I want to start out with a disclaimer about this post: I spent two months exploring Spain, so this neither a comprehensive tourist guide to the country, nor is it an assembly of deeply-felt, sensitive prose —it is rather my experience of the country, eating my way through cities, hiking where possible, sleeping in both exquisite and rustic accommodations, with an obvious bias towards places where the going rate of Rioja was most economic. Shall we begin?
I think this small city in the north is a must! If not solely for Ghery’s stunning Guggenheim museum, then for Koonst’s whimsical and adorable sculpture of a Scottish terrier blooming flowers at its entrance. Ghery, a native of the Toronto, grew up in a housing development in Chinatown… this is going somewhere I promise. He’d visit the fish markets with his grandparents and bring home fresh, live fish that they would keep in the bathtub. Ah ha, here is my point, much of his fluid design he attributes to watching the fish swim around all up in his bathing space. There is even a “fish room” in the Guggenheim where the patterns of fish swimming are visible from the mezzanine level. Gorgeous! And do you know what else is gorgeous? THE LUNCH! It’s suuuuuper fancy and affordable! You have no reason not to visit! Ghery’s Guggenheim has put Bilbao back on the map for a good reason! Also, the pintxos are fantastic and a fraction of the touristy price of San Sebastian. Which brings me to the next stop…
If you eat food, you should visit San Sebastian. Holy moly, you don’t have to be Anthony Bordain feel like a foodie in this city. Walk in to a bar, point to about a dozen pintxos, order vino tinto, and there you have it… you are a bonafied food tourist! Just so we’re clear, pintxos are special tapas—are you still here? They are bites of food (like seafood, or ham and cheese) served on small rounds of toast. Back in the day, they were served so that when you drank wine: a) you had a yummy snack; and b) could place your toast on top of your glass of wine to keep from anyone putting anything in your drink. They should serve pintxos at clubs amiright???!!! Ok, there are also good buskers along the boardwalk (my favourite was the Beetles marionettes, but there was also a guy playing a saw—cool.). Also, there is good beaches and surfing too. But, alas, I told you this was not comprehensive, so I’m moving on.
Yup, it has all the things that are stereotypical to Spain. It is also one of my favourite cities! Gaudy—all of the things that he did are mind-blowing and so much better to see in person. Sagrada Famillia, I don’t care if it ever gets built, I kinda like how it’s taken almost 100 years and it’s still not finished… good things take time. I mean, if one building can almost bankrupt a country, it must be awesome right?! The tourist $$$ alone, keep it in the black. Oh yeah, also, the museums, palace, beach (topless), (Ghery fish thing also on the beach), food… visit Las Ramblas and the market (try to get a seat at the bar that serves fresh fish—sometimes the wine is free when you buy food), gothic quarter bars (there is an off-the-rails pirate bar! Go if you can find it!)… It’s a pretty cool city just to walk around. There is something incredible around every corner.
Pro-tip: Try not to get sucked into the tourist restaurants; you know the ones with the pictures of paella on the menu. Like, if there’s a Dutch guy beside you, chances are you are in the wrong place. Try for the off-the-beaten-path gems that the locals frequent. It’s worth your while and your wallet will thank you too. (This basically goes for any European town, except Holland, of course.)
I could wax on for days but there is a short train trip that you need to hear about!!!
A day trip from Barcelona that you need to take! A train will take you 45 minutes south into one of the most incredible landscapes that you will ever see. Montserrat not only has a famous monastery, it is also one of my favourite hikes EVER! The mountains have been shaped by wind and sand into mysterious, pillowy peaks. It’s like the Barbrara Papa family all joined hands and became a mountain range. You will love every minute of exploration there. Also, wine.
I know, sounds a bit like I’m making this one up. I actually kinda think this fortified, medieval town in the Basque region is a bit of a fairytale. From its Disney castle to their famous dish—suckling pig, to the stunning aqueduct, this town is worth the time it takes to find it. I think Segovia is different from other small towns in Spain because it feels real. They do a great job at balancing the touristic, theme-park-y feeling with a genuine and authentic sample of old Spanish life.
Pro-tip: Go to the Jose Maria restaurant. Don’t ask for a menu. Order the steak. You are welcome! Aged to perfection! The steak is about half the cow, cured on the edges and seared to a medium-rare… just do it. (They may try to sell you suckling pig, but well, it’s up to you. The baby pig comes out on a platter with its head and feet, and they use a plate to portion it… like break its back and chop off its head and stuff. I mean like, “when in Rome” right? Nope. Heckin’ heck. It’s ghastly. Savages. Order the vegetables actually.)
So, if you rented a car… and you have read thus far… Zaragoza and Lleda are great stops to round out the round-trip tour from Barcelona to San Sebastian, to Bilbao, to Segovia. Trust me. Look at a map, it makes perfect sense. Beautiful castles, great tapas, excellent, worthwhile places to stop for lunch, lovely pictures of sunflower fields… maybe all of your dreams come true. But to break it all down, wine is super cheap, soooooo drinking wine in a castle is necessary. You will be de facto royalty in no time at all. And most importantly, you will have fun! Now go and have fun will ya!