Exploring Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid
Rachael Zschach, February 2023
I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Spain recently on a site inspection for Dimensions in Travel. My traveling companion and I used an airport car/driver service, stayed at the Hotel Neri in Barcelona, and explored the city on our own. We had a short stay in coastal Valencia. Then we traveled onto Madrid, basing at the Hotel Orfila, did a half-day, private city walking tour of Barcelona arranged through Titanium Tours. This was a wonderful introduction to Spain for me!
- Access: The Hotel Neri, a Relais & Chateaux property, is located in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter on the charming Placa Sant Felip Neri. It cannot be accessed by car, but our Titanium Tours airport transfer driver got us as close as possible, about a two-minute walk away from the front door.
- Arrival: We were welcomed with a glass of Cava during the check in process. The reservationist, Ecatarina, gave me a lovely detailed tour of the hotel and the apartments.
- Location: There is an elementary school across the way, so guests can expect to hear children throughout the day, especially for the 8:30–9:00AM drop off. I personally loved seeing the kids and choose to eat breakfast early one day by the window to see all the parents and kids before they went to school.
- Rooms: Hotel Neri has 22 rooms and five room types: Standard, Deluxe, Deluxe with Terrace, Jr. Suite, Neri Suite Most popular room is the Deluxe with Terrace. Only the Neri Suite has a bedroom separate from a living space and all rooms are on the smaller side as it is a small, historical building.
- Rooftop Terrace: The fourth floor rooftop terrace features a small soaking pool, seating, and shaded areas. There was no bar, but we could press a button and the kitchen would bring drinks up.
- Restaurant – Bar and Terrace: Everyone starts with a breakfast tray: various croissants and breads, fruit, and orange juice. Then I could choose a main item: savory (eggs, salmon, ham/cheese) or sweet (French toast or pancakes). Dinner is served starting at 7:30PM and offers outdoor seating in the Placa Neri under string lights. Outdoor seating is not available at breakfast because the school uses the Placa as their outdoor space. We didn’t eat here, but noticed it was much busier in the evenings than in the morning.
- Staff: Everyone was so kind from the front desk to the kitchen. During my hotel tour, the man at the front desk even helped show me some security features. The front door is always locked and at midnight they close the large outer wooden doors, but as a guest you can still get in. Thomas, the doorman, was a lovely gentlemen who always greeted us by name and took the time every time we saw each other to engage in meaningful but fun conversation.
- Casa Neri Apartments: The apartments are a 10 second walk from Hotel Neri lobby. There were six total – two per floor. They are ideal for families or VIP clients in Barcelona for longer stays or those who are coming to enjoy the beach. The max capacity is three adults, or two adults and two children. There is one bed and a sofa bed. It is possible to close off the entire floor if both rooms are booked. Apartment guests have to walk over to the hotel to access the restaurant, though each apartment does have its own kitchen.
- Casa Neri Rooftop Terrace: The terrace is only available for those staying in the apartments. It has a larger pool than the Hotel and deck with seating and shade.
DISCOVERING BARCELONA ON OUR OWN
- La Sagrada Familia: You have to buy tickets online and it is much easier to buy ahead of time vs trying to do it on your phone on site.
- Park Guell: It is €10 Euro to get in per person – personally I did not think it was worth it (a tad overrated). I say skip it and go to Arc de Triumf and Ciutadella Park instead.
- Metro: It is super easy to use and very clean. The 10-journey pass was enough for three days (about €11).
- Cool Neighborhoods: Get away from the tourists and live like a local in the Gracia Neighborhood Placa del Sol or Placa de La Vila de Gracia for tapas and people watching.
- Rooftop Views of La Sagrada Familia: Go up to the rooftop of the 5* Hotel Majestic (5 Star) for drinks, tapas, and distant views of the famed cathedral. No reservation needed. I thought the BEST rooftop view of La Sagrada Familia was from Sercotel Rosellon in the Eixample neighbourhood, just 200 metres from the cathedral. Advance reservations are a MUST here.
