Barcelona on a Budget

Barcelona Travel Guide

Barcelona on the cheap


Arriving in Barcelona & Getting to the Centre

Barcelona-El Prat Airport

Most visitors to Barcelona arrive at the city’s main airport – El Prat. These days even most of the budget airlines use it and it is the only international airport within close proximity to the city.

  • Aerobus

Most tourists take the aerobus to get into the city. It runs every 5-10 minutes during the day and takes roughly 30 minutes to get from the airport to Plaza Catalunya in the heart of Barcelona depending on traffic and costs €5.90. Line A1 leaves from outside Terminal 1 while A2 leaves from Terminal 2 but they follow the same route and also stop at Plaza Espanya, which may be more convenient depending on the location of your accommodation. Be sure to get the right one for your terminal if you are returning to the airport at the end of your stay in Barcelona.

  • Train

The cheapest way to get from Barcelona Airport to Barcelona is to take the train. It leaves from the station at Terminal 2 (free shuttle buses run to Terminal 1) and your best bet is probably going to be a T-10 ticket, which gives you 10 journeys on all public transport in Barcelona for the duration of your stay. This way the cost of your trip into the city will work out at roughly €1. Trains take 20 minutes to reach Barcelona Sants Station and 25 minutes to Passeig de Gràcia. You can connect to the metro at either station and it won’t cost you any more as you have 1 hour 15 minutes to complete one journey on the T-10 ticket (more info in the ‘getting around the city’ section).

  • Metro

There is also a newly opened metro line (as of February 2016) that connects the metro network to Barcelona Airport with stations at both Terminal 1 and 2. However it’s not covered by normal metro tickets so it will cost €4.50 for a ticket to anywhere in the city and will take considerably longer to reach your destination as you’ll have to change trains at Europa Fira if you are heading to the centre. Overall the metro isn’t a great option for getting into the central parts of the city.

Girona & Reus Airports

Budget airlines sometimes fly to these airports and misleadingly refer to them as Barcelona airports. They are not! Both airports are approximately 100km from the city and will take in excess of 1 hour 30 minutes via the bus services that link the airports to the Catalan capital. A return ticket from either airport to Barcelona will cost around €25. Buses aren’t that regular but are usually timed to coincide with flights landing at the rarely used airports. The Girona-Barcelona buses end at Barcelona’s Estacio del Nord whereas Reus-Barcelona buses head to Barcelona Sants Station and you’ll still most likely have to connect to the metro to reach your accommodation. Depending on the time of your arrival, you may be able to connect with a train too.

By Train

Barcelona Sants Train Station is the main railway station in the city for domestic travel and the high-speed lines to France and beyond. It isn’t in a particularly central location but is connected to the metro network so it’s easy to catch a local train to your destination in the city. The same is true of Passeig de Gràcia and Estació de França which are the other main train stations and are more central than Sants although aren’t served by as many trains. For train times and booking tickets in Spain and around Catalonia see Renfe. Booking several weeks in advance is advisable, certainly on the high-speed lines, as prices do usually go up nearer the date of travel.

By Bus

Barcelona Nord is where you’ll almost certainly arrive if coming in by bus. There are 18 buses per day to/from Madrid for example so it’s a busy terminus and you can walk from the station to Arc de Triomf or Marina metro stations and it’s not far from the heart of the city so you might even be able to walk to your desired destination. Some buses also go to/from Sants Bus Station. The biggest bus company in Spain is Alsa, which has routes to almost all the major Spanish cities from Barcelona. Travelling by bus in Spain is much cheaper than the train but generally much slower. Advanced booking is advisable for longer trips but it only needs to be done a day or two in advance and prices are fixed.


Budget accommodation in Barcelona

Barcelona has an enormous choice of hostels and budget accommodation. Dorm beds start at around €15/night during the week and more like €18/night at the weekend, which is a bit more expensive than most other cities in Spain. You can usually find something a bit cheaper during the winter months but during peak season (May to September), the city is very crowded with visitors and many of the better hostels sell out quickly.

When deciding where to stay, location is perhaps the biggest factor to consider as most hostels offer a similar kind of quality at a similar price. You might consider Plaza Catalunya as being the very mid-point of the city so anything within a 1km walk of that would certainly be considered very central. That being said in Barcelona, the metro is very extensive and it’s not a huge city so it’s not the end of the world if you’re not right in the heart of town. Many of the main sights are not in the centre anyway.

