Category Archives: Solo Travels

how to do lisbon: use the metro

The Lisbon metro is modern, efficient, and pretty easy to use. The only hiccup I experienced was when I first arrived at the airport and couldn’t figure which direction to head in.

waiting on the Comboios suburban train from Belem to the city center

The metro goes to all of the neighborhoods and points of interest in central Lisbon.  A reloadable, multi-trip card can be purchased and refilled at machines in every station. One of the best things about Lisbon’s public transportation system is that you can use the same multi-trip card on the underground metro, above-ground trams, trolleys and buses, and the suburban trains that go all the way to Cascais and Sintra.

For long-distance destinations like Coimbra and Porto, you’ll have to purchase a separate ticket for one of the regional or inter-regional trains that depart from Santa Apolonia Station.

regional train at Santa Apolonia Station in Lisbon

Official Lisbon Metro Site – Fares, Maps, and Trip Planner

Lisbon Comboios Site – for Medium to Long-Distance Trips Outside of Lisbon

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

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how to do lisbon: people watch at the port

At the south end of Rua Augusta is the Port of Lisbon which overlooks the river Douro, and provides a spectacular view of the April 25 bridge. The large adjacent plaza and the riverside promenade produce an endless parade of locals, tourists, and street vendors. Grab a table on the terrace at one of the nearby cafes, or cop a squat on the wall ledge at the edge of the river to soak it all in.

port of lisbon

 

Once you’ve gotten your fill of gazing at the passersby, head up the Rua Augusta, browsing the shops and street performers, before heading over to have a look at the Santa Justa Elevator. Push on a little further, and you’ll run into Rossio Square, with its picturesque fountains and always lively pedestrian scene. The nearby Rossio train station is worth a peek for its uniquely designed facade. A hint: It looks even better at night.

rua augusta

 

fountain – rossio square

 

santa justa elevator

 

 

rossio station

 

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

 

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how to do lisbon: skip the #28 and explore alfama on foot

When researching things to do in Lisbon, I saw tons of recommendations for riding the #28 tram. While seeing the city’s oldest neighborhood in this manner makes for a memorable experience, the tram is often literally overflowing with other tourists who also want to have this experience. I waited for 3 go-rounds of the #28, and was never able to get on because there wasn’t even room to breathe on board. The way I see it, even if you do get a coveted spot on the tram, you’re going to be packed in there like… well, like sardines. Not my idea of fun.

how to do lisbon - explore alfama
se de lisboa – lisbon cathedral

Though it’s an uphill climb, making the trek from the Lisbon Cathedral (Se de Lisboa) up through the Alfama neighborhood is a treat for the senses. Cute shops, tiny traditional bars, crumbling buildings, winding staircases, and some fine street art will give you plenty of opportunities to stop for a look-see or a quick photo. It’s the perfect place to get lost for a few hours. The best part is, you can take the #28 on your way back down – it’s usually much less crowded going the opposite direction.

how to do lisbon - explore alfama
seeing the sights in alfama
how to do lisbon - explore alfama
overlooking lisbon from alfama
how to do lisbon - explore alfama
alfama street art
how to do lisbon - explore alfama
alfama street art
how to do lisbon - explore alfama
colorful alfama

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

 

how to do lisbon

Lisbon is one of those places where it’s hard to capture the beauty with a camera. You have to stop often, pause, and soak it all in. Let the breeze sweep over you, turn your face up to the sun, smile a bit to yourself and then push on up the next steep hill, over the buckling cobblestone sidewalks, down the time-worn stone stairs, and around the next bend, where you’ll spy something else that makes you stop in your tracks, exhale sharply, and pause to admire it all over again.

During my entire time there, I found myself repeating two words over and over: impressive, and picturesque. But there was also this feeling of welcoming ease. That is, unless I found myself in one of the heavily crowded, tourist-oriented areas of town. Even then, though, popping into a shop, I’d be met with a friendly bit of conversation, or be greeted with a familiar ‘bomdia nena’ as I passed one of the restaurant hawkers standing out in front of the rows of cafes, attempting to lure non-locals in for a slightly overpriced bite to eat.

Before I left to visit the city, more than one Spanish associate of mine had used the same word to describe Lisbon: decadente. Upon hearing the word, I’d wrinkle my brow a bit and wonder if I was heading to some place that would be characterized by overindulgence or questionable morality. After arriving, however, I realized that what my associates had intended was the definition of decadence that I’d all but forgotten – that being a place characterized by decay or decline, a place that is now a faded vision of its former glory.

one of Lisbon’s many winding staircases

 

a peeling oled facade interplays with modern street art

 

urban decay never looked so good

Indeed, Lisbon is peppered with faded, dilapidated buildings, aged streets and sidewalks in need of repair, neglected and peeling facades, and a thin layer of grunge that seems to have lightly settled over almost everything. Yet, at the same time, the city manages to feel extremely modern and cosmopolitan. The efficient transportation system, the trendy shopping and bar districts, the amusing and provocative street art and performers, the cultural mishmash of colors, styles, nationalities, and cuisines you can see and smell as you stroll through the streets. Couple that with the fact that the city is located next to a huge river and not far from the Atlantic Ocean, and you get the sense of constant flow – an unhurried busy-ness that imparts energy that keeps the city renewed and young despite the obvious fact that it is so very, very old.

