Madrid + Toledo

Four years ago, Anthony and I went to Europe for three weeks, and our last twenty-four hours happened to be a layover in Madrid. Because we were young and cheap and curious about Spain’s notoriety for staying out late, we sacrificed a hotel room and spent those twenty-four hours roaming the city. We hung out at Puerta del Sol, we saw a major accident occur (a truck backed into an awning that fell on top of a woman dining outdoors, severely injuring her), we ate jamon and spent an embarrassing amount of time eating churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, and we napped in Retiro Park. It was an odd experience, and I felt pretty ambivalent about Madrid. Since that was my only experience with Spain, I also had no real desire to return to Spain — until a couple of months ago when I found round-trip flights to Madrid for an astonishingly low price of $261.

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Madrid’s sleek airport
Most of our trip was spent in Andalucía, but we did spend a couple of days in Madrid, as well as a day-trip to Toledo. Turns out, I still don’t love Madrid, but at least I finally appreciated how livable this vibrant metropolis is.

Stay

We stayed at an Airbnb in the trendy neighborhood of Malasaña, which I’d highly recommend. It’s connected to everywhere by metro, walkable to all the touristy sights, and filled with award-winning restaurants, colorful street art covering the walls, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).

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View of Madrid rooftops from our Airbnb living room
Do

We spent our first morning doing the touristy Gran Vía stroll, starting at the elegant Palacio de Cibeles, which was once a post office, and ending at Plaza de España. It’s basically the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with interchangeable chain stores and foreign tourists moving slowly, but it’s interesting to see the phases of architecture along Gran Vía, from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. One of the more interesting stores to drop into is an H&M housed in a former theater.

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Palacio de Cibeles
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The Metropolis Building was designed by a couple of French brothers. The dome is topped by a statue of the winged goddess Victoria, which replaced the original bronze statue of Phoenix and Ganymedes when a rival insurance company purchased the building and the original owners took the statue with them.
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Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

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Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
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One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
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We loved seeing these same-sex traffic lights, put up during Pride and never taken down
Eat

Most of our diet in Madrid consisted of churros con chocolate, as we went to Chocolatería San Ginés pretty much after every meal. It’s an impressive place, open 24 hours yet retaining a classy feel. Servers run around balancing elegant mugs of thick chocolate and little plates of churros.

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Churros con chocolate
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, which is an Andalucian tapas bar just off Plaza Mayor. The gory photos of bullfighting filling every crevice of the restaurant is a bit corny, but the food is authentic and even served Granada style (a free tapa with every drink!), with a stream of regulars — perhaps Andalucian transplants? — streaming in throughout the afternoon.

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Legit!
Since it was August, a lot of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed for vacation, so one night we reluctantly went to La Barraca, a historic paella restaurant. It reminded me of Delmonico’s, a New York institution with white tablecloths and awkwardly stuffy service. However, we couldn’t deny that the paellas were very good, and the next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.

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Best paella on our trip
Afternoon Trip to Toledo

Just a half-hour train ride from Madrid is the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Toledo. Once the capital of Spain, it felt like a mix of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany and Dubrovnik in Croatia, some other favorite Medieval towns of mine. Toledo sits high up on a circular rocky hill protected on three sides by the Tajo River, like a moat. It has 2,500 years of tangled history between the Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. The city reached its peak in the 1500s, when Spain was in its Golden Age. Emperor Charles V made it his “Imperial City,” and El Greco made his home here. Cervantes’ wife came from near Toledo, and he often wrote about it. In 1561, Philip II moved the capital to a small town north of here called Madrid, beginning the slow decline of Toledo. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, remaining largely intact despite numerous violent takeovers throughout history due to the fact that it was considered the holiest city in Spain. Its ornate cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in Spain, taking over 250 years to build.

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Old winding roads of Toledo
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Cervantes is beloved here
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Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
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Mudejar touches everywhere
The impressive train station sits below the town center, so we caught a city bus into town. You can  catch #5, #11, #61, or #62 to Plaza de Zocodover. One thing we love about Spain is that buses give out change.

