Hola España! Highlights of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, Spain

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Bronzed, scantily clad bodies soaking up the sun on glittering beaches. One-of-a-kind architecture. Evenings spent feasting on tapas on an outdoor patio, before dancing the night away. What’s not to like about Spain?

It’s no wonder tourists flock here in droves (particularly as a city break from the UK), whether they’re looking for an art history lesson in Barcelona or prepping to party in infamous Ibiza. With so much to see, travellers could easily spend months in the country, lounging in San Sebastian, cruising the Canary Islands or taking a timeout in Granada. However, those without the luxury of being able to spend weeks away are wise to hit the main highlights.

Madrid

The capital of Spain is frankly, a typical capital city. Madrid is home to heaps of history, great art, beautiful old buildings and quaint plazas. No one comes to the city for vibrant night life or to sunbathe, but what it lacks in dazzling scenes it makes up for in culture. Located smack dab in the middle of the country, this is the place to see what makes Spain the country it is today.

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To get a good feel for the city, hop on a double-decker bus for a city tour. Fork over 21€ for a one-day pass or 25€ for the two-day option, and you can jump on and off of the bright red bus at multiple stops around the city—much easier than navigating subway lines.

The most popular site in the city is the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) where state ceremonies and other important events featuring VIPs take place.

It is not, however, where the King of Spain lives, so don’t bother trying to stalk any royalty! The massive square, stone complex takes over a few city blocks and also features a giant courtyard. Visitors should try and time their visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guard—an exercise in pomp and pageantry which happens every Wednesday at 11 a.m. (except from July-September). Admission to get inside the palace is 10€—although some days are free for EU citizens. The city also has a number of art galleries, including some featuring the works of Spain’s own Picasso.

If you happen to visit in July, get ready to shop! The summer month is the prime time to snap up deals, and there is no shortage of malls and boutiques ready to take your money. Bring a book, however, if you plan to buy anything, as the lineups to pay at the till can be horrendous. One other thing to note: if you happen to be a woman travelling alone, you likely won’t get many moments of solitude. I have never in my life been in a city where I was approached by so many men, to the point where once I was trying to read a book in a park and eventually had to give up and read inside. While super annoying, the attention it also has its perks—in the form of a few free glasses of wine from a friendly waiter at dinner!

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Barcelona

So, Barcelona is probably the sexiest city in the world. Like, seriously.

Let’s just say that when you can spend half your life working on your tan, it pays to have the body to go along with it—and most people here do. Expect to see gorgeous, confident women strolling along the water (likely without a top on) while guido-like men with slicked-back hair flex their pecs, looking on. Oh, and they’re only wearing a ‘banana-hammock.’

Yes, this is a common sight, but why would you plan a Barcelona city break if it wasn’t to people watch? Of course there is a lot more to do at the city’s famed water spots, which include Barceloneta and Icaria Beach. Both feature great artwork, a number of outdoor bars and cafes, a long boardwalk and lots of action—think beach volleyball, loud music and boats whipping back and forth. Try to stay in a hotel nearby, so you don’t have to subject yourself to a metro ride before hitting the sand.

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Truth be told, I was so satisfied with the offerings at both beaches that I hardly saw anything else in the city, but if you’re smart you’ll head into the city to take a peek at the world-famous Gaudi architecture. The artist’s works are admired around the globe for good reason: his buildings feature twisted iron sculptures, curved stones and coloured tile mosaics, which some rightfully describe as ‘warped gothic.’

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One of his most famous works is La Sagrada Familia, a church that to this day remains unfinished! Construction on the massive church started way back in 1882, and continues to be reworked by different architects. When it’s finally done, Sagrada Familia will have 18 towers. In the mean time, expect your photos to be full of construction cranes. Admission to the basilica (open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) costs about 15€, and paying a few extra bucks will get you into the towers as well. The Gaudi House Museum is also on the site, and costs 7€ to get in.

Another way to spend a day in the city is with a stroll down La Rambla, which is one of the world’s most famous boulevards. The roadway is lined with snap-happy tourists, artists, musicians and those human statues we all know and love. Grabbing a drink in one of the many outdoor cafes along the street will set you back more than normal, but it’s worth it for the view!

Now, a couple of warnings. First, keep a close watch on your valuables. I didn’t learn this one the hard way, thank goodness, but Barcelona is notorious for slick pickpockets, so take extra care while on public transit, in the airport or on the street. Second: public transit is not as easy here as it is in most countries around Europe. Expect a long wait in the hot sun for a bus, or a taxi driver who doesn’t speak much English and is just as confused about where your hotel is as you are.

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Valencia

After hopping on a train for the three-hour(ish) ride from Barcelona, you’ll pass fields full of bright yellow sunflowers before pulling into the city of Valencia. Visitors flock here to take in the extravagant architecture (more on that later) and the miles and miles of white sand beach, which are a real refuge from bustling city life.

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Valencia, located on the southeast coast of Spain, boasts several beaches both in and outside of city limits, easily accessible by public transit. Two of the most popular ones are near the port, called Playa de Malvarrosa and Playa e Levante o de la arenas.

Like most places in Spain the people here are not shy, so expect to see lots of topless sun seekers!

Some beaches even have nudist areas. You’re also likely to see a beach volleyball game or eight, so feel free to join in before hitting the surf to cool off.

The city definitely isn’t famous for its downtown, and to be honest there’s not a lot to see here, save for a few old buildings. Some tourists make a pit stop at the Silk Exchange (La Lonja de la Seda) which is a UNESCO landmark. The grand building was once home to the local silk trade, and the inside features massive curved pillars reaching up to intricate criss-cross beams on the roof. This is a great spot for photos, especially for architecture buffs.

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That being said, the most awe-inspiring buildings are those in the City of Arts and Sciences complex. The enormous, brilliant white buildings take up a number of city blocks, hosting a world-class aquarium, a science centre, opera house and an IMAX theatre, to name a few.

All of the structures look different yet have a cohesive design, featuring domes, lots of arches and glass. A visit to the aquarium is a fantastic way to spend the afternoon, which houses 500 species including those sleepy sea lions, playful dolphins, a number of bird species and walruses. It takes a few hours to get through it all and some parts are outdoors, so be sure to dress appropriately. Admission to the marine park is about 30€, and it usually opens at 10 a.m. and closes anytime between 6 p.m. and midnight depending on the season.

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One thing to note about Valencia: in my experience they do not follow the same dinner schedule as the rest of Spain. Throughout the country, most people don’t eat until around 10 p.m. However, when I tested this theory out at a strip of restaurants along the beach, they were already closing up shop when we arrived around 9:30 p.m. Be sure to check the hours before you head out, otherwise you’ll be awfully hungry…

PRACTICALITIES:

Currency: The euro.

Languages: Pretty much only Spanish, and you aren’t likely to run into too many people who speak English well.

Must try: Tapas, washed down with a cold, fruity pitcher of Sangria.

Leave behind: Your modesty! Spain is all about wearing as little as possible, so embrace those curves, baby!

YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Top 10 things to keep in mind if you’re heading to Europe

Gallery: Spain

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The best spots in Spain

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