Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Barcelona, Spain}

For Thanksgiving this year, we took a longer weekend away to Barcelona with two other families -- and we had a blast!  We did some stuff on our own and some with our friends, it was a perfect to see what we all wanted to see while also enjoying some time with the other families.
We stayed here and while the location and room were amazing, we had some unpleasant neighbors which really was not fun to deal with.  We used public transportation (the metro) a lot and it was so easy to navigate, one of the better systems we have used.  If you plan on using the metro, then I recommend getting a day pass (or multi day pass) -- very easy to buy at the automated machines in the metro stations, but we did take a taxi to/from the airport as it was easiest and not that expensive.  Also, Barcelona is a big tourist destination, I highly recommend getting tickets in advance for the popular sights.  While we went in a more off season time, we were still happy to have tickets in advance, especially for Sagrada Familia and Park Güell.

Barcelona has a lot to do and because we wanted to see as much as we could in three full days, we packed it.  So here is all we did and my tips/tricks as well -- 

Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló is a Gaudí designed house on the Block of Discord (known for the three houses with colorful facades) and was actually very fun and kid friendly.  We did buy tickets in advance, but probably didn't need to.  We checked the stroller, got our amazing audio-guides and explored the insanely weird but cool house.  The audio-guide was interactive which entertained Serafina (who also loved all the the crazy colors and tile).  The roof was very impressive and we all really liked the house.  Serafina is still talking about it -- this might have been one of her more favorite museum type things we have done.

Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum)
Pablo Picasso spent quite a few years in Barcelona and mastered his realistic painting style in the city.  The museum doesn't have the famous Cubist works but you will see many of Picasso's work from his earlier life/career and we really liked the museum.  And so did Serafina.  I can't remember if backpacks were allowed but we did check ours -- we did bring the stroller throughout the museum as Serafina was pretty tired and wanted to rest (there was an elevator that required someone to take you up and down).
Park Güell 
Another Gaudí designed part of the city -- this time it was supposed to be an upscale housing development, but now a gorgeous park overlooking the city.  Serafina seriously loved the park, she could run, explore and there was always something fun to see.  Part of the park requires a timed entry ticket and I highly recommend going into the Monumental Zone -- while crowded, it really was cool to see.  You can spend as long as you want within the Monumental Zone but once you leave, you can't return.  And while it is a park, there are no playgrounds but plenty of spaces for kids to run (and sort of stroller friendly -- lots of stairs).

Sagrada Familia
Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece and probably one of the most well known churches in the world (and with good reason, it was amazing).  The church is unfinished so it will constantly have scaffolding and work being done -- but also means you can go each year and see something new.  Advance tickets are a must (buy here -- and note that children under 6 aren't allowed to go up the towers, so we could not do that this trip).  The church also has a long (and strict) check in process, so be prepared to go through bag checks and x-ray machines.  And speaking from experience, don't bring large bottles of liquids (like beer you plan on sharing with your friends later) into the church).  The church was gorgeous and dramatic and unreal -- just spend time walking around and taking it all in.  We stayed right by the church and got to see it from the outside quite often and Serafina just loved it, our true church loving gal was so sad we only got to in once!

Las Ramblas
The gorgeous and famous boulevard running from Plaça de Catalunya down to the water.  The boulevard has a gorgeous and wide pedestrian strip in the middle making it a very easy (and worthwhile) place to walk.  And of course you must stop into La Boqueria Market -- the most famous market hall in Barcelona (and most central).  It has so many stalls with different types of food.  We grabbed a wide range of treats and more to have as a picnic up at....
Montjuïc is a large hill that overlooks the port with a large castle/fortress as well as the area that has hosted the world's fair in 1929 and more recently, the 1992 Summer Olympics.  To get to Montjuïc, we took the metro from the end of Las Ramblas (near the Columbus Monument) to the closest metro station to the Teleferic de Montjuic (the cable car) and road that up the mountain -- which was quite fun and the kids loved it.  We went straight to castle and while not a lot to see, the views were gorgeous (but do remember that this castle/hill was used as the place of many political executions during the Franco area).  We also had a lovely picnic up near the castle.

