Where To Go If For Some Reason You Happen To Find Yourself In Bratislava: Guest Post by Laura Baranik

So you’re in Central Europe for a limited time only and you want to hit the hottest of the Austro-Hungarian hot spots. These are, inarguably, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. (If you want to be really cool, you’ll throw Český Krumlov into the mix, too.) Guess which capital city hasn’t reached the top of the tourist charts? I’ll tell you, since you’ve probably never heard of it: Bratislava, the forlorn little Slovak town that – at just 35 miles away – is the schlumpy suburb to big, beautiful Vienna.

But wait! People DO visit Bratislava! Most of them are just taking an involuntary pit stop on the Danube river cruise between Vienna and Budapest, but still – I’ve occasionally even caught them enjoying themselves!
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Ok, I’m a (semi-) local, so like any good Slav, I can get a little cynical. In all seriousness, though, there are so many Bratislava spots I love that I had a hard time deciding what to put on this list. Here are the ones that made the cut*:

Korzo: You won’t find “korzo” on a map, but ask any Bratislavan and they’ll tell you – it’s the stretch of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets leading from Michalská Brána (Michael’s Gate), past the main square, and over to Hviezdoslavovo Square, the long plaza at the foot of the National Theatre. On summer nights, the korzo heaves with outdoor restaurants and bars, live music, and swarms of ice-cream-carrying promenaders. Follow the masses – and the green laser pointers.
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Kontakt: A non-tourist-trap island in an ocean of korzo tourist traps. No-frills seasonal local and international food, plus craft beer on tap and outdoor seating for people-watching purposes. Try the chicken paprikáš with (their words, not mine) “the best dumplings ever.” Cheap and chill.
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Koun: The name of this super-cute artisanal gelateria is the phonetic Slovak spelling of the English word “cone” – so pronounce it that way! Rotating flavors include marzipan, raspberry-mint, and “Sexy Chocolate” (they had me at “sexy”). Take your koun to a bench under the trees on Hviezdoslavovo Square.

The Blue Church: Of all the supposed must-see Bratislava sights (the bridge, the castle, etc.), the Church of St. Elizabeth – known to everybody as just “the Blue Church” – is the only one that you actually must see, even if it’s slightly outside the old town center. Built during the Secessionist era by Hungarian architect Edmund Lechner, the Blue Church is totally unique, and totally blue.

U Kubistu: Housed in a building designed in the rare Cubist style, this Cubism-themed café is a local favorite and a great place to stop for a meal, coffee, or cocktail after checking out the Blue Church. Creative, healthy-ish food made with local ingredients.

Kompot / Slávica: If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, avoid the hideous keychains and folk dolls in the tourist shops along the korzo – most of them were probably made in China, anyway – and support young local designers instead. Kompot sells tasteful souvenir t-shirts bundled into jam jars (kompot means compote, get it?) and Slovak-themed socks, which are clearly super cool because I bought three pairs just for myself. Next door, Slávica showcases Slovak and Czech design items, including jewelry, home decor, and traditional linen blueprint.
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Urban House: With its couches, cold brew, and avocado toast, this sprawling coffee shop is more Brooklyn than Bratislava. But it’s the perfect place to go if you need to get work done while you travel – the coffee is bangin’ and they’ll let you hang out and use the wi-fi for as long as you want. (Two sister branches, Urban Space and Urban Bistro, are nearby.)

Buchtáreň: Originally a food stand, this little shop serves a Slovak specialty that you’d normally be hard-pressed to find outside your grandma’s house: hand-made buchty. Imagine a fluffier version of a steamed bao bun, filled with jam or Nutella and decorated with as many toppings as you want – poppy seeds, powdered sugar, cocoa, hot melted butter… YUM. MY.

