Travel Highlights of Madrid

Plaza Mayor Madrid Spain

Sites & Attractions

Madrid was the second stop on our journey and we had the pleasure of staying in a beautiful 5th floor AirBnB apartment/loft just behind Plaza Mayor which is a large square in the center of Madrid.  We found the city very easy to navigate, especially due to our amazing location.  We explored the city for 4 days, keeping a very focused list of attractions and sites we wanted to see.  Everything we saw was within a 25 minute walk from our apartment. 


Here is a brief recap of our favorite attractions in the city of Madrid:


• The Prado Museum – The most famous art museum in Madrid boasting world class European art from as early as the 12th century.  Its collection consists of over 8,500 paintings and 700 sculptures so it can be a bit overwhelming but just make sure you give yourself at least 2 hours to explore the collection. Not surprisingly, The Prado contains the most comprehensive collection of Spanish paintings in the world. Of note, some of the artists featured in the museum include famous works  by El Greco, Goya, Titian, Tintoretto, Bosch, Rubens and Velazquez. Cost is €15 per person.


• Thyssen-Bornemisza – Located just a few minutes walk from The Prado, Thyssen is known as one of the largest private art collections in the world, with over 2,000 pieces of artwork.  Unlike the Prado, photography is allowed in the Thyssen and we were so happy to be able to capture the masterpieces of great artists such as Picasso, Dali, Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh and countless more.  Thyssen has a vast collection of work beginning from the 12 century up until the 20th century.  Cost is €12 per person.


• Reina Sofia – Although we didn’t have a chance to visit the Reina Sofia, it is clearly completes the trifecta of incredible art museums in Madrid.  The collection focuses mainly on 20th century artwork and cost per person is €10.


• Buen Retiro Park – This is the “central park” of Madrid and the largest park in the city. It originally belonged to the Spanish monarchy but is now Free for the public to enjoy. We rented a paddle boat in Retiro Pond next to the monument to King Alfonso XII. The cost was €8 for 45 minutes on the pond. We highly recommend walking the outskirts of the park where you will find the botanical garden and rose-garden quiet, serene and romantic.  You will also enjoy beautiful sculptures, The Casita del Pescador and Palacio de Cristal.  If the weather is nice, it makes for a great afternoon stroll.


• Plaza Mayor – This is a central plaza in the city of Madrid only a few blocks from Puerta del Sol.  It’s really a tourist trap with traditional shops, cafes, vendors and street performers.  It’s pretty expensive to eat/drink in the plaza, but it’s quite good for people watching during all hours of the day and night.  Also, the vendors in the plazas and city streets are known for selling knock-off goods like purses, wallets, watches, sneakers and pens.  If you’re in the market for a new LV or Chanel handbag, you can score one for €15-25 or even a pair of Air Jordans for €25.  


• El Rastro Market – Open only on Sundays, El Rastro is the largest open air flea market in Madrid.  It’s quite the scene with hundreds of vendors selling new and used items. To be frank, some of the items vendor booths look like a typical garage sale but others are selling very useful items for cheap.  It’s fun for a stroll. Go early (9-11am) as it gets VERY busy.  You can try to bargain with the vendors too – it’s worth a try, right?


Food Highlights of Madrid

The food in Madrid was interesting to us because it was quite different than the American tapas we eat in the US and Canada.  By far, the most common item on any menu is Jamon or Ham, in countless varieties.  We found literally everything to be extremely salty which is no surprise considering everything is infused with some type of ham.  


As an ode to ham, we must recommend you at least walk in to Museu del Jamon, there are several of these eateries within the city. It’s quite a site to see and it’s busy day and night.  You can easily get 2 ham and cheese baguette sandwiches and 2 local draft beers for €4.  Or you can order any combination of meat and cheese platters to go or to eat up at the standing bar.  It’s definitely a memorable experience.


Here are a few delicious and affordable restaurants we recommend in Madrid:


• Rosi La Loca – Casual Spanish tapas restaurant with good service (English speaking), cheap drinks and excellent food.  Dinner for 2 will run you €30-40. They also have a terrific lunch menu which offers appetizer, entrée, dessert and beverage for €13 per person. 


• Takos Al Pastor – This is a quick service style restaurant where you order at the counter and they bring your plate to the table.  It’s good for lunch.  They have excellent, authentic tacos for €1-1.50 each.  Very affordable and delicious but be ready to wait in line…don’t worry, it moves quickly.


• Juana La Loca – Hip & Cool Spanish tapas restaurant with excellent service (English Speaking) and a great ambiance. They are world famous for their Pincho Tortilla which we highly recommend.  Fantastic bottles of wine are offered for only €17.  Dinner for 2 will run you €60-80 with wine. 