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Sunset views from Toledo
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Mudejar style train station
Spain claims that marzipan (“mazapán” in Spanish) was invented in Toledo by nuns of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine. There was no wheat but plenty of sugar and almonds, so nuns created a paste out of these ingredients and fed the undernourished people. Mazapán de Toledo is protected by D.O., which means it must be made in the province of Toledo and be at least 50% almonds. We tried mazapán from Santo Tomé and El Café de las Monjas, and both were much better than any marzipan I’ve had in the U.S. Each one is lovingly shaped by hand, and a box of assorted mazapán is the perfect gift.

Besides mazapán, swords are another popular souvenir in Toledo, as Toledo was famous for making the very best steel during the Middle Ages. Knights considered having a Toledo-cast sword to be the highest status symbol.

Unlike on the rest of our trip, Toledo doesn’t have a thriving tapas scene. Instead, Toledo excels at game, which is hunted in the hills to the south. Typical dishes include partridge, venison, wild boar, roast suckling pig, and baby lamb. We had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurante Placido.

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Roasted baby lamb
Tips for future travelers:

  1. It’s simple enough to get from the airport into Madrid by subway, but if you have a lot of luggage or don’t want to transfer, you can also take the comfortable Exprés Aeropuerto to Atocha train station, and then getting a cab. This yellow bus departs every 15 minutes, runs 24 hours a day, and takes about 40 minutes to reach Atocha.
  2. For our few days in Madrid, buying a 10-pack of Metro tickets was perfect for us. We first had to buy a cheap refillable card, and then we were able to share the ten rides. Madrid’s Metro system is fantastic and reminded us of Paris. Lines are color-coded and numbered. You can just tap your Metro card to the yellow pad to open the turnstile — no need to take it out again to exit.
  3. The best itinerary for Toledo is to take a late afternoon train there, so you can see things just as the daytrippers are leaving for the day, and watch the sunset. Then leave the following morning, after exploring a few of the sights that had been closed when you arrived the previous day.
  4. Buy your train tickets to and from Toledo in advance, as they often sell out to commuters. (Since Toledo is so close to Madrid, it makes sense that some people live in Toledo and work in Madrid.)
  5. When on Gran Vía, take a break and head up to Gourmet Experiences (a food court in El Corte Inglés) for a spectacular view of the Schweppes Building.

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Granada

Granada was the main reason I wanted to visit Spain this summer. While I’d never had much of an interest in Barcelona, Madrid, or even Sevilla (though, clearly I had been wrong about Sevilla), Granada has everything I’m passionate about: white-washed homes spilling down hills, seductive views of the Alhambra, diversity, a significant Arab influence, and incredibly cheap food.

Due to a scheduling issue, we had to catch a later train from Córdoba to Granada and arrived at our Airbnb two hours later than we had planned. Our affectionate Airbnb host Ana, who seemed to be more anxious than us to make our time slot for the Alhambra, gently rushed us out after we dropped off our luggage and ushered us to a taxi. As we drove through our winding cobblestone neighborhood of Albayzín, Anthony and I looked at each other and knew we were going to love our few days here.

We didn’t deserve to get into Alhambra, but Anthony coaxed the guard into letting us in fifty minutes after our time slot. The initial chaos was worth it! The Alhambra is a palace, citadel, and fortress that sits on a small plateau overlooking the entire city, enhanced by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, the Moors were creating magnificent palaces like the Alhambra, with ornate stucco, plaster stalactite ceilings, ceramic tiles, scalloped windows that perfectly frame views of Granada, lush gardens, open-air courtyards, and water — a precious symbol of life back then — everywhere. It’s the last and greatest Moorish palace in the world and once housed a city of a thousand people fortified by a 1.5-mile rampart, built in the 13th century for the Nasrids (one of the ethnic groups of Spanish Muslims). In the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Moors from Granada and moved into Alhambra, and it was here that Christopher Columbus requested royal endorsement to fund his sea voyage that year. The Holy Roman Emperor eventually took over, but because he respected the Moorish palace, built his own palace using the existing Alhambra instead of destroying everything. Moorish craftsmanship of Alhambra is first-class. Lead fittings between the pre-cut section of the columns allow the structures to flex during earthquakes, preventing destruction.

