In this post: Are you considering a Spain vacation? Here are 3 diverse places to visit for a well-rounded first time trip to Spain.⇒
I know not everyone is ready to travel.
Between murky and confusing Covid protocols and the sticker shock of rising airfares, my recent post about a relaxing ‘staycation’ may have hit closer to your personal target.
Believe me, I get it. The lead up to this trip filled me with plenty of anxiety. But I’m so glad we went anyway! After 2 years of being moored to the dock, I felt like a boat that needed to get back out to sea.
First Time Trip to Spain
So today I’m sharing my personal experience of a first trip to Spain, with tips and recommendations for a variety of styles of travel.
This post will be quite photo heavy, so to keep it a reasonable length, I’ve combined some of the images in collages. It took a great deal of restraint to edit down to even this number of pictures… 🙂
Let me start by saying that despite the fact that I’d never been to Spain before, I’ve traveled fairly extensively in Europe, so I have a pretty good idea of what I prefer when traveling. I’m also keenly aware that my favorite trips tend to be centered around the Mediterranean, which informed the basis of our itinerary.
With that in mind, and knowing that it’s not possible to cover an entire country in two weeks, I had to make some decisive choices when it came to determining our itinerary. Here are the factors I considered:
- Our style of travel is to combine touring with relaxing, with an emphasis on relaxing. The impetus for the trip was a desire to spend time in Marbella.
- The city I most wanted to see was Barcelona, both for the architecture and because we have friends there.
- I prefer to pick fewer places and spend at least several days in the locations, rather than seeing more cities and spending only a day or two in each.
For these reasons we chose to start in Barcelona, then move on to Marbella and then finish up in Madrid.
It might have made more sense to fly into Madrid and take the train to Seville, Cordoba and Granada before relaxing in Marbella, and if you’re the type to tick off lots of cities, I would certainly recommend that. But both our style of travel and my desire to see Barcelona counseled our decision to do it this way.
On the whole, Barcelona is a quintessential European city centered around a colorful old town with winding streets and pretty squares, that expands outward into grand boulevards and lush green parks.
Yet at the same time, it owes its unique character to two key distinctions. The first is its beachfront location and the second is its almost funhouse-like flavor, attributable to the iconic architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to ignore any of these defining aspects. Barcelona is more than just Gaudi, but Gaudi’s influence cannot be overstated.
For my pace, 4 days is perfect in Barcelona. You could do it in less, if you move from sight to sight a lot faster than I do, but for me, sitting at a cafe overlooking the square people-watching can be an afternoon’s activity. You could also spend more time if you want to really get to know the city.
In any case, be sure to cover these 4 must-see high points
The Gothic Quarter and its surrounding area (El Raval and El Born) comprises the old city and, for me, this was a highlight. I would suggest doing it on your first full day there to get a good sense of the city.
This is where you’ll find those lovely winding European streets and proper squares, as well as the Cathedral de Barcelona, several historic government buildings, remnants of the old city wall and a host of charming shops and cafes.
Take a break for a coffee on the Plaça Reial, stroll leisurely along Las Ramblas and wind your way down to the water for a view of the Mirador de Colom.
We found a wonderful antique market in front of the Cathedral and there are wonders to see at every turn, including the Pont del Bisbe which resembles Venice’s Bridge of Sighs.
When you’ve walked enough, the neighborhood borders the Parc de la Ciutadella, where you can enjoy the ornate fountain in the photo, up above.
Just north of the Barri Gòtic is an upscale neighborhood called Eixample, with grand boulevards and stunning facades with gorgeous architectural detailing. Along the Passeig de Gràcia, a shopper’s paradise, you’ll also find some of the city’s most compelling examples of modernist architecture, particularly Gaudi’s Casa Batlló and Casa Milo.
If time is short, you might visit only one, but they’re close to each other and each exceptionally unique. Buy tickets in advance to avoid the lines and take the audio guide to go at your own pace.
These Gaudi masterpieces were designed as residential homes, but I assure they are unlike any home that you’ve ever seen before.
If you had only one day in Barcelona I’d tell you to visit the next two sights. These are both must-sees.
So, do take a taxi out of the center of town to visit Park Güell. You will get a clear picture of Gaudi’s aesthetic and purpose, plus stunning views overlooking the city. Take the guided tour and get there a half hour early to leave time to find your guide.
La Sagrada Familia
The second can’t-miss sight is La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s breathtaking cathedral that is not yet completed. There are many iconic places one can see in photos that, when you get there, in person, look exactly as you expected. Unlike those, La Sagrada Familia will take your breath away. Up close and personal it’s way more imposing, but also utterly exquisite.
Again I would recommend the guided tour. It’s just under an hour and makes the visit so much more worthwhile.
Where to Stay
You’ll want to be located near the center of town, so you can walk the Gothic Quarter and to most of the sights and restaurants. We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel that I highly recommend, called the Cotton House Hotel. It’s a Marriott property, so you can use your points, but has the character of a small local hotel.
