What to do in Madrid

There is so much to do in Madrid that what you see and do depends on your priorities, timing, and preferences — which is why I offer highly customized Spain trip planning.  Madrid is a big, fast-paced city that can seem a bit daunting, especially if you only have a few days to explore. Yet, Madrid is an amazing city, with world-class art, limitless, excellent food options, beautiful parks, and a great place to get a feel for Spanish life.

General Madrid Travel Tips

The main sites of Madrid are centrally located, compared with the rest of the city which has grown outward from the center over centuries. Walking is the best way to see the city and comfortable shoes, a good map, and an understanding of the excellent public transportation system are all musts. You absolutely do not want to drive or rent a car while you are in Madrid. Traffic is crazy, there are significant restrictions on driving in the center of Madrid that will lead to significant fines if violated, and parking is a expensive, scarce, and logistically complicated.  If you find yourself tired after a long day of site seeing and walking and do not want to take the metro, take a taxi. Madrid’s taxi drivers are honest, their cabs are clean, and they know the city like the backs of their hands.

More than anything, Madrid is a city of neighborhoods, parks, and plazas. This can make it a bit tricky to figure out what to do during your Madrid stay.

To give you a starting place for what to do in Madrid, I’ve compiled the key sites below.

What To Do in Madrid: Main Madrid sites 

The Royal Palace royal-3458820_1920

Though Spain’s royal family doesn’t actually live in the Royal Palace, it is where the Royals frequently host official visits and state dinners. You can visit the Royal Palace on a guided tour and learn about the history of the building itself, Madrid, and the Spanish Royal family.  Just across from the Royal Palace is the Plaza de Oriente, a lovely plaza that is worth walking through after your Royal Palace visit.  There are also gardens behind the Palace, called the Jardines Sabatini, that are a lovely place to take a walk.

Art museums

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Madrid is a world class art city, home to the Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen, and Sorolla art musuems. It is worth trying to visit at least one of these museums while you’re in Madrid. The museums you visit, and how and when you visit depends on your travel priorities.  The Prado and the Reina Sofia house Madrid’s most famous artwork; this includes Picasso’s famous Guernica paiting at the Reina Sofia and many famous works of Goya and Velaquez at the Prado. The Sorolla is the smallest and least well known of Madrid’s art museums. It is worth a visit just for the beautiful building itself and the museum’s lovely gardens. The Thyssen has the most diverse collection of the Madrid museums.

The Reina Sofia and the Prado have daily free hours. This can be a good option, or not. It depends completely on your travel group’s needs and preferences for what to do and see in Madrid.

Plaza Mayor

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Almost all Spanish cities have a Plaza Mayor, or main square,  and Madrid is no exception. The Plaza Mayor in Madrid is a beautiful plaza in the historic Las Austrias neighborhood of the city. It is a great example of classic Madrid architecture both in terms of the balconies of the apartments that make up the plaza itself and the nine arched doorways that serve as entrances and exits. Surrounding the plaza are narrow, winding streets that are typical of this part of Madrid.

The plaza is filled with restaurants and cafes with outdoor terraces, and is always lively and bustling with people. I would not recommend eating or drinking at any of the places in the Plaza or in the immediate surrounding streets; they are almost all tourist traps. The lovely refurbished Mercado de San Miguel is just around the corner from the Plaza Mayor and is a great place to enjoy a drink or a tapa, and people watch.

Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno

The Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno are two traffic circles along the busy and beautiful Paseo del Prado that cuts straight through the center of  Madrid. You can’t go up to either, unless the traffic is cut off (which happens during soccer celebrations, protests, or other special events). However, it is worth walking up the Paseo del Prado and admiring both from afar.

The Plaza de Cibeles is at the confluence of the Paseo del Prado with the Calle Alcalá. From Cibeles, you can look up and down the Paseo del Prado and also up the Calle Alcalá to another main Madrid site, the Puerta de Alcalá. Just behind Cibeles, you’ll also find the beautiful restored City Hall building on Calle Alcalá. From Plaza Neptuno, you can see two of Madrid’s best and most beautiful hotels, the Palace and the Ritz. If they’re not in your budget for a place to stay, pop in for a drink at the bar!

A fun note on their significance for Madrid soccer fans — when Real Madrid wins, fans congregate and celebrate in Cibeles. When Atletico de Madrid wins, their fans do the same but in Neptuno.

Parque del Buen Retiro

The Parque del Buen Retiro, known simply as the Retiro, is the lungs of Madrid. It is smack in the center of the city, just to the east of the Prado. It is a lovely park to stroll in, to watch Madrileños going about their business, or to have a drink at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes.

On the weekends during nice weather, it’s packed with picnicking families, kids biking and rollerskating, and couples lying on blankets. Like most public places in Spain, you’ll see a complete cross-section of Spanish society, from young to old, and every other group imaginable.

Calle Alcalá and Puerta de Alcalá

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Calle Alcala is one of the most emblematic streets in Madrid. It starts at the Puerta del Sol and runs through Plaza de Cibeles and up to the Puerta de Alcalá, or the Gate of Alcala. It is a beautiful street to walk up because you pass by some of the most majestic buildings in Madrid. You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and see the Cibeles fountain and the beautiful city hall building. From here, you have a great view both North-South and East-West from a central vantage point in the city.

Puerta del Sol

madrid-2425384_1920 The legendary Tio Pepe sign as seen from the Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is considered to be the beating heart at the center of Madrid.  It is always always full of people, tourists and Madrileños alike, and pulsating with energy.  It’s the center of New Years Eve celebrations, where the ball drops and thousands gather to ring in the new year and eat twelve grapes.

Stately, aristocratic looking buildings surround the Plaza on all sides. It’s at the confluence of several major streets, like the Calle de Alcalá and Calle Arenal. It is situated between just below Gran Via and between the Royal Palace and all the sites of the Paseo del Prado. It is smack in the center of a major shopping district; to give you an idea, Madrid’s Apple store is on the this plaza. It’s also home to the iconic Tio Pepe sherry sign, which has become an emblem of Madrid’s city center.

Templo de Debod and Parque del Oeste

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The Templo de Debod is an Egyptian temple that the government of Egypt donated to Spain in the late 1960s. It is in the Parque del Oste, located to the west of Plaza de España. The temple is in the open air and worth walking around if you’re interested in visiting the Parque del Oeste, or happen to be close to this part of the city. The Parque del Oeste faces west and looks over the Casa de Campo, a huge park that is five times larger than New York’s Central Park.  It is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Self-guided Walks: A Great Option In Madrid

Most of what there is to see and do in Madrid does not require tickets or official entrances; only the Royal Palace and the art museums fall into the ticket-requiring category. Once you’ve seen these sites or as a way to balance out museum visits, taking a self-guided walking tour through other parts of the city is a great way to see more of Madrid’s sites while allowing for more flexibility to get off the beaten path.

There are infinite options for how to do this depending on your preferences for what to see and do in Madrid and your travel group. Below, I’ve compiled a few possible self-guided walking tours you can take to see Madrid’s majestic sites at your own pace.

Madrid Walking Tour Option 1:

  • After visiting the Prado Museum, walk east to Retiro Park. Once in the park, enjoy strolling through and people watching or have a drink on an outdoor terrace. Exit the park at the north end onto Calle Alcalá.  Walk past the Puerta de Alcalá and continue down Calle Alcalá all the way to the Puerta del Sol.  You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and can admire Plaza Cibeles on your way. You can finish the day by heading over to the La Latina neighborhood to enjoy some tapas with the locals for dinner.

Madrid Walking Tour Option 2:

  • From the Royal Palace, head east and walk though the Plaza de Oriente. Enjoy the sun if the weather is nice or to sit for a bit to rest after your Palace tour. From there, head to the Mercado de San Miguel to enjoy a tapa and a drink. This refurbised market is a lovely spot to eat a snack and to people watch. When you’re done in the Market, walk the short distance to the Plaza Mayor. Exit the Plaza onto Calle Mayor and head to the Puerta del Sol.  From Sol, walk down Calle Alcalá towards Plaza Cibeles. Don’t forget to look up at the surrounding buildings, some of Madrid’s most beautiful. From Cibeles, keep walking down Calle Alcalá towards the northern end of the Retiro park. Enjoy strolling through the park, or of if you’re up for it, head to the Prado musuem. Afterwards, head towards either the Salamanca or Chueca neighborhoods to end your day with Madrileños enjoying an evening drink and tapas.

Madrid Walking Tour Option 3:

  • After visiting the Reina Sofia museum, head out into the plaza  on the back side of the museum (the side with the big glass elevator). From there, walk over to the Paseo del Prado. If you turn around and look south, you’ll see the Atocha, Madrid’s most emblematic train station. As you walk up the Paseo del Prado you’ll see the Prado Museum to your right and you’ll pass the Plaza de Neptuno. As you continue, you’ll  Plaza de Cibeles, where you can admire the fountain and the stately Ritz and Palace Hotels.  You’ll see the Puerta de Alcalá off to your right. Keep going straight until you get to the Plaza de Colon. This is a wonderful point from which to head off to some of Madrid’s loveliest neighborhoods — Salamanca, Chueca, or Chamberí for a long, leisurely lunch. After lunch, head west towards the Parque del Oeste and the Templo de Debod.  Enjoy people watching in the park or wait for the sunset to enjoy the best sunsent views in Madrid.

There is nothing more Madrileño than stopping for a bite to eat and a refreshing drink, or several, along your walking route. You can also indulge in some excellent shopping in the upscale Salamanca neighborhood or the trendier Chueca. As you think about tailoring your walks, you’ll want to factor in a long lunch around 2 pm and dinner, which doesn’t happen in Madrid before 9 pm. You might also want to rest before heading out to dinner.

With these walking tours, you’ll have a more than enough to fill three days in Madrid and to see the main sites while allowing for flexibility to get off the beaten path and explore.

If you’re not sure how to pick and choose between all the options and organize your Madrid visit so that it runs smoothly and meets your specific needs, interests, and priorities, I’d love to plan this trip for you.

Everything you need to know for a successful Alhambra visit

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A visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada is a fantastic addition to any Spain trip. It is stunningly beautiful, set in a physically beautiful location, nestled between the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooking the city itself, and is one of the best examples of Moorish, or Mudejar, architecture from the many centuries the Moors ruled Spain. Visiting the Alhambra is also great way to learn more about Spain’s history and how it influences the Spain of today.

The Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in all of Europe. It is crucial to plan your visit well. 

Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about the Alhambra and what you need to keep in mind in order to have a successful visit.

What’s actually inside the Alhambra

It’s helpful to know what exactly is inside the Alhambra when you think about planning your visit because there are several different options for the types of tickets you can reserve and how you can structure your visit.

The Alhambra Palace is a compound that includes several different buildings. It’s also larger than most people expect. The Alhambra has five main parts inside — the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife Palace and Gardens, the Alcazaba, the Partal, and the Palace of Carlos V. There are other parts of the compound as well and gardens and ancient walls you pass between the different parts, but these are the five key sections. The real heart of the Alhambra is the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife Palace and Gardens, and the Alcazaba.

