Spain – I didn’t know very much about it, other than Tapas and Paella. When I saw a $400 Norwegian Air round trip from Los Angeles to Barcelona, I simply couldn’t say no to a spontaneous adventure!
Date: October 28th to November 6th
Day 1: Arrive in Barcelona
Day 2: Barcelona
Day 3: Barcelona
Day 4: Barcelona
Day 5: Train to Madrid at 11 am
Day 6: Madrid
Day 7: Bus to Granada at 9 am
Day 8: Granada
Day 9: Alhambra, Bus to Madrid at 5 pm
Day 10: Madrid
DAY 1-2 | BARCELONA
Arrival in Barcelona
After landing at the airport, we took the Aerobus to Barcelona city center (Pl. Catalunya) for €5.90 each. They’re right outside of the terminal, very easy to find. From the bus stop, it was a 10-minute walk to 360 Hostel Barcelona Arts&Culture.
The hostel is centrally located, close to a subway station, and within walking distance to most of the attractions. However, since it’s in an old building right on top of the subway line, it rattles and shakes every time a subway passes by.
Casa Batllo: Barcelona is full of architectures that Antoni Gaudí dreamed up, and Casa Batllo is among the most famous ones. One interesting thing about Spain’s many tourist attractions is that you need to buy tickets online in advance to avoid long lines at the ticket window.
Bunkers del Carmel: A small hike in the early afternoon to the concrete platforms that were once the anti-aircraft defense line from Spanish Civil War. A perfect place to enjoy a gorgeous panoramic view of Barcelona (and a picnic perhaps).
El Mirador del Carmelo: On the way down from the Bunkers, we came upon this local’s spot. Grab some generously priced fresh seafood tapas and a cold beer to cool off after the afternoon hike.
Tapeo: A slightly more upscale tapas bar in the El Born neighborhood, which is known for its many hip restaurants — visit if you want to avoid the tourist traps on the main streets. The honey eggplant/aubergine and foie gras burger were the best tapas we had on our entire trip!
DAY 3 | BARCELONA
Barcelona Cathedral: A beautiful ornate Gothic cathedral in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. Visit before noon on a weekday for free entrance.
Can Paixano (La Xampanyeria): A standing-room-only tapas bar, hidden in a small side street along the coast, packed with office workers socializing during lunch hours. Order some affordable yummy chorizos and pink cava, then join the crowd.
Park Güell: Another Gaudí site, a park that is unlike any other you’ve visited, full of colorful mosaic tiles and fairytale-like sandcastles. The Monumental Core area is not very big, so it’s timed entrance only. Definitely buy tickets online in advance to avoid unnecessary wait time.
Casa Lolea: A lovely little restaurant with unique tapas and a variety of house-made sangrias. I especially love their sangria blanca – fresh, fruity, and super yummy.
DAY 4 | BARCELONA
La Sagrada Familia: This Catholic cathedral was the last Gaudí sight on our trip, and the most famous and majestic of them all. Even though it’s still a work-in-progress, the beauty of this extremely detailed architecture left us in awe. In fact, it’s so epic that it’s hard to know what to focus on, so I highly recommend reserving the audio tour or guided tour tickets online beforehand.
Churreria Laietana: The freshest churro and porras (thicker and more doughy), cooked right in front of you! Different from the Mexican churros, these smaller and shorter fried doughs are sprinkled with cane sugar, then dipped in rich hot chocolate.
Mercado de La Boqueria: Located on the busy shopping street La Rambla, I was expecting it to be like all the other so-called historic markets in touristy cities – full of overpriced and colorful eye candies catered towards tourists. Partially, I was right; however, I was pleasantly surprised at one of the unique offerings here – fruit juices. A huge variety, and actually freshly made (the papaya was my favorite). Try to compare prices with different stands because the ones near the front tend to charge a bit more.
DAY 5-6 | MADRID
Traveling from Barcelona to Madrid
This is probably the busiest route in Spain, which provides many different travel options: plane, train, or bus.
We chose the train, even though airfare is surprisingly cheaper than train tickets. However, the train stations are much closer to the respective city centers than the airports, and connect easily to the subway. Plus, less stress with lines at security checkpoints.
There are lots of different types of trains for this route on the Renfe website. The AVE (high speed rail) train ride was about 2.5 hours, and it cost us €55 each. Generally, the earlier you book the tickets, the cheaper it is; so definitely book online in advance.
Sungate One: I can’t say enough good things about this hostel! Instead of the usual hostel bunk beds, they provide comfy twin beds for everyone, with a nightstand and a locker for your belongings. All the little touches add so much for a comfy stay. I truly wish that more hostels could be like this. Plus, free breakfast and dinner!
La Bicicleta Cycling Cafe: After a series of packed days in Barcelona, we were ready for some down time in Madrid. This cafe in the bohemian neighborhood Malasana is a great place to relax and enjoy some coffee.
Royal Palace of Madrid: To be honest, we didn’t actually go inside, because when we got there, the line was insanely long. Lesson here: always book tickets online. Even if you don’t plan to go inside, the outside garden area is still a fun place to explore and do some people watching.