In the summer months, you could opt to stay closer to the beaches, the nearest of which is 20-30 minutes walk from the city centre. If you want a more local vibe and perhaps a more authentic Barcelona experience then consider staying in Gracia, which is away from the touristy centre but still well-located for Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia, and less than 10 minutes by metro to La Rambla.

Recommended Hostels in Barcelona

Factory Gardens – This stylish hostel is in a local neighbourhood close to the Sagrada Familia and offers some of the best value-for-money you’ll find amongst the budget accommodation options in Barcelona.

Hip Karma Hostel – This is another reliable choice and they often slash prices to 10 Euros/night during less busy times if you book online. It’s well located being less than 10 minutes walk from the city’s main square – Plaza Catalunya and biggest park – Parc de la Ciutadella.

Kabul Party Hostel – As the name suggests, this a good place to stay for those looking to party. It’s a sociable place and very well located in the heart of the old Gothic quarter, just a few feet from La Rambla and near to many bars and clubs.

Airbnb is also a decent option in Barcelona and you can sometimes find cheaper deals there. Sign up for Airbnb and claim €35 free credit here.


Getting around the city

Barcelona travel guide

Picture via Miquel Lleixà Mora, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Foot

In the Old Town and central districts, you can generally get around on foot. Even the closer beaches are fairly accessible by walking from the centre with Barceloneta Beach around 20 minutes walk from La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter.

Metro

Barcelona isn’t a massive city but some of the main sights are quite spread out so you will certainly need to make use of public transport at some point. Barcelona has an excellent (when it’s not on strike) metro network that will get you anywhere you need to go and you’ll rarely have to wait more than 5 minutes for a train.

The best option for almost all visitors to the city is to get the T10 1 Zone ticket. This will give you 10 journeys to anywhere in the city for €9.95 and can be used on buses, trains, trams and the metro. Unless you are planning any day trips out of Barcelona, you won’t need more than Zone 1 as it covers the entire city and you can even get to the nearby beach of Montgat without leaving this zone.

The metro runs until midnight (Sunday to Thursday), 2:00am (Fridays and public holidays) and all night on Saturdays. During the day, you can get to pretty much everywhere you need to go by a combination of metro/walking.

Buses

It’s probably simpler and quicker to just use the metro when it’s open. However after the metro shuts, the nightbuses become your best option and they are pretty extensive so you should still be able to get where you need to go or close to it. You can still use the T-10 ticket on buses. You validate it by using the machine on-board the buses.

Taxis

Overall Barcelona’s transport network is really good value when compared to other major European cities and if you’re only in town for 2-3 days, you should be able to get by on just the one T10 ticket. Budget travellers in Barcelona won’t really find much need to use taxis, which typically cost about €2 per kilometre.

Cycling

Another option is to cycle around the city. There are plenty of cycle lanes and the city’s Bicing scheme is popular although it’s virtually impossible for short-term visitors to use, as you need an address in Catalonia. There are though many bike rental places dotted around town and it’s a nice way to see the city although almost certainly will work out more expensive than just using the T-10 ticket on public transport.


How to see Barcelona on a Budget

Barcelona city guide

Barcelona is a city that is designed perfectly for the weekend visitor with money to spend and it’s unquestionably one of the most popular short-break destinations in the world. Most first-time visitors end up doing pretty much the same thing with a handful of main tourist attractions taking up most of their time. The most popular of which include the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi masterpiece that still hasn’t been finished but continues to tower above the city, Gaudi’s Casa Batlló and Barcelona Football Club, one of the world’s greatest.

The problem for budget travellers is that these are not cheap places and the city seems to have responded to the economic crisis by really cashing in on tourism, although it doesn’t seem to have put people off coming. A basic entrance ticket for the Sagrada Familia for example is a hefty €15 and there is nothing much in the way of info inside so to get much out of your visit, you will at least need to get the audio tour, which is another €7. A ticket for a Barcelona match at Camp Nou will invariably set you back at least €45 these days and often more while a stadium & museum tour is €23. Even many of things that aren’t particularly worth visiting aren’t cheap with a frankly disappointing Aquarium charging €18 being a good example. The point being a few days in Barcelona can easily become very expensive if you are not careful.

These prices are all ‘online prices’ which are typically less than at the door where you may face long queues, certainly at the Sagrada Familia. Therefore booking online is one way to save a bit of cash. Inevitably though if you are in Barcelona on a budget, you are going to have to pick and choose to some extent and you mustn’t feel obliged to enter every single attraction.