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View from Alhambra
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Intricate carvings everywhere
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Patio de Arrayanes
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Patio de los Leones
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Views everywhere
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Islamic architecture
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Look at that stalactite detailing!
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Gardens
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Open-air rooms
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Geometric patterns
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One more view from above
After a rousing start to our time in Granada, we were ready for food. And what a city for food! Granada is one of the only remaining cities in Spain to offer a free tapa with every drink, which makes eating out in Granada almost ludicrously inexpensive. Most bars will cook a large pot of something and hand out a small plate of the dish with every drink. It’s a brilliant way to eat, but will sadly never exist in America. Our favorite tapas were at El Tabernáculo (a tiny tapas bar filled with kitschy religious decorations), Bar Los Diamantes (multiple locations throughout the city), Bodegas Castaneda (always crowded), and Taberna La Tana (perfect for wine snobs).

 

With our bellies full, we were finally ready to check out our Airbnb, the place I’d been most excited about staying at on this trip. Our neighborhood retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Our room was on the second floor, with a direct view of Alhambra. Our rooftop, which is where we spent siestas and had breakfast every morning, had an even better view, and we loved that we didn’t have to trek out to the crowded viewpoint nearby, where all the other tourists have to wait around for hours.

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Wondering why we even deserve this rooftop
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Breakfast every morning
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Casual rooftop views
To get to the rest of the touristy sites, we had an entertaining downhill walk through Albayzín’s winding tight alleys. We never took the same path twice because it’s so easy to get slightly lost. But Albayzín is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost want to get lost in it, like you do in Venice.

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Typical street in our neighborhood
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Watch out for the tree!
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View of Alhambra from every corner
One of the most interesting things to do in Granada is to visit Alcaicería for Granada’s Great Bazaar, especially if you haven’t been to a Muslim country before. Like the souks we visited in Marrakech, Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul, you can find spices, precious goods, and other souvenirs. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century and survived until the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it. A replica was built, but only half the size of the original labyrinth. Nearby is Corral del Carbón, a caravanserai (protected place for merchants to rest their animals, spend the night and eat). This is the only surviving caravanserai of Granada’s original 14. Granada was a stop on the Silk Road, as silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside.

While you obviously come to Granada for the Alhambra, we fell in love with this city for its views and its soul. We spent hours sitting on our balcony and aimlessly wandered the streets. It’s impossible not to be enchanted here.

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re sick of tapas, have a fancier meal. Make reservations at Mirador de Morayma and request a table with a view of Alhambra. For piononos (a small, sweet cylindrical pastry from Granada), try Casa Ysla, which offers piononos in various flavors.

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View during our dinner at Mirador de Morayma
Our default drinks to order at any bar in Andalucia were tinto (house red), tinto de verano (house red with carbonated water or lemonade, served with ice), vermút (fortified white wine we know as vermouth, sometimes served with soda), or a cerveza (beer).

Take in the views of the city at Mirador de la Churra. While we didn’t have to go to the crowded Mirador San Nicolas because the view from our apartment was basically the same thing, we did go to Mirador de la Churra for an incredible view of Albayzín. Most tourists don’t know about this viewpoint, as it was completely empty when we were there.

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Peeking through someone’s gate
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View of our neighborhood. Can you spot our Airbnb?
As soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada, book your tickets to Alhambra because tickets sell out months in advance. You must enter within 30 minutes of your selected time.

