The rolling hills of Napa Valley have become synonymous with images of culinary excellence and award-winning wine. Much to many Francophiles’ surprise, the area was put on the global wine map when two local vineyards won in a blind taste test at the “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.” Napa Valley is now best known for its dry red wines, the most popular of which is Cabernet Sauvignon but Merlot, Pinot Noir and even Chardonnay have received high praise. (If you are more interested in vineyards producing white wine, check out the neighboring laid back Sonoma Valley.) I consider the Napa Valley region as the apex of “rural chic” and the culture is still steeped in its agricultural history. Napa Valley is an hour drive north from San Francisco and it makes for a great weekend getaway.
Situated between the sloping hills of the Vaca and Mayacamas mountains, Napa Valley includes five cities: Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga, and lesser known American Canyon. The region stretches for over 30 miles from north to south, and be prepared to have up to a 40 minute drive between destinations. Napa Valley can get expensive. Tastings at inexpensive vineyards start at around $35, and seeing multiple vineyards in a day can add up. Please note: I enjoy wine, but I am not a sommelier, so my itinerary is focused on a positive experience rather than as a wine critique! Pace yourself both physically and financially and remember to hydrate, as the area is known for hot temperatures and drinking all day can cause dehydration.
I enjoy watching movies and reading books about a place before I visit. For Napa, I recommend watching movies such as Wine Country, Bottle Shock, or the oldie but goodie, The Parent Trap. A few of Dean Koontz’s novels are set in Napa, but I would recommend The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Silor.
When to go: I would recommend going in the spring-time, after the rainy season, when the landscape is lush, green and abundant. Autumn and winter are also often good times. I would be wary of going in the summer, as Napa gets very hot and temperatures can go above 100 degrees.
Where to stay: I love staying in downtown Yountville, as it has a quaint downtown and walking around the center is always fun. I have previously stayed at Maison Fleurie, A Four Sisters Inn, and really enjoyed the ambiance.
Friday: Dinner in Napa
Get a reservation for dinner at Allegria (1026 1st St, Napa, CA), an upscale italian restaurant in a historic bank landmark, built in 1916. Take a stroll through Napa’s downtown after dinner. Please be aware that much of the town shuts down earlier in the evening, since most tourists spend the day sampling wine.
Saturday: Wine tasting
Start your morning with a pastry and coffee from Bouchon Bakery (6528 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599), in the middle of the quaint downtown section of Yountville.
Drive up to Calistoga, and start your day at Sterling Vineyards (1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515). This has the only aerial tram in Napa Valley and offers cascading views of the area. By the late afternoon, the tram can get hot and crowded, so I recommend starting here.
Next stop is Chateau Montelena Winery (1429 Tubbs Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515) this beautiful 19th century chateau and vineyard was put on the world vintner map when the Chardonnay won the “Judgement of Paris” wine competition in 1976. The movie, Bottle Shock, is a fictionalized depiction of this new world victory!
After visiting two vineyards get a late picnic lunch at V. Sattui (1111 White Ln, St Helena, CA 94574). You can pick up some food from the store and sit outside at many of the park benches. After lunch, you could continue on with winery tours, but I would recommend regrouping at your hotel and window-shopping the quaint shops in downtown Yountville.
For dinner consider the French restaurant, Bouchon Bistro (6534 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599). For those who are looking to burn through some serious cash, French Laundry (6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599) is a delicious 9 course prefix experience ($310/per person). Located in an unassuming stone farmhouse, this restaurant is repeatedly listed among the top restaurants in the world and received 3 stars in the Michelin guide.
For those who still have the energy, consider an after dinner drink at Restoration Hardware (6725 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599) which is open until 10:00PM.
Sunday: Hot Air Balloon ride and Oxbow Public Market
For those who are not afraid of heights, start your morning very early with a memorable sunrise hot air balloon ride provided by Napa Valley Balloon, Inc (4086 Byway East, Napa, CA 94558). This could be missed for those who want to sleep in and save some money. Prices run roughly in the low $200’s per guest.
Try a grab and go brunch at Oxbow Public Market (610 1st St, Napa, CA 94559) before heading home for a weekend well spent (in more than one way) in Napa Valley!