We then chose to walk down the hill so we could go see the various sights of the 1992 Summer Olympics.  We didn't go to the museum, but walked into the Olympic Stadium which was so cool to see (this was the sight of the amazing lighting of the Olympic flame by an archer + arrow).  We then made our way to...

Plaça d'Espanya
While mostly just a large roundabout -- go to the bullring mall, called Las Arenas, to the top floor and look back at the esplanade with the Magic Fountain -- this was the sight of the World's Fair in 1929.  The fountain puts on a huge lights/music show in the evenings, just be aware of the times and such (because we went in the off seasons, we didn't get a chance to see the performance).

We also took a day trip into the mountains to Montserrat which is famous for its monastery sitting on the mountain top.  Getting to Monserrat from Barcelona is quite easy -- the trains leave hourly from Plaça d'Espanya and it takes about an hour.  We opted to get off at the first stop for Monserrat and take the cable car up to the top (which was quite high and scared the crap out of me!).  I recommend getting the train/cable car combo ticket when you buy your train tickets in Barcelona -- will save you a little time because you don't have to wait in line for the cable car ticket.  We took the rack railway back down the mountain which was also very easy (again get the combo ticket and you'll switch trains to head back to Barcelona at the second rack railway stop).  And Monserrat is a huge tourist destination so be prepared for crowds so matter when you go.
Once at the top, everything is fairly close together -- we didn't bring a stroller but we saw people who did.  While on a hill, it was easy to get around. There is a large cafeteria and a restaurant buffet place, but we opted to bring our own snacks to have a picnic.  We went into the monastery and joined the line to touch La Moreneta -- the famous tanned Virgin Mary (that has darkened over time).  She is behind a glass, but you can touch the royal orb (or as Serafina calls it "the ball").  We also took the Sant Joan Funicular to the actual top and hiked down.  We hiked the steep but easier path back down (very wide and concrete -- hard to miss or get lost).  The views at the top and the walk back down were amazing, especially since the clouds cleared!

So -- eating in Barcelona.  We did not eat any Spanish food, not once.  We can get Spanish food anytime we want and since we were in a bigger city, we went with food we knew we couldn't find easily in our part of Spain.  Breakfast was typically in our apartment, lunch was on the go (picnics or take away food).  We had Thanksgiving dinner at La Taqueria (Mexican food) and it was amazing.  It had actual spice -- like make you cry and sweat spice.  We were all in heaven!  We ate (and drank) at Barcelona Beer Company, the food wasn't great (typical pub food) but the beer was amazing.  And finally we loved Via Napoli (Italian), such good food and a great kids menu.

I can't believe it has taken us this long to get to Barcelona but we loved it and now need to figure out how to get back before our time here in Spain is up!

Quick note about safety -- Barcelona (and Catalonia) have been in the news lately (2017 Las Ramblas attack, the vote for independence and then the arrest of those leading the pro-independence movement (just this past October)).  There have been many protests and marches -- it hasn't always been the safest place to visit recently.  However, we never felt unsafe, never saw any protests and thoroughly enjoyed our time in Barcelona.  Like any trip/travel we do, we follow the State Department travel warnings which are usually very helpful and accurate.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain}