The Sagrada Familia in all honestly is much more impressive from the outside and unless you are truly passionate about churches, you might be wise to skip the queues and fees for going inside and instead perhaps head to Gaudi’s House & Museum, which is more informative and considerably cheaper.

Likewise if you’re not that fussed about football, you don’t have to feel obliged to go and watch what will probably be a very one-sided match. The cheapest tickets are right at the top of the stadium and don’t offer a great view given Camp Nou is Europe’s largest football stadium and holds nearly 100,000. If you’re a football fan but in town when Barcelona aren’t playing, the city’s other team Espanyol probably will be and tickets are much more reasonably priced for their games and you can get closer to the action for much less.

If you have a set budget then it’s perhaps best picking one attraction each day that you are really keen on going for and then spending the rest of the day on foot exploring the city. With the T10 metro ticket you can see basically the whole city in a few days and you can still have the full Barcelona experience without getting sucked into every tourist trap, of which there are many!

As you’ll see from the list below, there are many fantastic free things to do in Barcelona. Indeed you can still do an awful amount without ever paying any admission fees, which are the things that really can break even a mid-range travel budget in Barcelona.


Five Free things to do in Barcelona

Barcelona things to do

Picture via Montse Poch, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gaudi tour

Barcelona is full of Gaudi masterpieces. Spend an afternoon exploring the city on foot going from one to the next. They are all most impressive from the outside and you don’t need to pay any money to look! You can easily learn more about each building by doing a bit of your own research online so it’s not hard to get to grips with Gaudi’s Barcelona without spending a single cent! Here are 10 of Gaudi’s most famous Barcelona buildings.

Walk La Rambla

The most famous street in Barcelona is well worth a walk from one end to the other just to experience its hustle and bustle. There are several nuisance factors on La Rambla but if you ignore the drug dealers and keep an eye on your pockets it’s nothing more than that. The street is perhaps most famous for its street performers and bizarre human statues and on any given day you are sure to find something or someone who will capture your interest for a few minutes.

Park Güell

A must visit for anyone visiting Barcelona.  Not only is Park Guell, a beautiful place to relax and spend an hour or so, it has two major draws. Firstly it is the location of Gaudi’s house (or one of them), now a museum. Secondly it offers stunning views of the city and is one of the best spots to capture a few panoramic photographs of the BCN skyline. Another great location for this is the nearby Bunker del Carmel, while you can also get good views from Montjuic, site of most of Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics venues as well as the city’s castle.

Watch a Barcelona game in a local bar

Okay so you might have to pay a Euro for a drink but it’s important to re-hydrate right? With ticket prices so high at Camp Nou and the stands usually full of tourists, arguably a more authentic and certainly cheaper experience these days is to just find a local bar and watch the game on TV.

Many Barca fans only go to the stadium for the very biggest matches and settle for watching the majority of league games in a bar. If you are visiting Barcelona on a budget you might be wise to do the same unless catching a game at Camp Nou has been a lifelong dream of yours. Consider heading to the streets around the stadium to catch a bit of the pre-match buzz and atmosphere and then head to one of the many nearby bars and cafes to watch the match itself. All Barcelona games (home & away) are screened live in what often seems like virtually every bar/restaurant in the city.

Go to the Beach

Barcelona has a fantastic climate and it’s warm enough to go to the beach for roughly half of the year. Certainly from June to September you can basically rely on it being warm and sunny while it’s often still warm enough in both May and October. In the summer months, the beaches are packed and there are many ways to enjoy them. You can simply relax and take in the sun, spend the day drinking with friends (beer guys generally move up and down the beach selling cheap cold cans) or for the more active join a game of volleyball or go surfing.

More on all this in the next section!


Beaches

Best beaches in Barcelona

From Barcelona, you have access to a huge number of beaches.

City Beaches

The beaches in Barcelona itself might not be the most beautiful but they are the most convenient and liveliest. They do get extremely busy in the summer months particularly Barceloneta, which is an easy walk from the centre of the city. If you follow the coast round from Barceloneta you reach Nova Icaria, Bogatell, Mar Bella and Llevant. There are officially 10 different beaches but in reality it is one long stretch of sand with a short break at Port Olimpic, which is a good place to grab lunch. You can stroll from one end to the other in about an hour. Each beach has its own flavour with gay-friendly Mar Bella having a nudist section while Bogatell has more recreational facilities such as volleyball courts and football pitches.