Travel Highlights of Barcelona

Basilica Santa Maria Del Mar

Sites & Attractions

After 2 weeks on the road, we had the great pleasure of visiting and staying with some friends in the heart of the city while in Barcelona.  Claire and Gus were excellent tour guides as we walked for 2 days straight throughout the beautiful city with its vast history and incredible architecture. 


During our first full day, we walked 11 miles and covered some serious ground; not to mention, we learned about the importance of Antoni Gaudi to the city of Barcelona as well as the Catalan Movement and how it is still going strong in Barcelona.


To be honest, we expected the people of Barcelona to speak “Spanish” just like we heard in Madrid and we also expected the main flag of Spain to be flying high in the city and yet, we were surprised to learn how different the influence and culture is in Barcelona, which is only a 3 hour train ride from the country’s capital. 


As you likely know, Spain has a very long, tumultuous and rich history dating back to the early middle ages. Catalonia was an independent region of the Iberian Peninsula with its own unique language, culture and laws. In the 15th century, the Aragon and Catalonian regions merged until the 1700’s, when modern-day Spain was born.  Several kings tried to impose the Spanish language and laws on the people in the region but they failed and restored the national Catalan government in 1931. 


There have been many calls for Catalan independence due to the region’s wealth and economic prowess. So much so, the Catalan government called for an informal, non-binding vote on independence in 2014, with 80% of voters wanting to secede from Spain.  Due to the economic hit Spain would take in the event of a secession, the Spanish government determined that Catalonia has no constitutional right to break away. 


All that said, the Catalan culture is stronger than ever in Spain with Catalan flags flying high and proud, dominating over the Spanish culture!  This explains the huge football rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona and the huge difference in food and culture between the two cities as well.


Here are the notable sites we recommend in and near Barcelona city center:


  • Park Guell – Probably the #1 most visited site in Barcelona, with 2 different areas: The Monumental Zone (€7 pp) and the Free access zone. It is most famous as one of Antoni Gaudi’s major architectural works. Gaudi is the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism with a very organic, mesmerizing and distinctive architectural style. We highly recommend purchasing tickets for the Monumental Zone well in advance because it's very likely to sell out!
  • Sagrada Familia – A large, unfinished Catholic basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. The basilica is dedicated to the Holy Family (Mary, Jesus and Joseph). It’s quite expensive to visit at €15pp.  We did not go inside but heard it’s quite magnificent! Again, buy tickets online a few days before you plan your visit. This is a very popular tourist destination and it often sells out.
  • Gothic Quarter – The center of the old city of Barcelona. It runs from La Rambla to Via Laietana. It is the oldest part of the city which is obvious due to its medieval landmarks and small, winding streets which resemble a labyrinth.
  • Mercado de La Boqueria – Large public market and very famous for its wide variety of foods. It’s huge, loud, crowded and charming at the same time.  There are several bars and restaurants great for lunch or even a snack.  The fruit stalls sell smoothies and freshly squeezed juices and you will find no shortage of Jam (ham) varieties, cheese, olives, and seafood.
  • Museu Picasso – This museum has arguably the largest collection of works by Pablo Picasso and was created while he was still living in 1963.  Born in Spain, Picasso felt the city of Barcelona would be the perfect location for a museum in honor of his works.  Picasso himself donated over 900 works to the museum and in 1982, his widow Jacqueline donated 41 pieces the museum.  If you are a fan of the artist’s work, it is a MUST SEE for it’s expansive collection and variety of works throughout his notorious career (€11pp).
  • Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – The national museum showcasing Catalan visual art. It’s most known for it’s collection of Romanesque church paintings (€12pp).  Even if you don’t visit the artwork collection, the building itself is worth a visit. It’s located inside the Palau Nacional, which was constructed for the 1929 International Exposition. 
  • Basilica Santa Maria del Mar – An icon of Catalan Gothic culture, built in the 14th century.  It’s beautiful, historic, located in the Gothic Quarter and Free admission.
  • Port Vell & Maremagnum – A waterfront harbor and part of the Port of Barcelona. It’s excellent for a long walk, people watching, and dining. There is also a mall, IMAX and Europe’s largest aquarium. The pedestrian walkway is called Rambla de Mar and incorporates a modern swing bridge.  We very much enjoyed exploring the area.


Food Highlights of Barcelona

Since we had the pleasure of staying at our friends' home while in Barcelona, we only ventured out for a few meals during our stay.


Here were the 3 key places we went for excellent food and drinks in Barcelona:

  • Hotel Casa Fuster - A beautiful, 5-star hotel with luxe, Catalan styling. It's an excellent venue for dinner, the exquisite jazz bar and/or a cocktail on the rooftop terrace.  It's quite pricey!
  • Mercado de La Boqueria – Large public market and very famous for its wide variety of foods. It’s huge, loud, crowded and charming at the same time.  There are several bars and restaurants great for lunch or even a snack.  The fruit stalls sell smoothies and freshly squeezed juices and you will find no shortage of Jam (ham) varieties, cheese, olives, and seafood.
  • Pantea - An excellent bar and grill on the beach at La Deliciosa down at Sant Miquel Beach. The mojitos are unforgettable and the food is excellent at affordable prices. They have live music as well! Very casual and excellent during summertime.

