by Rick Steves, February 13, 2019
Like many travelers, last spring I visited Barcelona dreaming of seeing Antoni Gaudí's breathtaking Sagrada Família church. When I got there, the ticket office was closed, with a posted sign: "No more tickets today. Buy your ticket for another day online." Thankfully, I'd known to book tickets in advance.
Along with Sagrada Família, Spain's sights to book ahead include Barcelona's Picasso Museum, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, and Park Güell; the Palacios Nazaríes at the Alhambra in Granada; and the Royal Alcazar Moorish palace, Church of the Savior, and cathedral in Sevilla. Barcelona's Casa Amatller and Palace of Catalan Music, and Salvador Dalí's house in Cadaqués all require a guided tour, which also must be booked ahead. Advance tickets for the Dalí Theater-Museum in nearby Figueres are also a good idea. While it may be technically possible to buy tickets on-site, in my guidebooks I simply say you must reserve in advance. It's much smarter.
Barcelona continues to evolve. After a long renovation, the Maritime Museum has reopened, displaying 13th- to 18th-century ships (restoration continues on the later-century ships). The El Raval neighborhood is rising up as the new bohemian zone. While this area has rough edges, its recently reopened Sant Antoni market hall, new Museum of Contemporary Art, and pedestrian-friendly streets contribute to its boom of creative shops, bars, and restaurants.
In Spain's northern Basque country, San Sebastián's old tobacco factory has been converted into the free Tabakalera International Center for Contemporary Culture, hosting films and art exhibits — and knockout views from its roof terrace. In Pamplona, a new exhibit gives a behind-the-scenes look at the town's famous bullring.
In the south of Spain, the cathedral in Sevilla now runs rooftop tours, providing a better view — and experience — than its bell tower climb. In nearby Córdoba, you can now climb the bell tower at the Mezquita, the massive mosque-turned-cathedral. But Córdoba's 14th-century synagogue is closed for renovation.
Spain's transportation is also improving: Uber is now available in both Barcelona and Madrid. Madrid's Metro has a new rechargeable card system: A red Multi Card (tarjeta) is required to buy either a single-ride Metro ticket or 10-ride transit ticket. Spain's high-speed Alvia train now runs between Segovia and Salamanca in about 75 minutes, making it faster than driving.
Portugal has fewer blockbuster sights than Spain and nowhere near the crowds. The only sight where you might have a crowd problem is the Monastery of Jéronimos at Belém, just outside Lisbon proper (buy a combo-ticket at Belém's Archaeology Museum to avoid the ticket line at the monastery).
Riding in most of Lisbon's classic trolley cars — a quintessential Portuguese experience — can also be frustratingly crowded (and plagued by pickpockets targeting tourists). A less-crowded option is trolley line #24E — which is back in service after a decades-long hiatus. Although this route doesn't pass many top sights, you can see a slice of workaday Lisbon. (Or, better yet, get your trolley experience in Porto, which has almost no crowds.)
On my last visit I realized that Lisbon's beloved Alfama quarter — its Visigothic birthplace and once-salty sailors' quarter — is salty no more (except with the sweat of cruise groups hiking its now-lifeless lanes). The new colorful zone to explore is the nearby Mouraria, the historic tangled quarter on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Reconquista (when Christian forces retook the city from the Muslims). To this day, it's a gritty and colorful district of immigrants — but don't delay your visit, as it's starting to gentrify just like the Alfama has.
In other Lisbon news, the Museum of Ancient Art finished its top-floor renovation, and plans to renovate its second floor in 2020. One of the city's leading restaurants, Pap'Açôrda, has moved to the first floor in the Ribeira market hall (a.k.a. the Time Out Market). It's still recommended and still serving traditional Portuguese cuisine.
In the pilgrimage town of Fátima, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1917, the new Fátima Light and Peace Exhibition run by the Roman Catholic Church complements a visit to the basilica, and offers a more pleasing experience than its more commercial competitors.
In Coimbra, ticket options for the University of Coimbra sights, including the beautiful Baroque King João library, now cover the nearby and impressive Science Museum — go there first to buy your university tickets and book your required timed entry for the library.
In Porto, the Bolhão Market is closed for a much needed renovation until mid-2020. In the meantime, vendors are in the basement of a nearby department store…carrying on the warm shopper relationships that go back generations.
Spain and Portugal have a continually evolving sightseeing scene, so it's important to travel in 2019 with the latest information to get the most out of your experience.