TravelFilter: Help us plan our trip to Spain, please.
February 3, 2015 4:37 PM   Subscribe

We will be in Europe for about a month, and I think we will spend June 23rd to July 5th in Spain. That's 12 full days. We will be leaving Paris on the 23rd, and may be able to leave a day or two early.

Neither of us have been to Spain, though we've both traveled to foreign countries before (together and separately) and have been to Europe (separately). We are slow travelers and prefer to have space for a three hour coffee rest, the half a day browsing a museum we find, and so forth. So far, the plan includes Barcelona, Madrid, and Granada, with us flying out of Madrid back home in the US. We enjoy good food, architecture, history, and some nature (hut hiking is okay, sleeping in a tent every night is not, but we also plan to bring roller cases rather than backpacking stuff, so hiking's probably not high on the list unless it's absolutely gorgeous). My husband is a vegetarian.

Biggest concern is of course time, but we'd also like to save money. So we'll probably be travelling by bus/rail rather than plane/rental car. We will be using credit card rewards to book most of the flights and some of the hotels.

I'm looking for:

Which cities are worth going to, and for how long? Best neighborhoods to stay in? How easy is public transit or getting around on foot?

Are there special events going on during that time, that we should try to go to? Or maybe discounts? Free/cheap would be awesome.

Other tips and tricks? Weather expectations?

My husband took Spanish in high school. I plan to pick up a book and learn some basic words/phrases.
posted by ethidda to Travel & Transportation around Spain (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Barcelona is pretty spectacular. My Spanish was useless, as the folks I interacted with were pretty aggressively into speaking Catalan. I mean, a CAB driver?

Between the churches and the Gaudi, which are all free, you really don't need to spend a lot of money in Barcelona to see great stuff. Here's the Transport Barcelona site.

I was on a cruise ship, but I would consult Trip Advisor for some ideas of places to stay. Hotel Constanza Barcelona is number one in the budget category.

We did a tour with our ship, and a guy carrying a tourist book tried to blend with us. He didn't speak English so it wasn't like he was trying to get some free knowledge. This is a thing pickpockets do, so be aware of what's going on around you, especially at the height of the summer season. It was clear we were all onto him and he move on to easier pickings.

You may find a Eurail pass to be a real cost saver if you're planning a lot of inter-country travel. You can also check out the cheap airlines, like Ryan Air. The fares may surprise you. Alot of kids will have Eurail passes, so upgrade to First Class to avoid being with the hoi paloi. I love traveling by train in Europe. The TGV in France is so cool!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:26 PM on February 3, 2015


I've been to Spain three times - it is one of my favorite countries. You'll have a great time no matter what you do. Barcelona is not my favorite city in Spain, but I know I'm an outlier and everyone I have talked to loves it. We took an overnight train from Barcelona to Madrid - it saves on a hotel room but with the cheaper flights now it might not be worth it.

I love Granada and you can spend several days there wandering around and living the lazy southern Spanish life. We took a day train from Granada to madrid and the scenery is gorgeous. Plan your Alhambra visit way in advance - tickets can sell out. From Madrid, there are several good day trips like to Toledo.

I was just in Madrid a few months ago and stayed near the Atocha station for the first time. I really liked it - a little quieter than more central locations. The metro system in Madrid is very easy to use. The must see museums like the prado in Madrid have free hours - you can hit them in the late afternoons and save a lot of money.

I will say that Spain is rare in western Europe in that it is much harder to get by without Spanish. Brush up on scenarios like buying railroad tickets and hotel questions.
posted by umwhat at 5:37 PM on February 3, 2015


