Sunday, May 25, 2014

Steph's Guide to Madrid!

One of my friends is coming to Madrid soon, but unfortunately it will be after I leave. So, he asked if I could come up with a list of things for him to do while he's here. Well, I've become SO in love with this city since I moved here, I went a little overboard with my recommendations. I thought that more friends in the future might want this info so it would be a good idea to put it up on my blog. So here is my guide to everything Madrid!! Keep in mind, the majority of these things are for budget travelers like me :)

Retiro Park
-Retiro Park (Parque del buen retiro): Awesome park in the city center. It's HUGE! You could literally spend a whole day there if you wanted, but I would recommend just going there for a couple of hours and explore, maybe pack a picnic lunch if it's nice weather. Highlights include the crystal palace and it's turtle pond, casa de vacas (which usually has some sort of art exhibition for FREE), and of course the lake. The lake is man-made but it's gorgeous. Also, for a relatively cheap price you can rent a row-boat for 45-minutes. But overall, it's just a beautiful park. -Templo de Debod: This is a legit temple that was gifted to Madrid from Egypt. If you visit it during that day (any day but Monday) you can go inside it for FREE and check out the cool hieroglyphics on the wall. It's a bit small but still worth seeing! The temple is amazing, but the reason I recommend it is because of it's location. Just outside of the temple is the most amazing view of Madrid. I'd recommend seeing it at sunset, but it's equally beautiful during the day.
-Palacio Real (Royal Palace): The pride and joy of Madrid. I actually have to admit that I haven't been inside yet (it's on my to-do list before I leave) but it's supposed to be pretty awesome. If you're kinda cheap like me and don't want to pay to go inside(I think it's 11 euros, 5 euros for students, free for EU citizens 4-6 on Monday), it's still worth walking by and seeing the outside. There are also Royal Gardens behind the palace that are free to see and walk around it (watch out, they let peacocks run wild in there). The gardens are a little hard to find since the only entrance to it is a back entrance a bit far from the front of the palace. However, just ask someone and I'm sure they can point you in the right 
Palacio Real
direction. The gardens are definitely worth seeing! The view from behind the palace is stunning. -La Almudena Cathedral- Located right next to the palace. It's also free to get in. Yeah I know cathedrals can be pretty monotone, once you've seen one you've seen them all sort of thing, but this one is pretty I promise! It's decorated with super vibrant colors! And since it's free, I mean... why not? -Puerta del Sol: Quite literally the heart and "soul" (it's a pun, get it?) of Madrid. There isn't anything to actually visit here, but it's the center of the city centre. There's always tons of street performers, demonstrations, creepy people in character costumes, etc walking around here. Plus, 50% of the time when someone gives you directions to somewhere they will use Sol as a reference. -Plaza Mayor: The historic old square that used to be where the town market was etc. Tons of cafes and stuff in this square but most of them are pretty price. Still nice to see! Plus, there is a tourist info center here if you need a map or anything. Also, a free walking tour leaves daily from this plaza. I went on it and would say it's worth it! Just have to tip the tour guide at the end. -Gran Vía: The most modern part of Madrid. It's a big road lined with clothing stores, restaurants and theaters. It's the one place in Madrid you'll feel like you're in a big modern city rather than an older one. It's beautiful too. At the end of Gran Vía there is a plaza called Plaza de España which is pretty and has a cool Don Quixote statue in it. -The Prado: In my opinion the best of the three major museums in Madrid. It's the biggest and has more traditional art. Even if you're not a big art person, it's worth going. There are some seriously famous paintings in there! If you aren't planning on spending a ton of time there (3+ hours) I would recommend going during the free hours which are every night from 6-8pm except Sundays when its 5-7pm. -Reina Sofia: Modern art museum. I'm not really into modern art, but it's worth going to this museum just to see Picasso's famous "Guernica" painting. I would also recommend stopping by the Salvador Dalí room on the second floor. Other than that, most of the art there is too weird for me. Go during the free hours 7-9pm. -Museo Thyssen: Largest collection of private artwork in Europe. I liked this museum because it's not gigantic and therefore not overwhelming. They also have an awesome collection of impressionism (my personal favorite artistic movement) so I really liked it. Free hours 12-4 on Mondays. -Santiago Bernabeu Stadium: Real Madrid's stadium. For 18 euros you can do a self-guided tour. You get to go into the locker room, down to the field and through all the trophy rooms and stuff. Apparently it's a pretty cool tour if you're a football fan. I've never done it, but I've been to the stadium and that in itself is pretty incredible.
View from Palacio de Comunicaciones
-Plaza de Cibeles: Big beautiful traffic circle in Madrid. Home to Palacio de comunicaciones which you can go into for free. you have to pay 2 euros to get to the viewing deck on the 7th floor which gives you an amazing view of Madrid or you can see a similar view from the 5th floor through a window. Also on the 6th floor there's a restaurant/bar with an outdoor patio that you can see the same amazing view. A drink is on the expensive side, but you're not paying for the drink, you're paying for the view
-9th Floor El Corté Ingles: El Corte Ingles is a MASSIVE department store in Madrid. It literally has 10 buildings between Puerta del Sol and Gran Via. However, in the building that's directly across from the famous Callao theatre, you can go up to the 9th floor for an AMAZING view of Gran Vía. There's a ton of restaurants up there food-court style so you can grab something to eat or drink and enjoy the view. -Casa de Campo/Manzanares River: If it's nice out when you're here (it will probably be super hot) and you're looking for some fresh air, you can rent bikes and go up and down the river and around Casa de Campo (a MASSIVE park and the former royal hunting grounds for the King). Rentals are pretty cheap. I'd recommend Mi Bike Rio (google it) which is close to the Principe Pío metro stop. If you don't want to rent the bikes, the river is still nice for a walk. Go to either the Principe Pío or Piramides metro stops and walk from there. If you walk far enough you will walk by the Atlético Madrid stadium.
-El Rastro: If you're here on a Sunday, the Rastro is a must! It's a giant flea market in the La Latina neighborhood. When I say huge, I mean you'll need over an hour here, maybe 2. The hurdreds of little booths sell everything from clothes (new and vintage), hand-made accessories, artwork and more. It gets VERY crowded here, so beware of pickpockets. Also, don't be afraid to argue for a better price 
with the vendors!