Stará Tržnica (Old Market): The area in and around the vaulted Old Market Hall has become something of a scene, with a small cluster of food trucks outside the main doors and a colorful new minibrewery pub (Výčap u Ernöho) attracting customers both day and night. On Saturdays, the hall has a farmer’s market, where you can eat a hot lokša (potato crêpe) slathered in duck fat. You didn’t come here to diet, did you?
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KC Dunaj: Drink with the cool kids at this multi-level “cultural center,” accessed through the back-alley service entrance of a Communist relic department store. There’s a beer bar on the ground floor and a greasy club in the basement, but don’t get stuck downstairs: take the freight elevator up to the roof bar and have a borovička (juniper brandy) with a spectacular view of the city. The top floor doubles as a gallery and event space, so you might find anything from a board game night to a live Balkan band. Just go with it.
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City Walls: Take an evening to explore the other side of Old Town. Turn off busy Venturská Street and follow Prepoštská westwards through the iron gate and up the shallow stone steps. At the top is Úzka (Narrow) Street, which runs alongside the last remaining section of Bratislava’s medieval city fortification walls. You might stop for an evening tea or a glass of wine at the tiny outdoor Tea Bar before wandering the wall’s pathway and crossing the pedestrian bridge over the highway to Židovská Street. The steep paths on the hill leading up to the castle are dotted with bars and pubs, and once you stumble your way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with an epic view over the Danube, and Austria beyond.


Alas, that view will necessarily include the Nový Most, also known as the UFO Bridge and perhaps Bratislava’s most recognizable landmark. Ugly-architecture fetishists may find the gargantuan 1960s-style flying saucer and mass of steel cables enthralling, but I prefer to keep the spaceship at a distance: without it, Bratislava would be much less the red-headed stepchild to Vienna and Prague that it is today. In order to build the bridge and its adjoining highway, the Communist government razed a huge section of the city center, permanently erasing the centuries-old Jewish Quarter and its famous synagogue and slicing a deep, deadening gash between Bratislava’s castle and the Old Town. Looking at that self-righteous monstrosity just makes me sad, you know?

Anyway. Has the cranky Slav convinced you to visit Bratislava yet? Trust me, it might not be such a bad idea to check it out sometime. Even of your own free will.

*I did my research during the summer, so some of these are season-specific.

Laura Baranik is a writer, editor, and actor based in New York City. For two years, she was the head restaurant critic for the Czech daily newspaper Lidové Noviny, in collaboration with her own (now-defunct) food blog, The Prague Spoon. She also wrote monthly lifestyle and humor columns in the Czech-language edition of InStyle magazine and the Prague street mag Think Again, as well as occasional op-eds and features for Lidové Noviny and its supplemental magazine, Pátek. In 2017, two of Laura’s poems were included in the book New York City Haiku, published by The New York Times and Universe/Rizzoli. She is currently planning the launch of a new, NYC-oriented writing project. http://www.laurabaranik.com

Siem Reap Siem Reap Siem Reap

When we booked our Thailand trip, we added a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, because I figured as long as we were so close I couldn’t not see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. I imagined that the temples would be the main draw of Siem Reap, and I’d mostly vibe with Thailand. TURNS OUT Siem Reap was my favorite part of the trip after Phang Nga Elephant Park.

First of all, Cambodia uses the American dollar as currency (along with their native riel) so the exchange rate was so obviously nuts. The amount of things that cost “one dollar one dollar one dollar” was surreal. An entire fresh pineapple or coconut, for example.

In Thailand and Cambodia we stuck to hotels rather than Air BnBs because hotels were SO cheap and felt easier to navigate with any sort of language barrier. Our little villa was part of the Angkor Spirit Palace – just close enough to the city and the temples to make tuk tuk rides unbelievably cheap, but not one of the giant resorts (which are a thing. I was not expecting giant resorts, and their proximity to the literal huts that locals lived in was especially wild). It came with hotel cats which is always a plus for me.

Angkor Spirit Palace set us up with a tuk tuk driver, Mao, for our stay. He picked us up from the super clean and lovely Siem Reap airport to begin, and from then on out we told him where we wanted to be and when and he arranged all of our rides. It was SILLY how easy this was, and getting to the city was only $2 from the hotel. Our temple DAY cost only $18.

Which brings me to the beginning of the temples! Our first night we climbed Phnom Bakheng (getting to the base via Mao, of course) to see the sunset. It was cloudy so our view was sadly obscured, but the temple itself was still an amazing introduction to the city’s insane history.

Before visiting the temples, you have to purchase a day pass. The sweet thing was that our pass for the next day included the evening before’s sunset visit since that’s such a popular trajectory. KEEP YOUR PASS ON YOU. If you lose this piece of paper you can’t get anywhere close to the main attractions. A lot of tourists had laminated lanyard pouches for them, which honestly was smart.

It’s also good to note that ladies, you must have your knees and shoulders covered. A long skirt or capris will do the trick. I opted for a skirt because of the heat, and carried around a “temple shawl” sheer scarf just in cast my shirts were ever suspect. See above coconut photo.