Just Outside the City

  • Montgat

Montgat Beach is a long stretch of white sand only 20 minutes by train from Placa Catalunya (journey covered by the T-10 pass). It’s usually much quieter and nicer than the city beaches and you have a genuine feel of having left the city.

  • Castelldefels

Heading the other way out of Barcelona you find the wide and very long Castelldefels beach which is about 30 minutes by train from Passeig de Gracia station in the city centre. If you’re planning to spend most or all the day on the beach then both are better options than the ones in the city unless you don’t mind the crowds.

Further Out

If you start early then you can do a day trip out to one of the best beaches in the region. To the North, the Costa Brava is 1 hour 30 minutes away by train while heading South options include gay-friendly Sitges and it’s multiple small beaches, the Roman town of Tarragona and the popular resort of Salou. All three can be reached in an hour or less with fares under €10 if you take the cheaper trains. Check Renfe for times and prices.

Spain is full of fantastic beach destinations. More feature in our backpacking route for Spain and Portugal.


Eating Out on a Budget

Snacks

Barcelona is not short on excellent restaurants but if you’re travelling on a budget, finding good value isn’t always easy, when you don’t know the city. For cheap daytime snacks/drinks, check out 100 montaditos, which is a budget chain that serves dirt cheap drinks (€1.50 for una jarra of beer (nearly a pint) and small tapas-style sandwiches known as montaditos (little burgers) from €1. They are at numerous sites around the city so wherever you are, there should be one close. They are also a good bet for cheap drinks at the start of the night. On Wednesdays and Sundays they slash prices further to 1 Euro for everything on the menu!

All-you-can-eat!

If you’re really hungry, then the buffet options can provide decent value and should fill you up for the best part of the day. There are numerous options around town with FrescCo perhaps the best one with all-you-can eat from €10-12 depending on the time of day and including a drink.

Restaurants

If you want to enjoy a meal out in a restaurant but are on a relatively tight budget then it’s probably best to avoid La Rambla and the streets right next to it. Often they advertise good deals on food but will really take advantage of you in terms of drinks. Normally in Spain, beers come smaller than in other European countries. However if you ask for a large beer on La Rambla, you’re often served something more like a litre of beer and charged €10-15 for it! Paseig de Gracia is another expensive area for eating out but Barcelona does have some cheaper districts.

Raval is one such area, which has some really budget-friendly options. It is a multicultural zone so you’ll find cuisines from all around the world with everything from curryhouses to Mexian restaurants. Rosa Raval is a tasty Mexican joint with affordable cocktails while nearby Carrer de Joaquin Costa has a few budget-friendly vegetarian restaurants.

You can find the odd gem in El Born too but restaurants do change hands quite regularly and quality goes up and down so it’s worth checking the latest reviews. Foodie in Barcelona and Spotted by Locals are two blogs worth checking out for suggestions for cheap restaurants in Barcelona.

It’s worth noting that most restaurants in Barcleona won’t start serving food until after 8:00pm and that would still be early for locals to head out to eat. Many eat their biggest meal of the day at lunch-time and something lighter later on.


Nightlife

Going out in Barcelona

Picture via Matt Cornish, CC BY-NC 2.0

Barcelona’s nightlife, like that in the rest of Spain, starts and ends late. Bars typically stay open till 3:00am, which is about the best time to start heading to clubs, most of which stay open till 6:00am.

Cheap Drinks

If you want to have a cheap night out, then it is probably best to start by buying a few drinks from a supermarket, with prices very low for beer, wine and spirits. Note that after 10:00pm, shops aren’t allowed to sell alcohol although some smaller places might if you ask nicely!

Either way it’s best to stock up prior to that and have a few drinks in your hostel before going out. Alternatively you could just head down to the beach or harbour area (at the bottom of La Rambla & left) and start your night drinking there, which is what many locals do. There are Pakistani guys who sell beers in the streets in both locations and in most of the city centre until late, so you can usually buy a small cold can of Estrella off them for €1 at any time of night. Therefore you can be approaching very drunk for less than €10 in Barcelona and won’t need to buy as many drinks later in the night.

Bars

In terms of bars, the old town is probably the best spot for budget travellers. There are hundreds of really small bars dotted around the winding streets of the old town. Generally speaking, Raval which has a bit of an alternative vibe, is marginally cheaper than the Gothic quarter but most bars have signs outside advertising drinks deals so you can wander around and pick one that takes your fancy or just turn it into a bar crawl. Beer and wine is still generally fairly cheap in bars but cocktails and spirits often cost €7-10 although they are strong.

