Spain is, without a doubt, one of the most popular tourist destinations worldwide. It's easily on every traveler's top 10 countries to visit. Why wouldn't it be? Ask 100 random people the first thing that comes to mind when they hear "Spain." What do you hear?
That's right, food and dance. What's not to love?
Of course, one could say the same thing about any Mediterranean/Iberian country such as Greece or Italy (Italy post coming soon! Pictures included of course).
Now, I've been traveling my entire life and there hasn't been a single destination I've stepped foot on where I haven't been asked if I've visited Spain yet. After all, I've gone to Morocco many times (specifically Tangier. You know, the closest city to Spain that also includes a 30 minute ferry ride over), therefore it would've been nothing to jump on a small boat and sail to Tarifa. Right?
Yes, right. Alas, better late than never.
However, I am very glad I spent my first time in Spain with lifelong friends. It was the first time there for all of us so we got to share a significant life experience together. After all, this was the post-academic career trip that we promised we'd take right after graduating high school just a few years before, so it better be amazing.
Like I mentioned before, food and dance. If nothing else, that would be enough to get five guys on the first flight over. (Or I should say, the first affordable flight over.)
Of course, before the actual trip we have the planning phase. I was primarily tasked with this and in doing this, along with my previous trips, I've learned a decent amount about finding the right fights, trains, airbnb's, and routes to take. Albeit making a few mistakes along the way, but hey, what's travel without something to keep life dange....interesting? Expect a whole separate post about this in the near future.
So many questions here paired with so many hours deciding what our destinations would be. We only had eight solid days to enjoy as much as possible. Spain is filled with so many must-see sites and cities within all 17 major regions that 8 days (nor 8 weeks for that matter) would be enough to see it all. Along with that, I've got to balance the wishes of all five of us and prioritize them.
Not to mention finding the optimal permutation of routing, pricing, value, etc... To the power of five, as well.
We've decided that the two must-sees are Madrid and Sevilla. (How could five nerdy guys miss Dorne and Naboo.) And since we land AND leave from Madrid, that pretty much restricts us to the south.
Andalucia. Or Al-Andalus for my Arabic speakers.
Since we are going for such a short time, we decided against day trips (to my disdain) to legendary smaller towns such as Granada, Cordoba, Ronda, etc. I persuade myself to forego those towns for two reasons:
We don't want to encumber ourselves with too much to do. After all, we're there to enjoy as much as we can. Seeing as much as possible is not necessarily the same as enjoying as much as possible.
This will definitely not be my last time visiting Spain, I promise myself.
Just for the sake of closing out the summer with a bang, we wanted to add a beach day or two. That means Malaga will be our third and final city before we head back to Madrid, and shortly after, Newark.
Two days in Madrid, three days in Seville, two days in Malaga, and finally, one last night in Madrid.
My first (and last) impression of Madrid would soon be my impressions of the country as a whole. This was the city we would both land in and depart from, which means we get a few days to explore as well as one more night at the end to say our proper goodbyes.
We stayed at an AirBnb that was conveniently located within reasonable walking distance to Centro and the train station. We landed midday so that means arrive at the AirBnb, drop off our bags, then run off to the sites. Typically what I like to do when I first arrive to a new city is to wander around aimlessly and take in what I can. The museums, parks, and tours can wait until tomorrow, it's time to explore.
Reasons I do this:
Who knows what you will find that's not listed somewhere online? You can make a note of it and come back later.
You can get a good feel of the city just by walking around and seeing what you can see.
Who knows who you might meet!
Another thing I usually do when I want to explore a city is to head for the center first. I've noticed that a lot of cities, especially in Europe, have a centrally located plaza that is attractive to tourists. It may or may not be boring, but why not check it out and then plan the next stop after?
Coming from New York City, there aren't really that many cities that simulate the fast-paced and loud nature that I've become used to. Surprisingly, some of my first impressions of Madrid include similarities to New York. At least around the center it was like one big Tribeca. Cobblestone streets, cool store fronts, and of course, lots of tourists.
It's pretty much impossible to see everything in Madrid in such a short trip. Especially if you neglect to plan anything and just wing it upon arrival, as we did. (I will definitely write about the advantages and disadvantages of doing this in the future).
However, I think we made the most of our visit to Madrid.
One thing I've noticed in my travels is that most major cities have a big park. I should honestly start an instagram where I feature these parks.
For those familiar with New York City, Retiro Park is essentially a much smaller Central Park meets the Third Task from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Except that it's essentially pitch black at night. (Much like the Maze in the Third Task I guess)
The park features beautiful statues, gardens, a hedge maze, and even a lake! Along with that, some cool buildings that I regret, for the sake of this post, I didn't get to explore. You know what makes up for it? Cats. Yes, there were cats everywhere. 🐈 Hope that is as much of a plus for you as it was for me.
In the end, it's pretty much like any other park but I like to walk around these things as a way to wind-down and take a mental break from all the excitement within the town.
