If I knew then what I know now, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. These are the words of an expatriate and those of a traveler. They are the words that I utter after every trip gone awry and also after those that went off, mostly, without a hitch. Yet, it’s also something that I think about often living abroad, watching new arrivals get acclimated to the city year after year. I pass them recommendations and restaurant lists. I issue warnings about tourist traps and pickpockets. I tirelessly orient them to their new city, for no other reason than I wish that I’d had someone to do the same for me when I arrived. I’m also a true believer in good karma and helping out a fellow human being. (Photo by Camilo Rueda López)
The days in a new place are easy to fill, easy to find a new plaza to enjoy, a new street to discover, a new shop you’ve never been in. When I arrived in Barcelona, I wandered the city until my feet were sore, sitting down only long enough to enjoy a cerveza before I moved on to the next discovery. When it came to nightlife, however, I found it to be a slightly different story. Many people say that Spanish life begins after the sun goes down. The hours in Spain are late, much later than that of most of its European counterparts. It was hard to acclimate to the dinner hour when I arrived, let alone the party hour. Spain’s reputation for a late-night party lifestyle made me exhausted just thinking about it, but I felt a pressure to live the nights as I did my days, forcing my feet into further agony on one dance floor after another into the early hours of the morning. More often than not, I was enjoying dinner and breakfast in the same outing.
It took some time before I learned that to enjoy Spanish nightlife (known here as la marcha) is simply to see another side of life in Spain, and that can take many forms. Seeing more than one can deepen your understanding of a new place and a new culture while also giving your feet a much-needed rest. Here are the top ten ways I wish people had suggested that I enjoy the Spanish nightlife when I arrived.
1. HIT THE CLUBS
We might as well start here, because it’s an unavoidable item on the list, one of the things Spain is best known for, aside from jamon, flamenco, and its two national futbol teams. This is especially true in Madrid, which is well-known for its fiestas, but also in Ibiza, considered the mother of the world’s club scene. Heading out for a night in the clubs is highly recommendable as long as you’re willing to wait until at least 2a.m. to get in the door. In the big cities especially, the music is excellent, the ambiance sleek and the drinks well-mixed. I don’t regret my time in the clubs, but I’m also happy to know some other haunts where I can rest my feet.
2. MAKE LA BOTELLON
La botellon is a party in the streets, a form of enjoying the nightlife largely enjoyed by the youth of Spain who take to the city streets with a variety of homemade drinks remixed in plastic soda bottles, or botellas (for which the event is named). Mostly, this is a cost-saving measure but also a popular way to take advantage of the warm Spanish nights, a practice largely frowned upon because it’s said to encourage irresponsible attitudes toward drinking. That all said, while I rarely find myself elbow to elbow with the botellón crowd, there is something to be said for enjoying a drink or two in the streets. I sometimes love to grab a beer or a bottle of wine with a few friends and sit in a plaza or a park as the sun goes down watching the world go by. I love the convivial atmosphere, and I’ve learned more than a thing or two about the Spanish lifestyle from this practice. It is, for the record, illegal to buy from the many beer peddlers found in the streets of Barcelona and other cities, though rarely enforced, and certainly cheaper to bring your own.
3. SIP ON TEA
Of course, going out to enjoy the nightlife doesn’t have to be synonymous with drinking. The south of Spain, with its Moorish influences and Arabic culture, has a lively tea culture that is like stepping into another world. You can sit in one of the tea houses in Granada or Sevilla and enjoy one of their traditional or fruit teas, sweet crepes, or one of many delicious Arabic dishes on the menu. Many of these places also offer water pipes or hookahs if you really want to immerse yourself in the culture. (photo by Oscar Megía)
4. LISTEN TO LIVE MUSIC
There are many places to listen to all kinds of live music in Spain, from jazz to rock to local traditional music, and it’s an excellent alternative to seeing the city through bar life. During the week it’s possible to catch a show starting at 9, but be aware that the weekend shows, like everything else in Spain, begin quite late. You might take in the classical set at one of the opera houses or music halls in town. Not only do they put on a great show, but the buildings themselves are often works of art. The Teatre Liceu and the Palau de la Música in Barcelona are two places worth seeing, and if you can’t catch a show, you can always take a tour of the impressive Modernist buildings.
