Spain & Portugal: Top 10 Must Do’s For A First Time Traveller
Since returning home from a summer of European travels, Sarah Grimstone has been daydreaming of being swept away through endless laneways following the scent of freshly made Paella and the sweet delicate Pastéis de Nata that was worth the 20 minute drive out of town for.
Her fondest travel memories of exploring Spain and Portugal were a combination of the places she visited, the people she met and the incredible food she ate.
As a first time traveller to both countries, Sarah decided to book a European tour and she had no idea what to expect. She fantasised about the Spanish flamenco dancers, beaches and the endless jugs of sangria and she was not disappointed as this turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.
If you don’t have Spain and Portugal on your hit list for your upcoming travels, here are Sarah's top 10 reasons why you must go for the first time and also some of the essential things you should do in both countries!
In no particular order:
1. Participate in the world's largest tomato fight at La Tomatina - Tomato Festival
This was what originally allured me to want to travel to Spain as I had heard for as long as I can remember about the famous La Tomatina festival. It truly is one of a kind! I was not brave enough to attempt climbing the greased up pole to claim the ham slapping glory but we had a few people come within 1.5 metres of victory.
When the clock striked 11, the trucks arrived and it was bloody chaos. We all held on for dear life as these massive trucks slowly made their way through 20,000 people to the drop off points along the main road. 5 trucks or so later, the fight was on! I will never forget that hour of madness in a tiny village called Buñol on the outskirts of Valencia in the middle of nowhere.
This is a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed! La Tomatina is held in the month of August.
2. Bike Riding through Valencia’s old River Turia Gardens down to the Arts and Science Park
Valencia is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and somewhere you have to add to your Spanish itinerary. The River Turia Gardens are a place to behold! With 9km of open parks, gardens and fountains, it’s one of the biggest urban gardens in Spain. It truly is a genius solution to a once problematic issue.
After completely re-routing the river bed, this parkland was transformed for the residence of Valencia and i tell you what, we spent an entire half day exploring this place. I visited the local Mercado Central which is one of the oldest Markets still in operation in Europe and myself and my friends had an amazing picnic spread of local Spanish produce right in the heart of the parklands at Puente Del Mar.
It truly was one of my favourite days in Spain.
3. Enjoy a relaxing afternoon rowing boats and exploring El Retiro Park followed by rooftop bar hopping in Madrid before a Flamenco show
El Retiro Park is the gem of Madrid in my eyes. It reminds me a lot of the Botanical Gardens back home in Melbourne so I felt an instant connection to this place. There is so much to do and see here so make sure you come prepared! I would say that if there is one place you don’t miss, let it be Palácio De Crystal.
This translates to Crystal Palace and it’s a beautiful conservatory building with a stunning lake out the front with little turtles swimming around. In the heart of the Gardens, you can’t miss the cute row boats that you can hire. So grab yourself a friend and be sure to give it a go to get some Insta photos!
If you’re looking for a place to cool off, I highly recommend heading up to Tartan Roof on top of Círculo de Bellas Artes. It costs €3 to get up there but I promise it’s worth it! Not only do you get a stunning rooftop view down Gran Vía, they have some super tasty cocktails with something to suit everyones tastebuds. From here you can head to one of the many amazing Flamenco Shows around town!
Madrid is renowned for having some of the best Flamenco dancers and with so many around, you’ll be spoilt for choice but Cardamomo Tablao Flamenco is a good place to start.
4. Lunch at La Boqueria Mercat followed by sunset at Park Güell in Barcelona
I always knew Barcelona would be hard to top with so many friends speaking so highly of it.
I unfortunately only had 1 day here and it was not enough. This city has so much to explore and I only touched the surface. From what I did explore though, I can say that La Boqueria Mercat which is a fresh food market hidden within the soul of Las Ramblas is not to be missed with some of the best food produce I have ever seen!
The selections of delicatessen meats and fresh seafood (the oysters made my knees weak they were unbelievable) will leave your mouth watering. You can also score a super tasty juice for around €1 if you do some hunting. Once you’ve fed your stomach to the brim, jump on a local bus up to Park Güell for some beautiful mosaic artwork and a stunning sunset.
Get there early and be sure to pre-purchase your tickets if you want to get out onto the famous lookout spot. I opted to view it from a distance as it was under construction at the time and very busy but still beautiful none the less! I loved walking around the park which I would allocate at least an hour to do before sunset.
