In 2004/2005 I was fortunate to work as a volunteer for a huge EU-initiated ONG in Barcelona, and lived for six months together with other young volunteers from various European countries. My particular work experience itself was a rather dark chapter, but that’s another story and anyway I wouldn’t change those months for anything. Besides I was obviously keen to go to Barcelona for much more than the job, just like all the other volunteers. We were there to meet others alike, learn Spanish and “have the time of our lives”.
And we had! Some of the guys with whom I lived still live in Barcelona and I’ve gone back every year since and still dream of living there again one day.
Here is a list of 14 things one have to do/see in Barcelona, starting with the obvious temptations:
1. Gaudi of course. The extraordinary architecture by the extremely innovative and very much admired architect Antoni Gaudi (1852- 1926) is known for having made Barcelona into the city it is today – due to its looks. 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, Casa Mila and Casa Batllo and more and more and more. At the tourist information in the airport, or downtown (or at your hotel) you 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 however 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. The beach! When cultural and vibrant cities has a coastline, they often get considered even more beautiful. This fact certainly concerns Barcelona with its not too polluted beaches, despite of being timely over-crowded. The beach is long and I always make sure to give a day to strolling from one end to the other along the well-kept promenade. On the way you can find the perfect slot for you whether that is the more family-friendly, party-like, high-endish, or hippie-ish… There are small beach bars every 100 meter and good restaurants along the promenade.
3. The different barrios. In my opinion you don’t actually get to know a city before you get to know the features of at least 3,4 of its neighbourhoods. Some cities may not have too defined neighbourhoods (something I quickly find boring), but luckily Barcelona does. You can say the typically ‘of tourist interest’ “city center” is what is called Ciutat Vella in which you find the old towns Born & Barrigotic (see the Gothic Quarter!) on one side of the avenue La Rambla, and the vibrant (and very popular) immigrant area Raval on the other. Then you have Barceloneta by the harbour/beach with the areas La Barceloneta & La vila Olimpica. Look at boats, stroll down the beach promenade and if interested visit the Aquarium. If you got more time in Barcelona, or if you are the kind of person not interested in walking where all the other tourists are, consider going the surrounding Le Corts (a little west-endish), Gracia and Glories (although as the most famous tourist attraction in Spain (La Sagrada Familia) is situated in between the two latter you do indeed meet foreigners here too).
4. The plazas. Because people love getting together for chats and drinks in 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, etc etc. Sit down on the pavement with a taken-away beer, or order a cold Clara (Spanish for shandy) and enjoy.
5. Tapas! Though some Nationalistic Catalans (they’re plenty) would disagree, Barcelona is in Spain, and here 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 Spanish people don’t drink that.
6. 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 after (or before) a day on the beach. The bar is tiny, but it takes surprisingly many people if you squeeze your way inside to the corners. And beware! You go to La Champañeria to get some local, historic vibes and taste their Cava and tapas (both simple, but delicious). In here you 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.
7. La boqueria. This is one of the oldest markets in town, and easy to find on a map and by walking up La Rambla. It’s a good 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 live in an apartment and want to cook).
8. Bars! Oh lord.. Where to start? I’d say the nicest bars are the ones you dont find in the middle of La Rambla. Then again, some of the most historical ones (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 Rava Rabipelao, Ambar and Lobo bar are stylish yet chilled, and great fun. So are the two super old bars Bar Marsella (be careful with the absinthe, they’re not joking), Le Pastis (in Raval). However Boadas claims to be the oldest (in Gotic) and you definitely go here if you want to feel like in the 40’s again. Trendy, but cosy Sugar bar, Pipa club and Le Petit Jet lag (all in Gotic) are cool too. And in Born around Passeig del Borne and its side streets (mentioned above) you have even more! Not to mention Gracia. Long story short: BARcelona!
9. Nightlife! My favorite club when I lived here was Sala Apolo! An old small theatre situated in Raval (metro stop Paralel). It still exists and hopefully ever will, 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. La Paloma is a historical gem but be sure to check 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. Depends on your music and style, amigo. I would check timeout.com if I were you.
10. 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 a (“wrong”) person confronts you with this and feel you’re ignorant to the 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!).
11. 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. Re contemporary art, visit MACBA in Raval and google where to find other galleries – they’re plenty! Between Gotic and Born you have two streets full of photo shops and posters and quirky art that I love to visit. For graffiti-interested google this too, -there is plently to see.
12. Festivals. Yup. The Spaniards love their holidays and any other excuse to throw a party. Feb/ March: Sitges (gay) Carnival – has become a wild tourist attraction. Each end of May/June: Primavera soundfestival. Mid June: Barcelona’s biggest festival (electronic music but also experimental and old school hip hop. June 24: San Juan (celebration of a saint (generally speaking: a massive beach party). September 24: La Merce (kids, families, tourists enjoying the Carnival parade with tons of crazy fireworks on the streets). Plus more, more, more. Google!
13. Tibidabo. Go hiking (and later look at/try the old carousels) on Barcelona’s highest mountain and get the most beautiful view over the city! On Tibidabo not only do you get nature and a spectacular view, you get to visit the antique amusement park (known from the movie Vicky Christina Barcelona) and see another precious cathedral.
14. Avoid getting pick-pocketed, or mugged! With mass tourism, Barcelona, that also holds a huge number of poor inhabitants, has become a mecca for pick-pockets. 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 is quite common that kids from marginalised backgrounds go over to tourists tables and ask for money, cigarettes or directions. They can put a note, or a map on the table and steel what’s under it without you noticing. I’ve been many places considered more ‘dangerous’ than Barcelona, and it may of course be a coincidence, but I’ve never been a place where I’ve seen and stopped as many robberies as here.
General points: Barcelona is perfect for a lot of walking so wear good shoes. To travel further however you depend on taxis and public transport. The latter is cheapest and a fun and a good way to see the city. Barcelona is very children- and gay friendly.