Archive for the ‘Trips’ Category

New York You Make it Happen

May 21, 2015

There’s something about New York that stays with me long after I’m back home in San Francisco, something that doesn’t get washed away once I’ve fallen back into my usual day-to-day routine.

New York gives me a renewed appreciation for San Francisco. It reminds me why I live in a city, why I love cities, and it motivates me to treat San Francisco the way I treat New York — with more of a sense of adventure and a willingness to go out of my way to experience more of what a city has to offer.

nycskyline

During our four days in New York, we hit up six coffee shops (eight if I count each Blue Bottle location separately). Blitzed from the red-eye, we stumbled into a tiny Cafe Grumpy location in the Lower East Side and then had more coffee on the High Line (where we saw our dentist). We had macchiatos in Brooklyn where we sat in front of the actress Hope Davis, and we had coffee in the East Village next to a mural of MCA. On our last day, we got coffee at a little espresso outpost located in the back of a working barber shop.

parlorcoffee
And it got me thinking about some of the coffee shops in SF that I rarely get to. Sightglass, for example, has a seriously gorgeous cafe in the Mission. It serves good coffee and carries excellent pastries from Neighbor Bakehouse, and yet, I’d been there just once because the location isn’t particularly convenient for me, and I tend to get turned around in that part of the Mission.

When we were hunting down sandwiches on our last day in New York, I thought about Cane Rosso in the Ferry Building. I’d loved their sandwiches, and I thought they were some of the best sandwiches in SF. But I hadn’t been there in at least a year, even though it’s walking distance from work. I put off going to Cane because I didn’t want to brave the crowds of tourists in the Ferry Building, and I’d have to go early in order to avoid the lines.

Being in New York helped me get beyond these excuses and think beyond my well-worth path between work and home. It made me realize that by only going to places that were convenient or familiar, I was limiting my experience of SF and my life here.

And so on our first week back from New York, we went to that lovely Sightglass cafe in the Mission and had coffee and pastries among the techies and yoga-mat toting customers. And then we crossed town and got more coffee at Andytown in the outer Sunset where there were parents and kids inside and three dogs tied up outside.

We took the dog to Ocean Beach — easy access to the ocean is another thing I appreciate about SF after being in New York — and then we stopped at Outerlands, which had expanded over a year ago but we’d yet to check out the new space. (The design was better than the food).

And last week, I took an early lunch break and went back to Cane Rosso, where I confirmed that the brisket sandwich is still delicious.

3 Days in Oaxaca

March 16, 2015

Oaxaca has been on my travel list for years, mostly because of the food. So while I was prepared to eat well in Oaxaca, I was completely unprepared for its beauty.

oax-santodomingo

Oaxaca is a lovely city with cobblestone streets and candy-colored buildings. In the distance, there are green mountains with big white clouds covering the top, which gives it the feeling of being both in the mountains and the tropics.

It’s also a city that manages to be historic and modern at the same time. Behind a traditional-looking exteriors, we found some modern courtyards and landscaping. One museum had a metal-and-glass library built right into the old stone building (second photo below). And while the city is well known for its traditional handicrafts, like ceramics and textiles, it also has a thriving street art scene.

oaxaca-flag

oax-modernold

But what I really loved about Oaxaca is that it’s the kind of city that comes to you, and those are my favorite kinds of cities to visit. We didn’t have seek out anything in particular in Oaxaca — it seemed like where ever we went, there was something interesting to do or see, and usually something good to eat or drink, too.

oax-dayofthedead

Our first day in Oaxaca was just one example: we didn’t arrrive until around 3pm, and on that first afternoon, we walked through two markets (20 de Noviembre and Benito Juarez); had a great meal at La Olla; discovered a Oaxacan beer that was so delicious that we sought it out all over town; wandered into a photography exhibit; and popped into a small mezcal shop where the owner led us through an extensive tasting.

On our walk back to the apartment we’d rented (which was perfectly located right behind Santo Domingo, pictured at the top of the post, and near a charming pedestrian-only street), we passed a parade of people in traditional Zapotec clothing, and by the time we were home, there were fireworks going off around us — and not little Piccolo Petes, but big Fourth-of-July fireworks. We’d only been in Oaxaca for a few hours, but we were already talking about coming back.

