Monday, January 27, 2014

Solo travel in Spain - San Sebastian, Barcelona, Granada, Seville

In October 2012 I decided to travel solo to Spain for 2 weeks. It would be my first time traveling alone internationally and I was terrified. I don't speak Spanish and I was so scared about going solo that I had a nightmare about never leaving the airport once I arrived. I grew up pretty sheltered so I was always a little scared of traveling but I knew I needed to change my outlook. I got inspired after meeting a few girls who were traveling the world on their own. A few years back I went on a month-long backpacking trip to Europe with a friend and he suggested staying at a hostel at some point during our travels. I was resistant to the idea but our plans changed suddenly so I finally decided to give hostels a go. When I decide to try something I jump right in. I booked us in a 12-person mixed dorm!

I arrived not knowing what to expect but my world changed. Everyone who stayed in the hostel was part of a community and I felt an instant connection. I felt like I had finally found my people! I met 2 Australian girls who were traveling solo for 6 months. I was amazed and immediately thought, "If they can do it then I can do it!" and a year later I did. :)

I spent weeks putting together my itinerary after poring over TripAdvisor forums, finding highly-rated and centrally-located hostels, and considering recommendations from friends. I prepared myself by getting directions on Google Maps and studying all my destinations using street view so I'd know what I was looking for (I'm very visual and I'm directionally-challenged). I might have traveled from city to city alone but I ended up meeting a bunch of super nice people at each of my hostels. Most people were also traveling alone so I had instant sightseeing and dining companions. Yay!

Quick tips:
  1. Take out cash from an ATM as soon as you get to a city. This works best if your bank doesn't charge ATM withdrawal fees. I use First Republic and they offer free ATM withdrawals worldwide!
  2. Get a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. I have a Capital One Visa which was great but I couldn't use it sometimes because it doesn't contain a chip.
  3. I brought my unlocked iPhone with me and bought a SIM card when I arrived. I had access to email, Google Maps, and I could make phone calls to Spanish phone numbers. Also helpful so you can keep in touch with people you meet during your trip. I think I paid about 20 € for the SIM card. 
  4. Bring a quick-drying travel towel since some hostels don't provide towels. 
  5. Bring a lock for hostel lockers. 
  6. Bring a headlamp - you may have to get up super early to catch a train or flight. You don't want to wake up your roommates by turning on the lights.
  7. I brought my stainless steel water bottle and filled it with tap water to save me money and the planet from plastic bottles.
  8. Carabiners come in handy so pack a few.
  9. Bring earplugs and a sleeping eye mask. You never know if your roommates will be loud or wake you up by turning on the lights. 
  10. Don't be afraid to strike up a conversation! Lots of people travel alone so there are plenty of opportunities to meet people - at your hostel, on the free walking tours, or even in museums.
  11. I booked all my hostels on hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com
  12. Free walking tours are a fantastic way to get oriented to a new city. I always try to go the first day arrive. Groups get as big as 30 and they're sometimes up to 2-3 hours long so you cover a lot of ground and learn a lot. Some free walking tours are popular and book up fast so reserve your spot online or arrive early to the meeting spot. More about the free walking tours below.
  13. I got around by walking or taking the subway/city bus since public transport gets you to most major destinations. It's a great way to see the city and it's much cheaper than a taxi.
  14. I carried my passport with me with at all times (when I went out and even when I went to take a shower). When I carried cash and credit cards I spread them out between different bags and in different pockets.
Here's my final itinerary and observations about each city.

