My 50th birthday was slowly creeping up on me. I was not depressed or afraid but I needed to celebrate this milestone in a big way. Not one to wait around for other people, I starting looking into some cities I’ve long wanted to visit: Vancouver, Portland, Athens. Suddenly, I remembered that it had been 25 years since I’d been to Spain. It had been my very first trip to Europe but I never made it to Barcelona. That was it! I decided I would ring in my 50th birthday travelling through Barcelona solo.
Here’s how my trip went down.
Travelling alone is nothing new for me. I’ve enjoyed several fabulous vacations on my own over the last 20+ years. I began traveling solo, around the time when
so many friends and family were pairing off, getting married and having kids. Fewer people were available to globe trot with me. Since my wanderlust is too strong for me to sit at home and miss out on seeing the world, I never hesitated to head out on my own. Barcelona would become another such stamp in my passport.
Honestly, I booked this trip just one week in advance. I truly believe that sometimes it’s better not to over think things. So, I hopped onto the American Express website and I typed in “Barcelona” in the section entitled “Flight and Hotel deals.” Next, I scrolled through the best options for my budget. This is usually how I begin planning most of my solo travels.
Once my flight and hotel is secured, it is easier for me to concentrate on what sites to see and places to eat. Are there any special events happening during the time of my visit? Are any of those events free? Is one of my favorite bands giving a concert there? I would sort some of this out in advance. The rest I would happily discover, once I arrived in Barcelona.
Barcelona is a very cosmopolitan city. Nothing to fear. There is wonderful culture, as well as a stellar food scene. Its great public transit system will carry you around the city and surrounding suburbs quite easily. If you are from a big city like New York or Chicago, navigating Barcelona should be a breeze. If you are from a small town, just know that the locals are super friendly and willing to help you out. I was glad to find that Barcelona is just as friendly as Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba and Costa del Sol had been to me 25 years ago.
Keep the following in mind.
Most travel, solo or not, will include some unexpected glitches. It’s no different from your daily life at home. Shit happens.
Here’s what I mean.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, I discovered that Internet service is not pervasive outside of hotels. The city is not widely wired for it. Moreover, my smart phone was a bit traumatized by the flight over the pond and my charger was not working.
Another unexpected twist was I discovered that my European adapter for the electronic devices I had did not fit into Hotel Cram’s strangely configured outlets.
Did I cry? No. Did I throw an “Ugly American” tantrum? No. Why? Because I was not raised by wolves.
Instead, I walked into a local phone store to try to revive my phone but I struck out. It seemed my phone was more jet lagged than me I(HA!) None of the store’s chargers worked either. After a couple of hours, I headed back to my hotel where the lovely staff loaned me one of the its own adapters to operate my hair dryer for the remainder of my stay. And, after a couple of more hours, my phone and my charger got over their jet lag and began working properly.
Here’s the takeaway.
Trust that things will work out, one way or another. It may not always be to your liking, comfort or on your timetable. This is what it means to step outside of your comfort zone. We adapt, learn and continue on. Don’t let small things ruin a new travel experience. You’ve traveled this far, right? So, immerse yourself in the full experience of your trip, rather than dwell on the minutia! I promise that you will feel a lot better 🙂
Where to stay in Barcelona (or anywhere) when traveling solo:
Personally, I love staying at small, boutique hotels versus the larger, corporate giants. I find the accommodations to be cleaner and the staff more available to me. Hotel Cram in Barcelona is a perfect example. It is 10 years old, has about 60 rooms and the most lovely and attentive staff. The team there genuinely took an interest in me and my travel plans. We had some fun conversations about all sorts of things. I felt right at home.
