Mini Spain Travel Guide: 3 Beautiful Andalusian Cities
This fall was my fifth trip to Spain in my 29 years of life – something for which I am very grateful. It all started in 2000 when my family went (I was 11) – the first time I ever tried café con leche (steamed whole milk with espresso), a churro (fried dough pastry with warm chocolate) and gazpacho (a chilled soup with all sorts of topping). This time, Scott came with me – it was cool to watch him be filled with Spain’s wonder and beauty, especially since he had never been to Europe before this trip.
You may ask, why do you keep going back to Spain? Well, I do plan to visit other countries in my lifetime, but I’m pretty hooked on Spain, and I’m 99.9% sure it will always be my favorite. I’m ¼ Spanish and love the fact that I still have family there (in Madrid and Asturias which is northern Spain), and learn more about Spain and my heritage every time I go back. Plus, I have fallen in love with the Spanish culture – the language, the attitude, the food and wine, and the amazing sites and scenery. I feel rejuvenated and at home when I go there.
And Spain’s regions are so different from each other, so there is always something new to learn, or taste. If you haven’t been, make sure to get to Spain at some point in your life. Anyways, I put together a mini travel guide for Andalusia, the region I just visited for the first time. It’s essentially the entire southern region of Spain – known for many of my favorite things — tapas, fresh seafood, fiestas and the classic Spanish dance, flamenco (the birthplace, actually!).
Exterior view of the Mosque
Cordoba is about a 45-minute train ride from Madrid, and is the perfect place for an overnight stay. You can walk the whole city in a couple hours or so, and most of it is lined with cobblestone streets, little shops, restaurants and bakeries. I would say this was the least touristy city of the three.
Interior view of the Mosque
Must Do: The Mosque
Known as “La mezquita,” this amazing structure started as an Islamic mosque and was converted to a Christian cathedral in the 13th century. There’s no need to get a ticket ahead of time, but you’ll just wait in line for 10-30 minutes (depending on what time of year you’re there). This place was jaw-dropping-ly beautiful. It’s easy to spend an hour in here. It was amazing to think about the many people who had worshipped there before, and I especially loved the fact that multiple religions had been practiced under the same structure. Plus, I was lucky enough to watch a wedding procession and some of the ceremony inside of the mosque in one of the small sanctuaries. These people dress like royalty and I love it.
This place was my favorite in Cordoba because it was a local spot and it’s the real deal. It’s located in the old city, tucked back in around tobacco shops and bakeries. They have one menu del dia (menu of the day) for lunch, and you can choose from 2-3 options for each course (first, second and dessert or coffee), for about 10 euro – which now is basically 10 bucks!! They had classic Andalusian fare, like pisto, which is like a ratatouille with a fried egg on top (this one had French fries on top too! Bonus), and randomly, pumpkin soup. They don’t have an English menu so bring you’re Google translate or dictionary if you don’t have your Spanish down!
Nice dinner spot, also in the old city – they serve both tapas and raciones (bigger dishes) that come in half portions or full portions. A big thing in Andalusia, especially Cordoba, is oxtail, and the one here was pretty decent. They have other yummy stuff like a Manchego cheese plate and an enormous grilled vegetable platter. Don’t bother with their croquettes (basically fried bread with meat or seafood filling) – they were kind of cold and disappointing (And since I’m talking about croquettes – I was disappointed all-around with the croquettes in Andalusia so I stopped ordering them. I think you’re better off ordering them a little further north … you can find some really good ones in Madrid and around Barcelona). They have menus in both Spanish and English, but this place wasn’t touristy at all. … lots of locals.
Good lunch spot near the mosque but definitely more on the touristy side. They’ve got classic Spanish food – Scott got a bean stew that he really loved. They also have beautiful warm and cold salads with toppings like white asparagus, chickpeas and fresh tuna. They have both Spanish and English menus, and a little something for everyone.
Gardens of the Alcazar
Seville feels literally like something out of a fairy tale. The place is basically lined in Spanish tile and cobblestone streets. I found the people to be the warmest here.
Must Do: Alcazar
Sounds dramatic, but this place literally brought me to tears and touched the depths of my being. I have a thing for fans, and this ancient palace literally has a room FULL of the most beautiful fans I have ever seen in my entire life – fans made from lace, mother of pearl and other amazing materials. Much like Seville itself, the Alcazar is covered in Spanish tile. The gardens are seemingly endless – it’s easy to spend hours here (especially since there is a spot to enjoy a café con leche or glass of wine in the middle of the garden, when your legs get tired!). Similar to the Mosque in Cordoba, the Alcazar used to be a Moorish (Muslim) palace, but was converted to a catholic one. Block off a solid half-day for the Alcazar so you can really enjoy it and take it in.
Fan made from mother of pearl inside Alcazar
Seville is the birthplace of flamenco, so you really must go when you’re there. Plus, it’s so much fun to watch the best flamenco dancers in the world do their thing. Their passion and excitement is infectious – you’ll love every minute. Los Gallos is the place to go because it’s intimate … Go to the late show because it’s supposed to be better, according to my Spanish cousin (he says their legs are more warmed up!). You can’t take photos here though (I may have gotten in trouble for trying to do that…).
