Eat Your Way Through Edinburgh

I started writing this blog post as a general “weekend trip” guide to Edinburgh, one of my favorite places in the world. When I finally arrived to my favorite part of the post—the food and drink part—I quickly realized that that I have enough to fill pages and pages with just my suggestions for my favorite eateries and drink-eries. So, I’m dispensing with the rest of the post for now in favor of doing justice to all the great culinary endeavors that have popped up in Auld Reekie, Edinburgh’s least appetizing nickname. I think people arrive in Edinburgh a little afraid that all they’ll find to eat and drink there is Scotch and haggis—I don’t really see what the problem is there, but if a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs cooked and served up in its stomach isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry! There is plenty of other great food to be had in Edinburgh.

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Edinburgh Castle

I labored over the decision of where to eat breakfast in Edinburgh because there are so many bakeries and cafes whose windows are just begging you to come inside and warm up. My solution on my last visit was to enjoy multiple breakfasts in a day, because I take this kind of research very seriously. The Elephant House is maybe the most famous café in Edinburgh; JK Rowling spent countless hours here, drawing inspiration from her surroundings in Edinburgh and in Porto, where she lived previously (read more about Potter-in-Porto here). I wasn’t really impressed with the food, but I would eat a mud brick to be in the same café where Harry Potter was written, so I ate my lukewarm baked potato with a smile. The café overlooks Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, a graveyard where JK Rowling may have subconsciously derived inspiration from the grave of Thomas Riddell… yeah, Voldemort is definitely buried there, and people leave notes for his ghost, because even the evil people in Harry Potter are still exciting to Potterheads.

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Greyfriar’s Kirkyard

Not too far from The Elephant House you’ll find La Barantine Victoria, an adorable, tiny French café in the Grassmarket area, perfect for travelers who love a flaky, buttery croissant and a tiny coffee to get them going in the morning. You’ll truly feel like you’ve hopped over to Paris for breakfast—even the staff seemed to be mostly French. I picked up an assorted box of uniquely-flavored and perfectly delicate macarons as a gift for my friend and his girlfriend for showing me around their city, which they later reported was just as delicious as the treats that I’d enjoyed there. The café is small, so you should either arrive early in the day or be prepared to wait a bit for a table.

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Victoria Street (where you’ll find La Barantine Victoria)

People looking for more coffee-centric options will love Wellington Coffee, an insider suggestion from my friend-turned-personal-tour-guide; he swears by the flat whites and I loved my creamy latte. The place is tiny, but I think that adds to its charm and coziness—just know that you may have to wait for a table. Another great coffee spot is Cairngorm Coffee Co., which is just hipster enough for the coffee to be really good, but not so hipster that it’s intimidating. The real star of the show here, though, are the grilled cheeses cheese toasties—the one with chili jam was so good, I ordered a second one just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, but I’m willing to continue doing this important research for the good of the public. I will let you all know how my third cheese toasty from Cairngorm Coffee Co. is when I receive my university funding.

Another good midday snack stop is Mary’s Milk Bar, not far from La Barantine Victoria in the Grassmarket neighborhood. The retro vibe and amazing hot chocolate floats should be enough to draw you inside, but there are also tons of cute souvenirs to keep you browsing for a while. Some of the flavors here are even better without the hot chocolate, like caramelized figs and honey– in order to judge the ice cream vs. the hot chocolate floats in an unbiased manner, I tried both, and was unable to reach a final decision. You should probably just make two stops here before leaving Edinburgh to be safe.

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The Pentlands

Speaking of leaving Edinburgh, if you feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road and are up for half-day excursion, go to the area around the Pentland hills in search of the mysterious “Secret” Herb Garden, which is probably not very secret anymore because I’ve told anyone who will listen about this fascinating bit of land we stumbled upon after a hike through the Pentlands. There are rows upon rows of herbs, an apiary, and a small café and gift shop with yummy fresh food—because I knew I couldn’t take any herbs back to the US with me, I invested in a dainty bee mug to help me remember my time there, and it still makes me smile every time I use it.