Nasrid Palaces

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The Nasrid Palaces are what many people picture when they think of the Alhambra. The Palaces were the residence of the sultans of the Nasrid dynasty, the Moors that ruled Spain for several centuries and they reflect this majesty. The Palaces are filled with intricate, Arabic carving, beautiful tile work, and calming reflecting pools.

There are three Palaces that comprise the Nasrid Palaces — the Mexuar Palace, the Comares Palace, and the Palace of the Lions — and they were built at different times, beginning in the mid 1300s. Some of the most famous parts of the Alhambra, like the Lions’ Patio, the Throne Room, the Ambassador’s Room, are in the Nasrid Palaces.

Alcazaba

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The Alcazaba is the oldest part of the Alhambra and was the military area where the soldiers who guarded the compound lived. In the photo above, you can see the old internal walls from inside the Alcazaba. There are several towers in the Alcazaba that provide tremendous views of the city and of the Albaicin and Sacromonte neighborhoods.

Generalife Palace and Gardens

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The Generalife Palace and Gardens were built after the Nasrid Palace as a less formal residence for the sultans. They served as a weekend or summer home, so to speak, for the Nasrid sultans. The gardens are the real star of this part of the Alhambra and, along with the Nasrid Palace, probably the most famous and most photographed parts of the Palace. The Generalife is at the far end of the Alhambra complex.

Partal

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The Partal is located between the Nasrid Palace and the Generalife. The Partal offers excellent views of the Albaicin and Sacromonte neighborhoods that are on the hills on the other side of the city. You can see peaks of this view through the arches in the photo above.

Palace of Carlos V

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Palace of Carlos V in the Alhambra in Granada

King Carlos V of Spain decided to build this Palace after he visited the Alhambra complex in 1526. It’s an impressive building, but you’ll see immediately that the style is very different from the rest of the Alhambra. It houses a museum on the Alhambra. It’s worth stopping in to visit if you are interested in either seeing the exhibit or are planning to spend the whole day in the Alhambra and want to see the Palace itself.  Otherwise, my advice is to prioritize the other parts of the Alhambra and to spend your time there.

Types of Alhambra visits

There are several different ways to visit the Alhambra, all of which involve reserving tickets ahead of time (see below for more information on getting your Alhambra ticket).

You can visit the Alhambra during the day or at night and for each time of visit, there are several choices to make.

Options for daytime visits

  • General Daytime visit — this ticket lets you visit the Nasrid Palace, Generalife Palace and Gardens, and the Alcazaba. This is the most complete Alhambra visit ticket;
  • Daytime Gardens visit — this ticket lets you visit the Generalife Palace and Gardens, the Alcazaba, and other outside areas of the Alhambra, but does not let you visit the Nasrid Palace.

Options for nighttime visits

  • Nasrid Palace — this ticket lets you visit the Nasrid Palace at night and enjoy the lights of the Palace and city, but does not include the Generalife;
  • Generalife Palace and Gardens — this ticket lets you visit the Generalife at night, but not the Nasrid Palace.

For night visits, you have to choose if you want to see the Nasrid Palace or the Generalife. You can not see both on the same night.

Options for multi-day visits

If you know that you want to spend a lot of time in the Alhambra and are interesting in both daytime and nighttime visits, then the Blue Circle Pass ticket might be a good option for you. This ticket combines the General Daytime visit that lets you enter the Nasrid Palaces and the Generalife along with a Nightime visit that either lets you enter the Nasrid Palaces of the Generalife. This ticket allows access to the Alhambra over two consecutive days, so if you know you’ll want more time or a chance to the Palace at night, either the day after or before your day visit, this ticket is a good option.

My recommendation

For first time visitors to the Alhambra or any visitors who want a complete visit and don’t want to miss anything, the best option is the General Daytime visit. This is the most complete ticket to visit the Alhambra and lets you see every part of the Palace that is open to visitors with one ticket.

For second time visitors or travelers who are very interested in Moorish history and know they want to visit the Alhambra more than once, either one of the nighttime visits or the blue circle pass could be a good option, depending on your priorities, you group, and the rest of your itinerary.

A note on guides and tours

I do not recommend going on a guided group tour of the Alhambra. The tours are big, can be in multiple languages, and tend to move at a quick pace. If you want a guide, I highly recommend hiring a private guide who can cater the tour to your group’s interests and pace.

If hiring a private guide is not an option, I recommend doing a self-guided tour and learning at least a little about the Alhambra and it’s history before your visit. You can pick up an audio guide at the Entrance Pavilion and at the shop located in the Palace of Carlos V.

You do not want to spend your Alhambra visit being rushed and not being able to pause and take in your surroundings as you please, which is why I recommend against the guided group tour.

How to get your Alhambra ticket

You can book your ticket to the Alhambra online. You should aim to book your ticket at least 90 days in advance.  Once you have your dates for Granada booked, especially if you’re traveling during the busy season and with a more than two people, my advice is to book your tickets immediately.

If you want to visit the Nasrid Palace and choose the General Daytime ticket, you will have to reserve a time to enter the Nasrid Palaces.  The earlier you book your ticket, the more choices you’ll have in terms of entrance times to the Nasrid Palace. This time is very important and you must enter the Nasrid Palaces within 30 minutes of the time printed on your ticket or you will not be able to enter at all. You need to allow for sufficient time to actually enter the Alhambra compound and, from there, to get to the entrance to the Nasrid Palaces. From the Entrance Pavilion,

When you buy your Alhambra ticket online, you will get an email confirmation. This is not an actual ticket and you cannot get into the Alhambra just with this ticket. You will need to convert you email into a ticket with a scanable barcode. You can either do this at the Entrance Pavilion as you enter the Alhambra or you can go to La Tienda de la Alhambra, a bookstore, at Calle Reyes Católicos, 40 and use their kiosk to print out your ticket. If you get your ticket from the Entrance Pavilion, make sure to allow enough time as there will likely be a good number of people waiting in line to do the same thing. 

Here’s why this works this way

Although this hasn’t always been the case, the Alhambra is now very well monitored. Entries to the Palace compound are limited to 6,600 people per day.  This means that most people who wait until the last minute or until they actually get to Granada to book their tickets will NOT actually get tickets to see the Alhambra because they sell out.

Additionally, no more than 300 visitors are permitted to enter the Nasrid Palace during any 30 minute segment to prevent overcrowding and to protect the Palace. This is why the time at which you enter the Nasrid Palace is so important. You will need to plan your visits to other parts of the Alhambra, like the Alcazaba and the Generalife, around your Nasrid Palace entrance time. It’s important to reserve your entrance tickets as soon as you can so you can have as many options as possible for your Nasrid entrance time.

The best structure for your Alhambra visit

If you are going to visit the Nasrid Palaces, this is what will anchor you Alhambra visit.  The ideal visit to the Alhambra looks like this —

Nasrid Palaces — Alcazaba– Generalife

or

Nasrid Palaces — Generalife — Alcazaba

I strongly recommend seeing the Nasrid Palaces first thing in the morning, or as earlier as you possibly can. As mentioned above, this is the one part of your entrance to the Alhambra that is time specific. If you miss the 30 minute entry window around your Nasrid Palaces entry time, you will not be able to enter. There will certainly be many people, and maybe even crowds, waiting to enter early in the morning, but there will be fewer people inside the entire Palace compound as numbers won’t have built up over the day yet. If your Nasrid Palaces visit is the first part of your Alhambra day, after that, you can relax and move at your own pace. I personally prefer the first option above and ending with the Generalife instead of the Alcazaba, but this depends on your group’s preferences and pace.

If you get an afternoon time for the Nasrid Palaces because that is all that is available for the date that you wish to visit the Alhambra, don’t panic, you can still have a successful visit. It will be very important for you to plan your day well. Depending on your entrance time for the Nasrid Palaces, you’ll likely want to see at least one other main part of the Alhambra, eithre the Generalife or the Alcazaba, before you visit the Nasrid Palaces. If your Palaces entrance time is quite late in the day, you’ll probably want to visit both beforehand to make sure you have time to see them.

You’ll also have to watch the clock carefully to make sure that you’re at the entrance to the Nasrid Palaces at least 30 minutes before the entrance time on your ticket. There is a 30 minute window for entrance, but there will likely be lines and you don’t want to miss your entrance time waiting in line. As the Alhambra is quite big, you’ll need to allow sufficient time to walk from wherever you might be in the complex to the entrance of the Nasrid Palaces.

(Since the Partal is relatively small compared to all each of the other three parts of the Alhambra and can be seen on your way from the Nasrid Palace to the Generalife, I didn’t include it as its own separate part. The Palace of Carlos V is a nice extra to see if you have time, but not a must-see like the rest of the Palace.)

Additional things to know for a successful Alhambra visit

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Views of the Albaicin neighborhood from the Alhambra

Since the Alhambra is such a popular site for travelers to visit, rules are strictly enforced throughout the Palace compound. Here are few important things to know in advance of your visit:

  • Every member of you group needs a ticket with a barcode, including kids under 12.
  • Bags and backpacks over 35 cm will need to be stored, for free, in a check area called consigna.
  • Small backpacks have to be worn in front, and not on your back, to avoid accidentally bumping into things.
  •  Strollers and baby carriages are not allowed inside the Alhambra. You can check your stroller for free in the consigna and you can also borrow a baby carrier free of charge for your visit.
  • There are several restaurants and vending machines inside of the Alhambra. If you want to eat a restaurant, you’ll need to plan accordingly.
  • You are only allowed to eat in designed areas.
  • You can bring water inside the Alhambra.
  •  Once you’re in the Alhambra, you can spend the day there. You won’t be asked to leave until closing time at the end of the day.

Things you’ll need to think about to plan your Alhambra visit

You’ll want to keep the following questions in mind as you plan your Alhambra visit to make sure you get the most out of it.

  • How big is your group?
  • Does your group have any specific requirements? Are you traveling with young children, a multi-generational group, or people who might have difficulty walking or being on their feet for long periods of time?
  • At what pace does your group move and how will you adapt your visit accordingly?
  • How long are you planning to spend in the Alhambra? The average visit is about 3-4 hours, but you could spend all day there. It’s helpful to have a rough idea of approximately how long you’d like to spend in the Alhambra to plan your day well.
  • What are you going to do about food and drink? This depends on how long you’re planning to spend in the Palace, your group, and your entrance time for the Nasrid Palaces.
  • How are you going to see the Alhambra, with a private guide or a with self-guided?
  • Will you need to check items in the consigna check area? If so, you’ll need to adjust your timing accordingly.