Clubs

When planning a night out, choosing a club to go to is perhaps the biggest decision. You can get in some clubs for free during the week before a certain time but at the weekend there are hefty admission fees at almost all the main clubs so once you are in one, you will generally stay there until the night is out. €20 is typical for admission but it does normally include at least one drink and often two (con consumición). You simply take the ticket to the bar and exchange the voucher for any drink of your choice. Cocktails and spirits are usually very strong in Spain so you night not need more than a couple anyway!

Barcelona has a wide choice of clubs of varying quality. Of course it depends on your music preferences but popular options include Razzmatazz, a huge former factory which now hosts thousands of party-goers each weekend. It has an under-stated vibe with no real dress-code and also hosts live music events. There are multiple floors with many different rooms playing a variety of different genres so it’s a safe bet, particularly if you’re a large group and people have different tastes in music.

Razzmatazz is typically only open at weekends though so in the week, Sala Apolo, is perhaps the most popular bet for a cheap-ish night. It has regular student nights and is widely thought of as the best party early in the week with ‘Nasty Mondays’ and ‘Crappy Tuesdays’ still going strong.

For a more urban vibe, check out Otto Zutz. It’s located a fair way from the centre in Gracia and tends to attract a more local crowd. It is a smaller venue though so you might want to get there bit earlier than the typical 2:00-3:00 to ensure you get in as it is very popular.



 This article was published in March 2017.


Backpacking Route for Spain and Portugal

europe routes

iberia | central europe | baltics | balkans


Backpacking Route for Spain and Portugal

The Iberian corner of Europe is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. It boasts some of Europe’s best beaches, most historic cities and tastiest food and drink. They also like a good fiesta in Iberia so no matter when you visit, your trip is likely to coincide with some form of celebration or festival.

Starting from Madrid, our Iberia backpacking route heads South to the heat and laid back lifestyle of Andalusia before venturing into Portugal and soaking up some sun on the beaches of the Algarve. Next we move from the Southern coast all the way up Portugal taking in traditional towns, lively Lisbon and a glorious national park before re-entering Spain in scenic Asturias. From there we move East towards the Pyrenees and pop into the unique Basque Country with it’s own language and strong traditions. The same could be said of Catalonia and the route takes in Barcelona before finishing with some more relaxing beach time on the Mediterranean Coast, reaching it’s finale in Valencia, home of paella and the famous Fallas celebrations.


TIME NEEDED – 6 WEEKS

Not including the Islands. Works on the basis of an average of 2 days at each destination. Some you’ll only need a day while somewhere like Barcelona you’ll probably want more time.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1650 €1900 $2000

This is based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. Iberia is the cheapest part of Western Europe. Portugal is very slightly cheaper than Spain but the difference is barely noticeable.

Read more on the cost of travel in Spain and the cost of travel in Portugal.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR SPAIN AND PORTUGAL

If you’re from the EU, you can come and stay for as long as you like visa-free.

If not, it’s worth noting that both countries are members of the Schengen area of Europe which has a shared visa policy. Find out if you need a visa to enter it here. If you don’t you can stay and move around in Spain, Portugal or any of the member states provided you don’t spend more than 90 days in the region within any 180 day period.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

Both countries are considered low risk destinations in terms of things going wrong but getting good and appropriate travel insurance for a backpacking trip is still important. We recommend World Nomads.


SPAIN


Dorm beds in hostels can normally be found for around 10 Euros per night. Expect to pay a bit more in Barcelona and more touristy places and some of the cheap places are total dives (and not particularly safe) so 12-14 Euros might be a slightly more realistic hostel budget for Spain if you want something decent.


Madrid

madrid skyline

The largest city in Iberia, Madrid also has comfortably the biggest airport with flights to all four corners of the world so it is a logical starting point. Spend several days here, preferably at the weekend and you will get a taste for the excellent nightlife that starts late (it’s 3am before most clubs get going) and if you’re home before sunrise it’s considered an early night. Decent daytrips include the historic towns of Segovia and Toledo, both roughly an hour outside the city by train or coach.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Cat’s Hostel, Madrid

Cat’s is a great option in Madrid if you’re looking to socialise. There is a lively bar downstairs, the starting point for bar crawls that explore the best of Madrid’s electric nightlife.


