Thursday, February 26, 2015

Southern Charm in Marbella



During our stay in Málaga, we decided to take an impromptu day trip to Marbella. Just a 50 minute bus ride from downtown Málaga, this charming getaway is arguably the most picturesque town on the Costa del Sol.


Due to its pleasant climate, pristine beaches and upscale allure, Marbella is one of the Costa del Sol's most popular tourist destinations. As a resort town year-round, Marbella attracts many affluent Spaniards and foreigners alike - including Antonio Banderas, who reportedly owns a house there. (Don't worry, I didn't try to stalk him or anything. But I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed my mind...)


However, we were only interested in wandering through the colorful alleys, admiring the picture-perfect plazas and buildings in the casco antiguo (old town), strolling along the sparkling Mediterranean, and sipping tinto de verano in the sunshine. As it turns out, you can be completely broke and still have a great time in Spain's ritziest town. 


Marbella may not be the best place to eat, shop or sleep for your average budget traveler, but it's certainly the perfect place to take in gorgeous scenery, get lost in picturesque alleys, and take in all the beauty that the Costa del Sol has to offer. 


Maybe one day I'll be able to afford Marbella's luxurious 5 star resorts, spas and golf courses... and finally spot Señor Banderas, ¡olé!  But for now, I'm completely content having been able to enjoy the southern charm of Marbella practically for free. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Escape to Málaga

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Pretty much every Spaniard I talked to had asked me, "But why are you going to Málaga? Málaga is so ugly."

I shrugged my shoulders and blamed it on the fact that I needed to migrate south for some much needed warmth. Madrid may be sunny during winter, but it's miserably cold. I didn't care if Málaga wasn't the prettiest place in Spain, I just needed to defrost.


As it turns out, their words were complete blasphemy. While we explored the city, I was constantly blown away by its beauty. Despite going against our Spanish friends' advice, our impromptu getaway to Málaga turned out to be the perfect winter escape.


Surprisingly, there's quite a lot to do in Málaga. We planned our trip to coincide with the city's big Carnaval festivities, so our evenings were spent flaunting costumes and masks, drinking tinto de verano and traipsing through the confetti-covered streets. During the day, we admired the views of the city from atop the Gibralfaro Castle, wandered through the colorful city center, strolled along the pier while making multiple stops for ice cream, relaxed on the beach (although it wasn't quite warm enough to lay out) and dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. 


I didn't realize how badly I needed to be near the water until I saw the ocean for the first time since Christmas. Something about the sea feeds the soul. As I first laid eyes upon the Mediterranean, I felt myself come to life again. I had kind of been in a funk this past month thanks to my great expat debate, a lack of Vitamin D and the frigid cold. But thanks to the warmth, the water and the vivacious group of friends I traveled with, Málaga completely revitalized me.


What to Do in Málaga:

- Get lost in the charming old town

- Climb to the top of the Gibralfaro Castle for spectacular views of the city

- Soak up some Vitamin D on the beach

- Stroll along the pier (Muelle Uno) and Port of Málaga

- Explore the Cathedral and admire its intricate facade

- Visit the Picasso museum

- Enjoy a drink in Plaza de la Merced

- Take a day trip to Marbella


Have you ever visited the Costa del Sol?
Where do you go when you need a mid-winter escape?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

Looking for some Vitamin D this spring? While Madrid may not boast tropical temperatures or white sand beaches, it's still one of Europe's sunniest capitals. Thanks to its mild climate, spring is one of the best times to visit Madrid.

But it's not just about the weather! More than just the largest city in Spain, Madrid is a cultural mecca offering everything you need for the ideal Spanish adventure. Brimming with history and charm, the nation’s capital provides for a truly authentic taste of Spain. For those of you looking for a worthwhile spring getaway, here are five reasons Madrid should be your next escape:

1. World-class museums

Madrid abounds with museums that are sure to quench your thirst for fine art. One of the most mesmerizing museums is the Museo del Prado, where you can find many distinguished works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. If you prefer contemporary art, be sure to check out the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. This sprawling museum is home to Picasso’s Guernica, as well as many notable paintings by Dalí and Miró. Boasting a wide variety of artists and artistic styles, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is filled with extraordinary works from all over Europe.

2. Mouthwatering Spanish cuisine

Spanish Cuisine | 5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

Sightseeing through your taste buds is surely one of the best ways to experience Madrid. Home to some of the finest Spanish cuisine, here you can find a myriad of bars and restaurants serving traditional tapas or modernized classics. From savory tortilla de patatas to buttery jamón ibérico de bellota, or spicy patatas bravas to rich churros con chocolate, the culinary treats of Madrid seduce countless visitors and locals alike. Go for a tapas crawl through the charming medieval streets of La Latina, such as Calle de la Cava Baja, or sample traditional Spanish dishes on a tasty and informative tour with Madrid Food Tour.