And that feeling was confirmed the next morning when we walked to the Reforma neighborhood for breakfast at Casa Oaxaca Cafe, where we had Oaxaca’s famed hot chocolate, a very good concha, and chilaquiles (although I’m still disappointed that they were out of the costillas, or pork ribs, that morning).

oax-beer

We ate pretty well in Oaxaca. Thanks to our obsession with Primavera, the Mexican food stand at the Ferry Plaza farmers market, some of what we ate was familiar (tinga, jamaica, molotes, garnachas, enfrijoladas). But we also found new things to try, like tasajo, a thin, grilled piece of beef that was served with the enfrijoladas, and tetelas, filled tortillas that are folded up in a triangular shape. We had estofado at La Teca, a restaurant that operates out of a home just outside the center of town and specializes in food from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the skinny southern part of Mexico.

But I didn’t love everything we tried. The cream in Oaxaca, which was in the tetelas and in the sauce served with the molotes, made me gag. (Mr. WholeHog later described it as having a “blueberry yogurt” taste, which made me gag again).

oax-monte-p

On our last day in Oaxaca, we went to Monte Alban, the ruins of what is said to be one of the first cities in the Americas. There was so much we still wanted to do in Oaxaca that we wondered if spending half of the day at the ruins would be worth it, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our week in Mexico.

oax-monteview

Climbing the ancient stairs and wandering around the old stone structures gave us a chance to see birds (black vultures and gorgeous vermillion flycatchers), wildflowers, fruit trees, butterflies, as well as Oaxaca’s famed chapullines (grasshoppers). It was a reminder of the things that still live up amid the ruins of the old civilization. And a reminder to me that an ideal vacation often includes both time exploring a city and time outside the city.

oax-montevulture

And soon enough, we were back in the city, eating tacos in an bustling, smoky corridor in one of the markets, and thinking once again about how soon we could get back to Oaxaca.

3 Days in Austin

October 14, 2014

I knew we were in Texas when we walked out of our hotel and saw someone riding a horse down South Congress, a busy four-lane road in Austin. There were other clues as well: the traffic lights hung horizontally rather than vertically, and the butcher shop on the corner advertised “quality smoked meats and deer processing.”

texsflag-austin

Last November we’d headed to Austin for a short vacation. We like visiting cities, and Austin sounded like the kind of city we like to visit — a progressive, walkable place with good food, hip hotels and independent bookstores. Although it was tempting to visit Austin during one of the city’s many music festivals, I wanted to see Austin first in its normal state, the way (I hoped) a local might experience the city.

Cities often offer clues about what they’re about, what they’re interested in and where their priorities are. And it was clear that music is a big deal in Austin. Generic-looking downtown restaurants had open-air second stories that were set up for live music with professional-looking lights and sound equipment. These venues also seemed like a way that Austin made the most of its mild climate. (We were in jeans and t-shirts at 11pm in November.)

austin-river

Outdoor dining, particularly food trucks, were another way that Austin seemed to take advantage of its nice weather. Food trucks (and trailers and school buses and shacks) were just about everywhere we went in Austin — even in areas that didn’t seem like robust neighborhoods or places that didn’t seem (to me) to get much foot traffic. There might be a group of food trucks set up in an empty lot (and there were a fair amount of empty lots), or there might just be one truck parked out on its own or tucked behind another business. We walked by a hair salon one night that had a ravioli food truck out back.

Along with the ravioli truck, there were doughnut trucks, taco trucks, chicken trucks, coffee trucks, pizza trucks, Thai food trucks. (The aptly named Short Bus Subs made me laugh.) In SF, most food trucks move around to different areas of the City on different days, but in Austin some trucks weren’t mobile. They had infrastructure set up — dedicated seating areas with strings of lights hung over ahead, and even serious signage like the chicken truck (pictured below) near our hotel.

austin-chickentrailer

Austin has its own food obsessions, too — something I really appreciate in a city. Breakfast tacos are one of their obsessions, and I much preferred the eclectic, freshly made tacos we ate outside at Torchy’s (a food truck) to the gummy, pre-made ones at Jo’s.