Top tips for visiting the Alhambra

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Here are my top tips, in one list, for visiting the Alhambra, because you want to get the most out of your visit to this amazing site:

  • Book your ticket as far in advance as you can, especially if you’re traveling with a group.
  • Reserve an early morning entrance to the Nasrid Palace so that you have flexibility in your schedule of the rest of your visit.
  • Pick up your ticket at least an hour before your Nasrid Palace entrance time. Remember, you will likely have to wait inline at the Entrance Pavilion to get your ticket and from there, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the Nasrid Palace.
  • Do not take a group guided tour; decide if you’ll hire a private guide or do a self guided tour.
  • Have a general sense of how long you plan to spend in the Alhambra.
  • Figure out your plan for food during your visit.
  • Wear comfortable shoes as you will be on your feet all day.
  • Dress appropriately; in the summer, you’ll want sunblock, a hat, and cool clothing; in the winter, you’ll want to dress in layers as the weather can be quite cold in the mornings and warm up with the sun.
  • There are water fountains for drinking throughout, but it’s a good idea to bring your own water bottle, especially during hot weather

5 Reasons to Visit the Alhambra Palace in Granada

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The Alhambra as seen during sunset, with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background

The Alhambra Palace is one of the best preserved Muslim palaces in the world. It dates back to the mid-1200s and was built by the Moors during their occupation of Spain. The Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain and one of the most visited sites in Europe. Once you see the Alhambra, I have no doubt that you’ll understand why!

I highly recommend spending a few days in Granada on your trip to Spain, especially if the Andalusia region is high on your list.  Planning a visit to the Alhambra is a key part of any trip to Granada. 

Here are five reasons why you should not miss the Alhambra on your trip to Spain —

The Alhambra’s intense beauty

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It’s hard to overstate how beautiful the Alhambra is. All of the stunning photos just don’t do it justice in real life.

I remember the first time I visited the Alhambra with my family when I was in middle school, an age where I don’t think I wanted to seem impressed by anything. On top of that, it was late June and it was very hot. Despite the fact that my parents had been once before (in the late 1970s, when no one outside of Spain really visited the Alhambra and you could walk right up to and actually touch the most famous carvings and statutes), my father was overcome by the beauty of the Palace. I distinctly remember him saying he thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. This feeling and sense of awe has stuck with me and, every time I’ve visit the Alhambra since then, I’ve been newly impressed and inspired by its beauty.

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The physical structure of the Alhambra is very impressive and much larger than one might expect. The Alhambra is actually a compound of several different buildings and sections, constructed at different points in times and by different leaders.

The Nasrid Palace, one of the four main sections of the Alhambra Palace compound, which houses the famous Patio de los Leones, or the Lions’ Patio, is filled with unbelievably intricate Islamic carvings, beautiful tile work, and Moorish arches and doors.

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Patio de los Leones, the Alhambra Palace, Granada

The work is so detailed; it’s hard not to think about how impressive it is that the Alhambra was mostly constructed in the 1200s and 1300s and, that on top of the sheer beauty of the work, it was constructed well enough to still be standing and in excellent condition today.

The use of water throughout the Alhambra Palace, which is typical of Moorish architecture, is not only beautiful, but gives the Alhambra a sense of tranquility.  The Alhambra is nestled into the side of lush, green hills and the water adds to the feeling of being completely surrounded by nature.

The Alhambra’s insight into Spain’s complex history

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Intricate Moorish carving inside of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Moors ruled almost all of Spain for several centuries, starting in the mid 13th century. Their architecture, art, language, and culture impacted the Spanish culture and history of Spain for centuries and is still very much present today.

One great example of this is the many Spanish words that come from Arabic. Many  words that begin with “al” in Spanish have Arabic origins. Some diverse examples of common words are almoada, almendra, alcade, alcaparra, alfombra — pillow, almond, mayor, caper, and rug. One of the most used and most emblematic Spanish words, ojala, which is used to express a wish or desire, and comes from O Allah.

Visiting the Alhambra allows you to go back in Spain’s history to the time of Moorish rule. You will see and experience first hand the type of architecture that influenced so  much of Southern Spain with its colorful tile work, interior patios, graceful arches, and use of water. If you visit other cities in Southern Spain, you will see very similar architecture throughout.

The Alhambra’s spectacular Generalife gardens

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One of the gardens in the Generalife, the gardens of the Alhambra Palace compound

Along with the Nasrid Palace, the Generalife gardens are probably the most well known and photographed part of the Alhambra. The Generalife is comprised of gardens as well as a palace, and served as the summer residence and of the rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. The palace section is worth seeing, but the gardens are the real start of the Generalife. You can spend hours walking around these beautiful gardens, listening to the trickling of water and enjoying a nice breeze.

After a visit to the Nasrid Palace, where you don’t want to miss any detail and there is so much to take in and learn about, walking through the Generalife is a lovely way to relax a bit and truly focus on the beautiful scenery.

The Alhambra’s tremendous views of Granada

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Views of the Albaicin neighborhood from the Alhambra

Other than being incredibly beautiful itself, the Alhambra provides spectacular views of the city of Granada and of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Moors built the Alhambra as a defensive fortress and chose the edge of a dramatic hillside that backs into the lower parts of the Sierra Nevada mountains because of this. Today, perched on the edge of a hill, the Alhambra overlooks much of the city itself. This provides sweeping views as you look down and across what is most of the downtown of Granada.

Perched high on a hilltop across the city, you’ll see the white-washed Albaicin neighborhood, or the ancient Moorish quarter. The Albaicin is home to the emblematic Mirador San Nicolas, which is the most famous point from which to view the city and the Alhambra.  From the Alhambra, you’ll see all the people at the Mirador San Nicolas taking picture and admiring the view of the Alhambra.

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Snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains behind the Generalife gardens of the Alhambra, in Granada

The Alhambra is set in front of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While the view of the Alhambra in front of the mountains is more impressive from across the city in the Albaicin, you’re much closer to the mountains when you’re inside of the Alhambra.

It can be hard to draw your attention away from the Alhambra itself, but it’s worth taking time to really appreciate the view of the Albaicin and the natural beauty surrounding the palace compounds during your visit.

The Alhambra is in Granada

Even without taking into account the majesty of the Alhambra, Granada is a magical city that is absolutely worth visiting on your trip to Spain. Of course, the Alhambra really adds something unique and other-worldly to the city, but the city itself is filled with  history, the story of three cultures, beautiful gardens, winding streets, delicious food,  and so much more.

There are the ancient Moorish quarters, the Albaicin, and the ancient Jewish quarters, the Realejo. The Albaicin is hilly and filled with narrow, winding streets, beautiful white-washed houses and quaint plazas. The Realejo, just down the hill from the Alhambra, is home to some of best tapas bars in the city and is a favorite of locals.

The city is filled with beautiful plazas and gardens and is quite walkable. Granada is also one of the few cities in Spain that offer free tapas with drinks in bars, making it a fantastic place to learn how to have tapas like a Spaniard.

What to do and see in Madrid

Madrid is a big, fast-paced city that can seem a bit daunting, especially if you only have a few days to explore. There is so much to see in Spain that where you go depends on your priorities, timing, and preferences — which is why I offer highly customized Spain trip planning — but, if possible, I absolutely recommend spending several days in Madrid.  It is an amazing city, with world-class art, limitless, excellent food options, beautiful parks, and a great place to really get a feel for Spanish life.

Madrid is an amazing city; it has tremendous depth and richness and provides wonderful insight into Spain, especially once you get off-the-beaten track a bit.

General Madrid Travel Tips

The main sites of Madrid are relatively central located, compared with the rest of the city which has grown outward from the center over centuries. Walking is the best way to see the city and comfortable shoes, a good map, and an understanding of the excellent public transportation system are all musts. You absolutely do not want to drive or rent a car while you are in Madrid; the traffic is crazy, there are significant restrictions on driving in the center of Madrid that will lead to significant fines if violated, and parking is a expensive, scarce, and logistically complicated.  If you find yourself tired after a long day of site seeing and walking and do not want to take the metro, take a taxi. Madrid’s taxi drivers are honest, their cabs are clean, and they know the city like the backs of their hands.

There are so many things to see and experience in Madrid that it’s impossible to do them in one visit. Because Madrid isn’t so much a city of specific sites and historic monuments as it is a city of neighborhoods and parks and plazas, it can be a bit tricky to figure out what to see.

Here are the main sites to see and do in Madrid

The Royal Palace royal-3458820_1920

Though not actually inhabited by Spain’s royal family, the Royal Palace is where the Royals frequently host official visits and state dinners. You can visit the Royal Palace on a guided tour and learn about the history of the building itself, Madrid, and the Spanish Royal family.  Just across from the Royal Palace is the Plaza de Oriente, a lovely plaza that is worth walking through after your Royal Palace visit.  There are also gardens behind the Palace, called the Jardines Sabatini, that are a lovely place to take a walk.

The Prado, the Reina Sofia, the Thyssen, and the Sorolla art museums

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Madrid is a world class art city.  It is worth trying to visit at least one of these museums while you’re in Madrid. Which museums you visit and how and when depends on your travel priorities and your needs and preferences.  The Prado and the Reina Sofia house Madrid’s most famous artwork, including Picasso’s famous Guernica paiting at the Reina Sofia and many famous works by Goya and Velaquez at the Prado. The Sorolla is the smallest and least well known of Madrid’s art museums and is worth a visit just for the beautiful building itself and the museum’s lovely gardens. The Thyssen has the most diverse collection of the Madrid museums.

The Reina Sofia and the Prado have daily free hours, which can be a good option or also not be a good option at all; it depends completely on your travel group’s needs and preferences.

Plaza Mayor

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Almost all Spanish cities have a Plaza Mayor, or main square,  and Madrid is no different. The Plaza Mayor in Madrid is a beautiful plaza in the historic Las Austrias neighborhood of the city. It is a great example of classic Madrid architecture both in terms of the balconies of the apartments that make up the plaza itself and the nine arched doorways that serve as entrances and exits. The plaza is surrounded by narrow, winding streets that are typical of this part of Madrid.

The plaza is filled with restaurants and cafes that have outdoor terraces and is always lively and bustling with people, though I would not recommend eating or drinking at any of the places in the Plaza or in the immediate surrounding streets, as they are almost all tourist traps. The lovely refurbished Mercado de San Miguel is just around the corner from the Plaza Mayor and is a great place to enjoy a drink or a tapa, and people watch.

Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno

The Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno are two traffic circles along the busy and beautiful Paseo del Prado that cuts straight through the center of  Madrid. You can’t go up to either, unless the traffic is cut off (which happens during soccer celebrations, protests, or other special events) because they’re smack in the middle of very busy intersections, but it’s worth walking up the Paseo del Prado and admiring both from afar.

The Plaza de Cibeles is at the confluence of the Paseo del Prado with the Calle Alcalá. From Cibeles, you can look up and down the Paseo del Prado and also up the Calle Alcalá to another main Madrid site, the Puerta de Alcalá. You’ll also find the beautiful restored City Hall building on Calle Alcalá, just behind Cibeles. From Plaza Neptuno, you can see two of Madrid’s best and most beautiful hotels, the Palace and the Ritz. If they’re not in your budget for a place to stay, pop in for a drink at the bar!

A fun note on their significance for Madrid soccer fans — when Real Madrid wins, fans congregate and celebrate in Cibeles. When Atletico de Madrid wins, their fans do the same but in Neptuno.

Parque del Buen Retiro

The Parque del Buen Retiro, known simply as the Retiro, is the lungs of Madrid. It is smack in the center of the city, just to the east of the Prado. It is a lovely park to stroll in, to watch Madrileños going about their business, or to have a drink at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes.

