Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tasty Dining Options- Madrid

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Asador de Aranda - Preciados 44
Are you a fan of lamb? Then you'll LOVE Asador de Aranda! Their specialty Woodroast Lamb is to die for and popular amongst locals. 

Caixaforum - Paseo del Prado, 36
Located on the top floor of this famous Madrid little museum hotspot, you can grab a set lunch for 12 Euro. 

Casa Alberto-Calle de Las Huertas, 18
Traditional Spanish food is served here; they are known for their Ox Tail Stew. 

La Dorada - Calle de Orense, 64
Noisy and fun with lovely southern fish cookery. 

Estado Puro- Plaza Cánovas del Castillo, 4
A hotel tapas bar located in one of the popular areas of Madrid; great for people watching. 

La Finca de Susana- Calle de Arlabán, 4  
A fun mix of fusion Mediterranean and Asian food.

Ginger- Plaza del Ángel, 12
Like La Finca de Susana, Ginger is also a mix of Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. 

Ginza- Plaza de las Cortes, 3
Craving sushi at 11pm? Come to Ginza! It's open late and their sushi quality it top notch. 

El Gran Barril – Calle Goya, 107
El Gran Barril is known for it's shellfish specialities; located on the side of El Corte Ingles department store.

Hylogui - Ventura de la Vega, 3
Hylogui is known for it's relaxed atmosphere and traditional Spanish food; be warned , this place gets VERY crowded on the weekends. 

Jai Alai - C Balbina Verde, 2  
Great family restaurant serving Basque cuisine. 

O'Pazo - Reina Mercedes, 20
O'paso is rumored to be the best for northern seafish in Spain. 

Ramón Freixa - Calle Claudio Coello, 67
One of the few places open on Sundays, Ramón Freixa serves up yummy and interesting avant-garde cuisine. 

El Rocio – Calle Don Ramon de la Cruz, 28
Known for its southern Spanish/Andalusian cuisine, shellfish is popular here. It's also cheaper and more down-to-earth than Teatriz. 

Teatriz – Calle Hermosilla.
Take line 4 (brown line) and get off in Serrano, exit Claudio Coello.  Consider calling ahead for a reservation as this sophisticated and delicious restaurant fills up quickly. 


For a list of vegan/vegetarian/vegetarian-friendly restaurants and health food stores in Madrid, visit

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Barcelona Food Hotspots

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Agut:  Gignàs, 16
One of our favorites. It offers old-time traditional Catalonian cooking with small touches of seasonal cuisine, again, in its ever distinctive bohemian and friendly atmosphere.

Bar del Pla: Carrer de Montcada, 2
A great little find with simple food and fantastic wine; a favorite among locals.

Bell Amic: Carrer d'en Gignas, 25
Catalan food that comes highly recommended by Michelle Cheng, a former culinary docent in Barcelona and co-founder of the culinary blog “Chouxettes”.

Botafumeiro: C/ Gran de Gràcia, 81
The restaurant originated onsite at the fish auction, bidding for the finest freshest catch. It specializing in seafood and comes highly recommended by Barcelona docent Bernat Carreau.

Cal Pep: Plaça de les Olles, 8
Cal Pep presents a new way of cooking, different from the typical format of appetizers, entreés, then dessert. They have a fresh and bright culinary view, an understanding of cooking with easy and quick preparations. Mediterranean cuisine.  Recommended also by Bernat Carreau.

Can Majó: C Almirall Aixada, 23
The cuisine here is based on sea products from the local market and is a favorite of Bernat Carreau as well.

Casa Calvet: C Casp, 48
The Restaurant Casa Calvet is located in the Casa Calvet, a building that created the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí Mediterranean cuisine.  Recommended by Barcelona docent Bernat Carreau)

La Crema Canela: Ptge Madox, 6
You’ll find a combo of French, Asian and Catalon fusion cuisine at this hot spot! Tables are a bit close together but the awesome atmosphere makes up for it.  