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For dinner, my friend and I hopped over to The Mosque Kitchen, my absolute favorite eatery in Edinburgh. Part of my sheer happiness was probably due to spending time with an old friend who I don’t see often while eating my favorite kind of food (curry), but there was something so warm and welcoming about the restaurant itself that I remember every moment of my meal there perfectly. The curry house serves everything cafeteria style, the budget is catered to students (less than £5 for a filling meal), and there’s plenty for vegetarians. The thing I love even more than the price and the warm, comforting curry at Mosque Kitchen is its story. The kitchen used to serve just members of the congregation at the mosque, but after 9/11, they decided to open up to the public to assuage fears and help people of other faiths learn more about Islam. I’ve always felt very strongly that food is one of the best ways to unify and connect people to each other, and that if everyone could spend just one meal with a person from a different background that they don’t understand, the world would be a much better place. The Mosque Kitchen reaffirmed that belief, as it is now one of the most popular restaurants in Edinburgh, curry or otherwise. I can’t wait to return for more the next time I’m in Edinburgh.

After dinner, my friend suggested we stop by his favorite pub to hear some music and try some whisky; I’m not known for turning down invitations like this, so we traipsed on to Sandy Bell’s, a pub that seemed to house as many locals as visitors. The music was in full swing, patrons were chatty and friendly, and the Glenkinchie whisky that we tried was amazing… after a little bit of water was added in. I’m currently training to be able to drink a glass without any water. It felt like the perfect spot to end my time in Edinburgh, drinking the nectar of the Scots and enjoying the company of their friendly locals.

Hopefully this post has not only educated you about the vast amount of food I can put away in a day, but has also encouraged you to pack up and head to Edinburgh for more than haggis! Do you think I missed anything? Any suggestions for the next time I find myself in Edinburgh? Let me know in the comments!

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The Elephant House, 21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EN, +44.131.220.5355, http://www.elephanthouse.biz/

La Barantine Victoria, 89 W Bow, Edinburgh EH1 2JP, +44.131.226.4927, http://www.labarantine.com

Wellington Coffee, 33A George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2HN, +44.131.225.6854

Cairngorm Coffee Co., 41A Frederick Street, Edinburgh EH2 1EP, +44.131.629.1420, http://www.cairngormcoffee.com

Mary’s Milk Bar, 19 Grassmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2HS, http://www.marysmilkbar.com

Secret Herb Garden, 32A Old Pentland Road, Lothianburn, Edinburgh EH10 7EA, +44.131.445.5888, http://secretherbgarden.co.uk

The Mosque Kitchen, 31-33 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9BX, +44.131.667.4035, http://www.mosquekitchen.com

Sandy Bell’s, 25 Forrest Road, Edinburgh EH1 2QH, +44.131.225.2751, http://sandybellsedinburgh.co.uk

Weekly Photo Challenge – Tiny

Tiny

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My first trip to Spain (the one that would eventually inspire me to move there) was divided between Madrid and A Coruña, Galicia, the most northwest region of Spain that is perched right on top of Portugal. We stayed with my friend’s uncle, who had lived in the area for many years after leaving Iran– and in typical Iranian fashion, he provided an almost constant stream of delicious food, hospitality, and insider A Coruña knowledge that even the best travel guide couldn’t hope to live up to. One day, he offered to drive us to Santiago de Compostela, the town made famous by the many pilgrims that hike through Spain or Portugal to reach their dramatic ending point. Though the iconic cathedral, the winding streets, and the delicate tartas de Santiago were all focal points of the trip, whenever I’m reminded of that day, my mind immediately jumps to this: a massive, colorful mosaic of a cross, comprised of tiny flower petals, leaves, and colored stones. From far away you’d think it was a painting (and let’s be honest, that would still be very impressive), but it had been painstakingly made with the smallest, most impermanent objects.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Transmogrify

Transmogrify

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I don’t know if this is just a story or if it’s true, but I was told that the Fremont Troll in Seattle, Washington, was part of an effort to revitalize the area under this bridge that had started to attract some unsavory characters– with the exception of the unsavory character above, it seems to have worked!