On the weekends during nice weather, it’s packed with picnicking families, kids biking and rollerskating, couples lying on blankets, and just about anyone else you can imagine. Like most public places in Spain, you’ll see a complete cross-section of Spanish society, from young to old and every group imaginable.

Calle Alcalá and the Puerta de Alcalá

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Photo by Tania Fernandez

Calle Alcala is one of the most emblematic streets in Madrid. It starts at the Puerta del Sol and runs through Plaza de Cibeles and up to the Puerta de Alcalá, or the Gate of Alcala, located at the southwestern end of the Retiro park, and then continues straight out of the city center. It is a beautiful street to walk up because you pass by some of the most majestic buildings in Madrid. You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and see the Cibeles fountain and the beautiful city hall building mentioned above, and have a great view both North-South and East-West from a central vantage point in the city.

Puerta del Sol

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The legendary Tio Pepe sign as seen from the Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is considered to be the beating heart at the center of Madrid.  It is always always full of people, tourists and Madrileños alike, and pulsating with energy.  It’s the center of New Years Eve celebrations, where the ball drops and thousands gather to ring in the new year and eat twelve grapes.

Puerta del Sol is surrounded on all sides by older, aristocratic looking buildings. It’s at the confluence of several major streets, like the Calle de Alcalá and Calle Arenal, and is situated between just below the Gran Via and between the Royal Palace and all the sites of the Paseo del Prado. It is smack in the center of a major shopping district; to give you an idea, Madrid’s Apple store is on the this plaza. It’s also home to the iconic Tio Pepe sherry sign, which has become an emblem of Madrid’s city center.

Templo de Debod and Parque del Oeste

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The Templo de Debod is an Egyptian temple that the government of Egypt donated to Spain in the late 1960s. It is in the Parque del Oste, located to the west of Plaza de España. The temple is in the open air and worth walking around if you’re interested in visiting the Parque del Oeste, or happen to be close to this part of the city. The Parque del Oeste faces west and looks over the Casa de Campo, a huge park that is five times larger than New York’s Central Park.  Because of this, it is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Do-it-yourself walking tour options

Most of what there is to see and do in Madrid does not require tickets or official entrances; only the Royal Palace and the art museums fall into the ticket-requiring category. Once you’ve seen these sites or as a way to balance out museum visits, taking a self-guided walking tour through other parts of the city is a great way to see more of Madrid’s sites while allowing for more flexibility to get off the beaten path.

There are infinite options for how to do this depending on your preferences and your travel group. Below, I’ve compiled a few possible self-guided walking tours you can take to see Madrid’s majestic sites at your own pace.

  • After visiting the Prado Museum, walk east to Retiro Park. Once in the park, enjoy strolling through and people watching or have a drink on an outdoor terrace. Exit the park at the north end onto Calle Alcalá.  Walk past the Puerta de Alcalá and continue down Calle Alcalá all the way to the Puerta del Sol.  You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and can admire Plaza Cibeles on your way. You can finish the day by heading over to the La Latina neighborhood to enjoy some tapas with the locals for dinner.

 

  • From the Royal Palace, head east and walk though the Plaza de Oriente. Enjoy the sun if the weather is nice or to sit for a bit to rest after your Palace tour. From there, head to the Mercado de San Miguel to enjoy a tapa and a drink. This refurbised market is a lovely spot to eat a snack and to people watch. When you’re done in the Market, walk the short distance to the Plaza Mayor. Exit the Plaza onto Calle Mayor and head to the Puerta del Sol.  From Sol, walk down Calle Alcalá towards Plaza Cibeles. Don’t forget to look up at the surrounding buildings, some of Madrid’s most beautiful. From Cibeles, keep walking down Calle Alcalá towards the northern end of the Retiro park. Enjoy strolling through the park, or of if you’re up for it, head to the Prado musuem. Afterwards, head towards either the Salamanca or Chueca neighborhoods to end your day with Madrileños enjoying an evening drink and tapas.

 

  • After visiting the Reina Sofia museum, head out into the plaza  on the back side of the museum (the side with the big glass elevator). From there, walk over to the Paseo del Prado. If you turn around and look south, you’ll see the Atocha, Madrid’s most emblematic train station. As you walk up the Paseo del Prado you’ll see the Prado Museum to your right and you’ll pass the Plaza de Neptuno. As you continue, you’ll  Plaza de Cibeles, where you can admire the fountain and the stately Ritz and Palace Hotels.  You’ll see the Puerta de Alcalá off to your right. Keep going straight until you get to the Plaza de Colon. This is a wonderful point from which to head off to some of Madrid’s loveliest neighborhoods — Salamanca, Chueca, or Chamberí for a long, leisurely lunch. After lunch, head west towards the Parque del Oeste and the Templo de Debod.  Enjoy people watching in the park or wait for the sunset to enjoy the best sunsent views in Madrid.

 

There is nothing more Madrileño than stopping for a bite to eat and a refreshing drink, or several, along your walking route. You can also indulge in some excellent shopping in the upscale Salamanca neighborhood or the trendier Chueca. As you think about tailoring your walks, you’ll want to factor in a long lunch around 2 pm and dinner, which doesn’t happen in Madrid before 9 pm. You might also want to rest before heading out to dinner.

With these walking tours, you’ll have a more than enough to fill three days in Madrid and to see the major sites while allowing for flexibility to get off the beaten path and explore.

If you’re not sure how to pick and choose between all the options and organize your Madrid visit so that it runs smoothly and meets your specific needs, interests, and priorities, I’d love to plan this trip for you.

 

Typical Spanish Foods to You Should Try on a Trip to Spain

These are few of the best known, most typical Spanish foods. Each part of Spain, as you can see from this list, is known for different types of food, whether it’s seafood, meat, or vegetables. The regional variety is fantastic and goes far beyond this list. As I’ve highlighted before, one of the best things about Spain is the simplicity and quality of the food and the freshness of ingredients.

You should try a few of these foods on your next trip to Spain. Regardless of which part of the country you go to, more than a few will be available.

Tortilla Española

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Photo by Retama

Tortilla española, or Spanish omelette, is one of the best known and most common foods throughout Spain. It is a simple, straightforward dish that is made with eggs, potatoes, and usually onions. It is frequently called a tortilla de patatas to distinguish it from a tortilla francesa, which is a tortilla made of just eggs, so basically scrambled eggs.

Some people prefer their tortillas without onions, so just with eggs and potatoes; this is the great tortilla debate! I think most people like including onions as they add a certain sweetness that gives the tortilla a balanced flavor.

A pincho de tortilla, or a slice of tortilla, is a common tapa in a bar and is a great way to accompany a drink. Every Spaniard’s abuela or mother makes the greatest tortilla on earth, so be forewarned that if you go around saying you’ve had the best tortilla ever, you’ll have people lining up to challenge that assertion!

Jamón

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Enjoying freshly cut jamón in a bar in León

Spain produces the best ham in the world, hands down.  Ask any expert which is better, Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamón, and anyone will tell you that it’s jamón (seriously). Spain also produces 40 million hams per year, so they really know what they’re doing. Now, not all hams are the same. In fact, there are several important differences that impact flavor, quality, and price.

There are two main classifications within jamón  — jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. The ham comes from different types of pigs that are found in different areas of Spain. The curing process is similar and differecens in color, appearance, and taste are due to the differences in the pigs themselves and their diets.

Jamón ibérico, which is also known as pata negra because its huffs are black due the diet of eating acorns, is considered by most to be the better ham. Jamón ibério de bellota, one of the subtypes of jamón ibérico, is considered the best Spanish ham and likely the finest ham in the world. These pigs have have luxurious lives where they roam free over beautiful countryside in Extremadura while they eat their special diet of acorns. The ham from these pigs is then cured for a longer time than other types of ham.

Many Spaniards, including my family members, have a leg of ham in their kitchen. It’s common to buy before the holidays since you eat a lot of ham during all of the fancy and special meals of the holidays. You need a special ham leg holder that supports your ham and you’ll keep it covered with a cloth to protect it when you’re not eating, since it sits on the counter at room temperature. This way, you can slice and eat ham at your convenience throughout the following year.

In North America, jamón ibérico de belloa hams are extremely expensive. La Tienda, a Spain specialty store based in Williamsburg, Va that ships anywhere in the US, is currently selling this type of ham for over $1,000 a leg. They sell jamón serrano for a much more reasonable $300-$400 per ham leg.

Gazpacho

Gazpacho is a delightful cold soup that is typical of the Andalucia region in southern Spain, though it’s eaten everywhere. The basic ingredients are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, a bit of bread, extra virgen olive oil, white vingar, and salt. Recipes vary a bit and some include other ingredients, but these are the basics.

You can tell this soup is typical of the South for two reasons — it’s based on fresh vegetables and it’s light, extremely refreshing, and meant to be served cold. The region of Andalucia is one of the largest growers of fruit and vegetables in Europe, so it makes sense that an Andaluz soup would be based on fresh produce. In the summer, Andalucia is incredibly hot. It’s a dry heat, searing heat and nothing is as delicious on a hot summer day when you sit down to a late lunch, as a starter of cold, delicious gazpacho.

Gazpacho’s relative, Salmorejo, is another cold tomato-based soup that is very similar, but thicker than gazpacho. It usually has fewer ingredients that its sister soup, only tomatos and garlic, and has more bread than gazpacho which gives it the thicker texture. I actually prefer Salmorejo because I like the thickness. Funnily enough, given that it is traditionally a food from the South of Spain, the best Salmorejo I’ve ever had is from a bar in León, Bar Madrid. You can see the thickness of the soup below.

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Cañas and a tapa of salmorejo at Bar Madrid in León

Patatas Bravas

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Patatas bravas

Patatas bravas are a relatively straightforward tapa. They are small cubes of potatoes that come with brava sauce on top. The sauce itself is what gives the potatoes their flavor as it’s red and a bit spicy. It’s a typical dish from many parts of Spain and the recipe for the brava sauce varries throughout different regions.  This is another great tapa that is served in many bars.

Paella

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Paella might be one of the most famous Spanish foods. It originated in the coastal city of Valencia so, while it’s now eat in many places in Spain, it’s traditionally from this region.

There are many different versions of paella and no one specific way to make it. Generally speaking, paella contains rice, vegetables, and can contain different types of seafood like the shrimps and clams seen above, or chicken, or both. Many families have their own recipes and own ways of making it, usually using regional foods. For instance, if you live in a coastal area, like Valencia or the north coast, it’s probably typical to add seafood to your paella because of its fresh and readily accessible daily. In interior regions that are more known for meat, it might be more typical to have chicken and less seafood.

Spaniards don’t eat paella or any rice dishes at night because rice is considered too heavy for an evening meal. It’s a mid-day, or lunch food, when people eat their big meals.

Not every restaurant will serve paella and not every restaurant that does serve it should! What I mean by this is that, because paella is such a well known and famous food, many tourist trap type bars and restaurants serve paella. If you’re looking for a good paella while you’re in Spain, you should look for restaurants that specialize in paella for lunch.

Croquetas

Croquetas are delicious bundles of fried yumminess. The look like breaded cyclinders, though occasionally they’re totally round, and are filled with bechemel and different types of fillings. The most typical croquetas have ham filling or cheese fillings, but you can find them filled with fish like cod, or chicken, or shrimp.