If you have more time:
Maria Luisa Park & Plaza de España
This park is unlike any park I’ve ever seen – it’s full of horse-drawn carriages, little gazebos, incredibly tall trees and beautiful birds. Plaza de España is on the side of the park and is also lined with that beautiful Spanish tile that I can’t shut up about.
View from Cathedral
It’s right next to the Alcazar and it is definitely something to see. Christopher Columbus’ tomb is inside and there is a tower you can climb to get a fabulous view of Seville. Like the Alcazar, it combines Moorish and Gothic stylistic features.
For yoga: Sadhana Yoga Center
A great way to improve your Spanish is to take a yoga class in Spanish (and if you think about it, Sanskrit is spoken globally in yoga studios, so they have that in common). Everyone was very welcoming at this studio and I loved Ricardo, the teacher, because he provided a gentle, slower practice that also included some challenge and longer-held postures. I’ve noticed and admired that Spaniards are much slower than Americans when it comes to yoga – not a surprise, since they are slower with life in general (eating, waking up, etc.). This studio seems to offer mostly Hatha yoga classes at a moderate level.
This city is a perfect place to “tapas-hop” for lunch and/or – grab drinks and a few tapas here, and then walk a little and grab a few more. …
This place is a must-go in Seville because it truly gives you the classic tapas experience, meaning you don’t sit down. The bar is lined in a chalkboard and that’s how the server keeps track of everything you order. It’s pretty much always packed (from experience and what I’ve read) but I suggest you suck it up and just enjoy the experience, because it’s worth it! Order the garbonzos con espinacas (chickpeas with spinach) – it’s spicy and warm – I so wish I had the recipe because I’ve tried to re-create it at home and it’s just not the same. It’s a staple in Seville – you’ll see it everywhere — but it was especially good there. If you go, order the rice – it’s also slightly spicy and has Spanish sausage mixed in. Skip the Spanish tortilla here – it was decent, but I’ve had better.
La Bartola Eggplant & Cod stack
This place is definitely not traditional, but the food is damn good. They’ve got classic Spanish tapas (like croquettes and Manchego) but put an emphasis on veggies and “trendier” foods like eggplant stacks and wok bowls. They also have delicious bread and seafood — especially pulpo (octopus). It’s a little hard to get a table here, and service kind of sucked, but if you look past those things, it’s pretty solid.
The food here was decent but not anything to write home about. I’m calling it out because the atmosphere was great – classic Spanish bar scene, but it wasn’t too crowded (maybe because the food’s not great!). The staff was also incredibly cheerful and friendly. If you go here, order the white bean dish and the chorizo.
Exterior of Las Columnas
This place was hands-down my favorite place to eat in Seville. ORDER THE ATUN CON TOMATE (tuna with tomato). It sounds boring but it’s seriously the best tuna I’ve ever had. It’s 4 euro and comes with potatoes and bread (BTW, tapas are usually around 3 to 5 euro a pop and are decent in size). Avoid the fried anchovies – they don’t taste like anything. But get the fried eggplant with honey – delicious. This place also gives you the true Spanish tapas bar scene – lots of people but easy to find a spot at the bar with a fairly attentive staff. You cannot miss Las Columnas if you’re in Seville!
Granada is a magical little city nestled in the mountains. It’s definitely very different than Seville, but worth the trip. The people weren’t quite as friendly, in my opinion, but the food was better.
Must Do: Alhambra
Some folks cruise in for the Alhambra and then leave. I wouldn’t recommend that, because the rest of Granada is worth your time. BUT the Alhambra is definitely incredible – another beautiful palace, and also, a fortress, which housed the Moorish monarchs of Southern Spain, and later, Roman emperors. It combines both Moorish and Renaissance architecture styles. The gardens are even more mind-blowingly gorgeous than the ones at the Alcazar (they’re a bit less manicured too, which I prefer). Set a solid half to full day aside for this one — there’s a lot to see. If you’re up for a little nature walk, start in the village and trek up to the Alhambra (it’s steep but a nice little workout that takes about a half hour).
Yoga Estudio. This studio was incredibly different than the one in Seville. I think the main difference was the teacher. First off, she was female. But Eladia is a fire-y Spanish woman who wants things a very certain way. She was incredibly kind but was a little abrupt in her guidance (or in this case, commands!) during some postures. She also didn’t like that I closed my eyes in some of the poses (haha). Despite that, I would recommend the studio if you like the Iyengar tradition, which is very focused on alignment and form.
Uhhhh, this place has FREE tapas with every drink you order, basically in every bar/restaurant (this is reason enough to stay a while). And I don’t mean the tapas that you find in many American tapas restaurants (you know what I’m talking about – a dish the size of your thumb). I’m talking hearty tapas – not enough to be a meal but if you round it out with a few more or some raciones (larger plates), you’re good to go. Of course, you have to be willing to try whatever they serve you, but that just makes it more fun, right!?
