10 Unexpected Things You’ll Learn as an Expat in Barcelona, Catalonia

I’m going on my second year living in beautiful Barcelona, obviously because I love it enough to stay. However, as any expatriate knows, there are certain cultural differences that you just have to get used to. Some are only slightly different than your own customs, and others catch you completely by surprise. There were some differences that I expected: obviously there would be different food (and I was super excited for it, the Mediterranean is world-renowned for it’s delicious and healthy food), the bars and clubs would be open later than in America (because the Spanish infamously party until sunrise), etc. But there were some things that most people just don’t associate with Catalan or Spanish people.

1. They are obsessed with pasta and pizza. 

Who isn’t though, right? But this is no joke. Sure, I had my fair share of pizza and pasta back in the states, but people LOVE it here. When I first arrived last year and moved in with my host family, they served a big plate of pasta for lunch. When I moved back to Catalonia last month and moved in with a different host family, what did they serve for the first meal? Pasta, of course.

Pasta Carbonara (Photo Cred: fotom.xyz)

Macaronis

And they really only have 2 varieties: “Macaronis” (normal rigatoni type noodles or the swirly kind) and Spaghetti Carbonara (white sauce with bacon). It isn’t common for families to use any other type of sauce, let alone order it in a restaurant. When they take their kids out for lunch and dinner, what do they order? Macaronis or Carbonara. Seriously. I don´t know about you, but when I thought of Spanish/Catalan culture, I did not expect that.

Cannellonis (Photo Cred: http://www.johnsonville.com)

They also have another variety of pasta that they call “Cannellonis.” It is basically lasagna noodles rolled enchilada style, stuffed with meat and cheese, and covered with a white sauce (bechamel) and more cheese.

Sounds super healthy, right? Like what you envisioned of a Mediterranean diet?

2. They eat sandwiches almost every day, but refuse to add more than one ingredient.

I know, I know… when you think of Spanish/Catalan culture, you automatically think of sandwiches. Oh, no? You never associated it with sandwiches? You’re not alone. I work in a school, and also live with a host family. I see what the kids and even parents eat every day. And honest to God, it is sandwiches all the time. For breakfast? Sure, why not. For their ‘second breakfast’? (see #3 below) Of course! For their afternoon snack? Well duh, what else could you possibly eat?

Bocata de Jamon aka Ham Sandwich (Photo Cred: http://www.20minutos.es)

But what gets me the most is what they put inside of their sandwiches. Back home in America, we eat sandwiches decently often as well. But for lunch. Or sometimes if we’re lazy, dinner. Or if you really want to get crazy, for breakfast. But we put meat, cheese, condiments, vegetables, etc… the only limit is your imagination. There is an art to sandwich making.

Bocata amb Formatge aka Cheese Sandwich

Here? Meat. Or cheese. Both? Oh, heavens no! What kind of a heathen are you?! And they don’t even add a lot of meat or cheese, either. They buy their bread fresh in the mornings, sometimes smother a little bit of oil and tomato on the insides of the bread in the typical “pa amb tomaquet” style, and then add a single layer of meat or cheese. And ya está. For a person like me who isn’t a big fan of bread, it is a tiny nightmare. The bread is often quite tough, so you really have to gnaw on the bread in an animal-like fashion to eat this thing. And your reward? A mouthful of bread with just the tiniest of hints of meat or cheese. Yum.

Pa Amb Tomaquet aka Bread with Tomato (Photo Cred: cadenaser.com)

On one of my first days with my current host family, I was making my sandwich for my second breakfast later (like a good Catalan girl) and they were showing me where the meat and cheese was. I decided to have sobresada (a red meat & spice spread, also a strange thing for expats), and then I went back to the fridge and asked where the cheese was. The host father looked at me in confusion.

Sobresada (Photo Cred: pequgourmet.com)

Him: “But, you have sobresada. Do you want another sandwich?”

Me: “Oh, no. I was just going to add cheese to this one.”

His face was priceless.

3. They eat more than you can imagine, yet somehow stay skinny.

As an American, you know that the world looks at you as if you eat hamburgers and fries every day. As an American moving to Barcelona, I was expecting to lose 20 pounds the first couple of months and eat fresh meats and vegetables every day. Boy, was I mistaken…

A typical day in the life of a Catalan:

  • 7am – 9am: Breakfast, most commonly cereal, bread, meat, cookies, etc (never eggs).

Their idea of cookies, suitable for breakfast, second breakfast, afternoon snack, or dessert. (Photo Cred: http://www.lauravivet.com)

  • 10am – 11am: ‘Second Breakfast,’ as if one isn’t enough. Most commonly a plain sandwich of some sort (see #2) or fruit. But usually a sandwich.

Arroz a la Cubana, a popular dish for lunch. (Photo Cred: http://www.fiesta1037.fm)

  • 1pm – 3pm: Lunch, often consisting of 2-3 courses. And with giant portions that put Americans to shame. Common first courses: soup, pasta, boiled potatoes and peas, lentils with chorizo, garbanzo beans, rice, etc. Common second courses: salad, meat, french fries, rice, another type of pasta… And on top of all of this, a dessert. It is extremely common to have something for dessert after both lunch and dinner. Common desserts: yogurt (never for breakfast), fruit, cookies, ice cream.

Carne Rebozada aka Fried and Breaded Meat, another very popular item for lunch and dinner. Often accompanied by French Fries in a restaurant, like any other meat unless you specifically ask for salad. They’re not much for side dishes in Catalunya(Photo Cred: realworldmeetsgirl.wordpress.com)

  • 5pm – 7pm: Snack, usually more cookies, a mini sandwich, or in some cases, yogurt or fruit. Bakeries are also an extremely popular stop after school, to grab some croissants, ensaimadas, or anything with chocolate. So much sugar!

An ensaimada, basically a puff pastry with powdered sugar.

  • 9pm – 11pm: Dinner, also 2-3 courses. Very similar to lunch, but often just slightly lighter since they eat right before going to bed. They always have a dessert, and I noticed this happens even if the kids are “too full” to finish their dinner.

Photo Cred: http://www.800.cl

OH, and I forgot to mention that they eat bread with everything. So in addition to the sandwiches they always have, they eat sliced french bread with both lunch and dinner as if it’s candy. They can even eat it plain for a snack. Silly Americans, thinking that bread makes you fat…

4. They can NOT handle spicy food. Like, at all.

The Catalan and Spanish people don’t like to add a lot of spice to their food, and that includes pretty much everything except salt, pepper, and oregano. They pride themselves on buying their food fresh, sometimes every single day. Texture is also very important to them. In some ways, I like this a lot. But in others, some of the food is just incredibly bland. For instance, it is quite common, especially during the fall and winter months, to make a puree of fresh vegetables. I really enjoy this in fact, and it is super healthy. They make it from pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, etc. The pumpkin one especially is incredibly rich in flavor, I love it. However, last year one of my host families made a puree of spinach. Now, normally I adore spinach. But it was my first encounter with it in this form, and without salt. It made me gag.

From my Mexican fiesta, including fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa and rice.

Anyways, I happened to mention to my first two host families that mexican food is my absolute favorite food, and that I make a meannnnn guacamole. So they decided to put me to the test, and gathered a bunch of their friends together to try out my mexican cooking (see how it went here). I tried to make everything super mild, because I had noticed they never eat anything spicy. But even with this, the moment they put a bite of my enchiladas into their mouths they exclaimed in horror “Pica! Pica! Pica!” No joke.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But very few. One of my friend’s husbands is obsessed with spicy food, and even grows a garden of various peppers. But good luck even trying to find a jalepeno in the grocery store.