forever portugal
feelin’ the love in lisbon

Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing my insights on what to see and do in Lisbon . Here’s a preview of what’s to come:

  1. Take Up Residence in Pena
  2. Eat Grilled Sardines
  3. Skip the #28 and Explore Alfama on Foot
  4. People Watch at the Port
  5. Use the Metro
  6. Sample Affordable, New Portuguese Cuisine
  7. See the Monuments in Belem
  8. Take a Day Trip to Sintra or Cascais
  9. Have a Bifana
  10. Learn How to Say Thank You in Portuguese

If you’re planning a trip to Lisbon, these travel tips will help you make the most of your time in the city. Bookmark this post, or sign up below to receive the latest posts in the series as soon as they’re published! Read the first post now….

how to do lisbon: eat grilled sardines

The abundance of fresh and expertly prepared fish in Lisbon made me one very happy girl. Grilled sardines is one of Lisbon’s most iconic dishes, so if you’re a fish lover, you have to experience it at least once.

grilled sardines served with typical accompaniments: potato and salad

how to do lisbon: take up residence in pena

Just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle (and higher prices) of the city center is the Pena neighborhood of Lisbon. It’s accessible by either:

  • a long walk up a steep hill,
  • a long walk up lots of old stairs, or
  • a brief ride on the Lavra funicular.

Either way, it’s worth the trouble. Pena offers lodging options that strike the perfect balance of location, comfort and price. Staying here gives you a break from the busy-ness and lets you experience a more intimate side of the city. Friendly neighbors who smile and say good morning as you pass them on the street, and cheaper, less crowded restaurants are a part of the package.

Where I Stayed: NEW! 2patios&parking; center Lisbon

photo source: AirBnB
Dinner at Restaurant Cerqueira in Pena – All this for a little over 5 euro.
Perfectly prepared caipirinha at Terras Gerais, a cozy Brazilian restaurant in Pena

More About Lisbon Neighborhoods

This post is the first in a series on How To Do Lisbon.

7 reasons you shouldn’t couchsurf if you haven’t already

Ok. So you’ve heard about Couchsurfing (CS) from a friend of a friend or an article in a travel magazine or around a campfire that one time when you ran into a band of wandering hippies. You may even be thinking of trying it out for yourself. I’m a big fan of both the concept and the reality of Couchsurfing – I’ve used it at least 4 times in 4 different countries (all while travelling solo), and each of my experiences has been amazing. I’d even go so far as to say that my Couchsurfing experiences have renewed my faith in the kindness and hospitality of my fellow upright bi-pedders.

But I also realize that Couchsurfing is not for everyone. It’s not intended to be. And that’s ok. So, if you’re on the fence about Couchsurfing, here are 7 reasons that may (or may not) convince you to book a hotel instead.

#1: Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t personally know someone who has surfed or hosted.

Couchsurfing sounds strange and scary, especially for us Americans. What if this person kills me? Robs me? Rapes me? Makes me listen to Enya all night long? Having a friend or associate who has Couchsurfed before will give you the chance to ask all the questions you want and have your suspicions and fears put at ease before you ever go looking for a host or guest.  If this person knows you well, they’ll be better equipped to help you figure out if Couchsurfing is something that fits your personal needs and tastes. Plus, an experienced Couchsurfer will be able to school you on all of the unwritten rules and customs that are common among CS’ers.

#2: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking for a free room.

Yes. If you find a Couchsurfing host, you will be able to stay at his/her place without paying a red cent. But this isn’t just about what you get out of the situation, it’s also about what you’re willing to give – namely, some of your time, personality, and life experiences. Couchsurfers are all about meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. Many of them have learned second languages, discovered new music, tried new foods, or planned their next vacation to previously unheard of destinations just from the interactions they’ve had with fellow surfers. The goal is to build relationships, not just freeload at someone’s house. It’s even common to bring a little gift or token of appreciation for your host – a bottle of wine, a fridge magnet from your home country or state, or any little thing that says, ‘thanks for letting this stranger sleep in your house’.

#3: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re not prepared to do some upfront work.

Nothing in life is truly free. This applies even to Couchsurfing. In order to have a quality Couchsurfing experience, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time thoroughly filling out your CS profile. The more thorough, honest, and detailed your profile is, the more likely you’ll be able to find someone with similar interests or a compatible outlook on life. Once you’re ready to look for a host, you’ll also need to put in quite a lot of time perusing potential hosts’ profiles, going over all of the feedback that previous guests have given, sending couch requests, waiting for replies, etc. I liken the whole CS reservation request experience to looking for a match on a dating or friend site. It takes time to get quality results. You should also be prepared to leave detailed and useful feedback about your host after your stay – it’s this contribution that helps the next person decide if they should follow in your footsteps.