Barbecue is another obsession, and here is where we made a grave mistake: we flew into Austin on a Sunday, arriving after most of the barbecue places had sold out or closed for the day, and most of the barbecue places we’d hoped to try were also closed on Mondays (John Mueller is now open Thursday through Tuesday). This gave us just one day to eat barbecue. I do not recommend this.

austin-barbecue

With limited time, we didn’t want to risk waiting and not getting into Franklin so we took the bus to John Mueller Meat Company, on the eastside of town, and Mueller’s delivered: we worked our way through terrific barbecued brisket (I really appreciated Texas’s focus on brisket) as well as barbecued ribs, a stack of white bread and a pickle. It was definitely one of the more memorable meals we had in Austin.

Austin also has a pretty good coffee scene. Traveling with a coffee fiend like Mr. WholeHog often involves a lot of coffee drinking, and we hit at least four coffee shops and one coffee truck. (Houndstooth was our favorite, despite its drab financial-district location).

austin-sign

With travel, there’s often some friction between the way I think a place is going to be and the way a place actually is, and that was true for me in Austin. The things I expected to like about Austin turned out to be pretty underwhelming (see: Book People, Hotel San Jose). And while I got the sense that Austin is very different than other Texas cities, compared to San Francisco, it didn’t stand out as particularly liberal or “weird” or even that walkable.

But Austin also impressed me in ways that I didn’t expect. To me, Austin felt a lot like another capital city built a long a river — Sacramento. And yet Austin has become a destination in a way that Sacramento can only dream about at this point. Austin has figured out how to be a place for people to come to music festivals or to meet with their state legislators; a place that supports both yoga studios and shops that sell only cowboy boots; a place where, within a few blocks, you could buy some fried chicken from a truck and then walk over and get your deer processed. There’s something to be said for that.

 

Look Over the City

May 31, 2013

Did you know that LA is gigantic? I knew this in theory, but I didn’t have a real sense of how big LA was until I noticed that we would be driving 15 miles from Highway 1 (“the PCH” as they say in LA) to the flat we were renting in Silverlake. This was notable to me because you can’t drive 15 miles across San Francisco without ending up in the ocean, in the Bay, or in a different county.

griffithparkviewview of LA from Griffith Park Observatory

Getting a better sense of LA was one of my goals on this trip. Although I’d been to LA before, I didn’t know it very well. I didn’t have a real sense of LA as a city  – its size, its smells, its neighborhoods, parks, or streets. I’d never given LA the time or attention that I’d given to other cities.

Like many northern Californians, I’d long dismissed LA. I thought it was polluted, car-centric and generic — a city made up of strip malls and chain stores that you could find anywhere. And there were parts of LA that still felt that way to me on this trip.

la-ugly
what so much of LA looked like

We had coffee and pastries at Single Origin, which was in an outdoor area full of food stands called the Farmers Market. It’s a place could be (should be!) cool, but it’s surrounded by big parking lots and giant big box stores that lend it the feeling of a mall food court. We went to a Santa Monica café that’s owned by someone who’d trained at Tartine Bakery in SF. But while Tartine is in a neat, old building, this cafe was in a totally non-descript building that could easily have been a location for the Gap.

But the majority of LA that I saw on this trip wasn’t generic or mall-like at all. We had coffee at two different, (mostly) independent coffee shops in Silverlake. On tree-lined North Vermont Street in Los Feliz, we went to an indie bookstore and admired an ornate old theater. We went to 826 LA in Echo Park. (826 has locations across the country and they’re all different and absurd in their own special way: 826 SF is a pirate shop, 826 NYC is a superhero supply shop, and 826 LA is a time-travel shop that sold items like cans of mammoth chunks, shown below, and travel posters for Pangea.)

