Barcelona 2020

After a glorious few days in Portugal we made our way to Barcelona as the 2nd destination for our February 2020 birthday trip (before the world closed down). This is the second part of our birthday trip beginning with Lisbon + Sintra. We arrived later in the evening and checked into our amazingly central and affordable hotel, Hotel Ciutat de Barcelona, in the El Born district just next to the Gothic neighborhood. It was both John and I’s first time in Barcelona or Spain for that matter (neither of us ever studied Spanish and never studied abroad so we were pretty excited). I wanted to be in an area with tons of restaurants, bars, and shops in walking distance but I also wanted to be close to the Gothic area as it’s one of the oldest parts and most historic. El Born seemed really fun and our hotel was in the perfect location! We spent our first night walking around El Born, grabbing dinner and drinks and resting up for our big first full day of exploration.

The next day we walked over to La Sagrada Familia, stopping along the Arc de Triomf for some photos and grabbing croissants and coffee. Of course due to popularity we got our tickets in advance, but on a weekday in February it was not busy at all. We spent a good hour and a half walking around, exploring every nook and cranny and listening to the guided tour. It’s incredible the amount of work and planning for this cathedral and Gaudi’s vision! It’s absolutely beautiful inside – the beams and posts are similar to trees and looking up is like looking up in a forest. The lighting is gorgeous and it feels peaceful.

Afterwards we walked by Casa Mila and throughout the Eixample neighborhood. I almost thought about staying there as it’s more of a neighborhood and less touristy than Gothic/El Born areas, but since it was our first time we were happy with our hotel location and choose to explore other areas when we could.

Gaudi’s influence is apparent throughout Barcelona. It’s such a distinct vibe unique to the city and we were all about it. Just walking through different neighborhoods and checking out the eccentric architecture was a fun activity in itself!

After walking around for a good few miles we had a delicious lunch in the Gothic district with the most amazing croquettes. I became seriously addicted to croquettes on this trip and even now dream of biting into their golden brown cheesy deliciousness. We decided to explore the Barcelona History Museum for free and learn more about how Barcelona came to be a powerhouse in the Iberian peninsula. There are ancient ruins underneath the city that you get to walk through too!

We then grabbed some empanadas and went to Terrace La Isabella for a rooftop happy hour and saw beautiful views of the city. Absolutely stunning with our divine weather! Also there aren’t many skyscrapers in Barcelona, the views are mostly hills and cathedrals. However the 1992 Olympics brought some modern architecture into play.

But really, Barcelona is SO much fun! I was really impressed with the history, the AMAZING food, endless options, fun walks, good wine – the list goes on and on. I would gladly go back and spend more time there – the energy is great. Kinda reminded me of parts of Paris and also parts of NYC.

We ended the night with an AWESOME night out at the most adorable alley spot in El Born for happy hour followed by a delicious Spanish meal for John’s bday! Iberian ham is the way to go, especially paired with fresh sangria. I can’t remember the name of this spot we went to but it was both our favorite place during our trip.

Our next day we spent at the morning at Las Ramblas markets and then rode public transit up to Park Guell just north of downtown. It’s a big hill to climb up to get to the top but it was a super interesting view and experience. There’s also tons of performing artists sprinkled throughout the climb, so beware if you feel yourself getting lost – you can hear faint singing to guide you back to your path 🙂

Park Guell was Gaudi’s vision for a utopian neighborhood in the early 1900’s and it looks sorta like a surrealist wonder. You have to go as early as you can because it will be crowded and hard to get photos without too many people in the background, but definitely check it out! We didn’t get tickets in advance but we were able to purchase them on our phones in line for a quicker entrance.

In the evening we went on a walking ghost tour and it was one of our favorite things we did together! We ate in the Gothic area and met our guide outside the steps of the Cathedral de Barcelona for an adventurous evening.

Our tour guide was originally from Mexico City but also sort of grew up in the suburbs of Houston – and we bonded over Texas. She was so incredibly rad and was an awesome story teller – there are so many messed up stories she shared from Barcelona’s history. Like how the Opera house had burned down multiple times or the Vampire of Barcelona who kidnapped and murdered children. We really enjoyed walking around, exploring, and hearing more about the dark tales of the city. We ended the night with drinks and bites in a cute bar by the water. She offered us goat brain! (it’s a delicacy)

Our last day we were supposed to go on a fun excursion riding bikes along the water to the wine country, complete with tastings and lunch – however our trip was unfortunately cancelled last minute. We didn’t let this stop us, so instead John and I picked a winery that looked good, was open and didn’t need reservations, and booked a car to get us there. It ended up being the most fun day in Alella!

We opted for Alta Alella Vineyard because it had the best reviews and also didn’t require reservations. I’m not kidding the cab dropped us off at the end of a dirt road in front of their gate, driving off with dust in our faces. There was an intercom that I pushed to speak to someone and John legit turned to me and said “what if they are closed or won’t let us in and we are stuck here” and voila – they opened the gate and we walked about half a mile in to the tasting room where we enjoyed amazing Cava. It was such a funny moment. He was briefly scared I got us into a tough situation.

