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toledo

The Alternative Guide to Spain: Don’t Go There, Try Here

Spain is a buzzing tourist destination, but all too often travellers stick to the tried-and-tested locations rather than branching out and exploring somewhere else. If you fancy avoiding the usual tourist hotspots and trying something a little different, here are some options:

Not Barcelona – Girona

Long overshadowed by its big sister, Girona offers an authentic slice of Spanish life. While Barcelona can be daunting and over-hyped, this beautiful little city is relaxed, stylish and compact with a lovely old town – the Casco Viejo. Wander around the narrow streets of El Call, the old Jewish ghetto, marvel at the splendid gothic cathedral, and explore Girona’s own La Rambla – a pedestrian street where locals shop, stroll and chat over drinks in the shady cafes.

girona

Not Valencia – Malaga

Located on the sun-drenched Costa del Sol, Malaga is often overlooked in favour of Valencia, Spain’s third city a few hours up the coast. But anybody with a passing interest in history would love it here. Malaga has been occupied by various civilisations for over 2,000 years, leaving behind some eye-catching monuments, such as the Alcazaba, a Roman fort dating to the 8th century, and Castillo de Gibralfaro. Culture vultures will love the Picasso Museum.

malaga

Not Madrid – Toledo

Located 70 kilometres south of Madrid, many tourists make a day trip here, but rarely give it the attention it deserves. Known as the ‘City of Three Cultures’ thanks to its status as a base for the invading Romans, Moors and Christian Reconquista, the entire city is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spend a few days here to enjoy the Alcázar and Cathedral of Toledo, along with numerous other mosques, synagogues and churches. There’s also a museum dedicated to the Renaissance master, El Greco, who lived and worked here.

toledo

Not Palma de Mallorca – Cádiz

Spain’s oldest city, Cadiz is a laid-back Andalucian port that juts out over the Atlantic. Its crumbling houses and fortifications form part of its charm – a little world-weary perhaps, but well loved. The stunning beaches of the Costa de la Luz are on its doorstep, and its location makes it a favourite for seafood-lovers with fritura, fried fish, its speciality. Perhaps the best time to visit is during the riotous February carnival. It has all the attractions of the Mallorcan capital, but a lot more charm.

cadiz

Not Seville – Salamanca

Although delightful, Seville’s charms are know to many and this wonderful city can get crowded, especially during the Feria. Instead head to Salamanca. This landlocked city is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, hence has a young, vibrant atmosphere. A medieval town with its fair share of sandstone buildings, it offers a relaxed pace of life, although the student crowd ensure there are plenty of bars and nightclubs to keep you entertained. Perhaps the best time to visit is in September, for the Virgen de la Vega festival celebrating the city’s patron saint.

salamanca

Spain is a treasure trove for travellers – next time you visit head off the beaten track and try some of these lesser-known gems.

barcelona

Breathtaking Buildings, Beautiful Beaches & Bloated Bellies: Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is a vibrant, youthful city that combines the pleasures of a city break with the relaxation and beauty of a beach holiday. The city-by-the-sea vibe put out by Barcelona lends the city a chilled-out, almost hippie-ish feel in places. Young people lugging heavy backpacks flock to Barcelona in the summer: for June’s Sonar festival, St Joan’s Night celebrations, Benicassim festival in July, and also simply to enjoy the great atmosphere, people and sights of the magnificent city of Barcelona itself.

barcelona postcard

As a popular backpacking destination, Barcelona offers plenty of reasonably priced hostels and hotels. Of course, you will want to be sure to book into a centrally located hostel. However, bear in mind that some central hostels are more reasonably priced than others. Unfortunately, there are the odd few that prey on clueless backpackers to earn a few extra Euros. Make sure you know the going rate before you arrive, and be sure to search out a short list of ones you’d like to stay in. However, booking ahead of time may not be the best option, as you should allow yourself the freedom to change your plans, and there’s nothing worse than being locked into some agreement when more exciting suggestions come up.

barcelona

Whilst refraining from booking a hostel is wise, there are certain things you should make sure you do book ahead of time. For example, pre-booking airport transfers from Barcelona airport will give you a valuable opportunity to regroup and relax on the way to your accommodation. It will save money, stress and time, especially if you then have to go on a bit of a trek to find a hostel. Get your driver (if taking private airport transfers) to drop you as close to Las Ramblas as possible, as there are plenty of good hostels close to this central location.

Las Ramblas is the busiest, most tourist-centric location in the city. The central strip hosts a daily market, with flowers, birds and souvenir stalls dominating. There is also an incredible food market halfway up, with a staggering, mouth-watering fruit display that is hard to resist. There are many smaller streets snaking off from Las Ramblas, and plenty of great little restaurants, bars, cafes and shops are in bountiful supply if you take the time to explore. These smaller bars and cafes, especially ones near hostels, are great places to meet other fellow travellers. Don’t limit yourself to the main tourist areas though. Make use of Barcelona’s clean, safe Metro system to travel all over the city and to explore. Head to Barceloneta beach for sunbathing, and some excellent seafood restaurants along the promenade, as well as for bars and for the promise of a dynamic life after dusk.

You will certainly want to check out Barcelona’s famous Gaudi architecture, including the Sagrada Familia (no Barcelona break is complete without a visit), Picasso and Dali museums and galleries, and have a look at the jaw-dropping yachts in the marina. Everywhere you turn in Barcelona, you are spoiled for choice, and you are guaranteed to wish you’d booked just a few more days.

Five things not to miss in Barcelona:

  • Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia – the high point of culture in Barcelona, and an astounding piece of beautiful, imaginative architecture. I dare you not to be awed!
  • The Beaches – Barcelona’s beaches are clean, beautiful, fun and lined with some great bars and eateries. They are also a top place to be after dark to hang out with fellow travellers and enjoy a couple of cans of Estrella by a makeshift campfire with a guitar.
  • La Boqueria Market – the indoor food market just off Las Ramblas is absolutely choc-a-block with gastronomic treats, and a real delight for the senses. You may find yourself coming away with enough food to feed the five thousand! Enjoy the bars and restaurants inside, and be sure to get your lips around as many delicious free samples as you can.
  • Museu D’Art Contemporani De Barcelona (MACBA) and Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB). Situated in El Ravel district, the MACBA features modern art from the mid-twentieth century onwards, focusing on post-1945 Catalan and Spanish art. The CCCB is one of the most visited museums in Barcelona, hosting a range of temporary exhibitions, concerts, events and a cinema. A bit like the South Bank Centre in London, with less faceless modernist concrete.
  • The Picasso Museum – featuring one of the world’s most extensive collections of the work of Pablo Picasso, the Picasso Museum contains more than 3,500 works. The museum also hosts special exhibitions, as well as seminars and lectures on Picasso and on museological issues by art experts from around the world.

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