LA-826
Across the LA River in Atwater Village, we ate croissants from Proof, a great local bakery, and checked out the old Beastie Boys’ G-Son studio. We also ate really well in the industrial-looking Downtown Arts District, where we had coffee at Handsome Coffee, fantastic tacos from Guerrilla Tacos (a weekly pop-up at Handsome) and a slice of pie at the adorable Pie Hole (pictured below).

la-piehole

And while we certainly spent our fair share of time in the car, we also took long neighborhood walks through Silverlake and spent time exploring the many little stairways in the hills around where we were staying. I’d mapped out one stairway walk before we left (The Music Box steps, which are featured in the classic Laurel & Hardy movie; we roughly reversed the directions posted here), but we stumbled on all kinds of other stairways, like the Landa stairs that we happened on one night and led us to a great view of the city lights.

la-stairwayStairs at Micheltorena and Sunset Blvd

We barely scratched the surface of the city on this brief trip, but it was enough to counter many of my assumptions about LA. Yes, there was the glossy mall-like experience of LA, but there were also grungier areas full of old warehouses and unique neighborhoods that felt like small towns. As expected, we did a lot of driving on long, four-lane boulevards and many, many freeways. But we also walked a lot and spent time on suburban-feeling streets lined with single family homes, down sidewalks that were often plagued with dog poop, and up bougainvillea-covered stairways in the hills.

And I left LA this time wanting to come back so I could see more.

From Here to Gardena

May 30, 2013

Just as we’d finished packing up the car and were pulling away from the curb, it began to rain. Big, fat drops of rain. The first rain we’d had after six straight weeks of summery weather. This was not a good sign.

“Are we doing the right thing?” I asked.

Mr. WholeHog laughed. “What other option do we have? Fly to LA?”

Our LA road trip was already turning out differently than I’d expected and we hadn’t even left San Francisco. I’d imagined that I’d wear sundresses and drive with the windows open to let in the breeze. I pictured sun glinting off the ocean on our drive down the coast. I thought it’d be so hot that we’d pull over when we spotted a nice beach and swim in the ocean. Instead the sky was dark and it was raining hard.

theroad

It was dry 20 minutes later as drove through the new Devil’s Slide tunnel outside of Pacifica, and it was dry in Santa Cruz where we stopped for to get lunch and coffee. It drizzled a bit down the Big Sur coast, but our camping site at Limekiln State Park was protected under the redwoods. After we set up camp, we walked through the woods along a creek and up to a waterfall. (For some reason, every Big Sur hike I’ve done has included a walk along a creek and a walk to a waterfall).

limekiln-woodswalk
It was gray the next morning, as we curved down the steep cliffs of Big Sur, scanning the sky in hopes of seeing a California condor (no luck). The hills were gentler just south of Big Sur where we drove past zebras in a pasture near Cambria and stopped briefly near San Simeon so I could take a look at the (smelly) beach full of elephant seals.

sealions

By Santa Barbara, it felt like we were suddenly in Southern California. The skies were clear and the sun was out. Palm trees lined the edge of the teal-colored ocean (with its depressing oil derricks) and the hills were full of red-tiled-roof homes. We stopped for tacos, discovered excellent Handlebar coffee and walked the sunny streets a bit before getting back in the car.

There were porpoises leaping out of the ocean by Camarillo, and we passed wildfire-charred hills by Oxnard. We listened to Neil Young’s Zuma as we drove past Zuma Beach and through Malibu.

The rain returned right when we were coming into LA, coming down hard just as we entered a packed LA freeway, but it stopped by the time we pulled up to our rented flat in Silverlake, and as the clouds parted, we could see the domes of Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign.

hollywoodsign-griffpark

Lisbon

November 23, 2011

Lisbon was a bit harder to love than Porto, although some of that may have been that it stormed off and on while we were there. It also may be because the area we stayed in seemed to have a LOT of dog and cat shit on the street.

On our first night, walking around the Alfama district, we dodged traffic by stepping between two parked cars and narrowly missed  pile of corn-studded human excrement. Needless to say, it was not the best introduction to Lisbon.

It took longer to find areas of Lisbon that resonated with me. Coming from San Francisco, some of Lisbon’s famed sights didn’t really seem that special. We didn’t last long on tram 28, for example, before Mr. WholeHog turned to me and said “Our cable cars and F-line kick this thing’s ass.”

