Madrid, Valencia or Lisbon? Anna Leask struggles to pick a favourite between the three charming and beautiful cities.

There is a lot to love about Madrid: the weather, the shopping, the food, the people and the scenery have put the Spanish capital in the top section of my travel favourites' list.

And everything you love about Madrid by day gets better when darkness falls.

During a three-month stint in Europe and the UK, I kept a travel journal and my notes from my first day in Madrid were: "Toured the city by bus, fell in love straight away." Spain is that kind of place.

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The mercury hit 42C but that didn't put me off seeing the sights.

I'm a sucker for wandering around a new place, staring at the architecture, watching the people - taking it all in and wondering what it would be like to live there.

The Royal Palace of Madrid caught my eye. To say it's spectacular is an understatement.

While it's the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, it is used only for state ceremonies. They live just outside the city.

Set behind gold-embellished fencing, the palace is a grand white-stone beauty and a real landmark.

Like many Spanish landmarks, the site was originally a Muslim fortress. A castle was built in the 16th century and the current palace was constructed after that was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve, 1734.

Another place to wander around and take in everything wonderful about Madrid is the Puerta del Sol - which in Spanish means Gate of the Sun.

It's a large public square, easily one of the busiest and most famous places in the city.

You'll find a grand, old post office that these days serves as the President of Madrid's office, a statue of Charles III of Spain and the well-known Tio Pepe neon sign standing tall atop a building on the eastern side. For those not familiar with sherry, Tio Pepe is a much-loved brand in Spain.

Among the city's many ornate fountains, sculptures and manicured green gardens, tree-lined streets and pristinely-kept flower beds, you'll also find the Cervantes Monument, a monument to novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote. The lower section is dedicated to the classic, with a sculpture of Cervantes looking down at his iconic character and his sidekick Sancho Panza.

At night, after siesta, when the city sleeps to avoid the intense afternoon heat, things start to buzz. The restaurants fill up, the streets are bustling and there's music wherever you wander. Illuminated by streetlights, Madrid is simply magical in the evening.

The perfect place to enjoy the atmosphere is Los Galayos.

It's been operating for more than 120 years and unlike many of the tourist-trapping restaurants off the Plaza Mayor - the city's central plaza near Puerta del Sol - it offers genuine and delicious Spanish cuisine.

Peppers stuffed with fresh cod, fresh chorizo, eight-hour, slow-cooked suckling pig ( something of a national dish) and the most divine red wine you can imagine. And then there's the cream custard cake, which you will definitely need to save room for.

I hated to leave Madrid, I felt like there was so much more to see and do, but Valencia was calling.

The third largest city in Spain, like most cities in Europe, is steeped in history and religious culture. But it has one thing the others do not: the Holy Grail.

Encased in glass, protected from the masses who flock to see it every hour, sits the vessel from which Jesus Christ purportedly drank at the Last Supper. If you believe in that stuff.

Either way, it's a pretty cool thing to see, and the rest of the Valencia Cathedral is also beautiful and worth a walk around to soak in the quiet and history.

Jeronimos Monastery, in Lisbon. Photo / xiquinhosilva
Jeronimos Monastery, in Lisbon. Photo / xiquinhosilva

Not far is a restaurant called La Valenciana, which serves traditional paella - and was the first place in Spain to serve the iconic dish. The Valencian version comes with chicken, rabbit and snails.

It's probably not to everyone's taste, and they do have less wild options, but be brave and have a taste of tradition in the home of paella.

You can also buy a decent paella pan there, which some of my travel mates did, and try your hand at recreating the dish at home.

There are a heap of glorious old buildings in Valencia's inner city, including the post office, town hall, train station and Plaza de Toros, a famous bullfighting ring that's often filled to capacity for the beloved event.

A trip to Valencia wouldn't be complete without trying horchata. Another gem created in the city, the drink is made of tigernuts, water and sugar and served ice cold. You can buy it on many streets from vendors and it's the perfect soother for that hot Spanish sun.

Directly opposite Valencia, on the west coast of the region, lies Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and a much cooler city to visit temperature-wise.

When we arrived in Lisbon we had a few hours to spare so we threw on walking shoes and hit the Praca do Rossio in the heart of the city.

The square, with its wave pattern of black and white cobblestones, is a meeting place for many locals and tourists, and is brimming with activity. There are bars and restaurants, and it's a short walk to one of the more different landmarks in Lisbon.

The Santa Just lift connects the lower streets to a square above and has become quite the tourist attraction as it is the only remaining vertical lift in the city.

The vertical lifts were replaced by the city's funicular system, a network of trams that carry residents up and down the steep hills, seats inside inclined so that passengers keep a level view as they travel.

A sight more up my alley was the Jeronimos Monastery, classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983.

Ornately decorated stone tombs, stunning cloisters, pillars and arches make the monastery a fascinating place to visit. Keep an eye out for the spectacular stained-glass windows and ceiling.

The day ended as most do in Portugal and Spain, with the region's best food and wine.

We dined on fresh, succulent crab, prawns, sea bream and cod and sipped vinho verde, "green" or, more properly, young wine, produced in the far north of the country and the perfect drop to match the seafood extravaganza.

Our last evening in Lisbon was, according to my journal: "A beautiful night."

"So sad to leave tomorrow," I wrote.

I remember that feeling so well. We shuffled on to the bus once more and were taken to a show.

While Spain has its flamboyant flamenco, Portugal's national dance is a little more subdued and folky, punctuated with dramatic, soulful singing. It was a dinner show, the tourist attraction du jour in Europe, and once more we were fed the most delectable local tastes. Potato and spinach soup was followed by a baked cod and, of course, more of that Portuguese wine.

If I had to pick a favourite from Madrid, Valencia and Lisbon I would struggle. All have their charms, their beauty and their unique history and offerings. I think it's fair to say I fell a little bit in love with them all.

Plaza de Toros (Bullring), in Valencia. Photo / JenniKate Wallace
Plaza de Toros (Bullring), in Valencia. Photo / JenniKate Wallace

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Trafalgar's

Highlights of Spain and Portugal Tour

runs for 13 days, starting and finishing in Madrid and taking in the Alhambra Palace, the Hanging Houses of Cuenca, Cadiz and vibrant cities such as Valencia and Lisbon. It is priced from $3250 a person.