5. Water is often more expensive than beer and wine.

In America, water is free at almost every restaurant you go to. I am pretty sure it is illegal not to serve someone water from the tap if you ask for it. However, here in Catalonia and Spain (along with most places in Europe, I think) they charge you extra for water. And often they expect you to buy their expensive, fancy glass bottles of water. Whereas, on the other hand, you can get a glass of wine or a beer for between 1-3 euros. But hey, that’s okay with me… wine it is! No wonder the Spanish have a reputation for drinking. I can’t find a beer at a restaurant in America for under $4!

6. They prefer darker colors for clothes, unless it is Desigual.

If you haven’t heard of it, Desigual is a brand of clothing that is very popular in Barcelona and translates to “unequal.” Their clothes often use black or grey as the base, and then emphasize with bright pops of color, sometimes with one sleeve a different color than the other. Super quirky.

I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one, that most people in Barcelona tend to dress in darker colors, such as black, grey, and brown. Occasionally, of course, you’ll see someone wearing other colors, but I dare you to jump on the metro one day and tell me what you see. The exception to this, of course, is Desigual. Here and there I will see (mostly) women in a brightly colored dress that proudly has Desigual written across it, or someone sporting a quirky bag or jacket with the typical Desigual designs. But even they are a minority compared to the rest in black.

Another friend and I noticed a vast contrast between Barcelona and Valencia, which is a 3 hour drive to the south. If you get on the metro there, everyone will be dressed in bright, spring colors (and not usually from Desigual). The minority are the ones wearing darker clothes. What causes this change? Who knows!

7. They are obsessed with their digestion.

When you sit down to eat, you will always hear someone saying “Bon profit,” which translates roughly to “enjoy your meal” or “I hope you digest it well.” This, in and of itself, isn’t strange, but the emphasis Catalans put on their digestion is amazing. Normally when I eat, I won’t necessarily rush, but I will eat and then go on about my day. It is very common for a Catalan to sit there for awhile afterwards, chatting with their friends. Sure, they are very social people, and this gives them an excuse to talk and relax. But they have an ulterior motive.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents told you not to swim after eating because you could drown? Well, while there is some truth to the benefit of waiting, it is definitely an exaggerated wive’s tale. But Catalans take this seriously. They don’t like to walk around after eating, or do much of anything really if they can help it.

Last spring break, I went with a couple friends (one of which is Catalan) on a trip, where we toured through Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Because we only had a little over a week, we pretty much did a different city each day, which required a lot of walking (and definitely not relaxing). My Catalan friend wasn’t happy. She would walk as slow as possible without losing us in the crowd, and when we were together in a group, she’d mutter how “unhealthy” we were being by walking so fast after eating and basically implying that we’d die young. Harsh.

I brought this up in class recently to a group of 14 year olds. When I mentioned how I found it comical, they lashed back insisting how important it is to plan your meals each day, when you can eat one thing but not another, and to rest after eating. This came up after we were discussing the school schedule for a project, where I said that 2 hours for lunch was just ridiculously long. They said I was wrong, that any less time and we’d all have indigestion. I told them that in my high school, we had about 40 minutes to eat. They were in shock. Let me just say that I’ve never met 14 year olds who were so concerned about their digestion.

8. They try to wear their winter clothes as much as possible.

The people of Catalonia seem to constantly be cold. I showed up my first year in late September, and it was still incredibly hot outside. I was sweating walking around in a summer dress. Yet, I started to notice that pretty much everyone else was wearing jackets. What the…?

As soon as mid-September hits, people start breaking out their winter wardrobe. And they wear it for as long as humanly possible. Even in June of this year, when I was sweating bullets in my classes, I saw people walking around with heavy jackets and scarves. As a Californian, I was especially uncomfortable because I didn’t even have winter clothes when I came, so I would wear my summer clothes as much as possible. Since they hate the cold so much, they turn the heaters on high at the school during the winter, to the point where I could wear a short sleeved shirt and a skirt and still be sweating. Everyone thought I was crazy, cozy in their sweatshirts.

In fact, my second host family would get frustrated with me for not wearing scarves or heavy shoes during the winter, saying that I’d inevitably get sick. Has no one here heard the news that the cold itself will not make you sick?!

Another thing – slippers are huge here. Everyone has them, and they wear them all the time. I’m not a big fan of socks myself, so if it’s warm, I am happy to walk around barefoot. In fact, unless it is super cold and I can’t bear it, I walk around barefoot as much as possible. But even in the intense heat of summer, you will see people in Catalonia walking around their homes in socks and/or slippers.

One day, I was teasing my boyfriend for always wearing his slippers, even though it was in the 80’s outside. So he took off his slippers. Soon later, he got sick. He exclaimed “See?! I knew it! Because I didn’t wear my slippers that day, now I’m sick!!!” Silly boy.

9. They go out as much as possible.

The Spanish and Catalan people are infamous for being partiers. So, this shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. But I was amazed at just how much and how often people are out of their homes here, and not just to party. Their schedules are insane! I understand now why they feel the need to party until 7am.

Photo Cred ip-hostel.com

For families with children, school goes from 9am – 5pm (sometimes it can go even earlier or later for older students). That in and of itself is crazy to me, because when I was in elementary, middle and high school, the latest we would ever get out of school is 3pm. After school, the majority of kids have after school activities, such as sports, language lessons, or dance. In all of the 4 families I have lived with, the children and parents don’t generally get home until between 7pm and 8pm. Where is there time for resting? For doing homework? For cooking? It is insane, no wonder they eat dinner so late at night!

Even young adults like to keep busy. Like in the States, most jobs go from 9am – 5pm, or sometimes the night shift, depending on the position. But it is incredibly common for even adults to have activities after, such as dance, volunteer work, band practice, etc. And if they’re not doing that, then they’re going out to a bakery or a cafe for some sweet treats, cafe con leche, or a cerveza. And if it’s the weekend, then they’re out trying to forget about the crazy week they’ve had.

10. They go grocery shopping every day.

Okay, so I can’t make a generalization about every family. But I think I can safely say that at least half of Catalans go to the grocery store or bakery every single day. Whether it be to buy fresh bread in the mornings, or go to the fish store for the freshest catch they can find, they spend an incredible amount of time running back and forth from the store.

And while many of the meals that they prepare on a daily basis are by no means complicated, the Catalans I have spoken to don’t seem to understand the idea of planning meals ahead or buying more things so you only have to go when you run out. I explained that in America, it is very common for us to go to the grocery store maybe only once a week and buy the staples, such as meat, fish, potatoes, rice, etc. If we happen to make a recipe and don’t have something, of course we’ll go to the store again. But it definitely isn’t common, at least where I’m from, to go to the store every single day.

Fresh catch of the day, head, eyes, tail and all. (Photo Cred: travelandtravails.com)

One of the first things that I noticed when I moved here is that they have a different store for everything, not like in the States where we have giant department stores where you can buy pretty much anything you can think of (I’m looking at you, Walmart SuperCenter). There’s a store for vegetables. And another store for fruit. And another store for meat. And yet another for fish. Of course, they do have small grocery stores with a mix of everything, and the occasional warehouse which is the equivalent of a normal grocery store in the States… but they pride themselves on buying things fresh, which is something that I really admire. But dang, it would take so much time!

In closing…

I absolutely love living here, and I’m so happy that I’ve returned for another year in this amazing place. When you travel, one of the most interesting things to see are the various habits of people from other cultures. None of this is intended in a negative way, and I have really enjoyed learning about the Catalan culture!

Are you an expat living in Barcelona? Any other strange things you’ve noticed? Please feel free to comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Hunting for Mushrooms in Catalunya

Last Saturday, I moved in with my new host family – always a slightly dreaded yet exciting experience. I had been in contact with them prior to meeting via email, and they had asked me if the following day I’d be interested in going with them to the mountains for mushroom (aka bolets in Catalan) hunting. I had heard about this tradition last year, but never had the privilege to go. So of course I jumped on the opportunity!