Córdoba

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an art history class that changed my life. I didn’t end up majoring in art or art history in college like I thought I would. Nor did I become a curator like I had dreamt of becoming when I was 15. But I did gain an appreciation for and an insatiable drive to see what I had studied in real life. This is why I became obsessed with Istanbul and teared up when I finally visited Hagia Sophia. And this is also why I couldn’t visit Andalucía without stopping by Córdoba, a quaint little town conveniently located between Sevilla and Granada. Córdoba has the famous Mezquita, one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. I’d put it up there with Petra, Mont St-Michel, Machu Picchu, Venice, and Abu Simbel as man-made sights that one must visit in one’s lifetime.

Stay

We stayed at an adorable bed & breakfast in Barrio Santa Marina, a neighborhood of winding cobblestone roads, low white-washed buildings, and lots of dogs. Oddly enough, it reminded us of Ollantaytambo in Peru. Our charming host María José brought our breakfasts of pan con tomate y jamón, fresh coffee and orange juice, and Spanish biscuits up to the rooftop in the morning.

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Buenos dias from our rooftop!
Do

Obviously, the highlight of our time was visiting La Mezquita. This former 10th-century mosque was once the center of Western Islam and rivaled Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul!). It contains over 800 arches which, despite appearances, aren’t painted red and white but are actually alternating red brick and white stone. The columns are topped with double arches — a round Romanesque arch above a Visigothic horseshoe arch. They were recycled from ancient Roman ruins and conquered Visigothic churches. They seem to recede into infinity. Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236 and turned the mosque into a Gothic church, but 70% of the original mosque structure survives to this day. A giant 16th-century cathedral now sits awkwardly in the middle of the mosque. While the mosque is about 30 feet high, the cathedral’s space soars 130 feet up. Its glorious ceiling will make you forget you were in a former mosque just seconds ago. Though it would have been quicker and less expensive for Christian builders to destroy the mosque entirely when they wanted to build a church in the center of Córdoba, they respected La Mezquita’s beauty and built their church into it instead. The differences between Catholic and Islamic aesthetics and psychology are glaring in here: horizontal vs. vertical, intimate vs. intimidating, dark vs. bright, simple vs. elaborate…

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Over 800 of these columns
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Double arches
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One of the most important Islamic sites in the world
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A cathedral sits right in the middle of the mosque
In Córdoba, patios are taken seriously, especially in May, when the city even hosts a competition for most picturesque patio. You can pop your head into any wooden door that’s open, as homeowners love to show off their patios. Calle de San Basilio has the highest concentration of patio-contest award-winners.

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Flower pots of Calle de San Basilio
Walk along the iconic Calleja de las Flores. It’s congested for obvious reasons.

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Calle de las Flores
Eat

Eat dinner at Al Grano, where we had our best meal in Córdoba. We sat at an outside table overlooking a little neighborhood basilica tucked away from the touristy areas, and our squid ink paella was blowtorched at the table. We ended our meal with unlimited amounts of limoncello and hazelnut liqueur.

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Atmospheric setting
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Paellas
Order a “fino fresquito” for a chilled white wine from the nearby Montilla-Moriles region.

Other tips

  1. Buses are convenient to catch from the station into town. You can purchase a €1.30 ticket onboard.
  2. No need to make advanced reservations to La Mezquita. Just purchase a €10 ticket from the ticket booths inside the courtyard the day of.
  3. If you only have a limited time in Córdoba, I’d recommend arriving in the late afternoon, going straight to La Mezquita, which doesn’t close until 7 pm in the summer, and then enjoying the rest of the city at night, before leaving the next morning. Córdoba was the hottest city we went to — even hotter than sizzling Sevilla — so the evening was a much more pleasant time to appreciate other sights and take a paseo with the locals while all the daytrippers have left.