Check these Barcelona safety tips before arriving to ensure a hassle free trip.
5. Churros at Chocolatería San Ginés is a no brainer after some shopping down Gran Vía in Madrid
Another Madrid favourite has made the list. This place... words can’t explain it. I am not a massive fan of Churros if I’m honest and I think I’ve only had them maybe once or twice back home in Australia. I went to this place 3 TIMES! I developed a severe Churros addiction and I don’t think I can ever have them again after how good they are here.
Chocolatería San Ginés is the official original home of the Churros opening doors in 1894 and the place is covered in pictures of famous people who have had the privilege of dining here. Believe it or not, this restaurant is pumping out Churros 24 hours a day with its doors open 7 days a week!
It goes through sporadic busy periods but it doesn’t take long before you are seated so come at any time. It is known as a bit of a hot spot in the early hours of the morning as everyone piles out of the nightclubs so there is a hot tip for you if you are planning on heading there late!
But before or after your chocolate churros fix, be sure to visit the busy streets of Gran Vía. Anything that you need, you will find it here. The only place I bought clothes on my trip away was on this street and even if you just go to see the mammoth five-storey Primark, it’s worth a few hours of your time. If Spain had a Times Square, this would be it.
6. Venture out to Pena Palace but not before a breakfast stop at Pastéis de Belém during your stay in Lisbon
While I’m on the topic of food, it’s hard to say what comes first or second between the Churros or the Pastéis De Nata on my Europe travel adventures. Portuguese tarts as they are known everywhere else around the world are a sensory experience to devour. The sweet soft custard melts in your mouth as you crunch into the flaky heavenly layered pastry that tastes to good to be true.
Myself and my partner made the trek from Lisbon via taxi out to Belém and it was worth going even just to see the Belém Tower. Much like San Ginés, Pastéis de Belém is the original dessert maker of the Portuguese tarts since 1837. The lines are always out the door to secure even just 1 of these pots of gold so it’s worth getting the 6 pack if you can to save some for later! They do make in peak season up to 50,000 tarts a day which is unbelievable.
There is a rumour that only 3 people in the world know this ancient recipe and they are unable to travel together for multiple reasons. Crazy hey!
After your Pastéis have gone down, you will want to jump on your prefered transport to take you out to Sintra to Pena Palace. This colourful architectural masterpiece is perched right on the top of a hill with sweeping views out across Sintra and beyond.
Make sure you bring your water bottle for the walk up from the historic centre as it’s a steep incline but if you’ve traveled Europe backpacker style, this won’t be a surprise! They have a great cafe at the end of the tour for refreshing beverages to take in the palace from the balcony with lots of photo worthy spots for another Instagram snap.
7. Visit the famous Livraria Lello Bookshop in Porto followed by a walk over Dom Luís I Bridge to sample some Port in Gaia
Before arriving in Porto, I had never heard of Livraria Lello. It wasn’t long before word spread about why they had lines out the door at what seemed to be a normal bookshop.
It turns out that J. K. Rowling lived in Porto during the early 1990’s as an English teacher and frequented this bookshop. It has risen to fame as it is believed to be a direct influence to the Harry Potter books and the world created within. It’s not hard to see the correlation between them as this book store is truly a magnificent wonder.
You require a ticket purchased which can be recouped upon book purchase in store to enter the library and you will need to line up to get into the store so make sure you leave plenty of time.
On a super hot day, you don’t want to get caught standing in the line so take shade if you go after midday. I purchased a small Shakespeare short story book after looking around the store and taking photos for quite some time. I will cherish that book forever.
The best way to end the day is to work your way down the snaking streets to the river of Porto where the true beauty of the city shows itself magnificently.
The walk across Dom Luís is breathtaking and a perfect spot to take in the city bellow. It’s also a great opportunity to head to the other side of the river and explore the neighbouring city Gaia. The waterfront is a great place to try some local Port that originated in Porto itself.
I highly recommend heading to Sandeman where they will do a fantastic free Port tasting for those wanting to try but might not be interested in buying a whole glass or bottle.
Before arriving be sure to learn some useful Portuguese travel phrases.