My first concern, of course, was the fact that there exists many toxic and/or hallucinogenic mushroom varieties. When I asked my host family about this, they assured me that we’d be going with some “experts” (aka friends they know living in the mountains) who know the difference between the edible and inedible varieties. As a side note, they also mentioned that there are reports every year of people dying from eating the wrong types of mushrooms.

So proceed with caution.

When we got to Montseny, the mountain region, I was super ready to find some mushrooms. I stepped out of the car and I couldn’t believe how many I saw! White, yellow, brown, red… they were everywhere!

My host family and their friends quickly calmed my enthusiasm. The majority of the mushrooms I was seeing were inedible. I followed the “experts” around for 10 to 20 minutes, trying to decipher which types of mushrooms were the good ones. Like all good things, the ‘good’ mushrooms always seemed to be hidden quite well!

It took me at least 30 minutes to find my first edible mushroom all on my own. It seems so simple, but it felt like such a huge accomplishment! You either try to pull it up carefully by the stem, or if necessary, you can use a small blade to cut it at the base. It is common to carry a basket with you to collect them all.

We found 5 varieties of edible mushrooms:

Camagrocs, or “yellow legs.” We found a bunch of these in one specific area of the forest, and they were delicious in a Spanish Omelette!

“Trumpetas de Muerte,” or “Trumpets of Death.” They don’t look or sound edible, do they? But they are! I didn’t personally get to try any of these because this was all we found, but my host family’s friends said they were delicious.

Ou de Reig, or “Reig’s Egg.” Everyone got super excited to find this one, apparently it is rare. It is unique because it first starts out looking like an egg (see the white part at the bottom?) and then the inner mushroom bursts out and continues growing.

Pinetells. We found quite a lot of these and the following mushroom as well, but I still can’t tell the difference between them! Photo Cred: usuaris.tinet.cat

Rovelló. Photo Cred: http://www.ambientech.org

And I found a few others that were inedible, but cool nonetheless:

Some years are better than others, apparently. My host family told me that the year prior all of their baskets had been overflowing with mushrooms – they were absolutely everywhere! Although we did find a decent amount, they said it was nothing compared to the year before.

We hiked around the mountainside for a good 3 hours or so, the enthusiasm only dwindling when our hunger started rising. We headed back to their friend’s house and dropped off the mushrooms for an extra few sets of “expert” eyes to look over the mushrooms, just to doublecheck that we didn’t accidentally pick up a poisonous variety.

Once we were given the OK for our mushrooms, we drove back to the city and decided to enjoy the camagrocs in a Spanish omelette. It takes a surprising amount of work to cut and clean them all! And, of course, once you put them in a pan, they shrink considerably. So don’t expect a huge feast of mushrooms! But of course it is so rewarding to eat the things you scavenged yourself.

The following day, we cut up the rovellóns and pinetells, which I obviously couldn’t tell the difference between. We also added in 2 ous de Reig, which the family friends had kindly added to our basket without our knowing. The host dad sauteed them all in oil, and even though we started with what seemed like a big amount, we each only got a small spoonful of our bounty. But it was tasty 🙂 I highly recommend the experience! Even for people who don’t really like mushrooms.

One of the great things about living with a host family is being exposed to new traditions, such as this. And it’s just the beginning of an amazing year! To learn more about mushrooms in Catalunya, visit the official site here.

Your Guide to Santander, Cantabria, Spain

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

Admittedly, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in Santander as I should have. My original plan was to visit San Sebastian and Bilbao for the 4 day weekend, but my host family insisted that Santander was worth seeing. They told me it was only a short drive past Bilbao, but it ended up being about 1.5 hours past Bilbao. Plan accordingly!

When I researched Santander, not much came up online. That worried me a little, because this would actually be my first trip ever alone (besides moving to Spain in the first place, that is). There weren’t many hostels available in the area either, so if you’re planning to take that route as well, be sure to take that into account.

When I told people I would be going to Santander, most people asked “But… why? What’s there?” It’s true, it isn’t the biggest tourist destination, especially for Americans and Brits. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a pretty popular destination for Spaniards.

Getting There

Santander is about a 1.5 hour bus ride away from Bilbao. There are some lovely views along the way! There is also a train, I suppose it would take about the same time or perhaps a little less. However, be sure to plan ahead and buy your tickets in advance, especially on weekends. When I tried to leave on Sunday to return to Bilbao, I couldn’t leave in the morning like I had planned because both the train and bus were sold out! Luckily I wasn’t in a rush, but that could definitely ruin your trip.

Where to Stay

I stayed at a “hostel” in the Puerto Chico region of Santander, only because during that time it was the only (cheap) thing available. The hostel actually turned out to be a spare room in someone’s apartment, but my stay was nice nonetheless. Since it was my first time travelling alone, I was hoping to meet people at the hostel, so it was a bit disappointing. But I had a nice and pleasant stay with them, the family was very nice (but spoke no English, so be prepared with a little Spanish). If you’re interested, you can book it here on the hostelworld website.

There are also many hotels in the area if you’re not on a budget, and many of them are located more centrally near the peninsula. Airbnb is always good to check, too!

Puerto Chico (Port Area)

If you’re coming to Santander by bus or train, you’ll be dropped off in this area. However, this is not the central part of Santander. At least, not where most of the touristy things to see are located. There is the port, which is quite nice to walk along, and there are many delicious pinchos restaurants to choose from. And, since it isn’t a huge tourist city, you can find some amazing deals on food!

I had a lovely walk along the coast enjoying the view of the villages on the other side of the bay, the views are pretty spectacular (even though the weather wasn’t fantastic). There are also a few parks along this route, with some nice sculptures to admire. Nearby, there is also a sailing school, so you’ll probably see some amateur sailors taking advantage of the day.

The Arch of Banco Santander

In this area, there is also the original Santander Bank (if you don’t know why this should be important, don’t worry – it’s just a very popular bank in Spain). It is nice to check out, especially if you’re into architecture. It was built in the early 1920’s by architect Javier González de Riancho.

The Courtyard of Banco Santander

As you wander along the streets nearby, you’ll find lots of cool street art- if you’re into that kind of thing. I walked around this city alone at night, and while I don’t recommend doing the same, it is a safe and beautiful city to explore if you have the time.

If you wander back towards the coast, you’ll find some lovely parks and statues. Grab a gelato, take the hand of a loved one, observe the sailors… take advantage of the beautiful walk.

I noticed that there were many lovely buildings throughout the city of Santander. Just keep your eyes open, you never know what you’ll find 🙂

If you keep walking north along the coast, heading towards the peninsula, you will pass by the sailing school and also the strangest government building I’ve ever set my eyes upon:

It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the main downtown area of Puerto Chico to this region, and then perhaps 10-15 more minutes to reach the beach and peninsula region. There are buses that you could take, but as of May 2015, google maps did not have them listed in my phone. But I assure you, the walk is worth it!

Peninsula de la Magdelena

After walking along the coast, you’ll find yourself at a nice beach. There is a path that goes along the cliff, or you can slip off your shoes and enjoy walking across the sand. At the end of this beach, there will be another path that’ll lead you towards the main entrance of the park on the Peninsula.

Not a shabby place to live, eh?

The Peninsula is definitely worth a visit, and many tourist sites recommend at least three hours to fully explore it. There is a huge park, a small zoo, and even a palace! The views from this peninsula are breathtaking, even on a cloudy day. And the best part? It is completely free! I guess there are tours inside of the palace, which you can pay extra for. There’s also a little shuttle that you can pay for to take you around the peninsula, but I highly recommend just walking it.

If you follow the path to the left first, you’ll find yourself at their small zoo. They don’t have much, but it is still pretty cool! There are penguins (a funny sight to see with the beach in the background) and seals. If you continue following the path, you’ll come across a mermaid with 3 ships – a very typical photo moment in Santander!

