There are places widely known for their striking architecture and cultural offer, some whose recreational scene has made them international hangouts, others have established themselves as major business hubs, while long sandy beaches and mild climate conditions are the primary assets of a few.
Then, there’s Barcelona.
The capital of Catalonia and the second biggest city in Spain seems to have both been blessed with and achieved the gift of ‘completeness’ – a characteristic that the following itinerary, covering a few hand-picked spots by our locals, will strive to highlight.
Aesthetically wise, the cityscape is rich and varied: from the Gothic buildings of its Medieval town to the eclectic works of world-celebrated architects (such as Anton Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner) and contemporary urban interventions, Barcelona is a sequence of diverse architectural highlights and styles. Indeed, a number of its buildings have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and, back in 1999, the city has been awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for its architecture, being the only city – as of 2016 – to obtain such recognition.
The weather, as Mediterranean as it gets, guarantees mild temperatures throughout the whole year and makes Barcelona a favourite destination for visitors who, aside from culture, are looking to brown off on its beaches. At the back of the city the hinterland is dotted with hills, the highest, Tibidabo, offering impressive views over the city and its sea. Again throughout the whole year, Barcelona guarantees a non-stop scene of music and creative events that has few competitors in the Old Continent. At the core of one of the richest European regions, Barna, as the locals refer to the city in Catalan, also boasts a strong industry and service sector economy.
Does it come as a surprise that thousands of foreigners, attracted by the aforementioned and other favourable variables, have either chosen Barcelona as their longtime home or their short-term residence? I’d say, not at all. But with perks come downsides, and like many other cities Barcelona’s main resource has become its most evident issue. Since the 1992 Summer Olympics the city has witnessed an exponential tourism boom and has quickly turned into one of the most visited cities in the world. Already quite densely populated, Barcelona is constantly ridden by visitors: no matter where and when you walk its streets, the city often appears like a giant ant-house whose dwellers spin around in frenzy. The phenomenon has achieved such massive proportions that it has led citizens to take to the streets in protest against the consequences (an increase in micro-criminality and prices, a tangible risk of loss of local identities and traditions, to name just a few) and the city council to launch a series of regulations to avoid the city becoming Europe’s next Venice.
Barcelona is a synonym for innumerable opportunities and thus mass tourism, take it or leave it. Yet, try to overcome the first, overwhelming impact; if you’re willing to put in some effort, you’ll notice that the city still has much to disclose to those who have eyes to see. Discovering its less frequented spots is harder than in other places, therefore more exciting and rewarding if you want. Often, its best bars and hidden museums lie just next to its main attractions, exactly where you would not expect to find them.
No worries, our Spotters are here to help you in this quest. Catch a glimpse of a less obvious Barcelona through this itinerary. As a local, of course.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
“The best chocolate croissants for girls and boys” in Barcelona? Cynthia would tell you to taste them at Forn Mistral: there’s no doubt that the real protagonists of this shop/bakery are the mini versions of the buttery Viennoiserie-pastry. Following the same sweet path, chocolate addicts might also like to get their day started at La Pallaresa; this traditional snack bar is above all known for its suizos – cups of thick, rich chocolate topped with cream.
La Pallaresa is conveniently located just off the tree-lined, pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, in the Ciutat Vella (Catalan for Old Town) district of Barcelona, and only a few doors away from Sala Parés. One of the oldest privately-owned art galleries in the world (it has been in business since 1840), Sala Parés was the first gallery to expose Picasso’s work. Presently, it boasts a striking collection of 19th and 20th century Catalan and Spanish pieces of art.