Below is a brief list of Traditional Foods You MUST Try while in Barcelona:

  • Pa Amb Tomaquet - A simple Catalan recipe consisting of bread (toasted or not) with tomato spread and seasoned with olive oil and salt. It's simple yet delicious.
  • Xipirons - Fried Squid
  • Patatas Bravas - Fried potatoes served warm, served with tomato sauce or aioli.
  • Manchego Cheese! It's everywhere in Spain and is arguably the BEST cheese ever.
  • Jamon Iberico - A type of cured ham served on everything from sandwiches to pizza.
  • Croquettes - These are everywhere in Spain, mainly made with ham. They are a breadcrumbed and fried roll of ham and potatoes.  Decadent, rich and savory. I dare you to eat more than 4!
  • Paella - Originating in 19th century Valencia, Spain, it's a dish with humble roots. It consists of sticky bomba rice, vegetables, meat and/or shell fish with seasoning such as saffron and rosemary. 

Travel Highlights of Valencia Spain

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Valencia Sites & Attractions

After almost 3 weeks of living the city life, we were ready to take it down a notch and head to Valencia for an old-town village and beach vibe. We selected a beautiful AirBnB ($140 per night) in the heart of Valencia for a 5 night retreat and it a wonderful experience.  That said, 5 nights in Valencia may have been a little too long as we were able to see most of what the city has to offer after 3 days. But, we still enjoyed our time in Valencia immensely.


What we didn’t know is how OLD the town of Valencia is.  It was founded in the Roman period, circa 138 BC and thus, Valenica has an incredibly long, rich history.  In fact, the Cathedral in Valencia claims to have the actual Holy Grail. For those of Catholic descent, this is a big freakin’ deal!  And I imagine that is why the Cathedral is the #1 visited attraction in the entire city.  


At the Cathedral, you can pay €7 per person to view the artwork and artifacts or just €5 to worship, and you can pay €2 to walk up the Torre de Micalet to see the ancient church bell and catch a pretty nice view of the city. 


Valencia is known as the City of Art & Science so there are plenty of other attractions which are great for families and kids.  Though Mike and I did not partake ourselves, we admired the architecture of several main attractions:

 

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia – the performing arts center

Museu de les Ciencies Principes – a science museum boasting modern architecture 

Valencia Bioparc - which features wild animals in their natural habitat

L’Oceanografic - a large aquarium  


We did in fact visit the Ceramics Museum and were grateful it was Free of Charge in the afternoon because even though it has some beautiful works of art, most are from the 1990s and later.  We were hoping to see ceramics and pottery from ancient times…so we weren’t super impressed.


From our experience, the real joy of Valencia is in wandering the streets and small squares of the old town where you can find ancient architecture, cafes, restaurants, and shops of all kinds, from high-end clothing to trinkets and souvenirs. 


On our third day in Valencia, we rented bikes and followed the “green belt” down to Malvarossa beach.  The ride was much less appealing than we had hoped and cuts through some quite impoverished areas of the city; but, then again, you really do get a good idea of the difference between the old town of Valencia and the very underdeveloped outskirts.  Surprisingly, the closer we got to the beach, the more run down, undeveloped and impoverished the city seemed.  That’s very different from our experience in the USA and Canada where wealthy citizens are clamoring to find and build beautiful homes on or near the beach.  

Once we reached the beach, it seemed to go on for miles. We continued riding north and ended up renting an umbrella hut and 2 lounge chairs at Patasur for €16.  We highly recommend this location as Patasur has a beach hut serving fruit smoothies, alcholic drinks and sandwiches/snacks.  But best of all is the ocean water!  It was so incredibly warm and the waves were perfect for swimming and not too treacherous.  As a bonus, there were locals offering beach massages for €10-20!  I had a lovely back massage which was well worth the €10.  


While in Valencia, we didn’t experience too many of the local restaurants as we were excited to cook our own meals in our beautiful kitchen.  However, we need to reiterate how common it is to eat Jamon (ham) with and on just about everything.  Ham and cheese baguette sandwiches are popular for breakfast and lunch and the varieties of ham to choose from are immense.  


Also, one of Spain’s most popular dishes happens to come from Valencia and is known as Paella.  I highly recommend having a traditional paella dish at Navarro or Arroceria La Valenciana while in Valencia.  Not surprisingly, Italian food, especially pizza is very popular in Valencia and all over Spain so there are many restaurants to indulge in your carb cravings. We recommend the very popular spot San Tommaso but it’s very busy in the late evening so be sure to call for a reservation.  