Granada

The skyline of this Arabic-influenced city is dominated by the majestic Alhambra which is worth coming to Granada to see alone. The steep narrow streets are alive with Hookah bars and Moroccan arts meaning you can almost forget which continent you are in. It also has a fascinating pathway up into the surrounding hills which passes through several lively districts including the peculiar Gypsy Caves which you can visit.

Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada national park is an incredible area with snow-capped peaks and ski resorts just 50 kilometres or so from the heat of Spain’s Southern coastline. It’s possible to stay overnight in the park or visit it from Granada or one of the other nearby cities.

Cadiz

There are many things to like about Cadiz. Firstly it can claim to be the oldest city in Western Europe with 4,000 years of history to it’s name. Secondly it boasts one of the world’s most beautiful city beaches and the climate to match. Thirdly it holds one of the biggest Carnaval celebrations in the world (usually in February).

Sevilla

sevilla plaza de espana

Europe’s hottest city is scorching during the summer months when temperatures can be uncomfortably high. Doing as some locals do and taking a siesta during the afternoon heat is not a bad idea! It is one of Spain’s most historic cities and has some wonderful squares and buildings that retain all of their ancient elegance. Come during April (or early May) for the week-long street party that is Feria de Sevilla.


Getting from Spain to Portugal is a relative doddle with several bus companies connecting Seville to the Algarve from the cities main coach terminal. It is also marginally cheaper than it’s larger neighbour. Check out backpacking costs for different European countries to help you come up with a realistic budget.


PORTUGAL


Hostels are generally cheaper and often better in Portugal than in Spain. Prices can be as low as 6-7 Euros per night. Lisbon especially has fantastic hostels and Portuguese people speak much better English than their Iberian neighbours so any problems you might have are likely to be dealt with much more efficiently here than in Spain.


Ilha Tavira

A quaint introduction to Portugal comes in the form of the stylish town of Tavira. Just a short ferry ride from the town and you reach an extremely sandy island which is the perfect spot to soak up the Algarve sun.

Lagos

lagos shore

Lagos and the surrounding coastline is home to some of Europe’s most spectacular beaches thanks to stunning cliff formations which have been battered by the Atlantic for millions of years. The town is touristy but also boasts a backpacker and surfer scene that is more akin to Southeast Asia than Europe and it is an essential stop on any backpacking itinerary for Spain and Portugal. Accommodation is cheap especially if you come outside the peak summer months of July and August and there are plenty of lively bars to hit after dark.

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Laid back Alentejo is a bit more relaxing than the boisterous Algarve region which receives the bulk of Portugal’s tourism. This town and it’s surroundings are home to some mysterious beaches and it’s another good spot to surf but the waters might be a bit choppy for beginners.

Lisbon

bairro alto

Portugal’s rustic capital is falling apart yet that’s all part of the fun. Several historic districts perched on separate hills overlooking the swankier centre are all waiting to be explored. Each has their own unique form of nightlife ranging from traditional Fado bars in Alfama to the exuberant street parties of Bairro Alto.

Read our Top 5 Things to do in Lisbon.

Sintra

Can be visited as a day trip from Lisbon but it is worth staying overnight to experience Sintra in the dark. It’s an extremely picturesque mix of castles, misty forests and cobblestone streets.

Coimbra

Portugal’s most famous university town is buzzing with student life and it’s a nice stop half-way between the country’s two major cities (Lisbon and Porto). There are also some pretty impressive Roman ruins nearby.

Aveiro

Aveiro is frequently compared to Venice thanks to its canals and skillfully painted boats that glide along them. It’s another pretty university town and perhaps at it’s best in the summer when it is warm enough to go to the beautiful and clean beaches.

Porto

During the week, Porto is a pretty quiet, some might even say it is a dull place. Considering it is Portugal’s second city there is relatively little going on but it does host a few excellent excellent cultural events and festivals throughout the year. It’s certainly an elegant city with several traditional squares and many stylish cafes and bars to relax in.

Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres

parque nacional

You have to wait till you reach the Northern tip of Portugal before you get to the country’s only official national park. Complete with pine forests, hilly peaks and delightful rivers that make it the perfect place to spend a few nights under the stars. Best to come in summer unless you don’t mind the cold.


SPAIN

Asturias

Asturias is one of the least visited yet most beautiful provinces in Spain. Tucked away in the North-West it’s not a natural stop for backpackers travelling through Spain. With weather and scenery which is more akin to that of Northern Europe, it will come as a big change to the country you left behind when crossing over into Portugal a few weeks earlier. It’s a small coastal region which is a great for hiking and there are numerous small towns and villages hugging the rugged coastline to explore. The likes of Gedres and Llastres are worth a visit although you may find more accommodation in Oviedo or Gijon (the biggest cities in the province).

