How do we make the most out of our trip to Spain?
August 2, 2009 6:03 PM   Subscribe

How do we make the most out of our trip to Spain?

We are flying into Barcelona on Christmas morning and flying out of Madrid January 2. My girlfriend (who is well-traveled and speaks fluent Spanish) and I want to make the most of our trip but want to avoid overkill.

We are working on a spending budget of around $1500. We are looking for ideas regarding daytrips, transportation, lodging and other variables we should be taking into consideration.
posted by scooterdman to Travel & Transportation around Spain (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Don't go. I'm only half kidding. My boyfriend and I were just there for 2 weeks. It was a whirlwind, but we were really disappointed with it. Good food was hard to find, people were cold, we kept getting shown the worst room in the hotel EVERY TIME. Plus we live in LA, so the vegetation was a bit boring. If you're not from a similar climate, you'll probably find it a lot more interesting than we did.

If I were to do it again, I would rent an apartment in a larger city and take day trips (apparently there are some beautiful little towns close to Barcelona), so that I could go to the market and cook for myself. Spain has a great fast train network, buses, and of course, car rentals. It's not that big of a country, particularly if you're an American and used to driving longish distances.

Our favorite part of the trip was driving through the Pyrenees National Park north of Zaragoza into France. The French side was breathtaking. Plus, you'll be there when it's snowing.

So I would say to get a guide book - Rick Steve's Spain is the one we used, and that was very helpful. I would also consider weather in terms of what will be open tourist wise - ie no sun bathing in Barcelona.

Hopefully your girlfriend's Spanish skills will make it easier for the two of you, but I'm pretty sure that the Spaniards are not fond of tourists.

However, if you love to party, love bread, cheese, and ham, fried food, light beer and pastries for breakfast, this is your place.

For what it's worth, our favorite cities, in order of enjoyment were: Granada, Ronda, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Madrid. We also saw Barcelona, Cordoba and Sevilla. Sorry to be a killjoy, but I'm not planning on going back to Spain anytime soon. Italy or France are much higher on the list.
posted by anniek at 6:40 PM on August 2, 2009

It does get chilly so make sure to take warm clothes. Fleece and scarves are good to have. Rebajas (sales) begin after Christmas so you may want to shop for some good Spanish clothes for a decent discount. Maybe a daytrip to El Corte Ingles? I actually prefer Adolfo Dominguez and Massimmo Dutti.

If you want the tourist experience, well, the main attractions are better seen during warmer weather. Stick to museums and the sights of Barcelona which are very impressive.

anniek said: However, if you love to party, love bread, cheese, and ham, fried food, light beer and pastries for breakfast, this is your place.

Wow. Wow. Harsh. Spanish haute cuisine is probably the best in the world. I understand that jamon and deep fried bacalao isn't for everyone but if you can't find something that will be to your taste, you either aren't trying hard or you have overly Americanized taste buds. El Bulli has a restaurant on the Costa Brava which is considered by most experts as the best in the world. Granted it is hard to get in without reservations made months ahead of time and the prices are high but after eating his food you can die, because nothing else will ever taste as good. I haven't eaten there but have eaten some very good cuisine in Madrid at Teatriz, among other excellent places. The fusion menus are the best. Barcelona has plenty of great restaurants.
posted by JJ86 at 7:07 PM on August 2, 2009

Don't try to go to eight cities in two weeks. Barcelona and Madrid is more than enough for two weeks.

Barcelona and Madrid are both beautiful and deep cities. Go for walks: Barcelona in particular has a beautiful seaside walk past the ports and the piers (Rambla is a bit tourist-ified but still pretty), and some of Europe's most amazing architecture around the University, including the Antic "Hospital" and that opera house. CCCB and MACBA are good modern art/film experiences, depending on what's showing. Have ice cream at Farga.

Be Spanish: don't rush, take your time, meet and talk to the real people... and enjoy the rhythm. Follow the music to the places to be. And eat fish. Lots of fish.
posted by rokusan at 7:09 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need personal restaurant recommendations in Spain, and plan out where you're going to eat in advance. I've had some amazing food there, but it CAN be hard to find, especially on the fly. My favorite restaurant in Barcelona is Cerveceria Catalana.

Definitely do some day trips away from the major cities. From Madrid, I've enjoyed Salamanca and El Escorial. Toledo especially if you're interested in the religious history of the country.