While indulging in a walk around the area, don’t forget to pass through and spend some time in what is arguably the most beautiful among the many little squares of the city centre: Plaça del Pi. It consists of two small squares attached one another: the one right in front of the church of Santa Maria del Pi often hosts a farmers market offering a wide range of Catalan products, while the one on the left side of the church becomes the site of a local art fair that takes place every weekend.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
Two neighbourhoods of Ciutat Vella border Las Ramblas: to the east is the the Barri Gòtic (the main focus of your first morning’s itinerary), to the west is El Raval; diverse, multi-ethnic, up-and-coming and still ‘rough’ at times. El Raval is bustling with life thanks to its day-and-night spots. Venture through its streets and, for Mexican food at its best, try to squeeze in at El Pachucho. Most spots in El Raval are tiny and El Pachuco is no exception, yet their awesome and affordable dishes are absolutely worth trying – plus, around lunchtime it’s quieter.
El Raval is also home to La Boqueria, the most popular market of Barcelona. Despite having become an extremely touristy spot as well, the quality of the food sold at La Boqueria is definitely still high – and Pinotxo, its most crowded bar, confirms it. Once again, you might need to wait for while to sit at the counter, but their tapas (mainly typical Catalan dishes) will provide a great crash course into the local cuisine.
After lunch, head to the neighbourhood of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera which, thanks to its boutique hotels, high-end stores and trendy bars is probably the hippest area in the centre. Ilse has spotted quite a number of cool shops around its streets – among them, one entirely dedicated to instant photography. On the shelves of Impossible Project Barcelona you will mainly find vintage Polaroid cameras as well as their original accessories, while in the back is a small art gallery, with changing exhibitions that are – of course – always centred on instant photography.
And, if you happen to leave the shop with a camera and can’t wait to release the photographer in you, keep in mind that La CaixaForum is a staggering source of inspiration. Located just south of Plaça d’Espanya, the cultural institution is hosted in a former textile factory built, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the shape of an eclectic caste. Inside, five exhibitions spaces accommodate both a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
Spaniards – and Catalans – eat late, period. Unless you’ve been conned into eating at a touristy restaurant, you’re unlikely to find any local checking out a dinner menu before 21:30/22:00. Back in Ciutat Vella, before making up your mind on which restaurant to pick, join the local artsy, creative crowd at Antic Teatre. Walk down a dark alley, pass through a small door and you’ll find yourself in a courtyard surrounded by old buildings, shaded by a huge tree. Antic Teatre is both a merry, constantly animated bar garden and a cultural centre supporting the young, upcoming artists.
Just around the corner, chose Elsa y Fred for tasty and peculiar dishes in a living room-like, warm interior. Alternatively, in the Vila Olimpica neighbourhood just north of the the centre, Xiringuito Escriba has been dubbed by our local Sol as the restaurant serving the best paella in town. Aside from a killer paella and an equally killer location (right on the beach front), Xiringuito Escriba serves outrageously good desserts.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
Think a place with good drinks at a decent price is not an option in Barcelona? Don’t fret: both 33 | 45 and Milk match that description. In the heart of El Raval, 33 | 45 is a relaxed bar with big sofas, art adorning the walls and great electronic music at the right volume. Milk, tucked away in a street of the Gothic Quarter, has a great list of drinks to satisfy anybody’s taste (if you’re brave enough, try their Michelada) and – an additional plus – is just a few streets north from Plaça Reial. A famous attraction in Barcelona, the square and the nearby streets are packed with clubs and any sort of night venues; some cater to tourists, others are less known, all of them make Plaça Reial a gathering point where locals and tourists mingle and get to know each other.
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
The Eixample district of Barcelona is mostly renowned for its unique octagonal blocks arranged in a grid and for its Modernista (Art Nouveau) style buildings; if you happen to walk down its streets in the morning, consider having your first bite of the day at Granja Petitbo or Cosmo. Granja Petitbo is a weekend must, when its snug and bright interior becomes the setting of one of the best brunches in Barcelona. Cosmo, on the other hand, is a cafe/art gallery much appreciated for its laid-back ambiance and vintage furniture, great drinks and its friendly staff.