5 Tapas You Need to Make Tonight

I can’t fully explain my love-bordering-on-obsession with Spain, but I think I can attribute about 90% of it to food. As much as I love southern American food, if there’s anything better than fried chicken, ribs, or mac and cheese counting as a vegetable, it’s the socially acceptable practice of eating a million different food items over a few hours and accompanying them with wine. And if there’s anything that drives me absolutely bonkers, it’s American restaurants misleading the general public into believing that serving a fraction of the food you’d normally eat for twice as much dinero is tapas! It. Is. Not. Tapas. To prove my point, here are 5 of my favorite real tapas (and some recipes so you don’t have to eat at that overpriced “tapas” restaurant anymore).

Croquetas –If you are from the Southeastern US and have ever had to explain what a hushpuppy is to someone, you will understand my difficulty in explaining croquetas. They are essentially soft mushy carbs fried in olive oil—and sometimes the soft mushy carbs have other delightful additions like famous Spanish ham, chorizo, cod, or cheese. Specifically, croquetas are made from béchamel (flour that is cooked with milk) that is then fried in delicious, savory Spanish olive oil that gives it its outer crunch. My favorite places for these hearty bites in Madrid are Melo’s in Lavapiés and Casa Labra, an institution of the Madrid croquetas scene.

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Croquetas and vermouth at Casa Julio, Madrid

It only took me about one practice run to really get these right at home, and that’s because I didn’t set aside enough time for the béchamel to sit in the refrigerator and thicken before frying it. I swear by the Spanish Sabores recipe for these and substitute other ingredients for the Serrano ham when I’m feeling daring.

Pimientos de PadrónI wasn’t much of a pepper person before I moved to Madrid, but I can’t resist these little green bite-size delights. The skins get blistered and slightly crunchy and the flavors of olive oil and sea salt are a perfect match for the mild peppers. They say that one pepper in every batch is a hot one, so prepare yourself in case you’re the lucky winner. Just like their croquetas, Melo’s pimientos are as amazing as they are cheap.

 

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Pimientos de padrón at Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

I’ve never used a recipe for these, but they’ve always turned out right for me if I just heat up a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet, add the peppers once it gets hot, and stir them around while they blister for about a minute. If you don’t like your food truly soaked in olive oil, let them rest on a dish with some paper towels for a minute or two. Sprinkle sea salt on top!

Tortilla españolaMy second year living in Madrid, I made it a personal quest of mine to find not just good, but the best tortilla in Madrid. This was an okay thing to attempt, because tortilla española is made with eggs and potato and olive oil. Eggs have protein, potatoes are a vegetable, and olive oil is the “healthy kind of fat.” After a grueling year of tasting tortilla after tortilla, I arrived at my decision: Juana La Loca, in the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid, has the best tortilla I’ve ever tasted. Tender caramelized onions melt into the creamy, but not runny, egg and potato mixture. I trekked here on crutches and with a cast on to have this magical food. The tortilla at Txirimiri in La Latina is a close second!

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Tortilla at Txirimiri, Madrid

If you’ve always wanted to perform stunning physical feats while you cook your food, now is your chance! Once you’ve got your eggs, potatoes, and onions cooking in a huge pan of olive oil, you have to “dar la vuelta a la tortilla,” a phrase that roughly translates to “flipping over a piping hot pan of molten egg and potato onto a plate while wondering why you ever decided to try to impress your parents with something you learned while studying abroad.” Here is real found footage of this experience:

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Cool as a cucumber

I’m still perfecting my recipe for the perfect Juana La Loca-style tortilla, but until then, The New York Times has provided an apt substitute you can find here.

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Classy ham auction at La Pradera de San Isidro, Madrid

Haaaaaaaam! – Jamón is something of a national obsession in Spain; I recently visited Madrid during its patron saint festival and noticed a ham leg auction happening on the fairgrounds! I grew up going to fairs where the classiest thing you could put money on was a fried *Midnight* Milky Way bar (dark chocolate is heart healthy y’all), so this was a fun, but disorienting experience. To drive the point home, when I moved into my apartment in Madrid a few years ago, I found the kitchen devoid of most of the things I needed (i.e. measuring cups, bowls, a paring knife) but luckily found the one thing I didn’t even know I needed—a ham leg holder!!!!