We weren’t really awed by Lisbon’s 25 de Abril Bridge since it is pretty much a copy of the Golden Gate. Lisbon is also a hilly city, like SF, with many miradouros (look outs or view points) and some of these views seem like they could be of SF’s Telegraph Hill.  The city is full of pastel colored buildings which reminded me of the Cinque Terre. I think that’s part of what I struggled with initially in Lisbon — it was nice, but it often reminded me of other places.

Although it took me a little longer to warm up to Lisbon, I did eventually find areas that I liked. We stayed in an area near Barrio Alto which was full of very narrow streets with few sidewalks, and learned that I ultimately preferred to be on the cleaner, wider streets near Praça do Principe Real.

We didn’t have the same luck with food in Lisbon that we’d found in Porto. We were also seriously in need of some vegetables by this point and we had a salad on our first night in town that was only memorable because it was so strange, as if the kitchen just swept whatever it could find into a bowl: celery, cured ham, sesame seeds.


I hate to admit that our best meal was at Kaffeehaus, a restaurant owned by someone from Vienna. We went for the coffee which Mr. WholeHog said wasn’t anything special, but we had a really nice wine, a real salad and I had a fantastic soup. (I was jealous of the table of people eating schnitzel, but it just felt wrong to order German food in Portugal.)

On our last night in Lisbon, we went to a restaurant suggested by an old New York Times’s 36 Hours in Lisbon. Although the food wasn’t terribly interesting, the wine pairings gave me a chance to learn more about Portuguese wines. We got to try a local sparkling wine, taste Lisbon-area white wine against one from the Douro valley, and finished with a very light-bodied port.

On our way out, our server encouraged us to look in the wine cellar. “It’s very special,” she said. And it was.

Porto

November 23, 2011

We went to Portugal in part because it felt less discovered than Spain, although when I mentioned our trip, many people seemed to have taken a similar trip to the two countries. “I liked Spain,” my friend at the SF farmers market told me. “But I loved Portugal.”

We were inspired to go to Porto and the Douro valley in particular because of Frank Bruni’s Discovering the Douro which ran in the New York Times travel section back in May 2010. When I later read that Porto is home to what some consider the world’s most beautiful bookstore, I was sold on the place.

Like Bruni, I was charmed by Porto. It was especially welcome after Madrid, a city that seemed desperate to convince you that it had something new and exciting to offer you (and then couldn’t deliver). Porto, on the other hand, hardly seemed to realize all that it had going for it.

It’s a small city, half beautiful and half ruined. There were lovely old tiled buildings that appeared to perfectly kept up, right next door to dilapidated buildings with pigeons flying in and out of the broken windows, buildings that didn’t look like they’d been inhabited for many years.

We didn’t have any specific sites or museums we wanted to see in Porto, there was just so much to look at in the city itself: the Sao Bento train station with its tiled murals, the old Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings, San Francisco-style streetcars, the incredible variety in tile patterns, the little staircases almost like those in the Cinque Terre that led down to the river, offering this view of the Dom Luís Bridge.

In Porto, we also finally started to have some luck with food. We bought a hunk of heavy, dark bread at the decrepit Mercado do Bolhão and it was unbelievably good. Given its heft, I expected it to be dry, but it was perfectly moist.

Across the street from the mercado, we went into a bakery that had heaps of pastries in its windows, none of which we recognized. We had no idea how to order (language was definitely a challenge in Portugal) but I pointed to something that looked like a frilly croissant called pastel de chaves. To my surprise, it was full of ground meat but it was extremely delicious (so delicious that I went back the next day to get two more of them for our train trip).

I don’t normally follow a travel writer’s food suggestions, but given Bruni’s stint as the Times‘ restaurant critic, we went to dinner at a restaurant he mentioned in his article: Casa Aleixo. The food was excellent and it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of our whole trip. The portions were almost comically huge: we each ordered half portions and Mr. WholeHog’s roast pork came out in a terra cotta casserole dish and my fried octopus arrived on a large platter.

We were only in Porto overnight, but in that short time period, we’d eaten ridiculously well and we’d found so much to see in this little city that it left me with the impression that with more time, there’s probably even more to discover.

If you’re going to Porto, we stayed at 6 Only, a guesthouse with ‘only 6’ rooms. It’s a grand old house on a relatively busy street (though the rooms are quiet).

