The story began in Germany. Because of a delay, we missed our connecting flight in Munich, and stayed overnight in the cutest little town near the airport. We had to get back onto a plane in the morning but got ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m. to explore the streets of historic Freising. Although we only spent 20 minutes walking around, I loved seeing the pastel buildings and small town storefronts against the backdrop of the moon quieting setting into the early morning sky. Vendors were setting up for farmers market in the plaza nearby, unloading countless varieties of fresh fruits and flowers. This is the quaint, wholesome Europe I remembered and I was so happy to be back.
A few hours later, we finally arrived in Barcelona, the Mediterranean and cosmopolitan city of Spain’s Catalonia region. We were jetlagged, and I felt like I was dreaming as the airport bus brought into the city center, through huge intersections and that revealed magic fountains and majestic Italian-style domes. We finally made it!
Barcelona, one of the most visited cities in the world, has something for everyone. Whether it’s architecture, art, food, nature or nightlife, the city’s beauty and flavor can be found in the crevices of new and foreign experiences. We wanted to experience it all.
We stayed at a hostel near Plaza Catalunya, the lively city center of Barcelona that connects the Gothic Quarter, Raval, and Eixample, home to all the prime tourist spots. We planned to hit the major attractions during the first half of our trip, and spend our remaining days shopping, eating, and adventuring out of the urban center.
Places pictured below: Port Vell, the Barcelona Cathedral, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Columbus Monument, Picasso Museum, Barcelona Axe Throwing, facades seen on Passeig de Gràcia, and La Nostra Ciutat.
I think we all know why architecture nerds visit Barcelona. Gaudi’s Modernist architecture lines the streets of Eixample, showing off walls of wavy stone along Passeig de Gràcia. We visited La Pedrera (a.k.a. Casa Milà) and marveled at the city from the undulating rooftop, the apartment, and the attic, a magnificent museum that which showed scale models of Gaudi’s work, some of his furniture, and most amazingly, his hanging chain model used to design Sagrada Familia!
Speaking of Sagrada Familia, after Casa Milà we took the metro and found ourselves in the presence of the most extraordinary building I’ve ever seen. With hordes of tourists, we stood outside the entrance with our jaws dropped, gaping at the crazy arches, spires, and façade details that make up this living, growing unfinished masterpiece. When we finally entered through the engraved bronze doorways, our jaws dropped again as we looked up at the hypnotizing light pouring through the windows, illuminating the insane roof vault in vibrant reds, greens, and blues. We stood with our audio guides, mesmerized by the spiritual space and the grandeur of it all. Finally, we went up the Nativity tower, the façade built directly by Gaudi himself, to see some more of that roof detail up close. Amazing.
The following day, we visited Park Güell. Although we didn’t pay admission to go up to the main terrace, I really enjoyed walking around the park in the nice sunshine admiring the curved roadway viaduct and the panoramic views of the city. Musicians played instruments in the colonnaded roadway and birds chirped in the cherry blossoms. Does it get better than this?
Tapas, Sangria, and xhurros con xocolata
My fondest memories of Europe trips past are of the amazing sights and stories that came from cities large and small. But that was during college, when I had little money to experience anything I couldn’t see for free.
This trip was different. It was full of food. Somedays it was all about the food. Churros with chocolate was amazing. The chocolate is so rich! Mercado de la Boqueria had such delicious street food but most amazingly, €1 fresh juices! (Coconut mango is heavenly.) We tried desserts everywhere, popular restaurants, and even McDonald’s. And it was nothing short of my expectations.
Iberian ham, queso and jamon potatoes, patatas bravas, croquetas, codfish, little pieces of fresh seafood on bread, charred calçots (green onions), and allioli on everything. I love the small portions and being able to try a little bit of everything. Our favorite restaurant to try all these specialties was Vinitus. Great service, lively atmosphere, and seafood galore in the form of bite sized tapas.
One thing I observed was how meals reflected the European slower pace of life. Even at small pastry cafes and McDonald’s they prefer to seat and wait on you. Restaurants expect you to hang out and slowly enjoy your food as they refill your wine and freshly-squeezed OJ.
