Shoot the streets, take a craft beer tasting tour or enjoy a night of saucy stanzas at a poetry brothel… The Editor assembles an eclectic list of top things to do in Barcelona!
They don’t call her The Great Enchantress for nothing… almost everyone that comes to the Catalan capital ends up falling head over heels in love with this mesmerising beauty, who is not only stylishly decked out in a beguiling blend of Art Nouveau and modern architecture, but whose love of the finer things in life – tapas, vermouth and sex just for starters – can’t help but endear her to pleasure seekers.
Yes, she is cool and good looking and damn near perfect, but if Barcelona has a character flaw, it’s that she’s just too damn sought after these days, and some of her most celebrated assets are now either overpriced or, more simply, overrun. In this Secret Seven then, I’m going to share some alternative things to do that haven’t made it into every guidebook just yet. If you edge towards a more authentic style of travel, then hopefully these tips will help you break away from the mainstream attractions and get you enjoying the city from a more local perspective.
Update: I’ve relented and added a “Famous Five” section to this list, so that you can combine the eclectic with the unmissable. Give the people what they want!
Street Photography Tour
Personally I’m a big fan of creative tourism, and the idea of learning a new skill, whilst at the same time exploring a new culture or place, is deeply appealing to me. I did just that when I signed up for the “Streetscape Photography” experience offered by Foto Ruta and had a great time not only learning more about using my Nikon 3100, but also exploring some of the forgotten nooks and crannies of the city, as well as hanging out with some cool fellow shutterbugs. Check my article reporting back from this urban photo tour, which also has some cool tips on other creative activities in Barcelona. For Apple aficionados the same team also offer an iPhoneography experience, helping you get the most out of your cameraphone (useful I guess if you’re part of the Instagram generation… and whilst I’m getting a bit old for that kind of oneupmanship, we do upload the odd pic from time to time!).
2# Tapas & Beers
Undoubtedly the coolest food tours in town, Tapas & Beers offer three distinct experiences, all designed to help you “taste the real Barcelona”. The first is their tapas tour, a delicious romp around some of the best tapas bars and bodegas in the much-loved district of Gracia, where you’ll sample half a dozen or more delicious Spanish and Catalan dishes washed down with homemade vermouths, Cava and cerveza. The second is a craft beer tasting tour, in the company of a master brewer. Here you’ll get to sample some of the latest products of the Catalan beer revolution as you drop by some of the best cervecerias and micro-breweries in town (just try to remember that craft beers are always stronger than standard cerveza!). The third is the so-called “Hipster’s Bar Hop”, a bar crawl that takes you down the backstreets of the multicultural Raval district to some of the city’s more secret and eclectic nightspots. All their experiences are small group only and you’ll find yourself blending in with the locals in their natural habitats (viz. bars!).
3# Bunkers del Carmel Viewpoint
I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this one, but hey this is your reward for being cool enough to read Urban Travel Blog (hint: you might want to subscribe for more such rewards!). A trip up to Bunkers del Carmel is the best way to see out the sunset in Barcelona, and whilst the dilapidated old military hideout is a sorry sight, the views over the city are nothing else but spectacular. The hill is the perfect elevation to gaze over the metropolis, just high enough to gauge its scale but not so high it becomes an abstract equation. Do as the locals do and take a picnic and enjoy the city fade to orange and then indigo and black. Like all good secrets, it takes a bit of uncovering, especially as many taxi drivers won’t know exactly where to go. However if you ask your cabbie to drop you off at Restaurante Las Delicias in Carmel, address Carrer Muhlberg 1 you can easily hike up the rest. (Update: this is no longer quite as secret it used to be. So expect a bit of a crowd of Erasmus kids and hip travellers… still a great atmosphere!).
4# The Summer Street Parties
From May ’til the end of September there is pretty much always an epic fiesta happening somewhere in or around Barcelona. That’s because at some point during summer virtually every district in the city will celebrate it’s own festa major (grand festival) by inviting every man, woman, granny & gramps, baby and dog onto the streets for food, drink, live music, DJs and dancing. Each festa major lasts around a week (the bigger and better ones tend to span two weekends) and many have their own unique traditions, whilst nearly all include some shared Catalan traditions – such as the notorious correfoc (fire runs), where demon-masked pyromaniacs wield industrial-size sparklers at those foolhardy enough to get near, or castellers (human castles), when groups of well-trained collectives clamber on one another’s shoulders to make “castles” of up to 10 stories high. Fun, informal and full of community spirit, life doesn’t get much better than swigging a cerveza in the sultry summer night air at one of these wonderful fiestas. The most famous is Festa Major de Gracia, when locals decorate their street for the occasion, whilst the massive La Merce in September is the festa major for the whole city and is suitably epic, usually with a massive programme of street theatre, arts, workshops and wine tasting. Barcelona Life has a very useful guide.
5# Get Lost in Labyrinth Park
Gaudi’s adventures in landscape gardening make for an unmissable – albeit massively crowded – attraction, whilst Parc de la Ciutadella is undoubtedly the most lively and fun of Barcelona’s green spaces (head here if you want to see the locals engage in a bewildering diverse range of activities, from slack lining to tap dancing). But for a little lush corner of the city to explore, practically on your own, Parc del Laberint d’Horta offers a lovely change of pace. Aside from the eponymous maze, there is a canal and small waterfall and several neoclassical features, such as a pavilion, and several statues inspired by Greek mythology. The improbable fee of 2 euros and 17 cents tells you how geared up to tourism it is, but that simply adds to the charm.