This quaint New England seaside city has converted numerous pre-war maritime warehouses to art galleries, restaurants and bars. This among many other New England state capitals brings a thriving restaurant scene to walkable historic cities that are easily manageable on a weekend. This is a great long weekend from Boston, MA, and is only a two hour drive.
For those interested in literature I would recommend reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, or Maine by Courtney Sullivan, all of which are set in Maine.
Arrive and get settled in your hotel. I stayed at Courtyard Portland Downtown/Waterfront (321 Commercial St, Portland, ME 04101) which was an easy location to walk to everything downtown.
Get some grub at Fore Street (288 Fore St, Portland, ME 04101) then enjoy a rooftop drink at Top of the East (157 High St, Portland, ME 04101) on the top of the Westin Hotel to get oriented on with the city and if possible watch the sunset.
Start your morning off with breakfast at LB Kitchen (249 Congress St), you order at the counter and get the food served to your table.
Portland is great for a seaside bike ride. We rented bikes from Portland Encyclopedia ( 6 Commercial St). On your ride don’t miss both Bug Light and Portland Head Lighthouse (12 Captain Sprout Cir, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107) Take a break and grab a lobster roll from the Bite of Maine food truck, right outside the Portland Head Lighthouse. They will NOT disappoint!
After biking, relaxing over an IPA from Shipyard brewing company. We spent some time at the brewery. After getting your hops on, window shop down the Old Port section of the city. This is quintessentially New England with the cobblestone street and colonial brick buildings. I did not miss out on tasting Portland’s favorite donut shop, Holy Donut (7 Exchange St), which is a great afternoon snack.
Get dinner at Eventide Oyster Company (86 Middle St, Portland, ME 04101). This sleek and busy restaurant is great for any seafood lover. We ordered some oysters for the table and then continued to sample most of the menu!
Get breakfast at Tandem Coffee and bakery or the standard baking company before heading for a last walk downtown and head home.
5 Seaside Getaways to take this summer from Boston, while safely Social Distancing:
Cape Cod, MA
No matter where you are coming from, Bostonians always call it “the Cape.” Cape Cod is known for beautiful beaches along its 400 miles of shoreline. My favorite beaches are the ones along the Cape Cod National Seashore, especially Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet on the Lower Cape. While the surf is rough, there are lifeguards on duty, a parking lot, and The Beachcomber, one of the best beach bars/restaurants in America. For family fun, you may want to try one of the more tranquil beaches on the bay side of The Cape. I have always enjoyed the Cape’s great bike trails, such as the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which runs from Yarmouth to Wellfleet or Shining Sea Bike Trail in Falmouth. For a scenic ride, take route 6A or “Old Kings Highway” (just to remind you are in New England) from Bourne to Provincetown, a distance of about 65 miles.
One of the many charming New England seaside cities, I love biking from historic and vibrant Portsmouth, NH along scenic Route 1A, also known as Ocean Boulevard, to the honky tonk locale of Hampton Beach and back. The whole New Hampshire shoreline is less than 20 miles long, and is worth a drive. Portsmouth has a few well-preserved museums dating back to the early colonial days of the 17th century. Portsmouth is surprisingly lively considering it’s in low-key New Hampshire. The downtown has many restaurants, bars, galleries and street performers.
This quaint New England seaside city has converted numerous pre-war maritime warehouses to art galleries, restaurants and bars. This among other coastal state capitals is a walkable historic city that now has many breweries and is flush with colonial history. I love shopping in the quaint city center, biking down to the lighthouse and grabbing a lobster roll from the food truck.
The North Shore city of Gloucester is known as a fishing port and it’s the setting for the book and subsequent movie The Perfect Storm. In fact, The Crow’s Nest dive bar is still located in downtown Gloucester. I enjoy a beach day at Good Harbor Beach. For cyclists, the Essex Scenic Route is a beautiful bike route through seaside Essex, Gloucester, and Rockport.