#4 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t have a Plan B.

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone you don’t know. Even if you’ve done all of your pre-work and feel comfy with your host, shit happens. Maybe your host will need to cancel at the last minute. Maybe you won’t like the vibe you get when you get there. Whatever the reason, always have a backup plan – another nearby hotel or hostel you can head to if need be, and enough money to pay for a more traditional living arrangement should the need arise.

#5 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t like sharing or if you have an inherent mistrust of strangers or the internet.

By its very nature, CS is more suitable for open-minded, gregarious people who don’t mind sharing a little bit about themselves on the internet (i.e., your CS profile) or with people they’ve never met before. If you already know that’s not your style, don’t stress yourself or other CS’ers out.

#6 – Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking to hook up or get laid.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your stance on the issue), some folks out there think that CS is the perfect way to get easy sex with strangers. To each his or her own, I say. But, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are plenty of other sites out there that are more suited for that purpose. If you somehow feel like you MUST use CS to achieve your sex-with-strangers fantasy, at least be upfront about your intent with potential guests / hosts, and be prepared for the other person not being on the same page. Full disclosure: I’ve messaged potential hosts who responded with messages that made it clear that their intent or interest would be to engage in some physical recreation with me. While it creeped me out a bit, I was mostly relieved that they were upfront about their intent. I politely declined their offer, and kept searching for a more suitable host. No harm, no foul.

#7 – Don’t Couchsurf if the little voice tells you not to.

As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve learned that one of the best tools in my nomad toolkit is my intuition, aka, the little voice. If you have even the slightest hint of uneasiness or a feeling that something might not be right with a potential Couchsurfing situation, don’t go into it. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have a good experience, you are under no obligation to suffer discomfort or weirdness even if you’re staying with someone for free.

Have you Couchsurfed before? What have your experiences been like? Still not sure if Couchsurfing is for you? What are some of your concerns or worries?
Share your feedback in the comments!
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my travel style, aka, how I travel on the cheap in spain

Since I’m in the habit of giving advice and tips about the places I’ve traveled to on this blog, I thought it was worthwhile to share some more information on exactly the type of traveler I am. Travel advice is really only relevant if the receiver has similar travel interests and preferences as the person giving the advice. For instance, some people would never stay in a hostel or couchsurf, while others – like myself – usually steer clear of chain hotels and all-inclusives. So, with that, here’s some insight into my personal travel style, so you can decide for yourself whether my travel advice is suitable for you.

 

I live cheaply when not travelling – I live in a pretty small town in the interior of Spain, so most things here are cheaper than they are elsewhere in the country. My major expense – rent – runs me about 150 euros a month, and that includes all of my utilities. I share an apartment with 3 other ladies – a fairly common arrangement in Spain, even for working professionals – so that helps to keep costs low. Even when I lived on my own, rent and utilities averaged 275 euros a month – extremely cheap by American standards. I eat out, but not too often. When I do, it’s usually at a place where I buy a beer or a glass of wine and get a free tapa. At the grocery store, I buy very few packaged goods – which are typically more expensive than whole foods – choosing veggies, fresh fruits, fish, and meats instead of heat-and-serve meals. I also don’t waste leftovers. I remix them until they’re all gone.
Blablacar – I describe Blablacar as a safer way to hitchhike. I tend to use it for short to mid-distance trips to nearby cities or provinces (roughly, 4 hours or less). Using the site or app, you can search for drivers who are leaving from your area and heading to a destination you want to go to. The drivers offer available seats in their car for a much, much lower price than a train or even a bus. An added benefit is that you get the chance to chat with a local about any number of things, including their recommendations on what you should see and do when you reach your destination.

SpainPass – Like much of Europe, Spain’s long distance train system is quite good. The trains are reliable and fast, and depending on how early you buy your ticket, they can also be quite affordable. I tend to use trains for exploratory, long-distance trips. Renfe – Spain’s national train service – offers a very attractive multi-trip pass for non-Spanish travelers. It’s called SpainPass, and it allows you to travel multiple legs on the train for about 40 euros per leg. The only catch is that all trips must be paid for upfront, and they must all be used in 30 days. Because of the time limit, I try to use this option strategically. For instance, in December, there was both a long holiday at the beginning of the month and the Christmas holidays at the end of the month. Using SpainPass, I was able to travel to Valencia, Malaga, and Barcelona that month for much less than plane tickets or regular-price train tickets. Whenever I use SpainPass, I typically search for a destination that would cost me a lot of money to get to and go there.

 

Skyscanner – Simply the best app or flight search site I’ve found for showing the lowest prices to my chosen destination. There’s enough flexibility in Skyscanner’s search function for me to select a departure location and leave the destination open, which allows me to see where I can fly to for the least amount of money.
Pack light – when I don’t travel via train or Blablacar, I’m usually on one of what I call ‘ghettoeurope’ airlines – Ryanair or Easyjet. These super low-cost airlines are able to keep their prices low because they offer a no-frills service. This is especially true when it comes to baggage restrictions. Both of these airlines only allow you to travel with a small carry-on bag for free. While the luggage size isn’t restrictively small, it may take some smart packing to keep from having a too-large bag that costs you more money.
Hostels – Unfortunately, this is one way I could probably travel even more cheaply. But, since I’m over 35 and my dorm room days are decades behind me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of a communal bathroom, and I simply can’t wrap my head around the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers. I mean, what if I need to poot, scratch, rub one out? Now, I have stayed in hostels, but I always opt for the private room option when I do – it’s more expensive than the traditional hostel experience, but still much cheaper than a standard hotel.