I was Spain this summer, and visited Barcelona and Granada, although not Madrid. But regarding the former two cities, I'd say they are very walkable, with a decent metro and bus system respectively. My approach was essentially just to wander around the older areas of both cities, and I generally chanced upon some pretty great places (which means I can't remember specifics unfortunately) but I think you can safely do the same - bearing in mind the Spanish time schedule of course. I did like Park Güell in Barcelona (sadly no longer free) for a more peaceful Gaudi experience and light walking. And in Granada of course you need to explore Sacromonte - and take advantage of getting free tapas with your drinks! Oh and since it's not high season you should be fine, but advance booking for the Alhambra is always a good idea.
If you are going down into Andalusia to Granada I'd definitely suggest also visiting Cordoba, the Mezquita has to be one of the most spectacular buildings I've ever seen! I'd also recommend Seville, and the gorge at Ronda is pretty spectacular as well if you think that would work with your itinerary. If you're travelling from Barcelona to Granada via public transport and you like nature it would probably be nice to break your journey perhaps around Valencia (some gorgeous coast there) or I've heard similar things about the area around Alicante.
Of the cities I've mentioned Ronda is a day trip, and Cordoba, being small, perhaps two days, but the others you definitely want to allow three minimum I'd say - essentially as long as you allow I think you can easily manage to fill!
I found that buses tended to be late, but otherwise were perfectly comfortable and unproblematic (even with barely any Spanish), and with trains if you go for the slower option (MD I think?) it is cheaper and you get the amazing views, depending upon how you prioritise time and money (in Spain, unlike France, it seems that advance booking doesn't make so much difference to pricing as well).
posted by an opinicus at 5:44 PM on February 3, 2015


My wife and I spent about that same amount of time in Spain in 2006. It was a pretty rushed trip because we wanted to see too many things. I think in only 12 days you should decide between spending all of your time in Andalusia (Granada, Seville & Cordoba) or staying in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

We ended up visiting Seville, Cordoba, Grenada, Madrid, Pamplona and Barcelona. It really was just hitting the highlights and moving on to the next city which was OK but I think a more disciplined itinerary would have been better.

The ice cream was good everywhere, but best in Grenada.

If you are going to Andalusia, Cordoba is worth visiting, but you don't need more than 2 days there, if that. Spend the time in the other cities.

In Madrid you can easily spend a day at the Prado and another at the Reina Sofia museum.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2015


If your husband is a vegetarian, it might be a good idea to learn the Spanish words for different foods (he won't have any trouble finding things to eat, although it will help if he eats fish). I definitely spent a lot of time giggling at the English menu translations. Take a look at this for a general overview.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:48 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Barcelona is beautiful but can be dangerous, especially in Las Ramblas. My husband was once mugged there. And, yes, the Catalans are insistent on using Catalan instead of Spanish, even when it's clear you are a tourist. Still worth it for the Gaudi buildings.

I have lived in Madrid (my husband's home town), so am biased towards Madrid. If you like art at all, the museums in Madrid are wonderful - so many great paintings. And the 3 big art museums are within walking distance of each other, which is super nice.

Getting around Madrid by subway is easy-peasy. All the subway lines are color coded and named with their end points. The only trick is to make sure you go out the way towards where you are going. In my early days in Madrid I exited the wrong way at Plaza España and didn't recognize where I was! But I asked for help, and got it.

Spaniards, in general, are shy about using their English, although most young people know some. However, Spaniards are very forgiving of mistakes in their language and you can get by using unconjugated verbs, as in yo no hablar español, instead of the correct no hablo español.

I am a vegetarian and find that the concept of vegetarianism baffles many, especially in my age range and older (I'm in my 60s). My father-in-law, for instance, thinks that I would like chicken soup, if he just strained out the chicken. But you can find tortilla española in every bar in Spain, which is vegetarian and oh so delicious. There's great bread and cheeses everywhere and along with wine and olives, a wonderful meal.

I find it easier to use a health condition as a reason not to eat meat and to obtain cooperation from waiters.

There are lots of day trips you can take from Madrid - Toledo, Avila (a medieval walled city), Segovia (Alcazar is gorgeous, plus the 3-tiered Roman aquaduct. Aranjuez is also near Madrid, is known for its strawberries and has a summer palace plus a nice maritime museum.

Grenada is spectacular and I love the Alhambra. I also like Cordoba, but it's not that close to Grenada. Both Grenada and Cordoba are small enough to walk around easily.

The cheapest way to get around is to take a bus - cheaper than trains. The buses have assigned seating and tvs and are nicer than the US equivalent.

You can always go back, so pick a couple of places in Spain and really enjoy them.
posted by daneflute at 7:32 PM on February 3, 2015


I can only speak for Barcelona, but we were there last spring and had a fantastic time. We just walked the whole time, but the buses etc. seemed easy to use and navigate.


