Did you ever reflect over how some cities in the world seem to be loved by everybody? Like when you’re having a conversation and the name Barcelona comes up, have you noticed how everyone always goes: Oh, Barcelona! Yes, I freaking love that city! It’s so cool, it has everything! I need to go back there. And if someone in that conversation reveals they haven’t been they’ll probably be told: What, you haven’t been? You have to go, trust me, it’s the best! If the person himself didn’t already interrupt: I know, I know, Barcelona is definitely on my bucket list! Everybody always tells me that.
No wonder you’ve been in a similar conversation, because sure thing; Barcelona is one of those cities you just fall in love with. In almost all rankings of Best Cities, Barcelona is among the top 3. Among other highly ranked cities like San Francisco, Cape Town, New York, Berlin, London, Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires and Tokyo… Why is that so?
Personally I’ve been a devoted urban traveler for a long time and consider myself a bit over the top interested in trends within the travel industry. Although obviously several factors – e.g. geographical, historical and political – count for a place to become a popular destination among many people (from many different countries), I personally think a city is amazing when it has a mix of great geography (sea, mountain, forest, rivers), friendly locals, vibrant city life (including a variety of food, art, night life & fashion), and a somewhat characteristic architecture. And that’s why I think Barcelona scores so high. It has all of that!
Since my first visit in 2003 and a six months stay in 2005, Barcelona has been one of my favorite cities – thus a city I make sure to visit every year (though I still haven’t visited half of all the cities I’d like to). Out of my love for Barcelona I’ve created this guide with 14 travel advices for Barcelona.
Starting off with the obvious temptations:
1. Gaudi, of course. The extraordinary architecture by the highly admired architect Antoni Gaudi (1852- 1926) is known for having made Barcelona into such a uniquely looking city. There is no place in the world you will see anything like the buildings he constructed over hundred years ago. Sagrada Familia, Casa Gaudi, The Guel park (see point 6), Casa Mila and Casa Batllo and much more. At the tourist information in the airport, or downtown (or at your hotel) you’ll get maps over where to find the marvelous constructions. There is also a Gaudi museum in Barcelona that can be good to start a full-on Gaudi day with. My recommendation is to divide the Gaudi tours into two days according to where the spectaculars are and mix the go-see with other interesting things in each part of the city.
2. Understand the Spanish VS Catalan issue. The sooner you learn some about this, the better. It can in fact affect even a short stay in Barcelona, if the (wrong) person confronts you with this and feel you’re ignorant to the topic. Respect the locals’ feelings about this topic. Advice: Learn to say good day and thanks in Catalan – they’ll love you for it. “Bon dia” & “Merci” (NOT “Buenos dias” & “Gracias” – that’s Spanish!).
3. The beach! When cultural and vibrant cities have a coastline, they often get considered much more beautiful. This fact certainly concerns Barcelona with its not too polluted beaches, despite of occasionally being pretty over-crowded. The beach is long and I always make sure to spend one day strolling from one end to the other along the well-kept promenade. There is a good chance you’ll find whatever you'd consider “the perfect beach slot” for you – it be more family-friendly, party-like, high-endish, or hippie-ish. Every 100 meter along the promenade there are numerous good restaurants. Choose local places over major chains like KFC. This isn't only responsible but also adds to an authentic experience of Spain.
4. The different barrios. In my opinion you don’t actually get to know a city before you get to know the features of its different neighbourhoods. Some cities may not have too defined neighbourhoods (something I quickly find boring), but luckily Barcelona does. You can say Ciutat Vella is what makes up the “city center” and within this area you’ll find the gorgeous and well-kept old towns Born & Barrigotic (see the Gothic Quarter!) on one side of the (extremely touristy) avenue La Rambla, and the vibrant (and very popular) immigrant area Raval on the other. And yes; all the barrios are brilliant for people watching, drinking, eating and shopping.
Then you got the area La Barceloneta & La vila Olimpica by the harbour. Here you can look at the boats, eat in a fine restaurant, stroll down the beach promenade and if you’re interested in such visit the Aquarium. If you got plenty of time, and/or are not interested in walking where all the other tourists are, consider visiting the surrounding Le Corts (a little west-endish), Gracia and Glories (though the most famous tourist attraction in Spain (La Sagrada Familia) is situated in between the two latter so you do indeed meet foreigners here too).