Casa de Campo
-Malasaña/Chueca: Two of the trendier neighborhoods of Madrid and very popular with the 20-somethings. These neighborhoods are full of cute and cool bars, cafés, shops, boutiques, etc. Great for exploring day or night!
-Kapital: THE club of Madrid. 7 stories, different music on different levels. 15 euros cover which includes 2 drinks. Doesn't get busy until after 3am and is open until 7am. I only went once (and I'm not much of the clubbing type) and it was a BLAST! I wish I would've gone sooner! If you hang out near Kapital earlier in the night there will be a bunch of promo guys trying to get you deals to go to the club. Don't be afraid to take advantage of them!


Okay, that should be enough activities... now let's talk about food/drink. Also note that meal times are different here. Lunch 1:30-4, Dinner 9-11pm. In Madrid, most restaurants will always be open due to tourism, but these are the typical/busy hours: -Mercardo San Miguel: A food market near Plaza Mayor. It's full of little bite-sized food that's totally delicious. It can get a bit expensive so don't go there if you're starving but if you want to sample a bit of this and a bit of that then this is your place! So yummy. Mercardo San Miguel is the nicest and most popular among tourists but if you're looking for a slightly cheaper and more authnetically Spanish food market then I would recommend checking out Mercardo San Antón in the Chueca neighborhood or Mercardo San Fernando in Lavapiés neighborhood. -100 Montaditos: This is a chain restaurant and they are EVERYWHERE so it won't be hard to find one. Montaditos are little sandwhiches and they have 100 to choose from at this place. You fill out a order sheet and bring it to the cashier and then pick it up from the window when they call your name. If you go on Sundays, Mondays or Wednesdays they have extra discounts on the sandwiches but on a normal day they range from 1-2 euros and beer is 1.50 euro as well. Super cheap and super delicious! -Museo de Jamón: Also a chain restaurant. Most tourists don't go because they think it's a tourist trap but it's not! It's cheap beer and ham... what more can you ask for? If you order a beer they'll give you a free "tapa" which is usually a little bread with cured ham on it. If you want more, then you can order a ham sandwich for 1 euro or a plate of cured ham or cheese to share. Careful what kind of ham your order, some ham (and cheese) can be really expensive. -El Tigre: This is a MUST. It has three locations (all in the Chueca neighborhood). When you order a drink (5-6 euro) you will get a few giant plates of tapas brought to you (free). The drinks are HUGE as well. I recommend a mojito but you can just get beer or "tinto de verano" (see below) as well. The tapas aren't super high quality but they're greasy and delicious. The epitome of Spanish bar food. WARNING: It gets super busy on Thursday-Saturday night after 8/9pm. So I'd recommend going on a weeknight or around 7/8pm on Saturday. -Traga Tapas/ La Sureña: Two more chain restaurants that you'll find all over. You can get a bucket of beers and raciones (big tapas) to share for cheap! -Ginger: An amazing restaurant in between my house and Sol. It's best to go for the menu del día (fixed lunch menu) because it's only 10 euros and includes three courses, bread and a drink. This is high quality food. Go here and you will not be disappointed. -La Mallorquina: A bakery in one of the corners of Puerta del Sol. Best pastries I've had in Spain, bar none. You'll know when you see it because they have a window display of their amazing pastries that will make your mouth water. Take one to go or go upstairs to sit down and enjoy a cafe con leche or tea with your pastry! -La Latina: This is not a restaurant, but rather a neighborhood. It's known for it's plethora of tapas bars and restaurants! If you are looking for somewhere to go for lunch/dinner but don't know where to begin, head to this neighborhood. These prices of these places range from cheap to very expensive so make sure you take a look at the prices before you choose your place so you know what you're getting into! -Lavapiés: Also a neighborhood known for it's ethnic food, especially Indian, North