This charming small city is also located on the North Shore. The stately brick Federal-style houses and the brightly- colored wooden houses come right out to the edge of the sidewalk, attesting to the early history of Newburyport, before cars were prevalent. The Essex County Superior Courthouse, designed by Charles Bulfinch and built in 1805, is a beautiful brick Federal-style building overlooking a pond. In the downtown waterfront area are many interesting shops and restaurants.
San Luis Obispo (or SLO for short), is a small city in California’s Central Coast. SLO’s location makes it a popular and manageable weekend getaway for Los Angelenos and San Franciscans alike, as it’s 3 hours from LA and 3.5 hours from San Francisco. SLO was originally developed around the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a 300 year old Spanish mission with a museum. It is known for its rich history and as the location of Cal Poly SLO, but is a Central Coast gem that can be enjoyed at any age!
Accomodations: Definitely the most iconic stay would be in the eccentric pink Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Rd), it seems like a hotel that you would find in Las Vegas 30 years ago… You can also find accommodations on airbnb or booking.com.
If you are able to arrive a little early, Wolff Vineyards stays open for sunset views. Otherwise arrive and check into your accommodations and get settled.
Hike the Bishop’s Peak, which takes about two hours.
Enjoy a well-deserved brunch at Mint + Craft (848 Monterey St); they have small outdoor seating in a pedestrian alley.
After brunch relax at Avila Beach. Avila Beach paddleboard and other sports offers first come first serve kayaks and paddleboards. If you remain for sunset, Pierfront (480 Front St, Avila Beach, CA 93424) Mr. Rick’s (404 Front St, Avila Beach, CA 93424) and Ocean Grill (268 Front St, Avila Beach, CA 93424) offer great sunset views. For those who are not beach goers, the Paso Robles region offers an abundance of wineries that you can check out.
Get dinner at Novo (726 Higuera St), the restaurant is walking distance to all the bars downtown. They have a beautiful tiered outdoor seating, which overlooks the San Luis Obispo Creek. You can hear the faint sound of the stream and birds while dining. It’s dining in a real life upscale rainforest cafe! Try to get a reservation for outdoor seating in advance.
Start your meandering day off with brunch at Luna Red (1023 Chorro St), they have a peaceful outdoor patio seating. The restaurant is located next to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso, which is worth an hour to check out. Spend the rest of your time window shopping the quaint downtown, don’t forget to walk down the infamous bubblegum alley.
Head back home after a relaxing weekend getaway in SLO!
The Santa Cruz Mountains are dappled with houses among wooded forest. This is what I picture Marin County, thirty years ago before it was turned over by tech yuppies looking for a rustic home. The “Mountain Folk” as my friend who lives there adoringly calls herself and her neighbors, are friendly and remind you of a bygone era of early California settlers. The Santa Cruz Mountains are great to slow down and enjoy the serene nature that California has to offer. One hour and a half south of San Francisco, this is a great day trip retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Getting there: Continue on 17 from Los Gatos, CA then continue onto Summit Road and a right onto Soquel San Jose Rd.
Start your morning by getting a coffee and a homemade treat from the female owned Casalegno’s Country Store (3 Laurel Glen Rd, Soquel, CA 95073). It has been around since 1929 and is a great stop for a coffee on your drive through the redwoods of Soquel en route to…
Spend a few hours hiking the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park (Aptos Creek Rd, Aptos, CA 95003) which offers over 40 miles of hiking trails through 10,223 acres of wildlife. There are so many variations and amount of time you could spend here, you can check out more information here. With so much land, expect to not see many crowds.
After hiking, drive down to Capitola Village and get a well deserved brunch from Zelda’s (203 Esplanade, Capitola, CA) which overlooks the brightly colored guest suites of the Capitola Venetian and Soquel Canal. Spend an hour looking around the small downtown area. There is a beautiful and brief (10 minute) pedestrian walk along the Soquel Creek.
For those who prefer a leisurely day you could end here, but for those who would like a little more adventure, you can check out some the Wine Trail. MJA Winery Tasting Room, Wargin Winery (5015 Soquel Dr, Soquel, CA 95073), and Alfaro Vineyard Winery (420 Hames Rd, Watsonville, CA 95076) will not disappoint.