Home stays – I do, however, love Couchsurfingand Airbnb – two options for staying in a home or apartment while travelling. Usually there’s a kitchen I can use to cook a quick meal or even just have some fruit, bread, and cheese for breakfast or a snack.

one of my most unique and enjoyable homestays – a hammock on a houseboat in amsterdam

 

Eat out only for the main meal – I’m a foodie, so I definitely like to eat out when I’m travelling – but I try to eat out for my main meal of the day – typically late lunch or dinner – and just eat fruit or snacks purchased at a local supermarket for the other meals. I also try to save dining out experiences for iconic dishes or local specialties, not just because I’m hungry and need a bite.
Public transportation– Most cities in Spain are very walkable, but when my feet get tired, I opt for public transportation, not taxis or car hires. Not only is public transport cheaper, it’s also a good way to quickly get a feel of the layout of the city and what the people are like.
No tours – I just don’t believe in paying for them. And since I’m not one who feels like I need to see EVERYthing when I visit a place – I typically pick out 2 or 3 must-sees, and let the rest happen as it may – tours aren’t really worth my money. Also, since I stay with locals, there’s no need for a tour. A quick conversation with my host about what I’m looking for and how to get there, and it’s like I’ve received a customized itinerary. However, there are occasionally exceptions to this rule.
Skip paid attractions– Again, there are some rare occasions when I’ll make an exception to this rule. But for the most part, I skip any site that I have to pay to enter. This includes museums and theme parks.  I prefer parks, neighborhoods, plazas, local markets, and other outdoor activities as they give me more of a feel for what the city and its people are like.
What are some of your tips for keeping costs low while travelling in Spain, Europe, or elsewhere in the world? Share them in the comments!
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how to do barcelona

I’ll admit it. I’m kind of addicted to this town. Maybe it’s because it was the first Spanish city I visited on my own. Maybe it’s because my first visit was the very definition of serendipity. Or maybe it’s because Barcelona is the one city in Spain that I know I can go to to satisfy all my cravings of home. In my opinion, Barna (not Barça – that abbreviation is specifically reserved for the football club) is the most metropolitan city in Spain, even more so than the capital of Madrid, and that’s because Barcelona has something that I think Madrid lacks – soul. Since that first visit just a little over a year ago, I’ve been back to the Catalonian capital 4 times, and it’s only a matter of time before I go again.
After those 5 visits, here are some of my favorite ways to ‘do’ Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Take a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Yes, yes, I know. What sort of insider’s guide starts with, ‘book a tour’? I’m usually not a fan of tours, since I think it’s useless trying to pack in too much sightseeing in a single trip, and I prefer finding (and sometimes losing) my own way. But, there are some cities – such as London and Barcelona – that have so many different sites of interest spread out over such a large area, that I think it’s not only worth paying the price for a tour, it’s also worth saving yourself from aching feet and the frustration of trying to locate even your very top must-see sites using public transportation. My personal advice when booking a HOHO tour in Barna is this: Start early, then stay on the bus for a full loop (yes, it will be hard to resist getting off for photo opps, but do it) before you disembark anywhere. This will allow you get the tourist version of a sampler platter – a little taste of all that the city has to offer – before deciding which places you’d like to hop off at and delve deeper into. Barcelona’s most popular HOHO bus tour is the Barcelona Bus Turistic, and it’s the one I recommend. Some of my favorite places to hop off for a more up-close look include:
Park Güell – You simply can’t visit Barcelona without seeing this impressive outdoor space designed by Antonio Gaudí. While you have to pay for up-close access to some areas of the park, I didn’t, and I felt plenty fulfilled enjoying the park’s free areas.
 A sunny day at Park Guell
La Sagrada Familia – Perpetually under-construction, this magnificent example of Gaudí’s architectural style is always jam-packed with crowds, inside and out. I recommend viewing it from a quiet spot in the park Plaça de Gaudí located just behind the church.

