I’ve been dying to visit several countries in Europe from a very young age and now it’s finally able to happen with this flight attendant job. I was extremely lucky to get a full 8 days in a row off at the end of May (actually it wasn’t luck; it was a mistake. They messed up my schedule) and I decided to visit Barcelona, Spain with my aunt Amy. I picked Barcelona because it sounded like a lovely, warm destination in late May, perfect before the tourist throngs hit for the summer. Additionally, Spain is a little cheaper compared to the rest of Europe.
Amy and I instantly fell in love with Barcelona. Europeans just really know how to live life well and enjoy everything. They eat good food, drink merrily, walk on their gorgeous boulevards covered in trees and flowers, dine outdoors on the streets, and just engage in one another’s company and enjoy life. This was exactly the way it was in Barcelona.
Not only that, but Spanish people incorporate such an easygoing way of life. Barcelona is a huge, cosmopolitan city (although not quite like Madrid) but you never felt like people were in a rush to go somewhere. I never saw any white collared businessmen in suits. People drove normal cars, if they drove at all. In the afternoons, all the businesses closed for a few hours so the people could go and take their afternoon naps (called siestas, something I personally think we should incorporate in every culture). Around 5pm things got hopping again and they didn’t stop until well after midnight. It doesn’t matter though, when your days are long and the sun doesn’t set until 9pm. Amy and I started our days late around 10am each morning and never felt like a minute was wasted.
We spent our time leisurely walking the streets, taking in the beautiful views, indulging in croissants and coffee at streetside cafes, people-watching in parks, and sharing tapas and sangria at night. We visited a variety of shops and stores, from Spanish big-labels Zara, Mango, and Oysho, to little boutiques and street vendors.
Some of my favorite things to do when visiting a foreign country are: use the public transportation, visit a local grocery store, visit a local market or fair, and take a train ride out of the city. I find it really gives you a view into the local way of life and tells you a lot about how the people live. We stayed in an AirBnb in a residential neighborhood not far from downtown. We visited a small grocery store nearby and found that it was fairly small because most people bought food from the markets. The shopping carts were available for rent for a quarter, just like at the German grocery store Aldi. We took a bus from the airport to our apartment and used the metro each day; the public transportation was all fairly clean and convenient, and was used by locals and tourists alike.
On Saturday afternoon we were surprised to run into a little street fair outside. A city block was closed off to vendors, ice cream carts, and merchants. A little jazz band had set up a stage and was playing music to the crowds with couples and little children dancing along in the street. It was such a lovely surprise to see the locals going about their Saturday afternoons.
We also made sure to hit up all the famous tourist attractions in Barcelona. The city is renowned for its Catalan modernist architecture, primarily designed by Antoni Gaudí. His magnum opus, the basilica La Sagrada Familia, is an magnificent church in the middle of downtown that takes up almost an entire city block. It is truly a sight to behold. Gaudí began designing it in 1882 and construction still continues today since he wasn’t able to finish before he died. People wonder today if the finished product will be able to live up to the great architect’s original plan.
Two other famous Gaudí buildings downtown are Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, private residence buildings. They both hold their own distinctive modernist architectural style. The buildings are unique because of their flowing stonework with virtually no straight lines. I particularly like Casa Batlló and it’s window balconies that remind me of masquerade ball masks.
Also located downtown near Gaudí’s buildings are Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter, and St. Joseph La Boqueria.
We took the metro into the Gothic Quarter, which is filled with historic squares, palm trees, gothic architecture, and alleyways to wander. The quarter leads into Las Ramblas, a long avenue in the middle of a busy road full of outdoor restaurants and vendors. I found that it was on the touristy side – a majority of the items sold at the vendors were just souvenirs, and most of the restaurants only sold overpriced tapas and abnormally large glasses of sangria. More appealing was the public market St. Joseph La Boqueria off Las Ramblas. The indoor market housed hundreds of vendors that sold fresh fruit, seafood, cheese, meats, spices, traditional sandwiches, and even restaurants to dine at. Amy and I had our first meal in Barcelona here and indulged on the fresh seafood at one of the restaurants. I’m not a huge seafood person, while Amy is. But I did really enjoy the bass we ordered.
A trip to Barcelona is of course not complete without trying tapas, small plates of appetizers or snacks meant to be shared with groups of people. Amy and I found a lovely little bar and restaurant outside the touristy buzz of downtown where we had the best sangria out of the whole trip: perfect combinations of red wine, vermouth, brandy, and tropical fruits. We paired it with delicious tapas platters of tomato bread (thick toasted bread with ripe tomatoes rubbed on top), cured meats, and battered calamari.
We also visited Park Güell, a park dedicated to the work of Gaudí, located on top of a hill overlooking the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Originally intended as a housing area for well-off families, the project fell through when there was a lack of buyer interest due to the location. The property was then turned into a public park. The park includes two houses (one of which Gaudí lived in, but did not build) along with hilly paths, trees and flowers, beautiful tile work, and more. The most beautiful part of the park is the high point, where you can see the park entrance down below, the famous tiled steeple of one of the buildings, and an entire panoramic view of Barcelona and the bay. Tile is a common theme in Gaudí’s work and it is found all over the park, from the buildings and sloping walls to the famous salamander statue in the front. I absolutely love Spanish tile so this was one of my favorite locations that we visited.
On our last day in Barcelona, our AirBnb host recommended we take a day trip to the town of Sitges. We took this opportunity to get out of the city and also experience taking the train in Spain. The train ride reminded me very much of taking trains in Taiwan and Japan. One quick metro ride to a central station and a ticket later, you can board a variety of trains that will take you in all directions to different cities. Traveling by train might be my favorite mode of transportation in a foreign country. There is no traffic involved, you get from point A to point B very quickly, and you can sit back and enjoy the passing scenery. The quick half hour ride to Sitges gave us a a view of the Spanish “suburbs” and countryside. The train ran along the coast giving us a view of the water on the left and mountains on the right.
The train dropped us off right in the middle of downtown. The tracks split the town in two, putting a great deal of touristy shops, boutiques, and hotels on the side with the water and beach, and more local venues on the other side. Sitges is very geared toward tourists, but we found that it was very quiet and peaceful there on that Monday morning. Perhaps it was because the summer months hadn’t hit yet. Nevertheless, Sitges doesn’t have nearly enough historical or monumental sites to allow tour groups to make a trip out here. The town is more ideal for individual travelers looking for a quick coastal getaway.
Sitges was absolutely charming. Everything was winding alleys and hilly streets, whitewashed buildings, tile street signs and house numbers, outdoor cafes, cycling residents, and window boxes full of flowers. The streets were filled with little boutique shops and restaurants, all the more fueling my love for shopping and eating. Sitges also housed a famous historic church right on a hill by the sea, the Church of Sant Bartomeu and Santa Tecla, which is another great spot to explore.
Seven days was a perfect amount of time to explore Barcelona at a leisurely pace. There was never a moment where I felt that my travels were being rushed. It was indeed a vacation as much as it was an exploration of a new country. Barcelona was such a wonderful start to my travels to Europe and I can’t wait to visit again.