San Sebastian - 1.5 days

  • I flew direct from San Francisco to San Sebastian (SFO-DFW-MAD-EAS). Some people take the train from Madrid but I just took a multi-stop flight.
  • I booked a bed in a 6 person dorm at Pension Amalur - it was just a few minutes from the Old Town.
  • The guy who worked at the front desk of my hostel didn't speak English! We got by with hand gestures and Google Translate. I typed my questions in English into Google Translate and he typed his answers in Spanish. Perfect!
  • I'm glad I went here - very few people I talked to did but this was one of my favorite places.
San Sebastian - view of the beach from Monte Urgull
San Sebastian - View of the beach from Monte Urgull
  • Old Town is where everything is but I stayed just outside it. Maybe about a 5-8 min walk. Hotels are really expensive here so I booked a hostel but that worked for me because I traveled alone.
  • I went to one of the top pintxo places (Cuchara de San Telmo) but didn't like it as much as some of the other places where pintxos are just lined up on the bar (you grab whatever you want, self-serve). You just need to ask for a plate and keep the toothpicks so they can count up your tab. Or sometimes they just know what to charge you. It's like magic. At Cuchara de San Telmo all your food is made to order so if you're comfortable pushing your way up to the bar and shouting your order then go for it. I went with a guy from my hostel who spoke Spanish so he ordered for us. I would've gone hungry without him! Reviews of La Cuchara de San Telmo on TripAdvisor.
San Sebastian - pintxos at one of the many bars in Old Town
San Sebastian - Pintxos at one of the many bars in Old Town

San Sebastian - roasted pig ears at Cuchara de San Telmo
San Sebastian - Roasted pig ears at Cuchara de San Telmo

  • Everything is walkable - I walked to see these sculptures at one end of the beach (Peine de los Viento) then to the other side to the top of the hill to see a great view of the entire city and beach. At Peine de los Viento there are holes in the ground that you should stand on. When a wave crashes beneath them it forces up a huge gust of air. Great photo ops here. :o)
San Sebastian - enjoying the rush of air at Peine de los Viento
San Sebastian - enjoying the rush of air at Peine de los Viento  

San Sebastian - enjoying the rush of air at Peine de los Viento
San Sebastian - enjoying the rush of air at Peine de los Viento  

  • Enjoy some chocolate con churros at Santa Lucia in Old Town. The place looks like a diner but they don't mess around with their chocolate. It's served in what looks like a coffee mug but don't drink it! A little goes a long way. It was thick but I don't remember it being too sweet. There's a reason it's called chocolate con churros and not churros con chocolate (according to people from San Sebastian). Reviews of Santa Lucia on TripAdvisor.
San Sebastian - chocolate con churros at Santa Lucia
San Sebastian - chocolate con churros at Santa Lucia
  • Mugaritz - pass on it. I thought the presentation was nearly perfect but everything was lacking in taste. What a shame because it's one of the top restaurants in the world.
  • La Perla spa - it was booked the entire time I was there but I really wish I could have booked a treatment. Especially after I experienced a hammam - it was heavenly. More about that in the Granada section.
  • Train station is walkable from where I stayed - I just bought a ticket to Barcelona when I arrived in San Sebastian. No need to book ahead unless you're going during peak season. A train ride from San Sebastian to Barcelona took about 5 and a half hours. It cost me 66 Euros.
  • Cafe con leche. Get one every day. In every city. :o)
San Sebastian - cafe con leche
San Sebastian - What is it about the cafe con leche in Spain? It's amazing!

Barcelona - 4.5 days
  • I stayed at the Barcelona Central Garden Hostel - pretty good location. I hit it off from my dorm mates so I spent a few days sightseeing with them. Reviews of Barcelona Central Garden Hostel on TripAdvisor.
  • Really cool city, very spread out, lots of different neighborhoods
  • Museu Picasso is worth a visit if you have a free afternoon. The museum houses some of the most extensive collections of Picasso's work and reveals the influence Barcelona had on the artist in his youth, adolescence, and throughout his life. I happened to visit the museum when admission was free - don't get discouraged by the super long line, it moved pretty quickly.
  • Buy your tickets to La Sagrada Familia ahead of time - preferably as soon as you arrive in Barcelona. You can buy them on ticketmaster online which is what I did. You can also buy them at these ATM-like machines called La Caixa (they're yellow). I was never able to do it for some reason... I think you need a credit card with a chip and I didn't have one. But these machines are right around La Sagrada Familia so instead of lining up for an hour, just go to one of these machines or buy it online at Ticketmaster. It was sold out so I had to buy for a different day. I got the pass for one of the towers too - you can walk up and get a great view. The inside was just gorgeous, I must have sat there staring at the ceiling for 30 minutes.
    • Update on March 5, 2014: someone posted on TripAdvisor that you can no longer purchase tickets from La Caixa machines.
Barcelona - Inside La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona - Inside La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona - Inside La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona - Inside La Sagrada Familia
  • I walked almost everywhere, it just took like 30 minutes but it's a better way to see the city.
  • I took the city bus to Park Guell - this place is super cool even though it's a commercially unsuccessful housing site envisioned by Count Eusebi Guell, after whom the park was named. The gardens, serpentine bench, and various pathways were designed by Gaudi. You feel like a little kid when you walk around and take it all in!
Barcelona - entrance to Park Guell
Barcelona - entrance to Park Guell