Chocolate & Churros

November 23, 2011

Before I start recapping the Portugal part of our trip, I thought it might help to look back at why I wanted to go to Spain in the first place. Despite my well-documented love of pork, it wasn’t Spain’s famed jamon that caught my attention but rather a breakfast consisting of churros and cup of thick hot chocolate that I saw on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘No Reservations’. I reasoned that any country that considers this a normal breakfast was a country worth visiting.

The photo above was taken hastily at Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona. The churros weren’t cinnamon-y like the churros I’ve eaten in California, but they were lovely dipped into the very-thick hot chocolate. (Sampaka is a chain but I found I preferred their chocolate to that of Madrid’s famed Chocolateria San Gines.)

While I still heartily approve of churros and chocolate for breakfast (or any time, really), on the whole, I was pretty underwhelmed by the food we had in Spain — and this surprised me because I love so many of the primary ingredients: anchovies, peppers, olives, ham, eggs. I wanted every bite to taste like this, but this was the exception, not the rule:

The picture above is of two montaditos we had at Quimet y Quimet, a tiny bar in Poble Sec, a relatively charm-less area of Barcelona. Quimet y Quimet has a great beer selection and simple, quality food you eat standing up. We lamented that there weren’t places like this in San Francisco.

I’d hoped that Spain to be more like Italy where food is very regional. I’d eaten very different food in Florence than in Rome, for example, so I was surprised to see so many of the same tapas in Barcelona and Madrid, but maybe we’d have eaten differently if we’d gone to the Basque country or to southern Spain.

We had decent food in Spain — we had nice meals at Cal Pep and Tabac 24 in Barcelona, for example —  but we didn’t have great food. While I expect a trip to be a mix of good meals and disappointing meals, I never had anything like the bistecca fiorentina I ate in Florence, the falafel I ate in Paris or the gelato I had in Rome — all foods that really added to my overall experience in each place.

Madrid

November 23, 2011

Madrid had more Burger Kings than anywhere else I’d traveled. It also had a lot of awful street performers — and by street performers, I don’t mean people playing music on the street, but rather people doing bullshit like dressing like shaggy dog and crawling around on all fours in the hopes that a few euro would come their way.

Near the Prado, a person stood on a box dressed as Edward Scissorhands and pretended to snip at the hair of people passing by. But the worst was the baby imitator where a person with a face painted to look like a doll’s and wearing a bonnet would be crouched behind a stroller, resting their painted adult face above a doll’s body in the seat of the stroller. Beyond having to see a painted adult face making crying faces, the person made a terrible squeaking noise that you could hear for blocks away.

Also in Madrid? Prostitutes! Right between a main plaza and the Gran Via. On a side street, one sat with her blouse open, her aged tits hanging out.

All of this is to say that Madrid is a classy place.

Unlike Barcelona, my first impressions of Madrid weren’t very positive. We’d walked through much of the city center on our first day and hadn’t found much that caught our interest. But I figured that we just had to try a little harder in Madrid, that what made Madrid special was less obvious than what made Barcelona special.

We set out to explore different neighborhoods like Chueca, Malasana, and Salamanca, and since we love seeing local food markets, we went to both Mercado de San Miguel and the Mercado de San Antón — both mercados seemed a bit  like SF’s Ferry Building in that they had more restaurants and prepared food vendors than fresh produce. But depite our efforts, nothing really stood out.

The one exception was the architecture. I loved all the buildings with boxed-in glass-and-wrought-iron balconies and I thought that perhaps if I were looking out at Madrid from an enclosed balcony rather than muddling through its streets, Madrid would seem more appealing.

My mom pointed out that museums and parks can be a refuge in a city and that certainly held true for Madrid. I’d come to Madrid in part because of its museums and the museums were the best part of my time there.

The Reina Sofia museum was my favorite (we went twice). I learned so much about Spanish history from the exhibits, but the highlight of the museum (and of my time in Madrid) was seeing Picasso’s Guernica. We’d arrived at the museum in the early evening and we got to see Guernica with only a handful of other people — such a stark contrast to seeing the Sistine Chapel.