Sevilla

I fell in love with Sevilla, the first city on our ten-day trip to Spain this summer. Andalucía has always seemed like a region I’d find fascinating (it’s that blend of cultures that always gets me), but I didn’t realize that flamboyant Sevilla — stereotyped by other Spaniards as being kind of a tacky city — would be the place I loved so much that it made me cry on our last day there.

Stay

We stayed in a comfortable Airbnb in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, about a 12-minute walk from the touristy Barrio Santa Cruz district and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in town.

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Our street in Sevilla

Do

The most stunning site in Sevilla is the Real Alcázar, a lavish 10th-century palace built for Moorish royalty and the oldest palace in Europe still in use. I’m not usually a fan of palaces, but the Mudejar design (mix of Islamic and Christian styles) found throughout is absolutely stunning. For example, the place’s façade seems to be classic Islamic with scalloped arches and intricate stucco patterns, but there are also Christian elements, such as a coat of arms and depictions of animals. In the Courtyard of the Maidens, the first floor of the open-air courtyard has colorful ceramic tiles, coffered wooden ceilings, and intricate scalloped arches typical of the Islamic style, while the second floor has rounded arches and minimal decoration in Renaissance style. I could have spent an entire day at Real Alcázar.

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Entrance of Real Alcazar
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The iconic Courtyard of the Maidens. Notice how the first floor is Islamic, while the second floor is Renaissance style
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Look at that ceiling!
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Underground cistern – the coolest part of Sevilla
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Another room in Real Alcazar
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One of my favorite rooms – so sunny!

Our favorite thing we did in Sevilla was take a flamenco class, which is a must in Sevilla, the home of flamenco. We spent an hour and a half at a dance school called Maestdanza, learning about the fascinating history of flamenco (a result of the mix of cultures here, of course) and learning a pretty lengthy dance combination that we were able to record ourselves at the end. 

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On our first night, we took a tapas tour with Pancho Tours. While the tour itself was not the greatest (our guide offered little information to us as we sampled everything), we were taken to four fantastic and very different tapas bars, most of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon on our own. We started at a historic bar, continued to a sleek restaurant, then onto a former convent, and ended the night watching the sunset from a swanky rooftop bar where we tasted orange wine and piononos for my first time.

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Traditional tapas and cava at the bar
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Former convent
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Fried eggplant with orange marmalade and a glass of rioja
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Orange wine from a rooftop bar
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Sunset

I loved wandering around charming Barrio Santo Cruz and entering any patio whose doors were left open for the public. In Andalucía, traditional homes have interior patios (much like Moroccan riads) and those who have decorated them extravagantly with flower pots and fountains like to show them off to the masses.

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Anytime the doors are open to a patio…
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…you’re welcome to peek inside

We visited Plaza de España and Metropol Parasol, two new sites that are almost comically flamboyant and, thus, extremely Sevillian. Plaza de España is a remnant of the failed 1929 international fair. It’s like Las Vegas attempting Mudejar style. Meanwhile, Metropol Parasol was built just a few years ago. It’s a giant undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned wooden structures that look like mushrooms. Locals still don’t quite know what to make of it, but no one is arguing about the shade that the large canopy provides.

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Extravagance at Plaza de Espana
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Lots of columns
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Nice views from the balcony
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You can rent a rowboat
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Fake bell tower
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Metropol Parasol
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You can go up to the roof and walk along the winding path

On our last night, we crossed the Guadalquivir River and roamed around Triana, the equivalent of Rome’s Trastevere (formerly working-class neighborhood across the river with good food and a lot of character). I had my best meal of the trip in this neighborhood, and as we sat outside after dinner at 11pm surrounded by locals, I teared up, realizing then how much I had fallen in love with Sevilla.

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Tearing up in Triana

Plaza del Cabildo is a lovely semi-circular square near the Sevilla Cathedral but tucked away from the crowds.

