Welcome to Barcelona, I hope this helps you get around easily. Barcelona is a city I fell in love with when I spent a year there studying activist architects. It is a lively creative and inviting place. Lately it has become a tourist destination, which is why we are all going there, and it’s struggling to retain its local identity. Some of the sites in this guide are tourist traps, but others are quiet local favorites. Your best approach is to see some of the amazing places, including the obvious Gaudi projects, and leave time to get lost and wander. Bring good shoes, some tolerance for crowds, and a healthy appetite.
If you’re interested in my summer abroad course, look here!
Barcelona is on the Mediterranean, so it’s warm in the summer and can be quite humid. Look for hotels with air conditioning, or spend your time at the beach. The city is compact and very walkable. You can also get a Metro Pass (a 10 or 20 pass is good). These work on Metros or the buses. You can also easily take taxis. There is no Uber or Lyft. The Metro should be experienced and is very convenient, as almost everywhere in the city is within 5-10 minutes of a station.
When you arrive at the airport you have a few options for getting into town. You can take a taxi (30-40 euros) or you can take the Aerobus (6 euros) to the main plaza (Catalunya). You can also now take a Metro, but it’s a longish route…but for 4 euros it’s the cheapest option). I’d recommend a cab if I were you.
Beware of pickpockets. This petty crime is rampant in the city, especially in the tourist areas like the Rambla and on the Metro. These are professionals who travel here from other cities to steal your wallets, purses and iPhones. Don’t ever keep your wallet in your back pocket. Look people in the eye on the Metro, and be aware. Don’t be mindlessly looking on your phone. Watch out for women with small kids too, as this is a common distraction trick. Just be aware and you’ll be fine. Penalties for pickpocketing are very minor, but if you are assaulted during a theft they are severe, so you won’t ever likely get hurt. If you’re on the beach in the city be extra careful….don’t bring your wallet or phone unless you want to obsess about it being stolen. There are lockers at some beaches that you can use.
Pharmacies are a good first place to go for basic medical advice and care. I’d get some form of travel insurance too but generally the hospitals and clinics are reasonable and modern.
You can use ATMs like anywhere else. Often when you pay with credit card they ask you for a pin. I usually insist there is no pin and they put the transaction through just fine.
Siestas still happen, though not as often. But stores will often close midday, and people work from 9-12 or 1 and then again from 3-8. Then you take a walk (paseo) along a rambla before dinner. During the summer people stay up til 1 or 2 pretty often. Summer starts at the beginning of July.
This is a tough one….there are lots of places to stay, and it’s also tempting to stay at an airbnb place (some of them are so nice!). But airbnb is also causing lots of trouble for some neighborhoods, making noticeable and damaging changes by encouraging real estate speculation. Many apartment buildings are now essentially hotels, and those families remaining have to endure lots of traffic of people, cleaners, parties, trash, etc. You can still find some airbnbs that are peoples’ actual homes, rented out over summer break or just a room rented out. These seem to be an okay option, but avoid anything where the host has multiple listings, or if it is just too shiny and furnished all by cool hip Ikea items. Also beware if you use Airbnb that the local government is cracking down on illegal Airbnb units (most are illegal) and you could be sent packing if you rent an illegal one.
El Gotico / Ciutat Vella
The gothic quarter was the walled area before the city expanded in 1859. It is dense and maze-like and full of shops and restaurants and tourists. Its main spine is the Rambla, which goes from the Placa Catalunya down to the water’s edge. Full of tourists. Watch for pickpockets. Absolutely must stop at the Boqueria Market. It is best early in the day, especially for the fish section. Just off the Rambla is a recommended stop to experience Spanish hot chocolate with a Churro…go to the Granja Viader for these. Churro and whipped cream are required in my opinion. This place has been here for like 150 years, so yeah. On the west side is the Raval, which means “outside” and has always been an immigrant neighborhood. The contemporary art museum MACBA is here, along with parts of the University of Barcelona, and a great bookstore El Central. The Raval is great to wander around, but can feel unsafe late at night so some people so don’t walk around alone late. The east side of the Gotico is bounded by a straight and busy street called Via Laetana (actually modeled after Chicago if that isn’t weird). Honestly there’s not much to see here, except parts of the original city wall. But it’s useful for getting your orientation, and it runs straight down to the water.
