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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Spain
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Spain
Once known mainly for its museums and palaces, Madrid’s cityscape is changing. Madrid is working hard to make itself more livable, and the lively city of today has enough street-singing, bar-hopping, and people watching vitality to give any visitor a boost of youth. Massive urban-improvement projects such as pedestrianized streets, parks, commuter lines, and Metro stations are transforming Madrid. The investment is making once-dodgy neighborhoods safe and turning ramshackle zones into trendy ones. The broken concrete and traffic chaos of the not-so-distant past are gone.
Today’s Madrid feels orderly while remaining upbeat and vibrant-get ready to dive headlong into its grandeur and intimate charm. Madrid’s historic center is pedestrian-friendly and filled with spacious squares, a trendy market, bulls’ heads in a bar, and a cookie-dispensing convent.
A wonderful chain of pedestrian streets crosses the city east to west, from the Prado to Plaza Mayor (along Calle de las Huertas) and from Puerto del Sol to the Royal Palace (on Calle del Arenal). Madrilenos have a passion for shopping, and most shoppers focus on the colorful area around Gran Via and Puerto del Sol.
Here’s the spot to pick up some mantones (typical Spanish shawls), castanuelas (castanets), and peinetas (hair combs) for the folks back home. The fanciest big-name shops (Gucci, Prada, and the like) tempt strollers along Calle Serrano.
For an interesting Sunday, start at Plaza Mayor, where Europe’s biggest stamp and coin market thrives. Enjoy this genteel delight among old-timers paging lovingly through each other’s albums, looking for win-win trades. Then take a green and breezy escape from the city at Madrid’s main park, Retiro Park, which becomes a carnival of fun on weekends with splendid picnicking, row boating, and people-watching.
Save some energy for after dark, when Madrilenos pack the streets for an evening paseo. The paseo is a strong tradition in this culture —people of all generations enjoy being out, together, strolling. Even past midnight on a hot summer night, entire families with little kids are licking ice cream, greeting their neighbors, and enjoying little beers and tapas in a series of bars. Join the fun-anyone is welcome.
The historic center is enjoyably covered on foot. No major sight is more than a 20-minute walk from Madrid’s lively main square, the Puerto del Sol—the pulsing heart of modern Madrid and of Spain itself. It’s a hub for the Metro, commuter trains, revelers, pickpockets, and performers dressed as Spanish cartoon characters. (Spanish parents love to pay for their kids to get a photo with their favorite TV heroes.) The Puerto del Sol is a prime example of a spot that changed from a traffic nightmare to an inviting people zone. Nearly traffic-free, it’s a popular site for political demonstrations. Don’t be surprised if you come across a large, peaceful protest here. And just as in New York’s Times Square, crowds gather here on New Year’s Eve, cheering as Spain’s “Big Ben” atop the governor’s office chimes 12 times.
From Puerto del Sol, you can easily do a blitz tour of three major sights. Within a 15-minute walk you can visit one of Europe’s greatest palaces (the lavish Royal Palace), the ultimate town square (Plaza Mayor), and my favorite collection of paintings under any single roof in Europe (the Prado Museum). Start with the Royal Palace, which rivals Versailles with its gilded rooms and frescoed ceilings. It’s big – more than 2,000 rooms, with tons of luxurious tapestries, a king’s ransom of chandeliers, priceless porcelain, and bronze decor covered in gold leaf While these days the royal family lives in a mansion a few miles away, the palace is still used for formal state receptions, royal weddings, and tourists’ daydreams.
One highlight is the throne room, where red velvet walls, lions, and frescoes of Spanish scenes symbolize the monarchy in a Rococo riot. Another eye-stopper is the dining hall, where the king can entertain as many as 144 guests at a bowling lane-size table. The ceiling fresco depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabel, presenting exotic souvenirs and his New World “friends” to the royal couple.
The next stop is Plaza Mayor—a stately, traffic-free chunk of 1 7th-century Spain. In early modern times, this was Madrid’s main square. It is enclosed by three-story buildings with symmetrical windows, balconies, slate roofs, and steepled towers. Each side of the square is uniform, as if a grand palace were turned inside-out. This distinct “look” pioneered by architect Juan de Herrera is found all over Madrid. Day or night, Plaza Mayor is a colorful place to enjoy an affordable cup of coffee or overpriced food.