 

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I provided the peanut butter, my landlord provided the pig leg-holder

In all seriousness, Spanish ham is one of the top ten best things to ever happen to me. I miss going to my neighborhood bars and watching the bartenders peel off slices of creamy, savory ham from the leg and deliver it straight to my plate of tapas, and I miss it being socially acceptable to just eat ham and bread for dinner. I’m not sure you can find whole pig legs everywhere in the States, but you can certainly find Spanish ham already sliced and packaged at a “nice” grocery store. Just throw it on a plate with some bread, cheese, or olives (or all three?!) and you’re done!

Pinchos – Pinchos (or pintxos some places) are the most ingenious creation of all tapas: take a slice of bread, put whatever you want on it; stick a toothpick through the middle. Pour yourself a glass of wine. You deserve it because you just made a pincho!

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Bread + Goat Cheese + Piquillo Pepper = Expert pincho

I’ve heard pincho and tapas used interchangeably a million times, and I’ve seen things called pinchos that weren’t on bread, so there’s some room to play here. My favorite combinations usually involve goat cheese, but I’m always up for a pincho with sardines or anchovies on it too. My trip to Bilbao involved its fair share of these snacks—even some high class award-winning beauties! Gure Toki had an amazing selection in the old quarter of Bilbao, including plenty to choose from for my vegetarian friend.

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Birthplace of the hashtag #pintxosbeforebros – Gure Toki, Bilbao

If I’m being honest, what makes me even crazier than the American restaurant version of tapas is how little it incorporates of the social aspect of tapas. You can make a flawless tortilla española in your own house, but if you eat it in one sitting while watching Netflix alone on the couch, that’s not tapas, though it does sound amazing and I definitely want to do that sometime. Sitting in a posh restaurant forking over the big bucks while you and your dinner companions click away on your phones? Also not tapas. Whether you’re enjoying these snacks over a few beers with your friends or getting buddies together at your house to enjoy them, make sure you’re taking time to spend time with people you care about! These tapas are all great by themselves, but they’ve stuck with me because I’ve enjoyed them all with friends or family. Happy tapas-ing!

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Melo’s – Calle Ave María 44, Madrid 28012, +34.915.275.054

Casa Labra – Calle Tetuán 12, Madrid 28013, +34.915.310.081, http://www.casalabra.es/en.

Juana La Loca – Plaza Puerta de Moros 4, Madrid 28005, +34.913.640.525, http://juanalalocamadrid.com.

Txirimiri – Calle Humilladero 6, Madrid 28005, +34.913.641.196, http://www.txirimiri.es.

Gure Toki – Plaza Nueva 12, Bilbao 48005, +34.944.158.037, http://www.guretoki.com.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Local

I know I’ve posted this photo before, but I decided what the heck– I’m throwing caution to the wind and repeating because this is one of my favorite, favorite travel photos ever. I spent a few days in Lisbon in June of 2015, frolicking around adorable tiled streets and eating custard pastries until I had to roll myself to bed. One afternoon, I wandered around the rickety, hilly Alfama neighborhood, still teeming with decorations leftover from “Dia de São João.” Walking through the Alfama, you’ll frequently find staircases in lieu of normal sidewalks, stepping in when the paths get too steep for pedestrians– so when I saw this staircase draped in what I thought were old decorations, I walked right down like I owned that damn sidewalk!

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Turns out, this was not a staircase for public consumption, it was a staircase leading into two families’ shared patio area, where they were throwing an intimate family gathering that I was not meant to be a part of. I quickly realized my mistake and, mortified, turned and tried to casually run-walk back up the stairs and far away from my social faux pas– but I was quickly called back down in half-English, half-Portuguese by several family members.

