I just got back from my two week vacation in Spain! Coming back from a 11 day trip at 11 pm on Sunday, going straight into a busy clinic day, then going into 4 days of call this week was pretty rough. Today is my first and only day off, and I spent it gratefully sitting in front of the TV, meal prepping, and not much else. I really should take note to not book my return flight on the day before going back to work...
I've been lucky to have visited most of Western Europe before. I covered some ground when I studied abroad in London and visited Scotland, Wales, France, and the Czech Republic in college. After college, my parents took me and my sister on a cruise where we saw Germany, Austria, Venice, and the Greek Islands. But the one glaring country I had not visited was Spain.
My parents and sister actually went to Spain about 10 years ago when I was in the middle of studying for my medical school admission exams, so I wasn't able to go. Since we went to Paris and the Amalfi Coast last year, I figured I would take my two week vacation this year to explore Spain!
In medical training, it's hard to arrange your vacation with anyone else as the dates are inflexible and you have to request your vacation a year in advance. And hardly anyone has two weeks of vacation time to spare, so I was grateful when my sister was able to carve out some time and join me. She was only able to join me for a week though, and I didn't want to waste my other week of vacation so I decided to go a few days earlier and explore Barcelona on my own.
I'm not a good solo traveler. I believe the joy of traveling is sharing it with others, and I have not really enjoyed my previous solo exploits, so I was a little nervous about going to Barcelona on my own. Thankfully, this time around was better and I was so busy seeing the sights I didn't have much time to be lonely. Plus, I had Rick Steves as my trusty travel companion! (Me and my sister are obsessed with Rick Steves).
I took a redeye flight to Barcelona, and hit the ground running. I dropped off my luggage and started walking. I hit Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian shopping district in Barcelona and joined the thousands of people (mainly tourists) ambling down the main street of Barcelona.
I stopped into this old time cafe Granja el Viader which is known for their old fashioned ambiance and sweet treats. I saw it on an episode of "Somebody Feed Phil" on Netflix, and think it must be on a lot of Asian guidebooks as I saw a lot of Asians there.
First churros and cafe con leche (too early for chocolate)
This guy Juan is famous from Rick Steve's guidebook
Then I stopped into the famous Mercado de la Boqueria market which is known for selling all kinds of produce, juices, tapas, and ham. Lots and lots of ham, which the Spanish call jamon. In fact, they're pretty obsessed with it. Jamon will be a common theme in my Spain adventure ;)
Protip, if you go to the back of the market, the juices get cheaper (only 1 euro)
Of course, Spain is famous for tapas (more on that later). But Barcelona is actually closer to the Basque Country, a unique culture with its own language, own customs, and own food. Its capital San Sebastian has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world. And the most famous Basque export is pintxos! Delicious meat, cheese, or seafood all on a piece of bread that are marked with toothpicks. When you go to a pintxos bar you don't sit and order. In fact, you have to stand. You go up to the waiter and ask for a plate and order a drink, and then you just go to the bar and pick what looks good to you. At the end of your meal the waiter counts your toothpicks and gives you your bill. Usually its about 2 euros for one pintxo. It's perfect for a quick and easy bite, and tends to be a little more accessible to foreigners.
Then I walked around the Barri Gotic, which is the old medieval quarter of Barcelona.
Spanish guitar outside of the Barcelona Cathedral
Lobby of my hostel, Hostel Rodamon
Casa Mila, one of Gaudi's apartment complexes, was right around the corner from my hostel
Pintxos again for dinner! (I was too tired to think about what to order)
First patatas bravas (not the best).
I was so tired from my redeye flight and my whole day of exploring that I slept 11 hrs and totally overslept for my timed tickets to see the Sagrada familia! Back at home, I usually sleep 8-9 hours and wake up naturally without an alarm, so I didn't set an alarm thinking that I couldn't possibly sleep more than 9 hours. I woke up 10 minutes before my timed ticket slot and then booked it to the Sagrada Familia. When I arrived, I still had to wait in line (usually when you book timed tickets, you can skip to the front of the line). But eventually I made it, even though I was out of the 30 minute window and thankfully they still let me in.
To be honest, I've seen countless cathedrals all over the world, and usually I'm pretty in and out. Take a few pictures, walk through the church, and then I'm on my way. But the Sagrada Familia was truly different. It may have been the sheer size, but when you enter, the crowds and the commotion all fall away as an an awesome stillness washes over you. Gaudi designed the cathedral to mirror nature, and used the columns to mimic the trees of a forest. Out of all the cathedrals I've ever seen, this was probably my favorite. And it's not even finished! The final towers are scheduled to be completed in 2026. Part of the reason the tickets are so expensive (almost $30 for admission + audioguide, more for entrance to the towers) is that you are helping contribute to the completion of the famous cathedral.