After the sunset viewing – as much as possible, at least – we hopped into the city for dinner. We told Mao to pick us up at 9pm since we had a 4:30am departure time the next day. More on that in a sec.

We found this totally beautiful French-Cambodian restaurant, Le Malraux, for dinner. I had forgotten that Cambodia was colonized by the French for a while. We vowed to try some traditional purely Cambodian food which we did all over the next day.

This was the first time we ate bread in two weeks. I loved the Thai rice and noodle-based meals, but MAN some fresh bread tastes amazing when you haven’t had it in fourteen days.

The next morning, Mao picked us up at 4:30am, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our sunrise Angkor Wat visit. Okay, so every tourist who ever goes to Siem Reap does a sunrise Angkor Wat visit, and you will feel like you are competing with all of them for a spot on the lake. But this phenomenon was 1000% worth the early hours and swarms of people. Once you get a good spot – I recommend the left bank of the lake, less populated with just as clear a view as the center – watching the sun rise is totally transfixing.

After sunrise, we explored Angkor Wat in the daylight like normal humans. Our day’s temple tour afterwords included Bayon, Phimeanakas, Thommanon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, and Ta Prohm. Angkor Spirit Palace recommends this route as their sunrise day tour, and we were thrilled with it. Chances are, your hotel in Siem Reap has a tour and driver available to recommend when you book your reservation, and Angkor Spirit Palace’s was significantly cheaper than any tour site packages. Plus, Mao packed us breakfast and a case of water (almost all of which we drank. It’s HOT in Cambodia in January).

I matched this local horse and thus bonded with it. Doug, wearing purple, did not match and the horse bit his foot.

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My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, which a big tourist grab since Tomb Raider was filmed there. Another perk of our sunrise tour was that we still arrived early to the temples, beating the midday rush. The colors of Ta Prohm were so gorgeous, and the entire temple has been taken over by massive tree roots. It’s also huge, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get lost exploring which is exactly what I love to do.

It was about 2:00pm when we got back to the hotel, and we were exhausted. Lots of stairs on those temples! We napped HARD before going out to properly explore Siem Reap’s nightlife.

We opted for a traditional dinner of Lamok and Lap Khmer and went for a pub crawl on Pub Street (literally called “Pub Street,” lest we become confused as to where to find the pubs). Drinks, especially beer, were so cheap so we sampled quite a few places. W also indulged in rolled ice cream and taking in the night market sites. Siem Reap felt alive at night in a different way than Phuket. Yes, Siem Reap still housed many tourists, but it felt like the whole city was in on the fun and it wasn’t just a show for the tourists.

During our three days in Siem Reap I certainly felt like we accomplished our list of things to see, but I’d love to go back for another week to visit the outer temples and really become immersed in the city. Maybe I’ll have the guts to try fried cricket next time.

Segovia: The Must-Do Madrid Day Trip

Roman aqueducts, a Gothic Catholic cathedral, and suckling pig for days (if you’re into that sort of thing).

When deciding between Toledo and Segovia for our Madrid-based day trip, Segovia won largely because of the aqueduct. I’d never seen a Roman ruin before, and the opportunity to do so was not something I could pass up, especially when they’re only a 30 minutes away via local Renfe train.

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I mean, LOOK at this beaut! It was built around AD 50 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It still stands in nearly peak condition and is flanked by many a restaurant and tapas bar where you can have a bite to eat and bask in its glory.

Speaking of bites to eat, Segovia is known for its cochinillo asado, or suckling pig. It was usually rather expensive and I’m generally wary of eating baby animals, so we skipped it. If you’re a meat connoisseur, though, it’s supposed to be delicious. (We noticed that a lot of restaurants in Spain advertised serving literal “baby” animals. Like the word “baby” was printed on the menu. In America we try to mask that sh* with words like veal; even serving “lamb” isn’t saying “baby sheep.” Way to go for the transparency, España. I see you with that branding.)

If, like me, the baby pig option isn’t for you, fret not. You can still try a traditional Castilian soup, also famous in Segovia, called  judiones de la granja. It features large white beans in a tomato broth and was an excellent appetizer to my local fish lunch.

After eating, we wandered past the aqueduct (bye bb, be back so soon) to the Roman Catholic cathedral. This guy was impressive. It looms over the main square with its intricate Gothic spires and stained glass windows. It was built between 1525-1577 and is entirely worth just staring at for a while.