Cap your wine off with some BBQ from the family-owned and delicious Aptos St BBQ (8059 Aptos St, Aptos, CA 95003), they often have live Blues Music playing. Try the tri-tip and my personal favorite, pulled pork sandwich! Those who want brisket, beware that it sells out quickly. Cheers to a relaxing day in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
A huge thank you to Lolo and Ivan for showing me around their beautiful town!
The rolling green hills are decorated with honey-colored limestone houses with stone shingled roofs. Each village seems quintessentially British with a local pub and tea shops downtown.
With the industrial revolution and the development of cotton this region saw a major economic decline and many people left the countryside for the city. Now it’s a favorite seasonal get-away for Londoners and tourists in the mood for manor house nostalgia.
Getting in: We rented a car from Robinson Gross (Tredington Park, Tredington, Shipston-on-Stour CV36 4RN, United Kingdom) just outside of Moreton-on-Marsh. If you plan ahead and give them ample notice, they offer reasonably priced-rides to the train station. We took the train from Gatwick Airport (directly to the right when you exit arrivals) to Reading and transferred to a second train heading to Moreton-on Marsh. You can also take the train to Oxford and transfer from there.
Accommodations: We wanted to stay in a charming older inn, and we had a car and could stay in a town that wasn’t a transportation hub. We chose The Lion Inn, (37 North Street, Winchcombe, Cheltenham) which proved to be a good home base after a day of trekking and exploring nearby villages.
Day 1: Enjoy a meal at your Inn or local gastropub. After a few hours of navigating the train system or driving in from London, get settled into your lodging. We stayed at the Lions Inn in Winchcombe and enjoyed our first meal at their delightful gastropub. We enjoyed a nightcap in front of their roaring fire. To celebrate your arrival and initiate your adventure, I recommend getting dinner at your local Inn, or a local village favorite that is within walking distance. This way you can still get up early the next morning and start exploring.
Day 2: Hike, Explore Broadway Hike, Explore Hailes Abbey, Broadway and Chipping Campden:
I like to get some exercise in before each adventure. Start your morning off by hiking either Cleeve Hill or Broadway Tower. If you choose Broadway Tower don’t bother paying the 5 pounds to go the three flights up, you have an equally beautiful cascading view from the hilltop. After getting your hike in, feel free to go about your day in your hiking clothing, the area is very sporty. Check out Hailes Abbey, Chipping Campden and Broadway. Hailes Abbey (Hailes, Cheltenham GL54 5PB, United Kingdom) embodies the reminiscent ruins of a 13th century abbey. The heritage site includes a free audio guide and an intact church showcasing medieval paintings. It also offers a great place to picnic or take a leisurely stroll. Next up on the itinerary is Broadway. I loved Broadway, with its expansive center and many shops and tea parlours.
We had high tea and snacks at Tisanes Tea Room (Cotswold House, 21 The Green, Broadway WR12 7AA, United Kingdom), which was affordable and low key. Two of the grand hotels: The Lygon Arms and The Horse and the Hound, offer great options for a more upscale high tea experience. Spend an hour or so strolling through the town’s various shops. Don’t forget to snap a photo in front of the iconic red telephone booth. Next stop on the village itinerary is Chipping Campden, which is a fifteen minute car ride. For those on foot, it is a five mile walk.
You can also saunter down to Broad Campden and back up, which provides a quaint respite. The walk is decorated with some iconic thatched roof houses. Once back in Chipping Campden, I recommend getting dinner at The Huxley (High St., Chipping Campden, United Kingdom) in the middle of the village center. Check out if they have a live music event, and in good weather,eat outdoors and get a feel for the village and its people. If you are in the mood for a nightcap at the end of your day, I recommend a visit to Hollow Bottom Beer Garden (Guiting Power, Cheltenham GL54 5UX) for a refreshing local brew from among the many beers on tap.