Mercado San Miguel: A market near Plaza Mayor, similar to the one in Barcelona, but a lot smaller and more expensive. It was still nice to walk through, but if you’re planning to buy food and drink, I’d recommend Mercado de La Boqueria more.
DAY 7-8 | GRANADA
Traveling from Madrid to Granada
Granada has no high-speed rail yet, so a bus ride takes the same amount of time as a train, but is more flexible. There are many different bus companies, and we used Alsa, the largest one in Spain.
The bus ride was about 5 hours. En route to Granada we had a “Premium class” bus, which had much wider seats and legroom, food and beverages, and a bathroom on the bus! It was such a luxurious bus experience compared to the “Normal class” (sans bathroom) ride back. Even though the ticket was about twice as expensive (€35 for one way), it was well worth it in my opinion.
Mirador de San Miguel Alto: A small lookout point, a bit off the beaten path, but offers a spectacular view for the city of Granada and the Alhambra in distance. You’ll see some cave houses along the way, which have been Gypsy homes for many centuries.
Arab Quarter: Full of tea houses and hookah lounges, with dim lighting and sweet aromas. A nice place to rest off your feet and enjoy Moroccan tea.
Flamenco Show: Granada is known for their flamenco shows. There are two types: on a stage, or in a cave. Though the cave variety in Sacromonte neighborhood is more traditional and picturesque, usually you do have to sit against the wall forming a circle, while the performers dance in the center. Ideally, everyone should have a good view, but realistically, since the cave is often ellipse-shaped, people tend to lean forward, which could block your view when the dancer is on the opposite side of the cave. Anyway, if you’ve never experienced a flamenco show, you should definitely give it a try and you’ll enjoy it no matter what.
Tapas Bars: All the tapas bars in Granada share one amazing rule: with every drink purchase, they give you a tapa on the house – this could be some grilled meat on bread, marinated olives, braised beans, or a plateful of paella. Skip dinner, just walk around picking any bar you like — it will be the best pub crawl ever!
DAY 9 | ALHAMBRA
Getting tickets for the Alhambra – you’ll start hearing this once you decide to include Granada on your itinerary – is extremely difficult, especially to the Nasrid Palaces. Beware, The official website is very unwieldy, and simply Googling “Alhambra tickets” will return many third party websites.
So, after some intensive research, I have summarized several ways to get tickets for the Alhambra. If you plan ahead, you should be able to get them.
- Online tickets: sold on the official ticket sale site. Tickets do run out very quickly, so once you decide on the dates you’ll be visiting Granada, book these tickets immediately.
- Guided tour: also sold on the official site, definitely the most expensive, but worth it if you prefer to have a guide in the (gigantic) park.
- Granada Card: a bit more expensive, but includes admission to several other attractions. So if you’re already planning to visit those places, it could be worth it to check it out.
- Last minute tickets: here is the secret – the official ticket sale site releases a number of tickets every night (a little bit after midnight) for the next day. Test it out for a few days to verify that it still works, and get familiar with the system interface. Make sure you have booking information (passport/ID) from all members in your group ready.
- In person: the final method is to wait in line in person, as a last resort. It is recommended to get there before 8am, but it really depends on the day. So if you’re staying in Granada for more than two days, definitely come here the first day in case you can’t score a ticket, you still have another chance the next day. There are two lines for getting tickets: one is for the ticket office (cash only), the other is for the ticket machine (credit card only). The machine is usually a lot quicker.
The Alhambra is HUGE. Remember that your scheduled time on the ticket is for Nasrid Palace, and it’s about a 15-minute walk from the main entrance. So prepare accordingly.
Their audio tour was not very well written or recorded (at least for the English and Chinese versions). Without much prior knowledge about the history, the very long, very dense paragraphs in the audio tour were hard to follow. We completely ignored them after just a few sections. If you want to know more about the background of the Alhambra, a guided tour might be a better choice.
DAY 10 | MADRID
Retiro Park: My favorite place in Madrid! Its ultra clean and symmetrical organization satisfies all my fantasies for a European park. Palacio de Cristal is a glass and brass structure in the park that were once a greenhouse, but are currently used for art exhibits.
La Tragantúa: All over spain, restaurants offer menu del dia for weekday lunches, a super affordable way to enjoy a full service meal – often including soup/salad, main course, wine, dessert and coffee. Close to Prado Museum, this restaurant offers an option slightly more expensive than usual, but the quality is the best we had. Their pork chop was so tender and flavorful!
El Mesón del Champiñón: A famed tapas bar in the center of Madrid, with specialty dishes such as grilled mushroom and fried Padrón peppers.
Reservations, as I mentioned several times already, are extremely important in Spain, both for restaurants and attractions. We noticed that the first day we arrived in Spain – people even make reservations for a weekday lunch. It doesn’t have to be days in advance, even a few hours could help you score a table for a popular restaurant.
Dinner peak hour in Spain starts at 9pm, while lunch hour is 2-4pm. As odd as it seems, you get used to it quickly. Plan for a full morning of activities, and when you’re done, it’s usually early afternoon. A long and satisfying “menu del dia” lunch followed by a relaxing afternoon walk (or siesta!), then get ready for dinner (which is typically a lighter meal) with tapas and drinks.
See my continuous adventure to Italy here!