Modernista masterpieces, medieval streets and Mediterranean sands are just three reasons why the Catalan capital is the perfect playpen for the urban explorer. Duncan Rhodes introduces these and more below…
If Barcelona were a woman she would be a ravishing but rebellious Miss World misfit, one who regularly neglects her beauty sleep for debauched nights out that can leave her looking distinctly worse for wear. The city’s best features, such as La Sagrada Familia, are perennially being patched up by unsightly cranes and scaffolding, graffiti (only some of which transcends to art) is splashed over shutters and walls and the household garbage of local residents and bodily excrements of fiesta people smear what might otherwise have been the picturesque streets of Barcelona’s Old Town.
Bizarre perhaps, but it’s the city’s rough edges that makes you love her even more. Barcelona is no too-good-to-be-true model tourist town, full of perfect paint jobs and picture postcard plazas. She is a real city who wears her fierce Catalan heart on her sleeve, dresses in the fading – but still beautiful – Modernista facades of yesteryear, and courts the company of dreadlocked hipsters, tattooed beatniks and other assorted counter-culture kids. Liberal, self-contented and loud-mouthed (especially after a caña or two), this is a city which never feels guilty about having a good time, and doesn’t care what she looks like in the morning.
Best of the Beaten Track
Gaudi grabs the headlines when it comes to attractions in Barcelona, and it’s interesting to note that the very works once mocked for their OTT grandiosity and ‘superbly creative bad taste’ (Dali), have now become synonymous with the city’s aesthetic. La Sagrada Familia is of course his crowning glory and it really is worth braving the queues to get up close and personal with this towering cathedral, built along the architectural principles of Mother Nature which intrigued Gaudi as a boy (update, no need to brave queues… these days you can buy an advance ticket from the official website and choose an arrival time. Way better!). Gaudi’s foray into landscape gardening, Park Guell, is also well worth the metro ride north (take the green line from the centre up to Lesseps). The views over the city are tremendous and film buffs will enjoy deconstructing scenes from both L’Auberge Espagnole and Vicki Cristina Barcelona. Sadly it’s no longer free to enter. Other Gaudi show-stoppers include the Casa Battlo and Casa Mila (aka La Pedrera), both on the grand Passeig de Gracia boulevard.
Las Ramblas is the city’s iconic thoroughfare, a love it or loathe it place, bursting with flower stalls, souvenir shops, cartoon artists, street performers as well as street hawkers, pick pockets and (by night) prostitutes and constantly jam packed with people at almost any hour of the day. This chaotic boulevard is also the gateway to the sensory overload of La Boqueria food market and palm-tree serenity of Placa Reial, a good starting place for a jaunt deeper into the Gothic Quarter.
Those with a bit more time to play with should get over to Montjuic (Jewish Mountain) home to an oddball selection of cultural greats such as MNAC Museum, Poble Espanyol, Joan Miro Foundation, Caixa Forum, Calatrava’s needle and by night the delightfully cheesy Magic Fountains light and sound show. If at some point you feel your ‘museum legs’ coming on, then there’s always Barcelona’s many beaches to check out. They have their critics, but any qualms about dirty water and overcrowding is offset by the sheer entertainment provided by unabashed nudists, bronzed volleyball players, bongo-bashers/banjo-strummers, Asian hawkers, South American surfers and many more colourful characters. If the heat gets too much an ice-cold mojito at one of the chiringuitos (beach bars) = time well spent.
If you’re planning an intensive assault on the city’s best sights then it might be worth investing in a Barcelona City Pass, which for a fixed price gets you into all the major attractions (often with “skip the line” privileges), plus enables you to use both the normal tourist bus and public transport for free. Available in two, three or five day options.
Whereas most cities have their very own Shoreditch, Friedrichshain or Kazimierz, virtually every district in Barcelona has Bohemian aspirations. El Born is perhaps the prettiest and home to a comfortable mix of tourists checking out the superb Picasso Museum and fitting in some boutique shopping, together with arty locals going about their business, slowly. I suggest picking up a Diana camera at the Lomography store, before heading to the Passeig del Born in the evening to capture the lively buzz of Barcelona’s barflies sticking into their cañas and conversation. Elsewhere, a socially-excluded immigrant population, assorted waifs and strays, and the counter culture community, are normally enough to scare the average tourist away from Raval, leaving the likes of Rambla de Raval – one of the city’s prettiest streets – to be enjoyed by the brave. All in all the Raval area is full of surprise finds, such as the Gothic courtyard of the old Santa Creu hospital, a wonderful oasis of orange trees and birdsong where students (and drunks) recline in the sun. (Incidentally this is the same hospital where Gaudi died, three days after being struck by a tram. Always watch where you’re going kids!).
If you fancy exploring with a local expert the friendly folk at Steel Donkey Bike Tours specialise in small group alternative tours of the city, taking you around all of the barrios above, as well as the post-industrial district of Poblenou.
Other cool things to do in Barcelona, as reported on by Urban Travel Blog, include street photography tours and personal shopping tours, and – if you’re feeling brave – you can even enjoy a plate of paella with a notorious criminal.
Experience & Events
You may have heard of a little-known soccer outfit by the name of FC Barcelona, held in great affection by the locals. The atmosphere at the 99,000-seater Camp Nou is known more for its reverence than electricity and sports fans should make the effort to partake in what is effectively Catalonia’s national religion.
