Thriving on food, wine, and spending time with friends — nobody knows how to live like the Spanish. Even if the daily schedule (especially siesta) takes a little getting accustomed to, the quality of life Spain offers makes it thoroughly worth working around some occasional odd shop hours.
Beautiful Barcelona is a dreamy mix (though not a blend) of gothic and modern, Spanish and Catalan, from the bustling La Rambla rife with locals and tourists, to the wine country nearby. It’s a marvel on the Mediterranean.
It’s been years since neighboring Sitges has been a sleepy fishing village — LGBT visitors are unlikely to get much rest, unless it’s a nap on a sunny beach.
The old and the new contrast in chic chiaroscuro in Madrid’s high rises and centuries-old plazas, palaces, and pop-up shopping. Cosmopolitan yet relaxed, Madrid is unlike any other city of its size. Here’s a sampler platter to get you started.
Photo: Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid (By Santiago Diaz)
Gaixample is the nickname of the gay neighborhood in the Eixample district. (Meaning “the extension,” Eixample was the part of Barcelona that filled in between Barcelona’s old city and the towns of Sants, Gràcia, and Sant Andreu in the 19th and early 20th centuries.) Gaixample has the district’s grid pattern of streets with distinctive chamfered corners — where the buildings’ corners are cut off at the end, making the intersections open, sunlit octagons. Gaixample is bordered by Carrer Balmes, Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes, Carrer del Compte d’Urgell, and Carrer d’Aragó, and because of the high concentration of queer establishments and residents, it is a prime area for nightlife and entertainment
1. Axel Hotel
The Axel Hotel Barcelona, voted the Best Gay Hotel in the World by Out Traveler readers, is a fixture of the Gaixample. The cosmopolitan Axel chain, with additional hotels in Berlin and Gran Canaria, is a pioneer in queer accommodations. The 105 rooms are soundproofed (vital because the hotel is often a gathering point in the neighborhood). Inside the beautiful façade are a ground-level bar, gym, and a spa, Wellness Club 33. The hotel is topped by a pool and the Sky Bar, which serves cocktails and gorgeous Eixample views. Guests who register through the hotel’s Website are given access to a guests-only social network called AxelPeople, which describes hotel events and promotions and, more importantly, lets you know who is rooming next door — and lets your neighbors know who you are, if you choose. The gay bars are right at your proverbial doorstep, and the city center is a 10-minute walk away. AxelHotels.com
2. El Penedès
El Penedès, one of the oldest winemaking regions in Europe, is a very short trip from Barcelona. The region’s thousands of hectares of vineyards produce the most delicious wines, but its stars are the stellar cavas. Tours offer the chance to taste the wines, or you can explore on your own with a bicycle. At the center of many wineries is a traditional Catalan farmhouse, a masia. Some provide excellent accommodation and are fuel for travelers’ ditch-the-rat-race-and-become-a-vintner fantasies.
3. Casa Batlló
Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) is the designer of Barcelona’s textures. His buildings are dripping sandcastles, honeycombs, turtle shells, and all manner of organic forms. Most prominent of his creations is the Sagrada Família basilica which, upon completion (it was begun in 1882 and is still under construction), will be the tallest church building in the world. More accessible is the Casa Batlló, a home Gaudí remodeled from 1904 to 1906 with an animal, skeletal aspect, including balconies of bone, iron reeds of sea grass, and nary a straight line. The building is crowned by a dragon. CasaBatllo.es/en
4. Espai Boisà
Catalan cuisine reaches its apex in Barcelona, where traditional recipes are made with premium vegetables, seafood, and cured meats. While it may look complex, the focus is on high-quality ingredients, often simply prepared. Espai Boisà cooking school in the Eixample neighborhood, under the direction of its chef, teaches guests to prepare seasonal and traditional recipes using organic, locally procured ingredients. Students prepare the meals, including paella and a wine or sangria pairing, then dine on the fruits of their labors. EspaiBoisa.com
Churros con Chocolate
The monthly Sunday tea dance at Sala Apolo might disappoint those expecting to see a sea of shirtless gym bunnies. This place is seriously bonkers, a festival of outlandishness — and everyone is welcome, not just the terminally pretty. Like all things Spanish, this tea dance starts late. Aim to arrive around 7 p.m. Sala-Apolo.com
5. Jean Leon Winery
The award-winning wines are as good as the story of the Spanish immigrant who stowed away on a ship to the United States in 1951, joined the army, opened the Los Angeles celebrity hotspot La Scala (a joint venture with James Dean), rubbed elbows with every famous person of the time, and later bought a Spanish winery just outside Barcelona in 1962. There he there made his own label of cabernet sauvignon and pinot chardonnay, now sold internationally, and which, fittingly, bears labels and names in homage to Hollywood. JeanLeon.com
6. La Boqueria
Foodies could get lost for days in La Boqueria, the largest outdoor food market in Europe, and one that has been in operation since 1217. The fish market offers a daily catch of fresh fish, octopus, wriggling shellfish, and some massive monsters from the deep. Also on offer are mounds of bright produce, endless varieties of olives, Iberian ham, fresh meat, artisanal chocolates — really, all kinds of products, from high end to low cost. When the variety overwhelms, stop at the Bar Pinotxo for an espresso, or El Quim for a bite and a beer, and resume shopping. It’s easy to find as the entrance on La Rambla, the old city’s wide pedestrian boulevard. Boqueria.info
7. Homage to Barcelona, by Colm Tóibín
Acclaimed gay author Colm Tóibín has made Barcelona his home on and off since the 1970s. His historical account traces the city from its founding in the third century B.C. to its growth in the 1970s, and from dictatorship to democracy. The book includes much about native Catalonian sons Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Antoni Gaudí.
Each summer La Terrrazza brings a Mallorcan atmosphere — and thumping electronic dance music — to the mainland in an open-air club in a manor building with spectacular city views from its perch on Montjuïc, a hill overlooking the city. World-renowned disc jockeys perform for a mixed crowd, including lots of gay men, until sunrise. LaTerrrazza.com
Spain’s long siesta lunch, two hours starting around 2 p.m. daily, pushes the whole day’s schedule back several hours. Workers often stop for a beer and a small bite around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. before heading home. Dinner is late — never before 8 p.m., but 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. isn’t unusual — and going out is later. In the evening, aim for a happy hour beer or lounge experience, but if you’re planning on a night at a bar or club, don’t think of arriving before 1 a.m.
Photos: Courtesy of Axel Hotel; Courtesy of Vallformosa; Natursports / Shutterstock.com (Sagrada Familia); Casa Batlló; Courtesy of Espai Boisà; Courtesy of Jean Leon Winery; Tupungato / Shutterstock.com (La Boqueria)