African and Spanish with a twist. The food here tends to be pretty reasonably priced. -Huertas: My neighborhood! Named after "calle huertas" which is the heart of the neighborhood. Also home to Plaza Santa Ana. In this neighborhood you'll find TONS of tapas bars and restaurants. Usually more on the pricey side, but very VERY high quality places and tons of variety to choose from. -El Chapandaz: My favorite bar/pub in all of Madrid! It's a little outside the city centre, but not too far. It's in a neighborhood called Moncloa which is kind of a student neighborhood. This bar is awesome because it's modeled after the inside of the cave! They're famous for a drink called "Leche Pantera" (panther's milk) which is a delicious creamy drink that I would compare to a White Russian. They have tons of other specialty drinks that you can choose from as well! Their drinks come in 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 liter portions (as well as regular sizes) so go with a bunch of friends and split a giant delicious drink! The music isn't bad either :) San Gines: A cafe known for one thing CHURROS AND CHOCOLATE! Try the churros and porras (big churros) with chocolate on the side to dip! It's the oldest churros place in Madrid! Tapas you should try while you're here: 
-Croquetas de jamon (fried ham and potato goodness) 
-Tortilla espanola (spanish omelette with potato)
-Jamón serrano (cured ham)
-Queso manchego (my favorite cheese) 
-Patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce)
-Calamares fritos (fried calamari)
-Pulpo al la gallega (boiled octopus topped with paprika)
-Albóndigas (meatballs)
-Boquerones (anchovies fried or served in vinegar)
-Chorizo a la sidra (chorizo cooked in cider)
-Pimientos de padrón (little green peppers roasted and topped with sea salt)
-Aceitunas (olives, the olives are INCREDIBLE here!!). Drinks I recommend:
-Café con leche: Spain's staple drink, coffee with milk -Vino Tinto (red wine) with Rijoa and Ribera being my favorite -Tinto de Verano or tinto con limón: red wine with lemon soda -Cerveza (beer) here is nothing too special but my favorite of the major brands are San Miguel and Estrella de Galicia. Also there is a craft brew from Madrid called "Cibeles" that's pretty good so try that if you come across it! -Vermut (vermuth)- Typical in Madrid. Mercardo San Miguel has a ton of varieties or vermuth to try. -Clarita: Beer with lemon soda for a fresh summer drink! -Zumo de naranja (orange juice): Note, they say zumo not jugo here!! Always fresh squeezed and delicious
-Toledo: Can be reached in 30 minutes by AVE (fast train) for 20 euros round trip or 60 minutes by bus for 12 euros round trip. Medieval city with tons of history and plenty to see! -Segovia: Can be reached in 30 minutes by AVE for 20 euros or by bus in 1hr 15 minutes for 15 euros round trip. Segovia is a charming city in Castilla y Leon surrounded by mountains and with a beautiful castle! I'd recommend trying the local dish "cochinillo" (suckling pig) while you're here. It's the best pork I've ever had! -El Escorial: Also embarrassed to say I haven't been here yet. Giant royal palace and monastery where all or most of Spain's royalty are buried. Can be reached by bus or the cercanias suburban train.
Madrid is a great city! One of the things I love about it is that, for the most part, it's walkable. So I always recommend walking if you can, especially because then you can see house Madrid changes from neighborhood to neighborhood. However if you're feeling lazy or going to something a bit further away, Madrid has a great network or mass transportation as well. The metro is super nice and clean and can take you almost anywhere. Also, unless is late at night or the weekend, the trains come every 2-5 minutes. The metro runs from 6:00am - 1:30am daily. There are night buses that run all night (from Plaza Cibeles) if you need to get somewhere far away after hours. If you're planning on taking it a bunch you can buy a 10 pass ticket for a discounted price. Also, while on the subject of transportation BE CAREFUL! There are multiple bus stations and train stations (only one airport but it has 4 terminals) so always make sure you know which one you need to be going to!

