During my time in London, I had been fortunate enough to visit Spain briefly for the Running of the Bulls (no I didn’t run…watching the giants on big screens chase two brothers and a boyfriend was all the exhilaration I needed). I fell in love with the culture instantly and couldn’t wait to get back into that part of the world again. So, without hesitation, stop number four was Spain. To be precise, sixteen days in total, visiting Sevilla, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona.
After a shocking ten-hour bus ride from Lagos to Seville, the first thing that hit me like a slap to the face was the heat. Wow. I don’t think I have ever experienced heat like it. And with our lives on our backs, we had to battle through it to find our accommodation.
Walking through the streets in a haze of heat exhaustion and impatience, it was still impossible not to appreciate in awe the architecture of the city. It seemed so legitimately Spanish! Arriving at the heart of the old town, I was stoked to find our accommodation nestled amongst cafes, cured meat stores and boutique clothing shops. Advertised as a hostel, Urban Sevilla was brilliant. An amazing roof top terrace, white marble décor and fantastic facilities. Very cheap and I highly recommend!
So, we had four days to spend here. Not going to lie, it was probably too much time – especially if you have a daily budget and can’t kill time by shopping! However, I can confidently say I have seen Sevilla and seen it well.
One of the highlights was Parque de María Luisa – a now public park that was once part of the grounds of the Palace of San Telmos. So as you can imagine, they are quite extravagant. Lot’s of pretty fountains and pathways weaving through the large grounds. Then, situated in the middle is the Plaza de Espana. I initially thought this jaw-dropping building had been some sort of ancient palace or maybe an emperor’s summer home? It was actually built in 1929 to host the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair. So, not quite as historic and ancient as I was hoping, but by no means less impressive.
Sevilla’s tapas reputation was something else we were willing to put to the test (oh, its a hard life). Online reviews, blogs and word-of-mouth had summarised Sevilla as the “best place in all of Spain for tapas.” So we decided to find out for ourselves.
Ahhh….hmm…well…Sevilla has the best tapas in Spain? If so, we couldn’t find them. We confidently scheduled a ‘tapas night’ and budgeted for a feast, however, after visiting five different establishments, we were left disappointed. 1. because of the high prices of tapas and 2. they just weren’t that impressive! We could have been looking in the wrong places, but we gave it a fair crack, and sadly concluded that Sevilla does not live up to it’s reputation as tapas king
Hands down, Granada is my favourite Spanish city A majestically, beautiful old town, this is where I would visit if you wanted to have a legitimate, Spanish city experience. Yes, it has its touristy attractions and tacky souvenirs, but it remains true to its authenticity.
This is supported with with “number one attraction in Spain”, the Alhambra – a once fortress, which was then converted into a huge, extravagant Moorish palace in the mid-11th century. It is preserved in such great condition, with wall and floor mosaics, over-the-top fountains and breath-taking gardens in full bloom.
It is definitely a must-see, but make sure you put aside at least five hours of your day to see it and you MUST get the audio guide. Otherwise you will appreciate what you are looking at, but have no idea what it is as there are limited information plaques.
Post-feeling like royalty in the Alhambra, we decided to admire this monumental building from afar. Weaving through old streets oozing with Spanish authenticity, we made our way to Mirador de San Nicolas – a fantastic lookout point where you can admire the Alhambra in all its glory!
After our disappointing tapas night in Sevilla, we didn’t hold out much hope for Granada. But, we were determined to do as the locals do, so ventured into town with low expectations.
Relaying my tapas experience here calls for nothing less than a SMS abbreviation like ‘OMG!!!’ Basically, the tapas game was played different in Granada. Here are the rules: buy a drink, get a tapa. Buy another drink, get another tapa and so on. Safe to say, we were in our absolute element. What’s better is the tapas were quality food! Delicious in fact and perfect sized portions to have a decent night’s feed.
We had also done our research and found some highly recommended places (for good reason!), which I am in turn, going to recommend to you:
Babel World Fusion – named due to its selection of tapas from around the world, Babel was one of our favourites. We started and finished there. With a selection of over twenty different tapas, we were spoiled for choice. However, our favourites were the curried rice and the enchilada. You’re looking at 1.85 euros for a small beer and a tapa. Babel’s interior is also world-themed and it’s chilled out, student atmosphere makes it a great place to spend a few hours!