We traveled by rail from Barcelona to coastal Valencia on a Renfe 1st Class train which offered USB charging ports, smaller cars, and comfortable seating. Valencia offers a great shopping area and amazing parks that circle about half of the city where it is easy to spend a sunny afternoon strolling and snacking. The beach was lovely – quiet and warm with restaurants nearby and a great walking path. To get around, the bus system was easy to use (€1.5 per ride), but not always consistent with showing up. I recommend just walking around and enjoying what you find – Russafa neighborhood, El Mercat neighborhood, the Torres de Quart, and the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences.
We took the train from Valencia to Madrid on Renfe Coach Class which offered phone chargers. The cars were full, but quiet. We stayed at the Hotel Orfila, explored Madrid on our own and also did a half-day walking tour.
- Metro: A 10-journey pass is €10. The cars were less clean than Barcelona, but felt very safe. I saw law enforcement in every station all the time.
- Corte de Ingles in Plaza del Callao: Go to the top floor, walk all the way to the end, and there is a great terrace with views of the city.
- Best Breakfast: Pum Pum Bakery – great croissants.
- San Miguel Market: find all types of small plates. Tad more expensive than tapas bars. Will most likely have to stand to eat.
- Best Gelato: Brando Helado
- Prado Museum: Has free entrance each night from 6:00-8:00pm. Get in line early – this is popular!
- El Retiro Park: Great park to explore. Go to the Cecilio Rodriquez Garden to see more than a dozen peacocks
Half Day Walking Tour of Madrid
We arranged this experience through Dimensions in Travel’s preferred Spain on-location team, Titanium Tours. Our guide was Mati and she was incredible! 10:00am was a good start time, but most things still were not open. In the warmer months, she recommends half day tours starting in the late afternoon/evening to avoid walking in the heat of the day. Our tour itinerary included:
- Tour of the City – Mati showed us where the main 5* and 4* Star hotels were located and their pros/cons based on their location.
- Palace Tour – It was quick and easy to enter the palace with our tour guide. The palace had a locker to store items we bought while shopping.
- Options: Mati reviewed all the different customizations with me that my future Madrid clients could do with a tour such as walking, driving, a mix of both, see the Palace, go to the Prado Museum, El Retiro Park, shopping, food and markets. Add in medieval Toledo.
This is a 5* Relais & Chateau hotel In the heart of Madrid, just five minutes from the Museo del Prado. Manager Emilio Ruiz stopped to introduce himself to us and chat for a few minutes. Usually in Madrid in February, 5 star hotels are at 35% occupancy. In February of 2023, they are at 70% occupancy. Emilio said he doesn’t know what is bringing everyone to Madrid right now, but it’s the place to be!
- Location: In the Chamberi District on a quiet, private street. The Metro Station (Alonso Martinez) is a 5 minute walk. It is a 20 minute drive to the main tourist locations. It is about a 5 minute drive to the Prado Museum.
- Rooms: There are 32 Rooms, a variety of suites, superior room, junior suites, and five deluxe suite on the top floor. The deluxe suites have sloped ceilings – a very European touch. Some people don’t like this feature and prefer a traditional room. Most rooms have a bathroom and separate shower – very few rooms only have a shower. Rooms were renovated during Covid by a famous interior designer – all rooms are unique but the same style throughout (similar pattern wallpaper but different colors).
- Clients: Typical clients are 40+ who want to stay at a place that has this specific aesthetic. Children are welcome and they have a designated children’s menu in the hotel. In the rooms, some couches can turn into beds or it is easy to bring up an extra bed – the rooms have the space for it.
- Restaurant, Bar & Tea Room: Menu created by Mario Sandoval – a Michelin Star Chef. When I was there they had three menu options: Regular Menu (€25 – 40ish), Tasting Menu (€85) and an Executive Special Menu (€45). It is common for locals to come for meals or a drink – they like the quiet ambiance. The Bar across the lobby is an intimate setting. The terrace connects to the restaurant and tea room and offers outdoor seating.
Overall Spain Reminders: EVERYBODY smokes – all the time – so be prepared. Spaniards are very relaxed and are whenever/wherever–type of people. Each morning, things don’t really get started until 10:30–11:00am. Everyone kept telling us that Madrid is very safe – which I definitely felt, but visitors must be proactive against those who may pick pocket.