Day 3: Sudeley Castle, Lower Slaughter, Borton-on-the-water, and Stow-on-the-Wold:
Start your morning by exploring Sudeley Castle (Website,10:00AM-4:00PM, ~17pounds). Get your fill of centuries worth of English history! Next head over to Lower Slaughter. En route to Lower Slaughter, drive through small and underwhelming Upper Slaughter, which is not worth the stop. Once parked in Lower Slaughter, walk around the town and enjoy the beautiful running mill and attached cafe. We had the luxury of arriving just as they were putting some scones into the oven! After walking around Lower Slaughter, follow the 1.5 miles path to the left of the river to walk to the neighboring town of Bourton-on-the-water.
Bourton-on-the-water is absolutely beautiful, but does cater more to tourism. The village is known as “the Venice of the Cotswolds”. Enjoy a leisurely lunch and window shopping in Bourton-on-the-water, like the name entails a river runs through it. I loved just walking over the various bridges downtown. Take the leisurely walk back to your car and end your day in Stow-on-Wold.
In Stow on the Wold, walk around the center of town, which is more “bustling” than the others. The multipurpose St Edward’s Hall is a library, tourist office and museum. If it peaks your interest, check out the English Civil War artwork on the second floor. The building was built in 1878 from unclaimed funds at the local bank. Don’t miss the medieval St. Edward’s Church.
End your day with dinner at Porch House (1 Digbeth St, Stow-on-the-Wold, Cheltenham GL54 1BN, United Kingdom), publicizing itself as the oldest Inn in England. On their hearth, they have witches’ blessings engraved in the 1700s fireplace. Most of the area has fresh local produce and a seasonal menu. When I was there they had butternut squash risotto, it was amazing!
Day 4: Daylesford, Woodstock and Blenheim Palace, and local favorite Falkland Arms:
Start your morning off with brunch at Daylesford Organic Farm (Daylesford, Kingham, Moreton-in-Marsh GL56 0YG, United Kingdom) in Gloucestershire. In the United States we have John Deere farm equipment, in England they have JCB, started by Joseph Cyril Bamford in 1945. Anthony Bamford, succeeding his father as the current owner of JCB, was appointed a Lord in 2013. He is also a collector of antique Ferraris and other luxury cars. The Daylesford Organic Farm was started by his wife, Carole. This upscale farmstand is a must see, as it represents a positive outcome of a recent tourism movement in the Cotswolds: sleek, clean, and new. Focusing on organic farming and clothing, this farmstand is the definition of country chic. Spend some time walking around the farmhouse and shops. Those who prefer to be pampered can get a massage at the spa.
Spend the rest of the day at Blenheim Palace. It has a quirky place in history in that on November 30, 1874, Jennie Churchill was attending a party here when she began to go into labor and gave birth to Winston (what a surprise to the guests and the Churchills alike).
Blenheim Palace is the only English palace that is not in royal rule at this time; those “nonroyals” include Winston Churchill, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Princess Diana before she married Prince Charles.
I highly recommend the audio guide to enhance your Blenheim Palace visit. Grab a snack and a coffee from the cafe to sustain you through this expansive tour.
After spending the day at the luxurious Blenheim Palace and garden, enjoy a meal in the Village of Woodstock. I recommend the Black Prince (2 Manor Rd, Woodstock OX20 1XJ, United Kingdom), which has elevated pub food and a beautiful riverside dining area.
St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States, was founded by the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. It was originally called La Florida (“Land of Flowers”) by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who claimed the land in the name of Spain on March 27, 1513. The Land of Flowers still seems to fit this beautiful old area of Florida.
Growing up in America’s northeastern seaboard, I recall someone jokingly referring to Florida as “a sunny place for shady people”and I avoided the state for other southern destinations such as New Orleans, Savannah or Charleston, with rich culture and history and comparably warm climates. Yet, St. Augustine, Florida has been on my American bucket list for a number of years and now I finally got to see it. It was worth the wait as I found the city to be charming, historic, full of good restaurants and genuinely friendly, welcoming people. Here is a brief weekend itinerary for anyone interested in visiting.
When to go:
Living in New York City, I would highly recommend going during our cold months (January, February, or March) when you want to get out. The summers in Florida are too hot and humid for me. So anytime from December-March is ideal. I had the luck of visiting during a festival called “Lincolnville Porchfest” which is a grassroots neighborhood festival featuring local artists at different porches in the Lincolnville section of St. Augustine over President’s Day weekend.