An equestrian statue honors Philip III, who transformed an old marketplace here into a Baroque plaza in 1619. Bronze reliefs under the lampposts detail the Spanish history that played out upon this stage. The square once hosted bullfights and was the scene of generations of pre-Lent carnival gaiety. During the Inquisition, many suspected heretics were tried here and punished by being strangled or burned at the stake. Thankfully, those brutal events are long gone. The last stop on our tour is the Prado Museum, which holds one of my favorite collections of paintings anywhere. With more than 3,000 canvases, including entire rooms of masterpieces by superstar painters, the museum gives an eye-pleasing overview of Spain’s rich history, from its Golden Age through its slow fade.
The Prado is the place to enjoy the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. You can follow this complex man through the stages of his life—from dutiful court painter, to political rebel and scandal-maker, to the disillusioned genius of his “black paintings.” It’s also the home of Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, considered by some to be the world’s finest painting, period. In addition to Spanish works, you’ll find paintings by Italian and Flemish masters, including Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical Garden of Earthly Delights altarpiece. As you walk back to Puerto del Sol, reflect on this bustling capital-home to more than four million people. Despite economic uncertainty, today’s Madrid is energetic. Even the living-statue street performers have a twinkle in their eyes. After every trip to this exciting city, the impression I take home is that of a thriving people with an enduring culture.
EL INGENIO – This institution – a whimsical fantasy, old-time toy and joke shop – just off La Rambla, is crammed with Venetian masks, marionettes, theatrical accessories, wild costumes, yo-yos, kazoos, unicycles and other novelty items. The family workshop makes papier-mâche models used in many Catalan festivals.
ZOEN – In the heart of the old Jewish quarter, Zoen is a tiny shop selling finely crafted leather goods made onsite in its public workshop. It specialises in men’s and women’s accessories with an earthy yet contemporary look and feel. Handbags, wallets, belts, book covers and satchels are among the one-of-a-kind wares for sale.
CERERIA SUBIRA – Cereria Subira has been churning out candles and wax creations since 1761 and is claimed to be oldest shop in Barcelona. The interior of its store has a voluptuous, baroque quality; even if you’re not interested in myriad mounds of colourful wax, it’s worth popping in for a gawp at the olde-worlde setting.
COQUETTE – El Born in La Ribera is stuffed with designer boutiques, and Coquette is one of the most revered. Its pared-back look makes this ’concept store’ an attractive place to browse. It stocks casual feminine wear by labels such as Humanoid, Vanessa Bruno, Uke and Hoss Intropia.
MERCAT DE LA BOQUERIA – No Barcelona shopping trip would be complete without a pitstop at the Mercat de la Boqueria in El Raval. This central produce market is housed in a Modernista-influenced building, spilling over with picnic provisions including sea critters, sausages, cheeses, the finest Jabugo ham and sweets. It’s a classic, if touristy, Barcelona experience – visit in the morning to explore minus the crowds.
HOLALA! PLAZA – This Ibiza import in El Raval, inspired by the Balearic island’s long-established hippie tradition, is an excellent hunting ground for vintage treasures with one of the best selections of secondhand clothing in the city. It also hosts an exhibition space for temporary art displays and live music performances. Just south of here there’s a cluster of stores selling more pre-loved threads on Carrer de la Riera Baixa.
BAGUES-MASRIERA – This high-end jewellery store is a star amid a sea of big-name brands on premier shopping boulevard, Passeig de Gracia. In business since the 19th century, it takes inspiration from its location in the Modernista Casa Amatller, and next to Gaudfs Casa Batllo, with some of its classic pieces exhibiting an equally playful bent.
EL BULEVARD DELS ANTIQUARIS – This labyrinth of tiny antique shops merits a morning’s browsing, gathering more than 70 stores under one roof (on the floor above the Bulevard Rosa arcade) to offer the city’s most varied selection of collector’s pieces, ranging from old porcelain dolls through to fine crystal and African art.
LURDES BERGADA – The grid of streets either side of Passeig de Gracia supports chic local designers who capture the essence of Barcelona cool, including this boutique run by mother-and-son designer team Lurdes Bergadâ and Syngman Cucala. Its relaxed, classy men’s and women’s fashions use natural fibres and have attracted a cult following.
TRANSPORT – Fly to Barcelona via its El Prat airport on British Airways from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with one stop in London Heathrow. The quickest way to get into town from El Prat is with RENFE trains, which leave every half hour and take about 25 minutes to reach Passeig de Gracia. Taxis from the airport cost about US$35. Barcelona’s metro is the most convenient way to get around town; singles cost US$2.40 per ride but the T-10 (10-ride pass) offers better value at US$11.15.