Continue further and up the hill, stopping to admire the views off of the cliffs. After a few minutes, you will see the palace. It isn’t anything super impressive, but it is pretty. You can walk all along it, and then continue on the path back down the hill, on the other side of the peninsula. There are a couple of different paths that lead more inland or closer to the cliffs.

Just imagine having a picnic here. Either on the grassy knoll, or surrounded by beautiful trees with a distant view of the mountains or horizon. Think: jamon serrano, a tasty yet inexpensive wine, some olives, a handsome Spanish man by your side…

Playa de los Peligros

Peña Vieja and the Beaches

When you loop back around the peninsula toward the entrance, if you continue through the gate and to the right, you will find yourself at another lovely beach called Primera Playa (or First Beach). The first thing you’re sure to notice is Peña Vieja (or Old Rock), with lovely views of the other main area of Santander behind it. I’m sure this beach would be lovely during the summer! I went during the Spring, and what with the weather being wetter in the North, the weather varies quite a bit from day to day.

From there, walk further along the coast and you’ll find Parque de Piquío, a small break in between the two main beaches of Santander. They have some lovely gardens and benches and of course a magnificent view of the beach in both directions.

The City near the Main Beaches

After you’ve had enough of the beach (if you can ever have enough of the beach), you can head inland to explore the city area on this side of the peninsula. I noticed lots of unique buildings and enjoyed just strolling through the city. In fact, since my phone wasn’t allowing me to find a bus route home, I just walked straight through the city to the other side and back to Puerto Chico (see above). This was quite a long walk, however, and if you could find an alternative route, that’d probably be for the better.

Another popular tourist location on this side of Santander is the Gran Casino Sardinero. When I was there, there was a big formal event going on, so I couldn’t go inside. But other travel websites say it’s definitely worth a look, even if you don’t gamble!

Food and Drinks

So, you’re in Spain. Of course you’re going to expect the best of the best when it comes to food and drinks. You’re in luck, because Santander has some amazing restaurants, both for a midday “menu del dia” and for some lighter pinchos in the evening with delicious wine. Some of the places I went to I had researched beforehand, and others I just happened to be hungry and went to the first place I could find. All of them were delicious, I think it’s hard to go wrong.

My first night, after walking all through the city, I was exhausted. But I can never be too exhausted for a drink. I stopped in a themed bar named “Little Bobby Speakeasy.” It was still a little early in the evening, so when I entered, there weren’t too many other patrons. However, the place itself is quite lovely and well decorated in the 1920’s style. All of their drinks are inspired by old movies and TV shows. I highly recommend stopping by!

I realized I was a bit hungry, so I decided to go to a place that I had found recommended online: Dias Desur. I only planned on having one or two pinchos and some wine, but that turned into 4 pinchos and 2 glasses of wine. It was amazing, even after having such ridiculously decadent pinchos as I had in San Sebastian. This is a must stop for anyone visiting Santander! It can get quite busy, but it is worth the wait. Something even as simple looking as the teeny weeny mini burger they recommended just had the perfect flavor combination to make my eyes roll back in delight.

On my second day, I walked into a random restaurant along Calle Castelar near Puerto Chico. I ordered the menu del dia (if you’re unaware, it’s amazing – each restaurant puts together a couple of possibilities for a 2-3 course meal, generally with wine and dessert included, for a low, fixed price. I’m not talking about small dishes, either. I’m talking massive plates that’ll make you walk away wishing you had your big Thanksgiving pants) and was blown away by the food. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name now, but I am pretty confident that you wouldn’t be disappointed with any options here.

Don’t be afraid to be a stereotypical tourist… order the paella!

I forget what the name of this was, but it was an unusual name for pork… and it melted in my mouth.

Before catching my bus, I decided to stop at one last place in the Port area for some pinchos. This place was called Casa Lita, and it had a great variety of pinchos, although admittedly not as amazing as Dias Desur (it is hard to beat perfect)… but still quite good.

List of What to See

  • Peninsula of Magdalena – Beautiful views of the bay and nearby beaches, with free entrance to the park and zoo.You can go by foot (recommended) or pay extra for a little trolley to take you around. There is also a palace at the tip of the Peninsula, you can pay extra to go in.
  • Playa Primera de El Sardinero
  • Piquío Park – A lovely park separating two beaches, with great views on both sides.
  • Parque de Cabo Mayor – Panoramic views
  • Puerto Chico – Lots of restaurants and bars, a nice area to walk around near the port.
  • Edificio del Banco Santander – A nice archway and courtyard in honor of Santander banks in Puerto Chico.
  • Menéndez Pelayo Library: Calle de Rubio, 6 – Beautiful library inside and out, with lots of stained glass and old wooden shelves stuffed to the brim with books.
  • Gran Casino Sardinero: Plaza de Italia, s/n, 1 – Worth seeing, even if you don’t gamble.
  • Barrio Pesquero – A run down area, but worth it for the seafood restaurants.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • Café Pub La Rana: Calle de Daoíz y Velarde, 30 – lively joint that is popular with its young clientele who want to line their stomachs before a night out; famous for its patatas bravas, but also serves hamburgers and sandwiches.
  • **Little Bobby Speakeasy**: Calle Sol, 20 – A fun, well decorated 1920’s style bar with great cocktails.
  • La Conveniente: Calle de Gómez Oreña, 9
  • Asubio Gastrobar: Calle Daoiz y Velarde, 23
  • ***Días Desur***: Calle Hernán Cortés, 47 – Absolutely amazing pinchos and delicious wine
  • Casa Lita: Paseo de la Pereda, 37

I’m baaaaackkkk!

So, I have been extremely vaga (lazy) and haven’t updated my blog in 3 months. Shame on me. In my defense, after school ended in June, I no longer had access to a computer until late July… and then I went to Hawaii, went on a roadtrip, and then finally returned to Spain. Poor me, right?

But I’m back. And I’m ready to go. Are you?

I had an amazing summer, but it was so strange being back in the United States. Everything looked the same, the people were the same, it felt the same… it was trippy. I mean, what was I expecting? But somehow it felt like my entire experience in Catalonia had been just a dream. It was really difficult for me to re-adapt, especially the first couple weeks when I didn’t have much to do (sure, I like to complain about work, but at least it keeps me busy). I think it was during this time that I realized my decision to return to Spain was the right one. I couldn’t imagine just going back to my normal job, it depressed me. Sure, California is lovely, but when you’ve had the taste of Europe and are addicted to hopping on a plane to getaway somewhere for the weekend, you just can’t return to your normal life.

Photo Cred: leisure.onehowto.com

So here I am, back in Catalonia. I was so nervous during my flight, and even once I had landed in Barcelona, I was in disbelief. Was I really here? Had it really already been over 2 months since I had said goodbye? Was I ready for another year?

Yes, yes I am. And I look forward to making this the best year yet.

Over the next few weeks, I will update my blog with some of my fun experiences back in the States, including when my favorite Catalan came to visit for a good ol’ fashioned roadtrip around California ❤ Once finished, I will return to posting about my European adventures. Coming soon: Santander, Bilbao, Costa Brava, and Southern France.

El Correfoc (Running and Dancing with Firework Sparklers)

Last month, I had the privelege of participating (somewhat) in a really cool tradition in Catalonia called the Correfoc. It translates literally to “fire run.” Sounds interesting and kind of dangerous, doesn’t it? It’s both, I can assure you!

From what I understand, they do it throughout Catalonia at different points of the year for special festivals. I was able to witness one in Badalona, a city just north of Barcelona, for their Festes de Maig, or May Festival.

Photo Cred: alicantenews.es

Basically, people dress up as demons and carry around pitchfork-looking torches that spray fireworks above their heads. It is incredibly loud, and sparks of fire rain down on everyone around them. They wear protective gear, including goggles, gloves, and hankerchiefs to cover their mouths. Other people who wish to participate also dress similarly, in long pants and hoodies. Sometimes people even drench themselves with a bucket of water to be extra careful. Once ready, they all run in towards the demon people with the fireworks and dance under the raining fire.

