Bucket List: Taking Life Slowly in Barcelona and Paris
LA couple heads to Paris and Barcelona to celebrate the simple things in life—a strong cup of coffee, historic architecture, sunshine, European wines, seafood and a good book
Your honeymoon doesn't have to be the only epic trip you take after tying the knot, right? This was the sentiment behind Marcy and Chris Carmena's recent visit to two very romantic European cities—Barcelona and Paris—where they dined like kings, relaxed at the beach and let city life unfold around them.
What inspired you to go to Paris and Barcelona?
The only big trip we’ve ever taken together was our honeymoon trip to Bali, but we knew we would want to be traveling again soon. We decided to go to two different cities: Paris, because it was at the top of Marcy’s list, and Barcelona because all of our friends who have been there have fallen in love with the city. I had been to Paris once before on a family vacation, but that was nearly 20 years ago, so I felt like this would almost be like visiting the city again for the first time. Since neither of us had ever been to Barcelona, it was a fresh experience for the both of us. We did very little planning for this trip—on purpose—aside from taking recommendations from friends. We arrived at both destinations armed with a list of possible things to do without feeling obligated to do any of them.
How do you recommend “discovering” Paris? And what were some of your great finds?
What Marcy and I agreed on was that we didn’t want to take a trip with a packed agenda and we didn’t want to spend a lot of time surrounded by other tourists. In Paris, our goal was to settle down in a neighborhood and really get a feel for the people, place and the way of life. We split our time evenly between the Montmartre and Le Marais. Aside from visiting the Catacombs of Paris and walking by both the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the entirety of our trip was spent wandering through the streets, stopping for coffee or wine at a café and reading our books at the Place De Vosges, the steps of the Sacré-Cœur and the Gardens of Luxembourg.
Being a bit of a coffee fanatic, I made it a goal to find the best coffee shops in the city. At the top of my list is the Boot Café in Le Marais. It’s a tiny little place only big enough for about five people to stand, and they take their time making every cup of coffee perfectly. La Caféothèque de Paris (Le Marais) and Cuillier (Montmartre) were also fantastic. The best meals that we had in Paris were at Comme Chai Toi overlooking the Notre Dame and at Le Potager du Pere Thierry in the Montmartre.
As for other things you must do in Paris … drink LOTS of wine! We didn’t drink one mediocre glass of wine the entire time there, and we often selected the most affordable glass or bottle on the menu.
What was the scene like in Barcelona? Any hidden gems there?
We didn’t know what to expect in Barcelona, but the weather, architecture, people and food blew us away. Visiting the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell are absolute musts. When we weren’t wandering through the Gothic Quarter or Las Ramblas, we spent most of our time relaxing on the beach. I discovered one of the best record stores I’ve ever visited, Subwax Bcn. They specialize in vinyl, specifically, ambient electronic and dub techno music. As for the food, our favorite restaurants were Gallito and Pas Vela.
We had great dining experiences elsewhere in the city, but we kept coming back to these two places time and time again, and think we may have tried everything on the menu at both restaurants by the end of our trip. At Gallito, the black rice paella with baby cuttlefish and scallops was by far the best thing I ate over our entire vacation, although it was tough to choose between that the extraordinary chorizo, mushroom and artichoke paella at Pas Vela.
What were your accommodations like in Paris? Would you do anything differently?
Since we wanted as much of a local experience as possible in Paris, we stayed at apartments we found on Airbnb in the Montmartre and Le Marais. Although we wound up enjoying our time in both places, we would most likely choose different residences next time. The bedroom in the Montmartre apartment was in a converted, triangular shaped attic space, so we had to bend over to prevent hitting our heads on the ceiling when moving through the room. The apartment in Le Marais was perfect in almost every way, but we would have preferred staying in the heart of the neighborhood instead of on the outer edge. In hindsight, when taking lodging recommendations from friends, I would ask exactly what part of the neighborhood we should stay in. Both places were in the range of $200 a night, so ultimately, we felt like we got a fair deal.
Where did you stay in Barcelona and why?
In Barcelona, we knew we’d be ready to stay in a hotel, be a little pampered—and we were right. Luckily, we didn’t have to spend a dime on lodging since we were able to cash in credit card points. We wound up staying at the W Barcelona, which exceeded our expectations in terms of service and room comfort. Most notably were the breathtaking views of the Balearic Sea, where at the push of a button, the curtains opened to reveal a near 180-degree view of the Barcelona boardwalk. The beach and incredible restaurants were just outside the front door. The only downside was getting from the hotel to the rest of the city, which was a 20-minute walk to the nearest metro station. That said, the walk was entertaining since the path from the hotel took us along the beach and through a bustling part of the city.
You mentioned cashing in rewards points to pay for your lodging in Barcelona. Which rewards credit card did you use?
I have a Starwood Preferred Guest card by American Express that enables us to use points toward discount lodging at any Starwood group property. The W Barcelona is a Starwood property, and I had enough points to cover all five nights there without paying a dime toward the room. Even better, every dollar we spent in the hotel gave me double points on the Amex. Selecting the "green option" (no laundry service) at check-in rewarded us with another 5,000 points per day on top of that!
What advice do you have for first-time travelers to Paris or Barcelona?
For first-time travelers, the biggest piece of advice we have is to bring a paperback travel guide with great city, street and metro maps. We used our mobile phones for guidance far too frequently and wound up frustrated due to high roaming rates or lack of available Wi-Fi connectivity—even with the travel plans we had purchased from our phone carriers. I would also strongly encourage buying tickets in advance to any tourist destination you plan on visiting. This allows immediate entry into most places. Spontaneously deciding to go to a popular destination will usually mean standing in long lines, sometimes for hours. Also, as mentioned before, if someone recommends staying in a particular part of town, be sure to get exact locations or streets as neighborhoods can be large and drastically different.
A trip like this isn’t inexpensive. How did you budget for it?
Although we did save up a bit of money for this trip, we decided to pay for the vast majority of our expenses with our annual tax return. This eliminated a lot of the usual stress that accompanies saving up for a big a vacation. We also purchased plane tickets and booked our lodging months in advance, allowing us to save up for spending money. Neither of us wanted to do anything posh or extremely expensive, so sticking to a moderate- to low-price range in our activities, dining and lodging helped us adhere to our budget quite easily.
Chris is the general manager of Amoeba Music Hollywood and, fittingly, has an encyclopedic knowledge of ambient, electronic and dreamy downtempo. You can listen to some of his "late night moods" in this recent mix he made for KXLU's "55 Shades of Blue." And while you're at it, check out more photos from Chris and Marcy's Europe trip on Marcy's Instagram (warning: you might just fall in love with their pup Kilbey).