Posts Tagged ‘barcelona’


August 16th, 2017

In the very first post in this blog, I justified its creation by stating that I had some things to talk about, or “In other words, no vacation slides” as I said at the time. Realistically I wanted to start a blog to talk about my fascination with a local immersive art installation known as The Jejune Institute rather than an aversion to vacation photos.

Look no further back than my 2012 visit to Copenhagen to see an example of a violation of the principles outlined in that first blog post. Yeah, I lied… though somehow I never got around to writing about my 2013 trip to Shanghai on this blog for whatever that’s worth. So forget the no vacation photos thing and let’s move on.

As I wrote in my first post about my vacation to Europe this summer, I started and ended the trip in Barcelona because I booked cheap flights. This meant I stayed at two different hotels a few days in June and again a few days in July.

My trip’s first hotel was Hotel Via Augusta in the L’Eixample District, near the Gracia neighborhood. L’Eixample means “expansion,” and it’s literally an expansion of the original part of Barcelona. The original city is now known as the Gothic Quarter and was once surrounded by a wall. After the city wall was demolished the city built outward, mostly in large, dense blocks that had tapered edges to accommodate streetcars. That last factoid plays a pivotal moment in Barcelona’s history, so read on.

Gracia is an older neighborhood that wasn’t originally part of Barcelona. Even though most of the buildings look new, the streets are very narrow with a layout that’s slightly more contemporary (less chaotic) than the Gothic Quarter. It’s a lively, family friendly neighborhood that doesn’t attract as many tourists as other parts of town. That said, it’s walkable from a number of Metro stops and not far from Sagrada Familia. Gracia grew on me quickly with one exception — it’s completely dead on Sundays. Depending on your schedule this can add a significant challenge when you need food. For my part on Sunday I found a “takeaway” lunch at a sushi restaurant (they have Philly rolls in Spain!) and a gazpacho dinner from a convenience store.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona

It’s fashionable everywhere to gouge and generally hate on tourists; Gracia was no different. But I couldn’t help laughing at this anti-tourist sticker with a skull and selfie stick “crossbones”:


Further out in the L’Eixample District, the architecture takes on a life of its own. Local architect Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries built — or in many cases renovated — buildings with their own modernist styles. Not all of them survived Spain’s civil war intact.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona

The most astonishing architecture near my first stop is also the most famous: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, an enormous church that’s been under construction since 1882. Gaudi knew he wouldn’t live to see the end of the construction, and as fate would have it he was killed by a collision with a streetcar in 1926. His original plans for the structure were also destroyed in Spain’s civil war.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

With the interior largely complete, the exterior still has one facade and several more towers to go. Will it be complete by the deadline of 2026? I doubt it, even though they’ve switched from stone to modern reinforced concrete for the main facade — which has barely begun construction. Still this is an amazing building to visit and its unfinished, changing nature is a part of its allure.

For better or worse, I booked tickets for the tower on the Passion facade. The ticket included an elevator ride up, but (unbeknownst to me) not back down. The views from there were spectacular, but the path down involves narrow stone staircases. The last part of the climb down has a handrail on one side, and a steep drop on the other. This is an alarming descent, especially when the temperature is 95 degrees and your hands are a little too sweaty to firmly grip the handrail.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Fast forward to the end of my trip, and I stayed in at Hotel Cortes in the Gothic Quarter, the old and original part of Barcelona. Like many folks in Barcelona, the guy running the front desk when I arrived barely spoke any English. Fortunately others in the hotel spoke English fluently, and my limited (Castilian) Spanish was enough to get by.

Everyone will tell you the Gothic Quarter is the most touristy part of Barcelona, but it’s also historically significant, and even today is quite lively. That said, if you want to check out the architecture, wake up early on a Sunday when everything’s closed and stroll the narrow streets for a few hours. It’s a gorgeous part of town when it’s empty, and the clash of styles between the old buildings and the modern street art really shines.

Even during the day, the restaurants, bars, and cafes a little ways off the beaten path are worth checking out. In particular I found a bar with excellent gazpacho, a taqueria (yes, really) with killer margaritas, and vegan British pub with not only good beer, but surprisingly good food.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Taco Alto, Barcelona Gazpacho, Barcelona

Though the Gothic Quarter can be touristy, one part in particular stands out as a serious tourist trap: La Rambla, a wide street going down the middle of the neighborhood towards the sea. Despite a few useful shops, for the most part the place is crowded with tourists and poorly rated restaurants, including (of course) Barcelona’s Hard Rock Cafe.

