Okay! I’ve finally (semi) gained control of my life and feel like I can sit and write all of these things I’ve been saying that I would. SO here it goes:
One of my best friends, Shelby, and I spent the first week of our vacation in Spain – and honestly, it might have been my favourite week of my whole trip. Spain is beautiful and hot, there are tons of things to do, the food (and wine!) was seriously amazing everywhere we went, the culture and history is interesting, and everyone we met was always relaxed and fun (in fact, I would especially recommend Spain if you’re travelling Europe alone). Plus, the easygoing pace of life just makes my soul happy.
We landed in Madrid on a warm Sunday afternoon, made our way to the hostel, and then went about seeing as much of the city as we could during our extremely short stay. One of the biggest highlights was the Mercado de San Miguel, a bustling indoor food market that was set up mainly as small, to-go restaurants. It seemed to be popular with both locals and tourists (so you know it’s gotta be good!) We ate fresh burrata, drank our first (of many…) glasses of sangria, and had some mussels.
Madrid was extremely easy to walk around (we only kinda/sorta used a map) so we ended up checking out countless squares with interesting statues, market stalls, and boutiques. We also got to check out El Retiro Park, which was enormous and would have been the perfect spot for a picnic. At night, we went out to a few bars on a pub crawl with our hostel, which ended up being an awesome time (like I mentioned, the people at the hostels in Spain were the coolest). The next morning, we ate some mandatory chocolate y churros at Chocolateria San Gines, which we were told was the best, and it was honestly dream-like. My mouth is actually watering.
Even though our stay was short, I was very pleasantly surprised by Madrid. We were there in early June, and it wasn’t overly hot or busy for my standards. It was a beautiful, intriguing, bustling city that I will definitely explore a little more when I get a chance.
We took a train to lovely Valencia, on the East Coast of Spain (it was a very expensive train, so I would not recommend that so much – but remember, we still were Europe newbies at this point). On our first evening there, we went to a supermarket to pick up a few things since our hostel didn’t do breakfast. This turned out to be a slight struggle, because we didn’t know that there was a certain way you had to buy produce (weigh and print out a label for your bag all the way in the produce section) which resulted in a bit of confusion. It also rained quite a lot on our way back, but I didn’t mind that too much. That night we checked out our hostel bar and met some really lovely people (including a girl who I had mutual friends with from back home, and am meeting up with on Thursday!)
On our second day, we rented bikes and explored the old riverbed Turia (turned extensive, beautiful park), the outside of La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, some of the main squares and cathedrals in central Valencia, and the beach. The bikes turned out to be a really great idea, because despite a flat tire incident (never a dull moment!) we ended up covering a lot of ground and felt like we really got a great impression of the city. The beach was probably one of my favourite parts of the city. It was massive, the sand was incredibly soft, the water was warm and perfectly green, and it was not busy at all considering the balmy weather. Although it was quite a far bike ride (at least 30 minutes) there were bike lanes the whole way and the city is quite flat, making it an easy ride. One thing to note, though, is that you have to pass through a not so nice area for a couple of blocks before the beach. I am not one to feel out of place or unsafe very often, but I was kind of glad to be on a bike (you can also take a bus to the beach).
We found the best place for dinner and drinks right around the corner from our hostel. Mercado Provenzal had a huge selection of extremely cheap tapas (1-5 euros/each) and beer and sangria was under a euro (!!!) The portions were small (as expected) but we got to try a bunch of dishes and all were really yummy. Plus, the people working were incredibly friendly and talkative, and the interior was really cute. I would have gone back every day if I stayed for longer! (Side note – I believe the restaurant actually has other locations in Spain as well.) The next morning, we checked out the Mercado Central, a huge indoor market with stalls upon stalls of jamon iberico, fresh seafood, dried herbs, leather products, paella, and produce. I was in heaven, and had I been by myself would have walked around for hours and inevitably missed my bus (you’ll learn later that Shelby is much more responsible than I am, and I struggled a bit with being on time for things after she left… oops!)
Overall, I loved Valencia. Near-tropical weather, being on the ocean with a beautiful beach, and the fact that it didn’t feel overly touristy or busy made it super appealing. I think it would especially be good for a family, or for people who want to be in a city, but not feel cramped or surrounded by designer stores (like some bigger cities might feel to some). It also might be a nicer place to live than Madrid or Barcelona would be, for the same reasons and more.
For our first night in BCN, we had a lovely, very homey dinner at our hostel and then headed out for Mojitos – quite possibly the best I have ever/will ever have, at an old, intimate, artsy bar called Cocktail Bar Juanra Falces. The place was certainly interesting, but it was quite expensive and had a mostly adult clientele. The next morning, we peaked into a few shops around Passeig de Gracia before heading out on a walking tour (Sandeman’s New Barcelona tour, to be exact) around the cities charming Gothic Quarter. The tour was about 3 hours long, but we saw and learned SO much more than we would have by ourselves (normally, I’m a big fan of the self-guided tour). The Catalan culture and history is fascinating, and I don’t think I need to tell you that the architecture everywhere in the city, but especially in the gothic quarter, is completely beautiful. Next, we got some much needed gelato at a place called Chocolat-Box and then strolled around La Rambla (holding onto our bags for dear life, of course) and then headed back to the hostel for a night out on the town.
We spent our final day in Spain strolling around Parc Guell, which was one of the coolest places we visited on the trip. The views overlooking the city and the surrounding hills was breathtaking, and the Gaudi architecture is so unique and intriguing. It was quite busy, but the park was big enough that it wasn’t hard to separate yourself from the crowds of people as long as you aren’t in the monumental area, which we bought (7 euro) tickets for before we went so that we didn’t have to wait in line. We also checked out the exterior of La Sagrada Familia. It is honestly like nowhere else I have ever seen and could even imagine, and I would definitely recommend going, even if you usually stay away from the more touristy sites. I was actually a little disappointed after the fact that we didn’t pay/wait in line to see the interior. For dinner, we went to a tapas bar called Cerveceria Catalana and had patatas bravas, calamari, beef tenderloin, and an eggplant dish, which were all seriously amazing. Something interesting – that night was Spain’s first match in the World Cup series (that one where Netherlands kicked their butts!) and we expected the streets to be full of excitement. They weren’t. Apparently, Catalonia does not associate with Spain’s national team. The only place that was playing the game was our hostel! We ended our week with another night on the town, this time mainly at a shot bar called Espit Chupitos – a bar that sold (you guessed it…) shots for 2 euros each. The selection was literally endless, and many of them were lit on fire – we even roasted marshmallows over one of them! It was packed with tourists, as you would expect, but it ended up being a blast.
Barcelona, if you couldn’t tell, may have been my favourite stop of the whole trip. Yes, it was busy and huge and kind of hard to navigate. But, you guys, it was SO beautiful, the energy that they city had was captivating, and I think I could go for a month long vacation (or longer?) and not get bored. We thought that we would have a decent amount of time to explore the city, but I felt like I missed out on so many things. We didn’t make it to the beach, or Barceloneta, or the Olympic Park, or any food markets, or any of the hills surrounding the city that you can hike up. I will most definitely be returning, hopefully soon, to discover more of the amazing things that this city has to offer.