Bilbao

The largest city in the Basque Country isn’t one of the most beautiful cities in the region but it is a passionate place and well-worth a visit to try and understand why people here see themselves as separate from Spain. It’s main attraction is the dramatically designed Guggenheim Museum.

San Sebastian

san sebastian beach

Further along the coast and you reach another Basque city, San Sebastian. It boasts a gorgeous crescent shaped beach and a lively little town. This is also a food lovers paradise with delightful small meat dishes known as ‘Pinchos’ the local speciality. When planning your backpacking route around Spain, don’t miss this!

Pamplona

Home of the legendary ‘Running of the Bulls’ where locals and a sizeable number of crazy foreigners risk life and limb as they run around the streets of Pamplona trying to steer clear of large angry bulls. Sanfermines (in July) is a week of parties and drunken debauchery, the like of which you may never have experienced. During the other 51 weeks it’s a charming traditional town and much more relaxing.

Huesca (for the Pyrenees)

A small picturesque Aragonese town with a tale or two to tell. Not much to do here and not at all touristy, but it’s a decent base for anyone looking to explore the Pyrenees which offer all kinds of mountain based activities including numerous ski resorts.

Barcelona

nou camp in barcelona

One of the world’s most popular travel destinations. There is something a bit special about Barcelona and it is the pride and joy of Catalans, of whom a large portion of are in favour of breaking away from Spain altogether. Experience the energy of La Rambla, the architecture of Gaudi, the passion of football at the Nou Camp (above) and party with an international crowd in one of Europe’s liveliest cities.

Read our full Barcelona city guide.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Factory Gardens, Barcelona

Close to the Sagrada Familia, this stylish hostel offers great value for money.


Tarragona, Reus and Salou

Nestled away on the Costa Dorada, these three towns form a mini triangle. Probably best to choose one as your base and explore the other two from there. Tarragona is probably the best option for this and it has some well-preserved Roman structures like the large amphitheater and many pleasant plazas. Salou is the main beach resort in the region and gets very busy during the summer. If you’ve got the urge for some beach time and are feeling adventorous then head to one of the less crowded beaches on this coastline, of which there are plenty. Reus is famous for being the birthplace of Gaudi but not a great deal else.

Valencia

Spain’s third largest city has plenty to keep visitors entertained for a weekend or more. It’s best in the summer but is also fantastic during the Fallas festivities which include dramatic firework displays, performances and shows. It is also home of the most famous Spanish dish, paella.

paella in valencia


Extending your Trip: Visit the Spanish and Portuguese Islands

Our backpacking route is entirely on the Iberian mainland but both Spain and Portugal have some nice islands that are largely dependent on tourism. Almost all of them are served by budget airlines like Ryanair, Easyjet or Vueling so they are quite cheap to get to.

Spanish Islands

ibiza foam party

The Balearic Islands

Ibiza (pictured above) is Europe’s party capital with some ridiculously hedonistic nightlife that attracts Europe’s young party-goers each summer for cheap alcohol-fuelled fun and sunshine. Majorca, the largest of the trio attracts an older crowd and more families. It is however big enough to explore and escape the crowds and there are plenty of fun things to see and do. Menorca is small but beautiful and much more relaxing than the other two islands. They can be reached by budget airlines from most Spanish cities or via ferry from cities on the Mediterranean Coast. If you book in advance the flights are likely to be cheaper and are certainly much quicker.

The Canary Islands

Popular for year-round sunshine and warm weather, the Canaries are just about the only place in ‘Europe’ where you can be confident the weather will be good enough to hit the beach in December or January. These volcanic islands are located off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean and are roughly a two hour flight from mainland Spain. They are pretty chilled out places and the local economies on each of the main islands are pretty much dependent on tourism. This is a good place to rent out a car and explore the dark rocky scenery that is vastly different from everything else on the Iberian Peninsular.

Portuguese Islands

Madeira harbour

Madeira

Heading north from the Canaries, you reach the lovely Portuguese island of Madeira. It’s still 600 miles from the European mainland and about half that from the coast of Morocco so flying in is the only option. There are plenty of flights every day to Funchal from Lisbon and other Portuguese cities. Like it’s Spanish owned neighbours, Madeira boasts a mild climate all year round but the island is green and lush and has all sorts of fantastic mountain-based activities to get stuck into. Its major city, Funchal is a colourful place with unique culinary habits and different traditions from that of mainland Portugal.

