Celebrating my 40th birthday had to be done in style. In fact, I thought it should fulfill a Bucket List item. I mean, it’s a milestone after all! So, I gave myself a trip to Spain! I’ve wanted to visit that country since I started taking Spanish in high school, and fell in love with the culture. Most of my time was spent in Barcelona, and it did not disappoint!
This was also my first solo international trip. I bought the ticket as an error fare, meaning the airline made a mistake on the price, and I had to book it quickly before they realized the mistake. So, I ended up with a ticket from New York to Barcelona for $250! This meant I could see friends in NYC on my way out of the country, and use miles to get to NYC and home from Barcelona. Not too bad!
The downside of booking a ticket in 10 minutes is that I really didn’t have time to invite anyone else. And if you’ve traveled by yourself at all, you know that there are both pros and cons. The plus side is that I got to travel at my own pace (fast and furious) and do what I wanted. Unfortunately, there was no one to share the trip with, and it’s more expensive. In the end, though, I’m so glad I did it. Big check marks in the Bucket List and birthday categories!
Here’s a quick look at my trip, in case you’re interested, or plan to visit Barcelona one day. (I definitely recommend it!)
Friday, September 2nd:
- Arrived in New York! I was staying with some friends in Queens, and they have a beautiful new baby. So we just went to Astoria Park, and hung out on a beautiful afternoon. That evening, we went to one of their favorite neighborhoods by their house. A lovely, low-key day.
Saturday, September 3rd:
- We headed to Smorgasburg for lunch! This is almost like a food festival, but it happens on a weekly basis. There were food stalls from over 100 vendors, and had pretty much everything you could think of. We had a sensational dark chocolate, caramel donut concoction as an appetizer, split three ways, and then I settled on Shanghai street food for my meal. Both were fantastic!
- After this, we took the ferry to Long Island City, Queens, and walked along the water. They have built it up to be really beautiful, and of course, great views of Manhattan. Then we met up with some of their friends, and headed over to Long Island City Flea (LIC Flea), which some of you may have seen on the Flea Market Flip TV show. However, we got there mid-afternoon or so, and the crowd (and vendors) was pretty much gone. Still, a nice to place to sit and chat for a bit.
- Side note: This was my first trip to New York City, and I’ve been many times, without visiting Manhattan. Who knew there was so much to do otherwise! It was a different kind of trip, but a great stop. And so nice to spend time with friends I don’t see often. A great start to my birthday week.
- Then it was time for me to head to the airport for my overnight flight! One of the really interesting things about TAP Portugal airlines is that they allow you to bid on business class seats. So, I bid pretty low, and still ended up winning! This afforded me not only a business class seat on the plane (which was fantastic and had all the amenities), but it also came with lounge access. So, I waited for my plane in style. Probably the only time I’ll get to fly like that, but it was a fun way to begin my tip!
Sunday, September 4th:
- Arrived late afternoon in Barcelona. I was staying near a major train stations, Sants, and was exhausted from all the travel. So, I just grabbed dinner in one of the train station restaurants, walked around for a little bit, and went to bed early—after catching some home improvement show dubbed in Spanish.
Monday, September 5th:
- For my first full day in Barcelona, I did a half day guided panoramic bus and walking tour. We got a super quick overview of Barcelona and some of the major sites. Then we went on a cable car ride, which overlooked the city. After that, we stopped in the Spanish Village for about an hour to take in some of the history of Spain and see artisans in action. Finally, we took a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter, which was super old and interesting.
- That evening, I a tapas evening walking tour of Barcelona. This was one of my highlights! The guide, Paloma, was very fun, and it was just a cool experience. I wanted to do this at the beginning of my trip because they teach you about the food culture, how to order, popular items, what to look for, how to navigate the markets, etc. And, of course, you get to taste different foods along the way, as well as have two sit-down meals. This tour was awesome.
Tuesday, September 6th:
- Morning and afternoon were spent on a hop-on hop-off bus tour. I had debated doing this on the first day, but the timing with the tapas tour worked better this way. It almost pained me to do this in an old, elegant, European city like Barcelona, where I wouldn’t think twice about it in the U.S. But this was really the best way to get an overview of the city, as well as the lay of the land. I rode two of their three routes, so I went all over the city from top to bottom. And, of course, you have the headsets to get the history of the sites while you ride. This tour bus was also really nice because there was free wifi, and you also received a coupon book.
- My late afternoon and early evening were occupied with a free Gaudi architecture walking tour. Gaudi is a favored son of Barcelona, and there are numerous tours that include his work (as well as the Gothic Quarter). I was not familiar with him before leaving, but everyone said his buildings would be some of the highlights. They weren’t wrong! His style was/is radical in so many ways, and it is heavily inspired by nature. It’s all very fun and whimsical, and he incorporates such amazing techniques for structure and stability that I’m surprised are not copied more. His most famous work, La Sagrada Familia, is a basilica that he had only started before he died, and is still under construction. He left plans for completion, and there is still MUCH work to be done. They hope to finish by 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death, but no one thinks it’ll actually happen. This was another terrific tour.
