While we knew it was going to be special, Barcelona surprised us in ways we couldn’t have imagined! It was hipper and more laid back than we believed, the people were far friendlier and genuine than we assumed.
When to Go:
While Barcelona is a year round city, the way you experience it will most certainly change through the year.
- Jan- Feb is when the weather is chilly yet has enough sun to make it bearable, the crowds are few and you may have to skip the beach.
- April – May is usually rainy, but otherwise unpredictable. It can clear up enough to be the most pleasant time of the year, though.
- June- July is when summer begins for the locals and the tourists haven’t grown to full capacity yet.
- August is when the city is unrecognizable as the locals leave it in the hands of thronging tourists and get away on their own holidays.
- Sept- Oct usually sees the highest rainfall, and thunderstorms as well.
- Nov- Dec gets cold and sometimes wet too, which pretty much rules out most outdoor experiences.
Getting your bearings:
Barcelona was once a very small city called Barcino, which has now grown to include a lot of the neighboring towns. You can tell while moving from one area to another, because everything about it changes.
Definitely our favourite. Hip, young and always alive, this area is made up of a network of tiny lanes connecting the bar- lined Passieg del Born and the Placa Santa Caterina. Restaurants with open air seating, fire jugglers and bubble blowers, quirky concept stores and amazing patisseries. It’s all here. Read our Top things you must know about El Born coming up soon. (We were lucky enough to stay in an apartment in El Born for a large part of our trip.)
The underbelly of Barcelona holds many secrets, and while it can be full of exciting experiences, it may not be the cleanest or safest area if you can’t handle the dark side.
This is where the old city of Barcino was. Rich with culture, this is the area where you’ll find lots of ancient architecture, true character in the cobbled streets, lots of cafes and shops as well as eye candy for the photographer.
Port Vell is a fabulous area to walk around in the summer. The old harbour is anything but old, with the Maremagnum Mall, IMAX and a fabulous aquarium. Gawk at docked boats or the utterly gorgeous customs building.
This is the beach area. So during peak season it’s thronging with holiday- goers who want to catch some sun, but otherwise it’s a lovely residential area, full of restaurants away from the main city centre.
Some of the most expensive shopping along Passeig de Gracia, upmarket restaurants and lots of popular attractions like Casa Batllo, Casa Mila and Sagrada Familia.
Gracia is quite the hipster neighbourhood, with unique boutiques and English cinema, lots of nightlife and great food. But it’s more of a hangout that locals cherish and they don’t necessarily welcome tourists.
Les Corts is a business district that’s far from the heart of the city. Modern buildings, parks and expensive restaurants line the streets. There’s a fair bit of shopping to be had here as well, with several of Barcelona’s favourite brands.
While this area can be negligible for the traveller since it’s primarily residential, there’s a lot of cheap accommodation to be found here and the metro can get you to the action pretty quick. Poble Sec is a great night out with theatres, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
This leafy hill is a great place for a picnic in the shade. Take the funicular and then the cable car up to the Castell Montjuic, enjoy stunning views of the city and coastline, gawk at the art inside the Fondacio Miro, and then enjoy the Magic Fountains as you walk back down in the evening.
Barcelona really is a pedestrian’s city. From narrow lanes to wide plaças, it’s a pleasure to discover the city on foot, you never know what you might discover. Just stick to the right, and always keep an eye and ear out for cyclists and skaters hurtling down the road.
If you thought the skater culture was restricted to the youngsters hanging around the MACBA, you’re in for as big a surprise as we were. From roller- bladers to skateboarders, they’re all over the city. You might be tempted to do a tapas tour on skates, but after all the cava and drinks we wondered how those guys were standing, let alone skating in a straight line.
Bicing, (similiar to the Velibs of Paris) a cycle sharing system by the Municipality of Barcelona ensures people can get around easily without adding to the pollution. Using an RFID chip, users can borrow these bikes for free for the first 30 mins, and then get charged a nominal amount thereafter. Normally, these are only allotted to locals, but a lot of hostels, apartments etc can arrange a card temporarily for you. If this system seems complicated, there’s no dearth of bicycle rental shops around the city, many of whom also operate bike tours.
The Barcelona metro, we’d heard wasn’t the most convenient in terms of its layout, and that’s true. Very often it seemed shorter and quicker to just walk instead of taking the metro. And one has to change trains in several routes. However, using it was easy, the frequency was decent, and they were clean, apart from some mobile entertainment that would sometimes find it’s way into our metro. If you’re going to be taking about 10 journeys, it’s cheaper to buy the T10 ticket that you can reuse, especially since 1 journey is calculated as anything moving in the same direction (even if you change trains within a couple of hours)
The taxis of Barcelona aren’t exactly expensive, but they’re not cheap either. And that’s primarily due to the fact that your ride will probably turn out much longer than necessary thanks to several detours with one-ways or road work or insane traffic around the city. Sometimes, you’re just better off walking. Although the taxi was a nice cool respite from the summer heat.