Another popular option for breakfast and lunch in Valencia is the Mercado Central which is a public market in central Valencia boasting hundreds of vendors and food options. Hours are 7am to 3pm and we recommend going early so you can get the best selection with smaller crowds. 


Overall, we highly recommend the town of Valencia for a long weekend getaway. It had everything we love including beautiful scenery, beaches, a plethora of food options, historical sites, shopping and plenty of opportunities for adventure.  3 nights is plenty to cover off on the best of Valencia!



Travel Highlights of Costa Brava

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1 Week in Costa Brava

We were fortunate enough to be invited by our friends Claire and Gus to accompany them on a week long trip to Costa Brava, Spain which is about 2 hours driving from Barcelona. 


So, we rented a van and headed off on a road trip through the Spanish coast.  We stayed in a tiny medieval village called Cruilles which may be the smallest town I’ve ever stayed in with a population of 1,300.  It was a lovely home base for us as there were plenty of markets and restaurants less than 10 minutes away by car. 


Cruilles and the Costa Brava are in the province of Girona.  Just as in Barcelona, the people are generally Catalan or of Catalonia which is its own nationality in parts of Spain.  That said, you can expect most people to speak Catalan which we found MUCH different from Spanish.


Though Mike and I both consider ourselves relatively well traveled, neither of us had ever heard of the Costa Brava, its marvelous small towns and beautiful beach communities.  Each day we were there, we discovered a completely unique, more interesting and beautiful location, especially the beaches!  


Our favorite beach towns that we highly recommend are as follows:


L’Estartit – A small town and seaside resort on the North Eastern coast of Spain with large, seemingly endless beaches, many hotels, castles, hiking, biking, and great activities for the entire family. Parking at the beach is easy and free!


Platja de Castell Palamos – A beautiful beach located near the Iberian settlement of Castell, making it the perfect combination of nature and history. Parking for the beach is a little challenging through the narrow streets but definitely doable with a little patience.  There are also shops and restaurants very nearby making it an ideal location for a day at the  beach.


Calella de Palafrugell (aka. Platja de Canadell) – A laid back family beach with car-free promenades.  There are fishing boats on the sand, many restaurants, shops and cafes too.  The buildings are pastel colored and are built into the hills, making it a picturesque Spanish village with plenty to do.  As a note for beach lovers, the beach is not soft and sandy but instead, it’s made up of course sand and pebbles.  The snorkeling and swimming were quite memorable here and the terrain is fun to explore on foot as well.  Parking can be a bit challenging but we found a parking garage nearby and paid €7 for ½ day.   


Nearby to Platja de Canadell are 2 other AMAZING beaches called Platja de Tamariu and Platja de Llafranc.  We were not able to find parking at prime time so we did not get the pleasure of visiting these beaches; however, I wanted to point them out because they are rumored to be 2 of the best!  


Cadaques – A charming coastal town on a bay in the middles of the Cap de Creus peninsula, the eastern most point of Spain. Cadaques is a patchwork of steep, narrow streets which isn’t surprising considering the long treacherous mountain drive that is required to reach this town.  It is a beautifully, winding drive but is not for the faint of heart! Cadaques really is one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. No wonder it is known for providing inspiration for master painters such at Picasso and Matisse as well as Salvador Dali.  The beaches are small and not exactly ideal for sunbathing, but 

As a helpful hint for beach goers, know that it’s best to hit the beach before 11am or after 3pm in Costa Brava in order to avoid prime time and the height of the crowds.  Most Spanish and Catalan people have lunch from 2pm-4pm so you’ll find the beach tends to clear out after 2pm.  

Also note: sunset in August is around 9:30pm so going to the beach later in the day is a great option as the sun is at its hottest in the late afternoon.  Case in point, we stayed at the beach until 7 or 8pm several nights!  The water on the Costa Brava is very warm as well, averaging 26c/79f…perfect for swimming!!


It would be remiss of me not to include some highlights from our half day trip to Figueres as well.  Figueres is the birth place of Salvador Dali and there happens to be a fantastic museum in the town which Dali himself designed!  It’s an exquisite collection albeit very odd and confusing at times…but it wouldn’t be a Dali museum any other way, right?  By far, our favorite part of the museum was the separate jewelry collection.  I never realized what an incredibly creative and extravagant jeweler Dali was.  It’s one of the best collections I’ve ever seen!


All that said, Costa Brava was such a wonderful surprise and a hidden gem for us.  It is the perfect place for a relaxing escape for travelers of all ages.  The history and culture are very unique to the Girona province as well making it much more than just a myriad of beautiful beaches. We will definitely be back!