We took a weekend away (with my mom in tow) to northern Spain in mid-October.  Specifically we went to Bilbao and San Sebastian. along with a few other smaller towns along the way.  We flew in and out of Bilbao* and rented a car which I highly recommend -- there are trains and buses connecting most of the towns in the region, but it takes much longer and just easier with a car.
The region we went to in Northern Spain is known as Basque Country.  The region crosses into France, but we stayed on the Spanish side.  The region has their own language, Euskara which is quite interesting to listen to – it is considered an isolate language.  More recently, the Basque on the Spanish side were heavily punished by going against the Franco regime – this is when the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom) group started.  Franco tried (and in many ways succeeded) to squash the Basque culture, especially by banishing the Basque language.  While the group was active until 2011, the region is completely safe and a must visit.  The Basque language is being used (and taught) again and the culture of the people and region is alive and well.  Just know that many of those living in and from the area call themselves Basque, not Spanish or French.  In fact most will say you are not in Spain or France, you are in Euskadi (or Basque Country).  And also know that while most people will speak Spanish (or French if on the French side), Euskara is written first for almost everything – menus, street signs, etc.  On the Spain side, Spanish was then next and then English (if it was there at all).  This is an insanely simple history of the people and region -- it really is fascinating if you care to learn more!

The food alone is a reason to visit the Basque Country.  The region is famous for its food – bar hopping and sampling various pintxos (small plates) while also sampling the sidra (hard cider) and txakoli (lightly sparkling white wine) -- both of these drinks are usually poured from high up to create aeration (and fun to watch).  San Sebastian has one of the highest Michelin stars per capita (I believe second highest in the world).  The city has THREE three starred restaurants (the highest number of stars possible), but be prepared to book months in advance and shell out 200+ per person for a meal!  So even if a Michelin starred restaurant is not in your budget, the region knows its food and should not be missed.  And also, just try everything – I typically hate seafood (and yes, I have tried most of it before) but I didn’t hesitate when I ate sardines and bacalao (cod fish) and it was all amazing.  Pintxos are usually served a little earlier than a typical Spanish eating hours -- so start your pintxo bar hop about noon for lunch or 8PM for dinner.  The majority of your time in this area will be eating, so plan accordingly.   
Bilbao is the biggest city in the region and has more to do (in terms of museums and such) and one of the main reasons we stayed there.  We stayed here at a great AirBnB and the area was good but not a lot of food options nearby (or parking -- make sure to get a hotel or AirBnB with parking included).  Bilbao (and the whole region) is very hilly and mountainous which makes for some gorgeous scenery but also makes it rough to get around at times!  Bilbao had plenty of escalators and elevators so you weren't stuck hiking up the hills all the time.  Bilbao does have a metro/tram system but it was easier just to walk most places.

We spent one full day in Bilbao walking around enjoying the sights, going to museums and eating.  Bilbao is a great city to walk and enjoy the various architecture styles -- we did a big loop from the Old Town (Casco Viejo) down the river to past the Guggenheim Museum and back (we mostly followed the Lonely Planet Walk for Bilbao).

The Guggenheim Museum was amazing and actually really great for kids -- the famous architect Frank Gehry designed the building which opened in 1997.  Outside the museum other artists have added their works -- the giant spider named Maman or the pool of water that emits mist (which was very cool).  And then of course the famous Puppy made up of thousands of begonia flowers.  Sadly Puppy was covered in scaffolding and our poor sweet girl was so sad, she was looking forward to seeing the giant "flower puppy."  Inside the museum, the best part was the huge Matter of Time sculpture which you can walk around and through (Serafina loved this part).  There was also a small kids play area off to the side of this huge room that was fairly decent -- good place to let kiddos play while the adults take turns walking around the museum.  The stroller was easy to use within the museum, you just need to check larger backpacks.

We didn't have time to go into the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) but heard good things and it was in the middle of a large park -- good place for kids to play at the playground or run around!  Bilbao had the most amazing playgrounds and they were everywhere and we probably had to play at all of them :)  We also tried real hard to make it to the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) but we kept hitting closing times.  We did for sure go to Casco Viejo (the old town/quarter) to eat pintxos.  Highly recommend started (and ending) in Plaza Nueva -- its a great way to try a bunch of pintxo bars.  Most of the bars have tables outside, but if you snag a seat within the plaza you can just do counter orders at various bars to try different places.  Our favorite place was Bar Gure Toki but there are plenty of bars to choose from within the plaza and around.  And once again, just point to whatever looks good and go for it!
We spent another full day in San Sebastian (which is about an hour drive from Bilbao).  San Sebastian is gorgeous -- the beach is a must see, seriously Playa de la Concha is one of the most gorgeous beaches ever.  Sadly we weren't there on a sunny day so no enjoying the beach, but we did go to the Aquarium and it was amazing.  One of the best aquariums we have been to and our little lady had so much fun!  We also went up to Monte Igueldo for insanely amazing views of the city.  There is also a mini amusement park at the top but it was closed when we went.  You can take a funicular to the top, but we drove up and parked (similar price for both).