La Sagrada Familia as seen from Placa de Gaudi
Casa Battló – Yet another jaw-dropping example of Gaudi’s signature style. I also like this stop because you can take a leisurely southbound stroll from here down either the Passeig de Gracia or the Rambla de Catalunya. Walking down either of these streets, you’ll eventually encounter Plaça Catalunya, the Cathedral and Barrio Gótic, passing tons of shops, street performers and other sensory satisfaction along the way.
Casa Battlo at night
The ‘Coquettish Giraffe’ statue on La Rambla Catalunya
Barcelona’s Cathedral
Batucada street performers in Barri Gotic
Arc de Triomf / Parc de la Ciutadella – The Arc de Triomf is a breathtaking structure that makes for a nice photo opp. At the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, you’ll find an equally impressive fountain and waterfall feature – La Cascada. On weekend afternoons, there’s usually a group of African drummers doing their thing near the center of the park. It’s an ideal place to cop a squat and soak up the sounds and sun.
The impressive Arc de Triomf
Parc Ciutadella’s magnificent fountain and waterfall
Weekend African drumming in Parc Ciutadella
Some places I think are better seen from the bus:
Dona I Ocell as seen from the tourist bus

Plaça Espanya – the nearby Magic Fountain is a prime draw, but since the fountains are better seen at night after the tour bus stops running, you’re better off catching the metro to this location at a later time.

Parc de Joan Miró – you can snap pretty decent pics of the iconic Dona I Ocell statue from the open-air top section of the bus.
Olympic Ring – home to the telecommunications tower or, Torre Telefónica– a quirky architectural structure that’s a nice visual treat.
MNAC – unless you plan on going inside of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, get your oohs and aahs on as you whizz by.
Camp Nou – I’m not a big football (or, soccer) fan anyway, so an up-close look wouldn’t really do anything for me.

 

 

How to Do Barcelona: Buy a Metro Pass

Barcelona’s metro system is pretty easy to navigate, and there are several options available for multi-trip Barcelona metro passes. While which pass you buy will totally depend on how long you’ll be staying in the city and what areas you plan on visiting using the metro, I’ve only ever bought the 10-ride pass, aka the T10. A single one-way ticket on the metro runs €2.15, and the 10-trip pass will set you back €9.95, so it’s a great value; you can even share it with others travelling with you. I don’t mind walking between a lot of the places that I visit, and only use the metro if I have to go from one area of town to another, so the 10-ride pass has been sufficient for my multiple 3-4 day trips to Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Stroll the Beach

Barcelona’s most accessible beach, Barceloneta, isn’t exactly the most picturesque, but it’s definitely a nice place to have a Sunday stroll during cooler months, or work on your tan during warmer ones. At night, the area along the beach is filled with nightcrawlers visiting the many posh Miami-style nightclubs in the area.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Eat

There are no shortage of amazing places to eat in Barcelona, and I know for sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to fabulous dining options, but the following Barcelona restaurants have met or exceeded my standards for price, quality and uniqueness.
Teranga – Senegalese restaurant located en El Born district of Barcelona. The lamb dishes are my favorites.
Restaurante Bar Roble – Located on the edge of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. A good option for lunch or dinner, this very old school restaurant often gets busy, and the service is typical Spanish / Catalan – occasionally brusque, but always efficient. And if you go when they have the lunch menu special (or menu del día), and you order wine as your included beverage, they plop the bottle on your table, and you drink as much as you want. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All-you-can-drink wine at Restaurante Bar Roble
Fideos de marisco con ali-oli on Restaurante Bar Roble lunch menu del dia
Milk – Bar and restaurant located not far from Las Ramblas. An excellent choice for first meal, as they offer a daily ‘Recovery Brunch’ from 9am to 4:30pm. Perfect for coming back to life after a night out partying in Barna. If you go on weekends, get there early – Spanish early, like 10 – to beat the rush.

Huevos rancheros at Milk. I dream of this brunch dish often.
A Tu Bola – Funky little eatery in the eclectic Raval neighborhood. Billing itself as a gourmet street food restaurant, the menu features a variety of different meat or veggie balls. Slightly pricier than I would normally go for, but the food and service are both very high quality.

Savory Mediterranean ball at A Tu Bola
Sweet chocolate truffle ball at A Tu Bola
Wok 2 Walk– A quick serve chain restaurant with 3 Barcelona locations. Is it life-changing food? No. But I really miss Asian noodles, so it does it for me. Plus, the food is fresh and fast.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Enjoy the Nightlife

Grácia– Probably my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. Full of funky shops, bars, and people – a perfect place to just stroll around and get lost in, day or night. Plaça del Sol is a good launching point for exploring the neighborhood.
El Born – A little sexier and more polished than Gracia, with higher-end shops and restaurants, El Born is a great Barcelona ‘hood to see and be seen.

Antique jewely shopping in El Born

 

Afro Bar Bella Bestia – Offering a variety of soulful entertainment, from ska to soul to soulful rock, this low-key bar is a good place to get your groove on.
Harlem Jazz Club– Live music that might include funk, flamenco, Cuban jazz, and everything in between. More tourists than locals, but the music makes it worth your while.