Barcelona - taking a rest on the colorful serpentine bench in Park Guell
Barcelona - taking a rest on the colorful serpentine bench in Park Guell


Barcelona - the only 2 houses Gaudi finished in Park Guell
Barcelona - the only 2 finished houses in Park Guell weren't built by Gaudi
  • I took a half-day cooking class with Cook & Taste. I showed up alone but ended up making new friends for the day. We prepped and cooked in a casual setting - sometimes we just sat and observed while the chef and other students cooked. Cook & Taste offers an optional tour of La Boqueria market before the class. I skipped it (I think it cost 13 euros) and just went on my own another day. At the end of class we enjoyed a delicious lunch that we cooked and took home printed recipes. Read reviews of Cook & Taste Barcelona on TripAdvisor.
Barcelona - Cook & Taste cooking class
Barcelona - Cook & Taste cooking class

Barcelona - Making paella at Cook & Taste cooking class
Barcelona - Making paella at Cook & Taste cooking class

Barcelona - Making Catalan Cream at Cook & Taste cooking class
Barcelona - Making Catalan Cream at Cook & Taste cooking class
  • La Boqueria market is worth a visit. It's crammed end to end with all sorts of food stalls offering fresh seafood to fresh fruit juices. It's a bit crowded so watch your personal items while you partake in all the yummy food.
Barcelona - one of the many aisles in La Boqueria
Barcelona - one of the many aisles in La Boqueria market


Barcelona - one of the many fruit stands in La Boqueria market
Barcelona - one of the many fruit stands in La Boqueria market

Barcelona - dried fruit and nuts in La Boqueria market
Barcelona - dried fruit and nuts in La Boqueria market

Barcelona - leg of ham and cured meats aplenty at La Boqueria market
Barcelona - leg of ham and cured meats aplenty at La Boqueria market

Barcelona - you can find all types of olives at La Boqueria market
Barcelona - you can find all types of olives at La Boqueria market

Barcelona - this is one of the more colorful candy stalls at La Boqueria market
Barcelona - this is one of the more colorful candy stalls at La Boqueria market

Barcelona - chocolate and candy stall at La Boqueria market
Barcelona - chocolate and candy stall at La Boqueria market
  • For my last 2 days in Barcelona I stayed with my friend Livi who's from Barcelona (I met her at a hostel in Tokyo - aren't hostels great?) so she took me to some local places - Txapela and La Fernandez. Please read more about how Livi and I met and our adventures in Tokyo in another blog post: http://fanofblank.blogspot.com/2014/04/japan-tokyo-and-kyoto.html
  • I also met up with my friend Alvin who was studying abroad in Barcelona at the time. He's the same friend I traveled to Europe with who introduced me to hostels (and changed my life!). He took me to Cerveseria Catalana - this place was extremely popular so we didn't eat until 9:30 or 10pm. You know, standard dinner time in Barcelona. Read reviews of Cerveseria Catalana on TripAdvisor.
  • I did a few free walking tours with Runner Bean - their tour guides are really knowledgeable and they give you tons of info which I like. You tip whatever you want at the end of the tour. The Gaudi free walking tour was fantastic - you don't go into any of the Gaudi houses but you can see plenty from the outside. A lot of the figures from these houses were inspiration for George Lucus' Star Wars Storm Troopers! The Old City Walking Tour was just okay. Spots for the free walking tours book up fast so either book online in advance or show up 30 minutes early at the meeting spot. Reviews of Runner Bean Walking Tours on TripAdvisor.
Barcelona - Gaudi's Casa Batllo
Barcelona - Gaudi's Casa Batllo


