Barcelona is not just one of the greatest cities in Spain, but in all of Europe. Learn how to explore it and where to go sightseeing, so that you can dig right into the soul of this majestic place filled with cultural history, amazing food, great shopping and interesting sites. Here are my recommendations for things to do in Barcelona, together with information on alternative options.
Where to stay
There are many wonderful hotels in Barcelona, but it all depends on how close to the hustle and bustle of the city you want to be. There are boutique hotels as well as big hotel chains, apartments and houses to rent, giving you many options.
For me, the only place to stay, though, is Hotel PraktikRambla. The location is perfect; right off Las Ramblas but not too close. The hotel is quiet, the rooms small but beautifully appointed, and the best part is that the windows are designed in such a way that you can block out not only all of the light, but all of the noise. Personally, I would never stay anywhere else in Barcelona – with quick access to shopping, dining, and transportation, this place answers to all my needs.
You’re on a budget and adventurous? Consider couchsurfing or home swapping.
Barcelona is a foodie’s dream, with a variety of restaurants ranging from cheap to very expensive. The true star of the show, though, are the tapas, so be sure to get into as many of these places as possible. While you will find excellent restaurants everywhere you turn, be sure to venture away from main thoroughfares to get away from touristy places that are not going to focus on an authentic dining experience.
The better restaurants will require a reservation, which you can make yourself or ask your travel agent to do so. If you only have time for one dinner in Barcelona, book it in Gresca. Here, you will have to book your table the traditional way: by calling.
Gresca is a gastro pub, but it includes many traditional dishes from both the Spanish and Catalan tradition. Top meal picks include pigeon and the egg soufflé. If you can’t get a table there, Etapes is your next best choice with its impressive traditional dishes.
If you’re traveling with a vegetarian or vegan, you should consider Teresa Carles – for beautifully plated, amazing meals. Something you should know is that their definition of vegan is less rigid than in some places; they consider white sugar and honey to be vegan. Be sure to consult the menu or the waiter so that you can make a good choice.
Best drinking places
I’ll talk about the neighborhood the bar is located in in a later section, but the one place you must get a drink in is Oviso. Tucked away in the tricky, winding streets of the Gothic Quarter, unassumingly sitting in George Orwell Square, this little bar entertains its customers with crazy patterns on the walls, hipster staff, great music and surprisingly delicious food (if they have the veggie burgers made with beet juice, get one!).
From beer to mixed drinks, you can get anything you want. The true experience, though, is a slow afternoon drink or two (or three or four) with a traveling companion, a stranger, a book or a notebook. The ambience is incredible, from the bar and the tables to the area outside in the square, and you are likely to come across locals, ex-pats, travelers and others interested in talking, sharing secrets about the city and telling you about the novel they’re writing or band they’re forming.
You won’t forget your experience at Oviso easily and chances are you’ll be back. You’ll probably recommend it to everyone you know.
Tours to book
If you only have money in your budget for one tour, make it the Evening Tapas Tour. It is a long, meandering one, filled with stories of the history of Barcelona from a political, social and cultural perspective, and after it, you will have greater understanding of the city and its tradition. You’ll see famous sites, learn about language differences and how and why Catalan culture is so prominent in Barcelona, and along the way you’ll enjoy food and beverages.
The tour includes three stops for different styles of tapas – and you will appreciate their variety. From winding streets and quiet squares to the energetic life of the city, you will get a taste of it and the confidence to go off exploring on your own.
Your guide will socialize throughout the evening, getting to know participants and sharing in lively discussion. My husband and I connected with our guide, Marcus, and had exceptional conversations about labor and politics. Marcus even made an extra effort, on the walk home, to show me the headquarters of all the labor unions in Spain. We learned so much from the tour itself and even more because of the individual attention that everyone on the tour received.
Spend three hours getting to know the city on a deeper level and bring something to track all the places you’ll want to go back to when you’re on your own. While billed as a pre-dinner tour, the tapas and three drinks were enough to serve us for dinner.
In addition to this guided tour, check out Frommer’s “in a day” itineraries for Barcelona along with their self-guided, interest-based walking tours.