The Ribera / Born
This is a slightly more subdued part of the Gothic quarter, gentrifying rapidly. There is still lots of noise / ambiance at night. It is well situated and there are some cool places to stay here, plus good food all around. Some things to see: the Picasso Museum, the Palau de Musica Catalana (next to Sagrada Familia the most beautify architecture in the city…see a show! http://www.palaumusica.cat/en). Or much more lowbrow you can go to the Antic Teatre and see some experimental theater or dance or just have a smoke and a beer on the terrace full of organic anarchist rastafarian youth (even if you don’t smoke you’ll be hot-boxed so better be okay with that). http://www.anticteatre.com/
If you’re hungry get tapas at Mosquito, or El Xampanyet, which is amazing Basque-style tapas, called pinxos (sticks), where all of the items are on a skewer. You pick what you want as you go and pay at the end. There may be no corner more charming in the evenings than the area along Carrer de L’Argenteria and in the plaza in front of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Mar. For fine dining eat at Senyor Parelladas. For casual at the art-nouveau cafe Petra. For either finish it off with gelato along Argenteria. Then stroll towards the water.
This is the chamfered grid throughout the city. Built in the 1860s to 1980s. Lots of modernisme (art nouveau) buildings. A little loud, but all of the blocks have internal courtyards…most of them filled in with buildings but still quiet. Some really nice places to stay, with classic tiled floors and tall ceilings.
Old industrial neighborhood being converted to new uses, some very modern. It’s the closest neighborhood to the nicest beaches, but a little far from the center of town.
This is my favorite neighborhood. It has a bohemian vibe, lots of college students, lots of young families. The streets are narrow and pedestrian friendly. The neighborhood is full of small plazas surrounded by cafes and restaurants. It’s a nice, quiet place to stay if you can find a place (see airbnb comments above). Hang out in the Placa de Sol in the early evening and watch it fill with people. Have coffee and pastries on the Placa de la Vila de Gracia on a Sunday morning and watch the neighborhood kids kick soccer balls around. Go to the Placa de la Revolucio and have gelato late at night. Sip local vermouth in the back garden of Mama’s cafe. Stroll up Verdi and window shop for jewelry, clothes, or food. Watch a movie at Verdi Cinema (undubbed here!). Find a yoga class or a dance class.
The neighborhood is between two metro stations—Fontana and Joanic. If you get off at Fontana, you will find a pedestrian street, Carrer d’Asturies. Walk to the east past Placa Diamant (note the below ground bomb shelters in the plaza…you get tour these too). Just past Diamant turn left on Verdi. (Maybe stop for gelato if you see it). Then turn right and go down Verdi and window shop for clothes and jewelry, or eat something, until you get to Placa de la Revolucio. If you haven’t eaten yet have dinner at Pepe Tomate and/or gelato across the plaza at the Artisan gelato place. A block below the plaza is the Gracia market hall, which is interesting to wander into. A nicer one is in west Gracia (Mercat de la Libertat) which is worth seeing. If you’re dying for Thai food, there’s only one place in the city that’s any good, but it’s really good…Petit Bangkok.
Not so much a place to stay but definitely a nice stroll through the Carrer Sarria. Most amazing macaroons at Foix de Sarria and tapas at el Canalla, or one of many others around there. This is an upper-class neighborhood. Quiet and a little far from the action.
PLACES TO SEE IN THE CITY
There is no shortage of guidebooks with places to see in Barcelona. See those places if you like, but if you want to see another side of the city….
Up in the hills of the city, at the edge of the Collserola nature reserve, lies this old mansion that was once a leper hospital and has been occupied by ecologically-minded permaculture-inspired squatters since 2002. It represents a counter-cultural way of living in harmony with the environment while pursuing social equity. On Sundays the public is invited to enjoy a vegetarian lunch and talk about anti-capitalism, cooperative living, and growing your own algae. From here you can take longer hikes into the nature reserve. See if you can find the Font de Santa Eulàlia.