Also, although it's never happened to me, pickpocketing is fairly common here. My advice is just to always be aware of your belongings and pack light. Be especially on guard in popular crowded areas like Puerta del Sol, El Rastro, etc. If you're going out for a big night on the town, only bring the essentials: cash, ID, etc. Other than that, you should be okay! Just be smart :) Enjoy Madrid! It's a beautiful city with lots to offer. There is SO MUCH TO SEE, EAT AND DRINK! It can be as cheap or expensive as you make it. Follow my advice and explore it youself, and you'll have a great time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Road Trip to Asturias!

Asturias has been on my "to-visit" list since I arrived in Spain over a year ago and I'm happy to say I finally made it! I didn't know much about it, but the reason I wanted to go was because I knew that the city of Oviedo was there. My college advisor/mentor José Fábres once told me that he thought Oviedo was the most beautiful city in all of Spain. So, I decided to go decide for myself! I feel like this trip was meant to be because in addition to my desire to visit Asturias, one of my colleagues and close friend here, Stavros, has been wanting to go all year to see the beautiful mountains AND I just so happen to know someone who lives in Asturias this year, Baylee! She is a fellow Bennie and a former roommate doing the same program as me. When I told her we were planning a trip up there, not only did she offer to let all 4 of us (Alexa, Heidi [roomie], Stavros and I) stay with her, but she wanted to travel with us and show us around! It was a done deal :)

We decided in the early stages of planning this trip that we wanted to rent a car because it would be cheaper and easier to get to all the places we wanted to go to, which included mountains and tiny pueblos. Well, the car didn't end up being as cheap as we'd hoped, but in the end it was still probably a little less expensive than all the buses would have cost us, definitely more convenient and way more fun! So it was a great investment, no regrets. We also decided that we wanted to plan this trip during a "puente" (translation = bridge) aka long weekend, so we could get the most out of it, and May seemed like the best time to do it! So on this past Thursday, we headed out on our adventure.