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We wandered through the beautiful, quaint old town to the top of the hill where the Segovia Castle presides over the surrounding area. DEFINITELY buy the entrance ticket for the castle, and it’s worth tacking on the 8 Euros to climb to the top of the highest tower as well. The VIEWS.

 

After feeling like proper Medieval royalty for a few hours, we wandered down to have a cerveza and quick bite below the aqueduct (See! Promised I’d come back!) before catching the return train to Madrid. Almost as amazing as our proximity to the aqueduct was the fact that this collasal remainder of the Roman Empire was so not a big deal to the locals around us.

We bought our train tickets online the night before after experiencing the horror that was Lisbon train station ticket lines. Madrid’s station didn’t appear to be nearly as bad, but having tickets in advance certainly made for some breezy travel. We gave ourselves seven hours in Segovia, which might have been a bit too long, but we were definitely able to relax and just exist in the town for a few hours, which is never a bad thing. When we arrived back in Madrid we were perfectly full of adventure, culture and papas bravas.

Madrid Day 2: Nothing Is Open On Sundays But We’re Into It Anyway

When we arrived home after our night one adventures, Michael and Miguel were finishing entertaining guests on their terrace, because of course, and offered us gin and tonics to chat about life and our trip thus far. Michael is a former New Yorker who moved to Madrid (goals) to live with Miguel, who is originally from Toledo. They recommended Toledo or Segovia for a day trip, and after some research we decided on Segovia because of the STANDING ROMAN AQUEDUCTS. But more on that later!

Day two was Sunday, aka sleepy church day in the Catholic-based city. Since museums are open on Sundays, we decided to make this our art day- the Reina Sofia is free starting at 2 and the Prado is free from 5-7pm on Sundays, and we love free!

 

The garden courtyard of the Reina Sofia.

We wandered through the uber cool La Latina neighborhood and El Rastro, the Sunday artisanal fair along Madrid’s streets. Admittedly, it was very congested and not really our thing since it resembled NYC’s summer street fairs almost exactly. But if you’re looking for cheap t-shirts and souvenirs, it’s definitely your thing.

Barrio La Latina is beautiful, with colorful, winding streets adorned with flowers galore. We stopped for lunch at Mas Al Sur based on a recommendation from one of Doug’s friends, and ate shrimp in garlic sauce that truly made me think for a moment that we had transcended to heaven. Our only mistake was ordering the small portion along with some other taps. NO. Order the large portion, order two or three of them, and eat ONLY THAT with bread to soak up the rest of the garlic sauce. I have since had multiple dreams about this dish and awoken in tears to realize that I was not, in fact, eating it again.

This brought us to the free Reina Sofia line, which was long but definitely moved once 2pm hit. And guys. You MUST go to the Reina Sofia. The Picasso exhibit, specifically Guernica, makes any line worth it.

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After two hours with Queen Sofia and Picasso we took a coffee break at one of the probably overpriced cafes near the Prado. We had time to kill, but not quite enough to fully do the Parque de Retiro, and were in need of a pick me up, so fine, 5 Euro for a cappuccino it is.

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Having just seen art and waiting for more art

After this, we waited in the MUCH LONGER line for the 5pm Prado. I stand by what I said, though: free museums are worth the lines. Especially when they house the masters! Prado is MASSIVE, so unless you have the whole day to really do it, it’s worth giving yourself a game plan. Ours was pretty simple: catch the Big Guys and take in whatever we come across on the way. This took us to Goya, El Greco, and Velasquez’s colossal displays with plenty of other Spanish artists peppered throughout. Another two and a half hours later, we were awe inspired and HUNGRY.

 

A photo Doug took of the local foliage whilst in line for the Prado 

This dinner, we were on a mission. PAELLEA. Michael told us of another favorite haunt of his and Miguel’s called La Barraca on Calle de la Reina. It doesn’t open until 8:30 on Sundays, bless the Spanish and their impossibly late dinners.

La Barraca definitely expects you to have a reservation, so I would recommend making one, though we were seated perfectly comfortably in the basement nearest the bathroom. Hey, a seat is a seat as long as it has some award-winning paella in front of it. And heads up – their paella comes in sharing portions only, a minimum of two people per dish. Don’t go if you’re single! You will feel embarrassed and end up hungry.