Jeronimos church, taken from the Prado

The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum was a good lesson in art history. It’s laid out chronologically so the exhibit starts with early religious art and ends with modern art. The Prado was probably the least interesting to me, but I loved the Retiro Park, just behind the Prado. In October, the trees were begining to color and it was a lovely place to walk.

If you’re going to Madrid, my advice is to keep your visit short (we stayed four days which was WAY too long for me). Stay near the museums, see as much art as you can and then get the hell out.

Barcelona

November 23, 2011

Our trip began on a high note in Barcelona. As I mentioned in this post, this trip made me think about what makes for a great city and for me, a great city is a place where you continually run into things that excite or inspire you.

Parc Güell

In most cities, everything is packed closely together so there’s often no need have a specific destination in mind: you’ll often stumble on the very things you’d hoped to see just by going out on a walk. This was my experience in Rome: we hopped on the subway and got off two stops later only to find ourselves right at the foot of the Spanish Steps. On our walk back from dinner that night, we passed the Pantheon and then Trevi fountain. We didn’t have to go sight-seeing in Rome; we just had to walk around the city and the sights often presented themselves.

The best cities, in my mind, are like this, places where it’s hard to get it wrong — like Rome or Barcelona.

We rented an apartment in the El Born area of Barcelona and we got lost in the tangle of medieval streets every time we left the apartment, but we always ran into something we’d hoped to see or something that we were happy to see. We turned a corner and unexpectedly found ourselves at the Palau de la Música Catalana. On another excursion, we came across the Santa Caterina market with its wavy, brightly colored, tiled roof.

Santa Caterina Market

After seeing La Sagrada Familia (one sight that we’d specifically headed for), we walked down the wide boulevards of the L’Eixample neighborhood and soon found ourselves looking at the Gaudi-designed Casa Batlló and then La Pedrera.

(One quick note about La Sagrada Familia: go inside! I didn’t expect to be so blown away by it, especially after seeing so many churches in Paris and Italy, but La Sagrada is unlike any church I’d ever been in before. While so many Italian churches are so busy, every inch covered in gold, marble and paintings of cherubs, La Sagrada is surprisingly spare inside. So many churches are often dark, but La Sagrada is full of light; it feels expansive not cloistered. I took many pictures but none really did the place justice. You’ll have to go there and see it yourself.)

There were lovely little details all around Barcelona. The light posts (shown above), were ornate. The sidewalks were often stamped with a circular pattern or a fleur de lys motif. Many of the buildings had extra flourishes, too, like a door knocker shaped like hands holding an apple or a botanical design printed on the underside of a balcony (shown below). The signs for shops and especially the signs in the markets were often inspiring, too. I could have taken pictures of the different fonts and colors all day.

Barcelona felt very European to me. Some parts of Barcelona reminded me of Italy. The narrow medieval streets, for example, were like a cheerier, cleaner version of Palermo, while Barcelona’s grand boulevards, Arc de Triumf and Parc Ciutadella all seemed very Parisian.  But the Gaudi influence gave the city something unlike any other city I’ve visited.

First impressions don’t always pan out, but I’d had a good feeling about Barcelona from our very first day when we went out in search of coffee and found ourselves at the pedestrian plaza around Barcelona’s Arc de Triumf where we watched the locals pedal by on the city’s public biking system, bicing. A few blocks away, we found a little coffeehouse with a decent looking espresso machine where a group of men watched a local soccer game on the TV. Afterwards, we walked past a store with a book called ‘La Caca Magica’ (The Magic Poop) displayed in the window and promptly went into buy a copy, feeling like Barcelona was going to work out just fine for us.

View from our apartment onto a pedestrian-only street

If you’re going to Barcelona, I strongly suggest staying in the El Born area. (We rented an apartment from Habitat Apartments). El Born is in the middle of the Gothic quarter and close to La Ramblas but without the hordes of tourists or the McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. It has good metro stops and a lot of pedestrian-only streets; it’s near a park, the Santa Caterina market and the beach area of Barceloneta.

While you’re staying in El Born, I also suggest reading The Angel’s Game. Although the end of the book didn’t entirely hold up, the story takes place primarily in El Born and it was fun for me to be exploring the same streets I was reading about.