanishing Point
Peines del Viento, Donostia
We headed south from San Sebastian towards Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, which occurs July 6 to July 14 every year. It is a week+ long party that is non-stop every day. The climax which is the running of the bulls is actually the culmination of the day-long party overnight, the bulls are released around 7am and go thru a controlled path towards the plaza de Toros, the whole thing lasts 5-10 minutes, there are strict rules to abide by; no touching the bulls, no recordings, no yelling at the bulls, etc. Balconies can be rented to watch the run from above, you have to reserve in advance. The whole town joins visitors from around Spain and the world to watch the event, and each day has a different set of parties events throughout the day so check the calendar of events. Before the run people have been drinking all night, and after the run 'some' of the attendees fall asleep anywhere possible or continue drinking, so be prepared to deal with the energy level in this town while the festivals goes on.
Sevilla > Cordoba > Granada > Malaga
A real treat, Sevilla is part of Andalucia, the region is known for free tapas with your drink order and a warm, welcoming climate (it get really hot in summer). Sevilla is relatively small and most sightseeing can be done on foot. Here are the main highlights:
- Alcazar de Sevilla: a spectacular palace built by the Moorish Muslim Kings, much smaller when compared to the Alhambra but stunning and worth visiting. There are many corners, rooms, halls to see so do spend the time needed to see the entire place. There are regular visiting hours but also a knight tour, which to my surprise was a narrated/acted tour (I thought cliche), but it was very well done, plus to get to see the place in a different light (no photos allowed)
- Plaza de Espana: not a regular Plaza Espana, this was built as a massive exposition hall, it is quite a sight to see and there are some smaller attractions like the museum of uniforms, take a ride on a horse carriage, etc.
- Parque de Maria Luisa: next to Plaza de Espana, while not as manicured as others in Spain, it is still a great break from the city.
- Catedral de Sevilla & La Giralda: the cathedral is large and with plenty of architectural gothic flare, it also holds the remains of Christopher Columbus (or so they claim, as so does Cuba and Dominican Republic, perhaps they split the body parts). La Giralda is a tall tower you can climb up to, there are no steps, its an incline ramp, but the 360-degree view of Sevilla is worth it.
- Alameda de Hercules (Plaza Europa): great area with restaurants and bars surrounding Plaza Europa.
- Modern Art Museum complex: a little rest from all things olden Spain.
- Mercado de Triana: cool place to check out some food and grab a bite. We took a tapas and paella cooking class here at the Taller Andaluz de Cocina.
- Puente de la Barquera & Alamillo Bridge: two architectural little gems.
- Mercado Lonja del Barranco: great for a quick bite to eat and check out the food vendors.
Cordoba can be a day trip from Sevilla or a good stop on the way to Granada. Cordoba is laid back, and the 2 main things to see are: the Mesquita, and the Jardines de Cordoba, the latter is not a single venue but very well maintained gardens unique to the region that are scattered across the town, however, some are easy to spot. Streets in the heart of Cordoba are narrow, so it can be a good idea to rent a bike, there are number of rentals in town, take advantage of it.
- The Mesquita, also know as Catedral-Mesquita de Cordoba, built as a mosque circa 784 and then turned into a Cathedral after the Reconquista around 16th century. The building is a weird blend of muslim and roman architecture either dancing or fighting with each other, quite a sight. It can get crowded but if you arrive before 9am entry is free and less touristy. You can go up the Torre Campanario too if time allows.
- Jardines de Cordoba, you can find these at different locations, some are; Calleja de la Flores (Northeast corner of the mesquita)
- Other places to see: Plaza de la Corredera, Roman Temple, Museo Arqueológico, stroll down Ronda de Isasa, Jardines del Alcazar.
We visited Cordoba on the 3rd week in May, during their Feria de Mayo or Ferias de Cordoba, which is a week-long event held at the Arenal (walking distance from the center of town) with hundreds of carpas (large tents) featuring food, drinks, dancing, commerce, sports, arts, etc.
Granada is a town like no other in the world, it surrounds the Alhambra from below, a fortress that changed hands from the Iberian empire to Muslim, back to Iberian after the Reconquista, yet it was left unscathed by several decades of war and wear-tear. 3 things are paramount in Granada: The Alhambra, Flamenco, and Tapas, and its all out there in unison. You can see the Alhambra from almost anywhere in town while watching Flamenco on the street dining al fresco and enjoying great tapas. Granada is simply magical, we visited in spring and the smell of Rosemary was in the air, plenty of music playing outside (Arabian and spanish), and we stayed at a home overlooking a full moon rising over the Alhambra, all these things coalescing made our visit unforgettable.
Alhambra & Generalife: this is a whole-day experience, get your tickets ahead of time to avoid long lines, bring comfy shoes. Head to the Alhambra building first and then, if you have energy left head to the Generalife once you walk through the gardens. There is also a night tour which is limited to a certain number of guests, if you have the time, DO IT, it is a different wait experience the Alhambra. If you a limited on time (or if you need to prioritize), the highlights of the Alhambra are: Sala de Mexuar, Palacio Nazaries, Patio de Comares, Patio de los Leones, Sala de los Reyes. All of these are in sequence, right after head to Palacio Carlos V (Later addition) and Torre de la Vela (great panoramic view of Granada, selfie spot). Once done, you can stroll through the Jardines on the way to Generalife.
Check out the Barrio Albaicin, it has a number of ethnic shops, restaurants, small music venues for Flamenco, plenty of tapas and wine/beer bars. The area surrounding Plaza de Santa Ana and Plaza Nueva heading northeast has a great energy and you should spend some time there, Eat at Los Diamantes Plaza Nueva. For a breathtaking view of the Alhambra head to the Mirador de San Nicolas.
You can't leave Granada, or Andalucia for that matter, without enjoying some Flamenco, there are many options out there, we liked the Cafe Pub Le Chien Andalou. Oh, one last thing, Granada is home to FREE tapas with your drink!
Alhambra Pool Mirror
Palacio Carlos V, Ellipse
On the way to Malaga you can stop in Nerja for a bite to eat and checking out the Cuevas de Nerja, some of the biggest natural caverns in the world. For a bite to eat head to Puerta Del Mar restaurant overlooking the ocean, in the Balcon de Europa area. Stroll around the area, Plaza Espana, the beach, etc. There is also a Roman aqueduct in Calle Rabat, early seen from Carretera de Almeria.
Once in Malaga, there are a number of places to see, Malaga is warm, hip and classy. The main attractions are: Museo Picazzo Malaga, Alcazaba, Catedral de la Ercarnacion de Malaga, Calle Marquez de Larios, Plaza de la Merced, Parador de Malaga Gibralfaro, Castillo Gibralfaro. Malaga is an obvious beach destination, however, head to Torremolinos for a better beach experience and enjoy the Chiringuitos (sea-side food and drinks)
Eating: Tapeo de Cervantes, Casa Aranda, La Proa de Teatinos, Venta el Tunel (if you have a car), Bodegua Bar el Pimpi.