We shared a classic paella with shelled shrimp, because I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to seafood and don’t like to see the faces of my fish. If you tell me that eyeballs and tentacles are appealing to you, I will tell you that you’re lying and saying that to look cool. Eating eyeballs is only gross, not cool, sorry.

An example from labarraca.es that perfectly illustrates the paella we did not eat

Doug is very into eating anything local and authentic, so I know he would have gone for the eyeballs and tentacles but agreed to the shelled version to appease me. A true compromiser.

The maitre-d presented our giant skillet of steaming paella to us so that we could approve it and allow it to be served. Basement bathroom table or no, I felt royal as heck with all of that power.

The dish was simple and delicious, red rice with fresh shellfish and secret special paella spices. Admittedly, the portions were huge and filling and defeated us pretty quickly, but this definitely made it feel worth the price.

Paella conquered (sort of), we headed back to Chueca. We tried to get into the elusive rooftop bar The Tartan Roof, which was impossible even on a Sunday. Apparently it’s quite the attraction if you’re willing to wait, which we were presently not. Next time!

Last stop: Casa M&M where we booked train tickets to Segovia for Day 3’s adventure. Check back next week for all things SEGOVIA.

Escaping Scammers or the French Police – We’re Still Not Sure*

*Okay, we’re 99.89% sure they were scammers. But there’s still that .11% chance that I’m a wanted fugitive in Paris, and that doesn’t NOT make me feel like a badass.

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Picture this: It was June 2016. I was traveling with my mom through Western Europe after doing the Scottish Play in Scotland (yep). My mom used to live in Montpellier and does *not* like Paris, but this was a trip I had originally planned to take with an ex, and Mama G saved the day by taking his place when we broke up. So Paris, la ville de l’amour, it was.

 

By the time our little incident took place we’d been exploring France’s capitol for two days and had exclusively walked or taken the metro everywhere. We bought a little packet of five disposable metro tickets each, and up until then had thrown the individual ticket slips away after each ride. So far, no problems, no machines asking to take the tickets on our way out of the metro (the way there are in London, for example), and no signs indicating that we should hold onto our tickets anywhere. So when we exited the metro at the Eiffel Tower station – the most touristy metro stop in the world, for sure – I thought nothing of having trashed my little slip of paper.

That is, until a large French hand stopped me asking to scan my ticket. My mom happened to keep hers because she’s constantly one step ahead of everybody, but I, subpar mortal human, had thrown mine away like I was used to doing.

“No ticket, 75 Euros,” Large French Hand Man said.
“No,” I said, “That’s never been a rule before.” He shrugged, and held up a laminated manual stating that this was, in fact, the rule. Mind you, there were about five of these “officers,” and they all had very official-looking vests and ticket scanning machines. Plus walkie-talkies. Walkie-talkies = legit.

My mom tried speaking to them in French, but since they knew we spoke English and were therefore tourists, they were having none of it. Because I am belligerent and smart, I declared that we were not going to pay, that this was connerie and a scam and we didn’t believe it. I believe my exact words were, “This is bullsh*t, this is a scam, there’s no way we’re paying.” I tried to push my way through the wall of gruff Frenchmen but a couple of pairs of hands grabbed me at once and shoved me back in place.

“You pay, or we call the police, and when the police come it’s 180 Euros.”

“Fine,” I said, like a smart person. “Call the police. They won’t come, because you’re a scam, and we won’t pay anything, because this is a scam.”

The vest-wearing bully then rapidly spoke into his walkie-talkie, evidently summoning the police.

I was starting to feel shaky because I, like most rational people, am not a fan of being womanhandled, and I was beginning to seriously doubt my convictions. I mean. The guy had a very official-looking walkie-talkie with which he could communicate with the police. On one hand, I knew it was a scam, and yet on the other, I was becoming more and more sure that I had just landed my mother and I in Parisian jail for the remainder of our trip. I was somehow equally positive of these two antithetical scenarios at once.

Meanwhile, other tourists were being caught in the same trap, and most simply paid the fine. This was making me even more mad, both at the scammers and at the people who weren’t joining my rebellion of two.

After ten-twenty minutes of detainment, my mom asked (in French) how long it was going to take to for the police to get here. I need to take a moment to give a shout out to Beth for remaining totally calm during this encounter, and blindly following my haphazard lead. Not many people would, or should, do the same.

“I don’t know,” the man said, annoyed that he should have to waste one more second or breath on us idiot American tourists. “Could be twenty minutes, could be two hours. You know the Euro is on, lots of police needed there and not here.”