Bar Poë – renowned for its tapas, Bar Poë thoroughly impressed us. From a menu of nine tapas, we decided to have four drinks – meaning four tapas! The portions were surprisingly large and were cooked fresh in the kitchen behind the bar. We dabbled in the Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (Portuguese style salt cod), Estofado de Carne con ‘Piri-Piri’ (Spicy ´Piri-Piri´ pork stew) Feijoada Brasileira (Brazilian black bean and pork stew) and the Hígado de Pollo Picante con Cilantro (Spicy Chicken Liver with Cilantro). I would recommend all of them!
Bar Los Diamantes – the seafood-only tapas bar was recommended on the Guardian – and for good reason. We had a great spot at the end of the bar where we could see all the tapas being cooked by a squadron of five chefs! However, it only opens at 8:00pm and gets absolutely slammed, so if you rightly choose to visit Los Diamantes, make sure you get in early to guarantee a spot where you will be served!
Including fresh clams, shrimp and calamari, we also splashed out and paid for a plate of razor clams. While extremely strange looking, the razor clams have taken the top spot as my favourite shellfish. I had never heard of them before, but they were delicious!
As a huge advocate for Airbnb, one of the biggest advantages (in my opinion) of staying in other people’s homes, is the location. While you can choose places as close to the city centre as you like, usually, you end up in a part of town where normal, ‘average joes’ live. I love that. This is what happened for us in Valencia – we even had a flat dog! It also means you stumble upon local cafes which serve great food for cheap as chips! Every morning we had the same brekky at our ‘local.’
As for the rest of Valencia, I’m not going to lie, it was nothing special. This might have been due to the fact that I had fallen in love with Granada and my mind was set on what I expected from a Spanish city. However, there just wasn’t a lot to do or see in Valencia. Yes, it has a nice town, loads of shops and a bull fighting arena, but it just didn’t ‘wow’ me and didn’t feel as authentic as Sevilla or Granada.
The highlight of our time in Valencia was actually situated 40 minutes outside of the city, in the town of Bunol – a sleepy village that for one week every year, hosts tens of thousands of nutters, visiting for La Tomatina. This is the ridiculous festival of throwing tomatoes at each other. It begins by daring participants going for glory by climbing up a greasy pole and trying to knock a leg of cured ham off the top (no, I am not kidding). Once this is achieved, the cannon sounds, people cheer with excitement and the food fight begins.
Going into the festival, I had heard it all – people pee in the streets because it is so crammed, it really bloody hurts getting hit with a tomato, locals throw frozen tomatoes etc. So, I was nervous (mainly from a frozen tomato to the temple – what a way to go that would be!). Luckily, I didn’t die. Instead, I had the time of my life.
As I type this, I am shaking my head, reminiscing and thinking just how bizarre and downright crazy it was. We quite literally swam in tomatoes. And might I add, good quality plum tomatoes! Throwing them at the back of strangers’ heads almost seemed a waste! If it is on your bucket list as it was on mine, I have one tip for you: invest in goggles, and relatively good ones that won’t break. My eyes were on fire as soon as the first tomato hit me point blank in the face. I was fighting blind from there on out.
Finally. I come face-to-face with the infamous Barcelona. In my social circle, its reputation preceded itself, with one mate having visited five times.
We were chuffed to find our Airbnb apartment was located in the beautifully quirky, historical Gothic quarter. Our host Leon, was fantastic. A contemporary artist, his flat was incredible and extremely homely.
As I’m sure many other travellers do, we began our Barcelona experience by visiting the La Sagrada Família – the still unfinished, catholic church designed by Antoni Gaudí. As you can imagine, at this point in our trip, we have visited many, many churches. Sadly, you become numb to some of the grandeur, the historic significance and the extravagant decor of these churches – due to them all seemingly being very similar (I whispered that in my head).
Not in Gaudi’s case. The Sagrada Familia is something so completely different. If you haven’t seen it, I would describe it as something from a Dr. Seuss book. Again, I would definitely splash out and get the audio guide.