Some groups of people go even farther and create these elaborate costumes and contraptions that give off the fireworks, such as giant demons and dragons.

Pretty bad ass, eh?

Well, having never experienced this before, I didn’t dress properly because I figured I wouldn’t be actually going into dance with them. I just wanted to watch. Stupidly, I was wearing a short sleeve shirt and shorts. When the demon people finally arrived bearing their fireworks, they would come in towards the crowd, enjoying watching everyone quickly run away from the sparks. They taunted people, in fact. I thought it wouldn’t be so scary, but it definitely gets your heart pumping!

For hours, they dance through the streets like this. They also have drummers that take part in the parade. At the end of it all, they ended with concerts and parties on the beach. Such a fun tradition! Don’t underestimate Catalonia’s love of parties.

Your Guide to San Sebastian, Basque Country

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

I was dying to visit Basque Country, and when a 4 day weekend came my way, I decided to take advantage of it. I had heard so many amazing things about San Sebastian in particular that I decided to spend two of my days there, and I wasn’t disappointed. You could easily spend a week here! Just expect to gain more than a couple pounds… But I promise, it is worth it.

Getting There

From Barcelona, it was about an 8 hour bus ride. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I took it overnight, hoping to get in some Zzz’s before exploring the following day. Even with melatonin, it was nearly impossible. It didn’t help that there was a crazy guy on my bus who thought he had boarded the party bus, and started playing music loudly on his phone and fist pumping the air. Now, why ever would I put myself through the torture of taking an 8 hour bus overnight there? Because it was much cheaper than both the train and a flight. Plus, I wanted to challenge myself. Now I know that I can do it, I just might consider not doing it again in the future.

Zurriola Beach, my first morning.

The train was the next cheapest option, but it would have still taken at least 6 hours that way. I decided not to fly there because airports are awful, by the time I got to the airport and had to wait for my flight, the time wasted probably would have been similar. My friends did end up flying there and meeting me, but they also paid twice as much and didn’t have as much time there.

As you cross the bridge from the Zurriola Beach side towards the center.

Another problem with taking the overnight bus, however, is that it arrives ridiculously early in the morning to San Sebastian. We arrived at about 5am, and what can you do that early in the morning? Nothing. Nowhere is open, including the hostel I was going to be staying at, so I decided to just wander around with my luggage. I ended up on Zurriola Beach (yes, with my luggage) and watched the surfers come one by one to take advantage of the early morning waves.

Where to Stay

San Sebastian is pretty small, so no matter where you stay, you will probably be within walking distance of all of the important places. If you’re on a budget like me, hostels are a good way to go, but be sure to book ahead of time! Even though I booked a few weeks in advance, there were very few beds left. I stayed at the Surfing Etxea Hostel, and enjoyed my stay.

As the name implies, it is catered towards surfers and even allows you to rent out boards and gear. It is also only a block from Zurriola Beach. I met a lot of really nice people there, and the facilities were clean. My only complaint is that the employees there were always gone. If you were trying to check in or check out, for instance, you might have to wait awhile because they were often out walking their dog. One guy had to give up his 20€ deposit because he had to catch a train and the employees were nowhere to be found.

Parte Vieja (Old Town) The old part of town is where it’s at. See the above map? I starred all of the major things that I wanted to see/do, and they’re all clustered in that central part of Parte Vieja. Granted, the majority of the things I wanted to involved eating, but still. That’s pretty important business when you’re in San Sebastian.

Interesting modern art in front of the Parroquia Santa María

As you walk around this area, you will see some lovely boutiques, plazas, a couple churches, and of course… pinchos (pintxos) bars. It is super common to do a pincho crawl, where you have a drink and a pincho at one bar then wander down the street to the next place… and repeat. Again. And again. We ate and drank so much food here it was ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Pintxos

Now, there are good pinchos. And there are meh pinchos. It is important to do your research so that you can avoid the latter! All of the businesses in this area know that tourists are coming for the food, and they often put together cheap ingredients with a slightly inflated price and try to convince you it is legit. It isn’t, don’t fall for it!

Another thing to keep in mind when going for pinchos is that most of the (legit) places do not have much room to sit down. The typical pinchos places are very small and require you to crowd around whatever little counter space is available, so be prepared to stand for awhile! The beer helps, I promise. My friend and I were super hungry after walking around for awhile, so we just stopped inside one of the first places we came across. This was San Sebastian, it had to be good, right? Wrong. The flavors were very bland, and everything was just a bit too fried for my taste. And the beer was more expensive than it should’ve been. One red flag for this place was that it was rather big and had a decent amount of sitting space. I think this is a pretty good indicator that it is more corporate and geared towards tourists.

Our bland, not so bueno first pinchos… Don’t go there!

After that disappointing experience, I looked to my list of recommended restaurants and we decided to heed the online community’s advice. We headed to Borda Berri, which had shown up numerous times in my research as being the best pinchos bar in San Sebastian. When we were at the hostel, also, I overheard some people talking about how amazing it was. When you enter, it is surprisingly small and it can be a bit overwhelming when it’s crowded. Luckily we came at an off-time, so there was plenty of room at the counter. They have a chalkboard with all of their specialties of the day, and pretty much everything there is fantastic. You can’t go wrong, just keep an open mind! I had heard that the gazpacho (on the right) was great and I chose the mushroom risotto (on the left) as a second. My friend loved the gazpacho, but it was a little too strong for me. The risotto was tasty as well. However, I think I played it a little too safe here. I ordered what I knew. As we were eating, we met two lovely ladies from Canada. People are so friendly here! They recommended that we try the local beer (we were upset we hadn’t noticed it before), and it was absolutely delicious. They also recommended us two other dishes that we returned to try the next day.

The octopus at Borda Berri.

I went out of my comfort zone and ordered the octopus and ribs, as recommended by the girls we had met. It was AMAZING. I had tried octopus before, but it had just been meh. This was on another level entirely. It was so delicious, I found myself closing my eyes and savoring every morsel. It was perfectly cooked and practically melted in your mouth. All of the different sauces perfectly balanced with the delicate taste of the octopus, I was tempted to order a second.

The ribs at Borda Berri.

The ribs were also amazing. It was super tender and full of flavor, and all of the sauces along with the flakes of sea salt were just too perfect to describe. You will not regret ordeirng this! And it is a little more in the comfort zone of most people. My friends ordered the gazpacho again and then also tried the stuffed tomato, which they said was delicious. But I don’t think they loved it nearly as much as I loved mine.

Borda Berri is a little more pricy than the other pinchos bars, but it is worth it… I swear. Nearby, there is a quaint and lovely square called Constitución Plaza. It is lovely to walk around and there are also many restaurants and pinchos bar surrounding it, but everything we saw there didn’t look too great. Be forewarned! Go for a quick stroll, but not really anything else. The buildings are really lovely. Nearby, there is a lovely pinchos bar that came highly recommended to us called Taberna Gandarías. One of my colleagues told me that while she was in San Sebastian for 3 days, she went there 4 times… do the math! We were only able to make it once, but we were very impressed by the pinchos. There isn’t much space, and this place in particular had quite a lot of people crowding the counters. Oh, and there’s very little counter space as well. But the prices on tapas and wine are fantastic, and it is definitely worth checking out! Just expect to wait a bit before they can assist you. My friends were super impressed with Gandarias, and I enjoyed it too… But honestly, Borda Berri topped my list for the entire trip.

On the last day, we decided to try something new that wasn’t on my list. We ended up at La Montanera Kota 31, which despite breaking some of my rules, turned out to be fantastic! When we entered, there weren’t many people there and there were lots of places to sit. Normally a red flag. But literally everything we tried here was amazing, including the house wine. We had about 4 pinchos each (totally against the rules for a pinchos crawl, but our feet were tired and we had a table!) and an equal amount of wine, because the wine was actually one of the best ones I have ever tasted. I highly recommend this place!