Ah, yes. Sound logic. If I were a French policeman, I too would rather be watching soccer – sorry, football – than dealing with delinquent American riffraff.

And then, our moment came. A group of ten or so Spanish-speaking tourists exited the train at once, and all five ticket scanners were needed to corner them. We were suddenly under only vague surveillance.

“Mom, run,” I hissed, already flying down the stairs, summer skirt clutched in my hand to ensure maximum mobility. The men were shouting after us, loudly and in French, but we flew down the steps and sprinted around as many zig-zaggy alleyways as we could find. For good measure, I put my hair in a bun and took my jacket off, essentially turning me into another person. I think I have a real future in espionage.

Finally, very shaky, we ducked into a cafe as far from the metro station as we could stand to run and caught our breaths over some overpriced Perrier. We walked the long way around the Eiffel Tower, because I’d be damned if I was going to let some punks ruin my tourist moment, and then walked the thirty minutes or so to our Air BnB since we were rather scarred from the metro for the day.

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After reclaiming our dignity in the Jardin de Tuileries, we looked on TripAdvisor and saw that, lo and behold, this ticket-scanning system was one of Paris’s biggest scam problems that summer. It might still be happening, so if you’re planning a trip, be wary! And if you do accidentally throw your ticket away in a moment of learned behavior, just follow my lead! Yell at the authorities and then run from them!

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Pro tip: cover your eyes with macarons and you won’t be able to see anyone’s bullsh*t

For dinner that night, we ate at the recommended restaurant within walking distance of our lodgings: Cafe Metro, of course.

I have since learned that while they WERE likely scammers, this fine is a real thing. You must keep your metro ticket on your person, despite the lack of warning signage. (Macron, can we maybe take a sec and revise how this is handled?)

And deep, deep, deeeeeep down, there is a tiny law-abiding anxious traveler that is convinced that despite the sketchiness, despite the TripAdvisor accounts, these men were, in fact, doing nothing more than upholding their civic duty (although gruffly and as rude as they come).

If so? Tant pis.

Lisbon Day 5 & Madrid Day 1 ☀️

Free Tapas and Rooftop Terraces

Our last day in Lisbon and first evening in Madrid was mostly a travel day, though the flight between the cities is only a quick hour hop. Shoutout to TAP Portugal airlines for having wildly affordable fares and flights every hour! We grabbed ourselves a 5pm flight, giving us time for a leisurely lunch and walk along the waterfront (with a final nata pit stop on the way back). A 10 Euro taxi took us and our carryons to the airport, and we were off. By magical perfect city, bye Vicente and the slightly-too-hot Air BnB room. Hola Madrid! 💃🏻🕺🏻

Our Madrid pad was a DREAM. It was beautifully centrally located and came with a lovely outdoor terrace for Spanish evening musings. Our hosts, Michael and Miguel (I’m not kidding) gave us more recommendations than we knew what to do with. With those and our Google Maps starred up, we were READY. Our first stop was a favorite tapas place of M & M’s a block away from the apartment called El Mollete. It was tiny, authentic, and tested my Spanish vocab just enough. I’m almost disappointed when too many people in foreign countries speak English and I can’t work on the language. Anyone else feel this way? Just me?

 


Regardless, we learned that food in Madrid was a bit pricier than Lisbon, but wine and beer were still cheeeeeaaapppp. So that was A+++. M & M’s place was in the heart of Chueca, neighboring Malasaña. These were for sure the two most fun neighborhoods to go out in at night (we later learned that Chueca is the gay neighborhood – at first we just thought Madrid was even more accepting than NYC! Which it still might be, reagardless, fun on fun on fun around here).

After tapas that first night, we wandered Malasaña (a soon-to-become nightly ritual) and ended up at a gin & tonic bar – the national drink of Spain, it turns out! They offered a gin of the week special, and since we were slightly travel tired we just stayed for one before calling it. Next stop, sleeeeeeep.

We began our first full day in Madrid by checking out the Royal Palace and Temple of Debod which were both SO close to the apartment. The Temple was a gift from the Egyptian government, and definitely didn’t look like anything else we’d seen in the area. I also just love the idea of one country giving a whole other country a gift. Like France, for example, I see you with Lady Liberty. Solid move, guys.