5. The plazas. Because Spanish people love getting together for chats and drinks (and are privileged with a climate that allows it pretty much all year), small and big squares packed with restaurants, bars and fountains are characteristic in South European cities. In Barcelona they are everywhere, however not always that easy to find on a map. Plaza Real (at La Rambla) is one of the bigger and very touristy, Passeig del Borne (Born) is more of a street than a plaza but cool (young, hipstery) people hang here, Plaza del Sol (Gracia) is small, young and hippie-ish, the huge Plaza outside of MACBA in Raval is chilled and full of skaters and tourists, Plaza triangular (Barrigotic) is tiny and quite local, Plaza de Sant Jaume connects two barrios and this and that plaza, oh I could go on forever… Just sit down for a beer or a cold Clara (Spanish for shandy), some tapas and enjoy.
6.The parks. Barcelona has many small parks hidden between streets and buildings, but Ill highlight the bigger parks where you can spend a day relaxing and enjoying a taste of nature within the hectic city. (All the parks are perfect for people traveling with children). Parc de la Ciutadella is ground of both the Catalan Parliament building and Barcelona Zoo and part of its charm lies in its ornamental waterfall and artificial lake. You can take a boat out onto the lake, play table tennis, or enjoy any of the seasonal activities and events the park hosts every week.
Montjuïc park got world known during the 1992 Olympic Games and currently offers a green oasis for culture, sports and entertainment in Barcelona. It’s located on the mountain Montjuïc with a spectacular view of the city and offers theaters and museums, fountains and gardens, sports facilities and fairground pavilions.
The park Guell, built by Gaudi between 1900 and 1924 was originally going to host around sixty houses and a chapel, but was never finished. As a result, it became the property of the city of Barcelona in 1922 and is today one of the main tourist attractions in the city. The view from here is stunning and Gaudi’s particular style is clearly noticeable in the uncommon architectural forms and bright colors.
And for even more stunning views (and potentially some hiking) you go to Tibidabo, which happens to not only be Barcelona’s highest mountain but also represents an old amusement park. The place is well known from the movie Vicky Christina Barcelona and for yet another precious cathedral.
7. Tapas! Though some Nationalistic Catalans (they’re plenty) would disagree, Barcelona is in Spain, and the Spaniards love their tapas. Get used to eating your lunch and dinner like them – and remember tapas is to be shared between people. The classic ones: aceitunas (olives), pan con tomate (bread with tomato), aioli (thick white sauce made of garlic and olive oil, to eat on bread and with seafood), patatas bravas (thick fried potato chunks with a special spicy tomato sauce), tortilla (thick egg omelet with potatoes) and albondigas (meat balls with a touch) and gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimps, or shrimps cooked in a dry-fryish way on a pan).
For the seafood lovers there are plenty of options – especially for the valiant. Grilled pulpo (octupus) and calamar (squid) is very common and delicious! Chipirones en su tinta (mini squids served in their ink!!) as well, and trust me- it’s yummy! Grilled or dry-fried boquerones (anchovies) you eat whole, and various bacalao (cod in sauce) dishes are served many places. And don’t forget your sangria, it’s just a myth that Spanish people don’t drink it themselves.
8. La Champañeria. Actually I was unsure whether to post about this, or not, as it’s one of these places you love just the way it is. But I hate it when others keep those secrets away from me, so here it goes. La Champañeria is a gem of an authentic Spanish cava & tapas bar. It’s located at the bottom of Born, in the small street Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7 (close to the harbour). You find it by noticing the crowd of people outside, especially around midday (lunch time for locals). In my opinion it’s the perfect place to go as a couple or with a small group before or after a day on the beach. The bar is tiny but takes surprisingly many people that don’t mind squeezing together. (Beware! You go to La Champañeria to get some local, historic vibes and taste their Cava and tapas (both simple, but delicious). Here you’ll kick your way through used carton plates and tissues, and order at the bar with jams hanging over your head. The old sweaty waiters are in a hurry and don’t speak much English, so be patient and speak clearly as it’s normally crowded and noisy. One bottle is served with three plates of tapas. Open from 9am – 10.30pm, closed on Sundays).