The first day didn't start off super well. We had some complications with the car rental which took a while to figure out, and by the time we got on the road we hit a major traffic jam leaving Madrid (combination of 'puente' traffic and a couple of fender-benders) and then once we were out of the city we hit a couple more jams on one-way roads going through pueblos. So, we arrived in our first stop, Oviedo, in a little over 6 hours instead of 4.5 like we expected.  Nonetheless we were excited to start our trip! Baylee was there waiting for us as she has never really seen the city either! Oviedo was very beautiful as José had once told me. The architecture is really captivating because it's a mix of beautiful golden sandstone and colorful buildings. It was a very eclectic display of architecture for such a small city! We didn't have much planned for Oviedo, so we just walked around and enjoyed a quick drink/tapa. Although it was beautiful, I have to disagree with José because I think that there are more beautiful cities in Spain.  If I could tell José my opinion, I'm sure he would just shake his head and laugh as he made some clever rebuttal (no doubt he's still doing that in heaven!). After Oviedo we made the short 25 minute drive to Gijón on the coast, where Baylee lives. That night we took it easy and made some homemade pizza and met her local friends who are not so local themselves; they're from all over Europe.

After breakfast on Friday we headed out on our longest leg of the day to Luarca, just 50 minutes west of Gijón on the coast. Luarca is a charming little coastal pueblo that doesn't look like much when you first drive in. The first thing we saw was average looking buildings along a semi-dried-up river. However, as we walked closer into town we started to see architecture transform into beautiful white houses. Farther on we found a charming plaza and cute little harbor and the pueblo started to grow on me. We took a quick peak at the coast before we took the stairs up to the "mirador" (lookout) recommended to us by the tourist office and then we saw the stunning view of the town in it's entirety. Panning from the left we saw beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic ocean followed by the adorable pint-sized village harbor filled with colorful boats and finally the pretty white houses that lined the serpentine river and covered the hills of the town. It was such a beautiful view that it took us a while before we wanted to head back down again. As gorgeous as it was, we had lots more to see that day!

We hopped back on a small coastal road so we could see the beautiful views of the cliffs along the rocky coast for a half hour and arrived in Cudillero, another picturesque coastal town. Although they have the coast, harbors, and hills in common, Cudillero had a much different style than Luarca. Unlike Luarca's predominately white buildings, Cudillero's came in all different bright colors topped with tiled red-roofs. We found a nice restaurant with a menu del dia featuring local seafood and some Asturian dishes like fabada (beans stewed with chorizo) and escalopines al cabrales (beef cutlets with blue cheese sauce).  After lunch we decided to climb the winding steps built into the little alleyways of the town and made our way to the top for an amazing view of the city. Similar to Luarca we got an amazing look at a combination of beautiful houses, the harbor and crystal blue waters.

Later that night we went back to Gijón and Baylee took us out to a local sidería. Sidra is not cider as we American's know it. It's not served carbonated in beer bottles and it definitely doesn't taste like spiked apple soda. There's a whole culture to sidra as we learned. It's ordered by the bottle (comparable to wine bottles) for only 2-3 euros. Then, a sidra expert will come to the table and pour it for you. The pourer stands behind a metal stall of sorts that protects others from getting splashed as he holds the bottle as high as possible in the air and pours it down into a glass (additionally, the best pourers don't even look!). Only about a shots-worth is poured and then handed off to the first person who wants it at the table. The sidra is then drunk by said person immediately and the empty glass is given back to the pourer to be refilled. Once everyone at the table has had a serving, the pourer leaves for about 10/15 minutes later and then comes back for another round! It was really fun to watch and be a part of the sidra culture for a night! We enjoyed a few rounds of sidra (don't worry, it's only 6% alcohol) with some Asturian raciones (big tapas to split) and then headed back to Baylee's.

