There are a handful of attributes that are true of many Western world capitals:
- The public transit system is labyrinth-like, but efficient.
- The streets are crowded and buzzy.
- The neighborhoods are distinct and their residents proud.
- The people may appear gruff, but are generally polite and even helpful.
If you’re going to Paris or London or Buenos Aires, you know you can expect the above. I love these attributes. Cities are where I am most comfortable. Coming from New York, the controlled chaos feels familiar and manageable. In fact, I’m always amazed at how quickly a brand new city can feel like home. It’s quite heartening. My husband and I like to jump right into the deep end by taking public transit from the airport upon arrival, if we’re not too tired. I love the challenge of quickly deciphering a complex metro system. (No, really, I do.) We also prefer to rent an apartment in a residential neighborhood as opposed to staying in a hotel. If you don’t care about having a dozen towels at your disposal or troubleshooting an issue if something goes wrong, it’s an ideal way to feel like a real resident (well, as close as you can get on a week-long vacation).
This past September, we traveled to Spain and rented apartments in Madrid and Barcelona. I loved both. And both felt like home instantaneously.
Madrid is the true heart of Spain, with busy boulevards and a familiar big-city feel. From the similarities between Central Park and Retiro Park, Times Square and Sol (complete with sketchy people in character costumes), the Upper East Side and Salamanca, the Met and the Prado, the city felt almost earily similar to NYC. We found Madrileños to be fun-loving, friendly and cultured. I’d read about Madrid’s brusqueness, but found none in practice. People were very polite and helped us with everything from directions to picking out menu items. (A Spanish phrasebook did come in handy for when the answer to “Habla usted Inglés?” was a distinct “no”.)
From top: first taste of jamón at Mercado de San Miguel; wine and stuffed olives; seafood at Mercado de San Miguel; the lake at Retiro Park; looking west from Retiro Park; the bar inside Viva Madrid; tortilla española breakfast; El Rastro flea market; jamón sandwich window display; Real Madrid stadium after a game; tapas at Txakolina; churros and chocolate at Chocolateria San Ginés; breakfast at La Mallorquina; Expressionism at Reina Sofia; Museo del Prado; rooftop bar at Mercado de San Antón
Barcelona has the unmatched beauty of a city that’s warmly embraced both its historic past and and its modernist future. It’s distinctly Catalan with a casual Bohemian vibe. It’s also filled with tourists. We heard more English spoken in our first few hours than we heard during our entire stay in Madrid. There is also a distinctness to Barcelona–the feel of being in a locale that’s wholly unique. Between the ancient winding streets of El Born and Barri Gòtic, the wide boulevards of L’Eixample and the uniquely Mediterranean beach and coast, you feel as though you’re in a place that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world. The city has a lively, kinetic energy and a laid-back, friendly local population. I’m actually surprised it’s not even more packed with tourists.
From top: the view from our Barcelona apartment in L’Eixample; the winding streets of La Ribera/El Born; watching the parade on the last day of Festival La Mercè; cava and blistered shiseido peppers at Bar de Pla; Casa Batlló, a Gaudí building; organ inside La Sagrada Familia; view from Parc Güell; Gaudí aqueducts; exterior of Palau de la Música Catalana; arròs negre at Kaiku restaurant on the beach; view of Catalan coast; fountain inside Parc de la Cuitadella; mosaic roof; squid and chickpeas at Cal Pep; interior of Santa Maria del Mar; elderly shoppers at Mercat Santa Caterina