Cuines Santa Caterina: Mercat Santa Caterina (Cathedral side)
Market food with yummy Good Asian, veggie, and fish options. The place is normally packed by 9:30 pm and is one our favorites.

Fonda Espanya: C Sant Pau, 9-11
The Restaurant  is located in the Hotel España and the interior was originally designed by the famous Catalan architect Lluis Domenech i Muntaner.  You can find traditional cuisine here.

Lluerna: Carrer de Rafael Casanova 31 08921 Santa Coloma de Gramenet
Restaurant Lluerna is one of our favorites.With it´s cozy atmosphere and minimalist settings. Víctor elaborates his signature Mediterranean cuisine where the product has the leading role. Mar is devoted to the world of wine. The restaurant has a private dining room with capacity for up to 8 people in the wine cellar. The restaurant gives advice to the food industry, prepares caterings, specializes in vacuum cuisine and elaborates menus for special occasions.

Sesamo: C Sant Antoni Abat, 52
Are tapas your thing? Then you’ll love Sesamo! They’re known for their Vegetarian tapas!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Forbidden City

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For 500 years, the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace and home to 24 emperors; it takes its English name from the fact that no one outside of the imperial household could visit without permission from the emperor. In Chinese, it’s most commonly called “Gugong”, meaning “former palace.” The Forbidden City has 17 palaces, five halls and, legend has it, 9,999.5 rooms. Ten is a number reserved for the celestial emperor, so the Forbidden City must have fewer rooms than the 10,000 belonging to the palace believed to be in heaven. It covers a massive 720,000 square meters, nearly 10 times the size of Buckingham Palace. It’s an incredible site, but its sheer size means planning for your visit is a necessity. Beijing’s most popular attraction, it sees more than 8 million visitors annually.


Opening Hours
From November 1st to March 31st, the Forbidden City is open 8:30am to 4:30pm. From April 1st to October 31st, it’s open 8:30am to 5pm. Tickets are sold until an hour before closing. The best time to visit the Forbidden City is weekday mornings. Weekends and holidays, particularly October 1-3 (China’s national day is Oct. 1), are when the Forbidden City is at its most crowded as visitors also flock from China’s countryside to take in the site. 
** Note the site is closed Mondays **

The closest subway station to the Forbidden City is Tiananmen East, exit B (the red line, no. 1). Security around the Forbidden City is very tight and the checkpoints and barricades can move at any time. The subway is the best way to reach the Forbidden City and to leave, especially as it’s difficult to flag down a cab in the immediate area. The subway is typically crowded during rush hour, but by 9:15 or so will be less crowded. If you must come by taxi, you should have your driver drop you off at the corner of Nanchizi Street and East Chang’An Avenue.

Bottled water is allowed through security. Snacks and drinks, including bottled water, are also available at a kiosk near the ticket window. After the first three main halls, there is a café and a larger teahouse. There are also benches outside the café and teahouse, in the area between the Six Eastern Palaces and the Six Western Palaces, and in front of the Gate of Divine Prowess.

There is a bathroom that one passes on the way in from Tiananmen Square, but it’s typically quite crowded. There are toilets at both the Six Eastern and Six Western palaces and in the back part of the Forbidden City. These bathrooms are not up to Western standards but are the only options inside the area; bring your own tissues and hand sanitizer.

One of the best ways to experience the former imperial residence is to join one of our local scholars on a walking tour of the Forbidden City. On any given day, our focus may tend toward the architecture and symbolism of the complex, toward the political history of China and its many dynasties, or toward daily life in the court, owing to the area of expertise of our docent and the interests of the group. Regardless of our course—and, often, we pursue many—the former Imperial Palace itself provides the textbook and background for this fascinating exploration of ancient Chinese history.