Wednesday, September 7th:
- This day I’d set aside for a “three countries in one day” trip I found online. Only in Europe can you do something so wonderful! We took a small bus to a medieval town in Spain, called Baga, for breakfast. It was so charming! There we took a walk around, learned the history of the town, grabbed pastries and coffee, and took a million photos. From there we headed to France. We hit a bit of a snag with a breakdown that cost us about an hour. But the weather was amazing, and everyone was a good sport, so we just enjoyed getting to know each other. There were only about 20 of us on the day trip. Our guide, Carmello, was very stressed out, but we assured him it was fine. He was funny and helpful, and everyone just loved him. We finally made it to Ax-les-Thermes, France, which is known for their hot springs (note the name). Unfortunately, we only had about an hour here, so we barely had time for lunch and to see the hot springs before getting back on the road. Not the best lunch, even though I do love French food, but the company was good. Our final stop was the country of Andorra, and it’s capital city, Andorra la Vella. This was probably the biggest surprise. Evidently, Andorra is mostly a country of ski resorts and modern shopping, because that’s about all we saw. It was a bit of a let-down from that standpoint, since I was expecting more historic architecture, but the drive through the mountains was picturesque, and it was nice to see somewhere besides Barcelona on my trip. And hey, another stamp in my passport!
- I ended up eating dinner with two of the ladies from the trip, who were both from Australia, but didn’t know each other. I’d received restaurant recommendations from my tapas tour guide, so we checked out one of her suggestions, Casa Lolea. It was marvelous, and fun to hear about Australia, which I hope to see one day as well.
Thursday, September 8th: (My birthday!)
- This was my last full day, so I packed this one as much as I could. First, I went to La Sagrada Familia. I’d been past it twice now on different tours, but this was the first time I went inside. It was massive! And colorful! And just so darn interesting. I did the audio tour since I booked too late to get a guided tour. But this place is just jaw-dropping. It looks like a hot mess from the outside in photos because the sides all have different styles of architecture, and there is still so much construction. But it is really quite majestic to see in person. And the interior is as overwhelming in detail as the outside. It’s a really amazing place. Glad I took the time to go inside.
- Next, the Picasso museum. He is not originally from Barcelona, but called it home for a while, and they definitely claim him as one of their own. He also claimed them. Again, I did the audio tour here since I didn’t make the guided tour. I always try and do the tours in some capacity. I like art, and can appreciate a lot of it, but it’s so much more interesting to me when someone’s explaining it. And that was again the case here. I think more people would enjoy art museums if they did the tours. Anyway, it was also fascinating to see the different styles he evolved into. Quite a genius.
- I took a quick break for lunch here. I’m usually quite the foodie when I travel, but I had so much to cram into my trip that, often, food was more about convenience. I ate lots of local delicacies and at some great, little places, but they were always nearby or on the way. The food everywhere is pretty fantastic, though. (Except for US fast food, which I saw here and there, and it pained me. Not one of our best influences on the world.)
- Third, I went to the Palau de la Musica (Music Palace). I had been really looking forward to this one, and it was also one that all the locals talked about and were proud of. I don’t know what to tell you here. Stunning. Just stunning. Click the link above and see for yourself! I really wish I’d had time to see a performance. The entire building was so gorgeous, and I could’ve stopped to take pictures here for hours. But…I didn’t have time.
- That night, I went to a flamenco show. It was on Las Ramblas, the busiest and most famous street and Barcelona, and in the oldest theatre in the city. Sadly, I didn’t get to see a lot of the theater because there are several performance spaces in the building, and the one I was in was immediately downstairs. Unfortunately, my tapas were a little sub-par as well. But, the show itself was terrific! It was very low-key, just the dancers, singers and their instruments, but really fabulous. We were all on our feet at the end. And I couldn’t visit Spain without catching a flamenco show!
Friday, September 9th:
- I’d originally planned on sleeping it, eating a leisurely breakfast, and heading to the airport. But there was just so much to see! I’ve easily covered cities in four days before, but this just wasn’t one of them. And, by now, I was as in love with Gaudi as everyone else. So, that morning I got up early to hit Park Guell before I left. As I mentioned before, Gaudi was largely inspired by nature. And this is the only park he designed, I believe. It was originally meant to be sort of what we in the US would consider a country club type of grounds, where the wealthy would live, with large open spaces and an outdoor market. It was also very different and modern, so the US “park” is used in the spelling instead of the traditional “parc.” However, that vision never really materialized. Good thing for us! It’s beautiful to walk around, and like his other stuff, very whimsical and charming. And it’s at a high point in the city, so the sun was just rising over Barcelona when I was there. It was a grand way to end my trip.
As you can see, I covered a lot of ground. I walked about 50,000 steps over the course of the eight days—and boy, did my feet feel every step! But I’m really glad I was able to fit in so much. I got to see most everything I wanted to see, but would’ve been really happy with a few more days—and a few hundred more dollars!
But there you go, Barcelona for my birthday! How I’ll top that moving forward, I don’t know. But I love a good challenge. 😉
Finally, a few Barcelona fun facts:
- Sangria is only for tourists. It’s their version of Two Buck Chuck, the $2 wine from Trader Joe’s. But lost of restaurants have it because the tourists will pay more for it!
- Barcelona is the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, and the locals are FIERCELY proud of it. In fact, you’ll see Spanish flags with a blue triangle and star around town that represent the people who think Catalonia should be independent from Spain. Reminded me a bit of Texas…
- Catalonia means “castle,” you’ll see that adorning things as well. The seats of the Music Palace, for example, have little castles all over them.
- Again, the locals are very proud of their city. So, if you get in a cab, no matter where you say you’re going, they’ll get excited and say, “Oh, you’ll love it!” Because they genuinely believe everyone should be as enthralled with their hometown as they are. And, okay, I was.
- The irony of Barcelona is that you need to reserve all your tickets online to skip the lines and stay close to your desired day and time. But, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and all meals are meant to be savored. So, my “quick” sandwich break on Thursday took 45 minutes, and I was clearly rushing him. For the cheapest/best lunch option, that’s a 3-course “menu de la dia.” Restaurants there are actually required by law to offer it. But you need AT LEAST an hour and a half to have time for all three courses. So, keeping to your reserved ticket time can be tricky. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.