Barcelona, Spain

I loved Barcelona. It was so fun to explore because it's so vibrant and beautiful with so many things to discover down every twisty street. Wandering around in El Born or the Gothic Quarter felt like being inside a novel or a movie. And then, of course, there are all the buildings (and benches and lampposts and statues) designed by Antoni Gaudi that make the city feel like a bright, colourful fairy tale.

I loved that in Barcelona you could just wander around all day and stumble across a half dozen things that were interesting or important or cool: that's how I found the cathedral, and a few of the beautiful old churches, and the gardens of one church that had fountains and palm trees and a group of swans just hanging out. But I also loved that there were things off the beaten path as well, and I was lucky enough to have some not-so-touristy experiences while I was there. A friend of mine from Montreal invited me out a few nights, once to a great bar that is always packed full that only serves cheap (mainly pink) champagne and good, greasy sandwiches. Another night, a girl I met in the hostel invited me out to this birthday party for a guy she'd met while salsa dancing: it turned out to be at a tiny little open-air beach bar and I watched people dancing barefoot and then running off down to the water, and then tried it a little myself. My last night, we went to the festival of Gracia, a huge neighbourhood street festival, complete with insane decorations on each of the streets, live music, a ton of sparklers and a parade with huge groups of drummers. It was so much fun.

Every morning it was open, I'd go to the Marche de la Boqueria and try a different juice. There are about twenty different stands of just fresh juices and fresh cut fruit, in amongst the stands for meat, fish, candy, wine, tapas, anything you can imagine really. The juices were so tropical, everything from mango coconut to lime melon to passion fruit pineapple (so good) and everything in between. I can't even remember all the flavours I tried, but it was always cheap, delicious and refreshing (and happily, on my way home every day!).

I also absolutely loved going to the Magic Fountain show at night. I only got to go once, but if I had stayed longer, I'd have gone every night. On the weekends during the summer, there is a huge fountain show complete with lights changing colour in time with music (half the time classical music, the other half top 40s type stuff). You can watch it overlooking beautiful views of Barcelona, and its such a fun atmosphere because everyone comes out to see it: tourists, families, backpackers. I loved it.

And then the Gaudi stuff! I found the Sagrada Familia to live up 100% to its hype, it was stunning inside and out, just such an impressive feat of architecture. I was so impressed, stunned really. It's gorgeous. The Casa Batlo was another construction of his, and while less immense then the Sagrada Familia, was still fantastical and wonderful. And of course, I loved his famous Parc Guell with amazing views of Barcelona and its fascinating aqueducts and beautiful mosaics.

I had such a wonderful time in Barcelona. I was lucky enough to meet up with old friends and make lots of new ones, and I really enjoyed myself. It's a beautiful city.


  • Maoz: this little vegetarian falafel place is right next to the Plaza Real, just off the Ramblas. It has an amazing all you can eat salad and sauce bar, so you can just keep stuffing your pita full of veggies and it is so, so delicious. And cheap too!
  • Hostel One Paralelo: this hostel was perfect for meeting people. It was a little walk from the touristy areas, but in a really nice quiet area. Best staff, best common areas, and they have these free family dinners every night. The best hostel.


Madrid, Spain

I passed a lovely few days in Madrid. It's not necessarily the most exciting city, but it is kind of lovely: clean, well-run, very lush and green, beautiful architecture, good museums, and parks everywhere. I really enjoyed my time there. I did a huge amount of walking and exploring and getting a little lost in the winding streets.
My hostel was in a quiet neighbourhood that felt peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy downtown areas. The mornings were on the cool side, so I was able to explore the city a bit more by going for runs most of the mornings I was there.
Madrid is home to some awesome things. I particularly loved all their green spaces: the botanical gardens with its tropical greenhouse, the Parc de Retiro with its beautiful pond and “Crystal Palace” (which looks like a giant greenhouse minus the plants), and the main train station which literally is an enormous greenhouse full of tropical plants and home to a bunch of turtles! The city is also awesome about making their museums accessible to everyone: they are usually free in the evenings for the last few opening hours. I was able to see major works of art at the Prado museum and the entire Salvador Dali exhibit at the Reine Sofia for free, which is wonderful.
I had some cool food experiences in Madrid as well. It was my first time trying chocolate and churros, and we went to the most famous place in Madrid which happily is not even touristy. They are so generous with their servings – 6 huge churros and a big cup of dark, thick chocolate per order – and it's all so delicious, not too sweet, just perfect. I also tried paella for the first time and it won't be the last, I loved the texture. We also sought out a bar that is still serving tapas the old fashioned way: when you order a drink, you get a free (and generous I might add) plate of tapas, usually fries and little sandwiches with meat or cheese. For 5 euros, I got two delicious glasses of cider and enough to eat for dinner! Best deal going. On my last day in Madrid, I took a trip to Toledo, and we found a bar that did the same thing there as well. Score!
Toledo was very, very hot but a beautiful old town as well. We saw the huge, impressive cathedral, had a long lunch and wandered through the old streets. It was a good little day trip.
  • El Estragon Vegetariano: a sweet and delicious little vegetarian place in a quiet, pretty neighbourhood. I had the lunch menu which included a starter, main, dessert, bread and water for 12 euros and it felt almost wrong because the food was so incredible and so generous. I had a salad whose dressing I would do anything to acquire the recipe for, a delicious rice bowl with fried eggs, and poached pears in dark chocolate sauce. It was amazing, I had a long lunch, read my book, and was happy.
  • El Tigre: the tapas bar I was raving about that serves cheap drinks with free tapas. It's a bit of a madhouse inside, and there are no seats, but it's such a fun local atmosphere.