Walking: You could spend a whole day walking up through the Parc de Montjuic and back down again, although there is a funicular that runs for certain restricted hours. Phenomenal (free!) views out over the water and of the old crumbling Olympic ruins, loads of gardens, and both large and small museum collections if you wanted to take a break. It's decently long walk/hike up and down, depending on the route you take, but well worth it if you want to work off some tapas. It is also a reminder of how incredible the construction of Santa Maria del Mar is, given that the porters carted the stones on foot from the quarry to the site. Walking down at the aquarium/marina at sunset was lovely. The Mercat del Born has exposed ruins from the 17th/18th century, and it's free to wander through.


Museums: Perhaps the most fun and surprising one was the Museu Frederic Marès, which has everything from rooms and rooms of medieval Madonnas to columns to a sort of unfolding insane collection of rooms at the top. I really enjoyed the Museu Marítim (and their prix fixe lunch menu was a lovely and relatively inexpensive interlude, if you want a nicer meal) but it is pretty specialized compared with some of the bigger survey museums. Be prepared to come early and stand in line if you do Palau Guell, which you absolutely should; the audio tour was well-done. I also thought the Museu d'Història de la Ciutat was wonderful (but if provincial Roman towns aren't your thing, maybe not?) Even if you don't want to go underground to see the ruins, there's a nice walking loop that you can do to see how Roman Barcino was incorporated into the later developments. We didn't get the Barcelona card because we made no plans in advance, but it seems pretty great and like something you should look into!

Food: La Federica had some of the most interesting vegetarian tapas, and it's a delightful and quirky space. There was a cheerfully colored vegetarian stall in la Boqueria (can't remember the name unfortunately, but it was along one of the outside walls) with literally buckets of vegetarian paella, falafel-type sandwiches, and mysterious sauces on top. A huge amount of food packed into one container! Many of the stalls also offer fresh juices (mint/coconut-- SO GOOD). There was a stand selling incredible empanadas including exciting things like pumpkin as well-- like this one. I wish we had discovered it days earlier because it was so cheap and so great-- I think we ended up getting three or four meals from there alone. (And of course, if you're at a hostel or AirBnB with a fridge, you can do all kinds of meals on the cheap with fresh produce + leftovers. There are a number of markets throughout the city, some of them less expensive and touristy.) I can't eat seafood, which did preclude many of the lunch prix fixe menus, but I happily ate my weight in patatas bravas and cheese and fried peppers at pretty much all the places we ended up in.

Generally: definitely be attentive to street crimes like pickpocketing. I wouldn't say I ever felt unsafe walking, even at night, though I wouldn't have done some of the back streets/unlit alleys alone. I do speak Italian which helped some, but between some quality time with Lonely Planet's Spanish/Catalan phrasebook in the Barcelona guide (Catalan was very cool and interesting!) and a basic Spanish dictionary phone app (okay, and charades) we had only very minor language hiccups. Most people in restaurants and in the museums spoke tourist. You can download the Trip Advisor maps/reviews for cities, which was so helpful; I recommend it especially if you have a smart phone with GPS.

Good luck planning, and have fun!
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:39 PM on February 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


So we'll probably be travelling by bus/rail

Assuming you already know Renfe for trains, check also Alsa for buses. You can buy a ticket online and just show the locator code on your cellphone to the driver, you don't even need to print anything.

But you can find tortilla española in every bar in Spain, which is vegetarian and oh so delicious.

Some other vegetarian tapas are olives (if they aren't filled with anchovies), escalivada, banderillas (if they don't have anchovies), papas bravas (potatoes, mayo-like sauce --that could have egg-- and spicy sauce), pipirrana, papas arrugás, pà amb tomaquet / pan tumaca (bread, squished tomato and olive oil). If your husband eats cheese, try the tablas de quesos.

Usually most cold tapas are shown on the bar like this, so you'll be able to see what they are like.

Try bocatas de champiñones (mushroom subs) if you find them, too.
posted by sukeban at 4:55 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Don't forget berenjenas con miel (eggplant with honey)!!!!
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:21 AM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Definitely make Segovia part of your travel plans! It's just a few hours bus ride from Madrid, and spectacular! For me, ancient history is easier to appreciate in a smaller city than in an urban setting. Madrid was really easy to get around, and at least at the time I was there, the subways were also really clean, which was nice. Your trip sounds like a great time!
posted by csox at 6:23 AM on February 4, 2015


I'm heading to spain next month but here's the research I've found:

- Spain, with the weak Euro, is cheap. Not Thailand cheap, but almost definitely cheaper than Seattle. You can find hotels easily for under $100 and factoring not tipping culture and included taxes, eating out seems to be a deal.