Lagos de Covadonga
The next day Baylee's friends joined us on our adventure (which required a second car). We woke up bright and early and drove a little over an hour east to Covadonga which is in the Picos de Europa mountain range. First, we stopped in the town of Conga de Onis which comes just before the national park to see it's famous Roman bridge. After a quick look and a stop to the tourist office, we headed on to Covadonga. It's a busy time of year, so no one can drive to the top of the mountain because of heavy traffic on the tiny road that's hardly big enough for two cars.  The alternative was to catch a bus to the top of the mountain to see the famous lakes of Covadonga, so we did that. At first I was annoyed that we had to pay an additional 8 euros to get to the top, but I'm happy we did. The curvy road (singular) was extremely narrow, steep and was not only shared with other shuttle buses but also ambitious cyclists trying to make it to the top and shepherds with their cattle! It took us over 30 minutes to make the climb but it was all worth it. At the top are the stunning two lakes (more like ponds by MN standards but still pretty) as promised and countless breath-taking views over the green hills and mountain peaks of the Picos de Europa mountain range. We spent a good couple of hours exploring the hiking trails and then made the trek back down via bus. Then, we drove our car to visit the mountain church/monastery that sits on a cliff and walked over to it's chapel that sits inside a cave with a waterfall. Stunning! We were starving at this point so we all got back into the cars and headed to our next stop, Cabrales.

Cabrales is pueblo that's so small that if you didn't know better you'd blink as you passed through and it wouldn't think that you'd missed a thing; however Cabrales is famous for one thing, CHEESE! Cabrales cheese is a blue cheese known for its strong flavor.  We had a lunch there and decided to try some of the local queso! As a cheese fanatic I have to say it was probably the best blue cheese I've ever had, but very strong as promised. After lunch we moved on to the coastal town of Llanes where the weather turned slightly cloudy and windy (until this point, it was very pleasant! 50s/60s and sunny except for a little colder on top of the mountain). So, we passed through quickly and drove back to Gijón.

For our last night in Asturias we bought some sidra and practiced pouring it ourselves at Baylee's house. This required a bucket and a LOT of towels as we are very inexperienced pours.  After we all took turns pouring for each other, we went into town and enjoyed some drinks with Baylee's friends on a chilly Asturias night.

The next morning Baylee took us around Gijón (as we hadn't really had a chance to tour it before with our busy agenda). It only took and hour and a half to get a brief tour of the city. I really liked it because it reminded me so much of Almería. I don't know exactly why considering the landscape is much greener, but I think it had to do with the fact that they are both industrialized Spanish coastal towns that are similar in size and charm. After the tour, it was time to hit the road so we thanked Baylee and said our goodbyes. We had a nice drive through Cantabria and Castilla y León on the way back to Madrid. We were sad to say goodbye to our rental car (who we had named Pablo) because it meant the end of our trip.

It was an amazing weekend in Asturias! This tiny region of Spain far exceeded my expectations, and I must say the the landscape is the most beautiful I've seen in the entire country. I loved the culture between the siderías, laid-back coastal villages and friendly people I met. My only regret is that I didn't get there sooner. Surely if I visited last year I would have gone back again because I didn't get enough! My first trip to the north of Spain was a smashing success, and I'm eager for more, which is good because I'm headed to Basque Country this weekend. Hooray for back-to-back weekends in northern Spain!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


The night bus from Bulgaria took about 7 hours (including the one hour or so we spent at the border). We arrived bright and early in the morning. Alexa and I were very disoriented when we got off the bus. Not only were we still a little groggy from our long journey, but everything was written in Turkish and no one seemed to speak English.  Also, the bus station was ENORMOUS, by far the biggest bus station I've ever been to. Luckily, Alexa had written down the directions to the hostel, and after one metro, one tram and a little walking we managed to find it. Our hostel brought us up to their roof terrace to have breakfast and it was quite the view.  Fog still hung low over most of the city, so the only thing that could be seen there the tops of the towers and minarets of the surrounding mosques, including the iconic Hagia Sofia. As we at breakfast the fog settled and we got an even better view of the city and realized how close we were to the water. From our terrace countless rooftops could be seen in addition to the Bosphorus strait leading across to the Asian part of Istanbul. The incredible view got us very excited about the next 5 days!