On our last night, we took a cooking class. We learned to prepare and cook a huge paella dish (cleaning the guts out of calamari was super fun, no lie), pair Spanish meats and manchego cheese to create easy tapas, and make sangria!
Visiting our favorite font, Montserrat
I wanted a day where I didn’t have to plan anything, so we booked a tour to nearby town Montserrat, a national park and a holy site. We took a cable car up to the “serrated mountain”, learned about the history of Catalonia and the Benedictine abbey, and saw the famous 12th century patron saint Black Madonna (from across the basilica). During our “free time”, we hiked to St. Michael’s Cross to see picturesque views of the abbey from across the valley, ran our ass back down the hill to catch the Boys Choir perform, then tasted liquors made by monks! Must. Do. It. All.
After a beautiful morning at the abbey, we were hungry as hell. Luckily we arrived Oller del Mas, a winery and castle, for a 4-course meal that included amazing patatas bravas and cannelloni. When we finally stuffed ourselves with enough bread, wine, and potatoes, we did a tour and wine tasting in the cellar, where our tour guide taught us to properly look at, smell, and taste wine. Something about fruity smells, floral notes? Just smells like wine to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
However, the most amazing thing about Oller del Mas would have to be their stairwell (photo op!) Nothing gets me shutter happy like ancient castle walls.
You can’t capture the beauty of an urban city in pictures because the experience comes from the interactions with locals, the mutual understanding despite the language barrier, the feel of cobblestone streets under your feet, the flow of foot traffic through the market, the sight of symbolic yellow ribbons, the taste of fresh shellfish, the sound of street musicians.
I remember when I booked my flight to Spain I was so excited about finally being able to use my rusty high school Spanish skills. But then I found out about Catalan and my dreams were crushed. Just kidding. Only a little. But going to from German to Spanish to Catalan to Portuguese and back to Catalan was really fun, and again I enjoyed trying to speak as many Catalan words to waiters as I could.
Some more highlights include hanging out and having lunch in the pedestrian areas in the middle of the streets in Eixample. I loved the Gothic quarter alleyways and adorable shops with really nice salespeople. Las Ramblas was full of so much life. Port Vell was the perfect urban waterfront. (The shopping mall though, not so much.) The Picasso Museum was really interesting! (Sabartés and Picasso are BFF #goals.) Axe throwing was the coolest thing we did this trip. And always one to appreciate urban planning and historic Roman cities, I loved seeing the juxtaposition of modern Plaça d'Espanya against the historic Castell Montjuic.
Some travel tips
Take Aerobus from the airport into the city center. Super convenient (almost no wait time) and inexpensive.
Don’t schedule your shopping day (or La Boqueria) for Sunday! Nothing is open. I repeat, nothing is open!
Taxis are plentiful. Even at 4am when you have to catch a 6am flight home.
Buy the T10 card. We used this 10 trip card to get around the city when we got too tired to walk. Since most of Barcelona’s sights all lie within Zone 1, take the super convenient subway or buses to save yourself the hassle.
Known as the pickpocket capital fo the world, Barcelona is infamous for petty crime. Although we didn’t experience any, we made sure to keep our purses zipped up and by our side. Don’t leave your purse on the ground or phone on the table at a restaurant.
Go to the big attractions early in the day! Because crowds.
Buy Sagrada Familia tickets ahead of time and show up on time. Personally I like learning about history so I always enjoy audioguides. Even though it’s crowded, the cathedral has magical light around golden hour.
“International” flights in Europe can basically be treated as domestic flights. Your gate isn’t even available until an hour before your flight time, so no use in getting to the airport super early.
Use Splitwise for group travel. Since we paid for each others’ food, admissions, transportation, etc, the app makes it super easy to keep track of who owes who how much without crazy spreadsheeting and math.
To wrap up this week-long adventure, I wanted to give the biggest shoutout to the travel buddies for coming along, sharing so many adventures with me, and making this trip fun! Amigas, cheetahs, friends for life…
Read all about the second leg of our trip, Porto, Portugal!