At a short distance from both spots, where the Eixample borders the district of Sant Martí is Els Encants, the largest and one of the oldest (if not the oldest) flea markets in Europe. Opened four out of the seven days of the week, Els Encants is a heaven for locals – such as our Spotter Gerard – and travellers alike who are up for some intensive treasure hunting. Further to the east, once every month a former 19th century factory hosts the Palo Alto Market; more on the hipster side, Palo Alto focuses on everything design, from home decor to clothes and bags.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
Nowadays Gràcia is one of the districts in Barcelona, but as far back as the late 19th century it was an independent municipality. Truth is, Gràcia has retained its very own vibe and culture, and is still quite devoid of tourists. Narrow streets, low-rise buildings in pastel colours and a number of picturesque squares (Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, dominated by a 33 metre-high beautiful clock tower, is among the prettiest in Barcelona) characterise the fabric of this bohemian and racially and socially-mixed neighbourhood. For a quick lunch, visit the Mercat de l’Abaceria: the three bars inside make use of the same fresh ingredients sold at the stalls. Otherwise try Morryssom’s, whose excellent dishes have made it a popular spot among local residents. On its list, some interesting tapas that you will hardly find in any other restaurant in town.
For some after-lunch cultural insights, stroll south towards the elegant Passeig de Gràcia. Among the main architectural jewels that embellish what is regarded as the most expensive street of Barcelona stands Casa Milà. Popularly known as La Pedrera, it is the last civil work designed by Antoni Gaudí and the headquarter of the Catalunya-La Pedrera Foundation; the exhibition programme never disappoints, and the ticket prices are absolutely fair. However, the price doesn’t include the guided tour of the building and its rooftop – in that case, the ticket turns out to be rather expensive.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
Back to Gràcia once again, to discover two of Bill‘s favourite spots for drink and food. One of the oldest bars in the area, Nou Can Codina has seen its popularity increasing after being carefully renovated. Sure enough, the flavoursome bites have contributed to its success: while sipping one of their craft beers, ask for their croquetas,
patatas bravas and morcilla (blood sausage/black pudding) – they are to die for.
As good (hence, tremendously tempting) as nibbling could be, remember to leave some space for dinner. Goliard is a well-achieved combination of elegance deprived of pretentiousness and good food for a great value. The menu changes frequently, the dishes the result of a mix of local and other culinary tradition and ingredients.
In the Eixample, Paco Meralgo has taken the tradition of tapas to the next level; as for Goliard, the chefs of Paco Meraglo have reinterpreted the classics and created some exquisite variations. Among their delicacies figure the espardenyes, sea slugs that are found only on the Catalan coast. Cherry on top: the wine list, as praise-worthy as their food menu. Not an ordinary tapas bar, no ordinary tapas prices either – but definitely worth the price.
Day 2: 23:00 – …
No area, other than the seediest bit of El Raval, the one closest to the seafront and still known as the Barri Xinès (Catalan for Chinatown), could have made for a better location for Bar Pastis. Opened in 1947 and modeled on a typical bar in pre-war Marseille, Bar Pastis is wrapped in romance, nicotine and a certain dose of beautiful decadence. The place often hosts intimate gigs – mainly chantauses and tango – while the most varied specimens of humanity come and go, and Ángel, the owner, keeps pouring his own labelled absinthe and pastis.
Close enough to Bar Pastis, in the Poble Sec district is Rouge; the heavy sofas, red walls and low lights contribute to the shady atmosphere of this (again, exquisitely decadent) lounge bar. The groovy, yet discreet, music selection and the artsy yet not artsy-fartsy customers work just fine as a warm-up before checking out the neighbouring Sala Apolo. Sean‘s music preferences take him to concerts in La , Sala Apolo’s smaller room; that said, Sala Apolo is a a large venue, hosting a wide range of club nights, that consequently attract the most diverse customers from all over the world. In the end, anyone can fit in, as long as they know what they want to dance to and which room they need to head to.