For lunch part 1, we hit up the Mercado San Miguel, which is a open-stall market in a big warehouse a la Time Out Lisbon. We found some little empanadas, and left pretty promptly because it was swamped. Here’s a photo from Spain Attractions since I was too overwhelmed to remember to photograph.1838E4A2-B969-481C-8982-F1886050A17F-4235-000006B8A7F1E6B3.jpeg

Picture this, but with 1000x the amount of people.

Next, we wandered to Chocolateria San Gines for some churros con chocolate. These churros are actually savory compared to the Mexican churros we’re used to in the States, hence the rich DIPPING CHOCOLATE that you can then DRINK afterwords. HI HEAVEN, FANCY MEETING YOU HERE.

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My Double9 Duck is seeing Madrid’s finest.

We continued towards a *legit* tapas bar off of one of Madrid’s many pequeño side streets. What makes it so legit, you ask? Well traditionally, tapas are served for ~free~ with the purchase of a vino or cerveza. Apparently the more you drink, the bigger the plates get, which is all kinds of exciting. At El Tigre we each opted for one pint of beer and were given a LARGE plate of bread, Spanish ham, and cheese. If you’re lunching on a budged, these tapas bars are the way to go! Here’s a list of some of the best bars with said deals:

  • El Tigre (our fav and a local hangout)
  • Taberna La Tia Cebolla
  • La Paloma Blanca (beer isn’t cheap, but portions are massive)
  • Petisqueria
  • Indalo Tapas
  • El Rincon Abulense
  • El Respiro (very close to El Tigre, if El Tigre is full pop on here, or make it stop one and two of your afternoon tapas crawl!)
  • La Pequeña Grana – we didn’t actually make it here, but it’s in Granada so if you’re jonsing for some tapas in the area, check it out!

After our Tapas we strolled to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum to sample some art from the 13th-late 20th centuries. We spent a solid two hours touring the floors, so make sure you give yourself some buffer room if you visit (which I recommend you do!) We saved the big museums, the Prado and the Reina Sofia, for the next day, and were very glad we didn’t try to cram three giant halls’ worth of art into one day. The brain can only take in so much culture no matter how Spanish and impressive it is, ja feel?

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Just look at those peachy majestic walls and tell me you don’t want to spend multiple hours here.
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And here we are INSIDE one of the Thyssen’s masterpieces, because why not?

Finally, we took a siesta because, duh, and afterwords began our evening at the Dear Hotel’s gorgeous rooftop terrace bar. (Funny story, when we were waiting to be able to go up to the roof a server asked if we were being helped, and instead of saying we were waiting for the terraza, I said “terreza” which is not a thing but he took it as we were waiting for our amiga Tereza and I was embarrased trying to explain that.)

When we were finally let onto the terraza, we each had orangey-wheaty crisp, delicious beers and watched the sun set over the many old and cobblestoned (again with the cobblestones!) streets. If you’re in Madrid during nice weather, definitely hit up the Dear Hotel for at least one sunset. Plus, you’ll be excellently positioned to explore the Chueca and Malasaña nightlife once you’re done.

We did just that, popping into one of the only restaurants that could take us sans-reservation on a Saturday night. The more you know: if you’re planning on eating in one of the more popular Madridian neighborhoods on the weekend, make a rez! Restraurants in Chueca were booked for the whole night, but we took note of places we walked past for our later meals.

Finally, we had a nightcap at 1862 Drybar, a Malasaña haunt we’d seen wandering the previous night. I ordered a dragon-themed cocktail to stay on brand that came with a heat warning, and though it sadly didn’t make me breathe fire, it was a taste bud wake up call for SURE. A short jaunt back to casa M&M ended our first full day.

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Lisbon Day 4 ➡️ SINTRA

Day Tripping

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Doug and I have concluded that for most cities, four is the magic number of days to stay in the city proper. That gives plenty of time to see all the touristy sites while also leaving some quality neighborhood exploration time. It’s nice to be able to have one or two late nights out knowing you can afford to sleep in! We gave ourselves five days in Lisbon and Madrid this trip, planning to take one day trip from each home base.

I love day trips. In Europe, trains are brilliant for this and so many areas have a plethora of small towns accessible. In Thailand, we’d arrange for Tuk Tuks or cars since they were SO CHEAP. We popped over to Phang Nga from Phuket two days in a row, actually, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. More on that later.

Everyone we asked about Lisbon-based day trips said Sintra, Sintra, Sintra. After visiting, I completely agree with them. If you’re planning a Lisbon trip, give yourself a Sintra day. You will not regret it!