And we couldn't go to San Sebastian without eating -- so we did a food tour that was amazing.  We went with San Sebastian Walking Tours and it was perfect.  They were so accommodating with Serafina and also didn't charge us for her (every single other tour I found wanted to charge the same price for adults and kids.... uh, no).  Our tour guide was so knowledgeable and fun -- we learned a lot but also had a wonderful time.  We went to five different pintxo bars -- tried a pintxo at each as well as a drink.  All were amazing.  And most pintxos were seafood but I ate them all and they were all amazing; the drinks were really good too.  Seriously, if you are going to San Sebastian, you have to do a food tour with San Sebastian Walking Tours.
Here are some other food recommendations for San Sebastian -- you could do a food tour for lunch and hit up these places for dinner!  Gandarias is a pintxo bar but also a restaurant, both are good (but make reservations for the restaurant).  Borda Berri is a good place to try pintxos with Basque cheese.  Bar Sport is a good place to try foie (different than foie gras and don't think about what it is -- just eat it).  And finally you must go to La Vina for cheesecake.  We were so sad that La Vina wasn't open while we were there because we have heard from numerous people how amazing the cheesecake is.  Guess it is a reason to go back! 

We also had a half day to explore some of the smaller towns in the region.  We happened to be in the area on a Spanish holiday weekend as well as during high surf times (and the region is known for some good surfing), so with that said -- we tried to go to two different towns and legit could NOT find parking.... We drove through Mundaka and Portugalete and while we had gorgeous views of the sea and town, we literally could not find a place to park.  We did finally find a place to park in Bermeo and walked the small beach boardwalk and enjoyed watching all the surfers.  We had planned to stop in Gernika, famous for Picasso's painting, but Serafina was asleep in the car!  If you go -- stop at Foruria for food, it is owned by a friend's uncle.  Also in this area is San Juan de Gazteluatxe which is a small island that has a hermitage -- now very famous for Game of Thrones being filmed there.  If you go, go early and be prepared for a serious hike down to the island (and then back up).  We had friends go to the same weekend and they watched someone get medivac-ed out by helicopter!   

Everywhere we went people spoke English, but we mostly used Spanish and did just fine.  I had no problems eating any of the pintxos with my food allergies, but I did ask if items contained nuts before I started eating.  We all loved the Basque Country and would for sure go back, especially to eat more yummy food!

*Just a warning -- where the airport in Bilbao is located (basically in a valley) allows for some serious crosswinds which can make for some bumpy and a little scary landings and take offs.  Our landing in Bilbao was quite the roller coaster ride but still very safe!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Longer Travels {Baltic + Scandinavian Adventure Part 2}

We took an amazing almost two week trip in August -- six countries in twelve days.  You can read about the first part of our trip here and also see our full itinerary. We spent the first week in the three Baltic countries and then moved on to the Scandinavian countries.

Quick refresh in case you didn't read the whole first post -- we flew in and out of Copenhagen and made a really big circle.  Again, this trip took a lot of planning and everything was booked in advance.  I left off the last post as we were heading to Helsinki...