Originally we weren’t going to do a full vineyard tour, as there was already another group with a reservation with a private Catalonian tour. However they invited us to join, and they spoke both Catalonian and English so it ended up being the perfect experience!

When you are determined, anything is possible. I’m so glad we persevered and went despite our plans changing. I would recommend this experience to anyone who spends a few days in the area.

Alella

We enjoyed a 15-20 minute walk from the vineyard back to town for a bomb dot com lunch at Cal Barquer. Check out this amazing Iberian pork tonkatsu! It melted in my mouth.

After our fun filled afternoon in Alella, our last full day in Barcelona was coming to an end. We made one last stop at the Picasso Museum just a few short blocks away from our hotel, followed by our last meal.

Of course there was tons of things we didn’t get around to experiencing, like a Flamenco show. But I wouldn’t have changed anything about our amazing trip. We ate delicious food, explored art and historical museums, saw beautiful sights crafted by Gaudi, walked a ghost tour, bought some fun souvenirs, and enjoyed the culture.

Barcelona was a VIBE and we were there for it. I would love to go back to Spain and southern France on another trip because it’s just so gorgeous, a nice change of slower pace, and delicious food and wine for days. Here are some tips if you find yourself in Barcelona:

  1. Endless food options! You can eat anything you want – we even had fantastic Thai. The food IMO was better here than in Portugal but I enjoyed cuisines from both countries.
  2. Make sure you try Iberian ham, multiple times, in different forms! Also – the croquettes!!! I will not say it enough how good they are.
  3. There is a lot of stuff to do in terms of nightlife, it’s sort of like NYC meets Paris – but chill. If you like those cities you’ll enjoy Barcelona.
  4. They have a rich history and don’t really discuss WW2 or the 1930’s. In fact they refer to that time as the Struggles and it’s kinda kept quiet.
  5. There is an ongoing independence crisis that seems to be growing through the last few decades. Catalonian people are very proud of their heritage and speak a different language (like the folks on our vineyard tour).
  6. Get tickets for Sagrada Familia in advance and opt for the guided tour.
  7. Spend time exploring Gaudi architecture and Park Guell!
  8. The markets at Las Ramblas has tons of food options and tastings from all corners of culture – visit at least once.
  9. Have few day drinks and then opt for a siesta.
  10. The best shopping is in El Born.
  11. We walked a ton and only rode public transit for our visit to Park Guell, so I can’t speak to the metro system but if you stay in El Born/Gothic area close to Las Ramblas you probably will walk to most things.
  12. Visit wine country if you have the time.
El Born, the cutest neighborhood and our favorite!

Thanks Barcelona! Until next time.

Portugal: Lisbon + Sintra 2020

We were so incredibly lucky that we were able to sneak in our international birthday trip RIGHT before the world shut down from COVID. By mid-late January there was tension around the new virus and travel. We believed that we would be safe in Europe in early February, and amazingly we were. This is the first of a two part post from our incredible travel adventures to Portugal and Spain in February 2020.

We planned this trip through TripMasters, which is what my sister Bryana and I used when we visited Ireland in 2015. It’s a budget planner so you build a trip around the countries you want to visit, add in flights, car rentals if you want, hotels, and you get the biggest bang for your buck. The only catch is that you’re pretty much locked in after you plan, so there isn’t much room to make changes. I would suggest leaving plenty of room between flights if you are on a layover because we almost missed our flight to Lisbon out of NYC due to bad weather! However we made it on time (by the skin of our teeth) and things went smoothly from there.

Day 1

We decided to get the Lisbon transit pass during our stay which included unlimited public transit, a free roundtrip train ride to Sinta, and discounts for museums. It was well worth it, I highly suggest! We easily and quickly rode from the airport to our destination hotel at the Esquina Urban Lodge in city center. This eco-hotel was absolutely adorable, modern, and in the perfect location! The staff shared great travel tips and told us where to find the city elevators, which I never would have figured out on my own (they are built into cliffs and will easily take you up 8 floors). Everyone said, “Lisbon is so hilly, blah blah blah” – but coming from San Francisco I thought I was good with the hills. “There is no way it’s hillier than SF, we are prepared” I thought. I was so wrong! Lisbon makes SF look flat! We used the city elevators a few times, mostly when we visited the Castelo de S. Jorge.

After checking in, we opted for lunch at a cute sidewalk cafe, visited the Azulejo Museum (wow these tiles were gorgeous), and then found the famous Ginjinha bar and loved the cherry shot. They were so delicious! We probably visited 3 times over our stay and I bought a bottle to take home.

After taking a quick nap for our jet lag, we got dolled up and went out for a Fado show at A Tasca do Chico because we saw that Anthony Bordain visited and he enjoyed it, so we felt like it would be a good spot (is that lame to admit?). It’s always busy there but it’s worth the wait. Order tapas and wine and listen to the powerful melancholy melodies of the Fado singers. It was a totally unique experience!

We got some drinks and explored the nightlife in the Biarra Alto neighborhood afterwards; I have the funniest video of John and I taking fire shots (literally the waiters lit them on fire). It was cozy exploring the bars and sidewalk cafes in the alleys. I am happy we experienced the area, but I’m also glad we stayed about a 15 minute walk away in an area that’s a little less busy at night.