Parc del Laberint
Also in the hills, in the neighborhood of Horta, is this magical park full of maze hedges. If you’re lucky you’ll see people dressed like Alice in Wonderland. Or just enjoy a quiet respite next to a lovely pond.
Jardins de Laribal
If you’re strolling down from the top of Montjuic, why not take the scenic route and wind your way through this garden, full of fountains, lovely stairways, views and quiet corners.
Bunkers de Can Baró
These old bunkers overlooking the city were built to shoot down Italian war planes during the Civil War, and were later covered by self-built housing. The housing is now gone, leaving a palimpsest of old tiles and wall foundations, but with an unbeatable panoramic view of the whole city. Be ready for a hike, and bring water and a picnic for sunset.
There is so much good food everywhere. Keep in mind that lunch is the main meal. You can get great lunch “menu” deals during the week, which are all inclusive with wine and dessert. If you want fine dining that is still usually an evening event. Know that locals will never eat before 9pm. Many places have dinner seatings at 9 and at 11 or 12 (midnight). Make reservations. Tip only by rounding up to the nearest euro, or leave a few euros if you must.
Small Catalan restaurant on a quiet street in Gracia. Make a reservation. Excellent food and good fancy-people watching.
Totally Catalan. Use your translator app or be confused. Great food, a local’s favorite. Croquettes, unique Patatas Bravas, fried green tomatoes!
In the Gothic Quarter near the Rambla and Liceu. This was an old dairy place…so it has amazing whipped cream meant to top the hot chocolate and be eaten with a churro. Have to experience it to describe it.
A nonprofit restaurant and social cohesion project in the Born neighborhood with outdoor seating and outstanding food, much of it with African origins.
Only good Thai in Barcelona as far as I can tell. But it’s really good.
On Carrer de l’Argenteria, 37, in the Born neighborhood. Beautiful interior, really good seafood. More formal. Go get gelato at one of the shops just down the street afterwards, and take in the ambiance.
In Gracia off of the Placa de la Vila de Gracia. Casual, good food. They have a Sunday brunch which is nice. Really good Gnocchi among other things.
Classic Basque style Tapas (Pinxos) in the Born. Great vibe, always crowded.
El Canalla Tapas
El Canalla in Sarria neighborhood, a little out of the way. Charming, classic dishes, small neighborhood atmosphere. Service may be spotty.
Outdoor dining next to Barceloneta beach. Go for Paella. A little pricey but good paella. A bit of a tourist trap…but the Barceloneta neighborhood is worth a wander…an old dockworker neighborhood.
Best tapas. In the Raval, historically immigrant neighborhood. They have another restaurant location too….also supposed to be good.
Quimet & Quimet
Tapas. Cool bar vibe, in Poble Sec neighborhood.
Urban film noir bar vibe. On the Diagonal in the Eixample district. Great for drinks and tapas. Check out their website.
A small crowded tapas restaurant in the Born. Popular for good reason. Get dumplings. Great beer selection. Make a reservation or wait an hour plus.
A local institution in the neighborhood of Poble Sec. Enjoy wine and vermouth samples while you wait. Then try the rabbit (conejo) even if you’ve never thought you’d try it. Delicious.
This small restaurant in Sants has terrific food and is a great place for a weekday lunch. It’s located in the “triangle” of Sants, off the quiet Plaza Osca and close to the Parque de la Espanya Industrial.
Kop de Mà
Also off Plaza Osca, this cooperative restaurant, connected with a cooperative brewery, is where you can find the local activists plotting their next cooperative takedown of capitalism.
Bodega La Riera
If you’re on your way up to see Parc Güell, you may start at the Vallcarca metro. This neighborhood was devastated by strong-arm urban renewal and is struggling to re-claim its sovereignty, so please be respectful of the neighbors and quietly make your way up to the park. If you want to support a local bodega, enjoy some tapas and some anti-fascist beer and strike up a conversation about urban planning, but be ready for an earful.