Another thing, and this is important: Try to plan to be in San Sebastian on a Thursday night. Near Zurriola Beach and along Gran Via Kalea they do an amazing special: 2€ for 1 pincho and one drink of your choice. Is that amazing… or amazingly amazing?! Many pinchos bars around this area participate, and everywhere will be crowded. But it’s worth it… I promise! Some of the pinchos were just alright (I mean, you can’t expect much for such a cheap price), but some of them were absolutely delicious. Definitely take advantage of this! But be careful… it tricks you into drinking more than you probably should… if you can’t resist trying every delicious-looking pincho, like us.

Monte Urgull

View of the bay from Urgull

On the far side of the Parte Vieja is Monte Urgull, one of the two main large hills in San Sebastian. You can climb up this for some lovely views of the city, and can also visit the large Jesus statue at the top. There’s a free museum you can enter, but it didn’t prove to be all that interesting. It isn’t too difficult of a walk, but in the heat, you will definitely start sweating a bit. Dress accordingly! Good thing is, after your hike and working up an appetite, you have loads of pinchos at the bottom of the hill to look forward to. Give yourself about two hours to walk around and explore. There are many different paths that lead to the top, and the occasional bench to take a rest. You will be awarded with some gorgeous views! Don’t miss it.

A peek at Monte Igueldo across the bay. Also worth the visit!

The Beaches

Now, San Sebastian isn’t really known for its beaches in the way other places in Spain are. However, they are lovely and worth a visit! The two main beaches are Playa de la Concha and Playa Zurriola. It is important to know that the North of Spain (or Basque Country, excuse me) rains quite a bit, which is why everything you see is unbelievably green. It did sprinkle a little bit while we were there, and the people we spoke to at the hostel said it had rained all that week. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty, and hey, you can just run into a pinchos bar to ride out the rain!

Playa de la Concha, the main beach in San Sebastian.

If you continue walking along the boardwalk towards Monte Igueldo, you will find many places where the beach disappears and there’s a cliffside instead (depending on the time of day, of course). There are also plenty of places to sit on the rocks to enjoy the waves crashing against the shore. At one point, you’ll come across a little underpass with a pretty building on top and a pretty green garden. You can take the stairs up and picnic there, it is a lovely place to rest and take in the views. The name of the place is Miramar Palace. On the other side of this underpass, you will find the other half of Playa de la Concha.

Miramar Palace

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually make it to the beach during our trip. We were too busy stuffing our faces with pinchos, and probably wouldn’t have looked too hot in a bikini after all of that anyways. But even with the clouds, it was quite warm outside and a few hours later the sky cleared up and it was lovely! This picture below was taken the same day, just about an hour later.

Since San Sebastian is on the northern coast of the Basque Country/Spain and is surrounded by hills, you won’t really see sunsets here. But the views on the beaches are lovely  nonetheless at night!

Monte Igueldo

On the other side of Playa de la Concha, farthest from Parte Vieja, is Monte Igueldo. You have the option of walking up (expect a decent walk), driving up, or taking the funicular up. For the funicular, it only costs about 3€ and includes admission into the mini amusement park at the top (but going on the rides is extra).

The funicular going up Monte Igueldo.

Once at the top, you have some breathtaking views of San Sebastian. I’m pretty sure all of us literally gasped at just how beautiful it was, even though it was sprinkling at that time. It is definitely worth the visit! We came across this cute little boat ride that went along the mountainside, and we just had to try it out. The boats are super small but can fit 4 people. It was about 2€, which was a little pricy considering how short of a ride it was, but it was still fun. There are many other rides there as well, which would be fun for the young ones on a sunny day. However, it isn’t the greatest amusement park in the world and it’s rather pricy. I noticed they also sell beer, wine, and pinchos up there as well for the adults! On the other side of Monte Igueldo, facing away from Playa de la Concha, you can get a sneak peek at the coast. It was so gorgeous, I wish I could’ve just rented a car and spent days exploring all of the small towns along there. It is beyond beautiful in Basque Country.

Pasai and Pasaia (The Fishing Villages)

The fishing villages are to the right of San Sebastian.

Nearby San Sebastian, there are two little fishing villages on the bay. It is popular to go hiking there and take a stroll. We were feeling lazy, however, and didn’t have much time anyways, so we just took the bus. We had google maps at our disposal to figure out the buses, but if you don’t have that just stop into your nearest tourist information point and they’ll give you a heads up. It took us about 25 minutes by bus to get there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re there, but it is very beautiful and old-European looking. It doesn’t even feel real as you walk along the small cobblestone corridors. There are little restaurants and ice cream shops all along the way that you can stop at for a rest (especially if you decide to do the hike, which can take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on your pace).

There’s a small boat that you can ride to get to the other side, at a cost of only about 70 cents per person. It is very quick, but a fun experience nonetheless.

There seemed to be more to see and do on the Pasai side, so keep that in mind! If you’re looking to save money, it could be a good idea to pack a picnic lunch and eat along the waterfront.

The Basque Culture

I honestly didn’t know much about Basque people before I left for this trip, and I still don’t. But here are the basics: Basque Country is NOT Spain. Do not talk about Spain here. They have their own very distinct language and are very proud of their culture. In the recent past, there was a terrorist group here called ETA that fought for the independence of the Basque Country and harmed many people. Today, it is safe to visit, but please be respectful of their culture and wishes to be independent! Of course, everyone there also speaks Spanish, so you can get by using your basic Spanish phrases. While we were there, we saw a protest march go through the streets. It was very calm, but later we noticed that there was graffiti placed around some prominent places, and it was such a shame to see that they felt the need to deface private property… but oh well.

List of What to See

  • Playa de la Concha – lovely, where most of the tourists go for a nice beach day.
  • Parte Vieja – right in front of Monte Urgull, this is where you will find all of the amazing pinchos places.
  • Monte Urgull – the hill to the right of Playa de la Concha, with a statue of Jesus at the top. A lovely walk, give yourself a couple of hours and bring some comfortable shoes. Free museum at the top. Amazing views of San Sebastian!
  • Peine de los Vientos – translates to “Comb of the Winds.” This is a sculpture along the waterfront. We weren’t actually able to make it here (to my dismay), but it is definitely worth a visit. It is near Monte Igueldo.
  • Museo San Telmo: Plaza Zuloaga, 1
  • Zurriola Beach – Lovely, less crowded beach for surfers.
  • Monte Igueldo Teleferico – Take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for some amazing views of San Sebastian and the bay. There’s also a small theme park at the top. Only costs about €3 to go up, but it costs extra for the rides.
  • Miramar Palace – Amazing views from the top of the gardens, in the middle of Playa de la Concha.
  • Ayuntamiento de Donostia San Sebastián: Zuhaizti Plaza, 0 – pretty city hall in the center of the city.
  • Plaza de Guipuzkoa
  • Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro: Calle 31 de Agosto, 46
  • Alderdi-Eder Park – Lovely park for all ages.
  • Plaza de la Constitución – beautiful to people watch and have a drink, used to be an old bull ring.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • La Gintoneria Donostiarra: Zabaleta Kalea, 6 – Some of the best gins you will every find.
  • Bar El Doce: San Francisco Kalea, 12 – great food, underground bar at night.
  • ***Bar Nestor: Calle Pescaderia, 11 – Claims to have the best steak in the world, and reviews back this up. Also try the tomato salad. Arrive early to get space, and expect to have to stand. We tried to go there but there was no space.
  • Museo del Whisky: Boulevard Zumardia, 5 – great whiskey bar, live piano music sometimes.
  • ***Bar Borda Berri: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12 – AMAZING tapas and local Basque beer! You NEED to come here!
  • Bar Azkena: De la Brecha Enparantza, 2 – Great bacalao
  • ***Gandarias: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23 – Delicious, and great variety! It gets extremely busy here, but it is worth it.
  • La Cuchara de San Telmo: Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 – on NY Times List, delicious veal cheek, bacalao and bonito
  • ***Kota 31: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 22Absolutely amazing tapas and wine. A must try!
  • Goiz Argi: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4 – try gambas a la plancha with Txakoli wine
  • Txepetxa: C/ Pescadería, 5 – try Gilda and drink Sidra
  • Zeruko: Calle Pescaderia, 10
  • La Mejillonera: Calle del Puerto, 15 – delicious mussels, mejillones picantas, calamares

Your Guide to Amsterdam – Things to Do other than Visit ‘Coffee’ Shops

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings 🙂

Everyone knows Amsterdam, and it is world-renowned for being the city of sin. From it’s wide array of coffee shops to countless streets cloaked in red lights, if you tell a friend you’re going to visit they certainly don’t expect it to be innocent.