Day 2

After a wonderful night of rest, we visited the Sao Jorge Castle in the morning, explored the Alfama district with lunch by the water, rode transit to the National Coach Museum, the Jeronimos Monestary, and then rode bikes by the Belem Tower. It was a jam packed day and so much fun! I think we got in 11 miles walking alone. Are you tired just reading about all the crazy things we did in one day? (I’m tired just typing this!)

It was so incredible how efficient the public transit system was. I think out of every place we’ve ever traveled, it’s up there next to NYC and London. You can always get anywhere you want to go without waiting too long, there are multiple routes, and it’s just so cute. The Alfama district is right next to the castle so we grouped those outings together and rode across town to Belem where the rest of our museum sights were set.

It’s so crazy to think that these magical carriages carried royalty over terrain centuries ago and here they are on display in their golden greatness. Can you imagine traveling like this?! They are so ornate; it’s something you don’t get the chance to see often, if ever, so definitely check this out.

The Monestary is absolutely gorgeous and really close to the coach museum. Pay attention to the details! The architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. So amazing! By this time our feet hurt so we rented some bikes to ride by the water. The bridge even looked almost identical to the Golden Gate!

This was my favorite memory with John in Lisbon. It was just such a happy day, we had seen so much cool stuff, and we were so playful riding around in the sun. The only thing that would have made it better was if we were able to ride a sunset sailboat cruise, but alas they were all sold out. If that is something that interests you I’m sure it would be such an amazing experience on a day with great weather. But still this day was top 5 of all time days. ❤

Belem Tower

We wound down by visiting the Time Out market for some delicious seafood pasta and wandered around the famous Pink Street for some shopping and drinks. It was a fun-filled day with many memories!

Day 3

We used our roundtrip train ticket for Sintra, which is something friends of ours suggested and I’m so glad we did it! It’s about a 45 minute train ride each way and you must go early in the morning because it will get crowded. Everything I read said that you wouldn’t be able to do everything you wanted, so just pick 2 castles and make them your priority.

We grabbed some of these lovely Portuguese egg pastries (Pastéis de Nata) for breakfast and made our way via train. Ok these things were delicious and we had them every day!

Once we made it to Sintra, we bought the bus pass for the castle route that included Pena Palace. This is the most famous castle and it’s best to go as early as possible, it’s also pretty far (about another 25 minute drive) on very windy roads. Our bus driver was damn amazing taking our ginormous vehicle up huge hills on twisty roads. Thank god I didn’t get sick!

It was just so dreamy; almost like we were in a fairy tale. You could see awesome views of the Castle of the Moors from the top!

There are dozens of castles in Sintra, you could easily spend several days exploring them all. And you feel like you can do so many in a day, but really you can comfortably visit 2, maybe 3 if you aren’t relying on the train. Because everything is so spread out, you must factor in the time it takes to get from the train station to each castle and then the time spent at the castle grounds. After we had a drink at the bar on the castle roof it was already lunch time so we hopped on the bus towards downtown and picked a fabulous spot that I can’t remember the name of, the experience only lives in my memory. But the dish was delish! And so was the view 🙂

After an amazing meal we visited Quinta da Regaleira which was in walking distance from downtown. It was the perfect plan to start with Pena Palace because it was so far away and busy, once we were downtown we could take our time. I chose this castle because it looks absolutely ethereal, like Great Expectations or some amazing dream.

I loved this castle so much! It was the most picturesque. Talk about a dream come true! If you have an extra day in Lisbon it’s worth visiting Sintra! Also this is weird to say, but I love moss a lot and the greenery of this castle made my heart sing.

We finished up and headed back to Lisbon for our final night in the city. We were pooped! Lots of sight seeing was done in three days, but I always like to jam pack my visits with everything I can do because who knows when you will ever be back again! Our last meal was spent over by the Pink Street we visited earlier because we liked those dive bars the best. I think there was even one named “Bar Texas” – LOL.

Portugal was a blast! Here are some things to keep in mind should you find yourself there:

  1. It is very hilly! Make sure you know where the elevators are and bring comfortable shoes.
  2. Group things you want to see by neighborhoods. Pick the top 3-5 neighborhoods you want to explore and then create a list of things you want to see in each area.
  3. Get the metro pass if you are there for 2-3+ days. It’s worth it!
  4. See as many museums as you can because there are so many interesting and unique things to Portugal that I’ve never come across before.
  5. Fado show is a must.
  6. The food is great! Make sure to really explore the vast culture of the food. It did hurt my stomach a bit (but I have a sensitive tummy) so I would look up the best places and see what’s available (and also bring Pepto should you need it).
  7. There are loads of guys that try to sell you drugs in city center – be aware!
  8. You won’t be able to do everything you want – aim for your top picks.
  9. I wish we did a sailboat cruise! If you want to do that you have to buy tickets in advance. Everything else you can just do whenever you want (which is so nice you can go at your own pace).
  10. It’s a lot like San Francisco.

Thanks Portugal!