As a general tip for traveling, remember this helpful rhyme: “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” I’ll get into that more when I discus my trip to Florence.


From the Gothic Quarter I wandered up to Montjuic, a scenic viewpoint on a tall hill. An aerial tramway connects the hill with a (man made) beach. It’s fun to find your way up the hill, especially because not all the pathways are marked. On the way there I happened to walk past “El Gato de Botero,” a large metal sculpture of an overweight house cat. Silly, but worth checking out. The top of Montjuic sports a hotel, a couple restaurants, and an immaculate garden.

Although it’s not included in the panorama below, from several vantage points on top of Montjuic you can easily spot Sagrada Familia. The numerous cranes are a dead giveaway.

El Gato de Botero, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona

On the opposite side of the city from Montjuic (yeah, I got around) there’s another high vantage point: Park Guell. Built into the side of a hill, Park Guell is filled with lush gardens, meandering pathways, playgrounds, and a number of homes designed by Gaudi. Commissioned by a man named Guell, the place was intended as a small village for a handful of rich families with sweeping views of the city. Ultimately it was a failure, and the place was eventually handed over to the city to be used as a park.

The most built out and decorated part of this development is near the bottom, with a number of buildings, man made cave-like structures, fountains, and mosaics. This part currently costs extra to enter most of the time, although it’s arguably no more or less interesting than the rest of the park.

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The street art scene in Barcelona is pretty wild, especially in the Gothic Quarter. I took dozens of photos — too many for an already long blog post — but here are a few works I found interesting and representative.

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While I explored Barcelona mostly on my own, here are all the tours I went on:

  • Sagrada Familia top views. For 29 euros you get to go up one of two towers and get an audio guide. You have to book this one at least a day or two in advance. Third party operators also provide tours, but I suspect you’re better off sticking with the official tour.
  • Free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. This is a very well put together tour available in three languages (each with a different guide.) Even though it’s free, they do encourage tips at the end of the tour so it’s more of a pay what you want kind of thing. You don’t have to book in advance, but if there’s no space available you may not get in if you show up at the last minute.
  • Craft Tours: Barcelona Beer Tour. Who knew Barcelona has a beer scene? This is the same company as the free tour, but it costs money upfront — and includes tapas and a lot of beer. This one has to be booked in advance.
  • Craft Tours: Discover Gaudi & Modernisme. Another tour from Craft Tours that also requires booking online, this one goes into detail about the modernist architecture in Barcelona in the L’Eixample District, mostly around the time of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The tour ends after a brief Metro ride at Sagrada Familia.
  • Park Guell Monumental Zone. While Park Guell itself is completely free, the core “Monumental Zone” costs seven euros to enter, and you generally have to book in advance — though if you arrive very early in the morning it’s free. It did seem a bit overpriced, though maybe the guided tour option would be more interesting.

For more photos, see my Flickr albums for part one and part two of my Barcelona trip.

I took that crazy cheap flight to Barcelona

July 22nd, 2017

Park Guell
Barcelona skyline from Park Guell

Recently a new airline called Level introduced a crazy cheap nonstop flight from Oakland to Barcelona. I immediately decided to take the plunge and book a trip. If that sounds insane, keep in mind Level is from the same company as British Airways and Iberia, so it’s not just some random startup with an airplane made out of cardboard and duct tape.

Now I should mention that going in, I knew that the cheap ticket wasn’t without its limits. The flight did not include free food, checked luggage would cost extra, and selecting a seat was also an extra charge. I only paid for the latter — I’m an aisle seat kind of guy because I drink too much coffee.

The first step was buying the ticket, from there I needed to find out how much time off I could take from work. When that turned out to be a month, I also needed to figure out where else I wanted to go in Europe.

I’ll get into some trip details some other time, but first I learned a few things traveling to and from Europe on the cheap. Here’s what I found:

Book now, ask questions later

Over a couple weeks I found my friend in Greece was interested in traveling with me, I could stay at his place in Athens, and that we were both interested in visiting Rome. From there we had to figure out what we wanted to see together, and I had to figure out where else I wanted to go.