9. La Boqueria. Originally called Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, this market is one of the oldest in town, dating back to 1217 (!). It’s easy to find on a map and by walking up La Rambla (with entrance from La Rambla). A perfect place to suck in some history and watch how a typical old Spanish market works, and to buy fresh bread, cheese, fruits, fish and meet (if you’re keen on a picnic in a park or live in an apartment and want to cook).
10. Get inspired! Absorb quirky art and fabulous street performance. Regarding street performance, many seem to think that the street artists in La Rambla are of the best in the world! Regarding contemporary art, visit MACBA in Raval, follow this and google where to find different galleries. Between Barrio Gotic and Born you have two streets full of photo shops and posters and quirky art that I love to visit. For graffiti-interested, the whole city is a gallery actually. You’ll also find plenty of inspirational stuff by googling the topic.
11. Bars! Oh yes: BARcelona! First of all; the nicest bars are obviously not the ones you find in the middle of La Rambla. Then again some of the most historical bars (and also frequently visited by locals) are very close by. Just google and mark them on a map and start your round. The level of cocktail making skills is high! In Raval you have Rabipelao, Ambar and Lobo bar: all stylish, yet odd, chilled & fun. Close by are the two old and unique bars Bar Marsella (be careful with the absinthe, they’re not joking), and Le Pastis (Raval). However Boadas in Barrigotic claims to be the oldest in Barcelona and you should definitely go here if you want a peak into the 1940′s. Sugar bar, Pipa club and Le Petit Jet lag are also all in Gotic, tiny and innovative. In Born around Passeig del Borne and its side streets (mentioned above) you have many more! Not to mention in Gracia.
12. Nightlife! My favorite club when I lived in Barcelona was Sala Apolo; An old small theatre situated in Raval (metro stop Paralel). It still exists and hopefully will forever, has amazing bookings and loads of experimental electronica and hip hop. Razzmatazz is also great, a huge venue with 5 rooms and good concerts from time to time (but check their events online first). La Paloma is a historical gem but be sure to check if it’s open. It constantly has neighbour trouble as it’s in the middle of a resident area in Raval. La Terraza is beautiful and located up in the hills of the city (perfect for warm summer night), though it’s not my kind of vibe (quite high-endish). City Hall (on Placa Catalunya) also had some good concepts going on, but I’m afraid you have to find out of these things yourself when first deciding to go somewhere. It really depends on your music and style, amigo, hence check ResidentAdvisor.com and Timeout.com to find recommendations for the style/music you fancy.
El Row 14 is apparently a mad club where they play with inflammable toys and dress out. It typically offers electronic music and is probably for the more party valiant as it’s situated a bit outside town and in the Spanish clubbing-way open til early morning (I’ve heard many people start their daytime party here around 10am). Very good bookings of national and international DJs. (EDIT: Rumors tell me this place is closing in 2014)…
13. Festivals. Sure thing, the Spaniards embrace their festivos (“holy days”) and find any excuse to throw a party or celebrate something with a festival. Ill mention the most known events for now. Late March: Sitges (gay) carnival has become a wild tourist attraction. Late May: Primavera sound. Mid June: Sitges gay parade. Mid June: Sonar: Barcelona’s biggest festival – and one of my all time favorites (thus promoted several times before). It offers electronic music but also all kinds of experimental stuff including old school hip hop etc. June 24: San Juan (celebration of a saint (generally speaking: a massive beach party). Mid September: Merce. A massive traditional carnival alike party in which locals, families and tourists gather to celebrate Catalan traditions, watch endless parades and intense street fireworks (!).
14. Avoid getting pick-pocketed or mugged! With mass tourism Barcelona – that unfortunately holds a large number of poor inhabitants – has become a Mecca for pickpockets. Like in any other place in the world you have to take precautions, and the typical advices are: Don’t watch street performers in crowded areas/ stand on crowded metros/ walk in crowded streets without having control of you valuables. It’s also common that poor kids wander around tourists’ tables asking for money, cigarettes or directions, but with an attempt to steal. I’ve been to many places considered more ‘dangerous’ than Barcelona (and it may of course be a coincidence) but I’ve honestly never heard of/ seen (and even stopped) as many robberies as here.
General points: Barcelona is perfect for a lot of walking so wear good shoes. To travel further you depend on taxis and public transport. The latter is more environmentally friendly and a cheaper and fun way to see the city. Also, Barcelona is very children- and gay friendly.