It’s not hard to see why Barcelona is one of the most popular, and one of my favorite, cities in the world. There is so much diversity and things to do that you could spend months in the city, not to mention plenty of day trips to many fabulous surrounding areas. It is very interesting how Barcelona, technically part of Spain, considers themselves independent as part of Catalonia. They even speak a different language and have their own flag. There are often talks of succession, kind of like Texas and California in the U.S., but it’s unlikely that will happen. From a foreigner’s point of view, it’s really just a fun fact. From beaches, to museums, to incredible food, to wild nightlife, Barcelona has something for everyone. A local friend of mine recommended staying in Gracia which is much more relaxed and very nice with a bit of a hipster vibe to it. She was spot on. I loved it and you can easily get into the city center via metro.
Old Town – Ciutat Vella (Old City)
- El Raval. Largest neighborhood, excellent for people watching. Museu Maritime, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). Wonderful area.
- Barri Gotic. Gothic Quarter. Heart of the city. Placa del Rei, Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat, Palau del Rei, Placa de Catalunya, Barcelona Cathedral, Can Culleretes, Mirador de Colon, Els Quatre Gats, Santa Maria del Pi / St. Mary of the Sea Cathedral. Incredible, must see.
- El Born. Prosperous in the Middle Ages. Bastion of cool, off-beat fashionable neighborhood with attractions, art, funky shops, bars, tapas, zoo. Parc de la Cituadella (absolutely incredible), Castell del Tres Dragons, Museu Picasso, Santa Maria del Mar, Textil Cafe. Set de Born is a tapas restaurant with amazing food. El Born in general has great restaurants. My favorite area in the city center.
- La Ramblas. Large, crazy, popular street. Lots of tourists and street vendors but definitely worth rambling around there.
- Sagrada Familia. Church of the Sacred Family. Antoni Gaudi’s famous unfinished church that started construction in 1882! This place is absolutely spectacular. You can spend an hour or two inside. There is the main part of the church, a museum below with architectural plans/models, and you can opt to visit one of the towers which is awesome and gets you a unique internal/external view from the castle-like towers on the outsides walking down spiral stone staircases. This is extra, but worth it.
- Passeig de Gracia. Major street for shopping, business, and architecture.
- Casa Batlló. Guadi’s fantastical, curving dragon-roofed apartment block, now a museum.
- Casa Milà. Gaudi’s Catalan art nouveau period building.
- Montjuic / Parc de Montjuic. Museums that surround the area.
- Palau Nacional. Museu Nacional d’Art Catalunya (MNAC). National art museum.
- Montjuic Castle. Very cool old military fortress at the top of the hill. Take the funicular.
- Pabole Espanol. Tiny cities.
- La Barceloneta & Port Olimpic. Beach along the city with lots of sunbathing, scantily clad, kinda gross travelers. Cool sand castles and views of the ocean and port.
- Marina Port Vell. Aquarium and other maritime attractions.
- Parc Guell. Another of Antoni Guadi’s masterpieces. This park atop a hill in Gracia which is a bit outside the city center is incredible. It’s like something out of Disney and Dr. Suess. The walk up the hill is a bit strenuous if you decide to walk it from the nearby metro station.
- Safety. Beware of pickpockets.
- Eating Out. Stay off major tourist streets, especially Las Ramblas. You will be ripped off and given subpar food. Look for restaurants along the side streets and outside busy tourist areas.
- Sagrada Familia Logistics. This place gets extremely crowded and you could be waiting for hours to get in. Instead, buy your ticket online which gives you a time window to arrive. This way you just show up, wait a few minutes and head right in.
- Picasso Museu. Check the website for discounts or even visit for free on certain days/times.
- Accommodations. If you decide to stay at Bonavista Apartments, make sure you get their phone number ahead of time because there is no office or lobby. It’s just the building and you need to call the guy who is offsite to come and let you in. The apartment was large, new, and clean. Probably brand new at the time. Black out shades were amazing and I got such great sleep. Full amenities just like a regular apartment.
2. Costa del Sol
The Costa del Sol is a region along the southern coast of Spain known for it’s gorgeous beaches and loads of sunshine. There are several towns in the region that vary in appeal. It’s carefree, restaurants line the beach, and topless sunbathing is enjoyed. I visited Marbella with a quick pass through at Malaga, but had researched a few other places in the region that sounded interesting, and they are all relatively close to one another.
See & Do
- Marbella. Classy, popular and well known. You may even spot a celebrity. Not necessarily as expensive as you might expect. It can be a bit snooty, and I did get pushed out of an area on the beach despite no one even being around that was supposedly private. One evening I decided to eat at a restaurant on the beach. The waiter was super cool and told me he would seat the next pretty girls that came next to me. Sure enough, he did. I thought Marbella was beautiful and the shoulder season was a great time to visit when it’s less crowded.
- Museo Bonsai Marbella. Very cool Japanese style garden with pond and turtles. Quiet and relaxing.
- Torremolinos. Popular, touristy.
- Fuengirola. Los Boliches. Fishing village.
- Nerja. Home to a cave. Secluded, coves.
- Malaga. Central hub and largest town in the area.
- Getting Here. The easiest way is to fly into Malaga which is the hub of the region and then take a bus to your final destination. It’s pretty easy to take the bus, just pay attention, and maybe ask when you get on, to know which stop to get off. It can be a bit tricky if you don’t speak Spanish, the name of stop isn’t exactly what it’s called, or there are multiple stops for the particular town, or you fall asleep. You don’t want to get dropped off too far away to walk with your luggage if you don’t have to, but you might have to get a taxi the remaining way.