Year-round Barcelona is full of events and experiences that will linger long in the memory, such as the firework-laden all-nighter that is Sant Joan (Sant Juan in the rest of Spain) and the enthusiastically celebrated festes majores: week-long street parties held in each district throughout summer, culminating in La Merce, the city-wide celebration that comes with carnival-style processions and free concerts in every placa and park. Make sure you pick up a programme to catch highlights like the Catalan traditions of correfoc (fire-running) and castellers (human castles). If you really want to experience Barcelona-style hedonism however come for the world-renowned Sonar electronic music festival. Even if you can’t afford a ticket to the main event, scores if not hundreds of parties and concerts make up a formidable Off programme. For less beats per minute, but even more hipsterdom then time your visit for Primavera Music Festival in May.
For a much wider range of experiences, tours and day trips in and around Barcelona, check out the gurus at BCN.travel.
Ipod docks, pink neon lights and panoramic views make the pillows at Barcelo Raval some of the most progressive in the city. This sleek circular tower is a sign of the gentrification of Raval district, but a word of warning – it hasn’t happened yet! If you’re keen to go green Casa Camper’s total recycling policy and solar panels make for a eco-friendly stay, whilst for old school charm the family-run Hotel Grau is hard to beat. Overlooking a narrow street just off Las Ramblas, visitors are recommended to check out the accompanying bar next door for homemade Vermouth served since 1862. If you prefer your own pad then there are plenty of rental firms offering apartments in every district, which usually work out cheaper than hotels. Budget travellers should check out the Central Garden Hostel, rated as a 5-star hostel by Hostelgeeks.com no less!
Gastronomes are spoilt for choice in Barcelona, and whilst your chances of landing a table at Ferran and Albert Adria’s Tickets Bar are minuscule, even the crappiest neighbourhood gaff will serve up a decent bocadillo (sandwich) and – as long as you avoid dining right on Las Ramblas – it’s hard to eat badly in this city. If you are up for braving Raval’s back alleys Cera23 serves up innovative Catalan cuisine and really delicious blackberry mojitos (although the Tripadvisor effect means you’ll be dining with as many tourists as locals), whilst also in Raval you’ll find Elisabets, one of my “go to” tapas bars when I’m showing similarly financially-challenged friends around the city. Otherwise sidle over to local favourite Cafe de L’Academia, which with characteristic Catalan obstinacy doesn’t bother to open at weekends. Alternatively why not go straight to the source at La Boqueria market? If kiosk restaurants like El Quim and Organic are too hectic for you, pop out the back of the market and discover Ra Town’s delightful sun-kissed, ivy-bedecked terrace (update it’s currently out of action as they put up a dirty great car park out the back of the market. Hopefully it will be returned to its former glory soon!).
The key areas for Barcelona nightlife are Placa Reial, favourite with the backpacker crowd and home to several bars and clubs of dubious quality, and Port Olimpic where a string of plush lounge bars serve up cocktails by day turning into clubs at night. For some more authentic action, and if you can stand the crush, hit some of the city’s traditional xampanyerias for cheap Cava and tapas. Alternatively bar crawl your way around Raval, via swanky Marmalade and gritty Ambar before ending at Apolo for some indie/electro dirty beats. Other great places to end the night include the five dancefloors of Razzmatazz, the friendly music-driven Sala BeCool club, or the open-air posing palace that is La Terrrazza (summer only).
Getting There & Around
Cheap airlines Easyjet, Vueling, BMI baby, Wizzair, Jet2 and Ryanair (who also fly to Girona and Reus, both 1.5 hours away) are probably your best bets if you’re jetting in from the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Whilst BA, Iberia, BMI, Continental, Delta are the old school carriers if you’re flying from the US or Canada. Once at Barcelona’s El Prat airport you’ll find the efficient Aerobus service will get you into the centre of town for around €6, or if you prefer door to door service to your hotel you can opt for an affordable private transfer with Book Taxi Barcelona. If you’re continuing your travels elsewhere in Spain you’ll find trains to Madrid, Seville and Valencia annoyingly expensive, and you may want to even check flights instead or look for a car share option.
Barcelona Life is a handy resource, with great cultural and nightlife info, whilst the hopelessly unstylish Barcelona Tourist Guide does at least have every bit of practical info you could possibly need. For a wide range of local tips by local people check out the aptly named Spotted by Locals – Barcelona section. For a personal perspective on exploring the city look no further than the Barcelona Blonde.
Time Out, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are all decent guidebooks worth packing. For some more insight Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia paints a fascinating picture of Spain during the civil war, including the Barcelona street fighting. If you only have space for one book in your backpack though make it The Shadow of the Wind, a wild and romantic flight of fancy that takes place in the 1950s with plenty of evocative descriptions of the city.
Movies-wise best to rent out Vicki Cristina Barcelona, even if the film bears little resemblance to the realities of life in the city. For that you should watch the highly entertaining L’Auberge Espagnole, the story of a Frenchman’s Erasmus year in the Catalan capital – and no doubt the reason why the city is now probably the most popular Erasmus destination on the planet. An absolute classic.
Soundtrack to the City
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Looking for even more Barcelona tips? Then find out what happened when Skrill gave me €500 to spend in my own city. Hold onto your sombreros!