We took a large ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki on the Tallink/Silja Line and it was nothing like any ferry you have been on before (and living in Seattle, I have taken plenty of ferries).  The ferry was HUGE and had multiple restaurants and stores (and lockers to store luggage so you don't have to carry it around with you, but you do need euro coins).  We happened to eat breakfast at the buffet which worked for us as it had options for everyone.  It was a pretty classic Scandinavian breakfast spread -- eggs, bacon, cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt + all the toppings, fruit, veggies and more!  The ferry is two hours so we had time to go to the amazing kids zone with tons of things for Serafina to do and even a worker who made balloon animals and face painting (all for free)!  Our girl was in heaven and SO sad when it was time to get off the boat!
When we got to Helsinki, we stayed here and it was great -- good breakfast included, great location (close to a tram stop if you didn't want to walk) and while it was a little warm they provided a fan that helped a lot.  Getting off the boat we took the tram straight into the city -- Helsinki has two main ports and each are pretty well connected by trams.  We also got a 24 hour tram ticket which worked out perfectly since we were only in Helsinki for one night.

Once in Helsinki, we made the most of our time.  We started by walking down to the main market square Kauppatori to grab some amazing fruit and a light lunch nearby at Vanha Kauppahalli market hall (seriously had some amazing places to eat -- you should try the soup at Soppakeittiö or basically any vendor in the market).  Also grab coffee and a pastry in any coffee shop, Finnish coffee is amazing -- actually all Scandinavian coffee is good, they take it very seriously.  We then made our way to Senaatintori (senate square) to view the gorgeous Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Church) but it is not worth climbing all the stairs to go inside...  But it is worth the tram ride + walk out to Temppeliaukion Kirkko -- the famous church built into the stone.  We took a boat (covered by our tram ticket) out to Suomenlinna, a small cluster of islands that are a UNESCO site and was built as a fortress in the 18th century.  We mostly just wandered around and took in the views but there is actually a lot to do on the island, you can easily spend the whole day here. We also took Tram 2 and Tram 3 on a big loop around the city -- you can grab a free Sightseeing by Tram guide at the tourist office. 

And because the weather was gorgeous and Trevor and I love amusement parks.... we ventured out to Linnanmäki, Finland's oldest amusement park (easy tram ride from the main city center).  And it was SO MUCH FUN.  You don't have to pay to enter, just have to pay for the rides (buy tickets or wristband).  The park also has nine free rides which we took advantage of since they were perfect for Serafina!  But Trevor and I got to take turns and ride their newest roller coaster and it was one of the best we have ever gone on in our entire lives.  We ate dinner out here and the food was actually pretty decent for park food!

Then it was time to move on to Stockholm, again taking a large ferry on the Tallink/Silja Line, this time an overnight one -- basically a luxury cruise for 16 hours.  Check in was a little chaotic so I was happy we showed up early.  The boat was AMAZING.  We did pay for the dinner buffet (and again breakfast the next morning) and I highly recommend it.  Do the earlier dinner so you can enjoy the entertainment happening later in the evening.  The buffet was SO good!  The kids buffet was perfect and had everything that a kid would enjoy (Serafina ate her weight in noodles).  And take advantage of the included beer and wine (on tap) for the adults, but save room for dessert -- the chocolate mousse was amazing and Serafina loved the self-serve ice cream bar!
Once again our little lady LOVED the boat -- the play area was HUGE and amazing and they had a few kid activities, including a kid's disco and a surprise visit from Moomin, a very popular kid's TV character in Scandinavia.  Our normally afraid of characters Serafina actually hugged him not once but twice.  It was so fun to watch her just live her best life.  And Trevor and I got to try some of the world's best spirits -- two gins from Finland this one and this one.  Seriously, this boat was so much fun and easily a highlight of our trip.
We docked in Stockholm in the morning and took the metro to the train station -- I highly recommend just taking a taxi.  The walk to the metro stop was a lot further from the pier than we expected (and it happened to be warm in Stockholm).  Trevor and I have been to Stockholm (read that post here) previously so we opted to not stay overnight (or even a full day).  Stockholm has so many fun activities for kids so I do recommend going if you haven't been.  We had about three hours before our train to Copenhagen so we again made the most of it -- dropped our bags in lockers at the train station and hustled to Gamla Stan to show Serafina the palace (Kungliga Slottet).  I cannot recommend eating at La Neta enough, it is some of the best Mexican food we have ever eaten and so worth it (we may or may not have purposefully stopped in Stockholm for a few extra hours just so we could go here).