In fact, one of my favorite bars in the Barrio Humedo in León, called Rebote, serves croquetas as its free tapa. They have options ranging from the more traditional cheese filling, to morcilla (blood sausage typical of the region), chorizo, and pizza. Rebote is immensely popular because of the croquetas and a common stop on most night outs in León.

Why are croquetas so popular and common? Like many typical Spanish foods, they have their root in resourcefulness and not wanting to waste anything. During many years, Spain was a not a wealthy country and, during the worst of these times, many people didn’t have enough to eat. Croquetas are basically little balls of fried leftovers. They allow you take take what might have been scraps from a meal of chicken, meat, or fish that someone wouldn’t want to waste, and make a delicious treat.

Chorizo

Spanish chorizo is another cured meat that Spain is famous for. It is made from pork and uses traditionally made, natural casings from the animal’s instestines. It may sound unappealing, but this tradition dates back to Roman times. Entire villages in Spain will still gather to go through the ritual of making the chorizo and it’s a process that uses every part of the animal and minimizes waste.

Spanish chorizo gets its flavoring and reddish color from smoked pimentón, or paprika. This one key difference that distinguishes it from Mexican Chorizo.

Different parts of Spain have different recipes for making chorizo. In some places they smoke the meat, others add pimentón dulce or picante, sweet or spicy paprika, or other spices.

It is eaten as a tapa, perhaps along with cheese and some bread. It is also added to other dishes to give flavor. For example, most Spaniards add chorizo to lentil soup as it gives the soup a delicious flavor and bit of kick.

 

Pulpo a la Gallega

Pulpo a la Gallega with delicious Galician bread a glass of red wine

Pulpo a la Gallega is a specialty of the north-west region of Galicia, just above Portugal. It is octopus, cooked perfectly, and served with the highest quality extra-virgin olive oil, paprika, and sea salt. It is unbelievably delicious and worth a try even if you never thought you’d ever eat octopus. It’s typical to have pulpo with a glass of red wine.

Pulpo a la Gallega is the most traditional and I would argue, yummiest way to eat octopus. Though it’s typical of Galicia, you can find good pulpo in other parts of Spain. Proximity to the ocean or to a seafood market that gets daily shipments is key as having fresh octopus is key.

The Galicia region of Spain is famous for its incredible seafood, which makes sense since it’s surrounded on all but one side by the ocean.

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The extensive Atlantic coastline of Galicia

Pimientos de Padrón

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Pimientos de padrón are another common tapa that you can get in many bars throughout the country. They are small, green peppers that are roasted with extra virgin olive oil and salt.

You can eat them standing in a bar by grabbing the stem and pulling the flesh of the pepper off. They’re soft and well seared, so this is easy to do.

Now, here’s the fun part — the majority of these peppers are sweet, but every once in a while, you get one that is hot. It’s impossible to tell the difference, since they all look the same, so if you order a plate of pimientos de padron to share with others, it’s a bit like Russian roulette waiting to see if anyone gets a hot one. Don’t let this discourage you though! They are a tasty dish and rarely spicy.

Regardless of where you go in Spain, have a great time enjoying some of these amazing dishes.

Buen provecho!

 

 

 

Must-see art in Madrid

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The Prado Museum in Madrid

Madrid is a city of art, among many other things. It is home to some of the most famous pieces of art in the world and three of the best museums of art in Europe — the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza.

These three museums make up what is called the Golden Triangle of Art in the heart of Madrid. They are located with a short walking distance of one another, on either sides of the Paseo del Prado, a beautiful, tree lined boulevard that goes north-south through the heart of the city.

If you’re not an art connoisseur, or even don’t have much of an interest in art at all, it’s worth it to stop into Madrid’s main art museums to see some of the most famous works ever painted.

Amazingly, two of these museums — the Prado and the Reina Sofia — have daily free hours where you can walk in without paying anything. You should always check online to make it’s not a holiday and to double check the hours themselves. This is a great option if you’re to super into art, don’t want to spend a lot of time or money on museums, or want to prioritize the many other sights and experiences Madrid has to offer.

In this post, I’m just focused on the Reina Sofia and the Prado as the most emblematic art in Madrid is housed in these two museums (in my opinion) and they have free hours, so are accessible to all.

Here’s my take on the must-see pieces of art in Madrid:

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

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This painting by Picasso is probably the most visited piece of art in the Reina Sofia.

Guernica is the name of a small town in the Basque Country, a region in northern Spain, that was bombed by Franco during the Spanish Civil War with support from his fascist allies, including the Nazis. For this reason, it is considered by many to be one of the first acts of World War II, even though the bombing took place in 1937.

Like many of Picasso’s paintings, there is so much to look at and analyze in Guernica that you could spend hours and hours reading about it and studying it. The Reina Sofia also has many of the studies Picasso painted or sketched of smaller pieces of the final work before painting Guernica, so you can see and read about how the painting came together.

You can read more about it on the Reina Sofia’s English website here.

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez

Las Meninas
— https://www.enforex.com/culture/art-las-meninas.html

Las Meninas is perhaps the most famous painting in the Prado, which is really saying something. There is almost always a crowd in front of it and, if you’re lucky, you might catch an adorable field trip of little madrileños and madrileñas learning about the painting.

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Photo courtesy of Rebecca Westlake

There are several aspects of this painting that make it revolutionary for its time. First, the painting includes a self-portait of Velazquez, seen standing in front of a large canvas painting. His subjects, the kind and queen of Spain, are seen in a reflection in the small mirror in the back of the painting. This puts the subjects of the paining in the same place as the audience,

This is a great article about the Velazquez and here is a great piece about why Las Meninas was and still is such a revolutionary painting.

Pinturas Negras by Francisco de Goya

Saturn Devoring His Son
The Dog
Witches’ Sabbath

Las Pinturas Negras, or the Black Paintings, are a series of paintings by the Spanish painter Goya. He originally painted them as fourteen murals on the walls of his private home and were not intended for public viewing. They had to be transferred to canvas and are now housed in the Prado.

As you can see from the three above, they are all dark both in the themes the paintings address and it their actual tones as well.  Goya painted them at the end of his life, after going completely deaf. He lived in a small village in the outskirts of Madrid and was quite isolated.

Personally, I love these paintings because they are unique compared to other paintings of the time. They are also such a stark contrast to Goya’s earlier works (see below) which I think makes them fascinating as well.

They are grouped together on the bottom floor of the Prado. You can read more here is a and here to see all of the Pinturas Negras and learn more.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (Jardin de las Delicias) by Bosch

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The Garden of Early Delights is my personal favorite piece of art in the entire world. I find it fascinating, incredibly ahead of its time, and generally mesmerizing. I stop by the Prado every time I’m in Madrid to see it. The Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch lived from the late 1400s to 1516. This painting was completed in the early 1500s, but it reminds me of the modernity seen in Dali’s work in the 20th century.

It’s hard to tell from online photos, but this piece is a triptych and the backs of the panels are painted as well. It’s displayed so that you look at the back sides as well as the front. The panels heaven, earth, and hell and are open to many different interpretations.

This painting is just so weird, brilliant, and visually overwhelming at the same time. Every time I look at it, I find new scenes and details to think about.

Here are a few close ups of the fascinating weirdness in all its glory–

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The Prado’s website allows you to zoom in on different parts of the painting to see details, which is key if you’re looking at the paiting online. Actually, it’s helpful regardless of how you look at it because there’s you can only get so close in person.

This amazing website lets you click on different parts of the painting and then gives you a narrated explanation, including historical context, which is incredibly helpful.

Dos and Tres de Mayo by Francisco de Goya

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Dos de Mayo
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Tres de Mayo

Goya’s Dos and Tres de Mayo depict scenes from Napoleon’s invasion and the subsequent French occupation of Madrid. Dos de Mayo depicts an uprising of Madrilenos against the French forces while Tres de Mayo is more graphic and depressing, showing a Spaniard about to be shot by French forces.

These events were key happenings during an important part of Spanish history and they make up a particularly important part of Madrid history and culture. May 2nd is a holiday in the autonomous region of Madrid in memory of those who fought to resist French occupation and those who died.

Plaza Dos de Mayo not only still exists, but the central plaza of the vibrant and hip neighborhood of Malasana. The plaza today is filled with bars and restaurants and a play area of for kids. Even the name of the neighborhood itself is related to this event. Manuela Malasana was a young women who participated in the uprising against the French. She was executed in the Plaza Dos de Mayo less than a day after the uprising starting. Manuela became a symbol of freedom and was widely memorialized and celebrated.

After you visit the Prado to see these spectacular paintings, you can stroll up to Malasana and have a beer at one of the many terraces and bars in the Plaza Dos de Mayo.

You can find more information here .

Las Majas by Franciso de Goya

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La Maja Vestida
La Maja Desnuda

There is lots of Goya in Madrid, as you can see. These are to of Goya’s best known paintings and are displayed side-by-side. Painting a woman nude at this time in Spain was considered to be quite risque, but Goya went ahead anyway.

It’s interesting to contrast these paintings, and even the darker in subject but still quite realistic Dos and Tres de Mayo, with Goya’s Black Paintings. You can really see how much his style evolved and his interest in subjects changed over the course of his life.

The Prado’s fantastic website gives you detailed information on both paintings.

The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dali

Just when you thought we were moving away from nudity and wrapping things up….. This is one of Dali’s most emblematic works and it hangs in the Reina Sofia, along with other Dali works. Dali, along with Picasso, is probably one of Spain’s best known artists internationally and he is arguably the most famous surrealist. Dali is from the Cataluna region of Spain and much of his work is partially inpired by the Catalan landscape. He died relatively recently, in 1989.

Art critics have interpreted this piece as self-reflective of where Dali and how he felt about himself when he painted it at 25 years old. You can read more here.

My recommendation would be to visit the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado and compare it to this work. Despite the fact that they are separated by hundreds of years, they are quite similar in several ways.

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The Paseo del Prado, the perfect place to talk a walk between museum visits (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/tnarik/)

While the paintings I’ve highlighted here are some of Madrid’s most famous pieces of art, they barely begin to scratch the surface. There are other art museums to visit apart from the big three that make up the golden triangle of art and these selections only feature art from two of those three. Both the Prado and the Reina Sofia have sculpture as well, as do other museums.

If you want to see the key pieces of art in Madrid, these recommendations are a good place to start, but with so many incredibly options, it’s quite possible to customize your museums and art viewings around your personal interests and tastes.

 

 

How to plan your Camino de Santiago trip

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A pilgrim walks the Camino in the early morning

Walking or biking the Camino de Santiago is an incredible experience and would encourage anyone who is interested in the Camino to do it.

It can be tough physically, no matter which route you chose or which method you pick to get to Santiago. Walking or biking day after day for many hours can make one sore and tired. This said, rest assured the Camino is very doable if you plan well, are realistic about your pace and what you will be able to accomplish, and prepare and pack well. It is also an amazing experience and absolutely worth it!

I am usually like to wing it to a certain extent when I travel; I do a minimal amount of initial research, and then get to a place and figure it out there. I ask locals for advice, and I love walking around and exploring and discovering cities on my own and at my own pace.