Pulpo at La Fontana
This place is great for both dinner and breakfast/brunch. Their tapas all come on slices of bread, which is different from most places, but good nonetheless. They’ve got great house red wines, and an amazing pulpo (octopus) dish that is layered in with potatoes. GET CHURROS HERE. I have had churros every time I’ve been in Spain and these were by far the best – so good that we went back for round two the next day. Their Spanish tortilla is also the best I had on this whole trip – just very traditional and delicious. They’ve also got a wide selection of tostadas (enormous pieces of toast) with sweet and savory toppings, like jams and butter, and Spanish ham and Manchego. Café con leche is on point, too.
Tortilla & Churros breakfast at La Fontana
Picnic from charcuterie board at Bodegas
This place is typically pretty packed but just put your name in at the bar, get a free tapa with your drink and hang out until your table is ready. The dining room is fairly small and full of Spanish tile (love it). The servers are extremely friendly. The menu is huge but the mixed platters to share are pretty incredible. We got a half portion of the cold meat and cheese platter that had so much food, that we had enough to make a picnic out of it the next day. It was incredible – 3 different types of cheeses, smoked trout, chorizo, fresh jams, bread of course – just to name a few!
This is another MUST in Granada. It’s notorious for its delicious and FREE fried seafood tapas. The fried seafood in Spain is just not like it is in the States, seriously. You actually taste the fish, instead of here (at least when I’ve had it!), where it just takes like fried stuff, and not fish. They served us a decent portion of fried shark, anchovies and shrimp. SO GOOD. It’s a good place for beer – probably because they’ve got a lot of fried stuff. Their mushrooms are fabulous, too. BTW, this is a place where you have to mentally prepare for a crowd (again, it’s just worth it, so suck it up!). You probably won’t sit down either.
A few miscellaneous notes:
Housing: Depending on what you want, I recommend saving a buck and staying in a hostel, a hostal (a little bit of an upgrade from a hostel) or Air b’nb (that’s what we did this time around and it’s much cheaper than in the states). I really enjoy getting the feeling of living like a local in each place. Of course, there are hotels everywhere too — up to you.
Transportation: You’ve got two options for exploring Spain — the first is their train system Renfe and their bus system ALSA. I have never had an issue with either of them and have used them a significant amount on my travels. Tickets are normally priced around $20-40 per person. You can book before online or at the station. Renting a car is the other option. Once you’re in cities and towns, walking is the best way to see the city. Of course, there are taxis (not big on Uber there) if you don’t want to walk or your legs get tired.
Seasons: The only time I haven’t been in Spain is the spring, so I can’t speak to that time (I’m sure it’s beautiful) but my favorite time to be there is the fall. None of the cities are jam-packed and it’s slightly chilly but comfortable enough to walk around. And in my experience, the sun is almost always shining! I would avoid exploring Andalusia in the summer months because it is supposed to be very touristy and extremely hot.
Meal Timing: In a nutshell, Spaniards aren’t into breakfast much — they typically grab a piece of toast with some butter/jam or olive oil/salt and a coffee, or they’ll have a small pastry. Then, they typically have a heartier snack of Spanish tortilla or something like that (and maybe a beer) around 11 am. Lunch, on the other hand, they pull out all the stops. It’s around 2-3 pm, and typically lasts for at leasts an hour. It’s traditionally several courses (2-3) and is the biggest meal of the day, and often with wine. Later, around 5 or 6, they will have some tapas, and then at like 9:30-11pm, they have a light dinner of leftovers, salads, soups or something of the sort. I really love this routine, so I usually adjust to it fairly smoothly (except I miss a big breakfast sometimes). If you struggle adjusting to that way of eating, do your own thing — just know that most places won’t be open for lunch before 1-ish, and for dinner before 8-ish. Sometimes, it’s fun to tapas-hop for meals, too!
Plate of fried seafood and potatoes at lunch in Granada.
Attitudes around Food: My impression of Spaniards’ approach to eating and food is that it is incredibly healthy… when I say healthy, I do not mean that they eat clean, or they eat “healthy” foods. Sure, they have their fruits & veggies. But they also have their churros & fried seafood. When you go there, you won’t be bombarded with “free-from” claims everywhere you look and in every menu you open. It’s so refreshing, and, to me, really how it should be everywhere. They aren’t afraid of food or receiving pleasure from it. As my cousin (in Madrid) said to me once, “Eating is a way to celebrate being alive three times a day.” I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons why I love him so much.
Language: In any of these cities I’ve mentioned, most staff in restaurants and hotels will know English, BUT give Spanish a try, if it’s new to you. Locals really appreciate it and love to see the effort (they will also be nicer to you!). Plus, it’s fun. Grab a Spanish dictionary and/or workbook before you leave. To get better when you’re there, ask for the Spanish menu (if there is an option) and talk to strangers and locals in Spanish, even if you’re clearly American. 🙂