Regardless, you don’t have to be the seedy type to enjoy Amsterdam. If you don’t smoke, do drugs, or have sex with strangers, you can still have a lot of fun! The canals that weave their way through the city are gorgeous, and if you’re an art or history lover, there are tons of museums to choose from (*coughAnneFrankcoughVan Goghcough*). You just need to plan ahead!

There’s just so much charm in Amsterdam, even in the random neighbourhoods.

Expect lots and lots of people. We should have seen it coming, but it was a little bit overwhelming, especially compared with all of the other cities we visited that trip in Belgium (read about Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp). We asked a local if it was normal to have so many people or if it was just because of the holiday weekend, and she replied that it was always like that. So prep yourselves.

Museum Tickets – Plan Ahead!

Two weeks before leaving, I tried to book tickets for the Anne Frank House. Everything was fully booked for months into the future. I had heard that lines outside of the Anne Frank House could last for many hours, so my friends and I decided not to make that commitment. If you’re planning a trip, buy everything ahead! Even for the Van Gogh tickets you had to wait a few hours in line. We got lucky and only had to wait about 45 minutes to buy the tickets, and we bought them for an entrance time of 3 hours in advance so that we could walk around.

Accomodations

Since it was a holiday weekend, most hostels and hotels were already booked up or at extremely insane prices (for instance, one hostel was charging nearly 80€ for a simple hostel bed in a room of 30 more – insane!). We ended up deciding on the ibis Amsterdam Airport Hotel, which is about a 30 minute train ride away from the center of the city. Not ideal, but necessary. They provided a free shuttle to the airport, but it was the worst experience ever for us. The shuttle only comes once every 30 minutes or so, and if you’re there on a busy weekend, it can be nearly impossible to get on. Everyone is shoved in like sardines, and many people who have already been waiting for over 30 minutes had to wait yet another 30 minutes for the next bus, with no guarantee of space. When you’re on vacation or trying to get to the airport, that’s the last thing you need.

Public Transportation – The 3 Day Pass

From there, you take the shuttle to the airport and then take the train to the center of Amsterdam. The train pass is very confusing, even though they sell it to you as being very simple and all-inclusive. We bought a 3 day pass for 25€, and they assured us that it worked on all buses and trains in the city. But that’s the trick, right there… the airport and hotel are NOT technically in the city of Amsterdam. So when we tried to take the night bus back, we were told that are passes were useless and we’d have to pay 7€. WTF. Luckily, the bus driver was kind enough to let us on anyways. But all of that stress was enough to really piss us off, especially since we had 2 more nights to figure out.

Another stupid thing about the pass – you have to check yourself in AND out. I had never seen this before. When you enter the bus or train, you scan your card. But you CAN NOT forget to scan it again upon exiting, or it’ll screw with your card. We ended up having to go back to the airport and reset our cards because they refused to scan (we think we missed a scan upon exit one time).

Even though the pass proved to be a royal pain in the ass, it was necessary. Without it, public transportation in Amsterdam is ridiculously expensive. We also found a night bus that was included with our pass (hooray!), but it only picked up in one part of Amsterdam, came only once an hour, and it took FOREVER to get to the hotel. We fell asleep on the bus every single time we took it. Plus, the bus stop is about a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel itself… in the freezing cold.

The moral of this story? Don’t stay at the ibis Airport Hotel unless you absolutely have to!

The City

When you finally arrive in Amsterdam, you will find all kinds of food shops with waffles, fries, burgers… you name it! We ate so many fries on this trip, it was ridiculous. We preferred the waffles in Brussels, though. Of course, you also find a lot of coffee and sex shops. It IS Amsterdam, after all. Weed and fatty foods go together like peanut butter and jelly.

On our first day, we decided to take it easy and just wander around. We ended up near the Red Light District, and it was super interesting to see just how many canals there are that wind through the city. Sure, you know that Amsterdam is known for its beautiful canals… but until you’re there, it really doesn’t hit you. Also, Amsterdam’s layout on a map looks super cool (and illustrates my point about just how many canals there are):

The Red Light District and The Oude Church (or Oude Kerk)

Near the famous Red Light District, you will find The Oude Church, Amsterdam’s oldest building. A strange place for a church, eh? You have to pay to go inside, so we decided to pass… considering just how many churches you come across when in Europe.

The Red Light District is like no other place in the world. Women are literally on display at all hours of the day, scantily clad in lingerie of all types. You find all varieties of women, from blonde to dark haired, skinny to fat, etc. It wasn’t nearly as sketchy feeling as I had thought, and my friends and I didn’t feel uncomfortable walking down these streets, even at night. I wouldn’t go alone, though. We were truly surprised by just how many customers these ladies got, at all hours! The rooms are super small (basically a closet), and oftentimes you just see the girls looking bored and playing on their phones. I was surprised by just how little effort they put in, but I suppose the customers come anyways.

In between all of the women on display, you find sex shops and shows galore. There are dildos, vibrators, and toys of all types out on display like candy. Guys hang outside of theatres and try to convince you to go in, at insane prices. We asked, just for fun, how much a certain show cost and he said €60 for a half hour… insane! There are shows here for everyone’s tastes, but expect to shell out a lot of cash.. if that’s what you’re into. They also have peep shows, where you pay 2€ to see a couple going at it for 2 minutes. It’s a strange city for sure!

Another thing – there’s a strict no camera policy, hence a lack of photos besides the pretty canals. I was super tempted to take pictures, but you won’t find anyone else with one and I hear that the ladies put the curtains down and get pretty upset if you try.

Doesn’t look sketchy at all, am I right?

The ‘Coffee’ Shops

I have a question… what if you legitimately want a coffee? What then? I didn’t see any legit coffee shops!

Anyways, the famous Amsterdam Coffee Shops are EVERYWHERE. Some are bigger and more corporate than others. For instance, I wanted to take a peek inside one of them and the bouncers asked to see our passports and made us go through a metal detector. At a different one, they just asked if we were old enough and were happy enough when we said yes. While smoky inside, the coffee shops were not at all what I expected. People weren’t going crazy or acting super stupid, it was very chill. It was mostly people having casual conversations with their friends.

We didn’t partake in any of it, but from what I saw the prices aren’t cheap. Also, in every tourist shop you go into, they sell “weed” cookies, candy, beer, etc. You name it, they have it. But don’t expect there to really be weed in there, my friends. Most of the time it is just clever packaging and maybe a hint of weed flavor. Not to mention, everything is ridiculously overpriced.

Another thing I was super surprised by was how many ‘head shops’ there were that sold every drug you can imagine, from mushrooms to ecstasy. I knew marijuana was legal here, but I had no idea pretty much everything else was as well. Be careful if that’s what you’re into!

Leidseplein

On the far end of the main part of Amsterdam, you find Leidseplein, a very popular square for young people. There are tons of bars, restaurants, and concert halls here. We walked the whole way, but we would recommend taking a tram considering it is free with the 3 day pass and it is much quicker.