The art and architecture in Spain is awesome but can be overwhelming. The best part of Spain is relaxing and enjoying good conversation over cafe con leche or cerveza or sangria. So don't forget to allow yourselves plenty of that.
posted by lampoil at 7:15 PM on August 2, 2009

Well, if you can afford Spanish haute cusine, then by all means. However, if you're on a budget, you're going to run into lots of stuff that is really salty, or just really bland. I didn't say I hated the food, just that it was hard finding things that were what we had heard Spanish cuisine was. We found some great food. And breakfast is tough if you like protein, most desayunos come with coffee and a pastry, and juice. Not really that filling.

In Madrid, our favorite place was Finca de Susanna. Inexpensive, classy, delicious.

And: I understand that jamon and deep fried bacalao isn't for everyone but if you can't find something that will be to your taste, you either aren't trying hard or you have overly Americanized taste buds. That's a bit harsh as well. Maybe it's way more likely that you'll find salty, fried food than it is this marvelous cuisine you speak of, which we found some of, particularly in the Basque region. I would think if Spanish cuisine were that amazing, you wouldn't have to try "hard" to find it. Because it's seriously all over the spectrum. Now if I went back to Spain, I know what I would and wouldn't eat, but unfortunately, i had two weeks of trial and error, which sometimes left a literal bad taste in my mouth. And I have had Spanish haute cuisine, and frankly, will always prefer French.

Btw, my other recommendation is to eat where you see a lot of locals eating, especially if it looks a bit dated. Our favorite meals were had at small, local bars where we stuck out like sore thumbs but paid the least and had the most delicious food.

And I agree, the pace was frantic, don't do what we did.
posted by anniek at 7:29 PM on August 2, 2009

If hotels will be empty enough that you don't need to plan ahead, I'd highly suggest just winging the whole trip--have a vague outline (you know: day 2, barcelona, museums) but then just really do what you feel like doing everyday. Detail-oriented planning is really an american obsession...
posted by Household Tipster at 7:30 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

First you need Maribel's guides. For Barcelona, I also liked having the Time Out Barcelona handy. Read the Trip Advisor page on Barcelona safety to avoid pick pockets and grifters. We also used the new iPhone 3GS to look up addresses on maps and navigate, which helped immensely in Madrid but didn't fare so well in Barcelona.

We spent 2 weeks in Spain for our honeymoon. We went to Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastian, and loved it. Trying to do more than 3 cities seemed insane! The big gotchas that could have fouled us up were not knowing that many places in Spain are closed Sunday and/or Monday, not knowing that the outlets would be circular and recessed (my all purpose converter wouldn't plug deep enough into the wall), and that in Barcelona the tap water tastes a bit like chlorine so most people drink bottled (whereas Madrid the tap water was fine).

In Madrid, we were in the Best Western Atlantico, which was excellent (great service) and near many tourist attractions. They had a breakfast buffet but we didn't try it, and the internet was only through ethernet connection, so be prepared. However, in the future, I'd probably want to stay nearer the La Latina district where all the tapas bars are, it's so much easier to go bar hopping that way. We mostly walked everywhere because the areas of interest (the big three museums, Royal palace, Plaza Mayor, Plaza del Sol) are pretty condensed in Madrid.

In Barcelona, the bar hopping culture isn't quite the thing. We stayed at the Casa Camper in the Raval neighborhood (up and coming, used to be seedy, close to La Rambla) for part of our stay, and we also stayed one night at the Prestige Paseo de Gracia (near Passeig de Gracia). Both have complimentary wireless and excellent service and free snacks and drinks. Casa Camper had snacks in the lobby and a big fridge of cold drinks. The Prestige had free drinks in the in-room fridge and snacks on the first floor. If you book the Prestige online, you get free breakfast. For the Casa Camper, I think everybody gets free breakfast. The Prestige is also closer to much of the shopping we wanted to do (Vinçón is a modern home decor/design fiend's dream), and the Gaudi buildings.

We walked everywhere or took cabs and avoided spending too much time on La Rambla because the silent buskers seemed depressing and the surrounding restaurants and shops were very touristy. Additionally, the areas of interest seemed further spread out in Barcelona than Madrid.

I loved Spanish food and culture. My favorite foods were pimientos de padron, grilled squid, grilled razor clams, poached octopus Galician style, fried croquettas of jamon, thinly sliced jamon iberico on its own, seared foie gras on toast, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil, chorizo, thick bittersweet chocolate with fresh churros, and cafe cortados. Spanish food and wine is good, fresh, and cheap for the quality! If you don't like seafood or ham, this might not be the place for you. But if you love it, you'll be in heaven.

