In today’s Women Who Travel Solo, former expat Michelle Philippon returns to Spain for the first time to celebrate her 30th birthday and shares stories from Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
How did you get started traveling?
When I was a kid, I traveled a lot with my family around the United States. Then, when I was 16, I ventured outside the country for the first time on a mission trip to Mexico. But I think I really got the travel bug my junior year of college, when I studied abroad in England.
Why did you decide to take a solo trip to Spain?
I was turning 30 and having somewhat of a crisis, so I figured I might as well blow a bunch of cash and do something reasonably crazy. I’d spent a year in Spain before (with the lovely Lauren Salisbury, of course), still had friends there, and really wanted to go back for a visit, so Spain seemed like a good idea. While I knew I would spend some time in Madrid (where my friends were), I wanted to use this time to travel to other parts of Spain I’d never gone to before: namely, Barcelona and Sevilla.
What was your experience like with solo travel in Spain?
Going back to Spain after living in the U.S. for a year and a half was a bit surreal. It was odd to be immersed in Spanish again and feel as if nothing had changed while everything had.
I think the biggest change in my travels this time was that I actually had dinero. The last time I lived and traveled solo in Spain (in 2013-2014), I was earning far less than I am now (although, to be honest, 1,000 euros per month wasn’t too shabby). Before, I was super-cheap, always afraid I’d run out of money (spoiler alert: I did), and always went with the most inexpensive option. So: long, hot bus rides, hostels, and avoiding costly tourist sites.
This time, though, I figured that as an almost-30-year-old woman with a “real” job, I could treat myself. Plus, I was over hostels. So when I traveled from Madrid to Barcelona and later, from Madrid to Sevilla, I took the fast-speed AVE train. I saved time, rode in comfort, and didn’t spend hours squished on a bus. I also chose to utilize Airbnb for the first time instead of hostels. I don’t regret it at all. I was able to sleep, the accommodations were spacious and quiet, and I stayed in some great parts of both cities.
What recommendations do you have for solo travel in Spain?
Solo Travel in Barcelona:
Spend at least four days there. I did a wham-bam trip in a day and a half and regret it. Go to the Sagrada Familia early in the morning. Don’t try to walk from the Sagrada Familia to the Park Guell because it’ll take far longer than it looks on a map. Spend time in Park Guell or else you’ll feel like it’s a wasted trip. Go to the other Gaudi sites. Hit the beach. Have a drink or dinner on top of the Arenas. Climb Montjuïc. Visit a museum or two, or three. Walk down Las Ramblas but beware of pickpockets. Hit the local mercados and try whatever looks interesting. Explore the Barri Gotic (Gothic Neighborhood) at night; you’ll feel like you’re in Harry Potter.
Solo Travel in Seville:
The most popular times to go there are during Feria and Semana Santa, and I’ve heard the summers are unbearable, so I’d advise going there in the off-season, like I did. Stay near the heart of the city. Walk everywhere. Take a free tour if you can; there’s so much history you’d never imagined. Go to Plaza de Espana more than once. Hit the Cathedral, the third-largest cathedral in all of Europe. Explore the parks. Take a cruise down the River Guadalquivir. Go to Triana. Eat out as much as possible; the food is fantastic. Try local staples like salmorejo. Go to the Alcazar, but try to get there early to beat the crowds. Rent a bike if you’d like; Seville is a great city for biking. Visit local churches to see each imagen they have—possibly more than one.
What was the best part of your solo trip to Spain?
I loved all three cities I visited, but I think Seville was honestly my favorite. I could gush on and on about it, but the memory that particularly stands out to me is wandering around main area at night on Constitution Day. The city was entirely alit with Christmas lights. The streets were packed. Groups of people sang traditional andaluz Christmas carols. There were small local bands playing. Everyone was dressed to the nines. The tower at the cathedral glowed gold. It was something I’ll never forget.
What was the worst part of your trip?
All the smoking. I’d forgotten how Spaniards (particularly in Madrid) love to fumar. Having smoke blown in my face all the time got old pretty fast. Also: the odors. Barcelona smelled like a mix of weed and dog poop. Madrid smells more like just plain dog poop. That’s because there is dog poop everywhere. My olfactory senses weren’t too pleased, to say the least.
Are there any safety concerns for women traveling alone in Spain?
Spain is a pretty safe country to travel, but if you’re visiting one of the big cities like Madrid or Barcelona, it’s always smart to be aware of your surroundings. Pickpocketing is also quite common, so I always tried to pay attention, never have my phone out, and only travel with a few credit card(s) as opposed to all of them. There are also rough areas of both cities, so it’s best to do your homework and avoid them if you can.
What advice do you have for women who are traveling alone?
Be open but not stupid. I spent most of my time in Barcelona and Seville with strangers I met randomly on the streets or through Couchsurfing, but I always dressed sensibly, kept my purse clutched closely to me, never got drunk, and made sure not to accept drinks from other people. People might seem nice, but you ever know. Always err with caution, but don’t be afraid to meet people. I put myself out there and met some really cool folks I’m still in touch with.
Also: do not be afraid to be alone. It’s easy to meet people if you want to, but solo time is sometimes a precious gift and something worth cherishing. It’s not necessarily easy; away from home, away from the distractions of your everyday life, you’ll realize a lot about yourself—some of which may not be pretty. You may have to face some truths, or possibly some demons. But embrace this time. Journal. Walk alone. Think. And evolve.
Do you have anything else to add to inspire women solo travelers?
The first time I traveled by myself when I was 21, I hyperventilated, cried, and didn’t know how to read a map. Now I actively seek adventure and travel alone all the time, including random day trips to Canada because—well, why not, eh? (Bad pun; sorry, Canadians—I do love your country!) It may suck the first time, especially if you’re a directionally-challenged, perpetually-unable-to-budget anxious person like me, but you’ll get some grit and soon be like a pro.
About Michelle Philippon
Michelle is a Sagittarius who doesn’t really care about those things and currently lives in Toledo, Ohio. She likes reading, hiking, hanging out with her cat, (and obviously having a thriving social life because she enjoy reading, hiking, and hanging out with her cat). After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature because—shocker—she enjoys reading, she went into social work. She lived in Spain for a stint, moved back to the U.S., and found a job in the for-profit world that she loves.
About Women Who Travel Solo
Women Who Travel Solo is a weekly column that shares the stories of women’s solo travel adventures in hopes of spreading the message that traveling alone is not only safe, but wildly rewarding. Inspire other women to travel solo by sharing your story with Something In Her Ramblings. Email Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org.