We caught a train from Stockholm to Copenhagen airport -- we booked directly through the Swedish train website which I highly recommend doing.  We had quite the adventure on our train.  There was a signal error on the tracks mid-way through our trip and we basically got kicked off the train in the middle of Sweden, not anywhere near Copenhagen airport.  Typically in events like this, the train company will provide buses to take you around the issue or to your final destination, however, there were so many people/trains affected, there were no more buses available.... so the workers on the train told us to take any means necessary to get to our destination -- rent a car, take a taxi....  We met some lovely Swedish ladies who took pity on us and we all split a SIX HUNDRED dollar taxi to Copenhagen.  And no worries, we are being reimbursed by the train company, just save your receipts. 

In Copenhagen, we stayed here which was near the airport because we were only in Copenhagen for one night.  I do NOT recommend the hotel, it was clean and nice and the beds were comfortable but the room was so freaking hot it was like a sauna and so beyond uncomfortable.  This was not our first time in Copenhagen (well, it was for Serafina) but it is one of our favorite cities ever so we never pass up a chance to visit -- go here for more information about Copenhagen.

We went to Tivoli Gardens the night we arrived.  This is my most favorite place in the whole world so I was SO excited to show Serafina and she LOVED it!  Tivoli is more than just an amusement park, but of course it does have rides.  It is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and it is right in the middle of the city -- it is magical.  Do not go expecting Disneyland, it is not anything like Disney but it has its own charm and should not be missed.

We spent a morning in Copenhagen hanging out with my good friend Hanne who is Danish -- she and I met in 2003 when we were studying in Paris.  She took us to a yummy breakfast spot called Far's Dreng (if needed, nearby Torvehallerne Market is amazing, it is where we went on our layover when we first started the trip).  Then we walked past Rosenborg Slot (castle) -- you can go inside and should, it is pretty cool.  We wandered to the Copenhagen Botanical Gardens -- including the amazing Butterfly House which was very cool although it freaked our little lady out just a tad!  And then made our way to Nyhavn, Copenhagen's famous colorful harbor.  And of course grabbed lunch at one of the hot dog stands down near the water -- I learned from Hanne that you have to order all the fixings and a chocolate milk, that is the proper way to eat a Danish hot dog!

Then we were off for the grande finale of our trip -- Legoland Billund!!  In case you didn't know, Lego bricks are a Danish toy, founded and made in Billund, Denmark.  Lego is actually from the Danish phrase leg godt which means "play well."  So, Legoland Billund is the original Legoland and located about a three and a half hour drive from Copenhagen....
I highly recommend driving to Billund as there is not a direct train.  We chose to stay here in Odense which is about half way between Copenhagen and Billund.  Odense is actually a very cool town -- the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and our AirBnB was amazing.  But sadly, we did not have time to explore the town, we had one goal in mind...

Legoland Billund -- Trevor and I came here as part of our honeymoon in 2012 and we were so excited to take Serafina!  It was everything we dreamed it would be and more.  She saw the Legoland sign as we drove up and just FREAKED from happiness!  I recommend buying your tickets online in advance to save a little money.  This is the only Legoland we have been to but it really is insanely family friendly, especially for those with kiddos under ten.  There were very few rides that Serafina could not ride on and they had plenty of younger kid friendly rides and family friendly rides.  We bribed Serafina to go on two (very very small) roller coasters and at the time she was SO mad but now it is all she talks about!  It is not a large park so it can easily be done in a day if you go in the off season, like we did (we never waited more than 20 minutes in line for a ride).  It was a perfect day and an even better way to end our trip!

And that is a wrap on our big summer trip -- it was a lot of planning, a lot of moving from place to place but so much fun.  I highly recommend doing your own Baltic Cruise!

Blog Design by Get Polished