Help me plan a Fall'14 trip to Spain and/or Portugal?
January 5, 2014 7:07 PM   Subscribe

Which cities are a must?

Last year, I had a phenomenal trip to Europe thanks to you guys!! Unfortunately, I wasn't able to cover Spain in my trip due to time/finance constraints. So this year I want to go to Spain and maybe Portugal (?) around the fall (Aug/Sept/Oct) for about 2 weeks (max).

Unlike the last Q, this time I really have 0 direction. I don't have anything planned out, places I want to visit, planes, trains, nothing. What I'm looking for here is not that you plan my trip for me (though that would be nice ha) but really to learn from your travel experiences in those areas. Which places worked? And which didn't? Why did you like/dislike it? And if there's a place (food, lodging) you just had a wonderful experience in, then I'd love to hear about that too!

I didn't win a lottery since last year, so money is definitely still an issue - though I've started saving! The group of travelers will be mid-twenties young professionals. I would want the experience to be a good mix of adventurous and relaxing. Food and getting immersed in local culture are big on our list.

PS - From my last trip, Prague and Paris were my favorite spots - I loved the "feel" of Prague, that feeling of beautiful things untouched and preserved.

Thank you.
posted by BitterYouth to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Good lord, Barcelona. I'd spend the full two weeks there, personally. Madrid is not without charms. I'm not wowed by Portugal.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:18 PM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I may be a little biased (family is from the Azores), but I loved Portugal. Lisbon is an obvious choice, with tons of historic sites and architecture. If you're into young nightlife, there are some thriving districts. I didn't find it as 'touristy' as Madrid,but YMMV. I thought Portugal was also the cheapest of the eurozone countries.

Outside of Lisbon, a nice day trip is Cascais. It's fairly ritzy, but has beautiful Atlantic ocean beaches.

We stayed in a hostel near central Lisbon. I don't remember the place (maybe the Lisbon Old Town?) , but there seem to be many good hostels there if that is your thing.
posted by bombastic at 8:03 PM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Portugal - Cascais and Sintra! There are beautiful gardens and castles, the most magical of all being Pena national park. Also Guincho beach (10€ cab ride from train station) is absolutely gorgeous. We surfed there but I wouldn't recommend it, locals said the beach on the other side was better, and also the tide is pretty aggressive for a beginner surfer.

But based on your taste, be prepared that Portugal is the least glamorous of European cities {that I've been to; which include much of France, Italy; Barcelona; Amsterdam, Geneva, etc.}. Don't get me wrong it is beautiful, and next to that beauty is lots of spray paint and laundry flapping in the wind. The opposite of "untouched." But as mentioned above it is dirt cheap, and very local / non-touristy as compared to other areas in Europe. Lots of airbnb available in Portugal too.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:26 PM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

And outside of Barcelona Montserrat is worth the day trip.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:28 PM on January 5, 2014

We did our honeymoon in Portugal last year. Porto wasn't that great we loved Lisbon though. We highly, highly recommend the company Different Portugal if you want to take a tour or see the surrounding area (Cascais, Sintra). They will totally customize a tour for you based on your interests and it's around the same price as the impersonal bus tours.
posted by scrubbles at 10:26 PM on January 5, 2014

Montserrat is spectacular. If you can at all swing it, I think that the Portuguese island of Madeira is well worth a visit. Excellent madeira tours, and fun hikes along the levada/irrigation canals.
posted by TwoStride at 11:08 PM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: I have to go against the grain and say I love, love, love Portugal and am not as excited about Spain. Reasons you should love Portugal over Spain:
- cheaper
- more English spoken
- fewer tourists
- better, more manageable transportation
If you love things that are untouched and preserved, I highly recommend both Porto and Lisbon. The classic houses, the cobblestone roads, the stairs up into hilly neighborhoods, they are largely untouched (at least on the outsides). The interior, especially in the far North, is a bit wild as not many people go there. If you really like untouched, you can skip the Algarve. Madeira is ALSO awesome, and has beautiful small towns and lovely hikes through both deserty areas and rain foresty areas. Funchal is not going to make your list of favorites, but stay in a small town or its little sister island Porto Santo and you'll be in heaven. Visit the ilhas desertas (deserted islands) and spend the night there. I have yet to visit the Açores personally but hear they are even more rustic than Madeira.

