From the twisting, dark alleys of the Gothic Quarter to the glittering, fairytale buildings of Gaudi and the green hills of Montjuïc, Barcelona is one of the greatest cities in Europe. No Spanish adventure would be complete without a stop here.
In June I spent two weeks in Barcelona with friends and family. Each day of the trip followed a similar pattern: strolling through markets, beaches, and museums, then eating, drinking wine, and eating some more. In other words, a perfect summer city getaway.
What part of town did you stay in? What was the mood like?
I stayed in Gràcia, a creative, tree-lined neighborhood known for its independent bookstores, theaters, sustainable clothing boutiques, cafes and wine bars. It is family and dog friendly and slightly more residential than the very touristy areas of Barri Gòtic and La Barceloneta (although it is well connected to these areas, and even most of Barcelona, thanks to the excellent city’s public transport system).
What I love most about Gràcia are its public squares. They are always packed with locals and visitors, but the atmosphere is always relaxed. nothing is rushed. People spend hours on the terraces of bars and restaurants, enjoying their meals and people watching. My favorite in Gràcia is the bustling Plaça de la Virreina. Sitting there in the evening (tables start to fill around 7pm) over a glass of vermouth is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable ways to get into the rhythm of Barcelona life.
How did you get around?
Barcelona is an easy city to navigate so I walked most places but the metro and bus network is exceptional and will get you anywhere in the city. I recommend buying one T-Casual ticket if visit. This gets you 10 metro and bus journeys for €11.35 (£9.80 / US$11.90), and it’s much cheaper than paying for a single journey (€2.40 / £2 / US$2.50) each time.
How much is a cup of coffee at a local cafe?
In third and fourth wave coffeeshops, prices are generally high for Barcelona, where a flat white of oats costs me around €3.20. In less flashy traditional cafeteria bars, there are more economical options. You won’t find a flat white there, but you’ll usually get an excellent espresso (cafè sol) for around €1.20. These bars are also great places to grab a quick and reasonably priced breakfast. Tip: Order a bikini (grilled cheese sandwich), and with your espresso, it’s a satisfying breakfast sorted for less than a fiver.
What did you book before your trip?
Having dinner. Barcelona is one of Spain‘s top culinary destinations for foodies of all tastes. But when it comes to reserving a table at a popular restaurant, you basically can’t just roll in without notice. It’s not that the culinary scene is exclusive; it just takes a little planning, especially in high season.
On this trip, some of the restaurants on my wish list included Bar Cañete, COME de Paco Méndez, Taberna Noroeste and Disfrutar. All advance reservations required. If you are planning a trip to Barcelona, you should call the restaurant you want to visit at least a week in advance. With some laid-back spots, you might get lucky with same-day reservations.
In terms of COVID-19, have you encountered any restrictions?
In Barcelona, as in the rest of Spain, face masks are still compulsory on public transport. This means you have to wear one on a bus, train, metro, taxi or while waiting at a station. You will also need it at the airport and on your flight to and from Spain. It’s a rule that Catalans took very seriously when I was there, but it was frustrating to see that many tourists didn’t.
I walked away from the crowd by…
Visit the beaches outside the city. Barcelona beaches are beautiful, but they are always busy in the summer, especially La Barceloneta beach. But if you get the train R1 north of the Arc de Triomf or Plaça de Catalunya stations, you will have more choice of beaches with fewer people. The train runs along the coast of Merseme with seaside stops at beaches that can feel light years away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona. Trains reach most coasts in less than an hour such as Montgat (about 25 minutes) but my favourites, Sant Pol de Mar and Caldes d’Estrac, are just over an hour away.
Likewise, you can take the R2 or R2 South from Barcelona Sants, Barcelona Passeig de Gracia or Barcelona Estacio de Francia stations to the southern beaches, including the beaches of Castelldefels and Sitges.
Best advice for someone who wants to plan the same trip?
Barcelona’s overtourism problems are well documented. I was there at a hectic time in June as the Primavera Music Festival was happening at the same time as the Barcelona Design Festival. Most places, especially along the beaches, tourist sites and Ciutat Vella’s maze of narrow streets, were packed with tourists. It can be overwhelming, especially for the people who live there, but there are some things visitors can do to control the adverse effects of tourism, such as…
Don’t treat the city like a beach. Barcelona has strict rules regarding beachwear; you can’t walk around the streets of the city shirtless or wearing a bathing suit, bikini or swimming trunks, unless you want to risk being fined €300.
When booking accommodation, try to use registered hotels and guesthouses. If you book an Airbnb, make sure it’s licensed.
Buy Local, including in local shops and markets. What I love about Spanish cities is that you will find many specialty stores where you can buy unique, thoughtful and well-made pieces. Even in a big city like Barcelona, you’ll have no trouble finding these stores once you get away from the high-end, high-end shopping areas of Plaça de Catalunya and Passeig de Gracia.
As you venture into the city, try to orient yourself before going to a busy place. Often I saw groups of tourists crowding around ticket machines in metro stations as they figured out how to use them, blocking access to locals who were forced to queue long behind them. It was also common to see groups of tourists stopping at the entrances and exits of subway stations as they consulted maps on their phones to figure out their next stop, prompting frustrated locals seemingly in a hurry to get home or to work, walking awkwardly around them or asking them to move.
Book your visits in advance as group walking tours are now capped at a maximum of 30 people or 15 in Ciutat Vella to reduce crowding and noise pollution. Group tours of some historic attractions have also been limited to three or eight visitors at a time, so places fill up quickly.
Finally, it’s good to have some basic Catalan phrases handy. You will manage with English and Castilian but a good day (hello), graces/thank you (thank you), or please (please) goes a long way when chatting with locals.