An hour later, my stomach was full of cod fritters, Super Bock beer, and custard tarts, and I’d been treated to a free fado concert to boot. When I said my goodbyes to the families and slipped back up the now infamous stairs, I snapped a quick picture to remember my hour as an almost-local.

Madrid Don’t Miss List

Late last week, I saw a Facebook post from a friend on my Timeline that caught my eye: “Have any of my Facebook friends been to Madrid? We’ll be there for a few days next week.” Obviously I immediately messaged her for a full breakdown of how long she’d be there, what she and her husband liked… and then, all hell broke loose. Everything I’d ever done, every place I’d ever visited all came pouring out onto my tiny iPhone screen until I had written a small book about my second home. I won’t have you all suffer the same absurd Facebook Messenger-travel guide that she was forced to endure, but I did compile a list of things not to miss if you’re ever visiting Madrid! Consider this my travel guide crossed with a passionate entreaty to not skip Madrid for Barcelona on your next Spain trip.

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Templo de Debod

Templo de Debod – This place is always one of the first that I suggest to travelers in Madrid; many tourists don’t know about it, which makes it less crowded than a lot of the city’s attractions, but it is undeniably beautiful and historically important. The temple is an ancient Egyptian structure that was donated to Spain by Egypt in the sixties. The park that it sits in now rests high over the city, and the view at sunset is unbeatable. A word of warning though—anywhere tourists go in Madrid, pickpockets go, and El Templo de Debod is no different; watch your stuff like a hawk and keep a hand on your purse if you can.

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Mercado de San Miguel

 

Mercado de San Miguel – This one might have some of my Spanish friends groaning. This market, located just steps away from Plaza Mayor, is definitely a tourist destination—there’s no point in denying it. But, I tend to believe that tourist destinations become that way because they have something important to offer to visitors, and this market is no exception! Though pricier than many other markets frequented by locals, Mercado de San Miguel has a great array of “traditional” Spanish food for you to try with the added benefit of an extremely polished atmosphere. Among my recommendations for your visit here is the vermut (vermouth) bar; “vermouth hour” is a tradition in Madrid, and this booth is appropriately named La Hora del Vermut! Make sure they give you your allotted accompanying olives, because they’re just as good as their drinks! Other suggestions: croquetas (fried béchamel with various added ingredients), the wine-and-cheese booth, and of course, the ham booth.

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La Hora del Vermut

 

If you enjoy that market and consider yourself a “foodie,” you might also enjoy Corte Ingles’ Gourmet Experience, on the 9th floor of the department store’s Plaza Callao location (go for the view if for nothing else). Markets with more local flavor include Mercado de San Ildefonso in Malasaña/Chueca, Mercado de San Antón in Chueca, Mercado de San Fernando in Lavapiés, and Mercado de la Cebada in La Latina, which has a multipurpose recreational area outside that hosts weekly salsa dancing, basketball games, concerts, and all sorts of other events.

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Chocolateria de San Gines

 

Churros y chocolate –I’ll just say this: crispy, savory churros are delicious. Thick, rich hot chocolate is delicious. Dip the churros in the chocolate. Drink the leftover chocolate. You really can’t go wrong with those guidelines, but in the spirit of giving suggestions I can tell you that Chocolatería San Ginés is the most famous churreria in Madrid, in addition to being open insanely late (like, leaving-the-club-at-6:30-in-the-morning-late). If you’re more interested in the off-the-beaten-path spots, try Chocolat on Calle Santa Maria; Juan Alfonso, the owner, greets every person who walks in with a big ole’ smile and is just a generally kindhearted person. I used to stop here before I went to the gym in the afternoons (for a coffee, not churros, c’mon) and he’d offer me two or three free pastries every time I sat down. Eventually, the gym closed, but I continued my afternoon trips to Chocolat.

