They said I’d fall in love with the tapas, wine, and sights in Spain and boy, were they right.
In a recent 10-day excursion to Barcelona and Madrid, I got to experience incredible cuisine, caught glimpses of fascinating history, and worked off all the excess wine calories by walking at least 7-10 miles per day.
The Barbell Pilates blog may be about fitness, but there’s more to life than that. In fact, my philosophy is that we train hard so we can enjoy life more. This is why today, I’m venturing out with a little travel post.
Morning Runs in L’Eixample
If I could live anywhere in Europe, Barcelona would be at the top of my list. Its combination of modern city and slow-paced way of life made me feel like I was back in New York City minus the aggression.
I opted to stay away from the heavy tourist parts and rented an Aribnb in the L’Eixample District. While unimpressive at first sight, a few morning runs through the neighborhood confirmed I made the right choice. The hidden gems were endless! Cute cafes on every block, tapas bars, boutiques, and mom-and-pop fruit vendors with fresh fruit! Helllllloooo nutrition heaven!
Those morning runs through Calle Valencia helped me see how beautiful, clean, and distinct this neighborhood is. The residents too were incredibly mellow and friendly. If you want to stay in an area that makes you feel more like a local than a tourist, I highly recommend venturing out to the L’Example neighborhood for your stay.
You simply can’t visit Barcelona without stopping at the famous Sagrada Familia. Construction has been going on for five generations, and is expected to finish sometime when I’m a grandma.
From the outside, the famous church is both breathtaking and overwhelming. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the ambition and years it’s taking to complete this project. The architecture is incredibly detailed and profound, and I was so impressed by Gaudi’s imagination in putting this together.
I did take the tour of the towers, which is worthwhile if you want to get an epic view from above. I personally didn’t care for it, but it was cool to see it and then trek down over 400 steps to get back to the ground floor (mildly claustrophobic and nauseating for me).
The inside of the church is beautiful but being the peak of tourist season, it was incredibly crowded and I didn’t feel like I got to see it in all of its glory. It felt like I was in the middle of Times Square, which is a place I’ve always avoided when I lived in NYC. Either way, the church is a must-see!
El Born and The Picasso Museum
The Picasso Museum is in the El Born neighborhood and both are worth visiting for a couple of reasons.
The narrow ancient streets made me feel like I was walking back in time. I loved how it curved in unexpected ways, and so much of the old architecture has remained. Unfortunately, I did witness someone steal another woman’s purse and it made me paranoid for the rest of the time I was there. But if you use common sense, I guarantee you’ll love getting lost here!
The Picasso Museum is one of the most interesting art museums I’ve ever been to, and I give all the credit to the audio guide. Without it, I would have aimlessly walked around looking at paintings without understanding anything. For example, I had no idea how certain colors reflected a period in history or Picasso’s life. I also had no idea the man created ceramics and had a messy home (I swear, I’ve never met an artist who didn’t have things all over the place). The museum is laid out from his early works as a teen right through the end of his life, so it was easy to navigate.
Not far from the Museu Picasso is the Catalunya Plaza or Placa de Catalunya. Once again, the architecture is exquisite and the place was over run with tourists. It’s the kind of place you go to walk around, shop, and eat.
By the time I got there, I’d been on my feet since 7am and I was over it. I sat down to watch a random magic show, enjoyed a coffee, and then wandered around to take pictures of the gothic architecture.
I’m no expert on architecture, but Barcelona’s is so beautiful and impressive that I couldn’t help taking pictures of random doors, windows, and streets. Eventually I limped my way to the main shopping strip. It was long, crowded, and overwhelming (I’m an introvert, friends! Crowds drain me), but if you want to do some shopping, this is the place to be!
Getting to this park is an adventure in and of itself. My only regrets were not wearing sneakers and not taking a cab there. My feet will forever remember the pain of this mistake.
This park lets you see more of Gaudi’s work, whose influence in Barcelona is evident in a lot of places (see: Sagrada Familia above). The park is located in the Gracia district, which is a beautiful neighborhood eager to keep tourists out. The narrow, hilly streets reminded me a lot of Brazil, and I loved wandering through them as I made my way to the entrance of the park.
Nevertheless, getting to this park required climbing so many stairs it made me want to cry, especially since we had just returned from the Sagrada Familia and gone down 400 steps from the towers. With that and the heat, you can say getting there was a pain in the butt!
I wish I had more time to spend at this park and had purchased tickets in advance to the museums as well. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for all of that, but the park was still worthwhile. If you plan to go here, I recommend reserving half a day for it so you can really enjoy and see everything. It’s a massive park, giving you serious views of the city as well as Gaudi’s museum and art.
I stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb apartment in the La Latina area which put me close to everything there was to see in Madrid. The architecture was of course, beautiful, unique, and historical, although I’ll admit certain parts felt a little seedy and smelled like urine. A small price to pay in order to stay in the heart of it all!
