Barcelona, Spain [Travel Guide]

Back in February, Michael and I spent a week in Barcelona. When I saw that Delta was having an awesome flight sale around Thanksgiving ($400 RT out of Richmond!), I texted my travel pal and told him, "SURPRISE! We're going to Spain in a few months. Buy your tickets immediately, plz & thx." I was in the middle of moving to a new apartment, and Michael had just started a new job, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Both of us had never been to Spain before, but we quickly fell in love with the delicious tapas, friendly locals, and charming culture. If you're planning your first trip to Barcelona, here are some things you should check out.

FOOD

El Museu De L'Embotit: This local tapas bar was right across the street from our AirBnB, so we ate there several times (and had one too many glasses of sangria...). The bartender was really friendly and ordered for us during our first visit, since we were overwhelmed by the giant selection of tapas. Most of our meals consisted of a queso platter, pan con tomato, ensalada de atún, and jamón y patatas. Can we just talk about how amazing tapas are? They're cheap, delicious, and allow you to try a little bit of everything, since the portions are small.

Tapa Tapa Xiringuito: We had a quick lunch at Tapa Tapa Xiringuito while biking around Barcelona's coastline. I ordered a Spanish omelette (made with egg and potato), and Michael indulged in seared tuna and jamón ibérico on toasted bread. We were advised to stay away from boardwalk restaurants during our trip, but this meal was fantastic. My only disappointment was not being able to order gazpacho because it wasn't in season.

Taperia Ordesa: Our dinner at Taperia Ordesa was INSANE. I wish I took more pictures! I ordered a savory plate of grilled veggies, topped with goat cheese and honey. Michael ordered chicken skewers and red wine sausage, and we split crispy, fried potatoes topped with an egg over-easy, jamón ibérico, and caramelized onions. The bottom of our sangria glass was filled with sugar, which was amazing. I'm still dreaming of this meal.

Restaurante Casa Casares: After spending a few hours in La Sagrada Familia, we picked a random restaurant for lunch. Restaurante Casa Casares turned out to be a wonderful choice. Michael and I split a dish of boiled cod with potatoes and onions in a garlic paprika sauce. It was a light, refreshing meal, and we had a lovely conversation with the restaurant owner.

Restaurant Cheriff: This was my first time eating paella, a Spanish dish of rice, saffron, and a variety of seafood served in a large, shallow pan. I don't think words can accurately describe how fantastic this meal was. The dish was rich and creamy, and the seafood tasted so fresh. After our meal, the waiter gave us two shots of vodka to "cleanse our palette".

CAFES

Nomad: This hip little cafe was a dream. Nestled in a secluded corridor in central Barcelona, Nomad serves artisanal, high quality coffee. This is where Michael and I got a much needed caffeine fix after our red eye flight.

Babelia: I loved the atmosphere of this cafe! It was packed when we stopped in for a cafe con leche to pair with our churros from Churreria San Roman, and the right wall was filled top to bottom and front to back with books, books, and more books. Books and coffee are two of my favorite things, so I was in heaven.

Jansana Gluten Free Bakery: I was thrilled to find a dedicated gluten-free bakery in Barcelona. We loaded up on croissants, donuts, cookies, and a bunch of other pastries during our first visit, and they lasted us the entire trip. Everything was so. freaking. good. 

PLACES TO SEE

The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic): The Gothic Quarter is one of the most famous neighborhoods in Barcelona, recognized by its narrow corridors and labyrinthine street pattern. Many of the buildings in this area date back to medieval times. Most of the quarter is open to taxis but closed to regular traffic. This is a really neat area to explore, but it's easy to get lost at night. (Yup, that happened to us.)

Las Ramblas: Las Ramblas is one of the most popular streets in Central Barcelona, both to tourists and locals. It's almost a mile long, and it connects Placa de Catalunya with the Christopher Columbus monument at Port Vell. Las Ramblas gets crowded during tourist season because of its many souvenir kiosks and gift shops, but it was pleasant to explore in February. 

Columbus Monument: At the lower end of Las Ramblas, you'll find the Christopher Columbus monument. It was constructed in 1888 in honor of Columbus's first voyage to North America. There are eight majestic bronze lions at the base of the monument, so naturally, I had to climb on top of one. (I did the same exact thing in London at Trafalgar Square, except I got yelled at by a policeman that time.)

Arc de Triomf: This is one of Barcelona's iconic landmarks. It was built in 1888 as the entrance to the Universal Exhibition Fair, which took place in Parc de la Ciutadella. The intricate detail of the Arc de Triomf is pretty astounding.

Barceloneta Beach: Located in the fishing district, Barceloneta beach is one of the oldest and most popular beaches in Barcelona. We visited several times before leaving Spain, both to leisurely explore the boardwalk and collect sea glass from the Mediterranean Sea. It was in the 50s and 60s during our trip, so we didn't catch many sunbathers, but the coast was still pretty crowded.

THINGS TO DO

Browse La Boqueria Market. This colorful market offers everything from seafood to fresh juices and vegetables to candied nuts and sweet pastries. There are also a few tapas bars inside, so you can satisfy your appetite before or after you shop for local goods.

Attend a futbol match at Camp Nou Stadium. This is, by far, one of the coolest things I've ever done. We were lucky enough to score tickets to a Barcelona vs. Atlético Madrid match on the first day of our trip, and it was an awesome experience. The stadium was HUGE, and the spirit of the game was infectious. 

Visit La Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia is a huge Roman Catholic church that was designed by Antoni Gaudi. It's one of the most popular tourist attractions in Barcelona, and it's quite a spectacle. The intricate exterior of the church is only rivaled by the gorgeous, colorful interior. You can see the basilica looming over the city from basically any rooftop in Barcelona. It's truly breathtaking.