Sintra is about an hour away by train. What’s in Sintra, you ask? Why only two palaces, a medieval Moorish castle, and a giant park full of all the flora and fauna you can wish! Plus museums on museums on museums and more NATA. Nata forever.

The thing about Sintra is it IS super touristy. It was probably Lisbon’s best-kept secret at one point, but the secret is definitely out now. However, as long as you forge your own path once you get there, it’s totally worth it. When you get off the train in Sintra, you WILL be accosted by tour guides and this WILL be a rip off. Politely say “No, ‘brigado,” and make your own way up towards town. There’s a cheap local bus that will take you to all of the major sites, and boom! There’s your tour.

Let it also be known that the lines for train tickets in the Lisbon station are LONG. While we were waiting we actually ran into our cab driver from Belem day, and he alerted us that you can buy train tickets in the station tabaceria, for which there was no line. Another reason to take cabs! That advice was priceless.

So. We skipped the line and bopped on over to Sintra. First stop, the National Palace. You’re able to buy group tickets to multiple attractions which is a cheaper option, so do it. We decided on the Big Three: National Palace, Moorish Castle, and Pena Palace. There were additional options of museums, but for one day this ended up being plenty to explore. Pena Palace has a whole park attached, and scrambling around the Castelo dos Mouros takes ENERGY. We were totally satisfied with the day’s activities!

The National Palace is beautiful, and very estately. It’s probably the most underwhelming of the three, so it’s a good place to start. Let it be known, though, that I mean underwhelming in the fact that everything here is impressive AF, this just happened to be the least impressive. The Mediterranean architecture and old artifacts are still really lovely, and I would not have passed it up.

We had lunch in the town square before boarding the bus up to the Moorish Castle. And THIS, guys. It was so cool. We cimbled all around and the views were insane. The knowledge of how OLD the structure is is also amazing. Try standing at the top of a turret that was built hundreds of years before the United States was even a glimmer in her fathers’ eyes, and tell me you don’t feel like an epic explorer.

It was super windy which made me feel half like a goddess, and half like I was going to fall off of the damn thing at any minute. Completely exhilarating, in other words. I’ll say it again: Go to Sintra. Climb the Castelo dos Mouros. Feel like you’re in Game of Thrones, probably Winterfell.

We then walked down to the Palace of Pena, which was about a mile walk, if I’m remembering correctly. You can definitely take the bus there but we were feeling STRONG after conquering the castle so. We walked.

There are two routes to the Palace of Pena: the short one that goes right to the palace and is NOT a mile from the Castle, it turns out, or the one we took which takes you through the whole Parque de Pena and is another fifteen minutes or so to the palace. (The guard told us it would be half an hour, but pshh. Not for us warriors.) It was by total happy accident that we took the park route, not realizing there WAS another option. The park was GORGEOUS, though, and largely undeveloped so you really get a sense of the local foliage. Look at me, saying things like “local foliage.”

Pena Palace was by far my favorite part of Sintra, and I loved the lead up that the park provided. It really made us feel in it, like we were really experiencing the slice of stunning life that living in the palace would provide. Going with the Game of Thrones metaphor, which is basically how I live my life even when not exploring medieval grounds: if Castelo dos Mouros is Winterfell, Parque de Pena is King’s Landing and the palace is the Red Keep. Needless to say, I decided within two minutes of entering the palace that my dragons and I would be moving in.

Guys, the COLORS here. I mean honestly, look at that! Unreal. The views were even more insane than those from the Castle. There were plants and flowers everywhere, so basically my dream. I wished it was acceptable to just lay down on the outer walk somewhere and stay for hours. But the tourist traffic would have trampled me, so this did not happen.

We returned to the main town inundated with beauty and majesty had had, of course, a quick nata and coffee break before catching the train back to Lisbon. And were we done for the day? OH, WE WERE NOT. We grabbed some quick tacos and sangria and hit what we heard was the spot for some of the best cocktails in Lisbon: Double9 bar. All of their cocktails are TEA INFUSED, so yes please. Plus, they come with crazy fun things like rubber ducks chillin on top.

We shared something called Tales of Thailand which had lemongrass and chocolate powder because yes. We also had their house cocktail, complete with duck and egg whites, and watched drink after drink poured with dry ice and panache. These drinks were EXPERIENCES, and very cool ones at that. For a night out you will not soon forget, Double9 is a must!