However, this is not the way to approach the Camino and not the way I approached the Camino when my father, sister, and I completed the trek by bike in 2007. Even though we were all extremely familiar with Spain and speakers of the language, you simply cannot have a successful Camino trip without thorough planning.

You can read more about our experience biking the Camino from Roncesvalles, on the border between Spain and France, to Santiago de Compostela here.

Here is my advice on how have a successful trek on the Camino de Santiago:

Research and Plan

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The Camino de Santiago in the Rioja region.

Estimating daily distance

It is important to be realistic about your abilities and the requirements necessary to bike or hike every day, many hours a day,  for multiple days in a row. Now, although that sounds very serious, I firmly believe that most anyone can do the Camino. You may have to make adjustments to your pace, schedule, or how you do it, but this is just fine and lots of people do this! When my family and I did the Camino, my dad was in his mid-sixties and we biked every day for two weeks straight, covering around 800 km total.

Even though it’s impossible to predict exactly how your trip will go and how much you’ll be able to do a day, it is quite possible to make reasonable estimates and to plan from there. It’s also crucial to know how to prepare successfully and to set reasonable expectations.

I would encourage you to check with your doctor if you’re not sure about how you’ll be able to do, or if you have any health problems that could need attention along the way. Even if you have something as simple as allergies, you should talk to your doctor about what medicines you might need to bring with you and what to do in the case of an allergic reaction, for example.

If you’re in great shape, it may be realistic to expect to be able to do longer distances every day. We probably averaged around 40-50 km of biking per day and on our longest day, we did 80 km. We were very impressed with some of the walkers we encountered who were doing quite long distances daily. Our daily distances varied more than we expected, but we were able to keep to our planned schedule of arriving to Santiago the day on July 26th, the day the Patron Saint of Santiago is celebrated, so we could witness all the festivities.

It’s important to keep in mind that the terrain varies greatly. On the Camino Frances, if you start near the beginning at Roncesvalles, or close by like we did, you’ll start in a  semi-mountainous region. Once you get into La Rioja, the terrain is flatter, but still can be hilly in places. Once you’re in Castilla y Leon, you’re on the central meseta and the wide open plains of Spain. Towards the end, once you cross into Galicia, you’re in the most mountainous part of the Camino. Even during the flat portions, you’re biking or walking on dirt roads that are sometimes quit rough or bumpy, so this makes for slower progress than on a paved road.

Unless you are an experienced hiker or biker of long distances on off-road terrains, your plan should allow for varied daily distances because of the varied terrain and other issues that can arise, like bad weather or blisters, that could force you to slow down or do less for a few days.

You’ll need to research to get an idea of how much distance someone of a similar profile is able to walk or bike a day. There are many Camino forums and it’s helpful to read about other people’s experiences. This is where it’s important to be honest with your level of activity and ability to complete certain distances.

Researching routes 

Here's a great map that shows the different routes of the Camino, from the most popular (and increasingly heavily-trafficked, Camino Frances) to some that most people have never heard of.  I'd like to try Los Caminos del Norte!  Beautiful coastal landscapes and a lot of mountains!

There are pros and cons to each route, as outlined briefly above. The important thing is to pick the one that makes the most sense for you. For instance, the Camino Frances is the most popular route. It is the most well known and sees the largest number of pilgrims. This means that you’ll likely see multiple other pilgrims on a daily basis and maybe even multiple times during your trek. It also means that the cities and towns you’ll pass through are very familiar with people doing the Camino. Restaurants will have menus for pilgrims, no one will bat an eye at seeing you walk around in your hiking gear or bike shorts, and you will not have trouble finding an albergue, or pilgrim hostel.

If you want to take the most “classic” Camino route, you should do the Camino Frances.

The Ruta del Norte, or Northern Route, goes right along the North coast, meaning you can swim at beaches in the afternoons and evenings when you’re done for the day. If you want to see the stunning Northern Coast of Spain and don’t care that you’ll see fewer fellow pilgrims, or that people might be less accustomed to pilgrims in these areas, this route could be for you.

There are routes that go from South to North in Spain and also from Portugal. If you want a less traditional Camino experience or are particularly interested in seeing these parts of Spain or Portugal, one of these routes could be a good option for you.

It’s important to research the route well and to fully evaluate the pros and cons from multiple angles — what you want to see and the ease of figuring out logistics for example– to figure out what is the best fit for you.

Make Key Decisions

Now that you’ve done some research, you’ll need to start making decisions that will firm up your plan.

Your Method and your Route

You’ll need to decide how you will be moving along the Camino — will you be walking or biking? We biked because we love biking and that was our original idea. Walking is logistically easier because you don’t have to worry about transporting a bike and bike gear.

You’ll need to decided which route you’ll be traveling, as outlined briefly above — will you follow the Camino Frances from East to West, will you travel the same way, but on the Camino that runs along the Atlantic North coast, or will you travel from South to North or perhaps an entirely different route?

You’ll need to decide where you will be starting, how long your Camino trek will last, and how much time you’ll spend in Spain total.

Logistics

You’ll need to develop a rough itinerary that matches your route. Your itinerary should have your starting point and ending point, how you’ll get to your starting point from your arrival location in Spain, and how you’ll transport yourself from your ending Camino point to your next Spain destination.

You should also create a plan for where you’ll spend each night, both in terms of the city or town and where you’ll actually sleep. You may well have to adjust your plan as you go, but you should have one before starting the Camino.

If you’re going to stay in Spain longer and do some traveling after the Camino, which I highly recommend, you’ll have to figure out the logistics of your luggage and gear. You want to bring the minimal amount of gear with you while you’re on the Camino, but afterwards, you will likely want more clothing options! You’ll need to figure out what to do with the things you’ll want when you’re done while you’re trekking the Camino. If you’re biking and want to stay in Spain longer, what will you do with your bike? These are all figure-out-able questions, but you should address them as part of your research and decision making process.

Prepare

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The scallop shell is the sign of Santiago. You’ll see both yellow arrows and scallop shells marking the Camino along the way.

Gear

Regardless of how you decide to do your Camino experience, you will need to prepare. Unless you are already an avid hiker or walker, you will likely need to purchase some gear. It’s best to do this with plenty of time to try things on, break in new shoes, return and re-buy certain items if needed.

I’ve outlined the basics below. You may well want to tweak or bring more items. Keep in mind that if you’re carrying all of your own belonings, which most pilgrims do, the more you bring, the heavier your load will be.

For biking:

  • Bike
  • Bike gear — clip in shoes if desired; helmet; gloves (you’ll want those gloves to protect your hands, trust me!)
  • Bike bags for carrying your belongings on your bike
  • Clothing — a couple of athletic shirts; 2 pairs of bike shorts; socks; undergarments; water proof jacket; warmer top layer
  • Toiletries and other personal belongings
  • First aid kit that includes blister treatment supplies
  • Water bottles and holders for your bike
  • Second pair of shoes to walk around in when not on the bike
  • Pair of sandals for shower if desired
  • Sunblock and hankerchiefs
  • One non-athletic outfit for when you arrive to your final destination for the day, shower, and the last thing you want to do is wear your bike clothes
  • One nicer outfit if desired

For walking:

  • Good hiking boots
  • Hiking backpack
  • Second pair of shoes for walking, like running shoes or something similar
  • Clothing — a couple of athletic shirts; pair of shorts; pair of long pants; socks; undergarments; water proof jacket; warmer top layer; gloves
  • Water bottles
  • Toiletries and other personal belongings
  • First aid kit that includes blister treatment supplies
  • Sunblock and hankerchiefs
  • Pair of sandals for shower if desired
  • One non-athletic outfit for when you arrive to your final destination for the day, shower, and the last thing you want to do is wear your atheltic clothes
  • One nicer outfit if desired

Sunblock is incredibly important. I cannot stress this enough! When you’re in the open spaces of La Rioja and Castilla y Leon and the sun is beating down and you don’t see shade anywhere, you will want all the sunblock, a hat if you’re not wearing a bike helmet and, if you are, a hankerchief or visor or another way to create shade on your neck.

In terms of a nicer outfit, I brought a casual black dress that was one-step up from all my biking gear and my casual outfit of shorts and a tee-shirt with me on the Camino and I did not wear it once. The idea is that if you go to a nicer dinner, you’ll have something to wear. I don’t think most pilgrims do this and when I repeat the Camino, I don’t think I’ll bring a nicer option. If you do bring something, it’s best to make sure it’s light and doesn’t take up a lot of space.

As I mentioned in my post about my Camino experience, we were quite cold at the end of the Camino once we crossed through Castilla y Leon and entered the mountains in Galicia. It was mid to late July and it had been very hot at the beginning of the Camino, yet we all wished we had more layers at the end. When I do the Camino again, regardless of the method (I’ll probably walk it), I will bring a warm long sleeve shirt and a light down jacket. A jacket like this provides good warmth and is so light that if you never use it, it doesn’t matter.

Physical Preparation

You’ll also want to “train” before you get to Spain. I don’t mean this to sound intense at all, but you’ll want to increase your activity level so that when you start the Camino, your body isn’t totally shocked by walking or biking for hours every day. You don’t need to walk or bike every day and you don’t need to go out for hours at a time, but it’s a good idea to start increasing this activity to a few times per week.

When we did the Camino, I prepared by riding my bike several times a week for maybe an hour or a few hours maximum at a time. I put water bottles filled with water in the bike bags to begin to get used to the what it would be like to bike with weight on my bike. This wasn’t a lot of training and I was working daily, so I didn’t have time to go out and bike every day. The idea is you want to get used to your gear and what it will be like to either walk or bike with weight, and to start to build up your endurance a bit.

In Spain

It’s great that you’re prepared and that you researched and planned well. Now be prepared for things to not go according to plan! I am only slightly kidding. Of course, you shouldn’t expect any big disasters (and hopefully none will happen), but with an experience like the Camino, unexpected obstacles are almost certain to arise.

When I did the Camino with my dad and sister, there were several obstacles that came up. First, as I mentioned, we didn’t have warm enough layers for the last third of the trip when we had crossed over the meseta and were in the mountains of Galicia. Even though it was July, all three of us were quite cold. This was not the end of the world, but we were not very happy about this in that moment. Second, my bicyle seat was extremely uncomfortable. When we got to León, I bought a new seat which helped a little, but I was still not very happy with it. Third, and this one was just for me, for some reason I broke out in a weird rash all over my face about mid-way through the trek.

Walkers are almost certain to get blisters or perhaps have swollen feet and ankles. Bikers, you might fall of your bike a few times. I only fell off once, when I was too tired to unclip my bike shoes after climbing a long hill, and the closeness of a water fountain meant I just did not care how I got off the bike. My dad and my sister both fell off a few times. If it sounds dramatic, it was not. You’re biking for days with a weighted bike, which makes it more tipsy, on uneven terrain.

This advice should will be able to help you get started planning for your Camino trip. It is very high level and very general advice because it is everyone’s Camino plans, goals, and desired trip a very different.

Las Tres Marias can help you plan a Camino experience that is customized to your interests, activity level, and ensure that you have the best possible experience.