The rooms at Hotel Cram are modern and sleek. The bed in my room was by far the MOST COMFORTABLE I slept on in 20+ years of travel!. They got it sooo right from the mattress to the linens. Let’s face it, when traveling, the goal is to spend as much time outside of your hotel as possible. Yet, your room and bed should be a welcome end to a full day 😉
The rooftop restaurant and bar at Hotel Cram has an outside patio with a pool. Views overlook the L’Eixample neighborhood (a few blocks from La Rambla) and surrounding mountains. Just beautiful!
Barcelona Highlights – Day 1
Located in the L’Eixample neighborhood near Hotel Cram, this fabulous spot is where I dug into my first meal upon arriving in Barcelona. I returned for a late dinner on my last night because it is such a cool spot with great food. It’s packed with locals and service industry people all the time. It was not on my restaurant list but Hotel Cram turned me on to it. I am happy to say that if I return to Barcelona and Flauta is still in business, I will be there 🙂
El Born and the subway
After a late afternoon nap to combat my jet lag, I hopped the local subway to the El Born neighborhood (“Old Town”) for dinner and some fun. I wanted to check out the tapas at Bar del Pla which I read about online. As it turned out, Adriano at Hotel Cram was not familiar with this place but he showed me which subway line to take, as well as which stop was closest to Bar del Pla. As a New Yorker and Chicago transplant, I was not at all nervous about riding Barcelona’s public transit, even after dark. It was as easy to navigate as the trains I rode in Madrid 25 years ago. I did have one moment in the subway when I needed some assistance with the ticket machine and the locals were more than happen to assist me. See? No need to worry 🙂
Bar del Pla could not seat me until 10pm, so I strolled along the narrow streets of El Born and stopped in at the most adorable bar, Bona Sorta, for a glass of Cava while I waited for my reservation. This was a stellar idea. The bartender, Eduardo, was a young man from Argentina and he was very kind and talkative. He indulged me by speaking only Spanish, so I could put my ten years of study to use. We had a lot to talk about, since I had been to Argentina several years ago.
Bar del Pla
My late night tapas at Bar del Pla was wonderful. Again, it’s worth doing a little research online (I like to check out local food blog sites) before you travel, so you have some idea where the locals are eating. Bar del Pla did not disappoint! I tried a couple of plates and chatted with some of the other patrons who were seating next to me at the bar. All of them were from Barcelona. We traded off between Spanish, Catalan (the local dialect) and English. Most locals speak English but some are a bit shy about it. So, just assure them not to be any more embarrassed about their command of English than you might be about your Spanish 😉
Barcelona Highlights – Day 2:
Satan’s Coffee Corner
After sleeping on my “king-tastic” bed, I got up and took a stroll along Passeig de Graςia toward Barcelona Cathedral in the Gothic neighborhood. I could not care less about seeing one more imposing, scary church. I was more interested in finding Satan’s Coffee Corner, which is a favorite of a local food blogger I follow. This place is seriously hidden among the twisty turns and maze of the cathedral area on Carrer de L’Arc Sant Ramon Call.
I am so glad I got a bit lost on the way. There is no easy way to find this place, unless you get lost or some locals in-the-know lead you by the hand. As promised by my fellow food blogger in Barcelona, Satan’s Coffee Corner is really special. The brews are extra smooth and intense. The organic, farm-to-table food is inventive and delicious. What a treat! I wish this spot was in my Chicago neighborhood (sigh!).
Boqueria Market, Plaza Cataluna and La Rambla
Once I was properly caffeinated at Satan’s Coffee Corner, I strolled back north through Plaza Cataluna and along La Rambla, the famous pedestrian space. My mission was to spend a couple of hours meandering through Boqueria Market which dates back to the 1800s. Food markets are always a point of interest for me. It’s a great way to get to know a city’s cuisine and culture. This one is simply AMAZING!
After I ogled proteins, veggies, nuts and oils from every food station, I sat down for an omelet and a glass of cava at El Quim.
I grabbed a cone of jamon Iberico (as one does!) and continued exploring the aisles. What colorful selections!