3. Dazzling sights

Royal Palace | 5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

More than just first-rate museums and gastronomy, Madrid also offers plenty of captivating sights to see. Take a tour of the lavish Royal Palace, stroll through the stunning Plaza Mayor, and take in the bustling chaos of Puerta del Sol. Relax in the picturesque Sabatini Gardens and venture to the striking Palacio de Cibeles. Indulge on a feast of tapas at Mercado de San Miguel, or pack a picnic to enjoy in the lush Parque del Buen Retiro. However you choose to sightsee, Madrid is sure to enchant you.

4. Unparalleled nightlife

Nightlife | 5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

Madrid has the highest number of bars per square meter in Europe, so it’s no surprise that its vibrant nightlife is unrivaled. The city is swarming with lively bars, taverns, clubs and large discotecas, providing many colorful options to enjoy Madrid after dark. Spaniards are notorious for staying out until sunrise, so be sure to caffeinate and siesta accordingly!

5. Neighborhood charm

Malasaña | 5 Reasons to Visit Madrid This Spring

Overall, what makes Madrid so inviting is its dynamic personality. The city is comprised of many diverse neighborhoods, each contributing to the character of Spain’s capital. Each barrio offers a unique flavor, and it’s in these neighborhoods that you can find the heart and soul of the city. Explore the winding streets in the literary quarter of Huertas, enjoy a café con leche in one of the many hipster cafés in Malasaña, bar-hop in trendy Chueca, go shopping in chic Salamanca, and savor the city’s best tapas in La Latina.


Have you ever visited Madrid? 
Which part enchanted you the most?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Eating Gluten-Free in Istanbul


Turkey is by no means notoriously gluten-free friendly. Upon traveling to Istanbul, I was unsure of which Turkish delicacies I'd be able to indulge on. In the land of kebabs and baklava, I was afraid of arriving with an empty stomach and failing to find anything safe for Celiacs. Thankfully, with a little bit of research and a lot of help from the friendly Turkish people, I was able to taste my way through Istanbul one gluten-free bite at a time.


First and foremost, if you are traveling to Istanbul and have Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance, I highly recommend printing out a Turkish gluten-free restaurant card like this one to give to your waiters at restaurants. I didn't find any eateries in Istanbul that had special gluten-free menus, and not every waiter knows what gluten is. Using this card helped me enjoy traditional Turkish treats without ever getting sick.

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BREAKFAST


Though finding a gluten-free breakfast in Istanbul is a difficult feat, thankfully it's not impossible. Our breakfast buffet at Big Apple Hostel included a myriad of naturally gluten-free goodies such as yogurt with honey, sweet jams, grilled bell peppers, feta, cucumber, fruit, olives, meats and cheeses. I recommend booking a hotel or hostel where a similar spread is offered, because the chances of finding a gluten-free breakfast at a nearby bakery or café are rather slim. 

LUNCH

A Döner Kebab without bread

When in Turkey, do as the Turkish do... meaning, eat kebabs! I had no problem ordering this famous dish without the flatbread. Döner meat - lamb, beef, pork or chicken roasted vertically on a spit and shaved into thin slices - is generally gluten-free, but always ask your waiter about it just in case. Combined with some hummus, Tzatziki sauce, eggplant and French fries, this dish is an economical way to send your taste buds to Turkish heaven.

The quest for kumpir

One of the Turkish friends we met suggested that we venture down to the waterfront near Beşıktaş for the street food, namely the stuffed baked potatoes called kumpirKumpir is a street food staple in Istanbul, notorious for its mind-boggling array of toppings and endless combinations of flavors. We loaded our potatoes with corn, sour cream, butter, cheese, pickled beets, olives, tomatoes and other colorful garnishes. 

We got ridiculously lost trekking to this area from Taksim Square, and we were caught off guard by how far away it was. But without a doubt, these baked potatoes were worth it! To find these savory spuds, wander down to Beşıktaş - one of the stops for most popular Bosphorus river cruises (just east of Dolmabahçe Palace). You can find them in the covered area of food stalls across from the Beşıktaş docks and the BeerPort. Apparently, you can find more kumpir stands near the Ortaköy Mosque as well.

SNACKS

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

If you get the munchies near Taksim Square, be sure to snack on some roasted chestnuts from the street vendors! Wash it down with some tart pomegranate juice for a truly refreshing treat. Or, pick up some dried fruit and nuts from Istanbul's Spice Bazaar to take with you as you explore the city. The delectable pistachios, hazelnuts, dates and figs make for the perfect gluten-free snack on the go!

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice
Dried fruit and nuts from the Spice Bazaar

DINNER

Lamb tomato stew from Palatium

Though finding a gluten-free dinner in Istanbul requires a bit of patience, it's worth any extra effort.