Most of the time I stayed with locals, but my hotel in Porto was fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough. Though nominally a hostel, they have a couple private rooms. Great location, very friendly, safe: Tattva Design Hostel. They even mailed me - overnight - my house keys after they slipped out of my bag in the breakfast room and I had moved on to Madeira.

The best place I ever visited in Spain was either Mallorca (there are some lovely bike paths and wild caves and beaches) or the less visited parts of Catalunya. Barcelona has some nice monuments but I loved Girona and the smaller towns like Rosas and other lost areas. Madrid was a great town to be based in for other visits, but I did not like it so much in-and-of-itself.

Anyone who wants to talk about Portugal can send me a question if I missed something. I have gotten around quite a bit, but it remains one of my favorite countries anywhere.
posted by whatzit at 2:56 AM on January 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

These are all great suggestions - with the slight issue that Barcelona and Lisbon are about as far away from each other as can be and still be in the OP's area! So, might I suggest the AVE?

My mother and I went from Seville to Barcelona on the AVE train and found it comfortable and a much more fun way to get from point A to point B than flying. Plus, we didn't have time (we just had one week, not 2), but we could have stopped in Madrid, Zaragoza, Córdoba . . .
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:02 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took the train from Barcelona to Madrid, and stopped for a few hours in zarragosa. Here is a very important fact about Spain, which I kind of knew, but didn't realize how bad it is when you're on a tight schedule: Everything shuts down in the middle of the afternoon in a lot of places. So be aware of that if you want to take a short stop somewhere, that it might be that absolutely nothing is open when you get there.

You should spend at least a day or two in Madrid, just to see the Prado and the parks and palaces and so on. The Prado is just jaw dropping.
posted by empath at 6:09 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

While people are talking transportation: If you find that the train schedules don't suit you (and they do go on strike a lot, and depending on your itinerary they may not be very convenient), my experience is
- Vueling is the budget version of Iberia, as I understand, but the service is awesome and the planes are comfy and it was a great experience (Iberia is the opposite). They have lotsa flights directly around Spain and some to Portugal. Transavia is another one to look at for a good experience (budget KLM).
- At least in Portugal you don't have the disadvantage some cities do, where most of the budget airlines fly into airports that only barely have a connection to the city they are named for. If you flew into Paris by Beauvais, you know what I mean.
- The buses in Spain are as buses go; they are more Greyhound than Argentina, with cramped seats and crappy movies rather than lay-out flat seats and stewardesses. You can order tickets online but you must pay with a Spanish credit card or by Paypal. Foreign cards are rejected but the site does not explain why; I had to call up the company and ask.
- The Algarve and Madeira are best seen with a car, but the coastal cities of Portugal are fine by train/bus.
posted by whatzit at 6:26 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just went to Portugal/Spain. We did 2-3 days in Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra, then rented a car to drive to Sevilla (Spain) via Lagos (beautiful beach!). Spent 2-3 days in Sevilla, drove to Coimbra (1 day), drove to Porto (2 days), stopped in Obidos for a couple of hours on our way back to Lisbon. Oh, and we had a looong layover in Madrid and walked around there for 4 hours.

We decided not to do Barcelona because we would want to spend more than 2-3 days there, and leave Barcelona-Madrid-Toledo for another trip.

