I was ecstatic to be going to Spain for the first time as a guest of one of our onsite partners, Made for Spain and Portugal. I have been to Europe countless times, but I had always wanted to enjoy Spanish hospitality!
I spent time in both Barcelona and Madrid, experiencing each city’s popular venues as well as their “off the beaten track” experiences. Whether you are heading to Spain for the first time (like me) or are going back for your fourth time, here’s what not to miss in these fascinating cities!
Upon my arrival in Barcelona, I was struck by how familiar the landscape and scenery was to me. The sea on one side and the mountains on the other with Barcelona in the middle reminded me of Sicily, where my parents are from and a place I spent a lot of time growing up, and I felt right at home.
Because Barcelona is vast, it is best explored with a private guide. If you have a special interest, we can create a unique experience for you.
What Not to Miss in Barcelona
On my first afternoon, I met my guide, Carles, for a tour of the Sagrada Familia and an overview of the city. La Sagrada Familia is considered Antonio Gaudi’s masterpiece and has been under construction for over 100 years; it’s an iconic symbol of the city itself. I was expecting to be impressed by the architecture of this iconic landmark, but I wasn’t expecting to feel as awe-struck by its beauty as I was seeing it in person.
I stood in one spot for several minutes, absorbing everything: the soaring pillars that look like trees and branches, the arches of the nave, and the beautiful stained-glass windows.
Carles, my guide, explained the symbolism within the church’s Nativity Façade, celebrating the birth of Jesus with beautiful symbols of nature. After thoroughly examining the inside, we headed outside to see the Passion Façade, which is opposite of the Nativity Façade. The Passion side is very austere and simple, as it symbolizes the death of Jesus. As I walked away from this magnificent structure, I was very moved by this special place, and I hope to return with my family to share this experience.
After visiting the Sagrada Familia, Carles took me to Montjuïc (“Jewish Mountain”) in Catalonia for an amazing panoramic view of the city.
Carles explained there was once a strong Jewish community here. There is a lot to see in Montjuïc, and you can easily spend an afternoon exploring the area; two popular attractions I recommend are the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the botanical gardens.
One of my favorite parts of Barcelona was exploring the local neighborhoods. This particular excursion is based around the city’s up and coming neighborhoods and getting a better understanding of how the local people live every day. I transferred to Gracia, which is 30 minutes north of the city, where I began my tour. Gracia was an independent town until it became part of Barcelona in 1897, but it still boasts its own self-contained personality. With over 100,000 inhabitants, Gracia is a mix of young adults, families, and retirees.
I enjoyed visiting one of Gracia’s many unique co-working spaces. These spaces are designed for independent professionals to work and network with others who have similar interests, and to socialize within the community. The space I visited is called Betahaus. Co-working spaces like Betahaus are making use of once-abandoned buildings and revitalizing them to be an important part of the community.
As I continued my journey through Gracia admiring the architecture, I suddenly came upon a square, and as my guide explained, wealthy individuals once built these squares for private use. Placa del Sol is where locals gather at cafes and restaurants that border the square, Placa de la Virreina has the church of San Juan Bautista de Gracia, and Place del Rius I Taulet has Gracia’s original town hall building and a historic bell tower. In the 1800s, there were several uprisings for Catalonian independence, and the bell became a symbol of freedom for the people of Gracia. As I enjoyed a cup of espresso from one of the local cafes, that feeling “home” I felt upon my arrival in Barcelona came over me again. Gracia has a warm, small-town feeling and is a charming place to visit, even though it’s part of a big city.
Next was Sant Antoni, a neighborhood located outside the original medieval walls of Barcelona! One of my favorite parts about this neighborhood is the Mercat de Sant Antoni. This marketplace offers an authentic local experience, featuring textiles, household goods, books, and more. When the market was being restored, they discovered the remains of Via Augusta, the road that led to Imperial Rome, which can be seen inside the market. Sant Antoni also has an interesting blend of green spaces worked into the city. They have carved out green spaces within the middle of busy intersections by cutting off the corners of bi-sections and creating roundabouts. Within the roundabouts, you will find benches or a small playground surrounded by plants and trees. I found this fascinating and did some research and discovered that Barcelona is implementing “superblocks.” These superblocks are designed to improve air quality and traffic patterns as well as add more recreational areas, rest areas, and greenery to the neighborhood and make it more walkable.
If you want to spend a day outside the city to learn about organic wine, I highly recommend visiting Alta Alella. This local family-owned organic winery is located in the heart of the Serralada de Marina Natural Park, just a 30-minute drive from Barcelona. I recommend a private driver. As I walked along the sloping vines, I was struck by the beautiful view of the Mediterranean. Gisela, our sommelier-guide, took us on a tour of the grounds and explained the process of wine-making—how they decide where and what grapes to plant for the season, “la vendimia” or harvest, aging, and bottling.
She explained how the winery is committed to offering a selection of natural wines and cava (without added sulfites) to the public. One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the cellar where the cava (Spanish sparkling wine) is aged, with all of the bottles lined up.