After having my share of pintxos the day before, I opted for paella for lunch. Paella is Spain's most famous dish but it is not native to Barcelona (it's native to Valencia on the eastern shore of Spain), and I was warned about most places just microwaving it for tourists. I sought out this paella place and got a view of the Sagrada familia to boot.
To continue my Gaudi themed day, I took the local bus to Park Guell, Gaudi's urban park experiment on the outskirts of town. While it was not a hit with the locals back in the early 20th century, now it's one of the most famous parks in Barcelona.
While most of the park is free, the most famous part is inside the Monumental Zone and costs about 7 euros to go in. Once again, you book a time slot and head right to the front of the line. Inside, enjoy Gaudi's storybook/gingerbread house like park and that famous view over the Barcelona skyline.
Dinner time. My first tapas, a Spanish omelete and sort of veggie tower. Then I went to get pintxos for dinner #2.
Walking through the gothic quarter again on my way home (I think I clocked about 25K steps or 9 miles a day).
I had walked past the Barcelona Cathedral multiple times but never waited in line to go in. I made it a point to finally line up to go in the following morning. Most people ogle at the church (free in the mornings), but lesser known is the rooftop which costs 2 euros to go up.
Fun fact, there have been 13 geese in the courtyard for over 500 years. They which symbolize one of the patron saints of the church, Saint Eulalia, who was tortured and died at age 13.
Finally checking off the cathedral, I walked down to Barceloneta, Barcelona's beach. On the way, I stopped at this famous place, El Xampanyet. I mainly wanted to use the bathroom but had to eat something so I ordered some of the house specialities, anchovies and cava, a sparkling wine.
Anchovies aren't my favorite, but ordered some to be polite. I tried to finish it, but left one anchovy on my plate. The bartender saw it and gave me another slice of bread to force me to finish the last one (bleh).
When you've had enough of tapas, you choose shwarma. It hit the spot.
Then I took the cable car up to Montjuic, one of the highest viewpoints of the city.
Castle Montjuic, not really a castle but more of a fortress.
While it wasn't a real castle, it did have some great views.
Barcelona views on the way down
When I made my way part way down the mountain, I still had to walk some ways to my goal, the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Sadly, it was closing soon so I didn't get the full experience but I did go up to their rooftop (also only 2 euros I believe) and walked around.
Looking down Plaza de Espana
National Art Museum of Catalonia.
I had walked even more to go to Quimet y Quimet (the tapas bar Anthony Bourdain had gone to and countless friends had recommended) but when I peeked in the window it seemed super small and seafood heavy, so I skipped it and walked back home to the Eixample. I opted for a hearty dinner of bread and tomato ( a Spanish stable), gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce), sausage and mushrooms, and a bomba. The bomba was sort of a fried potato and meat ball drenched in aioli sauce--it might have been my favorite thing I ate.
I had already spent 3 days in Barcelona, and my sister was arriving to join me in Spain that night. My overall impression of the city was that it was a beautiful, modern, livable city but after my three days were up I felt like I saw all of the touristy sights. Per Rick's recommendations, I did a day trip to the nearby mountain town of Montserrat. I took the metro, then a train, and then a cable car up to Montserrat and felt like I was very far from Barcelona.
Arriving at the "Aeri" of Montserrat (i.e. Eyrie from GoT!)
Montserrat was originally a monastery in the medieval times and still home to a famous choir
You can take two fununculars even higher up the mountain. One of them was closed, so I took the Fununcular Saint Joan up to this viewpoint.
The hike up to the chapel of Sant Joan was about 20 minutes and not for the faint of heart. There was a choice to go even higher up up this rickety staircase, but I thought twice since I was solo and not wearing hiking boots. I took Rick's recommended path down the mountain, which took about 45 minutes and felt like a real hike, not just the walks we call hikes in America.
I then joined the rest of the tourists to see the "Black Madonna," but ended up waiting almost an hour to get up close to the stature, where I could have just walked into the church and seen her from afar. Definitely not worth the time waiting in line.
I then took the train back into Barcelona and ate a pre-dinner snack of pintxos at one of Rick Steve's recommended pintxo bars, El Drac de Sant Jordi, where you get 4 pintxos, dessert, a drink for only 10 euro. This was actually my second time there!