It is quite easy to get lured into a mediocre, touristy spot, especially if you're starving and near a tourist attraction. Maribel's Guides and a printed out list of recommended spots helped that (check Chowhound for recommendations).

In Madrid I loved Museo de Jamon (a little touristy but very convenient), Chocolateria San Gines, Casa Lucas, Casa Lucio (make reservations a few weeks in advance), Taberna al Tempranillo, Txirimiri, Del Diego (cocktail bar), Makita (cocktail bar). I'd go back to Txirimi and Tempranillo in a heartbeat. There were so many delicious looking tapas bars on the Calle Cava Baja, you could probably spend a week there and not get bored.

In Barcelona I loved Paco Meralgo, Dry Martini (cocktails), the Boqueria market and Bar Pinotxo at the Boqueria (closed Sundays, slightly less interesting on Mondays), Quimet i Quimet (husband's favorite), Cacao Sampaka (high end chocolatier), Tapac 24, Escriba (bakery), Inopia, La Granja (cafe known for hot chocolate with a churreria a few doors down). Our splurge spot was Cinc Sentits which had the best suckling pig ever. I think Inopia was the best casual place we went though Paco Meralgo came close.

I wish we'd had time for more churrerias, Espai Sucre, Kiosko Universal, Cal Pep, maybe paella at Can Majo, a visit to Jamonisimo (ham store), Boadas or Ideal Cocktail Bar, Cerveceria Catalana, Cremeria Toscana (ice cream), La Pedrera for a drink on the roof, or some foodie shopping for stuff to bring home at Colmado Quílez.
posted by kathryn at 10:35 PM on August 2, 2009 [5 favorites]

Recently returned from a trip with a stop in Barcelona--we had a great time there. The architecture was gorgeous and there was a lot of art and culture there. A few things that stood out:


If you like art/museums, I recommend the National Museum of Catalan Art. Has stuff you won't see in other museums--for example, there are a lot of beautifully preserved Romanesque frescoes. It's a huge museum, but the price of admission is good for two visits, so it's good value for money and since you can come back, you won't feel like you have to see everything on your first visit. They'll give you a free audioguide in the language of your choice, too (which you often have to pay for in other museums).


Some tapas bars we enjoyed: Casa Alfonso (their pulpo--octopus--is AMAZING, and I say this as someone who likes seafood but doesn't usually like octopus), Celta Bar (primarily seafood), Elisabets (studenty, near the university, very reasonable prices) no website but address is Carrer Elisabets 2-4.

If you want to try Catalan (as opposed to Spanish) cuisine, I recommend Balthazar (restaurant, not tapas bar). They have a good 20 euro set menu that includes your choice of appetizer, main dish, dessert, bottle of mineral water, glass of wine, and bread). The staff and servers were outstandingly warm and patient.


The quaintly named Fashion House is clean, reasonably-priced, and well-located (safe neighbourhood, hotel is practically on top of a metro stop). Two caveats: 1) you need to be OK with having the toilets and showers down the hall from your room, European style (though shared, there were 4 of them, and they were always clean), and 2) the air conditioning was a relief in July, but I don't know what the heat situation is like in December.

Have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:43 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

it was just yesterday i was just checking out Barcelona The Great Enchantress (Directions) by Robert Hughes.

A reviewer there wrote :
Excellent book to read before going or if you have been, or for armchair travelers. Read this before the larger book, which you could read after this to obtain much more detail on the all aspects.

Another reviewer said:
The great thing about the book is that you want more, I'm happy he has a larger volume that covers the city and its eccletic history.
posted by kryptos at 10:55 PM on August 2, 2009

Response by poster: Wonderful responses. Thanks for the restaurants, books and other considerations. Here's another question maybe someone could field: we'd love to see a soccer (um, football, game), but it seems that none of the Spanish Premiere League teams play during the course of our stay (Dec. 25-Jan2). Are there other opportunities to catch a game?
posted by scooterdman at 5:54 AM on August 3, 2009

To AnnieK:

If you went to Spain and found that finding good food was hard to find, then all I have to say is that you were doing it wrong.
posted by OuttaHere at 9:21 AM on August 3, 2009

One tip: Christmas is a big time for travel down there, so if you're traveling by train, check out Seat 61's page on using the "RENFE" (Spanish Rail) site to book tickets online in advance. You can do the whole thing in English and print tickets out in advance.
posted by mdonley at 10:48 AM on August 3, 2009

> It does get chilly so make sure to take warm clothes. Fleece and scarves are good to have. Rebajas (sales) begin after Christmas so you may want to shop for some good Spanish clothes for a decent discount. Maybe a daytrip to El Corte Ingles?