WHERE TO STAY – Quirky and colourful interiors hit you from the second you walk into the foyer of Chic & Basic Ramblas in El Raval. Each room has a small kitchen and superior doubles come with balconies.
Suites Avenue provides fancy apartment-style living secreted behind a daring facade. The apartments are good value and include private kitchens and access to a terrace, gym and pool.
Tranquil Hotel Neri occupies a beautifully adapted, centuries-old building in the Gothic Quarter, with timber furnishings and stone-clad bathrooms. There’s a bedding menu, and a roof deck.
WHAT IS THE OUTSTANDING GREEN FACTOR? It is not often you find a hotel that proudly proclaims that they are 100% organic, but Mas Salagros Ecoresort & Aire Ancient Bath boasts such a feat with their high standards of sustainability and eco-conscious projects. One such example is the bioclimatic architecture; they use “green roofs” with plants grown on it to help save energy as it reduces the ambient temperature and acts as a natural insulation.
It also stimulates biodiversity in the environment and is especially beneficial to insects and other animal life. The other dominant factor is the use of locally sourced biofuels to provide heat. A biomass boiler is fed wood chips from the sustainable management of Catalonia’s woods, and generates all the energy required for heating and domestic hot water use. This ensures a significant reduction in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gass emissions compared to traditional fuels.
STYLE BONUS? This quaint hotel has 54 rooms of different types, all fully equipped and decorated with 100% natural and ecological materials including wood, natural latex pillows, organic cotton towels and bed linen. Don’t forget to drop by Aire de Vallromanes – a thermal bath inspired by ones used by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Enveloped in true elegant decor and accompanied by flickering candlelight, you will feel your body begin to unwind as the beneficial effects from the steam bath, or Hammam, start to work on your physical and mental well-being. There are also several outstanding leisure, sporting and cultural activities available at the resort for endless delight.
Why go? Yes, Playa de las Americas is your common or garden holiday nightmare, and hunks of the largest Canary Island have been butchered by package resorts. But don’t dismiss all of Tenerife. Get away from the south coast and you’ll discover a surprisingly varied and traditional island, where fiestas are preferred to discotheques and the land has been left to go wild. Perhaps wildest of the lot is 3,718m Mount Teide, Spain’s highest peak and the pinnacle of a weird, lunar-ish, lava-ed landscape that might see snow, even while ‘lobsters’ are basting on the beaches below.
When to go: Year-round. Best are spring and autumn – balmy, but without the summer crowds. November can be rainy. It’s still shorts-weather in December-January.
How to go: Many airlines fly from the UK to Tenerife Sur airport (from 4.5hrs), which is 20km east of touristy Playa de las Americas.
Why go? It’s a case of one naughty schoolboy spoiling things for the whole class. Just because a 30km stretch of Mallorca’s coastline has been ruined by package high-rises, the entire island gets written off. And yet, leave the blighted Bay of Palma and you discover an island of monasteries, mountains, historic ports and untouched coves. The Sierra de Tramuntana, looming over the Balearic isle’s north-west, is the wildest area. Here you can hike along a network of trails of varying difficulty; maps are available in capital Palma and the pretty town of Soller, the best base for mountain forays. Also in the north, head to the tiny, tumbling village of Deia, where poet Robert Graves is buried; take your binoculars to the Parc Natural de s’Albufera, a wetland wonderland for birds; and explore the Roman ruins of Pollentia, which date to the first century BC.
When to go: Spring and autumn are best for hiking and quieter beaches. Almond trees bloom late January-early March. Cosmopolitan Palma is open for city breaks year round.
How to go: Many airlines fly from the UK to Palma (from 2.5hrs).
‘Welcome to the greatest rooftop in the world,’ says curator Silvia Vilarroya, stepping out into the sultry Barcelona evening. Stone structures coated in ceramic mosaics rise from the highest points, linked by undulating pathways around the courtyards, along which knight-like sculptures protrude like periscopes. The effect is part medieval battle scene, part futuristic chessboard. ‘All of these are chimneys or ventilation pipes’, says Silvia. ‘Antoni Gaudi was provocative – but he was also functional.’
