My first visit to Spain was to Barcelona in 2010 with my then boyfriend (now husband), my daughter and my best friend Melissa. We had just left the rainy, cold, overcast skies of Paris, and the sunshine of Barcelona was immensely welcomed. I visited again with a group of friends in 2013, this time venturing beyond Barcelona to the Andalusia region, Seville and Madrid. By the end of our second trip, we had fallen in love with the Spanish people, their culture and their food, and looked for opportunities to visit again.
We were drawn back to Spain again in 2019 and 2022, where we would have the chance to revisit an old favorite (Seville), take a second chance at love in Madrid, and explore new wonders in Cordoba, Toledo and Valencia. In 2022, we spent a month in the French Basque region, which gave us the chance to visit the Spanish towns of San Sebastian, Bilbao, Vittoria-Gasteiz, and Burgos.
If Spain has been on your travel bucket list, I hope our trip experiences and recommendations will inspire you. If you’ve been to Spain, please comment with your suggestions!
Having visited twice, I would absolutely recommend this city for first time visitors to Spain. It literally has something for everyone: the fabulous old town of the Barri Gotic, eye-popping architecture, particularly the abundance of Antonio Gaudi’s works, a splendid, cosmopolitan beach, beautiful unique parks, and of course, great food and pulsing nightlife. As with most of Spain, restaurants open late so if you’re used to eating dinner early, you may have to adjust your schedule. In Barcelona we also ran in to more trouble than anywhere else in Spain. My friend was pick pocketed in the metro, my husband’s phone was stolen, and we were stalked one night by a rough looking group of men which was a little unnerving. Despite these issues, Barcelona is still a must-see destination and predominantly safe.
There is a lot to do and see in Barcelona, and if you have a week or more, you can check off all the top sites from the travel websites. But if you only have three to four days in Barcelona, my favorites are strolling the beach and stopping at the many ocean front cafes for drinks, wandering aimlessly around the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), eating your way through La Boqueria, ducking in to the Placa Reial for people watching, taking the cable car to Montjuic park, having a picnic in the magical Parc de la Ciutadella, and lastly, all things Gaudi. Casa Mila and Casa Batllo are a must, and of course, no one can leave Barcelona without a visit to Sagrada Familia. I hesitate to make restaurant recommendations for Barcelona since it’s been a few years since our last visit, but there are many amazing tapas bars to sample (I love the pintxos best). We did eat at one of the oldest restaurants in Barcelona, Can Culleretes, which was homey and still gets good reviews on Yelp.
We took the train from Barcelona to Malaga where we rented a car for the duration of our stay in Andalusia. When visiting this part of Spain, allow yourself at least five days so you can visit some of the world class towns and cities. We covered a lot of ground on this leg of our trip, staying in the tiny, non-touristy town of Velez-Malaga, which really made our visit extra special (we rented an amazing house here). The people were so warm and we enjoyed our time with them. You will not encounter many tourists in Velez-Malaga, and one of our most special nights was hanging with the locals during their Sunday night Flamenco dancing at a local watering hole. The entire town turns out, including children, and we felt like members of a big family. In addition to the townspeople’s excellent hospitality, Velez-Malaga was a great base to explore the region, and allowed us to take some amazing day trips.
Malaga: Tons of history, a Colosseum and lots of beach resorts. Expect high rise condos, nightclubs and good restaurants. Despite its modern appearance, Malaga is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and is the birthplace of Picasso.
Granada: The town itself is incredibly charming and beautiful, nestled in the shadow of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains. But the main attraction here is the Alhambra, the fortress turned palace of the Moors and eventually the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella (and the parents of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife/queen). If I could only see two places in all of Spain, I would put the Alhambra at number two (number one is Seville; more on that later). There are no pictures or words that can describe how incredible it is. The ceiling carvings, the water features, the gardens; it’s all breathtaking. Plan to spend a full day marveling at this wonder, and when you’re done, enjoy a Moroccan meal of pastilla and a crisp Spanish wine.
Ronda: Ronda is known for its location atop a massive gorge and its bullfighting arena. As we drove towards the town, we were treated to spectacular vistas: granite rock formations, wild goats, and green rolling pastures complete with a rainbow. The town of Ronda is small enough to explore in a few hours, and taking your picture atop the gorge is definitely Instagram worthy!
Marbella: This seaside town is home to a swanky yacht harbor where the rich and famous congregate. There’s also a charming old town with a picture-perfect square. I loved the little lanes paved with rocks making interesting patterns, decorated with wrought iron and orange trees scattered about. We visited on a rainy day, so we didn’t spend as much time here as we might have on a nice day.