Yeah, the summer sales were incredible this year--if you enjoy shopping, pack light and buy your climate-appropriate clothes at the sales. There were some incredible deals--40-70% off in most clothing stores.

And speaking of the department store El Corte Ingles: I recommend going to the one near Plaça Catalunya and having a snack in the top floor cafeteria. There are wraparound floor to ceiling windows that give you an amazing view of Barcelona while you eat your flan and sip your coffee.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:53 PM on August 3, 2009

Christmas is a very festive time in Spain. Some museums may be closed in the week between Christmas and New Year's. Also, presents are generally exchanged on January 6, with a big parade on January 5, where the 3 Kings toss out candy to the children.

December 25 falls on a Friday this year and most everything will be closed until Monday or even Tuesday. This includes bars, cafes, musuems. etc. The same will be true of New Year's. Depending on your budget, and how upscale your hotel is,you might want to buy some bread and cheese to have on hand.

December 28 is the Spanish equivalent of April Fool's day. Probably won't effect you, but good to know about.

I agree with the other posters that you should concentrate on a small number of places to see. Barcelona is quite beautiful and has lots of architecture by Gaudi that should be on your must-see list.

I love the food in Spain, but it took me awhile to find out the things I like. I am not a big jamón serrano fan (you'll see hanging hams in many bars and groceries, hoof still attached). I find it salty, chewy and strong-tasting. In general, Spanish meat is stronger tasting than American meat. They also have a lot more wild options: rabbit, pheasant, etc. on menus of even small restaurants. It took me awhile to get used to seeing chickens, head and feet still attached) and pheasants (feathers still there) in every grocery.

Also be aware that Spanish food has NO RELATION to Mexican food. You probably know that but I feel like I've spent my adult life explaining that to coworkers.

Most people like Tortilla Española, which is almost the national dish of Spain and to be found in every bar. It's a potato and egg mixture. Sometimes it has onions or green peppers but it is more potato-y than eggy. It's often eaten between slices of baguette for a snack. I like Patatas Bravas, Brave Potatoes because they are served in a spicy tomato sauce. Aioli, is a garlic-flavored mayo that is good with many things. Croquettes are good. Pisto is the Spanish equivalent to the French ratatouille and is very good. Paella is a lunch time dish, as the biggest meal is generally served at lunch. Pimientos Padrón are also good (a fried pepper, sort of like green peppers, but some of them are spicy). Spain has excellent cheeses; my favorite being Tetilla (tit cheese, name for the shape is is molded in; buttery tasting) from Santiago de Compostela but also like many others. Going to a deli counter in a grocery store makes sampling easy. Just order 100 grams of a lot of different meats and cheeses. A mild tasting ham is jamón de york.

I lived in Madrid (and my husband grew up in Madrid) so I know more places there: I like to eat at Casa Mingo, which has a very limited menu of hard cider (their own), roasted chicken, salads and for dessert, Torta Santiago. Also near Puerto de Toledo (and the big Sunday flea market, El Rastro) there is a little bar Salsaria where you order a palette of fries or chicken that comes with a bunch of different sauces to try. There is a sandwich chain in Madrid called Rodillas, that has sandwiches with a many flavored cream-cheese like fillings. People order more than 1 to make a meal, as what they call a sandwich is what I call a half-sandwich. The area around Plaza Mayor in Madrid is know for squid bocadillos (sandwiches on baguette bread).

I love the art museums in Madrid and if you like art at all, I recommend the big 3 of El Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen.

I also go to the flea market, El Rastro, held on Sundays in Madrid. Be aware of pickpockets but have a good time. There is everything from antiques to fur coats sold there. Talavera pottery (distinctive blue and white) numerals for house numbers has been a hit gift to bring back home.

The after-Christmas sales start on January 7, so you might want to budget for that. Most things in Spain are way more expensive than in the US. However, surprisiingly, El Corte Ingles (the department store chain all over Spain) often has the best prices on typical Spanish crafts/souvenirs.

Memail me if details are not clear or you want more info on anything in particular.

posted by daneflute at 6:07 PM on August 4, 2009

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