Barcelona - Gaudi's Casa Mila. Can you see the figures that inspired 
George Lucas' Storm Troopers?
  • I didn't make it to Montserrat...
  • Pickpocketing is rampant here - it didn't happen to me but you have to be really aware of your surroundings, especially on Las Ramblas. My roommates told me what happened to them - someone squirted ketchup on them when they arrived at the train station. Someone will help wipe up the sauce and someone else will steal your stuff. If you get targeted just keep walking.
  • Another scam I heard about and saw involved approaching tourists with a map or a petition to sign. Pickpockets use the map or petition on a clipboard or a folder to obstruct your view as they rifle through your bags or pockets. Sometimes pickpockets are dressed as tourists so be wary of anyone approaching you, asking for help.
Granada - 2.5 days
  • I flew on Vueling Airlines from Barcelona to Granada - it was too far to take the train or bus. The flight was only about an hour and a half long. Train would take about 7 hours and a bus about 13 hours.
  • I booked a bed in a 6 person dorm at the Granada Inn Backpackers. There was free breakfast of bread, butter, jam, and yogurt. The accommodations were decent but people there were noisy! I'm glad I had my ear plugs and sleeping mask. Reviews of Granada Inn Backpackers on TripAdvisor.
  • I think I liked Granada the best but that's because I hung out with some really cool people there :o)
  • I walked everywhere in the city. I was told to take a bus to the Alhambra but a walk from my hostel was only about 15 minutes. It's a little steep but I live in San Francisco so I was used to walking up hills.
  • Alhambra and Generalife gardens - this place sells out like crazy! I could only get tickets for 2 days after I arrived. You can go there early in the morning to get tickets (the line might be 30 mins to 1 hour) or you can pop into the Alhambra museum store to buy them from a Ticketmaster kiosk which is what I did. Definitely do the audio guide.
Granada - You get the best views of The Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicolas
Granada - You get the best views of The Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicolas

Granada - Inside The Alhambra
Granada - Inside The Alhambra

Granada - The details inside The Alhambra are incredible!
Granada - The details inside The Alhambra are incredible!

Granada - The Court of the Lions
Granada - The Court of the Lions - this fountain was a clock of sorts
Each lion would spew water at the top of the hour. It worked until someone 
decided to take it apart to see how it could tell time and it's never worked since!

  • I did a free walking tour through my hostel - we visited the Sacromonte caves and the Albayzin.
  • Have tea in the Albayzin - it's a tiny area with stores and cafes. It looks like Morocco.
Granada - The Albayzin - very narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants, and tea shops
Granada - The Albayzin - very narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants, and tea shops
  • I went to the Hammam Al Andalus - it was HEAVEN. The front desk staff at my hostel called to make an appointment for me. You book a 90 minute session and you have access to cold, warm, and hot pools, a steam room, this hot marble slab that you can lie on, and all the Moroccan mint tea you can drink. I also got a 30 minute massage. I would have gone a second time if I could. :o) You must wear a swimsuit but if you don't have one you can buy one from their front desk. Reviews of Hammam Al Andalus on TripAdvisor.
  • See King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's tombs and actual coffins (underground) in the Royal Chapel.
  • Watch out for gypsies who tend to hang out around cathedrals like the Royal Chapel. They'll try to hand you a sprig of rosemary - they've got you the moment you touch the rosemary. They're aggressive and they'll try to read your palm to tell you your fortune. If you don't give them money they'll start yelling at you. One of the girls I met said she gave a woman 1 and 2 euro coins but the woman demanded bills. When I saw any of these women I just ignored them and walked right by them even though a few tried to grab me. If one of the women manages to get rosemary into your had just drop it and keep walking. The worst that'll happen is you'll get yelled out but it's better than being out a few euros.
  • I bought a bus ticket from Granada to Seville. It cost 23 Euros. The bus ride was about 3 hours. I bought my bus ticket from my hostel and I took a city bus to get to the Granada bus station.
Seville - 3.5 days
  • Seville was my last city after after staying at hostels I figured I'd want some alone time. I realized that I liked being around other travelers! I was so lonely in my single room. I stayed at Hotel Alcantara which was a few minutes from Seville Cathedral. Review of Hotel Alcantara on TripAdvisor.
  • I did a free walking tour with Pancho Tours - you pay whatever you want at the end. I did a morning tour which covered a lot of ground - Plaza de Espana, Queen Isabella's summer home, the cigar factory where Carmen worked (of the opera Carmen). Reviews of Pancho Tours on TripAdvisor.
  • Visit the Cathedral - you'll see the Giralda bell tower that was rebuilt by conquerors. Roman stones on the bottom, Muslim middle section with arches, and topped off by a Catholic bell tower. You can climb all the way to the top. Visit Columbus' tomb inside the Cathedral.
Seville - Giralda bell tower
Seville - Giralda bell tower

