What's New in Spain and Portugal for 2017
Little tuk-tuks are a fun way to sightsee around Lisbon. (photo: Rick Steves)
Both Spain and Portugal have interesting stories to tell and interesting cultures to share. Here's some travel news for those visiting in 2017.
Across Spain, neglected corners of many cities are now being made more inviting for visitors. Sevilla's Triana neighborhood, for example, long considered the "wrong side of the river," is soon to be the most colorful part of town. Just across the Guadalquivir River from the city center, it now hosts a bustling fruit and vegetable market, numerous tapas bars, and the Museo de la Cerámica de Triana, which highlights the district's tile-producing history. After visiting the museum, it's fun to wander and admire the lavishly decorated facades of the ceramics workshops that once populated this quarter.
And in Madrid, the formerly sleazy, no-go Chueca district, just north of the busy shopping street called Gran Vía, is now trendy and appealing. It feels like today's Madrid — and without the tourism. Eating here is especially fun, either at a table on the central Plaza de Chueca, at the San Anton market hall, or at one of the creative eateries nearby.
The exception to this upward trend is in Barcelona, where the iconic Ramblas boulevard has lost much of its charm. Once home to authentic markets, characteristic eateries, and a thriving local ambience, it's now awash in tacky tourist trinkets and lousy restaurants. If you come to Barcelona, you've still got to ramble the Ramblas — just don't eat or shop there.
Barcelona is home to many great buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí, the famous Modernista architect. With the opening of the Gaudí Exhibition Center, visitors finally have a central place to learn about his contributions to the city. Filling a complex of ancient and medieval buildings alongside Barcelona's cathedral, the center uses a beautifully lit, well-described exhibit and plenty of historic artifacts to introduce the man and his accomplishments.
To accommodate a steadily increasing influx of visitors in this wildly popular city, Barcelona's main attractions are getting wise to the advantages of advance ticket sales. For instance, visitors can now save time at the line-plagued Picasso Museum by buying timed-entry tickets in advance. For last-minute types, another option is to buy an Articket BCN, which covers six top Barcelona museums and allows visitors to walk right in anytime at the Picasso Museum.
Likewise, at the Sagrada Família, Gaudí's remarkable unfinished church, it's best to purchase advance tickets online. However, ticket buyers now must decide ahead of time if they want to add the audioguide, tower elevator, live guide, or the Gaudí House — there's no option to buy these extras once inside the church.
Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, two more popular Gaudí sights, now offer pricey fast-pass tickets (in addition to regular advance tickets). People with the fast-pass tickets can bypass all lines, including those to enter the building and to access certain areas of the sight, such as the roof, that are closed to non-VIP guests.
In neighboring Portugal, several new and improved museums are making sightseeing even more interesting for travelers. Lisbon's recently opened Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom covers the country's troubled mid-20th-century history. Once a prison that held political opponents of Portugal's longtime dictator António Salazar, the building now houses a well-presented, three-floor exhibit about the repressive regime, which endured from 1926 until 1974. It's food for thought for anyone with an appetite for recent history.
At Lisbon's Museum of Ancient Art — covering the 15th and 16th centuries, a time when the Portuguese ruled the seas — a planned renovation should make this fine space even more inviting (but may cause disruptions or even closure in 2017).
Extra crowds are expected this year at the Catholic pilgrimage site of Fátima, which celebrates the centennial of the Virgin Mary's apparition to three young villagers in 1917. To learn more about this event, travelers can check out the new Miracle of Fatima Interactive Museum, which features a 40-minute multisensory re-creation of this apparition. The admission fee is steep and the tone is evangelical, but it's probably the best of the commercial attractions in town.
In Lagos, on Portugal's southern Algarve coast, the Slave Market Museum (Mercado de Escravos) has been completely renovated with new exhibits telling the sad history of Europe's first modern-era slave market (founded in 1444).
As it has in much of urban Europe, Uber has made it to Portugal. It's a good, cheap way to get around in hilly Lisbon and Porto. And there's another fun new option in both towns: goofy little tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis). Find a likeable driver with good language skills and a little charm, and negotiate a private tour. The vehicles are just right for getting into back lanes and making impromptu photo stops.
Much has changed since I first started visiting these countries decades ago. But even though Spain and Portugal are keeping up with 21st-century trends, their attractions are timeless.