Tipping in Spain

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A little queso and some jamón, nothing better!

Tipping in Spain, or anywhere in Europe for that matter, is a topic that causes angst for many North Americans. It can be hard to adapt to a different culture when your own tipping habits are deeply ingrained. Even worse, you don’t want anyone to think that you’re rude or don’t appreciate their service, or are being disrespectful by not understanding and following cultural norms.

I’ll walk through specific situations in more detail below, but in a nutshell, you just don’t tip in Spain.

Now, don’t anyone panic, there’s a reason for this! Waiters, cab drivers, and others who might traditionally get tips in North America are paid liveable wages in Spain. They also have health insurance, so full access to quality health care, and a retirement pension. Because of this, tipping is just not part of the culture.

Restaurants, Bars, and Waiters

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Restaurant on a narrow street in Mallorca

As mentioned above, you don’t need to tip waiters, bar tenders, or anyone else who serves you in a restaurant or bar. However, you can leave a bit of change behind at the end of a meal or after a drink or coffee, which is usually done by rounding up.

What does this mean?

Let’s say after a few beers and a tapa or two at a bar,  your total is 10.65 euros, so you give the waiter 15 euros. He’ll bring you back your change, or put it on the bar if you’re standing at the bar, usually on a little dish with a receipt. It would be fine to leave the small change that would round up to the next whole number, so in this example, the 35 euro cents that make the difference between 10.65 and 11 euros. You can leave it in the little dish on top of the receipt.

This is not at all required and no waiter would ever be offended or shocked if you picked up all your change and left. For example in the scenario above, if you give the waiter 12 euros, so maybe a 10 euro bill and two 1 euro coins and he brings back your change of 35 euro cents, no one will be remotely shocked if you take that change with you. Among Spaniards, taking the change would be the reaction more often than not.

What about a very nice meal at a very nice restaurant?

The protocol is maybe a little bit different, but basically the same. If you want to show gratitude and appreciation for an excellent meal and service, you can leave a bit more. My advice in this situation would be to leave a few euro coins, maybe between 3 and 5 euros total, to show your appreciation. It’s fine even if this is a tiny fraction of the cost of the total meal. The point is not to leave a certain percentage behind, but to make an extra gesture to show how much you enjoyed your meal.

Here’s an example:

Over the Christmas holidays in Spain this past year, my family went out to lunch to celebrate Three Kings day, the twelfth day of Christmas known as the Epiphany in English. It is very common in Spain to celebrate this day by going out to a nice lunch with family, especially after many families have cooked several very large meals at home.

There were eight of us total and we ate at a very nice restaurant known for excellent, unfussy cooking. We had several appetizers, each person had a main dish, we drank at least four or five bottles of wine, and had dessert and coffee after the meal. The total was between 200 and 300 euros which, for a meal of this quality of the food and wine, is an extraordinary price as compared to anything similar in North America. When paying, my mom wanted to show appreciation for the excellent food and personal service (the restaurant owners are also friends of many years of my aunt and uncle), so she left about 5 euros as a tip.

The key here is that it’s not about leaving some percentage of the meal’s total; if my mom had tried to even leave 10% of the total, the waiter wouldn’t have wanted to accept that much money and it probably would have lead to confusion.

My uncle though this was too much to leave and told her to only leave 2 or 3 euros. Even though he thought it was too much money for a tip, the difference was small, only a few euros, so it didn’t matter. The point, which was to express gratitude, was expressed successfully.

This said, you do not have to leave a tip ever. It would have been fine to pay and leave without leaving any change behind, but if this makes you very uneasy especially after a nice meal (which I totally understand!), then leaving several euro coins to recognize the quality of the food and service is the appropriate way to go.

Taxis and car services

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Meep, meep!

For taxi situations, I would follow the same parameters as for a bar. You do not need to tip at all, ever, under any circumstance. This is the norm and what taxi drivers are used to. As mentioned above, they make liveable, fair wages, and have access to health care and pensions.

If you want to round up the cost of your taxi ride to the next whole number and leave that change, this is just fine, but it’s best to do this by telling the taxi driver to keep the change so as to avoid any confusion.

For example, if your taxi ride is 14.40 euros and you give the driver a 5 and a 10 euro bill, you can tell her that you don’t need any change back. This will be understood and seen as something fairly normal. It’s a small amount and the taxi driver will appreciate not having to make the change and the nice gesture.

For a driver who you hire to take you to different vineyards or to transport you to different sights, I would say you can follow the example of leaving behind a bit more in a nice restaurant. Again, this is not necessary, but is a gesture of appreciation for someone who has spent a significant amount of time with you, maybe a half or full day.  Again, you don’t need to calculate a percentage as this is a gesture of thanks and appreciation.

Guides

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For guides, I tweak my actions and recommendations a bit. I think it’s nice to tip guides a small amount to show thanks for their personal attention. It’s an especially nice gesture for a guide you hire for a full day or several hours and who gets to know you a bit or who really goes out of his or her way to cater the tour or talk to your interests.

Keep in mind again that guides make liveable wages and are not expecting tips as part of their income. This means that a tip doesn’t need to be a percentage of what you’ve paid them, but is more a gesture to show your appreciation for their work.

For guides, I would say the amount you tip depends on how long you hired the guide for, how much they catered to your group’s interest, and the general level of knowledge and how enjoyable the experience was. If you’re part of a big group, or a group with varied ages, interests, and activity levels or anything else along these lines that might make the guide’s job more challenging, you can factor that in as well.

Here’s an example:

It’s fine to tip a few euros. I recently did this and the guide was surprised, initially tried to give me my full change, and then thankful. I hired a guide to take friends and family around the historic center of Leon the day before my husband and I renewed our wedding vows. We were a varried group in all senses — multiple different countries and languages were represented, the ages ranged as did the activity level. Our guide was lovely, she was warm and engaging, tailored her historic tour of the city to our interests, and kept the group moving at an appropriate pace. When I paid her, I gave her bills knowing that she would have to make change and went she went to give me change, I told her to keep it. I think I tipped her around 7 euros.

If you loved your guide and he or she was the greatest guide you’ve ever had and they went out of your way to make sure you had an amazing experience and for these reasons want to tip more, I would say go up to but not above a 10% tip. Again, your guide will be touched that you liked their work enough to give them a tip. Guides who work with North Americans may be used to tipping, though they won’t expect it. If you get a guide who works mostly with other Europeans, they may be surprised and not at all expecting of a tip.

 

 

 

Cities to see in Spain that are not Madrid, Barcelona, or Sevilla

When people think of Spain, a few things usually come to mind — Barcelona and Madrid, flamenco, sangria, late nights, and sun.  Of course, this is a generalization, but tends to summarize the key things that pop into many people’s heads when they think of Spain.

Yes, Spain does have all of that, but Spain is so much more than this is so many ways.

One of the best ways to really get to know a country is to visit smaller cities. Spain is filled with beautiful, urban, liveable smaller cities, each one with its own culture significance, typical food and drink, architecture, and character.

Yet, as different and unique as all these cities are, you see the distinct threads of Spanishness throughout — appreciation for the simple things in life, making time for  family and friends, excellent food and drink that is widely accessible.

Here are 5 cities I recommend visiting to get off-the-beaten track a bit.

León

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Enjoy drinks and tapas with León locals in Plaza de Omaña, in the center of the Barrio Romantico

The second biggest city in the Castilla y León region, León is a great city to visit for many reasons. It is small — around 120,000 inhabitants — and has a beautiful, easily walkable old center city with one of Spain’s most beautiful Gothic cathedrals.

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A stained glass window in Leon’s famous gothic cathedral

León has a thriving bar and tapas scene and is one of the only cities in Spain where you get a free tapa with your drink at any bar across the city. In fact, Spanish newspapers regularly name León as one of the best cities for tapas in Spain.

León is also a stop on the Camino de Santiago French Route. During the summer, the the city is filled with peregrinos, or pilgrims, coming into the city to spend a day on their way to Santiago.

The city is also a great home base to spend a few days in while taking day trips to surrounding wine areas. It’s easy to rent a car and reach the wineries of Toro, Ribera del Duero, and the Bierzo.

To do and see in León:

  • Stroll up the beautiful, pedestrian Calle Ancha on your way to visit León’s famous gothic Cathedral which has the second largest ratio of stained glass to stone only behind Chartres Cathedral in France;
  • Have a pre-lunch aperitivo at Bar Madrid in the Barrio Romantico. Then, have the penultimo, or the second to last drink (because Spaniards never have the last drink) at El Pajarín and enjoy the people watching in the quaint Plaza de Omaña;
  • Spend a night out in the Barrio Humedo bar hopping to sample the city’s best tapas and try a different tapa in each bar.

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    Enjoy cañas (small beers) and tapas at one of León’s many bars

Granada

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A view of the Albaycin from the Alhambra

Granada, possibly the most romantically beautiful city in Spain, has everything you could want from the Alhambra — the stunning Moorish palace and fort — to a beautiful mountain range, and a lovely downtown with great shopping, bars and restaurants. Perhaps my favorite part of Granada are the beautiful neighborhoods and plazas that make up the city, with distinctive architecture and beautiful flowers and gardens. It is city bustling with life, yet very walkable and liveable.

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The Alhambra as seen from the Mirador San Nicolas in the Albaycin

The Alhambra is the most visited tourist site in all of Spain and for good reason. It is one of the best examples of Mudejar architecture that was characteristic of the Moors in Spain. The Generalife gardens next to the Alhambra are a must-see as well.

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One of the gardens in the Generalife Palace, part of the Alhambra compound

To do and see in Granada:

  • Spend a day touring the Alhambra. How could any list involving Granada not start with visiting the Alhambra?!
  • Spend an afternoon walking around the Albayzin neighborhood — the old Moorish quarter of the city — exploring hilly, winding streets and taking in white-washed houses, beautiful patios and flowers,  and popping into bars for a refreshing caña and a tapa when needed;
  • Watch the sunset from the Mirador San Nicolas, a beautiful look out in the Albayzin neighborhood that looks over the city, for a stunning view of the Alhambra
  • Walk along the Paseo de los Tristes, which literally translates as the Path of the Sad ones, along the river that runs below the Alhambra
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A view of the Albaicin neighborhood taken from the Alhambra

Cadiz

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Cadiz rooftops from above

Cadiz is a spectacular city in the very south of Spain, in the Andalucia region, on the Atlantic coast. The beaches are long and open with calmer surf than the more rugged beaches on the Northern Atlantic coast.

This part of the Atlantic coast of Spain is called the Costa de la Luz, or the Coast of Light, because of the excellent weather and sunshine. If you want a vacation or just to spend several days on beautiful beaches with reliably good weather while being in a city and enjoying food, culture, and history Cadiz is the place for you.