Verdict? Good park 👍
As I mentioned before, I typically head to the center of each city I visit first in order to get a feel for the neighborhood and familiarize myself with the path from the center to the apartment I'm staying at. In my case, from Centro to Calle Olivar, which ends up being around 10-15 minutes on foot.
Similarly to what I said about parks, pretty much every major city I've visited has a central square. We can add Puerta del Sol to our list.
It pretty much checks off all items that make a town square historic...
Cool statue located in the middle
People walking around selling you stuff (we had an interesting run in with a gentleman that turned into a lesson learned for travel)
Over-priced restaurants/tourist traps
Not much to see here but definitely worth checking out. If nothing else, it's an excellent meeting place. In my group of five, we had one working phone and two sets of keys. If we get separated for any reason, meet at Puerta del Sol by the on-brand "man-on-horse" statue. This plan has served me well in Belgium, Spain, Holland, etc.
Need to find some typical touristy souvenirs? Check this place out.
Want to hear some free live music at night? Check this place out.
Hop on a free walking tour? Check this place out!
Personally, we may have expected more. We're pretty much used to fifth avenue in Manhattan, which in itself is hard to top, and Gran Vía was pretty much a smaller version of that. Shops and restaurants left and right, along with an endless stream of tourists and commuters.
Nevertheless, it's definitely worth checking out! The buildings are beautiful and are reminiscent of an older Madrid while also having that unmistakable European feel to it. At least to a group of Americans like us.
We discovered that some of the best places to eat, including the ones I will mention below, are around this area. There are some cool looking rooftops, tapas bars, and restaurants surrounding Gran Vía. Excellent spot to start your night out in Madrid! Make sure you check out a lot of the small surrounding streets as well.
Bust out those cameras, and step out of the way when taking a photo. (Do this in Manhattan too, please)
Have you ever wondered if those night clubs they show in movies like John Wick exist? You know, that amazing scene where (spoiler alert) Keanu Reeves chases Theon Greyjoy through a large crowd of dancing people while his gunshots get muted by the intense sound of the music? Imagine that times seven. Yup, it's seven floors of movie-aesthetic nightclub featuring electronic music with a retro twist. Plus some amazing technical features such as lights, giant screens, and even a huge smoke machine?
Native Madridians(?) probably scoff at me for recommending this place for a night out as it is definitely a spot where a lot of international students and visitors go. We've spoken with people from all around the world at this place. (Rude German dude, if you're reading this, we won't forget you)
There's not much I can say other than check this place out if you like to dance.
In addition to my many points that I make about traveling to a new country, I always try to see at least one museum before I leave. This time I decided to do it early.
Word on the street there are Picassos at the Sofía. This interests us. Not gonna lie, none of us are art enthusiasts, but when in Madrid?
This museum is located just around the corner from the train station and one of the many Cien Montaditos locations. You know what means? We stumbled into the museum just because it was on the way back home. To top it all, we were surprised that it was completely free to enter! We believe this was because we entered in the early afternoon.
Absolutely beautiful pieces from all around to world to see, even to five non-art-enthusiasts such as ourselves.
Whether you want to enter to see a specific artist (in our case, Picasso), or if you want to see everything, the museum is just big enough to dedicated a whole day if you like while also giving you the ability to head in very quick to escape the heat.
Also, and unlike the Met in Manhattan, it's incredibly easy to navigate without a map.
Our primary goal for our trip to Spain was to eat anything and everything. There were two places that stuck out that provided the three essentials:
(I've avoided calling them the "Three D's" for both of our sakes)
Before you go, make sure you enter the right one...We went here on our first night in Spain, then we tried to return here on our last night. Turns out on the last night we entered a duplicate El Tigre just a couple doors down.
Even though they offer very similar options, the second location wasn't as cozy.
Regardless, for just 5 euros you get a half pint and what seemed like an endless supply of various tapas. I highly recommend this place as a must-eat if you are on a budget, or not!
Slight warning: not a lot of English speakers here. In my opinion, that's a bonus! All you need to know is "more, please!"
We were recommended Cien Montaditos multiple times as it is a Spanish staple for quick tapas. We went here for both a whole meal, and as a quick break from sight-seeing many times throughout our trek around the country.
As the name suggests, there are over a hundred options as well as plenty of combo options to choose from. Think fast-tapas! Each option being just a Euro which, if you're not careful, can add up when you start reading the menu. How could you not want pretty much everything on the menu? And, as stated before, we wanted to try anything and everything.
I regret that I do not remember my favorite options but I can assure you that you won't need too much trial and error to find what you like. Of course, I recommend you just scale the list and try everything!
Tips: We frequented the location across from Estación de Atocha. It's a great places to kill some time when waiting for a train. Try to avoid going at around 12 PM as it gets absolutely packed. It usually clears out around 1 PM. It's also conveniently located near some of the must-see spots mentioned above.
If you skipped the wall of text above, here's a TLDR:
Art, music, dance, food....cats?
Madrid is an amazing city and I couldn't recommend it more when visiting Spain. I hope you enjoyed my take on it and plan your visit soon.
Thank you for reading