The cellar was actually converted from an old cistern found on the property. After our tour, we sat down for a wine-pairing lunch, and I enjoyed one of the best meals I had in Barcelona. The winery works with several different local chefs, so if you have any dietary requirements, they can accommodate your needs.
I was previously introduced to cava on our first evening in Barcelona, and I loved it! I’m partial to Prosecco, but I have to say, cava is now a favorite. I enjoyed Alta Alella’s cava so much, I brought one of their pink cavas home.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Barcelona, I was eager to continue on to Madrid and experience everything it has to offer! I took the high-speed AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid, traveling in first class. I recommend traveling this way because of the level of comfort, meal service, and convenience. The two-hour-and-45-minute ride was a very pleasant experience overall. One key thing to remember is that there is no porterage assistance at the train stations, especially in Barcelona. This means you have to carry your luggage through the train station and down the escalator to the platform and then go up a couple of steps into the railcar. Upon arrival in Madrid, Frontiers can arrange porterage assistance to meet you on the platform. I would strongly recommend this, especially if you are traveling with multiple pieces of luggage, as it will streamline the entire process.
Upon arriving in Madrid, I was immediately impressed with the sophistication of the city, its wide tree-lined avenues, and beautiful architecture. I was really looking forward to meeting my guide to learn more about Madrid and further explore the city.
What Not to Miss in Madrid
My guide, Pablo, took me on a tour of “hidden gems” of the city. Where Barcelona is trying to carve out green spaces for its inhabitants, Madrid has El Retiro Park, which is Madrid’s version of Central Park. The park was the private garden of the royal family until the late 19th century, when they donated it to the city.
We began our adventure through the scenic Paseo de la Argentina walkway, lined with statues of kings from the royal palace, and continued to its small lake. Here, you can rent paddle boats in the warmer months and enjoy the park. As we continued our tour, we came upon the Crystal Palace, a beautiful iron and glass structure, originally built in 1887 as a greenhouse for Madrid’s Philippines Exhibition. It now houses exclusive modern art exhibitions that are free to the public. Once the exhibition is over, you won’t see it displayed anywhere again.
Next, we headed to the Plaza del Parterre, which is a French-style garden with straight paths and beautiful symmetry. It is quite the opposite of the rest of the park, which is in the style of an English garden.
As we made our way through the historic old city, we visited the NH Collection Madrid de Tepa Hotel to see the remnants of an aqueduct system built in the 1500s that were discovered when the hotel was remodeled. I walked on top of the glass walkway and could see into the aqueduct. In an effort to preserve the history of the old city, the hotel kept it as part of its lobby.
If you are interested in Jazz music, consider a visit to Café Central, located in the Plaza del Angel. This locale is known as one of the best jazz clubs in Europe.
Pablo explained that Madrid was once known as more of a “market city”—known for specific artisans that prospered, such as cape makers, rather than craftsmen. This business has been around for over 100 years, as commemorated by the bronze plaque in the Casa Sesena cape-making storefront. They have made many capes for operagoers, and interestingly, Pablo Picasso was buried in one of their capes.
I would also recommend making time to go to Corral de la Moreria. My guide told me this flamenco show is the best in all of Spain. From the moment the show began, I was engrossed in the entire performance. Even if you aren’t fluent in Spanish, you can really feel the emotions and passion of both the singers and dancers. This was such an energetic performance and a night I will never forget. We can arrange for you to enjoy the show and dinner, or just the performance.
Another highlight of my trip was the 10,000 Steps of Crafts: Meet the Local Artisans Tour with my guide, Paloma. We began at Calero, a book-binding and restoration shop that has been in business since 1907. Walking into the shop is like walking back in time. They demonstrate how a book can be restored using equipment that goes back over one hundred years. Learning about this process was very fascinating, and I realized I was witnessing a lost art. The shop also makes handmade journals and photo albums and offers calligraphy classes.
Our next stop was to Justo Algaba, a shop named after its owner, a master tailor of matador costumes. The majority of Spanish matadors come to Mr. Algaba for custom-made costumes. I was so impressed seeing these intricate costumes and beautiful designs up close. What caught my attention was the Picasso influence in the designs of the costumes, and right next to them was a black and white creation, which Picasso himself actually designed!
My last stop was the workshop of Felipe Conde, a luthier (guitar-maker). Mr. Conde gave us a brief history of his family’s business and mentioned that his children are the fourth generation continuing the family legacy. He led us into his workshop and demonstrated how to make a guitar, from the type of wood used to how it is put together, piece by piece. Not only do they build guitars, but they also restore and repair them. Many famous flamenco guitarists and some very famous rock stars use Mr. Conde’s guitars.
I will never forget my time in Barcelona and Madrid. I was able to experience what many travelers see and do, but I was also able to delve a little deeper into both of these cities. I came home and told my 10-year-old daughter that one day we would return as a family to experience Spain together. If you would like to visit Spain, whether for the first or fifteenth time, Frontiers can arrange a tailored itinerary based on your interests.