Overall, Portugal was cool because you got a sense of "wow these buildings are OLD" because they all look all medieval, made of stone, a bit grungier than Spain, but I loved that. Sevilla and Madrid in Spain were both very beautiful, and they were both newer looking - it seems like everything was re-done and re-painted and well taken care of. Driving long distances (4-6 hours between some of cities) was expensive, but it was nice to have the flexibility. Driving in Lisbon would have SUCKED, so we're glad we didn't do that. Also, we would not have found our way without a GPS - download a map beforehand if you don't want to pay the daily fee for it.

Lisbon was alright. I liked it at first because it was the first city on our trip so it was exciting, but after going to other places, Lisbon was my least favorite. The food was also the most expensive there - we really had a hard time finding cheaper non-touristy food.

Sintra was beautiful, almost magical. Take the train from Lisbon, don't drive. It was definitely very touristy, since the whole town exists to support the catle/palaces attractions, but the palaces and the views of the palaces were incredible. If you're short on time/money, I would skip the Sintra national palace and go to the Pena national palace instead. The walk up to the cross to see the Pena national palace from the top is also pretty good, if you have time and energy.

Sevilla was beautiful, it was nice walking down the super narrow colorful well maintained streets, and eating tapas in sidewalk cafes. Plaza de Espana was gorgeous. We saw all of Sevilla in 2 very full days, but I would have liked to spend more time there relaxing.

Coimbra was very cool, it had very narrow winding streets, but the streets were all made of stone and very medieval looking, so it was different than Sevilla. The university there is grand, it was cool imagining being a student there 400 years ago. You definitely need good walking shoes for this city, very hilly!! A good half-day trip from Coimbra is the Conimbriga Roman ruins - we got to touch stones and see the layouts of houses from 2000 years ago!

Porto was my favorite. It had the same hilly narrow mysterious winding streets as Coimbra, but also beautiful views of the colorful city from the bridge, cheap food, a fun atmosphere by the river. It was nice to get lost in those streets, or to sit down and relax overlooking the river.

Obidos is a tiny tiny town with white houses that is completely surrounded by a castle wall. Very picturesque, nice views. I would recommend bringing food with you instead of eating there if you're on a budget. Probably not worth going there if it's not on the way.

Let me know if you decide to go to any of these places and have any questions!
posted by at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd fly into Lisbon, go down to Lagos or Faro (there are state-run hostels that are around 20Euro/night and super clean/safe); bus to Sevilla (it will be f-ing hot, so only plan a day there); if interested in architecture/old buildings go to Cordoba/Granada, then head to Hondarribia/San Sebastian via Madrid and then fly out of Barcelona.

Alternatively, you could skip Portugal and spend your beach time at Huelva or Malaga. Lisbon is cool, but Lagos/Faro are not really worth the extra travel time.

Malaga is waaaay more touristy than Huelva. Torremolinos is slightly outside of Malaga and a little better, but not by much. Huelva is a short bus ride from Sevilla (1hr ish). Cadiz is also an option, but again, touristy.

For going north/south (e.g. Sevilla to Hondarribia), I'd fly. For going to different places in southern spain, I'd take the bus. The countryside is beautiful with abundant olive trees and windmills and the buses are comfortable enough. The train can be nicer, but is also way more expensive than the bus and often it isn't any faster (there isn't really much traffic in the rural areas between the cities). Vueling is a good low-cost airline for intra-Spain travel.

If you want to spend more time at fewer places, I'd do one southern city (they're quite homogeneous), Hondarribia, and Barcelona.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:50 AM on January 6, 2014

I got connected to the website Secret Places from a long-lost MeFi post a few years ago. Some really great hotels and deals there!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you like wine, i highly recommend visiting the wine region of Rioja. The SO and I stayed in the small, walled city of Laguardia and loved it. Not sure of public transport as we rented a car but I highly recommend it for a couple of days. You can visit wineries in the area and in the caves of Laguardia itself. Memail me if you would like suggestions on wineries to visit.

Also agree...Barcelona is worth every minute and much to do and see.
posted by Kitty Cornered at 12:25 PM on January 6, 2014

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