Shopping is everywhere, and strolling smaller shops is the best bet. Look for ways to support the local artisans. There are also lots of people selling goods on the streets. These aren’t legal, and are usually run by mafia-types who capitalize on the vulnerable lives of immigrants. I don’t have a strong stance on whether you should support these informal sellers or not – it’s complicated. There are also a few malls, if that’s your style. The one on the water is fun, and La Illa along the Diagonal is further afield but more upscale. There is also a new mall in an old bullring called the Arenas. July and August are sale months. Look for signs reading Rebaixes. Deals get better through the summer but selection gets limited. Everyone who knows me knows I will visit the shoe stores, especially the local Camper.
The gothic quarter has tourist and boutique shops. As you move up toward Placa Catalunya you see big name stores, culminating in the Corte Ingles stores around the Placa. North of the plaza (uphill) is the Passeig de Gracia, historically the ritzy shopping strip. It still is that. The Camper shoe store is a must. To the west of the Passeig is the Rambla de Catalunya, which also has lots of shops and restaurants and isn’t a bad place for outdoor cafe tapas in the evening.
Get the Articket, a multi-museum pass, only 30 euros. Go to Tapies, Picasso, and see what’s happening at MACBA (modern art) or CCCB (maybe an exhibit of African design now?) You can buy the pass online.
Always crowded. Use the articket to jump to shorter line. Go early.
Small eclectic collection of very political work. Nice airy modern gallery close to the shopping district.
So much Gaudi to see, but here are the basics:
Must see. Tickets are a little confusing so book ahead.
“Must must see. Also buy tickets ahead. Get tickets to go up the towers. Don’t get the last of the day or you’ll run out of time. Go to the museum in the basement.
Private residence on the glitzy Passeig de Gracia. Amazing. Long lines but worth it. Tickets online is a must.
La Pedrera, or Casa Mila
Huge apartment block called la pedrera (the quarry) for obvious reasons. Try to go at dusk and the view from the roof is amazing.
Plenty to see in town, but you’ll get sick of the tourists quickly. Get out of town at least once to enjoy the beaches or the countryside.
Tossa de Mar
Best reached by car, but still close to Barcelona. Beautiful medieval walled city on a hill next to the beach. Nuf said.
Further up the Costa Brava: Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell
Further up the coast if you want a longer drive. Gorgeous twin towns that you can walk between. So beautiful.Eat grilled Sardines at a Café in Calella at the edge of the ocean. Other nearby towns are also charming….Tamariu, Sa Tuna, Sa Riera, Aiguafreda (wow) or Cadaques, the most remote (where Dali had his beach house).
Sant Pol beach
You can reach this quiet beach by taking a regional train (Renfe) north out of town. Quiet. No people offering you massages or cold beers nonstop.
Closest in and oldest is Barceloneta. Also crowds and dirty water in the afternoons. It’s ok and not a bad scene sometimes, but best beaches are further northeast…mar bella for example…..water is cleaner, not as many tourists (except for the hugely popular nude and mostly gay beach behind the bluff. Wow).
On every beach are little food stands that are convenient to eat at and have decent food (though a little pricey). They’re called Chiringuitos….good for tapas and beers and frozen treats. They don’t like the roaming beer vendors who take their business. You can get in trouble for buying from the vendors too.
Another small beach town southwest of Barcelona, also reachable by train. A bit of a tourist attraction, especially among the Euro gay community… Think laguna beach Spanish / French style.
Amazing location of a monastery on top of cliffs. Take a scary cable car to the top. Lots of cool hikes up there.
Classic retro theme park on the highest point overlooking the city. A little effort getting up there, and a little pricey, but also pretty charming and the views are unbeatable.
Girona is the second largest city in Catalunya, and makes an easy day trip by train, bus or car. Girona has a lovely medieval center full of great restaurants, an impressive cathedral, a roman bathhouse, and a famous Lioness statue you’re supposed to kiss for luck. If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, look for familiar scenery since it filmed here last season! Also stop for the best gelato in Catalunya, at Rocambolesc.
This quiet town is worth a stop if you’re a food or architecture connoisseur. The winners of the 2017 Pritzker Prize, RCR Architectes, call Olot home. One of their most delicious projects is the Restaurant Les Cols, with two Michellin stars. Not cheap, but the interior, the outside eating area, and the adjacent hotel are worth a visit.