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A view of the old city of Cadiz at sunset

Cadiz is famous for its beaches,  both within the city, and for the small, neighboring towns and cities that have their own stunning beaches. Many of the

To do and see in Cadiz:

  • Spend a day on Playa Victoria, the main beach in city center of Cadiz, enjoying the waves and the beautiful, long and pristine beach and in the evening, take a walk down the length of the Paseo Maritimo, or the boardwalk to see the beach on side with the city on the other;
  • Change up your beach routine and spend a day on Playa La Caleta, a much smaller, cove-like beach that is still easily accessible from the city and just a bit farther down on Playa Victoria;
  • Enjoy tapas in the city center while you admire the Cathedral and enjoy the quaint, winding streets;
  • Take a day trip, or two, to the famous Pueblos Blancos around Cadiz, like Arcos de La Frontera, Grazelema, and Jerez de la Frontera to see beautiful, hill top villages filled with white-washed homes, beautiful gardens, and more.
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Gaditanos as the locals from Cadiz are known, enjoying an afternoon aperitivo in the city center

San Sebastian

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The bay of San Sebastian

San Sebastian is undoubtedly one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world. It is also renown around the world for its gastronomy and is home to ten Michelin star restaurants, including three with three stars. In fact, after Kyoto, Japan, Sen Sebastian is the city with the highest number of Michelin star restaurants per square meter.

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La Concha beach, right in the center of San Sebastian

You do not have to pay a lot of money to eat well in this city and don’t need to make it to one of those restaurants to enjoy the local gastronomy. If you can, by all means do have the meal of a lifetime at one of the Michelin star restaurants, but even if you do eat at one of these places, make sure to enjoy the local pintxos scenes with the regulars because this is really what makes the San Sebastian culinary scene shine .

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Comb of the Wind sculpture

To do and see in San Sebastian:

  • Enjoy the legendary pintxos (what tapas are called in the Basque Country) and drinks in the casco antiguo, or the old quarter of the city;
  • During the summer, after spending a day on La Concha, the main beach in the city,  dry off and head to straight to a tapas bar in the casco antigugo for an aperitivo and then to lunch in any one of the cities amazing restaurants.
  • Spend an evening strolling along the paseo maritimo, or the boardwalk, enjoying the view of the city on one side, and the bay on the other,  and walk down to see the famous Comb of the Wind sculptures
  • Hike up the Monte Urgull, the hill that appears in the middle of the bay, for amazing views of the entire city.

Logrono

Logrono is a delightful city. It is extremely walkable, has a beautiful, old city center,  and is the only city in Spain to have two Parador hotels. The Paradors are historic buildings converted to hotels and run through a public-private partnership with the Spanish government. It’s a way to preserve historic buildings, while making them accessible to the public and being able to afford upkeep. Most cities are lucky to have one, but Logrono has two!

Like Leon, Logrono is another small to mid-size city in Spain that is basically right in the heart of another wine region, perhaps the best known wine region in Spain, La Rioja. Logrono is also on the Camino, much closer to the beginning of the French route within Spain, and is also known for an incredibly tapas bar scene.

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Vineyards in the Rioja wine region near Logroño during the winer

To do and see in Logrono:

  • Enjoy an evening of tapas and drinks on Calle del Laurel to immerse yourself in the local food scene with people of the city or, for a calmer less busy alternative, try Calle del Laurel for a pre-lunch aperitivo;
  • Take a day trip or more to one of the nearby bodegas, or winieries, in the Rioja region (the possibilities are infinite here and you could spend days upon days visiting bodegas) and taste some of the best wine Spain has to offer, and learn about the history of the region and the wine making process;
  • Walk around the history center of the city and vist the Logroño’s cathedral, Catedral de Santa María la Redonda, the Iglesia de San Bartolomé, and the museum dedicated to Rioja wine, the Museo de Rioja
  • Cross the Puente de Piedra, or literally the stone bridge, also known as the bridge of San Juan de Ortega, which leads the way into town and keep your eyes out for pilgrims doing the Camino de Santigo as this is the way into the city on the pilgrimage route.

 

Each of these cities is filled with amazing and unique places and experiences. Because they’re a bit off the beaten track and not as popular and well known as some other Spanish cities, they’re a great way to get to experience tapas culture, see pilgrims doing the Camino de Santiago, explore centuries old Spanish churches, and more.

 

10 things I love most about Spain

My love for Spain is deep, lifelong, and very personal. It involves my most formative childhood experiences like going to local stores daily with my grandparents to buy bread, meat, and fresh vegetables, playing in plazas for hours during long summer nights, and growing up in bars and running around on the sidewalks outside.

For this reason, it’s hard to separate out specific things that I love about Spain, since so much is inextricably tied up in who I am.

But, as I think about how to list what I love best and what I most want to share and enable others to experience, I realized that everything can be summed up by this — a deep appreciation for the simple pleasures in life.

In my opinion, the best parts of Spain and the Spanish way of life are incredibly simple.  Here are my favorite things about Spain in random order:

The Light

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Sun streaming down a street in the Chueca neighborhood of Madrid

The light in Spain is amazing. While much of Spain receives hundreds of days of sunlight a year, I don’t mean that the weather in Spain is sunny. On the north coast, one of my favorite areas of the country,  cloudy and rainy can be quite typical.

The quality of the light in Spain is unique. It’s nearly impossible to explain in words, but the golden hours as the sunsets during the summer months late in the evening are indescribably beautiful. It probably has to do with the fact that Spain is in the wrong time zone and thus enjoys light in the evenings beyond most other countries. In the summer, it’s still light out well past 10.

The blue of the sky

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Castilla y León, Spain, home to the bluest sky in the world — no filters!

The most intensely blue sky I have ever seen is in Spain, in the region of Castilla y Leon to be exact. Madrid is also famous for its intensely blue skies. There is nothing like stepping outside on a beautiful day and looking up at an almost sapphire blue sky. Maybe it’s the backdrop of medieval, sand colored buildings that contrast with the sky and give the blue its rich, deep tones. Whatever the cause, it’s simply beautiful.

Bar Culture

I love bars in Spain. This might lead you to believe that I love parties and drinking and clubs. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is exactly why I love bars in Spain.

They are laid back, even ones that look fancy and very refined, and welcoming to people of all generations — children, sure, abuelitos, of course.

I love that bars are a social gathering places for people to enjoy a nice drink and a bite to eat, to meet with friends and family, or to enjoy the company of people around them they might not know. It emphasizes what I love best about Spain — simple, but excellent food and drink, and wonderful company. Nothing fancy, but just perfect.

Quality food

Spanish food at its heart is simple. It uses fresh, local ingredients of the highest quality and focuses on dishes with straightforward ingredients and tastes. Traditional Spanish food is varies widely as it reflects the country’s regional diversity in climate, culture, and history.

For instance, the food in the southern region of Andalucia is very much influenced by the extremely hot, dry summers. Cold soups made from fresh tomatoes and cucumbers like gazpacho and salmorejo are so refreshing on a hot summer day and rely on fresh, local produce for their main ingredients.

The region of Extremadura and parts of the region of Andalucia in the south are known for raising the best, acorn-fed Iberian ham in the world. Asturias, one of the northern coastal regions, is famous for cider and cheese. Galicia, the most northwest region, just above Portugal, is known for incredible seafood. The central region of Castilla y Leon is produces some of the country’s best cured meats, called embutidos.

The olives that grow in several regions but most notably in the South are used to make some of the best olive oil in the world.

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An olive tree in Southern Spain

Best of all is that quality, fresh food, including wonderful fruits and vegetables, is affordable and accessible both in local markets, grocery stores, and at bars and restaurants. This means that eating well and valuing fresh food is something cuts across the spectrum of Spanish society.

History, Art, Architecture 

It’s hard to even know where to begin with this one. Spain has an incredibly rich history, from the Phoenicians and the Romans, to the Moors, and the influence of Catholicism. This is reflected in art and architecture throughout the country.

The whimsical architecture of Gaudi is Barcelona is unique, colorful, and known around the world.

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Casa Mila, an example of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona

The south of Spain is filled with stunning architecture built by the Moors.  The Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita, or the Mosque, in Cordoba are among the most famous works of Moorish architecture in Spain.

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An interior courtyard with a typical Moorish pool in the Alambra in Granada

 

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Gardens and fountain at the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba
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The famous mezquita or mosque in Cordoba

The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia was completed at the end of the first century and used into the 19th century and is very well preserved. It’s a great example of the remains and influences of the Roman Empire in Spain.

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Spain abounds with gothic cathedrals and beautiful, smaller churches.

Spain has some of the top art museums in the world. Madrid is home to three of the best art museums in Europe frequently referred to as the Golden Triangle of Art because of their close proximity to one another —

  • The Prado home to Las Meninas and the black paintings of Goya along with works for many non-Spaniards, including the Garden of the Earthly Deights, by Heronomous Bosch, my all-time favorite work of art;
  • The Reina Sofia houses Picasso’s Guernica, arguably one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, other works by Picasso, and pieces by Joan Miro, Juan Gris,  René Magritte, and Alexander Calder among others;
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza whose collection includes Dutch and English masters like and impressionist and post-impressionist works by artists like Monet, Renoir, Degas all the way to Dali, Chagall, Magritte and Rothko.

Love of children

Spaniards love children and expect that children will be everywhere. What do I mean by this?

There are no spaces where children are off-limits. For instance, it would be unthinkable to have a wedding that children are not invited to. No one minds if a parent has to stand up and walk around a church a bit with a finicky child in the middle of a ceremony. Everyone understands that this is normal for kids and it’s just a part of life. During wedding receptions or other formal events, it is common to see babies napping in their baby carriages over in the corner.

You see children in restaurants of all types, in bars with their parents, running around late at night during the summer, and basically all of the places you see adults.

Everything is inter-generational

Old people, like children, are also everywhere! In bars, on benches, taking the metro, walking around just like everyone else. While there are retirement homes for older people who need special care, most older Spaniards live independently in apartments, at least as long as they are able to.

My abuelos, who are in their late 80s and early 90s, live in a small, but bustling city. This means that they go grocery shopping, walk the dog, go the bar downstairs for breakfast. While they move at a slower pace than they used to, they and lots of older people like them across the country, are an integral part of a city’s life. This is great for them and their social connectivity and it’s great for everyone else who sees every phase of life represented around them.

Family and Friends are Everything

For me, this is perhaps the height of quality through simplicity. For Spaniards, there is nothing more luxious or important than spending time, lots of time, with family and friends.

On weekends, it’s common for extended families who live near each other to gather for hours long meals. For people who don’t live close to family, gathering with friends over meals is common. This happens regularly, not just to celebrate birthdays, holidays, or special occasions.

Physical Geography

Last, but certainly not least, Spain is a physically beautiful country. The geography is also extremely varied and diverse.

Spain is surrounded on every side (except for it’s border with Portugal) by water and has some stunning beaches. The beaches range from turquoise inlets on the Ballearic islands, to rugged beaches on the Atlantic north coast, to the long, stunning beaches of the South.

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A cala, or inlet, on the island of Mallorca

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Picos de Europa, Northern Spain

In between, Spain’s Castilla y León region has the flat open plains, the region of Andalucia in the south has stunning olive groves, and

As you can see, I got carried away describing the 10 things I love best about Spain.

While it’s certainly impossible to see everything on one trip to Spain, with a well planned and customized trip, it is very possible to experience a real slice of Spanish life and to see and appreciate all of these things and to even develop your own list!