La Pedrera was the final residential building that the Catalan architect took on, a commission from the wealthy Milà family. It polarised opinion when it opened in 1912; people either hated it or really hated it. But since then it has become much-loved – and visited. Night tours strip away the crowds, enabling small groups to linger in the Milàs’ recreated apartment and admire design flourishes, such as ceilings in which trees have seemingly taken root. Out on the roof, the embers of the day start to cool. A whisper of a breeze carries the occasional sound from the Passeig de Gràcia below, but otherwise all is quiet.
In the lobby of Hotel Majestic, a woman clutching a Chihuahua hails a bellboy with her eyebrows. Staff buzz about, obsequious.
Up on the 10th floor things are altogether less stuffy. Bathers absorb rays and cocktails around the pool, while smiling waitresses attend to those marooned in the deep sofas. There are reminders of the rarified atmosphere – a £2,400 bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac is barely out of place on the drinks menu – but as long as you’re happy to pay a little more for your rose, a slice of the high life can be yours.
It’s an appropriate democratisation. The tale of Barcelona is very much one of its rooftops. Meagre rain keeps them flat; the constant battle for space keeps them busy.
A few blocks west of the Majestic is Hotel Pulitzer’s rooftop oasis, its wood furniture, trellises and pot plants bringing to mind a Home Counties garden. Here, a bow-tied waiter serves a bottle of white to a group of friends, as cool jazz swirls around the deck.
Master slicer Juan Pairo is standing beside racks of ham in an upstairs tasting room just off La Rambla. Through the window, the celebrated street is characteristically frenzied but here, within glass walls, it’s all refinement and precision.
Juan glides his knife across the marbled, ruby-red meat and frees a paper-thin slice of Jamón Iberico de Bellota. It’s sweet and intensely nutty. Other cuts follow, Juan distributing morsels to the tasters, all amateurs in the art of ham appreciation. The parallels to a wine tasting are pronounced: the obscure vernacular, the tasting notes, the strangely sombre air for something so pleasurable. If jamón is Spain’s wine, then Jamón Iberico de Bellota is its champagne.
As the Jamón Experience’s introduction explains, its sought-after flavour is the result of the Iberian pig’s free-range lifestyle roaming oak groves in southern Spain. During this time it will consume around 750kg of acorns (bellotas). The jamóns, the back legs, are cured in salt for three years in a practice that has barely changed in thousands of years. And when the results are this good, why should it?
Inside the Museu de la Xocolata’s classroom a group of visitors in chef s hats are playing with industrial quantities of chocolate. Littering the worktops are strawberries, lollipops and moulds oozing with silky molten goo. These short classes offer a hands-on appreciation of the versatility of chocolate; next door, in a temperature-controlled exhibition space, it’s a case of look but don’t touch.
Everything from La Sagrada Familia to the Terracotta Warriors has been immortalised in chocolate; intricate artworks that are a testament to the skill (and self-denial) – of their creator.
Late evening in the suburb of Clot finds a group gathering outside a nondescript building. They chat amicably, sharing jokes and greetings. In 15 minutes’ time they’ll be walking all over one another.
This is the headquarters of the Castellers de Barcelona, one of the city’s human tower clubs. This curious mix of gymnastics and human Jenga has been a feature of Catalan fiestas for 200 years, and groups have started to invite visitors to join in and add their arms to the supportive base of the tower.
The castellers range from school children to septuagenarians, and everyone has a crucial role. The ranks of the base – la pinya, or pineapple – come together, arms locked, heads tucked in. Once set, the first bare-footed climbers clamber into position. Further storeys take shape. The last to climb is the anxaneta, the child who must raise a hand from the top to ‘crown’ the castle.
Eduard Paris’s days as an anxaneta are behind him. At 39, he’s commonly near the base, enduring the weight of up to six people on his shoulders. ‘You cannot see it but when you hear the cheers as the child reaches the top, you are pleased and you are thinking of the group,’ he says. ‘They’re helping you, you are helping them. Together the tower is complete.’
Hidden among immaculate horse ranches and polo fields just a short drive from LA. California’s only Relais & Chateaux property is a quiet, romantic, solidly slick operator. A recent makeover includes two stunning destination restaurants and a gigantic spa-as-sanctuary with a Balinese-style yoga pavilion. While most of the interiors are pure Southern California, you’ll be wowed by the treatment rooms which are glowy and Moroccan-inspired, with flower-filled terraces, rain showers and deep outdoor tubs.
