I'm going to Spain! What should I do there?

For my first grown up vacation at my new grown up job, I’ve decided to go to Spain. I’m taking the first two weeks of Ocober off, spending a few days in NYC, and then flying to Madrid. I fly out of Barcelona a week and a half later, and I have essentially zero plans in between. I studied architecture, and I’m enough of a nerd to want to visit some Calatrava and Gaudi works, but otherwise I don’t know much about Spain. I am quite fond of train rides, I’m a huge foodie, and I like to swing dance and sail (although I’m perfectly happy not to indulge those hobbies), and I tend to avoid the touristy places; I prefer my travel photos to be of urban decay and/or deserts (although for Gaudi I’ll make an exception). So I turn to you, O Dopers, to fill me in on the juiciest. Where to?

You say you’re a foodie so you like to eat, right?


Sevilla and Madrid

For Barcelona, you have lots of Gaudí and similar materials nearby. Get a pass for one of the hop-off hop-on buses and visit Sagrada Familia (then walk up Passeig Gaudí to Hospital de Sant Pau, by Doménech i Muntaner), Parc Guell and all of Passeig de Gràcia (includes La Pedrera and Casa Batlló - both by Gaudí - as well as some by DiM and others). If you walk from Sagrada Familia to Passeig de Gràcia following Diagonal, you’ll go past Puig i Cadalfach’s Casa de les Punxes (House of Sharp Points), which I used to think of as “the fairy tale castle” when I was little. You have tourist information offices in Sants train station, in Sagrada Familia square and in Plaça Catalunya (the ç is pronounced s).

Both Sitges (bring your towel, bathing suit optional, some tall ladies may not be - whichever floats your boat but take it into account) and Reus are reachable by train and have enough Modernisme to make any fan of the movement dizzy. Reus includes some Gaudí jobs, Sitges has some Doménech i Muntaner, a very nice art museum and an etnographic one which are worth visiting.

Run a search on posts with “Barcelona” by matt_mcl or myself, both of us love the place.

And from Madrid, take the commuter fast train for a day trip to Toledo. It’s one of the “three culture towns”: sinagogues, mosques, the cathedral, enough little curches to start getting confused if it wasn’t for the map, el Greco, the Army Museum, and gorgeous views.

Please distribute your money and documents in different spots; carry on hand enough to pay for tickets and a meal but not much more. When you sit down, make sure your jacket and any bags are held in place. Something as simple as putting your backpack/suitcase on the floor and using it to prop up your feet is a decent thief deterrent, compared with leaving it beside your chair.

Are you flying to BCN or to one of the satellites? If it’s to BCN, there are both trains and buses to the city; 10€ get you a T-10 and a bit of change. The T-10 is valid for many short-distance Renfe trains (not as far as Sitges or Reus), buses, subway and ferrocarrils de la generalitat: it’s a “combined ticket”, so for example once you’ve taken the train from BCN to the city, taking a bus or subway within half an hour will require using the ticket machine but it won’t spend a trip.

Do NOT go to Taller de Tapas in Rambla Catalunya unless you’re willing to risk some amazingly bad service. I went there with TomScud and Eva Luna last spring, and man, the food was good but the service is the current holder of Nava’s Prize For Lousy Service, having managed to be worse than the Hilton in Strasbourg (and that was back in 2002).

Some more sugestions for Madrid:

  • tours of El Madrid de los Austrias (Hapsburg Madrid) are very popular
  • El Prado of course :stuck_out_tongue:
  • which is on a side of El Retiro, which also includes the Botanic Gardens. The area around El Retiro has a ton of museums
  • if you want to watch a good show, go to Circo Price. Originally a circus and now classified as a theater, it still puts on shows rather than plays, stuff more reminiscent of Stomp or Cirque du Soleil than of Otello. Check out the pictures of tightrope walkers and acrobats in full evening dress.
  • if you’re feeling exotic, drop by the Temple of Debod. What’s an Egyptian temple doing in Madrid? It was a present. Some people give you a lousy T-shirt, some give you a whole temple.
  • if you prefer modern art to Velázquez (heretic!!!), Reina Sofía is the place to go.

I need to stop talking to myself :stuck_out_tongue: I think I’ve posted Segovia before.

Another possible day trip from Madriz, kapital of de Spéins: Segovia. The castle is one of the most-spectacular two in Spain (the other one being La Alhambra, which is a mite too far from your itinerary); if you go and don’t have height freight, check out the view from the top of the cliff and how tiny the templar hermitage there looks. And of course the Acqueduct and a bunch of medieval buildings, including some very interesting samples of civilian Gothic. Best place in Spain for roasted piglet. I don’t know about in your hand (it’s hot, so grabbing it should be done with care), but it comes as close to melting in your mouth as meat can.