This is my all-time favorite place in Spain, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Casco Antiguo (old city) is absolutely sublime. The architecture is grand, the streets are sparkling, there are palm trees and orange trees everywhere you look…even the carriage horses look regal. If you enjoyed the Alhambra you will really love the Alcazar in Seville. It’s smaller and in some ways even more spectacular. Be sure to book tickets a few days in advance; they limit the number of entries per day and it’s too good to miss. Another mind-blowing site is the Plaza de España. Nearly every surface is covered in beautiful ceramic tile and you can rent a rowboat to float through the Plaza for a different perspective. Built in 1929 for the Ibero-American expo, its walls are decorated with medallions of faces of distinguished Spaniards. Seville is also a perfect place to watch Flamenco, and there are many locations to check it out. For shopping in Seville, wander along the pedestrian Calle Sierpies, ending in the Plaza de San Francisco, then make a right toward the Plaza Nueva before hooking back to the Av. de la Constitución, that will lead you to the heart of the old town and the Catedral de Sevilla, the third largest church in the world. While you’re in Seville, be sure to try Moroccan food. We love Al Medina and have eaten there during both of our visits to Seville.
An easy day trip from Seville, the main attraction in this charming town is the impressive and awe-inspiring Mosque-Cathedral. There is a small fee to enter and if you have exact change, you can buy your tickets at a machine in the courtyard without having to stand in line. Once inside, I don’t think we were prepared for the beauty of this place. Initially a great Mosque, Córdoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista, and the building was converted to a Roman Catholic church. The blended styles of both religions is incredibly unique, and one of the more impressive structures we’ve seen on our travels. The town of Cordoba itself is a treasure and easy to explore. In addition to visiting the Mosque, we also spent some time at the Jardin del Alcazar, marveled at the ruins of the Roman Temple, and enjoyed refreshments in the Plaza de Las Tendillas.
If you’re in Madrid, take a day trip to Toledo; Charles V was a fan and he and his court spent considerable time there. One of the most remarkable aspects of Toledo is the blending of Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures. The Alcazar de Toledo is an expansive and fascinating museum of Toledo’s history, and there is an impressive display of weapons there. There’s also a small but fabulous synagogue called Santa Maria La Blanca, the Museo del Greco for fans of Greco’s works, and the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. Our favorite part of Toledo was just walking the narrow lanes and getting lost. It’s a small city, easily explored on foot, but if you arrive by train, you will definitely need a taxi to get to the old town. It’s important to note that you can ONLY hail a taxi in Toledo from a taxi stand, and you will likely have to wait in a queue.
The first time we visited Madrid, we weren’t crazy about it. Maybe it was the weather (it was so cold), maybe it was because we went after Seville and it seemed subdued compared to Seville’s brilliance, or maybe it was the end of a two-week trip and we were tired. Regardless, we returned in 2019 to give it another go, and I’m happy to report we enjoyed it MUCH more the second time around! Madrid is a huge city so you have to be strategic when deciding how to spend your time if you only have a few days. There is no feasible way for me to cover everything there is to do in Madrid in a paragraph; there is an abundance of information online. However, the things in Madrid that we enjoyed the most and can recommend are: Palacio Real de Madrid, the Prado for art lovers, and for foodies, spending a few hours eating your way along the Calle de la Cava Baja, a quaint street lined with tapas restaurants and street art. Our best dining experience in Madrid was at Juana la Loca. It’s super popular (for good reason) so expect to wait. No matter where we stood we were in someone’s way, but we stuck it out and were rewarded with a stellar meal. Another memorable dining option is at Sobrino de Botín, which claims to the be the oldest restaurant in the world. Definitely take a break at Chocolateria San Gines for their crisp churros dipped in rich, hot chocolate. For lovers of architecture, you’ll definitely want to spend some time in the Plaza Mayor, the Plaza de Cibeles, and the Cortes district. The Almudena Cathedral is stunning and one could spend many hours studying its neo-Gothic interior with chapels and statues of contemporary artists. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel features mosaic from artist Father Marko Ivan Rupnik. The paintings in the apse were painted by Kiko Arguello.
Our last stop on our last trip to Spain was in Valencia. When I researched Valencia I was definitely expecting more of a Mediterranean, high-society type of locale. What we actually found in Valencia was a beautiful old town, a dramatic art and architectural scene, and yes, a beach. We spent our time there hunting down great paella (we loved Rincon 33), marveling at the beautiful buildings around the Plaza del Ayunatiemto and the City of Arts and Sciences, strolling for hours through the Parque Gulliver, and eating up tapas at the Mercado Central de Valencia. We also enjoyed the Plaza de la Reina, and the area around the Valencia Cathedral. There is a tram that will take you to the beach for a day of sun and sand, and there are a ton of eateries along the coast for a snack and a cold beer. For some of the nicer restaurants along the shore, be sure to book in advance.
Our multiple visits have barely scratched the surface of the wonders of Spain and we will undoubtedly return to revisit some favorite spots, and discover new favorites along the way. If Spain is on your bucket list, wonderful! If it’s not, I hope our experiences and memories will inspire you to add it, and visit soon!