Passeig dels Castanyers 1-17
6# Poetry Brothel
I’d probably put this higher on the list, except this den of vice verses is as elusive as it is seductive. If you are lucky enough to be in town during one of their sessions of saucy stanzas then be sure to turn up with a few euros in your back pocket that you can slip in the hat of any number of the poetic putas that work here in exchange for an erotic reading or two. And just in case you’re confused, there is no actual sexual interaction at the Prostibulo Poetico, just plenty of verbal caresses from the souls, hearts and libidos of these literary lovers.
7# Vintage Shopping
Barcelona is a hipster city, sometimes slavishly so, but whatever your view on Karl Marx-esque beards, limb-covering tattoos and stretched earlobes, it is undeniably fun to play the fashion victim and spice up your image with some unique items for your wardrobe. There are two streets in Raval that are honey to hipsters, and they are Riera Baixa and Carrer Tallers. The former is a small pedestrianised avenue that often gets overlooked (as it leads to nowhere in particular), but has several cool shops like Polly Maggoo and La Vella Maia Vintage. The latter is like a sunny slice of London’s Camden Town, with a mix of hip shops (some are so cool that you pay by the kilo), specialist stores selling punk and Gothic memorabilia and a good scattering of tapas joints and bars for intershop boozing. Depending what store you go to you can pick up some amazing bargains (I picked up a blue leather biker’s jacket for €40 the other day!) – or pay silly prices for something that is, however you market it, still second hand (Holala Ibiza I’m talking to you!) – so shop around.
Those who have a bit more money to burn might also want to consider taking a private shopping tour with the lovely Antiques & Boutiques. The girls at A&B are absolute gurus of fashion, design, art, furniture and antiques and they’ll take you to the very stores that Hollywood prop masters troll for iconic looks.
So those were the original ideas… now for the quintessential sights.
1# La Sagrada Familia
You might have heard of this one. It’s the borderline grotesque and certified over-the-top basilica that consumed virtually all of Antoni Gaudi’s later years – and still remains unfinished today. Monstrously big, impossibly intricate, adorned from cornerstone to crest with religious and natural symbology, Dali mocked it and Orwell called for it to be blown up, but La Sagrada Familia endured to become the number icon of Barcelona. In fact it’s much more beautiful inside than out, where pillars of pure white stone reach to the nave roof like some kind of Tolkienesque forest and vast stained glass windows throw a kaleidoscopic light show upon the varnished cork floors. Owing to its popularity advance tickets are essential. You can buy skip the line tickets here, or with guided tour and tower access here (recommended).
2# Park Guell
Backdrop to cult movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and L’Auberge Espagnole, Gaud’s park is one of the most beautiful in the world. You’ll have seen the viewing terrace in photos, with its snaking bench decorated in colourful broken tiles using the architect’s favourite trencadis technique. The park has several other fun features too, including the brightly-hued lizard guarding a sweeping staircase near the main entrance, and is particularly romantic in the evening, when the sun loses its eye-melting heat. Like La Sagrada Familia advance tickets are now essential in order to enter, and you can get yours here.
3# Picasso Museum
Probably Barcelona’s best museum and definitely it’s most popular one, this tribute to the 20th century’s most creative canvas jockey charts Picasso’s artistic journey from his more realistic Blue and Rose Periods to his pioneering Cubist style. Picasso and Barcelona go way back, with the Malaga-born artist staging his first ever exhibit at the charismatic El Quatre Gats cafe and its only fitting that this huge body of work goes on display here in Catalonia. Art lovers can take a walking tour that traces Picasso’s steps in the city and finishes at the museum, or simply buy tickets to the museum. In fact the Barcelona Card actually entitles you to free entry, so worth considering if you also plan to take advantage of some of the city’s other cultural sights and the free public transport.
This mystical mountain, with its jagged pink limestone peaks, is Barcelona’s number one day trip, and deservedly so. If the jaw-dropping natural scenery wasn’t enough, this celebrated site was also the place where the blessed Black Madonna statuette was discovered, one of the most holy relics of the Catholic church. As such a monastery has existed here since the 10th century and it is here that most tourists head to hear L’Escolania Choir, admire the abbey’s church and cloisters and – for the devout of heart – pay their respects to the hallowed icon, which is on display. From the abbey you can hike or take the cable car up to St. Jerome’s Peak for views that stretch out all the way to the island of Majorca on a clear day. There are different ways of ‘doing’ Montserrat, the cheapest of which is to buy a return train ticket from the official tourist website, which gets you to the bottom of the mountain and then gives you the option of going up via either funicular train or cable car (price included in the ticket). An even easier way is via one of the many guided tours that depart from Barcelona each day.
5# Camp Nou Experience
Of course you have to visit the most emblematic football stadium in the world, Camp Nou! Grabbing tickets for a match is obviously a lot of fun, although you’ll need to time your travels for when the team are playing at home obviously. If that’s not possible there’s always the Camp Nou Experience, which includes a tour of the stadium, dressing rooms and tunnel with a visit to the award-winning museum plus trophy room. FC Barcelona is closely tied with Catalan identity and by the time you’ve finished with the experience you’ll understand why Barca is mes que un club (“more than just a football club”!).
Still hungry for more tips? Find out how I chose to spend €500 in Barcelona in two days right here. And of course, with tips on everything from the unmissable attractions to the finest bars in town, our Long Weekend guide is essential reading for anyone considering a city break in the Catalan capital. You might as well find a few more original ideas for cool activities on my other websites, Barcelona Life and the pragmatically titled: Barcelona-things-to-do.com.