Seville - The tomb of Christopher Columbus
Seville - The tomb of Christopher Columbus which may not  
contain his actual remains. I'm no fan of Christopher Columbus and 
I doubt you will be after you read this from The Oatmeal.

  • I also visited the bullfight museum. Glad I wasn't there during the bullfight season - I wouldn't be able to stomach it.
  • I wandered around Barrio de Santa Cruz looking for the flamenco museum but I got totally lost. I had 2 maps and my iPhone and I still couldn't find it. I even roped 2 other tourists into helping me look for it. It turned out we were right around the corner from it. The printed maps didn't have enough detail to show the streets and sometimes street names change when they intersect with another street. I was amazed to see cars driving through some of these zig-zagging streets. At one point I had to jump onto a tiny curb so that a car could pass by. I was literally an arm's length away from the driver. So close that he could've pulled me into his car but there was actually no way he could've opened his door. Whew. :) Don't panic if you get lost. Just wander around and you'll find your way out sooner or later.
  • Visit the Alcazar but after seeing The Alhambra this place looked like a closet.
  • I went to a Flamenco show but I could have skipped it. Meh.
  • Plaza de Espana was really cool - the main building was used as inspiration for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Seville - Plaza de Espana
Seville - Plaza de Espana

My trip to Spain came at the end of a 4 week sabbatical. Prior to coming to Spain I spent 2 weeks in Peru - I hiked the Inca Trail to see Machu Picchu and also spent time in the Amazon rainforest. Please read about my Peru trip in another blog post: http://fanofblank.blogspot.com/2014/03/peru-machu-picchu-and-amazon-rainforest.html

If you enjoyed this please check out my other trip blogs:

8 comments:

  1. thank you for sharing, Conny! I

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    1. Thanks CY! Hope you enjoyed it. I loved reliving the memories as I wrote this post.

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  2. this is great... I am going to granada in few weeks and I cant wait....

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Granada was one of my favorite cities - very walkable. Please tell me you'll check out one of the hammams in the area. It was so relaxing after walking around all day! Have a great time in Granada!

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  3. Very Helpful reading. I am planning to do this with my husband and we are both seniors. I had been wondering if I should do a private tour which is very expensive or own my own. I don't like large bus tours with their rigorous schedule. We travel a lot but mostly private or small group. Because English is not spoken so much I was wavering to do it own my own but you gave me some boost. We are planning on flying to Lisbon and from there to Seville, Grenada, Jerez, Corboda, Madrid and Barcelona. I guess you can plan ahead but taxis for local travel is easily available .

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    1. I can't speak for a few of the cities you're visiting but for Seville, Granada, and Barcelona the free walking tours were fantastic. The groups get as big as 30 and they're sometimes up to 2-3 hours long so you cover a lot of ground and learn a lot. I like wandering around on my own so this was a great way to get oriented to a city. After the walking tour I felt like it was easier to navigate around.

      Taxis are great but I got around by walking or taking the subway/city bus since public transport gets you to most major destinations. Honestly I think most cities are walkable, even Barcelona. It just depends on if you're okay taking your time getting somewhere.

      Enjoy your trip. Your itinerary sounds wonderful!

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    2. Hi Conny, your report and photos are absolutely fabulous. My husband and I, both in our sixties are going to Barcelona and Madrid for two weeks. After readiny your posts, I changed from a hotel to hostal in Madrid. We are quite comfortable with public transit and touring on our own. Thanks for the recommendation on the cooking class. I think I will try it. Good for you to travel on your own and stay at hostals.

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    3. Thank you! Will this be your first stay at a hostel? I really enjoyed meeting other travelers during breakfast - it was perfect for me because I was traveling alone.

      Enjoy the cooking class - it was fun and relaxing and the food was delicious. Have a fabulous trip!

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