Meze, or appetizers, can easily be made gluten-free. I recommend starting with a plate of dolma, or stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs. When ordering your main course, be weary of soups, stews and meatballs. When in doubt, show your waiter your restaurant card! Also be sure to stay away from rice pilaf, because it almost always has orzo in it.

I had great luck eating at Palatium, located above the ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople. I loved their lamb tomato stew so much, I went there twice! All I had to do was order it without the bread. Overall, the waiters at Palatium were incredibly patient and accommodating.

(But a word for the wise: as picturesque as they may be, do not  sit in the beanbag chairs... unless you want to leave the restaurant with a few flea bites. Yuck!)

One of the best meals I had in Istanbul was at Imbat, on the top floor of the Orient Express Hotel. As one of Istanbul's top rated restaurants on Tripadvisor, Imbat did not disappoint! The staff was very knowledgable about which dishes contained gluten, and they even offered me gluten-free bread (that tasted surprisingly normal). I ordered the baked leg of lamb slices marinated with milk, onion and paprika and served with Aegean rice, and now I just want to go back in time and relish this meal again.

Dessert:

Sky rockets in flight, Turkish Delight

For dessert, you can't go wrong with some classic lokum, or Turkish Delight. Because Turkish Delight is made from corn starch, it is naturally gluten-free. The best Turkish Delight I found was from the Spice Bazaar and Hafiz Mustafa near the Blue Mosque. At Hafiz Mustafa, we savored rose, pomegranate and pistachio lokum in their elegant sitting room alongside piping hot cups of sweet apple tea and black çay  tea. The delightful flavors and ambiance made me forget about all of the baklava I was missing out on!

Savoring apple and çay tea with a view at Charm Hotel's rooftop lounge

Although I thought being a Celiac would hinder me from experiencing traditional Turkish cuisine, I was surprised by how much of it I got to enjoy in Istanbul. Though it took some effort, I left Istanbul with a happy heart and a full belly!


Do you have any food allergies or intolerances? 
How do you survive them while traveling?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Snapshots of San Francisco


Though I may have been raised in Seattle, I was born in the Bay Area and still consider myself a California girl at heart. (Sorry I'm not sorry, Seahawks. Go Niners!) Half of my family still lives in California, so I jump at the opportunity to visit any chance I get. 

Between visiting my parents in Phoenix and Seattle over Christmas break, I hopped over to the Bay Area to celebrate my grandma's 80th birthday. Despite the countless times I've been to San Francisco to visit my family, I had never really seen any of the famous sights or truly gotten to know the city. So on this trip, I set out to change that.

San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace, also known as foodie mecca.

Maybe I got extra special treatment because I came all the way from Spain, but my family and friends bent over backwards to give me phenomenal tours of San Francisco. My aunt and uncle organized an SF Tour Extraordinaire for the entire family, and my best friend Meghan drove all the way up from Newport Beach to see me! 

Cocktail hour at Waterbar on the Embarcadero

After celebrating Christmas in San Francisco with my family, I got to spend a couple of days exploring the city with my friends.  They put up with me dragging them to the Golden Gate Bridge, showed me the coolest bars, and just about changed my life by taking me to get late night tacos in the Mission. 

After the whiskey bars, brunches and Muni rides, I met back up with my family for the second part of my San Francisco 101 tour. We hopped on the Bart and started our day off at the Ferry Building Marketplace, where I was elated to find a gluten free bakery and the best coffee I'd had all month. After fueling up with cappuccinos and pastries, we trekked up to the Coit Tower. We climbed an endless amount of stairs until I'm pretty sure I burned off every Christmas calorie consumed ( ...or maybe just the tacos from El Farolito the night before).

Blue Bottle Coffee, I think I love you.

We admired the views from Coit Tower, taking in the stunning panoramas of the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate bridge and city skyline. Then, like every good part Italian family, we wandered back down into North Beach for some much-needed Italian food. We feasted at Original Joe's, an old favorite of my mom's, and watched the Niners beat the Cardinals. It was the perfect introduction to San Francisco, and I ended the day wishing I had more time to explore. 

The Ferry Building at dusk
Not every friend drives 7 hours to see you when you're finally in the same country again!

The verdict: I could definitely see myself living in San Francisco someday. Though ideally I'd prefer to live somewhere with more sunshine, San Francisco feels like home to me. Maybe it's because I grew up listening to my mom's stories of working in SF, I've spent countless holidays visiting my family in the area, and the city somewhat reminds me of Seattle in many ways. (And of course, despite the fervent hatred I get from my fellow Seattleites, the 49ers will always be my favorite football team.) 

Nevertheless, when the time comes for me to eventually move back to the States, you can bet that I'll be applying to grad schools in San Francisco! 


My San Francisco Picks:
Best Whiskey Bar: Rye
Favorite Restaurant: Waterbar
Favorite Views of the Golden Gate Bridge: Crissy Field
Best Late Night Tacos: El Farolito
Can't-Miss Coffee: Blue Bottle