Me Encanta Espana Part 1: Barcelona Travel Guide and Recap

After months of planning, finally we were off! Last month, Mr. Artist and I took our first trip to Spain and Europe together. I had been to Europe ten years ago on my own, but I had never really explored Spain beyond a day in Barcelona. Our first stop: Barcelona

Definitely the top destination in Spain, everyone is familiar with Barcelona. All we had known about Barcelona before we went was that it was cosmopolitan, had great food and stunning architecture. By the time we left, we were love with this very livable, vibrant and fast-paced city.

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The stunning cathedral ceiling inside the Sagrada Familia - getting major LOTR elven tingles here!

Sights
The obvious thing to do in Barcelona is to just walk through its streets and soak in its sights, of which there are many.

The number one thing to do in Barcelona is immerse yourself in Gaudi architecture. This super famous architect and artist put Barcelona on the map with his inimitable style, which is imprinted on the city thanks to his various buildings, parks and his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.

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Outside the Sagrada Familia

A stunning ode to faith, the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) is dedicated to the story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. To avoid the long lineups and ensure our entrance, we purchased tickets beforehand and purchased the audio tour, which is a must-have. The audio tour was excellent for giving us a detailed insight into the cathedral's design. Inspired by nature, the Sagrada Familia is full of immensely tall columns resembling trees and its gorgeous stained glass windows take advantage of the light and time of day to fill the cathedral with different mood lighting. From the materials chosen in every brick, to the shape of doorways and even how facades are carved - all of it has meaning and it was quite awe-inspiring to learn about the sheer amount of thought that went into this magnificent structure. If there is a higher being out there, then it truly manifests itself in great works of art like this!

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So begins my obsession with stained glass

If churches aren't your thing, there's still lots of interesting things to look at around Barcelona's many cool neighborhoods. Las Ramblas is a tourist must with lots of shops and restaurants; it's also a great hub to branch out to the main attractions downtown. All the cafes along Las Ramblas have outdoor patios ripe for people watching, but beware that food and drinks are marked up if you sit outside!

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Gothic Quarter at night

A highlight for us were the Born and Gothic Quarter neighborhoods. Full of twisting alleyways and unique tapas bars, we spent many an evening just exploring, following the sounds of laughter and clinking of glasses wherever they led us.

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Gothic Quarter

If you walk to the end of Las Ramblas, then you'll hit the marina and the famous statue of Christopher Columbus. Either way you walk from there you can explore Barcelona's lively pier, as well as relax on its white sand beach, the most popular of which is Barceloneta. Just be aware that Barcelona beaches are clothing optional... even and especially for older men! I literally saw an old man ride nude over to us on his bike, casually hop off and start washing himself with the public beach shower! For my Puritan North American eyes, this was soooo strange!

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Barcelona pier

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Barceloneta beach

For views, we hiked up the back of the hilly streets to Guelly Sandwich Park, where you can pickup lunch before heading to Parc Guell, another famous park designed by Gaudi. If you get tired, there are even escalators up the steep streets. As you walk up into the park from there, you'll be treated to a stunning viewpoint where you can see over the city to the ocean.

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View of the city, with the Sagrada Familia in the center

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Food
The main thing we were in Barcelona to do though was to EAT! There are so many interesting eateries in Barcelona. Our favourite spot was the Mercado de la Boqueria. This bustling daily market is quite like Granville Island here in Vancouver with its myriad stalls selling fresh seafood, meats, candies, breads, nuts, condiments and anything else that tempts the eye. There are also quite a few restaurant stalls and it's pretty fun to just hop on a stool, order a beer and chat with the vendors.

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Mercado de la Boqueria

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Padron peppers - very tasty and similar to green peppers, but be warned! Every 10th pepper is supposedly super spicy, which I belatedly realized. The best cure though for squashing spice if you don't have milk nearby? Salty fried anchovies!

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Anchovies in vinegar and garlic - SOOOOOOOOO GOOOOD

Tapas is by far the favourite meal for tourists in Barcelona and locals alike. We tried a couple places that were just delicious:
  • Cerveceria Catalana - order the tapas platter for a hearty introduction to Barcelona tapas and the potatoes bravas, which is a spicy mix of potatoes and eggs in hot sauce. Don't worry, spicy food doesn't seem to be a thing with Spanish food, so these are pretty mild! Also the creme catalan here (Spain's answer for creme brulee) is to die for!
  • Ciudad Condal - another tummy pleaser! Get a seat at the bar so you can order all the daily tapas right off the counter, Spanish-style. The seafood is so fresh and thoughtfully prepared. This place was easily a 100 Euro meal, but so worth it! 
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Ciudad Condal

Top things we ate in Barcelona:
  • Seafood everything!
  • Anchovies in vinegar and garlic
  • Cafe con leche - basically a latte, but WAY better!
  • Anything with potatoes - Spaniards know how to cook their potatoes till they're silky smooth, melt in your mouth and deliciously buttery
  • Bread rubbed with tomatoes instead of butter and topped with sea salt - so simple and so tasty!
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Brunch at Cafe Capri: ham with paprika with potatoes, fried squid and coffee

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Tapas platter at Cerveceria Catalana: clams, padron peppers, shrimp, squid croquette and deep fried anchovies

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Spicy fried potatoes with fried egg

Activities
We didn't have time really to do much shopping in Spain, but there definitely is a lot. Get off at the Passeig de Gracia station and you'll be surrounded by boutiques and high-end shops. El Corte Ingles is the Spanish version of Nordstrom with floors of food stuffs, accessories, clothes and designer goods. There's also Zara and Mango stores everywhere, including a large Mango outlet!

Besides shopping, we also did a Spanish cooking class through Stokes Travel. This cooking class was one of the cheaper ones I could find and it included a market tour and lessons on how to make tapas, paella and sangria. We had a great time learning new cooking techniques and making some surprisingly delicious sangria! We also met an American working in Barcelona and learned a little more about what it's actually like to live and work there (short answer: pretty damn good).

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Accommodation
We stayed in a rental apartment fifteen minutes walk from Sagrada Familia and close to two different metro lines. Our apartment was sparse but very spacious; about the size of a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver. The only downside was that there weren't a ton of places to eat, although we were lucky enough to stumble on a surprisingly good and cheap donair shop, as well as a cafe for lunch! 

Tips
  • Buy entry tickets for sights at least a day beforehand as most sights will only let in a certain number of visitors per day
  • Pay extra for the audio tour!
  • Cafe seating usually means higher food and drink prices
  • Take a nap after dinner so you'll have stamina later for Barcelona's super late nightlife
  • Buy a day pass for the metro so you don't have to continuously buy tickets. The default is a 1 trip ticket only
  • Make sure that you don't have to exit and walk to a different station during a single trip as this will actually cost you two metro tickets


Stay tuned for next week where I recap our next stop, the scenic San Sebastian!




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