 

Plaça Reial– Just off La Rambla, this well-known plaza is a good place to go for late night hanging, after you’ve finished dinner and clubbing elsewhere and you want to watch (or act like) a drunken Spaniard or Catalan.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Stay

L’Eixample – The L’Eixample neighborhood is fairly centrally located and you can find some good bargains on vacation rentals or homestays in this part of town. However, it’s also a pretty big area, so where you choose to stay in L’Eixample can make a big difference as far as walkability to points of interest is concerned.
Where I’ve Stayed in L’Eixample: Airbnb room near Passeig de Graciaand Hostalet Barcelona
Las Ramblas On my first few visits to Barcelona, I avoided staying here because I didn’t want to be smack dab in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle that is Las Ramblas. But the one time I did stay here, it was quite nice to be able to quickly get back to the flat after a typical late night out without having to worry about catching the last train or possibly walking a really long way after the metro had shut down for the night.
Where I’ve Stayed in Las Ramblas: Airbnb Room with Private Lounge
Near Park Güell – If you’d prefer to be able to retire from the noise and crowds in central Barcelona at the end of the day, staying near Park Güell is a good idea. But – and I stress this caveat – be absolutelysure that you’re willing to tackle the very steep, very long incline that leads up to this area, especially if you plan on staying out late – I (and my hamstrings) learned this the hard way.  Depending on your fitness level, it can be a beast going and coming.
Note: Unfortunately, the very affordable housetrip.com room I stayed in is no longer available.

How to Do Barcelona: Beware of Pickpockets

Before my first trip to Barcelona, I’d heard so many stories about how bad and rampant pickpocketing was, that I was definitely on high alert. I actually even saw a foiled pickpocketing attempt occur right in front of me on the metro during my first visit. But, honestly, a little common sense and street smarts will go a long way and keep you from becoming a victim. Walk confidently with your head up (not staring at a tourist guide or map), make eye contact with too-close strangers, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings (tip: go for a crossover-style bag versus a backpack), and you’ll be fine. Especially if you’re used to travelling in large metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago.
Other Barcelona blogs and resources:
Resident Advisor – I’m a big fan of soulful house music and there’s usually some place to get my fix in Barna. RA keeps an up-to-date listing of weekly  and special events for house heads.
Planning a visit to Barcelona or other Spanish cities? Check out: 7 Things You Must See in Every Spanish City for a quick and dirty guide on sightseeing in Spain.
What are your favorite ways to do Barcelona? Any tips on places to see or avoid? Leave ’em in the comments! 

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how to do valencia

What better thing to do on a long holiday weekend than visit and explore a new city? Desperate to escape the chilly early December weather of Spain’s interior, I settled on Valencia. I’d already had a brief, enjoyable visit to the Costa Blanca, and I’d heard good things about the bigger city to the north. Without much of an itinerary at all, I set off on a Thursday for a 4-day excursion to Valencia.

How to Do Valencia: Stay With a Great AirBnB Host

No guide book or self-researched travel itinerary beats the hands-on help of a capable and compatible host. Luckily, I found both in Guillermo, my AirBnB host in Valencia. Not only did he meet me at the train station on arrival, he was kind enough to share his lunch with me after showing me the way to his flat.

Home-cooked lunch at Guillermo’s
As we chatted over lunch, I learned that Guillermo was a native of El Salvador, and was studying urban planning and development. He’d lived off and on in Valencia for 16 years, so I knew he was well qualified to give me some good advice on what to see and do around town.
Guillermo’s surprised face when he’s not expecting to be photographed.

Before I headed out to do some exploring on my own, Guillermo provided me a selection of maps to use during my stay, and quickly gave me the lay of the land.

Where I Stayed: AirBnB Private Room in Ruzafa, Valencia

How to Do Valencia: See the Sights in Ciutat Vella (Old Town)

After resting up a bit, I decided to head out and walk around the historic area of Valencia, otherwise known as Ciutat Vella. Despite Guillermo’s map and explaining, I managed to get a little turned around during my stroll, but still found my way to the following points of interest.

Porta de la Mar – at the eastern end of Ciutat Vella
Christmas lights and shopping on Carrer del Pau
The Valencia Cathedral, or, the Metrpolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia
Torres de Serranos at the northern end of Ciutat Vella, El Carmen
Torres de Serranos – front view
Christmas lights at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia
Plaza de Toros, Valencia

Sights to See in Ciutat Vella, Valencia (Spanish)

How to Do Valencia: Wander Around the Ruzafa Market

Saturday morning on a holiday weekend. I wake up early-ish, and the only thing on my mind is, “Gawd, I hope the market is open.” As I mentioned in an earlier post, visiting the local market is one of my favorite ways to get a sense of the culture and flavor of a Spanish city. The Ruzafa market was a treat, and I spent at least an hour strolling through, peering at the fresh items on offer at each of the stalls, and trying to stay out of the way of the old folks who were out early getting their shopping done before the official start of the holiday. I was even able to try a few free samples – 1 was of some amazing roasted pumpkins (I bought a half to take home for a snack later), and the other was of a really nice cava on sale at a wine shop in the market. Guillermo joined me at the market later and showed me to a coffee shop in the market that serves coffee for free (tips accepted) – since they make their money on bulk sales of beans. A great way to start the day!
Free samples of cava? Why yes, thank you.
roasted pumpkins – you get to try before you buy