After booking half a dozen tours, a few flights, train rides, airport bus shuttles… somehow a couple months had gone by. Oops.

For better or worse, the cheapest flight out of Europe by that time was also on Level, and was also from Barcelona — but for almost double the original price. I shouldn’t have spent so much time on research. Damn!

The worst part of it is that many of the most interesting tours, museums, even restaurants that I went to were the ones I found after I’d landed in Europe, either because someone told me about them or because I happen to Google them late at night before going to bed. Clearly, mistakes were made.

Pack light

Discount airlines charge extra for checked luggage, so only bring the absolute minimum with you — and the absolute minimum back. For me this meant I had to buy a few extra supplies like a new toothbrush and more sunscreen while abroad. Not a big deal.

You might think traveling light is hard; I found the experience the exact opposite. Instead of trying to lug a rolling suitcase over cobblestone roads and dragging it up and down flights of stairs, it was just me, a backpack, and whatever was in my pockets.

Clothes were not a problem. Most of the places I stayed at where Airbnbs with their own washing machine, so about four days of clothes was enough. I actually overpacked; I bought a pair of pants and a sweatshirt that I never wore due to the hot summer weather.

Still not convinced? Well don’t take it from me, travel expert Rick Steves recommends packing light as well. Besides, there’s no better feeling than walking past the baggage claim, eyeing your fellow passengers collecting mountains of luggage while silently mumbling “suckers” to yourself.

Prepare for liftoff

No food on the plane? No problem. Buy some food at the airport that will last a while, and eat it on the plane when you’re hungry. Bring a bottle of water and some tea or whatever. Most importantly, bring an energy bar or something in case you’re hungry. In theory you could buy food before you even got to the airport, but that can result in TSA headaches.

Like many airlines, Level does have food for purchase on the airplane but it’s overpriced and there’s no guarantee it will still be in stock by the time you’re starving, so it’s best to buy food ahead of the flight.

As with any air travel, check SeatGuru to see what each seat has — in flight entertainment, USB charger for your phone, electrical outlet for your laptop, etc. Even if there is in flight entertainment, it still doesn’t hurt to have some TV shows, movies, audiobooks, and podcasts all ready to go at your fingertips. This is especially important for very long airplane rides.

Don’t fear the cheaper

So, what’s the trade off for a cheap flight like this? Here’s what I noticed.

Both flights were reasonably on-time, with the flight back getting delayed 30 minutes or so. Not bad for a transatlantic flight. Seats were as comfortable as other airlines, and the airplane was brand new. Level doesn’t have its own points/miles system, but at least for the moment you can earn Avios points through an Iberia Plus membership.

The flight leaves from OAK instead of SFO. For me anyway, I think the BART ride is a little shorter to OAK so that’s fine. However, the airport food options leave a lot to be desired. At the Barcelona airport the plane doesn’t connect to the gate, you have to get on a bus that takes you between the tarmac and the gate. This seemed a little weird because the Barcelona airport is enormous and not all of it is currently used, but maybe this saves money somehow?

The in flight food ordering system was supposed to work through a touch screen, but it was buggy and impossible to place an order without help. I suspect this will be improved in the future, and I was an unwitting beta tester. As a result the flight attendants could be a little slow to help sometimes.

The in flight entertainment was much better than I would have expected. I finally had a chance to watch Deadpool and finish the first season of Westworld. I also watched the Assassin’s Creed movie, but the less said about that the better.

Online check-in was broken on the flight out, but was working and integrated with Apple Wallet on the flight back. This is a huge time saver when you only have carry on luggage. It also means you have to make sure your phone still has a charge by the time you get to the gate, of course.

Obviously, cancellation or changes are not included in the lowest fares.

Just do it

If all that sounds fine to you, then by all means book an inexpensive flight like this on Level, Norwegian, or whatever. But make sure to book as far in advance as possible so you get the lowest rates, and say no to upsells you don’t need.

In my experience, I’ve always flown economy in all my transatlantic flights, and this seemed easily on par with what you’d get with a more expensive major carrier like United. I’d even go so far as to say that not including meal service is a plus, since the cabin frankly smells a lot better without the nauseating stench of airline food.

So if you want to cross some travels off your bucket list without spending a lot, by all means try the new cheap airlines. You have nothing to lose — especially if you don’t check any luggage.