8. Kayak through sea caves during a beach day in Lagos and fill your appetite with the best burgers from Nah Nah Bah!
Lagos was a super impromptu trip outside of our Busabout tour where myself and my friends booked a local coach trip from Lisbon down to Lagos for 2 nights. It’s a party town with an amazing nightlife and a great break if you want to take 5 from sightseeing and just want to soak up some sunshine on the beach.
We spent the whole first day just relaxing but decided to become a tourist again not long after we saw they had kayak cave tours that depart from the beach daily! We booked our tickets and jumped onto the morning tour the following day and it was in my top 5 best days.
We spent hours paddling through open caves and passing all the beautiful beaches on the Portugal coastline. It’s a great way to see a lot without hiring a car or walking. They even pull up to a private beach for a swim or snorkel to give the arms a rest. The best part about the end of the tour, is you don’t even need to paddle pack!
Everyone is connected up with rope and clips and you are pulled all the way back to the main beach so you can just lie back and soak in the view! But you will work up a killer appetite from being in the sun all day so do yourself a favour and head to Na Na Bah. I was recommended this burger place through a friend and it really hit the spot. You won’t be unsatisfied with the portions and the taste is to die for.
Once again this is a bit of a hidden gem if you travel to Portugal but does get busy! So get down early for a feed before hitting the town.
9. Visit one of the Game of Thrones filming locations at the beautiful Peñíscola Castle then take a swim with an incredible view or sample the freshest local seafood the city has to offer.
I can not recommend this additional day trip with Busabout enough! Once again, this was not on the agenda but I’m so glad we went. A short drive out from Valencia is this historical location that almost has a Greek feel to the side streets leading up to Peñíscola Castle and you only have to look at photos to see it is worth your time.
As a bit of a Game Of Thrones buff, I was instantly hooked on going to catch a glimpse at one of the many filming locations spread out across Europe. You can see why this particular location was of interest as it has kept a feeling of true authenticity to its past time.
I loved exploring the grounds and looking out to the endless ocean. We eventually made our way down to the main beach in the heart of the town for a relaxing swim and some of the finest local fresh produce in Spain.
If there is one thing I can tell you about seafood in Europe, it’s to only get it from towns that have a fishing port to ensure you are getting the freshest quality available.
Madrid for instance is somewhere you wouldn’t get seafood. But you can eat your heart out in Peñíscola! My recommendation is the Calamari. So delicious and you’ll have an abundance of it!
10. Take a trip up the 100 year old Funicular railway in San Sebastián to the Monte Igueldo lookout followed by Pintxos down the bussling laneways of the city.
San Sebastián is the beating heart of the Basque Country and there is a reason why Lonely Planet has it listed as their number one foodie experience in the world. This may be number 10 but as mentioned, these are not in order.
To me, San Sebastián was my number 1 location in Spain just tipping out Barcelona (Porto was my favourite in Portugal).
To me this place is the perfect combination of summer holiday on the best Spanish beaches meets busy city streets with endless shopping. You could very easily sit on the sand every day at La Concha (that’s the option I opted to go with) or spend all your time in the main streets exploring to your hearts content. It has something for everyone and it’s hard to be disappointed.
On the one day I plucked up the strength to pull myself away from the beach, I took a short trip up to Monte Igueldo via the Funicular and it was as the best way to see the city for what it is. It’s worth making the trip for the rail cart up the mountain alone as it’s a truly magical experience. You can’t help but look out the window in disbelief that it is pulling you up so high on such a steep incline! The old girls still got it after 100 years.
Once at the top you will be treated to the most spectacular view and my personal favourite lookout in all of Spain. If you want to let the child in you out for the day, there is also a great little amusement park on top of the mountain. But be sure to get back down before it gets too dark as the city comes to life after sunset. I had heard so much hype about the illustrious Pintxos and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement.
There are so many places to go and you just want to eat everything you see! I tried to do as much research as possible as to where to go and what to eat but honestly when you are there in the moment, you just want to follow your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s a sensory overload and it’s wonderful. I will however say that my highlights were definitely the beef cheek from Atari Gastroteka and the mushroom risotto from Sirimiri bar down in Old Town.
My last reccomendation which I would say is the best way to end your time in San Sebastián is visiting La Viña for their world famous cheesecake. It will be the perfect food ending to your Pintxos adventures.
So grab your suitcase and get booking your next advenuture. Spain and Portugal are waiting for you.
By Sarah Grimstone