As engaging a city as Barcelona is, after 4 days of touring, we were ready for a rest.
Marbella, from the start, was the main event, and it did not disappoint. With whitewashed buildings set against a clear blue sky, and vivid flora enriched by the blazing sun, the entire town was a cacophony of color.
It was a short flight from Barcelona into Málaga, the closest airport, and we then took a hotel car for the 35 minute ride to the property.
We opted to do this portion of our trip in grander style, selecting a luxury resort on the beach with a variety of restaurant options. To call it paradise is an understatement and we knew pretty much immediately that we’d want to extend our stay. (We added an extra day to this portion of our trip, totaling 5 nights.)
Puente Romano Beach Resort
The Puente Romano Beach Resort is an upscale property spread out on a stunning piece of land extending from the sea up to the main road. Exquisitely landscaped and decorated impeccably, this was a delightful place to settle in and relax for the middle segment of our journey.
A good bit of our time was spent at beach or pool, and we allowed ourselves to bask in the atmosphere of peace and tranquility. After a day or two of lolling around we were ready to break out and explore.
The Old Town
Marbella’s Old Town is a veritable jewel box of a town, reminiscent of the South of France or the Greek Islands. Meandering narrow streets lined with colorful boutiques and cafes, with a few enchanting churches thrown in for good measure, they open up on a handful of squares built around fountains and other focal points.
Lush with rich fuchsia bougainvillea peeking over balconies and spilling out of cobalt pots, the town’s aura was utterly captivating. I happened upon a wonderful antique shop that offered authentic wares to take home and treasure.
At the other end of Marbella’s Golden Mile, is the opulent enclave of Puerto Banus. We walked to this yacht filled marina along the beach promenade and, upon arrival, were treated to a sumptuous display of luxury cars and other trappings of ultimate extravagance. This is an active area for dinner or drinks and well worth a visit.
As all visits to paradise must come to an end, we eventually prepared to leave for our next and final stop, the capital city of Madrid. We took the AVE train from Málaga, a super easy and quick way to travel and wound up in central Madrid in less than 2 1/2 hours.
I have to admit, I wasn’t that excited about leaving our beach oasis for the sweltering city and so my expectations were low, and perhaps that’s the best way to arrive in a new city. As it turns out, Madrid was far more beautiful than I expected.
A bigger city than Barcelona with crowds and traffic, I was surprised to find the dignified buildings to be blessed with meticulous, ornate details and an air of stately elegance. This is a serious city that feels important, yet its beauty caught me by surprise.
We had only allowed ourselves a day and a half to see the city, as we had extended our time in Marbella, and for us that was perfect. If you enjoy spending time in grand museums, Madrid had some of the best of them, and you might need a full day for that alone.
But we, instead, preferred to walk around outdoors and get a feel for the city from that vantage point. It turns out even Madrid has a tightly woven downtown area with small cobbled streets and color to spare. This is always my favorite part of any European city and the wonderful Plaza Mayor, above, is a delightful square to have a coffee or a bite and watch the world go by.
A good bit more spread out than Barcelona, Madrid’s points of interest are not as centrally located. There is no waterfront or river that the city is built around, and while there’s a clear downtown, things are not oriented in a particular direction.
At the east end you have El Retiro Park, with a string of museums that runs along a nearby boulevard. The Puerta de Alcalá, a triumphal arch, acts as a sort of gateway to this area.
There are myriad architectural gems and monuments scattered about the city, from the wedding-cake like Palacio de Cibeles and the various arched entryways into the Plaza Mayor, to the lovely pink-washed Iglesia de San José and the statues that pepper the park-like space across from the Palacio Real.
At the west end of the city center is where you’ll find the magnificent Palacio Real. If you’d like to tour the palace, you can buy tickets in advance to skip the line and experience first hand the largest functioning royal palace.
Facing the Palacio Real is the Catedral de la Almudena, a baroque Catholic cathedral famed for its colorful chapels. The entire Plaza de la Armería, which joins the palace and the cathedral, is an impressive reminder that Madrid is a royal city.
Where to Stay
I found the city to be quite dramatic and often felt like I’d walked into a Buñuel film, with dizzying spiral staircases and dark bronze everywhere, including at our hotel, The Principal Madrid, a luxurious boutique hotel with rooftop terrace, well located right off the Gran Vía.
This diverse trip to Spain was a terrific introduction to a country I hope to return to again and again. Its culture and its beauty has a way of seeping into your bones.
I’m eager to see the Andalusian cities of Seville, Córdoba and Granada, as well as the Basque Country with its world-renowned restaurants of San Sebastián. Then there’s Majorca and Ibiza and so much more.
If you haven’t been to Spain, I urge you to book a trip now. There’s something for everyone and it will delight you and surprise you and still be with you long after you return home.
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