Ruzafa Market Hours & Info

How to Do Valencia: Taste Authentic Argentinian Italian Pizza

I had no idea that there was a significant Italian community in Argentina, but I found out when I visited La Nonna – an Argentinian Italian restaurant in Valencia. The owners hail from Argentina, and the restaurant’s menu boasts a mouth-watering selection of brick-oven Italian pizzas along with some Argentinian steak and meat dishes.
The pizzas are top notch – crispy but tender crust, fresh topping, and the gooiest of cheeses. La Nonna features a daily menu that allows you to select a salad or small plate as a first course, your choice of pizza, along with drink and a dessert for about 12euro.
Carpaccio de pulpo – La Nonna
Veggie pizza at La Nonna

La Nonna
Calle Puerto Rico, 16
Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Hang with the Hipster Set at Calypso

We enter the smallish bar and order a couple of beers. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I wonder not only where I am, but when. The music is a non-stop selection of 60s surfer and ska tunes .The DJ, who for some unexplicable reason is wearing a Mexcan luchador mask, seems thrilled to be providing the ambience for the evening. He bobs his head and does a little funky two step to the music. I scan the rest of the room, taking in the scene. The decor is best described as retro tiki chic. Overhead, a tiny tv is showing original versions of the Super Friends cartoon. I am the only one paying it any attention, however. The rest of the steadily swelling crowd at Calypso presents varying shades of hipster as they chat and sip their drinks. Skinny jeans, wallet chains, lumberjack shirts, carefully ungroomed beards, blunt-cut bangs, cat eye glasses, red-as-red-can-be lipstick… all the expected accoutrements are there. Well, all except one. There’s a total lack of irony among the patrons, instead there’s an easy, genuine feeling of ‘hey, we’re just here to have a good time, not to pose and look cute.’ As I approach the bar for my second round, the bartender holds up a vintage camera and captures me with a flash. The luchador-DJ points and nods his approval.

Calypso Russafa
Carlos Cervera, 9
Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Have Sunday Paella with a Valencian Nationalist

Guillermo invites me out to have beers with him and his friend, Vicént. “He’s very nationalist,” Guillermo warns. I’m not sure I like the sound of that. “What exactly,” I cautiously begin, “do you mean by ‘nationalist’?” “Well, he only speaks Valenciano. When a Spanish team is playing a football match, he roots for the other team. When he tells people where he’s from, he doesn’t say I’m Spanish, he says, I’m Valencian. If he could, he’d prefer that his passport said that, but since he can’t change it, he’s stuck with it saying he’s from Spain. But don’t worry, he likes to practice his English.” Well, I think. This should be… fun. As it turns out, Guillermo was exaggerating a bit. Or, maybe Vicént was on his best behavior. Throughout the night we shift as easily between English, Castellano, and Valenciano (them, not me) as we do from 1 bar to the next. At the second bar, after Vicént explains to me over the loud music that he lives in a neighborhood not far from the beach, I jokingly quip, “Oh, so you’re going to make a paella for us tomorrow?” As Guillermo had hipped me earlier, paella is typically eaten by Valencians for Sunday lunch, often just before or after a relaxing stroll along the Mediterranean. To my surprise, Vicént replies with barely a pause, “Yes! You should both come over around 3!” Wait. What? Guillermo had already offered to show me to a restaurant serving authentic paella that would be much better and cheaper than the touristy options along the beach. But, this? This was more than I could have expected. I turned to share the change in plans to Guillermo. His face instantly registered his shock. “Wow. That was fast!” he says
Vicent prepares what he says is not truly paella, but octopus rice. Guillermo supervises, beer at the ready.
Shared salad to accompany the main course
Vicent’s ‘octopus rice’
“This right here? Is how you do pumpkin,” says Vicent.
All smiles! An after-lunch coffee at the cafe on the corner

How to Do Valencia: Take a Stroll Through El Cabanyal

After lunch, Vicént offers to show us around El Cabanyal – the neighborhood he grew up in and the same neighborhood his family lived in for several generations. “It used to feel like a little village,” he says. Originally a working class neighborhood of fisherman and port workers, it’s now plagued by urban blight. Kids play in the street right across from the older boys hanging out in front of the corner store. The older ones don’t go inside to buy anything. They stay outside all day to sell.

Vicént stops at regular intervals to point out one crumbling, dilapidated building after another. “My grandmother was born there. We used to go pick up huge chunks of ice over there. My uncle’s house was here. My first job was washing cars in that place over there.” I can feel the mix of wistfulness and pride in his voice. 

Guillermo and Vicént share that the state of the neighborhood is an intentional move on the part of the local government. They want to expand a nearby avenue so that it connects with the beach further to the south – El Cabanyal is right in the path of this proposed throughway.

We leave El Cabanyal and stroll along the beach, catch a batucada group practicing their moves, watch the sun set over the waves. After our walk, Guillermo and I bid Vicént thanks and goodbye, and catch the metro back home.