Ride bikes around the city. We spontaneously decided to rent bicycles and explore Barcelona on two wheels, and it was such a great decision! We had a lot of fun biking around the city streets, and we had great weather to cruise up and down the boardwalk at Barceloneta Beach. 

Experience Barcelona's legendary nightlife. Our trip happened to fall during the week of Michael's 26th birthday, so what better excuse to party like a European? ;) After buying Michael a huge chocolate cake from Escribà (and playing him this ridiculous song....which still makes me laugh so hard) and taking a quick nap, we left our AirBnB around 12:30am and headed for Razzmatazz. The club was pretty empty when we first got there, but within an hour, it was packed. We danced until 4am, and it was so much fun. (Not pictured: The flaming shot Michael took at Chupito's Shot Bar. You MUST go there, and you MUST order the Monica Lewinsky. I apologize in advance.)

Lounge at Parc de Ciutadella. Parc de Ciutadella is a refreshing, green oasis in the middle of Barcelona. It's a great place to take a relaxing stroll, ride bikes, or even have a picnic after purchasing some goodies at La Boqueria. The Barcelona Zoo and Museu d'Art Modern border the park, so after lounging for awhile, you can easily check out these other popular attractions.

Watch the sunset at Placa de Carlos Ibanez. During the day, this is just your average park with a great view of Barcelona. But at sunset, the park transforms into a mesmerizing, golden landscape worthy of a postcard. We actually ended up here after taking a taxi to the funicular at Montjuic and realizing it had already closed for the evening, but we weren't disappointed.

Get your fill of Gaudi. Barcelona is filled with several unique buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, an architect that generated some of the most creative buildings in Cataluña. Even if art isn't your thing, you'll quickly be able to identify Gaudi's creations. La Sagrada Familia is arguably one of Gaudi's most famous works, but you can spot many of his other gems around the city. Parc Güell (pictured below), one of the largest architectural works in South Europe, was my favorite Gaudi masterpiece. You can also view his work at Torre Bellesguard, Casa Milá, Casa Batlló, Palau Güell, Colonia Güell, and the Cascada Fountain at Parc de Ciutadella.

Check out a jazz club. The city of Barcelona enthusiastically supports the evolution of jazz. There are several bars and concert halls around town that provide live music, but since we only had a week in Barcelona, we decided to check out Harlem Jazz Club. Located in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, Harlem Jazz Club is the oldest concert hall in Barcelona. You can find all genres of music, from reggae to latin to blues, any day of the week. The environment is intimate and friendly, and Michael and I really enjoyed grabbing a few drinks and grooving to the music.

There's so much to do in Barcelona, and I feel like we only scratched the surface of the city during our trip! Have you been to Barcelona? Do you have any additional recommendations?

Icelandic Hot Dogs

Before traveling to Reykjavik, my mom excitedly asked if I had ever heard of "the famous hot dog stand" in Iceland. I was a little confused at first. Where exactly was this place, how could hot dogs be that good, and how on earth did my mom know about it? "Your grandmother's sister-in-law lives in Reykjavik and said you have to eat a hot dog while you're there. Look it up online!" I asked for a specific name, but she didn't have a clue. She urged me to google it. With a very vague description and zero understanding of the (complex) Icelandic language, I began searching the web. Within seconds, my answer appeared.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a tiny hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavik near Old Harbour. It was featured on the first season of Anthony Bourdain's TV show No Reservations and has been visited by the likes of Bill Clinton and Madonna. Hungry locals and tourists can be seen gathering outside the stand at all hours of the day to order a hot dog (pylsur) with "the works". At only 350 krona (about $3 USD) in an incredibly expensive city, this quick little treat is the perfect lunch, dinner, or midday snack.

So what exactly makes Icelandic hot dogs a magnificent delicacy? For starters, they're not your regular Oscar Meyer wieners. In fact, they taste nothing like the standard American hot dog. Icelandic pylsurs are made predominately of quality lamb meat. The snap! of the sausage casing as you bite into the bun is an interesting surprise, and the flavor is utterly delicious. In fact, the sausages are rumored to be braised in beer, which may contribute to the rich flavor. Secondly, Icelandic hot dogs are garnished with a colorful array of condiments. Toppings include honey mustard, ketchup, and remolaude (a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish). In addition, both fried and raw onions coat the inside of the bun.

Michael and I waited in line for about five minutes before ordering a hot dog "eina með öllu" ("one with everything"). The small parking lot's single picnic table was occupied, so we stood beside the stand while devouring our first Icelandic pylsur in the freezing cold. It completely exceeded my expectations. The exquisite combination of ingredients was unexpected; the hot dog appeared deceivingly simple but was packed with flavor. Sweet mustard, crunchy onions, savory sausage and a fluffy bun coated my tastebuds in pure ecstasy. 

Commonly referred to as "the Icelandic national food", pylsurs are a staple of the country's diet. Visiting Reykjavik without eating a coveted hot dog is like visiting Italy without eating a bowl of pasta. You have to do it - and you'll want to do it, trust me! Bæjarins Beztu is the most popular hotdog stand in the country (perhaps even in Europe), but pylsurs are served at gas stations and convenience stores all over Iceland. We ate a handful of lamb dogs at various gas stations while driving around the Southern Coast in our rental car, and each one was just as satisfying as the last.

If you're visiting Iceland anytime soon, have a delicious lamb pylsur for me (or two, or three, or four!). I'll be dreaming about Bæjarins Beztu until the next time I visit Iceland. Until then, I'll be drooling over the photos I took on our trip.