To continue our Antoni Gaudi education, we hiked (I say hiked…there were actually outdoor escalators) up Camello Hill to reach Park Güell – an imaginative public park built in 1914. Again, we were struck by the completely unique design of the park, but I have to say, I enjoyed the view of Barcelona city from the top of Camello Hill the most!
I think any traveller would agree with me when I say that visiting a new place is always better with a local. Luckily an old school chum of mine had been living in Barcelona for over two years and was flatting with a lovely lady who was Barecelona born and raised. As well as taking us to a great tapas bar, and a grand tour of Barcelona at night, we also accompanied them to a music festival called Piknic Electronik.
Located in Plaça de la Sardana, every sunday during summer sees all people – young, old, families – venture to the top of the hill for a few chilled drinks, street food, DJ sounds and fun activities. Also, on another field up a level is where all the keen-beans hang out. A big DJ set up and beer tents attracts the serious party folk, ready to have a great time before Monday rears its ugly head.
Finally, a visit to La Boqueria is an absolute must! This is a fresh food market that will leave you feeling hungry. While it is a tad on the pricey side, you should definitely save a bit of cash to spend here – even if it’s just on some thirst-quenching, freshly squeezed juice for 1.50 euro! My absolute highlight had to be the selection of olives, stuffed with everything you could possibly imagine!
Tips for visiting Spain
Here we go. Some tips that you may never use when you visit the beautiful country of Spain.
1. It’s all about the cañas
As lovely as spanish wine is, I highly recommend you become a beer drinker in Spain. It is so much cheaper and epic on a hot day. What’s more, once converted, always order cañas. These are smaller sized beers, but exactly half the price – usually around 50 cents to 1 euro. This way, your beer is always cold! I know, that’s why it’s tip number 1.
2. ALWAYS book online
So many of the attractions we have seen, including the Alhambra and the Sagrada Familia, had huge queues for tickets. However, all also offered tickets online, meaning you can jump the lines! Always check the world wide web first to see if anything that requires and ticket, are online. It will save you a load of time and you won’t end up standing in the scorching heat!
3. Audio Guides – sharing is caring
I am a huge fan of audio guides. They really do give you a whole new, interesting and educated perspective on the places you are visiting. However, they can be very pricey. Our worst so far is 11 euros for one!
If you can, see if you can get a sneak peak of an audio guide before you fork out for one per person. Most of the time, if they are relatively dated, there will be an audio jack for headphones. That way, you can buy one, chuck in your iPod earbuds and then you can both listen! We have even stepped it up a notch and purchased a headphone splitter. This way we can have one audio guide, one splitter and two sets of headphones! Way to stick it to the man eh?
4. Go Euro
If you are planning to get around Spain relying on public transport, you MUST use this app where possible. GoEuro allows you to book rail, bus and flights really easily, but it’s main USP which attracted us budget backpackers was that you can get up to 50% discounts using it! We almost halved our ticket prices every time we used it.
5. Hidden tickets at the Alhambra.
If you go to the Alhambra and don’t purchase tickets at least three days in advance, you are most likely going to miss out. This nearly happened to us. We forgot to book online, and it was showing “sold out” for the duration of our stay. I actually welled up a little.
But! We were determined to play our hand at getting up at the crack of dawn and hoping to scoop some tickets at the gate. To our horror, there was already a line of over a hundred people with the same idea. Meaning, we would probably miss out on any tickets that were unlikely available for that day.
However. We had been told by our brilliant Airbnb host that hidden down the back of the gift shop, right outside the front entrance, is a ticket machine. We sought it out and to my overwhelming relief, it gave us tickets for the afternoon session that day! I would recommend going straight to that miracle machine if every other source says the tickets are sold out.
So. After sixteen brilliant – but at times gruellingly hot – days venturing through Spain, it was again time to make tracks to the next country. I know that there is SO much more of Spain to see, which is exciting! However, I do feel like I really managed to get into the culture of the place and appreciate the different identities of the different parts I visited.
Our next stop however, has a very special place in my heart and I was so ready to get there for our next adventure. Portare l’Italia!