5. DRINKS FROM ABOVE
One of the things that surprised me most was how many balconies there are in Spain, especially in the larger city centers like Madrid and Barcelona. There was a whole world above me I never knew existed. Once I became aware of it, I only ever wanted to enjoy the city from above, to see glittering, enchanting panoramas of the city lights spread out before me. Sit sky high in one of the hotel terraces where you can enjoy an expertly made drink and good music. Every year in June in Barcelona, I take advantage of an event called terrace week, when many of the hotel rooftop terraces open up for a week of coordinated events. Luckily, the experience can be enjoyed on any warm night throughout the year.
6. DINE UNDER STARS
This isn’t such a secret, given that it’s part of the culture here, but it nevertheless took me, and my stomach, a while to clue in. Dinners start at around 8:30 for early bird set, with most reservations falling somewhere between 9:30 and 11:00. It used to be a struggle for me to eat so late, and I found myself spending many a meal dining in a mostly empty room in the random places open early enough to accommodate me. Eating out is an experience most would agree is best enjoyed in a full restaurant where you can share in a festive atmosphere. Have an aperitivo and a late afternoon snack at one of the tapas bars in the city, and then take your siesta early so you can be fresh and ready for a great dinner and a full night of exploration and wine afterwards. (photo by Robert Young)
7. JOIN THE PARTY
Spain’s culture is rife with fiestas (festas in Catalan), giant street parties which are designed to celebrate almost anything, from religious holidays to a neighborhood to the city itself. I love these sometimes hedonistic affairs in any city, which can range from small neighborhood block parties filled with food and live music to the larger city-wide celebrations. My favorite festival in Barcelona, La Mercè, is a week-long series of events in September that run day and night, from concerts to short theatre productions, dance performances and comedy acts. When the lights go down, they project 3-D graphics on several city buildings in a stunning and surreal display. However, my favorite event of the festival is the correfoc, an unusual and well-loved parade which features costumed devils and many fire-breathing animals, which shoot strong jets of sparks into the crowds that pack the city’s main artery. While this event is not for the faint of heart, it’s one that I’ve come to love, and which signifies to me the wildness of Spanish life. It’s a good idea to check out a calendar of events well in advance of your trip to see what the city has on its agenda.
8. BECOME THE COAST
With 3,000 miles of coastline, Spain has plenty of beaches where you can spend a night under the stars. There’s nothing like a beach walk to clear the head, and I have taken advantage of many a warm night on the beaches of Barcelona. There are several stretches of peaceful coastline to be found here, but but the city’s central beach, Barceloneta, really comes alive after dark. I’ve sat listening to the rhythmic drum circles as the sun sinks under the horizon, watching the groups of people scattered along the beach dancing Capoeira, and sharing drinks and laughter. No matter where you find yourself in Spain, I recommend reserving at least one night for putting your feet in the sand, listening to the waves hit the beach, and soaking up some peace and quiet next to the sea. (photo by Gabriel González)
9. FIND YOUR RHYTHEM
Flamenco is the dance for which Spain is best known. Combining guitar, dance and song into one impressive spectacle, flamenco offers a passionate glimpse into a different side of Spain. There are many places in Granada, Sevilla, and throughout the south where you can see live flamenco shows while you eat dinner. But if you’re up for more than just watching, you can join an evening flamenco class, which are often available during weekday evenings for those just finishing work for the day. It’s not a bad way to find your rhythm while really learning about what makes these dancers tick.
10. TAKE A WALK
Walking the streets of any city is usually the top order of each day for a tourist. However, walking through the streets usually means sharing those streets with hundreds of other tourists filling the same routes all battling to see the same sights and landmarks. The first time I ever walked through Barcelona at night, I felt almost giddy, as though I had the entire city to myself for once. It felt like a secret. I recommend taking some of the same walks you might take during the day at night, seeing old Roman walls, quiet darkened plazas, and the imposing structures of the city’s churches, all in a different light. It will add a bit of mystery and glamour to an experience that might otherwise feel like just another day in any other town.
Any time you’re in a new city, it sometimes helps to keep an open mind and to be imaginative when planning your days and nights. I often like to think backwards, taking the opposite route than suggested in a guidebook, or flipping the hours so that I might catch a landmark without the crowds. I also try to remind myself to do the same things that I truly love to do, but in a new place where I can have a unique take on them. I hope this helps you think a bit outside the box, and to enjoy the Spanish nightlife to its fullest.