The Azores

There are a large number of daily flights to various airports in The Azores from Lisbon but you are likely to have to pay a bit more to reach them. Sparsely populated and not hit by an influx of tourism, they have a very different atmosphere from the other Iberian owned islands. If you make the effort to get out here, you will not be disappointed. There are many ocean-based things to do with great dolphin and whale watching opportunities, fishing trips and sailing voyages between the islands amongst your options. The islands also boast what is probably Portugal’s best beer, Especial.

Isolated in the Atlantic Ocean, they are closer to New York than much of Europe and many Azoreans have settled in the United States. There are flights here from cities such as Boston and Toronto so if you are coming from North America then consider flying here first and then onto mainland Iberia.

Other Parts of Europe

You can also easily combine travel in Spain & Portugal with some other parts of Europe and you might not even need to show your passports. City lovers would be wise to check out our Interrail Route around Central Europe. If you’re feeling more adventurous consider getting off the beaten track to some extent with our backpacking route for the Balkans.


Budget Accommodation in Iberia

Most travellers in Europe book accommodation in advance of their arrival at that is advisable here particularly during the busy summer months when hostels frequently sell out. Airbnb provides a nice alternative to hostels for those looking for a more local vibe. Read our Airbnb review and get 30 Euros of free travel credit.


When to visit

Spain and Portugal are at their most popular with visitors during the summer months but that doesn’t mean it’s the best time to visit. In fact with extreme heat, packed hotels and hostels and increased prices, from late July through all of August is perhaps a good period to steer clear of. The weather is warm in almost all of Iberia from May till the end of September, sometimes even later. Therefore perhaps late Spring, June or early Autumn are the best times to visit. However you may want to fit in one or two festivals while you are there so it’s worth knowing when the main celebrations take place.


Traditional Festivals in Spain and Portugal

tomatina festival in spain

Tamborrada, San Sebastian, 24 hours in mid-January (lots of drums).

Carnaval, all over Iberia but best in Cadiz or Lisbon if you’re in Portugal, February or March.

Las Fallas, Valencia, mid-March.

Semana Santa, celebrated all over Spain but best in Seville or Malaga, (Easter weekend).

Feria de Sevilla, two weeks after Easter.

São João Festival, all over Portugal but best in Porto, June.

San Fermin, Pamplona, early July.

Moorish Nights, Cacela Velha (Algarve), July.

Semana Grande, The Basque Country especially Bilbao, August.

Feast of Nossa Senhora do Monte, Madeira, August.

Tomatina (giant tomato fight pictured above), Bunol (just outside Valencia), end of August.

Romaria de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, Lamego, August – September.


Music Festivals in Spain and Portugal

benicassim festival

Primavera Sound, Barcelona and Porto (May).

Sonar Festival, Barcelona (June).

Bilbao BBK Live (July).

Benicassim Festival, Valencia (July) (pictured above).

Optimus Alive, Oeiras (near Lisbon) (July).


Getting Around Spain and Portugal

Renfe – Book trains for travel around Spain. The country has some excellent high-speed train-lines all run by the government owned Renfe. You need to book tickets in advance otherwise the fares are very high in comparison to other methods of transport.

Vueling – If you want to skip out part of the route, Vueling offer the most comprehensive selection of routes across Spain. Failing that try Ryanair.

Alsa – Major Spanish coach company that offers routes to various regions. There are lots of bus companies in Spain though so if it doesn’t have your route, chances are another company will.

Go Spain– Has some useful information for getting around Spain

Rede expresso – One of the biggest Portuguese coach firms that offer very reasonable fares on most routes.

Eva Bus– Similar deal to Rede.

CP – Portuguese train routes include the local networks in Lisbon and Porto are operated by this lot. The trains here are considerably cheaper here than in Spain so they’re a viable alternative for anyone on a really tight budget.

TAP – Portuguese national airline with a large number of flights out to the islands from mainland Portugal.

And finally….

Montaditos – For a cheap beer you can’t beat 100 Montaditos. Una jarra (roughly a pint) of beer can be bought for a Euro on some days and never more than 1.50 Euros and you can choose from a selection of 100 little burgers. They can be found in almost all Spanish cities and the bigger ones have many.


This article was last updated in January 2017.