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Chocolat

 

Tapas in La Latina – It would be hard not to partake in the “tapas culture” of Madrid; you’d probably have to actively try to avoid it. Visitors who want to dive headfirst into the tapas scene should head straight to La Latina, especially on a Sunday afternoon or evening—I have a well-evidenced theory that Spaniards actually came up with “Sunday funday” before frat boys did. Calle Cava Baja and Calle Cava Alta are particularly famous for the “tapas crawl” atmosphere—my favorite on Cava Baja is Taberna Txakolí, with a mouthwatering selection of Basque pintxos and good wine. Txirimiri, just a short walk away, is a Madrid fan favorite, frequently taking top honors in La Latina’s “Pincho Week” festivities. My favorite tortilla española (Spanish omelet) in the world can be found a stone’s throw from Cava Baja and Cava Alta at Juana la Loca; just across from there you can find El Viajero’s zen rooftop bar with views over the neighborhood to end your evening.

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Tortilla at Txirimiri

 

The “Golden Triangle of Art” – Madrid has three world-class art museums all in the same walk-able area; even if you’re not “an art person,” I think it would be a shame to miss these museums. The Museo del Prado is the largest: if you’re trying to rush through, at the very least stop by the El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya paintings. Velasquez’ Las Meninas has haunted every AP Art History Student since it was painted, and visiting the room where Goya’s “Black Paintings” have been placed is an eerie but unforgettable experience. The Museo Reina Sofia is filled with modern art—if that’s not your thing, I wouldn’t blame you for visiting just to see Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica—many art historians have credited it for bringing international attention to the Spanish Civil War which it depicts. The Museo de Arte Thyssen-Bornemisza may lack a staple “masterpiece,” but to me, it’s the most enjoyable of the three because it really requires no agenda—just show up and enjoy the various styles and time periods of the museum’s diverse collection.

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El Viajero Rooftop

 

The Nightlife – I doubt this is a major revelation to anyone, but Spanish people like to stay out late (see: churrerías open until 7AM). I don’t think a proper trip to Madrid can exclude at least a taste of the nightlife, though by no means does that mean you have to go to one of Madrid’s famed discotecas. If you want those, they’re there for you—try Kapital (7 stories tall) or Joy Eslava—but be aware that your wallet will be a lot lighter in the morning. Malasaña, just north of Gran Via, is chock-full of fun bars like Tupperware (my personal favorite), Madrid Me Mata (which doubles as a Spanish rock’n’roll museum), Freeway, and Angie. Also in Malasaña sits an unassuming little gem called Casa Camacho, where a Malasaña concoction called the “yayo” is served— vermouth, gin, and god knows what else; this stuff will do the job.

Of course, if you have more than a few days, there is a lot more you could enjoy in Madrid—I didn’t even mention the Royal Palace, Santiago Bernabéu stadium, Retiro Park, or the Puerta del Sol or Plaza Mayor (which would likely be the first two places any tourist would stop anyway). The places and things I’ve mentioned here are meant to give you a good idea of what Madrid is like—while many cities in Europe begin to feel like one giant checklist of sights to see, Madrid is here for you to enjoy and experience. Next time you plan a trip to Spain, don’t leave Madrid off the list!

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Templo de Debod, Calle Ferraz 1, Madrid 28008.

Mercado de San Miguel, Plaza de San Miguel, Madrid 28005, +34.915.424.936, http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/en/.

Gourmet Experience Gran Via, El Corte Ingles Callao, Plaza de Callao 2, Madrid 28013, +34.913.798.000, https://www.elcorteingles.es/supermercado/aptc/gourmet-experience/granvia/.

Chocolatería San Ginés, Pasadizo San Ginés 5, Madrid 28013, +34.913.656.546, https://chocolateriasangines.com/.

Chocolat, Calle Santa María 30, Madrid 28014, +34.914.294.565, http://www.chocolatmadrid.com/.

Taberna Txacolí, Calle Cava Baja 42, Madrid 28005, +34.913.661.224, http://www.tabernatxacoli.com/.

Txirimiri, Calle del Humilladero 6, Madrid 28005, +34.913.641.196, http://www.txirimiri.es/.

Juana La Loca, Plaza Puerta de Moros 4, Madrid 28005, +34.913.640.525, http://juanalalocamadrid.com/.