What to do:
From the traditional Museu Picasso and Fundacio Miro to the contemporary CCCB and MACBA to the graffiti on the walls, Barcelona’s full of art, whether you wish to call it that or not. If you’re planning to visit 3 or more museums, (or if you just want to skip the long lines) it’s a good idea to pick up the ArTicket Barcelona which gives you access to 6 museums for 30 Euros (valid for 3 months). Buy it online at the Barcelona Tourisme website and get a 5% discount.
Gawk at the remains of the Temple of Augustus, discover the Jewish quarter and the old city walls of Cuitat Vella, go shopping inside an old bull fighting ring at Las Arenas, pay homage to Barcelona’s resident madman/ genius extraordinaire at Antoni Gaudi’s Palau Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, or watch some opera or flamenco to truly experience the extraordinary Teatre Liceu or the Palau de la Musica Catalana.
Starting from the upscale and international designer brands like Armani, Chanel and Hermes perched along Passeig de Gracia, to the high street favourites like Zara, H&M and Mango scattered along parts of Passeig de Gracia, Placa Catalunya and Portal de l’angels, to the hip and chic one- off designers in El Born and the Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s got loads of shopping for the fashionista. But it doesn’t stop there. Loads of concept stores, furniture, souvenirs, home and kitchenware stores like Vinçon are worth a visit as well. If you’re looking for flea markets, this really isn’t the city, as we discovered the Mercat des Encants to be quite the letdown.
Parks and Beaches:
Barcelona really does embrace its great outdoors. From picnicking at the magnificent creation that is Park Guell, Cuitadella Park, and the green lung (as well as the fabulous magic fountains) of the hill of Montjuic, there’s even more sunshine and fresh air to be had at Barcelona’s 7 beaches like the popular Barceloneta, safe Bogatell, nudist Mar Bella etc.
If reading the above has made you think Barcelona is a feast for the eyes, you haven’t tasted the food yet! They take their ham pretty seriously regardless of whether it’s the finer Iberico or the Serrano. It’s all had with Pan Tomat (Tomato smashed bread) and generous drizzles of only the finest extra virgin olive oil. While it is argued that Paella should only be had in Valencia, we found some pretty great ones in Barcelona. Their version of fries- the Patatas Bravas, the fried Pimentos de Padron and the anchovies are just the tip of the iceberg of Tapas – their extensive list of finger food that goes incredibly well with Cava – a bubbly wine. Strong competition to the Tapas are the Pinxtos that originate from the Basque country. While you can read about our food trail coming up, no foodie worth his salt should miss out on the sights, sounds smells and flavours of La Boqueria – their local food market. And maybe try a fun and easy cooking class while you’re at it, just like we did here. And if you just want to be completely swept off your feet, sample the Molecular Gastronomy (a.k.a food magic) of the likes of Ferran and Albert Adria. Read about our mouth watering experience at Tickets (A Tapas bar created along the lines of El Bulli).
As if Barcelona didn’t have enough to offer, the regions around do too. From Montserrat and Tibidabo to the Penedes wine region and Sitgues and Girona. We enjoyed a lovely tour of the Freixenet Winery in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia which was just a couple of hours by train from Barcelona.
Where to stay:
We spread our stay in Barcelona across the spectrum so we could experience every kind and tell you about what’s there as well.
Just like we did in Paris, our first choice was to go local. To stay in a pop-up home of sorts so we could go grocery shopping and say Hola to the neighbours whenever we passed them! To come home to a kitchen and your own privacy, to be able to have last minute friends jump in and to be able to stay in whatever area you like and not have to rely on hotel prices. As always, we booked through our favourite service – AirBnB.
Being an old city that’s remained hip through it all, Barcelona’s full of tiny boutique hotels that feel just a bit cosier than a regular hotel, and always always bring something unique to the table. We discovered RetRome Barcelona. A boutique hotel in a restored Art Nouveau apartment right next to the Girona metro. Affordable but nowhere near cheap, non-touristy yet walking distance from Gaudi’s biggest marvels. What was so special about RetRome? Find out in our post about our experience at Retrome Barcelona here.
Being a shopper’s paradise, an important business hub and a very important point on the design map, you’d expect Barcelona would know how to do it in style. And it does. There are some uber- expensive and uber-luxurious suites, just waiting to serve your every command all over the city. Where better to experience this than the elite and fashionable address of Passeig de Gracia. We discovered El Palauet Living Barcelona, a hotel that offered luxury suites with a difference. House in a restored modernist structure, we enjoyed the old world charm of 100 year old frieze ceilings, but the modern comfort of high end Japanese technology. Discover just how much we were pampered in our post about El Palauet Living Barcelona here.
Get in the mood:
Vicky Christina Barcelona (Woody Allen’s tumultuous plot that is shot at different spots you will later identify across the city)
Le Cool Barcelona (Leaf through it on your flight for some great secret recommendations)
@breakfastinbcn (Take it from a dear friend we made in Barcelona who knows where you should be eating what) Read our interview with her for our Travel Talk section coming up soon.