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Plaza del Cabildo

Eat

Every single meal we ate in Sevilla was incredible, which probably explains why this city is so dear to me. The best restaurants we tried were Las Golondrinas, Castizo, Bodega Dos de Mayo, and La Cata Ciega. Sit at the bar and order a tinto de verano (a popular summer drink of red wine and spritz) and share a few tapas. You will wonder why the rest of the world eats any other way.

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Grilled pork, mushrooms, and squid
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Best meal of our entire trip was at Las Golondrinas in Triana

Other tips

The city center is very walkable, but we took a cab from the Santa Justa train station into town since Ubers are cheap.

Sevilla is sizzling. Literally. It’s the hottest large city in Europe, and temperatures hovered in the high 90s each day we were there. However, it’s a dry heat, and we prepared properly by wearing our lightest clothing, walking on the shady side of the road, and taking siestas during the hottest time of the day (4-6pm). In the end, it was doable and most definitely worth it.

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Another flamboyant building in Sevilla

Madrid

What’s the best way to end an epic vacation? Plan a layover in a city that you’re pretty ambivalent about before going home. Thanks to our 23-hour overnight layover in Madrid, I wasn’t as depressed returning to the U.S. as I had been when leaving Positano and Milan earlier. I tend to get emotionally attached to certain places, so I look for ways to protect my heart.

Anthony and I didn’t want to waste our layover at a hotel, so our plan was to roam around the city and hop into different places throughout the night. Coincidentally, Spaniards are known for staying out late, so Madrid was an ideal place for this all-night venture.

We started in one of the most touristy parts of Madrid, Puerta del Sol, which means “Gate of the Sun”.  It was originally one of the gates in a huge wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century. When we arrived, there was a mariachi band playing in front of an imposing statue, which at first made perfect sense, like finding a hula dancer performing in the middle of Waikiki. But then we remembered — hey, wait a minute, mariachi is from Mexico! Wrong continent, guys.

The area reminded me of Rome, with old buildings, cobblestone roads, and perfect uplighting. We stumbled into a tapas bar called La Antoñita and were led all the way back into a courtyard perfect for intimate meals. We ordered some charcuterie and a glass of rioja. Holy smokes, Spain, I finally get it. I understand now why Spanish ham has such hype. Our plate of charcuterie included jamón ibérico, which melted in our mouths and was nothing like those sad cold cuts you buy in American grocery stores. Jamón ibérico is made from black Iberian pigs in Spain and Portugal. After the fattened pigs follow a strict diet of barley, maize, olive, and acorns, the ham is salted and dried for two weeks, dried for another four to six weeks, then cured for at least twelve months. I would travel to Spain again just to eat more ham.

Jamón ibérico
Jamón ibérico

After wandering around the city and passing through the famous Plaza Mayor, we decided it was time for dessert and headed to Chocolatería San Ginés. This famous café has been serving chocolate con churros (hot chocolate and churros) since 1894. It didn’t close until 7 am, making it the perfect place to hang out overnight. The interior felt like an upscale diner, with lots of mirrors, wood paneling, green velvet seats, and marble tables. The thick, strong, dark hot chocolate was served in a mug, and the churros were light and crispy. We must have sat there for hours, slowly eating our churros and noticing the waves of crowds trickling in throughout the night. The workers were so kind, always giving us free water and never questioning our stay. During our time there, Anthony taught me how to play Griddlers, a picture logic puzzle that he had been playing on subway rides back home. I ended up becoming quite addicted to Griddlers. He later told me that this moment was one of his favorites on our entire trip.

Chocolate con churros
Chocolate con churros

Eventually, we were too tired to even sit still, so we left Chocolatería San Ginés and continued our journey. It was extremely late by then — especially for us, as we’re usually in bed by 11 every night — and roaming around in a foreign but somehow familiar city felt surreal. As we were walking, we heard a huge truck racing down the street. It hastily swerved past us, and just as Anthony turned his head to glare at the driver, the truck stopped and started backing up slowly, straight into a huge awning. The truck knocked off the entire awning, which landed right on top of a woman sitting at an outdoor restaurant. Glass was shattered, and the woman was completely bent forward onto the table. She remained motionless as we cautiously walked toward her. Surprisingly, the woman eventually stood up and looked shocked more than anything else. It was a terrifying incident to witness, but as more and more people arrived to help her, we knew we could be of no use — especially with our level of Spanish — and left the scene. Surreal, right?