Where to go shopping
The best shopping in the city, by far, is what you’ll find on Las Ramblas. The street, mostly a large middle boulevard, has sections for a variety of products. While there are touristy booths with magnets, postcards and candy, my advice is to look deeper, specifically at the artwork section. Here you will find amazing works by a large number of artisans who work with every media, such as: paint, pencil and clay. Many have business cards and Easy shops, making it possible for you to order from home and avoid carting fragile artwork in your suitcase.
In addition to artwork, Las Ramblas has merchants selling birds together with other small animals, flowers, and food. There are mimes who line the boulevard wearing amazing costumes and makeup, taking poses that can seem impossible. Tipping a mime will usually bring about a surprise.
Off of Las Ramblas you will find a gastronomic delight: El Mercado de San José (St. Joseph’s Market) is a stop on the aforementioned Tapas tour and a delicious treat. You will be able to try the most unusual treats from the sea, as well as marzipan candy, and it all looks and tastes great. For less adventurous eaters, there are meats, cheeses, nuts, super fresh fruit and vegetables, and delicious juices.
We made daily stops to purchase a half of a fresh pineapple and a fork, which we would split while walking around, and it only cost us 1 euro. The market offers a wealth of tastes, and allows you to come across different characters. Come here with a big appetite and enjoy exploring and trying new things. Be sure to bring your camera!
Roaming the streets
Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is hard to navigate but that won’t be a problem. You are likely to find amazing spots to ponder, learn, converse and reflect there. The beauty of the old churches built centuries ago, plaques in quiet squares, shops and more, will keep anyone occupied for days on end. The best way to find it is to start from Las Ramblas, look for the old looking streetlights and make a turn. If you are walking toward the sea, you’ll take a right into the Gothic Quarter.
You can leave the main streets and verge into the narrow winding streets that appear to be alleys (they’re not – watch for cars!) and let your feet take you where they will. You would be wise to bring a camera and a journal – you will not want to forget any of your impressions.
The quarter is home to many squares where you can sit alone or with a friend or even a stranger for a drink. Despite museums galore and formal tours, Barcelona has special charms that can captivate you just by walking through it.
Top five tips for traveling in Barcelona
1. Even though it’s not as widespread as in Madrid, there is crime in Barcelona. The things you’ll most likely see are: pickpockets, sex workers, and drug dealers. I was once approached by drug dealers offering soft drugs (weed and hash). All of them were polite, kept their distance, and respected my firm but polite “No.” Be clear when you say “no” and remember: be smart while visiting a foreign country. There is a time and a place for everything, and drugs on holiday are usually a bad idea, unless you’re in a place like Amsterdam where it’s regulated. While Spain is lenient, buying unregulated drugs off the street is not recommended.
2. Keep your bag in the front and your cash inaccessible. I have never been pick pocketed in Europe, however, I grew up in a city full of pickpockets so I know how to keep my possessions with me. Never let your bag hang off of your chair in a restaurant or a bar – keep it on your lap. And make sure that you don’t have anything hanging out of your pockets. Pay attention, especially on crowded streets and transportation.
3. Tip! From the hotel staff and restaurants to tour guides, be sure to tip. You can find updated guides for tipping online or simply ask your travel agent or a friend who has recently been to Spain. Tipping is different in each country so be sure to check who should get tipped, how much, and when.
4. Travel in a group. While Barcelona is beautiful and safe, it is a city and as such, it’s a good idea not to walk alone at night, especially through areas that have less traffic. If you are going back to your hotel from the Gothic Quarter or other dark and quiet place, have two friends walk you to where you can catch a cab, bus or metro (and then they can walk back together). If you are with only one more traveler, it’s better to stick together.
5. Learn a few catch phrases and use them. I tried to get by on my high school Spanish only, while in Spain, and people loved me for it. Embrace the culture, including the language, and you’ll be rewarded greatly. You can learn just a few words, such as “Hello”, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish, I speak (your language)”, and even this small effort will pay off.
There is a reason why people will advise you to make time for Barcelona when you’re heading to Spain. It is a beautiful city with a rich history, where you can enjoy great foods and drinks, and one that doesn’t require much more than a pair of comfortable shoes to have an unforgettable time. If you’ve been to Barcelona, comment with your favorite thing to do. Haven’t gone yet? What would you like to try?