We spent most of the first day exploring and getting our bearings. Later in the afternoon we caved into doing one of the really touristy activities- taking a boat cruise around the Bosphorus. It was actually a nice 2 hour cruise. They gave us a little info about the city, but mostly it was just beautiful views of the coastline. Istanbul has a really interesting location. Its where the Sea of Marmara passes into the Black Sea, creating the Bosphorus strait which forks of to make another strait called "Golden Horn". So basically, Istanbul is three peninsulas coming together! You can see why it's location made it such a powerful city at one point, they could control anyone wanting to get into the Black Sea! Anyway, enough about my nerdy georgraphy talk. After the boat tour we went to a delicious Turkish restaurant that served up amazing food. Alexa and I split a shepherds salad, and chicken stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and almonds. It was so good. And we got to try some complimentary Turkish delight at the end of the meal. I have to admit, it wasn't my favorite.  A little too sweet and too gummy for my taste, but I'd still recommend trying it. To each their own!

Blue Mosque
Day 2 we woke up to quite the surprise. When we had gone to sleep, they other 4 beds in Alexa's and my 6 person room were empty. In the morning, they were full! We started talking to our roommates and found out something incredible, they were four Johnnies (my almamatter) doing post study abroad travel.  What's more is that they had just been studying in Spain and one of the Johnnies was fro
m Eden Prairie (my hometown). Just one of those small world experiences that is too crazy to believe! They seemed like nice guys, so we decided to hang out with them that day. After breakfast on the roof, we went to the Hagia Sophia. I could write about the incredible Hagia Sophia forever, but I'll try to keep it short. When the Hagia Sophia (also spelt Ayasofya) was built in 537, it was the largest cathedral in the world and remained so for a thousands years. And did I mention it only took 5 years and 10 months to build? That's insane! In 1453 Istanbul (then Costantinople) was taken by the Ottoman Empire who converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.  Finally in 1935 the Turkish President transformed the mosque into a museum, which it remains today. Alexa and I spent a solid 2 hours in the Hagia Sophia awe-ing over the incredible architecture, immaculately well-preserved thousand year old mosaics, and rich history. Later on, we got a simple lunch of simit (bagel-like bread which is sold for about 50 cents in the street) and nutella with fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. After lunch, we and the boys went to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque because the beautiful blue tiles that line the mosque's interior. The boys had to change into pants, Alexa and I had to cover our hair with a scarf, and we all had to remove our shoes before entering the mosque. I've only been in a couple of mosques before, so I don't have much to compare it to, but I can't imagine many in the world were more spectacular than this one. The attention to detail and intricate patterns were stunning. We had to remain quiet at muslims were praying during that time.  There are five times a day when the streets of Istanbul ring with the voices of prayer cantors coming from the minaret of every mosque in the city (and there's a mosque every few blocks) so you can only imagine what that must sound like. Anyway, later on that day we took a trip to the famous spice market of Istanbul. To my surprise, there was much more than spices being sold there! Everything from scarves and t-shirts to baklava, meat and cheese to of course, spices, with Iranian saffron being the crown jewel. There are a million stands, and the vendors are very competitive (as they are everywhere in town) and so they will do anything just to get you to look at their products, but we had to be careful because they can be pushy and pressuring to the point of discomfort. After we felt like we had had enough of the vendors shenanigans, we headed back to the hostel. That night Alexa and I had a delicious Turkish meal and called it another early night.

Day 3 Alexa and I woke up bright and early to visit Istanbul's #1 attraction, The Topakapi Palace. This "palace" was more like a serious of connecting courtyards as much of it was outdoors. However, there was plenty to see and it took us about four hours to see most of the palace and jewelry, paintings and artifacts collections, with the audio guide. By then, it was lunch time and we sat down to enjoy "Turkish pizza" which is a thin pita bread topped with tomatoes, spicy minced meat and fresh herbs.  Very tasty! Then, we went into the esteemed archeological museum and just planned on "passing through" but had no idea what we were getting into. The museum is GIGANTIC so we didn't have the time (or the patience) to see it all. So we walked through and stopped at the really important looking things, and after about 2 hours we were at our limit. Nevertheless, it was extremely impressive. Then, we turned the corner from the museum and entered the breathtaking Gülhane Park which is lined with thousands and thousands of colorful tulips! After a relaxing walk through the park, we went back to the hostel to meet up with the guys as we had promised to show them where we had found soccer jerseys for 5 lira (less than 2 euro) at the Grand Bazaar. After the boys picked out there jerseys, we started getting pumped up to watch Real Madrid take on Barcelona in the Copa del Rey championship (one of Spain's soccer leagues).  We were all walking down a street near our hostel on the way to find somewhere to watch the game when the owner of a hookah bar that the boys were at the night before stopped them to chat. When we told them we were looking for somewhere to watch the game, he told us to sit down on the outdoor couches and he would take care of it. We were confused as he had no TV until we saw him bringing out a big screen and projector. The guy tied the screen to a tree next to the restaurant just for US! So we got to watch the game outside while drinking Turkish beer at a hookah bar! What an awesome experience! Plus Madrid won which made it all the better.