-Slow travellers to me= people who rather stay in residential, non touristy neighborhoods?
Hard to figure out which neighborhood in Madrid that is, but my wife (who used to live there) said Chueca is and Malasana is the "hip area" (but looks gritty on Street view). In Barcelona, this neighborhood is Gracia. Which is quick walk to Sagrada Familia.

-Look into getting a foreign transaction free fee credit card. It sounds like you are on top with CC.

-Buying train tickets 60 days in advance can get you half price deals

-Look into the 5 euro bus from Madrid to the city if you end up flying there (in my experience, more award space into Madrid)
posted by sandmanwv at 6:47 AM on February 4, 2015


I went to Spain last fall (first time to visit another country) and freakin' loved it! We spent two weeks and did Barcelona, day-trip to Girona & the Dali museum in Figueres, Bilbao and Madrid. It was awesome. Came back with an addiction to cafe con leche that made us dust off our disused espresso maker, so be warned...

We went to see Gaudi and the museums. Loved seeing the Dali museum BUT IT WAS SO VERY CROWDED. The Guadi attractions were not free, but it was worth it to us to get to go in and see the Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo. If you go to the cathedral I highly recommend taking the elevator in the spire and availing yourself that vista of Barcelona. As a matter of fact, if you do nothing else in Barcelona, see the Familia Sagrada. I just don't have enough superlatives for that experience!

We took trains to travel between cities while there. You may want to get tix in advance. Renfe's kiosks and website are actively hostile, and were the only blemish on the trip for us. We took the subways and busses in the cities, and those were fine and fairly easy to negotiate.

As noted above, vegans and vegetarians seem to be an alien species there. Muchos jamon. I enjoyed the tapas, but my wife and step-daughter (vegetarian and vegan) couldn't find much to eat out. Also, had the best dang octopus EVAR at a tiny bar in Madrid. Walk around and try stuff.

I hope you enjoy your trip!
posted by The Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Spain really is shockingly cheap. Before you book trains you might look into what rental cars are running right now - ours for a week last year was only $140. We drove from Madrid to Cordoba to Granada to Ronda to Sevilla and back to Madrid and gas came to only another $140 -it might be even more affordable than trying to book both of you on a train to every place you want to go. Spain's highways are very easy to navigate, especially if you have a smartphone with offline maps available. My only recommendation would be to avoid driving into the heart of the cities - we had some harrowing experiences in Granada. Rick Steves says you should park on the outskirts and take public transit into the historic districts and he is correct.
posted by something something at 10:43 AM on February 4, 2015


Just reiterating that the Gaudi attractions are not free to enter. Book tickets for Sagrada Familia online before you go, the lines are insane, especially in the summer.
It's not too bad for veggie food here, there are more vegetarian restaurants all the time - there's one in Plaza George Orwell (usually known as Plaza Trippy), there's one at the end of Calle Princesa by the park, there's one called Juicy Jones in Raval. Falafel is everywhere. (Shameless plug - we have great vegetarian burgers in one of my bars, The Lime House).
You get around by walking, take comfortable shoes. Stay in El Born/La Ribera, it's very walkable, close to the sights and the beach and has lots of cool, funky stuff going on. Not as touristy (as in football shirt wearing/spend your entire holiday in an Irish pub touristy) as Barrio Gotic, and much more accessible and visitor friendly than Gracia.
PM me if you have any more questions, and as always, if you walk into one of my bars and I'm working, identify yourself as a Mefite and I'll buy you a mojito.
posted by conifer at 2:26 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Thank you for all the information!

We have decided to rent a car in order to have more flexibility and because it is super cheap (as something something said). Definitely cheaper than comparable train/plane options, and gives us more flexibility.

We have decided to spend 4.5 days in Barcelona, 1 day in Valencia, 2 days in Granada, and 4.5 days in Madrid. It was a tough choice, but we really are not fond of the run-run-run style of touring. We're only stopping in Valencia because we have to drive through it anyway.

If we love it, we'll go back some other time. :) A vacation is also supposed to be relaxing, after all.
posted by ethidda at 11:03 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


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