Before I exited Boqueria Market, I happened upon a wood-fired pizza stall, E-Slice. The slices here were fabulous and I later found out that this spot has received many accolades from chefs around the globe. Nice!
I ate dinner at this excellent tapas spot which also had several pinxtos (small bites) from which to choose. The bonus was that it is located just 1 block from Hotel Cram where I was staying. I had a nice chat with the owner who informed me that she is opening a location in California.
After a fabulous dinner at Teleferic, I walked a couple of blocks north to L’Arte. It’s the latest venue to open in the L’Eixample neighborhood. Part tea house, part bar/restaurant, part performance space. I loved this creative, festive spot.
Hotel Cram rooftop bar
I ended my perfect second day in Barcelona by having a nightcap at Hotel Cram’s rooftop bar. As soon as I exited the elevator, the melodious sounds of German and Austrian business travelers caught my attention. They invited me to join them. How could I refuse such a generous offer? We sang, we danced, we laughed. We raised our glasses of beer and Cava to my birthday. Here again was proof that solo travel does not have to be lonely:) What a fun time!
Barcelona Highlights – Day 3:
My birthday and side trip to Sitges
My day trip to the seaside town of Sitges was absolutely the highlight of my entire trip and it was totally unplanned.
Originally, my plan was to take a day trip to Cadaqués in Costa Brava which is north of Barcelona. However, the good folks at Hotel Cram advised me that Cadaqués is 2 hours away from Barcelona and the trains do not run frequently. That meant that my time there would be limited. I did not think the 2 hour trip would be worth it. Instead, they gushed about Sitges where many folks in Barcelona aspire to have a weekend/holiday home.
Since Sitges is only 35 minutes outside of Barcelona, I decided to head to there to celebrate my birthday by the seaside. I chose wisely. It’s an old and stunning town with 17 beaches, 14th century churches and a hot nightlife.
I had a lovely lunch seafood lunch at Fragata restaurant which overlooks Playa San Sebastian. Although Barcelona and Sitges were experiencing cool May weather, people were not at all deterred from hanging out and smelling the fresh sea air.
My day in Sitges was a separate vacation all in itself. Happy Birthday to me!
Quimet y Quimet
This spot in Barcelona was recommended by Anthony Bourdain and some local food bloggers. Quimet y Quimet is the embodiment of what a true tapas experience is supposed to be and not the crazy, bastardized rip-offs that occur in the U.S.
Quimet y Quimet is a wine store/bar. It’s the size of a large sardine can and it’s lined with wine bottles. The queue winds down the street on most days. One is meant to push inside, grab a menu of lovely canned seafood treats (and more), place an order and stand shoulder to shoulder (literally) with the other patrons. I did just that. Of course, the birthday gods had my back because I missed a long line 🙂
While the canned seafood (yes, Spain is known for its exceptional canned seafood) is not nearly worth having as the freshly caught fish in Sitges, I get why Quimet y Quimet is popular. Moreover, the close quarters lends itself to meeting new people. I had a nice long conversation with some young guys who were visiting from California. We bonded over our love of Spain and other places around the globe. After chatting for about an hour, we wished each other fun travels and went our separate ways.
Barcelona Highlights – Day 4
My favorite coffee shop
While good coffee can be found all throughout Barcelona, I was super lucky to stumble upon a truly fantastic coffee shop in the L’Eixample neighborhood just one block from my hotel. Cafe di Marco is filled with locals and I was there a couple of times a day. I liked the early mornings, especially, when I would read the local newspaper, La Vanguardia, while watching people rush off to work. The lovely ladies who run this shop remembered my coffee choice (Americano) each time I walked in. They happily chatted with me in both Spanish and English. Bonus! They have free Wi-Fi.
After getting properly caffeinated at Cafe di Marco, I hopped the subway to Barceloneta at the south end of the city. This neighborhood is an old fishing village with a busy, public beach. Since I grew up on a similar town in Rockaway Beach, New York, I wanted to spend a few hours here. I loved it.
