I went to Spain...
Over the Christmas holidays and...it was the best. I got to escape the Canadian winter and swap my parka for a regular peacoat. And I even wore a t-shirt one day. Below are all the cities I went to by a mix of train and buses on my two-week vacation. Overall, the weather wasn't too cold, except for a couple windy and rainy days. I'd really recommend this time of year, as there weren't many tourists and the Christmas markets were open everywhere. The lights and the Christmas trees were also beautiful to see and everyone was in high spirits, out drinking on the streets and having a grand old time.
The Gothic Quarter
I arrived on Christmas Day, so I booked a hotel for the first night near the Girona stop on the Metro. Also nearby, tons of Gaudi's famous buildings, restaurants and shops along the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes.
The Hotel Casa Bonay was trendy and quaint. There was a restaurant in the lobby area and a cafe, as well as a rooftop where you can order drinks. The staff were friendly and helpful and the room was clean and cozy. It was definitely a great introduction to Barcelona.
After a night at the hotel, we switched it up with an AirBnb in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. Note that most cabs can't go through certain areas because the streets are so narrow. And don't be alarmed by the graffiti and weed shops. The area felt completely safe and the insides of the buildings and stores were quaint and cute. There are a plethora of tapas restaurants within the Gothic Quarter, but there were also so many other food options with La Rambla and Port Vell a short distance away.
Be sure to visit Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, known as La Pedrera. Buy tickets for all three if you don't want to wait in any lines, especially if you want to see the inside of the church. (You can still look at it from outside without tickets, and it's pretty cool).
There are so many options to go out in Barcelona, but I opted to check out the Harlem Jazz Club in the Gothic Quarter with my boyfriend. They were great, tickets were cheap and people were dancing up a storm. They also sang a song (Everybody loves my baby but my baby don't love anyone but me) that has been in my head since I left Spain.
Day trip from Barcelona:
Montserrat is a must-see, although it's about an hour train ride and then a 15-minute cable car up to the top. It's worth it. Take the R5 train (you can leave from Placa D'Espanya station) toward Manresa. There's a monastery at the top that has one of the oldest boys' choirs. They usually perform twice daily, but they weren't there when I went because it was over the holidays. I did end up going to the monastery and the museum, which has tons of cool paintings including ones by Picasso.
Here are some pictures of Montserrat, including the inside of the monastery and the Aeri cable car.
Pamplona is known for its famous festival: the Running of the Bulls, or San Fermin. There are even signs that indicate which streets the bulls run down so you can check out the route if you want. The bulls go from around the Museum of Navarre, through the streets, to the bullring. When I was there over Christmas, the ring had been converted into an indoor market, with everything from soap to vinyl records turned into clocks inside a tent.
Pamplona is also known for being the setting of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Many of the places he stayed and visited are still there, around Plaza del Castillo, which is the main square. Apparently, Hemingway would hang out at the Bar Txoko during the festival and stay at nearby hotels for the best view of the street.
Below, a Hemingway statue stands guard in front of the bullring, and a shot from inside the ring.
Pamplona at night during the holidays is magical. There are sparkling lights everywhere and the streets are buzzing with people. There are candy shops (and a cookie shop), restaurants and bars in the downtown area. A unique aspect of Pamplona is that hightop tables and chairs are set up outside for people to eat, drink and chat. The weather was mild enough to be outside without freezing and there were even heaters after the sun went down. Overall, the vibe was very relaxed and the locals filled the streets, celebrating.
Old books, please!
The best part about Pamplona, for me, was the vintage books. I wandered around the shop and ended buying some myself. Even though I'm not sure when I'm going to read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's two-volume set of Julie (in Spanish), I love buying books to remind me of the places I visited. The owner told me some of his oldest books were from the 1500s.
There was so much to see in Pamplona just by walking around. I didn't do any tours because the information is readily available with a quick internet search—and wandering the streets is fun. There was tons of cool artwork on the streets and trendy restaurants that offered up more than jamon y queso.
Also check out Al Norte del Sur, a cool cafe filled with books. The manager sat with us and told us all the must-sees. He also knew lots about Hemingway, even about his stint as a Toronto Star journalist. If you're looking for a quick breakfast and a great coffee, check it out.
Below, from left to right: (L) Plaza del Castillo during the day, with the market stalls open, (Centre) walking around, (R) a mural of Picasso's famous painting, Guernica, on the street.
Zaragoza is easily accessible by train and if you have a day or two to explore, I'd recommend staying near the downtown core close to the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. Everything is walking distance and you can see most of the main sights in a day. The one you should not miss is the Aljaferia Palace. It's considered a UNESCO World Heritage site and was built in the 11th century.
Below: photos of Zaragoza, including the bullring known as the Plaza de Toros de La Misericordia, and the palace (with very elaborate ceilings).
In front of the basilica, there was a market set up with tons of food (I enjoyed a crepe) and rides and games for children at the Plaza del Pilar. It was a really family-friendly vibe and there was a city-wide 5K run going on around the same time. Everyone was dressed up in hilarious costumes for the event, which took over the entire downtown area.
If you're looking for a fancy meal, head to Azarina Fussion, across from the bullring. Otherwise, there are tons of options near the Plaza del Pilar.