Get settled into your accommodations and go out for dinner either at one of the many seafood places along Avenida Menendez with views of the Matanzas River, or go over the Bridge of Lions and try one of the popular restaurants on A1A Beach Boulevard. Having just arrived in St. Augustine, I chose Sunset Grille, arriving at the peak of Friday Night Happy Hour. I admit that I chose the Sunset Grille based solely on the name and the proximity to St. Augustine Beach, which is across the street. Unfortunately, there are no ocean views due to tall buildings and a berm being in the way. While the Sunset Grille had no romantic sunset views, it had a really lively Happy Hour attended by friendly, ebullient locals who were celebrating the end of the work week and the beginning of the weekend. In sum, while the food was okay, and there are no sunset views, the Sunset Grille is a fun place to kick off the weekend.
Drive over to the St. Augustine’s Amphitheater Farmer’s Market (1340C A1A S). Open Saturday 8:30-12:30pm.
Late morning: Window shopping Aviles St and St Georges St (both of which cater to tourism), check out the Cathedral, the main square, and the gardens at the LIghtner Museum.
Try to get a table outdoors and enjoy a healthy brunch at the Floridian Restaurant.
Afternoon: take a tour of Flagler College (74 King St, historical tours are offered at 10:00AM and 2:00PM and last about an hour). This elegant college campus was formerly the Ponce De Leon Hotel, built in the late 1800s as a winter resort by Henry Morrison Flagler with the interior designed by Louis C. Tiffany. Flagler was an industrialist, railroad pioneer and oil magnate. The school store doubles as the ticket office and the college students who run the store also serve as the tour guides, so the school store/ticket office is closed from 10-11 AM and 2-3 PM while the tours are going on. Try to get tickets ahead of time because in high season they sell out. The engaging tour guides are very knowledgeable and humorous.
We stayed at an airbnb in the historic Lincolnville neighborhood near downtown St. Augustine during porchfest, so we walked around Lincolnville and enjoyed the music and banter with the neighbors. Lincolnville is an historic black neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke and stayed over during the Civil Rights Movement.
Get a happy hour drink at San Sebastian Winery (157 King St, Monday-Saturday, 10 AM – 6PM and Sunday, 11 AM – 6PM). San Sebastian Winery is in Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway Building. They have complimentary tours and wine-tasting starting every 20 to 25 minutes. The highlight was making it to the rooftop bar that offers live music most nights.
The charming restaurant called Preserved (102 Bridge St) is housed in a renovated Victorian house. If possible try to get seating outside on the patio. They serve locally sourced ingredients at this southern restaurant.
Brunch at Maple Street Biscuit Company or Blue Hen Cafe.
Spend an hour checking out the beautiful Mission of Nombre de Dios (Saturday 9:00AM- 5:00PM, Sunday 12-4:00PM) and the great cross. The beautiful mission and its grounds present a nice place to enjoy a morning stroll.
Get a coffee fix from Crucial Coffee Cafe before heading to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (9:00 AM – 5:00 PM) They do cannon reenactments on the top level. Try to sit close to where the cannon, so you can hear the history lesson, but you may want to block your ears for a moment as the cannon is fired.
For Sunday night dinner, I highly recommend that you try the large Columbia Restaurant. Call ahead for reservations. This old-time restaurant has been in the same family for over 100 years. The wait-staff, ambiance and food are phenomenal. I recommend the sangria, paella and the salad. In my group, we ordered varied entrees, did some sharing and found the food to be consistently excellent.
Barcelona, this vibrant coastal city buzzing with life, has long been one of my favorite cities in the world. The Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí, modernized the city with colorful and eccentric buildings such as Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, and the Sagrada Familia church that add to the enjoyment of Barcelona make it more memorable. This unique city offers much on the arts, food, beach, and nightlife scene. It has something to satisfy every type of traveller.