How to Do Valencia: Have a Farewell Dinner for a New Friend

My first night in Valencia, while Guillermo and I were grabbing some eats in a nearby Cuban restaurant, I met Tanya. Tanya  was a native of Brooklyn, and was currently living and teaching English in Madrid. We all chatted cordially, and I invited Tanya to join Guillermo and I for bar-hopping after dinner. Tanya shared that she’d only just decided to come to Valencia for the holiday weekend last night. She was an experienced solo traveler, and could easily enjoy exploring a city on her own or with newly made friends wherever she happened to find them. Of course, we hit it off instantly. We exchanged contact info at the end of the night and hung out again for several hours the next day.
 
On Tanya’s last night in Valencia, we met up for a Moroccan dinner at Restaurant Zakaria. I’d read online about one of their more popular dishes, Cordero con ciruelas (Lamb with prunes), and decided to order it. Tanya ordered a couscous dish and we shared. While both dishes were delicious, the lamb dish was certainly more memorable. Sweet, smoky caramelized onions, well-spiced lamb, and tender prunes made for a warm, comforting blend of flavors – perfect for the slightly chilly evening weather. Portions and prices were quite good at Restaurant Zakaria. A must-visit if you like North African cuisine.
Cordero con ciruelas at Restaurant Zakaria
Chicken and vegetable couscous at Restaurant Zakaria

Our after-dinner plan to find a bar or club with some cool tunes was mostly a bust and ended up with Tanya and me going on a Google search-inspired wild goose chase around the city center that lasted ‘til the wee hours of the morning. But, in the end, it was all good. We had just as much fun getting lost, people watching, laughing like giddy teenagers, and even singing the hooks of old funk and soul tunes on the streets of Valencia. Sometimes it’s not so much about where you’re going, but who you’re travelling with.

Tanya and I outside of Havana, the Cuban restaurant where we met in Valencia
Carrer de Puerto Rico, 26, Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Head Down the River to the City of Arts & Sciences

On my last day in Valencia, I head out to explore the ‘river’, which is what the locals call the continuous band of recreational green space that snakes through most of the city. Many decades ago, it was an actual river, but after repeated floods, it was drained and turned into a park. The weather is as perfect as it can be, and there are tons of people enjoying the day – running, strolling, biking, or just soaking up the sun.

At the south end of the river, I encounter the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of museum buildings, each one dedicated to a specific area of scientific discovery and exploration. For the sake of time, I opt not to go inside of the museums. The buildings themselves are breathtaking works of art. The combination of futuristic architecture, glittering water features, and the shifting light of the sun makes for a unique visual feast. I take far too many pictures as I walk.

How to Do Valencia: Watch a Revolutionary Screening at Recordshop

When I return to Guillermo’s, he asks if I’d be up for seeing a free documentary screening at a nearby bar this evening. “Sure. Which documentary?” I query. He shows me the flyer on his computer. I nearly squeal with excitement. Turns out it’s Wattstax. I’ve been wanting to see it for years, but have never gotten around to it. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity now. We head out a little while later to Recordshop, which is part bar, part ‘cultural association’ with lots of vinyl on display. The owner regularly screens films in the space that is about as big as a large living room. 

Before the movie, the owner plays Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ album (on an actual record player), while Guillermo and I sip beers. Soon, the movie begins. I settle into a worn couch and immerse myself in the sounds of a soulful revolution.

Recordshop Cultural Association
Calle Sevilla, 31
Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Savor Handcrafted Burgers at Slaughterhouse

For my last meal in Valencia, Guillermo and I head to Slaughterhouse, a popular burger restaurant that actually was a slaughterhouse in a previous incarnation. We’d walked past the place on my first night in town, and the smell wafting out onto the street had instantly grabbed my stomach by the nose. Online reviews and Guillermo’s own personal recommendation confirmed that this place made some really tasty burgers, so I was glad to have a chance to sample one before heading home. 

Each of the burgers on the menu at Slaughterhouse gets its name from a fillm or book that is also listed as a recommendation on the menu. All the ingredients on the burgers are fresh and/or homemade, all the way down to the ketchup.

I don’t always eat burgers back in the States, but when I do, I want it to be a damned good burger. Here in Spain, I’ve tried burgers a few times, but they’ve always been ‘off’ somehow, falling short of my expectations for a well-prepared, proper tasting burger. Thankfully, I found redemption at Slaughterhouse. The Movska burger that I ordered was everything I’d been missing from home.  By this time, I wasn’t even surprised. After all, in just a few days in Valencia, I had already found so much that made feel right at home. 

Slaughterhouse menu
The Movska burger at Slaughterhouse
A disco ball and a meathook – part of the eclectic decor at Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse
Carrer de Dénia, 22
Valencia, Spain

How I Got There: AVE High Speed Train (Spain Pass)

I’m a heavy user of Spain’s discount railway pass for non-Spanish travelers. It’s called Spain Pass, and I’ve used it several times to visit cities that are far enough away for me to want to avoid a bus ride (my bus limit is about 3 hours). The trip to Valencia from Ciudad Real took a little over 2 hours on the high-speed train. The same trip would by bus would take about 6 hours, and cost about the same.

 

Have you had a chance to visit Valencia yet? Share your favorite finds in the comments!

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