06 Jan Spain Travel Tips & Photos
Spain, more than just one country!
First things first. Spain is one cohesive country in name only. It is actually a decentralized state, not a federal one, composed of 17 autonomous communities. And most regions have their own culture, political identity and even language (Catalonia, Basque, Galician) that has developed centuries before all regions were unified as one country.
The region and cities that I have visited:
Andalusia (Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga & Torremolinos, Ronda, Seville)
Balearic Islands (Ibiza)
Basque Country (San Sebastian, Bilbao)
Canary Islands(Gran Canaria)
Catalonia (Barcelona, Sitges)
Madrid (the capital city)
Valencian Community (Valencia)
If you could only visit one region of Spain, make it Andalusia. If you ask me, “This is my first time in Spain. I am pressed for time, which is one region of Spain that I must visit?” My answer: Andalusia, the crown jewel of southern Spain.
Andalusia is what we typically associate with Spain: tapas, bullfighting, flamenco, exotic blend of Islamic and Christian architecture, beautiful beaches and even more beautiful people. There is so much to see and do there, that it will keep you busy for weeks. I guarantee that this region of Spain will more than meet any of your expectations.
Here are the places that I visited in Andalusia.
Cadiz – the oldest city in Europe. A lesser visited gem.
Cordoba – my favourite Andalusian place. Small enough to navigate by foot. And home to the impressive Mezquita.
Granada – home to THE most visited place in Andalusia, the Alhambra.
Malaga & Torremolinos – beach towns for sun, fun and party. Somewhat lacking in charm and overrun with tourists in summer. Although Malaga has some interesting historical sites, my recommendation is to skip these as Spain has many more charming beaches along its Costa del Sol.
Ronda – beautiful town set in a deep gorge with beautiful Islamic architecture.
Seville – the capital and THE most visited city in Southern Spain. Don’t miss it.
I will soon have a blog post just on Andalusia.
Ibiza is sex, sun and the sea. Ibiza, of course, is infamous for indulgence. After being founded in 654 BC by Carthaginians, Ibiza has come a long way. It is now famous for sex, sun, partying, beautiful beaches and even more beautiful people flock to this clubbing capital of the world all year round.
I, however, was not impressed. Not that I don’t enjoy sex, sun, partying, beautiful beaches and more beautiful people. But I found it highly commercial.
My impression was that very little is authentic here. Maybe it is because I have been to some truly charming places in Spain. Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old. Whatever the reason, Ibiza is not at the top of my list of places in Spain. If you are pressed for time and money, skip it and go to Barcelona instead, which in addition to great tourist sites has some fantastic city beaches.
The Basque Country is grossly underrated. Go here for something off the beaten path. The Basque Country, in the north of Spain and near the French border, is vastly underrated. I mean how many people you know have been there? Travel sites are always harping about Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. The same attention is not given to the Basque Country. Maybe it is because of the Basque separatist movement? Maybe because it is Ireland-like weather? Whatever the reason, it is a shame because one region of Spain that has transformed exponentially for the better since the Franco times, it is the Basque Country.
My impression of the Basque Country. The Basque Country is in fact least Spanish of all regions. The Basque people are an indigenous ethnic group that is one of the oldest inhabitants of Europe. They have their own language, culture and a very strong national identity. The Basque people have long fought for independence, sometimes violently. Today, however, with demand for Basque nationalism waning, the Basque Country is a peaceful and gorgeous country. I highly recommend going to the Basque Country and when there, don’t forget to go to a game of Basque pelota, a competitive handball game.
San Sebastian: a charming little city that has one of the best in-city beaches in Europe. If like me, you are a foodie, then you probably already know that San Sebastian has the highest density of Michelin stars in the world. One night in San Sebastian, I went for dinner at Mugaritz, one of the top 50 restaurants in the world and met Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz who also gave me a tour of the kitchen. One of the most memorable experiences of my travels.
Bilbao: the capital city, situated on the banks of river Nervión, is a picturesque city with s big emphasis on art and culture. Bilbao had become somewhat of a wasteland but thanks to a capital infusion from the European Union, it has undergone a major transformation. Bilbao is surrounded by rolling hills which remain green almost the entire year thanks to Bilbao’s cool, temperate weather. The food and wine scene here matches the big cities of Barcelona and Madrid. Plus, most of the city is easily navigable by foot or bicycle. And forget to check out Bilbao’s piece de resistance, Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, the titanium-clad modern art museum.
Pintxo: Pintxos (pronounced as ‘pinchos’) are snacks that you eat in bars. In my foodie opinion, it is reason alone to visit the Basque Country. One thing to keep in mind: pintxos are not tapas! Served on a small piece of bread, pintxos can be something as simple as potato croquette served on bread or as complex as lobster-truffle-foie gras. There’s always a toothpick holding them together.