Watching the game with our new Johnnie friends!
The next morning we said goodbye to the boys. Alexa and I ventured across the Golden Horn to Taksim Square to see the more modern side of Istanbul. As we made our way down the main road, we started to see a whole different side to the city! Instead of little stands and markets, we saw big department stores, malls and chain restaurants (including Caribou Coffee, the Shake Shack and Pink Berry!). We spent our day window shopping and walking around the more modern side of Istanbul.  Later that night, we had the best dinner of all! In the Golden Horn, there are three boats attached to the dock. On the boats, there are giant grills with fishermen cooking up hundreds of fresh fish fillets for something called "fish bread". It's simply a grilled fish fillet served on a baguette bread with a lettuce/onion mixture. Only 4 lira  and my favorite dish of the trip! So rustic and tasty! Not to mention it was an authentic experience with few tourists in sight. We washed it down with fresh lemonade and later on enjoyed some loukoumades which are actually Greek doughnut holes soaked in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Absolutely delectable. Then, we went back to the hostel to meet some very interesting roommates from all different walks of life and spent the rest of the night chatting with them! My favorite part about staying in a hostel is meeting interesting people :)

On day 5 in Istanbul we took the ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul. The boys had told us about their Turkish bath experience at a hammam on the asian side, and so we decided to try it out two! We knew going into it that the workers didn't speak English and that it would be a slightly more awkward experience, but hey, it was less than half the price of the touristy hammams so we decided to go for it! We walked into the women's entrance of the hammam and were immediately directed into the changing stalls. Without any instructions Alexa and I were handed what looked like a table cloth and sandals and dressed down to just our bottoms. Then we were ushered into the hammam which is sort of like a sauna but instead of steam it has hot tiles on the floors and walls and sinks all around. We were given a bucket of sorts and then left along to sweat it out. We watched the couple of other local women in the hamman as the dumped buckets of water on top of themselves repeatedly. After a few minutes of the awkward "what do we do" moments we filled our buckets and began to drench ourselves as well. Then, a women came back in with what looked like an oven mitt covered in sand paper. We were scrubbed down head to toe while laying on the hot tiles and watched as a hole layer of dirty, dead skin was taken off our bodies. Then, we were lathered up with soap in a similar fashion and given a semi-message. After a few buckets that the women splashed on us to rinse us off we had our hair washed by them women. I struggled to breathe or see for a few moments as the suds covered my face but eventually I was rinsed down again. Then, the woman left and we laughed about our awkward experience as we enjoyed a last few moments in the hammam. I must admit, I did feel better and cleaner after the whole experience. The Asian side is much more industrial, so there's not much to do there, so we decided to walk across to the other ferry port just to see a bit of "asia". We happened about a giant local flea market which was fun to see! Then, we finally reached the other port and took the ferry back to European Istanbul. As it was our last night we treated ourselves to a special dinner and desert out.

The amazing view from our hostel's terrace (Hagia Sophia on the left)
The next morning we left bright and early to catch our bus back to Bulgaria. Turkey was an amazing experience and my only regret is that I didn't have more time to see more of Turkey! I know Istanbul is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Turkish culture goes, and I'd like to see more. Although Turkish people could be overly pushy sometimes, I found them to be overall very nice and friendly people. The food was just as amazing as I expected but I ended up liking the street food more than any meal we sat down to.  The colors, architecture and smells were all pretty new to me, and I enjoyed it all.

Can't wait to get back to Turkey to see more one day!