The exotic and good-enough-to-eat treatments use limes, lemons and other fruit from the gardens in original, nurturing treatments such as desert-fig facials (they smell divine and really pep up tired skin), avocado body wraps and Valencia-orange massages. The two-hour couples’ treatments use custom-blended essential oils, a clay body mask, bath soak and massage followed by a private poolside lunch. There’s also a gentlemen’s menu of facials, body scrubs and deep-tissue massages. It’s the essence of the West Coast in big, soul-nourishing doses, and pretty much unfaultable in execution.
The moodily lit restaurant, Veladora, has won many awards for its rustic, seasonally inspired Cali-Med food. There’s an original Damien Hirst butterfly painting, wrought-iron chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the lawns. It’s worth coming just for the freshly baked buttery focaccia served with aged Parmesan flakes doused in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Try the black-truffle risotto or the ricotta gnocchi with white wine and chilli flakes. Despite the lavishness of the food, almost all the ingredients are sourced from nearby Chino Farms and on-site beehives, herb gardens and olive groves, and meals are served on reclaimed cast-iron or slate boards.
This place has charm in spades: even the bar has a cosy beach vibe, opening onto a terrace with fire pits and cushy sofas among the trees. The 49 Spanish-style casitas have four-poster beds, wooden floors and sunken living rooms. And every morning, freshly squeezed orange is delivered to your door, along with a newspaper.
With its hushed air, exposed beams and open fireplace, the main hall at this country house could hardly look more authentically antique. So it’s a surprise to discover that this serene retreat, overlooking pastureland outside Vejer de la Frontera, was mostly created from scratch, using tiles, doors and shutters recovered from other farmhouses.
Even more remarkably, its English owners, Lee and Amelia Thornley, were in their twenties when they created it. For their guests, here to visit pueblos blancos, drink sherry and walk to the lighthouse at Cabo Trafalgar, it is a complete haven.
The seven rooms are big and uncluttered, with vintage dressing tables and roll-top baths. Breakfast is taken at little tables set among the orange trees and lavender; supper, made by Amelia and including clams cooked in fino, is served with wines from the bijou bodega.
Days can be divided between dips in the pool, massages in the yurt, or helping to rehabilitate the rescued horses stabled in the grounds. After all that, and several manzanillas under the pergola, it would be rude not to sleep very soundly indeed.
Pioneering chefs, eye-popping boutiques, 21-st century design and innovation – and, yes, some of the finest tapas in Spain.
Argensola Tucked between trendy Chueca and the upscale shopping district of Barrio de Salamanca, Calle Argensola is packed with independent boutiques and lively bars.
Barrio de las Letras These narrow lanes were once home to literary lions such as Cervantes and Lope de Vega—today, you’ll find galleries and vintage-furniture shops.
Chueca This barrio is Madrid’s gay epicenter and has no shortage of chic bars and restaurants.
La Latina A foolproof plan for exploring La Latina includes a visit to the Sunday Rastro flea market followed by a tapas crawl along Calle Cava Baja.
Triball Just north of Gran Via, the former rough-around-the-edges Triball has transformed into Madrid’s nightlife hub.
Getting Around Taxis are reasonably priced and easy to hail. The Metro (metromadrid.es) is expansive and connects the airport with the city center.
WHAT IS ITS AESTHETIC APPEAL? The most outstanding design element at Hotel Claris is the sheer size of its art collection, whether paintings, sculptures, or furniture. In addition to being distributed throughout the common areas and rooms, the hotel’s exceptional assemblage of art can also be viewed at its first-floor museum, which houses rare Egyptian artefacts, 19th-century Turkish kilims, Roman mosaics and sculptures from the second and third centuries, sketches by Catalan painter Josep Guinovart, original etchings commissioned by Napoleon in 1812, and fifth – to eighth – century Burmese and Indian sculptures, amongst many others. Its exterior is equally a sight to behold, the former nineteenth-century neo-classical Verduna Palace reworked and extended upward using glass and steel to house a rooftop pool and provide a constant stream of natural light.
BEYOND ITS BEAUTIFUL WALLS? Located in Barcelona’s central Eixample neighbourhood, just steps away from the bustling Passeig de Gracia, Hotel Claris is a great base from which to explore the city’s world-famous architecture and exciting gastronomy. Visit the top tourist attraction in town, La Sagrada Familia, educate yourself on the eponymous painter’s early years at the Picasso Museum, or drink in the plethora of sights and sounds along colourful Las Ramblas.