mary_kaye_zanatta_170x170By Mary Kaye Zanatta
Senior Account Manager, On-Sites
Virtuoso

History, food, culture, architecture – Spain is a dream destination for travelers seeking these kinds of experiences. I recently had the chance to explore its two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, with a group of Virtuoso travel advisors. I was lucky enough to get an insider’s view thanks to my local Virtuoso guides.

Here’s my list of the 6 top Spain experiences that every traveler to the country should have.

Top Spain Experiences: Madrid

Visiting the Prado Museum

When I saw the Prado Museum on the itinerary, I didn’t think much about it. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it before. On top of that, I’m not much of a museum person. Was I ever surprised!

The Museo del Prado (as it’s called in Spain) is the main national art museum. It features one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 19th century. Works by greats including Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens are represented at the Prado. Without question, it houses the single best collection of Spanish art. We discovered masters such as El Greco and Velasquez there.

A great guide truly can make or break a tour. Ours brilliantly led us through the museum, focusing on the most unique works of art from the 1,300 on display. She brought every painting she showed us to life, sharing a unique story for each one.  Who knew that you could study an expression on the face of a subject in a painting and learn what they were feeling at the time? Or why they were dressed the way they were? Why the artist chose particular colors? And most intriguing, who the subject’s longing glance was intended for (usually a lover, not a spouse!).

One of the coolest things we saw were paintings with a pentimento. It’s an alteration the artist made to change the look of the work by painting over previous features. For example, a hand may appear in a slightly different position. Or the tail of a horse becomes a bush in the background. You would never know about details like this if you walked through the museum on your own.

top Spanish experiences: bowl of gazpacho
Gazpacho – a mainstay of Spanish cuisine – was part of an unforgettable cooking experience

Cooking Like a Local

The group agreed that one of its top Spain experiences was a cooking class at the beautiful home of Pilar Latorre. She’s a former attorney turned chef and teacher extraordinaire.  We didn’t just watch Pilar cook. We all donned aprons and jumped in to help, chop, dice, stir, pour and create. Our menu consisted of bread with tomato and extra virgin olive oil, chilled gazpacho soup, Iberian pork loin with olive tapenade and crema catalana for dessert – the Spanish version of creme brulee. Of course we enjoyed local wines expertly paired with each course. At the end we received recipes for each of the dishes we prepared.

This cooking experience can be tailor-made to anyone’s preferences. Choose your own menu and wine based on your taste. ¡Buen provecho!

Savoring Paella

No trip to Spain is complete without tasting paella. Being Virtuosos, however, we went a step beyond that. Before lunch at the InterContinental Hotel, we went to the hotel’s kitchen and helped them make the paella we were going to enjoy for lunch. It was so much fun to see all of the ingredients laid out to go into the dish.

We helped the hotel make two paellas. One was vegetarian, so had lots of tomatoes, butter beans, onions, red and green pepper, garlic and of course saffron. The other one had shrimp, mussels, and flavorful Spanish chorizo.  They both were wonderful, with such different tastes.

It seems so simple when it’s set up for you. But when you try to do it yourself, that’s not always the case!

top Spain experiences: hot chocolate and churros at Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid
Thick hot chocolate and churros are an unbeatable combination in Madrid

Snacking on Chocolate and Churros

You have to know where it is on the side streets of Madrid. Thank goodness for our local insiders, who led us straight to the famous Chocolateria San Gines. Why is it so well-known? There you can enjoy the largest churros you will ever see and the thickest hot chocolate known to humanity.

When I dipped my churros in the hot chocolate, it was like dipping them into drinkable fudge. Pictures line the walls of the restaurant of famous people (Spaniards and international celebrities alike) who have dined here. This isn’t just a tourist thing. Many locals were enjoying their churros, chocolate and coffees in the café setting.

Since 1894, the store has made the noteworthy chocolate with the long donuts a Madrid tradition. Its website even shares how many cups of chocolate and churros it’s sold. The sweet treat is so beloved that Chocolateria San Gines has expanded to locations in Japan, China and Colombia.

Top Spain Experiences: Barcelona

top Spanish experiences: exterior of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Barcelona’s best-known landmark, Sagrada Familia, fascinates visitors with its distinctive architecture

Marveling at Sagrada Familia

No trip to Barcelona would be complete without visiting its most famous landmark. The incredible Sagrada Familia basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its distinctive style is a mashup of Art Nouveau and Gothic.

Construction started on the building in 1883. It’s still not finished. Completion is scheduled for 2026 – the 100th anniversary of the passing of its architect, Antoni Gaudi.

More than 20 years ago, when I first went to Barcelona, we weren’t able to go inside the remarkable building. So it was quite a treat this time to experience the interior and hear about its history.

Two things to note: the pictures you see of it don’t do it justice. You have to see it in person to fully understand and experience it. It is a truly awe-inspiring and breathtaking structure.

Also, every time you look at Sagrada Familia you notice something new and different. You could spend the rest of your life studying this masterpiece and still not see it all.

Lunching at Mantequeria Can Ravell

If you didn’t know this hidden gem is here, you would walk right by it.  But locals have been delighting in its offerings since 1929. Today the son of the founder oversees this unusual spot that’s one of the top Spain experiences for travelers.

When you step inside Mantequeria Can Ravell, it looks like a little shop selling wines, olive oil and other food items.  Walk a little farther to the back of the store and climb the winding staircase. You’ll find a small room with several tables and a large blackboard sharing the specialties of the day.

Whatever’s in season makes it on the menu. Call it classy Spanish comfort food. We were treated to several courses of local fare including seafood, crepes, meats, cheeses and wine.

Top Spain Experiences: How You Can Have Them All

Does this inspire you to enjoy these top Spain experiences firsthand? If so, a Virtuoso travel advisor who specializes in Spain can help. Find them, plus a wealth of information on the country, at virtuoso.com.