What’s new in Spain, Por­tu­gal for 2019

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Like many trav­el­ers, last spring I vis­ited Barcelona dreaming of see­ing An­toni Gaudi’s breath­tak­ing Sagrada Fa­milia 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 knew to book tick­ets in ad­vance.

Along with Sagrada Fa­milia, Spain’s other sights to book ahead in­clude the Pi­casso Mu­seum, La Pe­dr­era, Casa Batllo and Park Guell in Barcelona; the Pala­cios Nazaries 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 Dali’s house in Cadaques all re­quire a guided tour, which also must be booked ahead. Ad­vance tick­ets for the Dali 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.

Here are more things to know if you have plans to travel to Spain and Por­tu­gal in 2019. Barcelona con­tin­ues to evolve. After a long ren­o­va­tion, the Mar­itime Mu­seum has re­opened, dis­play­ing 13th- to 18th­cen­tury ships (restora­tion con­tin­ues on the lat­er­century 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 Se­bas­tian’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 Cor­doba, you can now climb the bell tower at the Mezquita, the mas­sive mosque-turned-cathe­dral. But Cor­doba’s 14th-cen­tury syn­a­gogue is closed for ren­o­va­tion.

Spain’s trans­porta­tion is also im­prov­ing: Uber is now avail­able in 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 Jeron­i­mos at Belem out­side Lis­bon (buy a combo-ticket at Belem’s Ar­chae­ol­ogy Mu­seum to avoid the ticket line at the monastery).

Rid­ing in 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 num­ber 24E — which is back in ser­vice after a decades­long 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 once­salty 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 — it’s start­ing to gen­trify just like the Alfama.

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’Acorda, has moved to the first floor in the Ribeira mar­ket hall (aka Time Out Mar­ket). It’s still rec­om­mended and still serv­ing tra­di­tional Por­tuguese cui­sine.

In the pil­grim­age town of Fa­tima, where the Vir­gin Mary is said to have ap­peared in 1917, the new Fa­tima 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 Joao 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 Bol­hao 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. Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

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