Barcelona, the Catalan capital was originally founded by the Romans as a walled colony named “Barcino”, and some of the ancient walls are still visible in the city center. The narrow medieval maze of the Gothic Quarter (Catalan: Barri Gòtic – Spanish: Barrio Gótico) bears witness to the economic boom of the Middle Ages, when Barcelona was the political and economic center of the Western Mediterranean. The Gothic Quarter makes way to the bohemian El Born neighborhood which was created as an expansion of the walled city in the 1500’s. These historic sites are meant to be explored on foot.
Barcelona was in the forefront of the artistic movement of the 20th century, following an economic and cultural expansion during the textile industry in the 1800’s. Notably, in 1862, Hans Christian Andersen remarked that Barcelona was the “Paris of Spain”. It is no wonder that many members of the nomadic “Lost Generation” were frequent visitors to Barcelona for literary inspiration as well as binge drinking. The Barcelona waterfront area bubbles with life offering a spot for sunbathers, a strip of nightclubs for night owls, and a beautiful stroll to be explored on foot or bicycle. Enjoy a café con leche or signature churros con chocolate in one of the numerous cafes. Many of the cafes are called “granjas” and one can image Picasso, Dali and Hemingway creating the artistic vitality that Barcelona is still known for today. The passionate Spanish are stereotypically known for their love of the 5 F’s: food, family, fútbol and fiesta, and I can jump on board with that.
I would recommend reading In the Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is set in Barcelona around the end of the Spanish Civil War. I would also recommend watching Vicki, Christina, Barcelona starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz, which also has its setting in Barcelona.
Accomodation and transportation: I have generally been able to find flights from NYC for $400 round trip. I would opt to stay in El Born, the Gothic Quarter, or stay in larger Eixample neighborhoods. Much of Barcelona’s city center is meant to be walked and staying in one of these neighborhoods will ensure that you are able to walk down the winding alleyways, or saunter through some of the numerous palm-tree-lined squares. The subway system is extensive and easy to use, and you can get multi-trip passes (I would recommend the T10 for ten trips).
Timing: The weather is best from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning September/October or May/June, to avoid the crowds. I would also recommend going to the festival of La Mercè, which is held at the end of September. Check out World on the Whim’s blog post about La Mercè. Another fun festival is the Festas de Gràcia, which is held in August, where each street of this lively neighbourhood is completely transformed based on a different theme.
Bruin on a Budget: Bring a student or teacher ID and see if it works for discounted prices. At some locations you must be from the EU, but others accept any form of ID.
Warning: When walking on Las Ramblas, be on alert for pickpocketing. For men, I would recommend putting your wallet in your front pocket, and for women I suggest carrying a purse zipped and in front of you.
Without further adieu here is my 3 day itinerary for Barcelona:
Start at Plaça Catalunya. Walk south down the pedestrian boulevard, Las Ramblas, which runs from the city center to the port, and is bustling with life. It is lined with street performers, flower stalls, and pushcart vendors offering various trinkettes. Along the walk you will see the Font de Canaletes, a famous wrought-iron fountain, which, legend says, if you drink from it you are destined to return to the city. This is the fountain Barça supporters go to for celebrating championship titles. Continue on Las Ramblas to breakfast at Pinotxo Bar in La Boqueria (full name is “El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria”) an open-air market. I like to stock up on fruit from the market for later consumption.
Spend a leisurely morning strolling down Las Ramblas and into the Gothic Quarter. Take time to visit the Cathedral, Plaza Real, and the Palace of Music. The Gothic Quarter has storefronts with wares that overflow into the street. The same neighborhood can seem dark and moody, but still safe, in the evening, reminding a tourist of its Medieval history.
Take a break at Caelum (Carrer de la Palla, 8), a former women’s bathhouse now converted to a tea parlor. If you want something sweeter, you will have to try churros con chocolate, a Spanish donut served with dipping chocolate, and a Barcelona favorite! I love Granja M Viader, a cafe located off Las Ramblas in the Raval neighborhood. This stately restaurant, which has been running since 1870 and has been passed down for five generations, serves breakfast, lunch and dessert. You may also want to take a walk down Carrer de Petritxol, a quaint street in the Gothic Quarter, which has many pastry shops to choose from, and La Pallaresa is another favorite bakery for churros y chocolate.