West of the Gate of Heavenly Purity: 
Look for a low, long building that, during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), was the office of the Grand Council, the emperor’s highest level of advisors. Just beside the office door is a gate leading north to the Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the emperors worked and lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Traveling further north takes you to the courtyards which once housed the palace women—the concubines and wives of the emperor. Here you can find some furniture and artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

East of the Gate of Heavenly Purity
: To the east of the Gate of Heavenly Purity is a gate leading to the Hall of Jewelry. This exhibit requires an extra ¥10 admission fee. In addition to exhibits of imperial family jewels, one has access to the recently restored retirement palace of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled from 1735-1796, and to a set of lovely courtyards in the Northeast precincts of the palace.


Gugong: Means former Palace. This is the most commonly used Chinese name for the Forbidden City. 
Tiananmen Dong Zhan: Tiananmen East Station, the station where our scholar-led Forbidden City visit meets.
Taiheimen: The Gate of Supreme Harmony—the second major gate encountered when one enters the Forbidden City from the south—is where the Ming Dynasty emperors held morning court.
Wumen: The Meridian Gate is the Forbidden City’s largest, with five arches. The center arch was for the emperor alone; the exceptions were the empress, who could pass through only on her wedding day, and the top three scholars who, following the civil service exams, were allowed to leave through it.
Yangxin dian: The Hall of Mental Cultivation, in the inner courtyard of the Forbidden City, was home to the emperor’s bedroom. Three emperors died here.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dissecting the Great Wall

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The Great Wall of China is 13,171 miles long, is ancient and enormous; some sections date to the seventh century BCE. It’s been alleged that you can see the Great Wall from outer space, but this has been debunked. Our Family Travel Concierge Great Wall day tour visits the Jinshanling section of the wall, but there are a few others that are open to the public. Here, we break down where they are and what they offer.

 Our Great Wall day tour takes place on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, whose name means “Gold Mountain Ridge”. While it takes almost two hours to drive here from Beijing, it’s worth it: Jinshanling is wild, rambling, and untouched. Built in the late 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and standing 2,300 ft. above sea level, the Jinshanling section runs 6.5 miles and has a whipping 67 towers. Though Jinshanling has undergone some restoration to make it safe for visitors, it’s still quite crumbly, and sections get quite steep; from the highest watch towers, the view is striking and expansive. There is, of course, a cable car to haul you up to the wall’s highest point, and from here it’s a more leisurely walk, just you, your docent, and the sounds of your camera clicking away.

 This section of the Great Wall, 50 miles outside Beijing was, in the late 1950s, the first to be opened to the public. Badaling was built in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and runs 7.5 miles long, its highest point a cool 3,330 ft. above sea level. It has been entirely restored and is the showpiece of the Great Wall, but it makes Spring Break at Disney World look like a yoga retreat. Tour buses clog the parking lot here, disgorging their massive tour groups. Vendors hawk souvenirs like Great Wall T-shirts and panda hats. There’s a cable car going up and down and a bobsled going down. It’s slightly chaotic to say the least.

 Roughly the same distance from Beijing as Badaling, Mutianyu is a better option for those without much time. It’s still a bit crazy here, with lots of vendors, but tour groups stick to Badaling so you won’t need to elbow for space. Mutianyu is older than Badaling, dating back to the mid sixth century, but it was rebuilt in the mid 16th century, and that’s what you see today. This section stretches 7,380 ft. and has 22 watch towers. It’s surrounded by forest and it’s not unusual in the winter to see deer and other creatures come right up to the wall. There is a chairlift, a gondola lift, and a toboggan run. For lunch, we recommend The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, housed in the former classrooms of the then-village primary school.

 After being closed for ages due to ongoing restoration work, this section was re-opened in 2014. Simatai, about two hours from Beijing, was originally built during the Northern Qing Dynasty (550–577) and then rebuilt in the late 14th century during the Ming dynasty. This section of the wall runs just 3.3 miles, but it has 17 watch towers from which the views are fantastic. You can hike up or take an open-air gondola. It’s also possible to hike between Simitati West and Jinshanling; this is about 5 miles and will take several hours, and you should be sure to pack food and drink.