We made our way to Retiro Park, one of the largest parks in Madrid. It once belonged to the Spanish Monarchy but became a public park in the late 19th century. The night was windy, so we had to huddle together for warmth. By the crack of dawn, dozens of joggers were out and about, and we noticed how fancy the neighboring area is.

Streets in Madrid have signs with graphics on the buildings. This is the dancing street, obviously.
Streets in Madrid have signs with graphics on the buildings. This is the dancing street, obviously.

In the daytime, the city felt different. Last night, we had been surrounded by shady study abroad students and late-night locals. Now we passed tourists and office workers starting their day. We spent the rest of our time in Madrid eating and sightseeing, napping in front of an opera house, and walking through palace gardens. We had more amazing jamón ibérico for breakfast at a cheap cafe, and then shared paella and tapas at a food market that felt just like Brooklyn. We missed Rick Steves, whose guide books had been so useful in Italy and Paris. I hadn’t bothered to buy a guide book for Madrid since we had less than a day here, but I regretted that decision, as we could sense the lack of commentary as we meandered through town.

Honey mustard bacalao, garlic pepper octopus, and bacalao with tomato and vegetables
Honey mustard bacalao, garlic pepper octopus, and bacalao with tomato and vegetables

By the time we had to return to the airport, I was emotionally ready to go home. Madrid had been more fun than I expected, but, at the same time, felt bizarre. It had put enough distance between Italy and New York, and now my heart was sufficiently protected.

My first day back in New York was beautiful, with clear blue skies, 80-degree weather, and little humidity. It was as if New York knew it had to impress me. When I left my apartment to go to work, I was faced with film trailers parked all along our street. In New York, you get used to your street being used for films, but, after being in awe of so many places the past few weeks, it was a nice reminder that other people are actually in awe of your home. The ease with which I was able to refill my Metrocard was much appreciated after struggling with other cities’ transit systems. And once I got onto the train, I relished the blast of air-conditioning that filled each car. I got off at my stop near Columbus Circle and was overwhelmed by how attractive this area is. As I walked to work, I noticed some European tourists and was excited for them. Glad to be back, New York!

Traveling is even better when you know you're coming home to the best city in the world
Traveling is even better when you know you’re coming home to the best city in the world

Tips for future travelers:

  1. If you’re like me and get emotionally attached to places, plan to have a long layover in a city that doesn’t intrigue you. In fact, make it a challenging layover like ours. Instead of getting a hotel room, we roamed around all night, so we were looking forward to a bed — any bed, even a bed back in America.
  2. Layovers are a great way to explore a city that you wouldn’t necessarily want to visit for its own sake. As long as you have at least five hours, I would definitely recommend leaving your luggage at the airport and finding the quickest way into town.
  3. You can control how long your layover is with a little trick that I learned while planning for my next international trip: I needed to fly from Manila to New York but noticed that most of the cheap flights had layovers in Seoul, a city that I would love to visit. Unfortunately, the layovers were just a few hours long. Since I wanted at least a few days in Seoul, I changed my search to a multi-city search: Manila to Seoul, and Seoul to New York two days later. For the same price of a flight from Manila to New York, I can now have my two-day layover in Seoul.
  4. If you want to avoid paying for a hotel on an overnight layover like we did, do a little research first. Make sure you’ll be in a city that is safe at night. We lucked out because Madrid is alive practically all night. Then, have some late-night places in mind that can be hangouts when you’re too tired to roam around. We didn’t just stumble into Chocolatería San Ginés; I had found it online and knew that it would be open all night and was a good place to hang out.
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¡Olé!