Alcalá de Henares (Complutus in Latin) has one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Spain, the Complutense; many Renaissance buildings including the house where Cervantes was born. Oh, and being an architect, you may want to take a day trip to El Escorial - or not, depending on whether you like blocky, “more serious than a funeral” architecture. It’s not my favorite building but it was quite ground-breaking in its time.

Yeah! What she said + suckling pig.

What Nava said! She has covered all the important points, although I would add:

-For Barcelona, make sure to walk down the Ramblas from Plaça de Catalunya to the old Port (where they have a big statue of Columbus. Funny story: Columbus is depicted pointing out, supposedly towards the land that he stumbled upon. But he doesn’t point towards America – he is pointing out towards the Mediterranean! America is at the statue’s back. Obviously the Earth is round, but it looks weird… The reason apparently was that, although the people who put the statue up realized that Columbus should be pointing towards America, having him pointing INLAND looked rather strange, so they sacrificed geographical accuracy for having a cool-looking guy solemnly pointing towards the sea).

-Also in Barcelona, make sure to have a look at Monjuic, the olympic installations, and if you can, check out the show of the musical fountain near Plaça de Espanya, at the foot of Monjuic. Installed for the 1923 Universal Exposition, the fountains were restored for the Olympics and have almost nightly shows (at least during summer) with music, light and water. Very beautiful. The olympic area has a telecommunication tower designed by Calatrava. Very distinctive!

-Hi Opal!

-More Barcelona: If you can, go to Tibidabo (the “other” mountain next to Barcelona). To go up, catch the “Tramvia Blau” (Blue Tramway); it is a tram from 1900 (yes, the tram itself is more than 100 years old!) that will take you up Tibidabo. From there you have a GLORIOUS view of the whole of Barcelona.

-Madrid: If you like bizarro architecture, go to the end of Paseo de la Castellana and check the “Puerta de Europa” towers – two skyscrapers that lean towards each other at a 15° angle.

-Madrid: Make some time to visit the Atocha train station. They kept the structure of the 19th century station and transformed it into a tropical garden. Also sporting a pond that is home to a HUMONGOUS tribe of turtles. Apparently somebody set a few turtles free from their home aquarium in that pond. The rest is history.

There are more things, but I recommend what Nava said: Go to the tourist offices when you are there; they will tell you lots of stuff to do :slight_smile:

Enjoy your trip!!

But Columbus is not supposed to be pointing “towards America”. He’s supposed to be pointing the way he came, which as you say is not the direction in which America is closest.

When Columbus came back from his first trip, Isabel was in Barcelona (so was Ferdinand, but it wasn’t him Columbus had to speak with), so Columbus headed there ASAP to meet her. By sea, of course! Or at least, that’s the version I got of why Columbus points that way.

Be sure to have churros. And the Spanish jamon. The suckling pig is good, tender (but it could use a dry rub and some sauce). Sitges is a great beach town… by October the beaches will be very open but the weather should be perfect. You might like Flamenco… IMO it is awesome.

HERETIC!!! Hey, I like BBQ as much as the next girl, but cochinillo asado simply happens to be a different dish altogether.

so long as it doesn’t happen to be gota fría’s tail-end… great time to be indoors, gota fría… shhh, don’t tell the OP… (September-October is Barcelona’s rainy season. If you’re lucky, it won’t be raining. If you’re not, you’ll be wondering when did the sea go vertical)

I’ve been to Spain, and saw quite a bit. We flew into Madrid, rented a car and just drove, with no plans in place at all.

We ended up at the Costa del Sol area and it was by far my favourite: hot sun, beautiful beaches, cold cerveza. Paradise.

In some small spots we stopped no one spoke English, but we managed. Extremely friendly people.

With regards to Alhambra, I’m definitely thinking about a side trip; maybe Valencia (oh, lord, tr City of Arts and Science), maybe Seville (Metropol Parasol!!!), Cordoba, or Granada (for the fantastic Moorish architecture). Like I said, big fan of rail travel, so I don’t consider travel time a waste; probably won’t try to make more than one side trip, to avoid rushing, but Spain has (IMHO) some of the best architecture in Europe, and I gotta get in on some of that.

Hadn’t thought about renting a car; How complicated was that? I worry about not seeing as much as on a train, since you have to pay attention to driving, but the ability to stop anywhere would be nifty. I would like to spend at least part of my trip outside the big cities.

The problem with that side travel is that you go from “having enough time to see some things decently” to “if it’s Tuesday, we’re in Brussels”. Take a second trip to Andalusia some other time (preferably between October and March; don’t stay too many nights in Seville because the humidity from the floor is killer). Cordoba needs at least two days; Seville at least one and that’s seeing the bare minimum; Granada at least one and that barely gives you time to see the Alhambra (which requires a reservation in advance).