Off the coast of Africa, Canary Islands has a very unique geography and vibe. I have good friends who have a beautiful home in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria, which they also rent out. My visit to their place coincided with the Gran Canaria Pride which is held twice yearly. If you can swing it, go during Pride when the party really gets going in Gran Canaria.
Get to know the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are actually off the coast of Africa. If going from Madrid, it will take you about 3 hours by flight. That is why many people travelling to Spain don’t make it to the Canary Islands because it is a bit out of the way. If you have time, however, I would recommend making a detour to the Canary Islands. The vibe is quite different from mainland Spain and worth checking out.
The Canary Islands consists of 7 main islands. The 2 largest islands, and most popular with tourists are Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Here you will find sand dunes that formed during the ice ages and look like the Sahara desert, beautiful beaches, warm temperatures all year round (when the rest of Europe is shivering, you can still eat dinner outside in your shorts in the Canary Islands), rugged mountainous landscape, great hiking… As I said, the Canary Islands’ landscape is very different from the mainland and if you have the time, make a point go here and visit. Flights from Madrid and Barcelona on Spain’s low-cost airline, Vueling, is very affordable.
In addition to Gran Canaria, Tenerife (the largest of the Canary Islands) is also quite popular with tourists and has daily flights from a number of cities in Europe at reasonable prices.
To me, Barcelona is a perfect city. What can I say about Barcelona that hasn’t been said before? Yes, Barcelona is really, really cool. I have been there about 5 times and I LOVED it every single time. To me, Barcelona is a perfect city. And like Paris, you MUST go to Barcelona at least once in your life. The really nice thing is that you can go to Barcelona at any time of the year, even during winter. My first time here was during Christmas time in December and it was still quite pleasant. Not swimming in the sea pleasant but with pants and a light jacket, it was enough to keep me warm and explore the city without any weather-related discomfort.
One important thing I will mention here is that you should buy your tickets for Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most famous tourist attraction (see picture below), online beforehand. Otherwise, you will have to stand in line for hours.
If Barcelona is beaches and sexiness, then Madrid is its older, hip, sophisticated older brother. Choosing between the two is very, very difficult as they are both fun, just in different ways. I prefer Barcelona in winter and early summer and Madrid in Spring and Autumn. Hopefully, when you go to Spain, you don’t have to choose as in my opinion, you must visit both.
Madrid is less touristy, therefore cheaper, and offers a better value for money than Barcelona. Take museums for example. Two of Madrid’s best museums, Reina Sofia (housing Picasso’s Guernica) and Prado, are free from on Monday to Saturday (6 p.m. – 8 p.m.) and Sundays and holidays (5 p.m. – 7 p.m). Great value! I also found food and accommodation cheaper than Barcelona. And the nightlife is much better in Madrid. You won’t find beaches here and you should avoid winter months as it gets very cold during that time.
There are so many things to do in Madrid and the surrounding areas that you should plan to stay here for around a week. In addition to great museums, it has some of the best shopping in Europe, tranquil green spaces, interesting architecture and a fantastic culinary scene. Plus, there are neighbouring cities of Toledo and Segovia which make a nice day trips outside of the city.
It’s the birthplace of paella, do I need to say more?! Chances are that Valencia is nowhere on your radar when thinking of a trip to Spain. That is just too bad! I LOVE Valencia. But then, I LOVE paella! So to me, Valencia was not just a place to go, it was a pilgrimage.
There are two main versions of paella: Paella Valenciana, with meat (chicken or rabbit), or Paella de Marisco (seafood). To eat an authentic Paella, head to Malvarrosa beach area where there are a number of good restaurants. The best part of a paella? The socarrat, the crispy, crusty bottom part of the paella. I am drooling just thinking about it. If I ever find myself on death row, my last meal will either be biryani or paella.
Valencia is more than paella of course. It is quite an ancient and interesting history. It is one of the oldest cities in Spain, founded over 2,100 years ago. I found Valencia to be a very vibrant city, easily navigable and having an air of easiness that is absent from Madrid or Barcelona. There are some fantastic beaches and the city’s piece de resistance is the City of Arts and Sciences.
Popular with the Spanish but visited by foreign tourists as much. And that is one of the reasons why Cantabria is region special. I was very pleasantly surprised when I visited Santander, the capital city of Cantabria last year. It doesn’t have the flash of Barcelona or Madrid and that is why I loved it here. My favourite thing about travelling is finding the hidden gems and Santander checks off that box.
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