- Accommodations. Where I stayed was a combination hotel and apartment so you have a desk concierge but stay in an apartment style suite. The view and proximity to the beach was fantastic.
Madrid is a huge city with many parks, museums, restaurants, squares, and nightlife. While I think the city is worth seeing, I could take or leave it. Madrid is not that much different from other major European cities. While some of the people were friendly, some were very rude and didn’t care to speak any English, even though I knew they could, despite my struggling to speak Spanish. I’m not one to expect someone to speak a different language in their own country for a tourist, but in establishments that cater to tourists in those busy tourist areas, you would think a little would be spoken. In fact, I found Madrid to be one of the most difficult places to visit (still to this day) due to the lack of English. I was at a restaurant and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. I know how to say that in Spanish, but the guy taking my order indicated he couldn’t understand me and just walked away. Luckily a young woman sitting next to me offered to help me order. It didn’t help I had just arrived in Madrid overnight and was severely jet lagged. I sat down a couple times and immediately fell asleep, only to wake several minutes later wondering what had just happened.
- Puerta del Sol. Very central to everything. English pretty widely spoken in this area.
- The Plaza Mayor. Main square. You may see some interesting demonstrations or street performances.
- Gran Via. Main street.
- Real Botanical Gardens. Large, beautiful botanical gardens.
- Reina Sofia. Famous art gallery. Picasso among others.
- Retiro Park. Parque del Retiro. Lovely park.
- Cybele’s Fountain. Fuente de la Cibeles. Beautiful fountain.
- Plaza de Cibeles. One of the city’s most impressive squares.
- Puerta de Alcala. Gateway into the city.
- Malasana. Up and coming neighborhood. Artists and fashion, not touristy, edgy, young, bohemian. May be crowded and rowdy. Younger crowd.
- La Latina. Neighborhood with some of the best tapas in the city center. Diverse, not the quietest, crowd tends to be 30+ years old.
- Chueca. Neighborhood named after it’s main square. Madrid’s gay area.
- Templo de Debod. Egyptian Temple. Very cool and unique.
- Fuente de Neptuno. Fountain.
- Rastro. Flea Market.
- Bernabeau Stadium. Estadio Santiago Bernabeau. Real Madrid football (soccer) stadium.
- Plaza de Toros de las Ventas. Bull fighting stadium.
- Salamanca. Higher class. City just outside Madrid.
- Eating Out. You may have heard about siestas and eating late in Spain. Well it’s very true, especially in Madrid. Something like 2-5pm restaurants close for siesta and they don’t eat until 10pm! I’m not exaggerating, and when the do eat, they serve small tapas style dishes which leave you wanting more. Food was great, but I felt like I was hungry all the time.
- Safety. As in pretty much every major European city, beware of pickpockets.
- Bull Fighting. I ended up going to a bull fight because I heard it was a thing to do in Spain and it sounded fun and exciting. However, it’s is one of the most disgusting, unfair, and brutal things I’ve ever witnessed in person! Bull fighting is outlawed in most of Spain and is not even fair. There are several “matches,” each of which results in the bull’s death no matter the outcome. They first start by tiring out the bull before it even comes out into the stadium, then two dudes run and stab it while two more dudes on horseback spear it, all directed at their shoulders to basically incapacitate the poor animal. Finally the big, tough matador comes out all spectacular to tease the bull with the red flag. When the bull is finally exhausted and bleeding to death, the matador plunges his sword into the bull’s scull and kills him. I don’t understand the point of it. The people in the stands were very rude and you’re forced to sit on concrete slabs for two hours in the sun. Very uncomfortable for a multitude of reasons. One of the matadors got spear headed by the bull which was quite the spectacle and the bull was pushing around the massive horses with the guys carrying spears. It was a grand fight on the bull’s part and he was not rewarded, just put down. I beg you to stay away from this unsightly, cruel spectacle and don’t contribute to it’s continued existence. Hopefully it will be outlawed for good everywhere in Spain.
- Accommodations. The place I stayed was right above or next to a bar and considering you’re in the middle of the city, it can get pretty noisy with music, talking, and drinking until the wee hours so bring ear plugs. The location is fantastic, the noise not so much, but mostly on the weekends.
The hometown of famed surrealist Salvador Dali. There is a massive theater and museum, more like a crazy person’s mansion, that houses tons of his many masterpieces. It’s the only display of Dali’s work that I’ve been to, and am even aware of, that is completely immersive and contains such variety. There are paintings, sculptures, fully constructed movie set like scenes, work on the ceiling, jewels, cars, it’s nuts. I appreciate art and art museums, but Salvador Dali and Leonardo DaVinci are the only two artists I really get excited about. They’re both so original, detailed, and expansive in their craft. The town itself is small and quaint, very nice for lunch or cup of coffee. If you’re a fan, this is not to miss and a wonderful off the beaten path adventure.
- Getting There. Very easy to take the train from Barcelona. Takes 90 minutes and is pretty inexpensive.
- Flights: $479 (U.S. => Madrid, Madrid => Malaga)
- Lodging: $1,645 (hotel, apartment)
- Transportation: $200 (taxi, metro, train)
- Activities: $64 (church, museums)
- Food: $700 (estimated $50/day)