Valencia was the highlight of my trip. Aside from being the hottest destination (I wore a t-shirt in January), it was the easiest place to get around. I stayed in the Old Town, right beside the Plaza de la Reina. It was a perfect mix of local restaurants and shops, mixed with chains like El Corte Ingles (huge department store) and cute independent retailers who sold everything from succulents to leather goods. During the day, there were lots of tours being picked up and dropped off at the plaza, but it was still the perfect location. I also recommend renting bikes for a couple hours to ride around the city.
Valencia's streets are lined with orange trees—but don't try one. The locals told me they were very bitter. And do not taste good. But they look nice!
There's no escaping history here. Everywhere you turn in the Old Town, there is a building built in the 13th century with some historic significance.
Most notably, the beautiful Valencia Cathedral, which houses the Holy Grail. Not kidding! It's also known as the Holy Chalice and is probably the real cup from the Last Supper, according to the cathedral. A lot of artists throughout history have modelled Jesus's chalice after the one in Valencia.
Less than a five-minute walk from the Plaza de la Virgin is the former Silk Exchange, also called La Lonja de la Seda. If you like architecture, tickets are worth it at two euros each, and it's definitely great for taking pictures. The courtyard in the middle of the exchange has Valencia's famous orange trees.
Fit for a queen...
Another five-minute walk from the Silk Exchange will take you to the Palau del Marqués de Dosaigües or the Palace of the Marques de Dos Aguas. You can buy tickets at the door. The building itself has been turned into a museum for ceramics and things like tapestries, but some of the rooms are still open to look around.
The palace is so remarkable because of its location right in the city and its intricately designed, Gothic-style entrance. The lavish interior is complete with chandeliers, elaborate ceilings, and a room for prayers.
More to do in Valencia:
- Rent bikes and take a ride through the Torres de Serranos and check out the Parc de Capçalera
- Eat at San Tomasso (It's Italian, to be honest, but was one of the best meals we had)
- Wander around the Mercado Central (the central market). It's perfect for breakfast on the go. They have fresh fruit in tall cups, pastries, and lots of smoothie options. There's also anything else you'd ever need: cheese, meats, eggs etc.
- If you have all day, check out the City of Arts and Sciences, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
If you go to Madrid, you should definitely check out all the usual museums, like the Prado and the Reina Sofia (where Picasso's Guernica is currently). It took me an hour just to see one small section of the Prado, so you should go all day if you love looking at paintings. The Reina Sofia is only a 10-minute walk away. The Royal Palace of Madrid is amazing and I toured when I was in Madrid more than a decade ago. The second time around, the palace was closed the entire time for official purposes.
So instead, I hit up the Mercado de San Miguel next to Plaza Mayor. There were tons of food options as well as bars, dessert and my new favourite: Clara con limon (basically a beer mixed with lemonade). You can grab a table in the middle of the market and eat there or bring your food to the plaza to eat outside.
For an afternoon outside that isn't too touristy, walk through the El Retiro park. Locals go there to run, bike and rollerblade or set up a picnic. It's massive and you can easily spend hours wandering around. It was a bit chilly when I went, but it was still beautiful. In the middle, there is the Crystal Palace, a completely transparent structure. Directly in front, there's a pond with ducks and a waterfall.
If you're looking for a quiet but picturesque town to explore, take the bus about 45 minutes from Madrid and you'll end up in Chinchón. (The 337 bus leaves Madrid about every half hour but take a look at the schedule for all the details.)
The main square, Plaza Mayor, occasionally turns into a temporary bullring and has restaurants and cafes all around. Watching over the square, the church, Iglesia De Nuestra Seniora De La Asunción, sits atop the narrow, cobblestone streets with a clocktower nearby. It's only about a five-minute walk uphill from the Plaza Mayor. (There are signs along the way for the directionally challenged).
For a sweet treat in town after exploring, check out La Dulceria. There are tons of options to choose from. Try the donuts rolled in sugar. Simple and delicious. Or opt for a cookie with anis, one of the featured ingredients in Chinchón. If you don't like black liquorice, this is not the flavour for you.
The Parador de Chinchón is filled with history. It was a 17th-century Augustinian convent, which was converted into a hotel in 1982. The parador is now "in the buildings of the former monastery of St. Mary of Paradise. This function ceased with the dissolution of the monasteries and the building was used as a prison before becoming a courthouse," according to Paradores Spain.
The rooms were spacious—something that I appreciated after staying in smaller hotel rooms and Airbnbs for the duration of the trip. The staff were friendly and it was located directly beside the Plaza Mayor.
Takeaway: Spain over the holidays is glorious. If you get bored sitting on a beach, then this is the perfect getaway for you. There is so much to see and explore for history buffs. So much to eat for the foodies. And lots of outdoor activities for those who want to get some exercise in after all the eating.
Note that certain buildings, museums, palaces might be closed during this time because they take Christmas seriously. But with all that in mind, the cities covered in lights and filled with outdoor markets made it worth it. The vibe is more laid back because most people are still enjoying their break and some areas were much less packed with tourists than in it is in the warmer months.
Be sure to pack the correct power plug adapter and if you're going in the winter, take a scarf!