El Viajero, Plaza de la Cebada 11, Madrid 28005, +34.913.669.064, http://www.elviajero.com/en/.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Paseo del Prado, Madrid 28014, https://www.museodelprado.es/en/.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Calle de Santa Isabel 52, Madrid 28012, http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid 28014, http://www.museothyssen.org/en/.

Casa Camacho, Calle de San Andrés 4, Madrid 28004, +34.915.313.598.

 

 

A Weekend in Porto

I spend a lot of time poring over Salt of Portugal, a blog about all things Portugal with a heavy focus on food and wine. This morning, I stumbled upon a beautiful, concise description of memorable, gritty Porto, coupled with an adorable and fitting ink sketch of the port city. Of course, nostalgia kicked in and I began to reminisce about my long weekend in Porto with my pastry-eating, sightseeing partner in crime, and decided that my next post would have to be about my suggestions for the city that seamlessly blends old and new, and throws in some port wine and world-class pastries for good measure. Enjoy my recommendations for elegant, cutting-edge Porto!

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Porto, Portugal

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Porto, Portugal

The Sights. There’s a lot of competition on the Iberian Peninsula for world-renowned sightseeing, with Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, and Granada, and Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, among other gems. What I love about Porto is that there is plenty to keep a history buff interested, but a traveler looking more for atmosphere than a laundry list of historical landmarks will appreciate Porto just as much. The classy São Bento Train Station is a perfect introduction to the city if you’re arriving by train—if you arrive by plane like I did, it’s worth a special trip to see the azulejo tiles that adorn the walls. If those blue-and-white beauties strike a chord, make sure you make time for a few leisurely strolls throughout the city to admire the various tiles that cover the side of buildings.

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São Bento Train Station

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Sé do Porto

The Sé do Porto, the city’s cathedral, is a treat even for people that are tired of churches (and come on, it’s free to enter). Adjacent to the church is a jumble of street art and cafes welcoming your tired legs, all topped with a view below of the Douro River. Take time to stroll through the city’s other plazas and side streets, or to make the pilgrimage across the Dom Luis I Bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia just across the water from Porto. Hint: Vila Nova de Gaia is where most of the port wine “caves” are, if you needed motivation to cross to the other side (more on port wine later).

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Near the Sé do Porto

 

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Dom Luis I Bridge

Harry Potter fans can add Porto to their list of witch-and-wizard pilgrimages; JK Rowling lived in Porto for a short time, and it’s easy to pick up on bits and pieces of her life there that she incorporated into the books. Most notably, high school students in Porto wear a snappy dress uniform to school that even includes capes! No Harry Potter-inspired itinerary of the city should omit Livraria Lello & Irmão, a regal bookstore where Rowling supposedly spent a great deal of time writing and soaking in the atmosphere—some say it may even be the inspiration for the wizarding world’s Flourish & Blott’s. Take one look at the grand, sweeping staircase and you’ll understand why she found it a perfect place to soak in inspiration.

Of course, there’s an endless list of sights to see in Porto, but I had to free up plenty of time for the food and drink, which leads us to…

 

The Food. Self-proclaimed foodies will revel in Porto’s emerging culinary scene—two clients at work traveled about a year ago and had a dinner reservation at a fancy up-and-coming eatery for every night of their stay. If your wallet is a little lighter, like mine perpetually seems to be, Porto won’t disappoint either. A Sandeira do Porto, not far from Praça da Liberdade, was a cute, cozy start to our culinary adventures. The inexpensive, vegetarian-friendly menu features sandwiches, soups, and a few tasty desserts and drinks, all served up by friendly faces (most of whom speak great English, if Portuguese isn’t one of your talents).

 

 

Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, as evidenced by its inclusion on my Top 5 Travel Bites post, is the place I go in my dreams for sweet treats and desserts baked to perfection. Sometimes I can’t even believe I got to go there in real life. Based on a tip from a friend in Madrid, Andrea and I battled the rain and chill to be welcomed into this warm, friendly bakery known for its dozens of variations of mini eclairs. Though we started out timid, with just a coffee and a mini éclair each, Andrea and I became more and more brazen each visit (and there were many, many visits). By the end, I had tasted more than a few Portuguese baked treats, including the classic bolas de Berlim, perfect, delicate donuts filled with pastry cream and dusted with powdered sugar. And as I mentioned in my Travel Bites post, our adorable waiter definitely didn’t detract from our cheerful reflections of the place.