The people of Madrid were very different from those in Barcelona. While they are both big cities, people in Barcelona were more polite, warm, and friendly in that small-town way. They got up and offered seats to the elderly; people talked to you in the streets. Everyone let me pet their dogs!
The vibe in Madrid was a bit more standoffish and sometimes rude. Nothing out of the ordinary for a city girl like me, but it was a distinct difference I picked up on right away. Still, I loved my stay in Madrid.
Tapas and Wine All Night
Being in the heart of it all meant I had access to restaurants all day and the food was on of the highlights!
After walking around all day, I welcomed the heavy lunches in the afternoon. I usually went with Paella, which would normally put me in a food coma but I needed all the carbs I could get!
In the evenings, I dragged myself out of my cozy Airbnb to experience nightlife in Madrid.
I really enjoyed how the city came alive at night! Wine, tapas and more wine at 10pm was actually kind of a nice change of pace for me. Given my big, heavy lunches, I wasn’t hungry for much anyway, so small bites felt great. What I disliked most about Madrid (and Spain in general) was that everyone smokes. Since I wanted to sit outside for my nightly tapas and wine, I had to endure sitting in a cloud of smoke every time.
The nightlife was fun too. On our first night there, my brother, sister-in-law and I headed out for tapas, which led to a bar, and then a club. We danced, drank too much, hung out with locals, and got drunk enough for late night pizza. How we made it back home alive at 5am is still a mystery because we had no clue where we were and walked back home. Thankfully, even at 5am there are plenty of [probably drunk] people on the streets to give you directions.
Let’s just call it a Madrid Miracle that we made it home, okay?
Toledo is a magical, breathtaking city and just a 30-minute train ride away from Madrid. Of all the things I experienced in Spain, the visit to Toledo is #1.
At this point in the game, my feet are sore, tight, blistered, and giving up. So as soon as we hopped out of the train, we jumped into a tourbus that took us to the center of the city. It was worth the 26 Euros for that bus because a) I didn’t have to walk or navigate the city b) Audio guides are everything, fam! I love history! and c) The bus stopped in some cool areas to let you take pictures or venture off on your own.
As part of my tour, I got an in-person tour guide of its main Cathedral. I enjoyed this experience more than the visit to the Sagrada Familia.
The Gothic architecture of the church and city made me fall in love. Plus, this church isn’t under construction so I actually got to see every bit of it. I was literally drooling over this place, it was so exquisite.
I was so impressed by the fact that the royal family got its own entrance to the church (because why would commoners and the King all enter from the same place? How silly!) as well as how detailed the inside of this cathedral is.
Let’s just say the Catholic Church’s influence, power, and wealth is very, very evident when you walk in….like come on. Did the priests really need this much gold?
Toledo felt like stepping into a fairy tale…
Buen Retiro Park
Towards the end of my visit to Madrid, I made my way on the hottest day imaginable to a gorgeous park – Buen Retiro Park. Did I wear sensible shoes for this journey?
Nope, I didn’t, but I did look cute for my pictures.
Since it was unbearably hot, I ordered a green smoothie and in iced coffee when I got there. This is where I learned that Americans are likely the only ones who drink iced coffee because the server watched me curiously while I mixed my coffee and ice cubes. She looked both fascinated by what I was doing and offended I’d ruin coffee with ice.
The park reminded me of a cleaner Central Park. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood overlooking a pond where a swarm of tourists took over with rowboats.
If you want a beautiful place to stroll or go for a run in Madrid head over here! If you get hungry, there are a few cafes in the park but the food wasn’t very Spanish. I opted to head outside of the park and go to a fancy restaurant for my lunch. From there, I wandered around to shop.
Think of this area as the Beverly Hills of Madrid. Lots of high-end shops and European designers. This is where finally I bought something for myself: A pair of earrings from a Spanish designer and a beautiful leather purse from an Italian designer.
Worth every Euro.
Palacio de Cristal
The Crystal Palace is hidden away somewhere in Buen Retiro Park. Strap on your comfy shoes, friends, because you have to walk yourself there.
The best part is that it’s free to visit and really interesting to see. I mean, when do you get to enter a glass palace ever?
If you visit Spain and don’t see a Flamenco Show you are missing out. I was so happy to see one even though it was mildly expensive and the food was mediocre (the only time I didn’t enjoy the food in Spain).
The performance was incredible but a little strict with the camera policy. I can honestly say seeing a Flamenco show is in my top three of coolest experiences in Spain.
You can cover a lot of ground in just 10 days in Spain, but it’ll likely be jam packed with activity. There were a lot of things I didn’t get to see or visit so you know I’ll be back for more.
My biggest regret was not bringing a lacrosse ball. My calves were tight and my feet were in so much pain! Yes, it’s my fault for not wearing comfy shoes but I don’t think I could’ve avoided the soreness even with my Nikes. Unless you’re used to walking 10 miles a day, be prepared for some epic DOMS!
Spain was everything I’d hope it’d be and more!