Drinks here are super expensive, so beware. You can expect to pay about €5 for a pint, which is up there with Dublin for some of Europe’s priciest drinks. Also, on weekends, they seem to make you charge for the restroom… EVERYWHERE. It was super frustrating. When you’re out drinking with friends, the last thing you want to bother with is some jerk making you pay 50 cents every time you need to go. Be prepared, and bring change!

If you really enjoy music, especially electro, be sure to check the concert halls in this area for their schedules and tickets (see at the end of this post).

The I Amsterdam Sign and Museumsplein

It is obligatory to take a picture with the Amsterdam sign when you’re there, or so it seems from the plethora of photos all over the internet. Before we went, I had read somewhere that it’s necessary to arrive very early in the morning in order to get a decent picture without hoards of people in it. We didn’t heed this advice, unfortunately. If this is a priority for you, keep this in mind!

Nearby, you’ll find the Rijksmuseum (in fact, that’s the building you see behind the I amsterdam sign), the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. Like I mentioned before, it is necessary to buy tickets to all of these places beforehand, unless you have tons of time to kill! The Rijksmuseum is very highly rated, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for that and the Van Gogh Museum. You can expect to pay about 17.50€ to enter, and you’ll find a lovely collection of masterpieces including Rembrandt and Vermeer. It closes at 5pm.

A garden to the right of the Rijksmuseum.

The Stedelijk Museum costs about 15€, and last time I checked, it stayed open a little longer, until 6pm. In here, you will find Monet, Picasso, Rodin, etc. And last but not least, the Van Gogh Museum will cost you about 17€ and is open until 10pm on Friday. It displays Van Gogh’s early works and drawings, and has some great hand-written letters between himself, his brother, and his friends. It was very interesting, there was a lot about Van Gogh that I did not know before!

Van Gogh’s Palette

Would you have ever guessed this was by Van Gogh? There’s an interesting story behind it, too.

The Keukenkoff Gardens, Where You’ll See More Tulips than you have in your Entire Life!

View from the top of the windmill. I wasn’t kidding when I said there were tons of people.

We had read really good things about this, so we decided to devote one day to going. That day happened to be Easter, and everyone else had the same idea. You can pick up a bus from the airport that will take you there, it is about a 50 minute ride. However, if you’re unlucky, you will be stuck standing in the bus the whole time. Since Easter was a big day for the gardens, when we arrived at the airport there was a huge line like I’ve never seen. We almost ditched our plans immediately. However, we asked a few people towards the front of the line how long they had been waiting, and they said only about an hour. We sucked it up and decided to go for it. Luckily, they’re very efficient! It costs about 25€ for the gardens and transport to and from the airport.

It is basically a huge park with tons of different types of tulips. There are some buildings scattered throughout that house various exhibitions using different kinds of flowers, it was pretty cool to see. There’s also a windmill that you can go inside. The gardens are only open for 2 months a year, so check to see if you’re they’re during the right time! It begins at the end of March and ends sometime in May. If you go in the beginning of April, not all of the flowers will be bloomed, but it is very nice nonetheless.

We were lucky that we went at the right time, they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death and had one building entirely themed after his paintings. Check their website to see if there are any special events!

Sight-seeing

  • Van Gogh Museum: Paulus Potterstraat 7, €15, 9am-5pm Sat & Sun, 9am to 10pm Fri – A must-see. Opened by Van Gogh’s brother, contains a large collection of drawings, paintings, and letters.
  • Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: Museumplein 10, €15. 10am-6pm – Monet, Picasso, Chagall, Rodin, etc.
  • Rijksmuseum: Museumstraat 1,€17.50, 9am-5pm – Also a must-see, housing Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other masterpieces.
  • Heineken Experience: Stadhouderskade 78 – I didn’t personally do this, but it had good reviews. It is nearby Museumplein.
  • Albert Cuypmarkt: 10am-5pm Friday and Saturday – Large market that sells everything you can imagine, including many local specialties.
  • Anne Frank House: Prinsengracht 263-267, €9, 9am-7pm – Obviously a very important think to visit while in Amsterdam, but be sure to buy your tickets way in advance!
  • Royal Palace Amsterdam: Dam Square, €10, 12pm-5pm
  • Sex Museum: Damrak 18 – Worth a visit if you have an open mind!
  • Oude Kerk: Oudekerksplein 23, €5, 10am-6pm (Mon-Sat), 1pm-5:30pm (Sun) – Amsterdam’s oldest building, near the Red Light District.
  • Red Light District (De Wallen): Enge Kerksteeg 3 – No comment necessary.
  • Begijnhof: Begijnhof 30, 8am-5pm – Former convent.
  • Keukenhoff Gardens: Stationsweg 166A – Tulips galore! Only open 2 months a year. Outside of Amsterdam, pick up a bus at the airport.
  • Amsterdams Verzetsmuseum: Plantage Kerklaan 61A – History of the Resistance during WWII.
  • Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 – A hidden church with fascinating history.

Local Food Specialties – Must Try!

  • Patatje Oorlog – A delicious sauce to put on fries: mayo (mayo is on everything!), sate sauce and onions. The literal translation is war chips. Mannekin Pis is the best place to try it: Damrak 41
  • Stamppot – mashed potatoes with vegetables and sausage.
  • Stroopwafels – waffle caramal sandwiches
  • Bitterballen – deep-fried gravy bites
  • Appelgeback – apple tart
  • Poffetjeslittle pancakes with sugar

Super delicious!

Restaurants and Cheap Eats

Food is very important to me. Like, REALLY important to me. I generally research the best places online before I go somewhere, and back home in California I ALWAYS yelp places. I had read on one blog that they were very disappointed in the food they tried, and that it was necessary to research good places before going. Don’t have to ask me twice! Here’s the list of places all over Amsterdam I found in my research:

  • Burgerlijk: Runstraat 1 – huge, delicious burgers
  • Sky Lounge: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Amsterdam Centraal Station, Oosterdoksstraat 4 – try bitterballen here! Amazing view of the city.
  • Bar Huf: Reguliersdwarsstraat 43II – Great fondue and hang out place.
  • Café Het Paleis – Paleisstraat Centrum 16 – Good for lunch or coffee. Try appelgebak!
  • 5&33: Martelaarsgracht 5 – Great atmosphere, and good place to share food.
  • Nam Kee: Zeedijk 111-113 – Cheap and delicious Chinese food.
  • Hap Hmm: Eerste Helmersstraat 33 – cheap eats, around 6€ for a filling meal!
  • Latei: Zeedijk 143 – healthy snacks, vegetarian meals.
  • Broodjeszaak ‘t Kuyltje: Gasthuismolensteeg 9 HS – Dutch sandwiches.
  • Singel 404: 1016 AK Amsterdam – Claims to have the best sandwiches in Amsterdam, starting at 5€.

Some of the burgers at the Getto.

  • **Getto**: Warmoesstraat 51 – Actually made it to this room! Near the Red Light District, it is a very fun place with great food. Everything is drag queen themed, and they also put on shows! They also have some great and delicious drink specials. Worth a visit!
  • Peperwortel: Overtoom 140 – Great fusion of food.

Drink Places

  • Cafe Kooper: Leidseplein 16 – dive bar, but nice
  • Skek: Zeedijk 4-8 – Good hang out place, and if you’re still hungry they offer snacks and burgers.

  • Brouwerij ‘t IJ: Funenkade 7 – A brewery inside of a windmill! It was super cool, but unfortunately closes super early… at 6pm I believe. Great beer! Worth a visit, even though it is on the far side of the city. Use the tram!
  • In De Wildeman: Kolksteeg 3
    • One of the best drinking establishments I have been to. Huge selection of ales with a great barman. Relaxing atmosphere and somewhere you just keep revisiting. Search it out – you will not be disappointed