 

The Libations. Porto, unsurprisingly, is the home of port wine, that divisive nectar that people seem to either hate or love. Nestled into the hills of Vila Nova de Gaia, you can find hidden little port wine cellars, most of which offer inexpensive tastings and tours of their grounds. Big names include Sandeman’s, Graham’s, Ferreira, and Croft, but a friend recommended Taylor’s Port Cellars as a perfect spot to take a tour, enjoy a tasting, and all for just 5€. I loved learning about the process of making port wine and why it tastes the way it does (it’s fortified with brandy before it’s finished fermenting, helping the grapes keep some of their sweetness)— the Taylor website has a great page here fully explaining the process, if your interest is piqued. Our only mistake was not reserving a spot on the tour ahead of time, but even though the English tour had already departed, we got two spots on the Spanish tour and got to learn about wine and practice our Spanish all in one afternoon! While you’re in Vila Nova de Gaia, take time to wander– maybe not as long as we did, because we got really lost—but there are some gorgeously neglected doorways and tiled walls in the winding streets on the other side of the Douro.

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Wandering Vila Nova de Gaia

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View of Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia

After you wander all day, you’ll need a place to catch some Zs…

 

The Digs. For upscale travelers, your best bet is the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas, where most clients from my job stay when visiting Porto. The Palacio das Cardosas is a member of the Virtuoso network of luxury hotels and it’s strategically located on the Praça da Liberdade, a perfect location from which to explore Porto. For travelers on a bit of a shoestring budget, I personally loved Tattva Design Hostel. Portuguese hostels are known for being head-and-shoulders above others in Europe, and Tattva is no exception; the lobby, common areas, and rooms are all super stylish and comfortable, and each bed has a curtain that you can draw across at night (a big deal to me, because my #1 complaint about hostels is that people can watch me sleep). To top it all off, the exterior of the hostel is decorated with Portuguese azulejo tiles that give it a quintessentially Portuguese feel. I still remember walking out onto my room’s balcony in the morning admiring the quiet street below.

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Balcony of Tattva Design Hostel

 

Have you visited Porto? Did I leave anything out that you think needs to be included? Let me know in the comments!

Livraria Lello & Irmão, R. das Carmelitas 144, Porto 4050, +351.222.002.037, http://www.livrarialello.pt/en.

A. Sandeira do Porto, Rua dos Caldeireiros 85, Porto, +351.223.216.471, http://www.asandeira.pt.

Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, Praça Guilherme Gomes Fernandes 47, 4050 Porto, +351.222.004.303, http://leitariadaquintadopaco.pt.

Taylor’s Port Cellars, Rua do Choupelo 250, 4400 Porto, +351.223.742.800, http://taylor.pt/en/visit-taylors/port-cellars/.

InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas, Praça da Liberdade 25, 4000 Porto, +351.220.035.600, http://www.ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/us/en/porto/prtha/hoteldetail.

Tattva Design Hostel Porto, R. do Cativo 26, 4000 Porto, +351.220.944.622, http://tattvadesignhostel.com.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge – Edge

Edge

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Big Sur is one of the most simultaneously beautiful and overwhelming places I’ve visited. You can just see famous Bixby Bridge on the left edge of the photo, but the foggy, verdant cliffs really steal the show this time. The whole Big Sur drive is unforgettable, but this photo takes me right back to the chilly ocean breeze and the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs below us (and me trying to get as close to the edge as possible without tumbling into the sea).

Weekly Photo Challenge – Mirror

Mirror

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About a week too late, but gorgeous nonetheless. Sometimes you have to remember that being a “tourist” isn’t necessarily a bad thing! A nighttime river cruise in Amsterdam is definitely touristy, but how can you pass up all those gorgeous canal-side houses and the dusky sky reflected in that dark water? You can’t. You shouldn’t.