La Cova Fumada
Before I left for Barcelona, I stumbled upon a local blog about La Cova Fumada which is an inconspicuous and totally kick-ass tapas joint in Barceloneta. It is located on a tiny square on Carrer del Ballard at the bottom of an apartment building, behind an underwhelming brown door. It’s very easy to miss. There is no signage.
Be prepared to stand at the counter or wait in line for a table. They DO NOT accept credit cards, so come with plenty of Euros. These tapas are top-notch and, definitely, the best in Barcelona.
The fried artichokes and the bomba are house specialties.
Spanish sausage or butifarra goes down even better with some cold beer!
The bacalao is outstanding in a vibrant and spicy tomato sauce which has a generous amount of olive oil.
The vibe at the beach in Barceloneta reminded me of a chic Atlantic City or Coney Island but without all the arcades and kitschy stuff. I enjoyed walking along and just hanging on a bench, watching the waves roll in.
Dinner at Gresca
I sent Hotel Cram an e-mail message in advance of my trip asking them to secure a dinner reservation for me at Gresca. This place has quite the reputation, so I wanted to check it out. I am so glad I did!
Gresca is a foodies’ heaven. It’s elegant, casual and it has exquisite cuisine.
I arrived around 8:30pm and the place was empty. Gasp! Why?
I started things off with a glass of cava, of course.
Then, I was treated to an amuse bouche of sardine. Sardines are everywhere in Barcelona. I always believed I hated them but I am glad I gave them another try. Gresca’s presentation was delightful.
Soon, a crowd started to gather in Gresca but they were all men. Fine by me! I believe they were all local chefs. It was then that I knew I made the right choice by coming here.
My appetizer was a delicate souffle with potatoes, egg yolk and cream.
My entrée was the special turbot with pickled onions, dill and a bit of cinnamon.
Last but not least, I chose this chocolate and olive oil dessert. I got excited. My pulse quickened. A dark chocolate mousse topped with olive oil ice cream and a hard candy filled with more olive oil which oozed out over the entire plate when cracked open.
I thanked the food gods for helping me to find this place. If I get back to Barcelona soon, Gresca is definitely on my to-do list.
Barcelona Highlights – Day 5
After coffee at Cafe di Marco, I rode the bus up to the posh Graçia neighborhood which has a wide avenue lined with expensive shops, restaurants, museums and apartments. Think very Upper East Side in NYC but way nicer. The architecture is beautiful.
Adriano at Hotel Cram recommended this Galician-style restaurant near Plaza del Sol in Graçia. I had the seafood paella and a fabulous salad made with cebreiro cheese from Galicia.
Dessert was a delicious lemon meringue tart with raspberry sauce. I washed it down with really great coffee and some local firewater called orujó. The latter is a cross between limoncello and sambuca. I did NOT finish the whole shot because I wanted to remember my name 🙂
Bar Bodega Quimet
I literally stumbled upon this famous tapas bar while strolling through Graçia, after lunch. I knew about it but I didn’t think I would fit it in on this trip. But, there I was standing in front of it. So, I stopped in just to check out the scene and have another glass of cava. I was too full from lunch but I did ogle the tasty offerings here.
Last day in Barcelona
I needed to head to airport by lunchtime. Before La Rambla became swarmed with tourists, I got up early and took one last walk. I ducked down a tiny side street and stopped in at Granja M. Viader, a 100-year-old deli/bakery.
I grabbed a seat and ordered some churros with suisso (hot chocolate). It was the one last special bite I took out of Barcelona before flying home to Chicago.
So, what do you think? Have I convinced you that you should take a solo vacation?
Please remember this.
Travelling solo allows you to learn a little bit more about yourself than you might have known before. And, that’s a good thing.
Have you traveled to Barcelona solo? Do tell! I would love to hear your stories. Leave your comments below.
ROAM. REVEL. REPEAT.