In the afternoon take a trip to the Picasso Museum (if you are a fan). It is located in the Born neighborhood. I would recommend making reservations online to avoid a long wait. Additionally, you may want to pack some snacks and visit the Parc de la Ciutadella (Citadel Park.) Park Ciutadella, a magnificent park for picnicking. After, you can walk up to the Arco de Triunfo (Arc de Triomf).
After all this you may want to plan for a well-deserved siesta.
For Saturday evening, head out for a sunset drink on the Catalan Art Museum’s terrace. The museum is free on Saturdays after 3:00 PM, and entrance to the terrace is 2 euros. Don’t miss the “Magic Fountain,” a light show beginning every half hour starting at 9:30 PM, on Thursday through Sunday, from May to October. The Spanish do not eat dinner until 9:00 PM so head over to the Gothic Quarter, Born, or Gràcia neighborhoods for dinner.
If you are interested in the clubbing scene: Barcelona has numerous popular places and among the favorites are: Razzmatazz, Pacha, La Terrazza, ShÔko, and Opium. They name their nightclubs as randomly as celebrities name their children.
Day 2: The Modernist Day
Start your day off at Gaudí’s Parc Güell, with its much photographed and instagrammed mosaic benches and salamander stairway. The €7 entrance fee for the park also includes access to the museum. There is superb vantage point of the city (I believe it may actually be a cross).
From Parc Guell take a winding 1.6 mile walk (or taxi ride) through the Gràcia neighborhood to Casa Milà or La Padrera (“stone quarry”). En route, stop to view the exterior of Casa Vicens and Casa de les Punxes. When visiting the interior of Casa Milà, take note of the ornate roof. From there, it is a 5 minute walk to a block of Gaudí houses: Casa Batlló, Casa Morera, or Casa Amatller. From early June through mid-September you can listen to jazz on the rooftop of La Pedrera.Find the information here.
Stop for lunch in the Gràcia or Eixample neighborhoods. A personal favorite is Napa, a Catalan restaurant with great service and reasonable prices.
Take a taxi or metro to Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Church.
Evening: enjoy a leisurely paella meal or go tapas-tasting around a few different restaurants.
For fun and exercise other than walking, rent a bicycle for two hours. Rental bikes are available at Passeig de Joan de Borbó, down by the Barceloneta metro stop. (Directions: From the metro station, cross the busy street towards the water and continue for about 10 minutes down the street to the rental place. The location is well-situated for a beautiful bike ride along the water to see the port.
You may want to mix in with the locals at a hole in the wall called Can Paixano (Calle de la reina Cristina, 7). You can order a bottle to split between you and a friend and it comes with two tapas. Roset (or pink champagne) is my favorite, along with the croquetas, fried cheese or ham.
From Barceloneta you can take the scenic funicular to Monjuic and spend the day roaming around the Olympic stadium, museum, and castle.
If you want to get out of the city you can take a day trip to the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat or the coastal town of Sitges. Both are great half-day trips, if you have the time. Montserrat has a boys’ choir who perform everyday but Saturday, so try going on a Friday or Sunday to hear them. Montserrat is serene and peaceful and has a farmers market with fresh local produce. Hiking to Montserrat is a full day trip, you can walk from Monistrol de Montserrat (a town below the mountain) up to the monastery and then up to the top of the mountain, at about 1237m above sea level.
Basically every café can be fun and the people-watching can be interesting for visitors to Barcelona. You must at least try café con leche (even if you don’t like coffee) and hot cocoa and churros. You also need to try goffrees (fried waffle-type things with ice cream on top). Here are a couple of suggestions for cafes:
Café de l’Òpera: This cafe, known for its old world charm, is probably the most famous cafe in Barcelona. It is located on La Ramblas, on the left side of the street if you are walking from Plaça Catalunya towards the water. I highly recommend a visit.
Café Zurich: This cafe has a great location at the corner of Las Ramblas and Plaça Catalunya, with outdoor seating. A must-visit place during good weather, as it is perfect for people watching and for taking in the street scenes. Good for coffee and a snack, not the best place for connoisseurs of fine food.