Visiting the Granja de San Ildefonso, we met a Mexican architect who’d won a grant to spend three months in Spain. After three months he’d called his partner, sold the partner his half of their firm, and was spending it all staying in Spain and seeing buildings. As he put it “you have ALL THIS in a space so much smaller than Mexico! Goth and gothic and romanic and templar and Greek and Roman and Iberian and neoclassic and baroque and renaissance and plateresco and herreriano and modernisme and…” We’re either an architect’s wet dream or the nightmare of an architect with Not Enough Time Syndrome.

Renting a car is a matter of going to a rental agency’s webpage in advance and making a reservation, or of going to their booth in an airport or train station and picking up a car. Your driver’s license and passport (or passport-equivalent document, for those whose countries have one) will be needed. If I were you, I wouldn’t do it until the day when you plan on driving: Barcelona’s traffic is deadly, but Madrid’s may be the worst in Spain - what’s called a “normal” driver in Madrid drives like other place’s cabbies. If you drive from Madrid to Cordoba, there’s a point where the exit signs mark exit on the right… on the right… on the right… and then the last one, and the only geographically-accurate one, is on the left! Also, I don’t remember where you’re from, but if you’re from anywhere in the Americas remember that there is NO turn on left here. And no three-point turns: in Spain those are considered “reckless driving endangering the lives of others”, if a cop sees you and can get you right then without killing a few drivers himself you’ll have a very, very nasty encounter.

As I recall, driving in Spain was no different than North America.

What does the above mean exactly? No turn on left? What’s a three point turn? A U turn?

Yes and no - in 2005, I managed to get same-day reservations for the Alhambra. Admittedly it was November; I wouldn’t try that in peak season.

Also rented a car in Andalucia in 2005; the rental agency didn’t care at all about my home state driver’s license, but they did want to see my international driving permit (which is a matter of taking your home state license and paying about $30, if memory serves, for a private company basically to take my state license, copy the info onto a multilingual form, and put an official-looking stamp on it).

I definitely second the idea of sticking to public transportation/cabs in large Spanish cities, but renting a car made it possible to see Granada, Cordoba, Marbella, Ronda, and points en route in les than a week (though if I’d had my druthers, I wouldn’t have done NEARLY that much driving). But yeah, Andalucia is a separate trip, really, if you don’t have much time.

Also keep in mind if you aren’t used to mountain driving that it can be pretty exhausting, especially inthe driving rain with no lights or guard rails, and not much to show you where the edge of the road is! There was one point where I pulled over to wait for the rain to stop because I was afraid we were going to careen off the road down 1,000 feet into the Med.

I’ve never been to Spain, but if I went, there are two things I’d definitely see:

1.) The aforementioned Alhambra

2.) The Prado. I’m a huge fan of Hieronymous Bosch, and some of the most famous of his are here.

Sorry, I should have said no right turns on red; early morn brainfart. And a three-point-turn is one I was ordered to perform on my first attempt at getting a US driver’s license, and got failed on account of not knowing what the heck it was (the examiner refused to tell me, nice feller): it’s like a T-turn, but instead of using a side road you use… the other side of a two-directions road :smack:

Step 1: turn 90º until your car is across the other side of the road.
Step 2: turn 90º in the opposite direction, so you’re now back in the original lane, but pointing the wrong way
Step 3: move to the correct lane as if you were finishing a pass.

Like I said, here it may not be the fastest way to lose every point, your license and any hope to get the license back (I think that requires actually injuring someone), but it’s a surefire way to have an encounter of the fifth kind with any cop that sees you.

The process to get an international license varies by country, Spanish licenses count as one for short periods. Last time I lived in the US I couldn’t get a US license (I would have needed to take 40h of driving lessons, despite having a still-valid license from another state, due to being a foreigner not from Germany or France; I didn’t take that many hours for my first license, and didn’t have the time for it), so I’d just rent a car whenever I needed one using my Spanish license.

In Barcelona, don’t miss the Palau de la Música Catalana. Both the exterior and the interior are outstanding. To see all of the interior you have to take a guided tour, but it’s so worth it. The auditorium has an inverted stained-glass dome and gorgeous statues of the muses, emerging from the walls surrounding the stage. The only disappointment is that you’re not allowed to take pictures. Oh, and contrary to what some people think, it was NOT designed by Gaudí.

And when you visit Sagrada Familia, take the little elevator to the top. You’ll see incredible views of the city, and of the other spires.

Getting the subway to Madrid and stepping out into the main square is a breath taking moment. Madrid is one of those places that feels like you have been there in a previous life, I got a similar feeling when I was on Santa Monica Pier but not as strong.

GO back a few blocks and look for small tapas bars that don’t seem to be trying too hard, they have real food and sangria. The first few places we tried tasted like draino with red food die and fruit salad, awful stuff!

I found that being relaxed about timing and itineries helped in Madrid!

Madrid is a magic place, my favorite place ever.

Stay away from an “Anglo areas” too many poms drinking warm beer and eating crap food! At some places we had to resort to carrying around some Tabasco sauce in our pockets to liven up the food!