San Sebastián, Spain

Okay, I'm going to try not to get carried away here, but I absolutely adored San Sebastián. It's charming, friendly, clean, completely idyllic and gorgeous, and oh by the way, it's one of the premier destinations on earth for food. So yeah, basically it is perfect, at least for a foodie like me.

I wish I'd planned a couple more nights, because I so thoroughly enjoyed my time there and didn't want to leave. The guy working at the hostel said that happens all the time, that in fact most people plan to come as a stopover before heading to Madrid or Barcelona, but wind up staying weeks – or in his case, getting a job there and staying indefinitely! I had train tickets pre booked, otherwise I would have stayed who knows how long. I still had innumerable pintxos bars to try, for heavens sake!

There isn't a lot to do in San Sebastián in terms of cultural monuments or museums (although there are some!), so the major activities consist of going to the beach during the day to swim/surf/boogie board, and doing pintxos-bar-hopping at night. “Pintxo” is the Basque word for the Spanish word “tapas”, which is a little plate. In San Sebastián, pintxos bars are everywhere, the entire bar counter lined with platters of little snacks, mainly toasts with anything imaginable on top (omelet, fish, marinated veggies, etc). Every pintxos bar has its own specialty too, something made fresh to order. One bar was known for its “gambas”: shrimp on toast with garlicky salsa on top, another for its mushroom risotto. The fanciest pintxos bar in San Sebastián (where I'm told chefs come from all over the world to apprentice), the specialty was a smoked cod (I didn't try, just watched in utter amazement, photo above!) where they bring it to you steaming and bubbling, like some serious molecular gastronomy business!

One night I went to a boisterous fast-food style bar that only had bar counters, no stools, so everyone was standing and eating. The staff didn't speak much English, but they were friendly and chatted with me in between taking and yelling orders to the back. I got a huge glass of sangria, a patatas bravas (a local specialty involving potatoes, creamy sauce and spicy sauce: sounds weird but SO good), and a big portion of calamari: all completely delicious, all for about $10 Canadian. Plus afterward I got to emerge into the glowing sunset and watch the world from the beautiful pier.

I don't have very many stories from San Sebastián, only wonderful memories. We climbed to the top of one of the hills to see the Jesus statue up close. I renewed my tan after a few weeks without beaches. I swam in the utterly gorgeous water, both on the calm beach and on the surf beach where you can swim out past where the waves break and just float over them as they come in. I stayed in the most laid back, friendly hostel, literally a two minute walk to the beach, where the windows were always open and you could hear the bustle of the street, one of the cafes on which serves the most famous tortilla in San Sebastián (I tried it, and it was outstanding. Could eat that for breakfast every single day – keep in mind this is IN Spain, so the locals don't say “Spanish tortilla”, but that's what it is, an omelet with potatoes, like a frittata). I made friends from Germany, Australia, and believe it or not, Montreal! We went swimming off the docks and did some pier-jumping, which was really fun. I ate good food and drank my weight in sangria and felt so relaxed and calm and happy.


  • Olga's Place Hostel: so wonderful. Everyone I met there was friendly and open, and we had such a fun time together. It's a great hostel, ideal location.
  • Bar Zabaleto: where you can get the famous and amazing tortilla.
  • Parts Vieja: the old part of San Sebastián is where you'll find all the pintxos bars and beautiful old buildings. I don't have any specific recommendations because we just walked into any one that looked good without caring about the name. Borda Berri is a famous one that lives up to its reputation for sure. But honestly? There doesn't seem to be any bad food in this part of town.
  • Playa Zurriola and La Concha: I mean, these go without saying, everyone goes to these beaches. Zurriola has more waves and more surfers, and La Concha is just stunning, with calmer water. I hit both up as much as possible. :)