Get Your Bearings
Barcelona is the largest city in Catalonia and the second largest city in Spain. It’s located on Spain’s northeastern coast, on the Mediterranean Sea, and it enjoys plenty of sunshine and relatively warm temperatures year-round.
Barcelona is a city with well defined neighborhoods and each one has its own unique qualities.
At the center of Barcelona there is El Gotic, or Barrio Gotico. This is the oldest part of the city and the part that’s most visited by tourists. A literal labyrinth of cobbled lanes surrounded by architectural gems, El Gotic is one of the best kept old cities in the world. The neighborhood stretches all the way from Placa Catalunya, the central square of Barcelona, to the harbor and it is bordered by Las Ramblas on the west and Via Laietana on the east. There are loads of restaurants, bars and shops in El Gotic and while it can get crowded with tourists, there are also plenty of small streets and quiet squares to discover.
[Also see "24 Hours in Barcelona"]
Another interesting neighborhood is El Born. Located to the northeast of El Gotic, across from Via Laietana, El Born is similar to El Gotic in that it is pretty much a continuation of El Gotic’s architectural style. However, for many, El Born is the more authentic version. There are certainly fewer tourists! Besides being a happening entertainment district with bars and restaurants, El Born also has some cultural gems like the Picasso Museum.
El Raval is located just across Las Ramblas, to the west of El Gotic. It’s a grungier neighborhood than its Born or Gotico counterparts, so don’t expect to find souvenir shops or hoards of tourists. What El Raval does have however, is plenty of local restaurants, lounge bars, tattoo shops, cool clubs and the MACBA modern art museum. The square in front of the MACBA is packed day and night with skaters from across Europe and it has gained a reputation as one of the best places in the world for street skating.
Barcelona’s main shopping street, Passeig de Gracia, begins on the east side of Placa Catalunya. The street has many of the city’s high-fashion shops and it’s also notable for its famed Gaudi houses: Casa Batllo and La Pedrera. Passeig de Gracia, as its name suggests, travels between Gotico and the neighborhood of Gracia. Gracia is not part of Old Barcelona and it is built in a different style than Gotico, Born or Raval. Gracia was designed in a structured way to provide more space for a growing Barcelona and it is characterized by its leafy lanes and plentiful squares. Less touristy than all of the neighborhoods mentioned thus far, Gracia is a popular hangout spot for locals. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to visit! There’s not a better place in Barcelona for dinner or a relaxed night out.
But What’s There To Do? For Free…
Barcelona has so many cool things to do and see that it would be impossible for the city to charge for them all.
The first and most important free activity in Barcelona is the beach, La Barceloneta. Sure, every beach in the world is free, but every beach is most definitely not La Barceloneta. Voted the ‘world’s best urban beach’ by the Discovery Channel, Barceloneta is the center of the city during the summer months. While it can get crowded, there will always room on the sand for a few more. Vendors walk along the beach and sell beers and cold drinks. Beach entertainment includes beach volleyball, jet ski rentals, a ton of restaurants, and of course the refreshingly cold Mediterranean Sea.
Every day can’t be spent at the beach and Parc Guell is a great place to start exploring the city. Designed by famed Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi from 1900-1914, Parc Guell is one of the most intricately designed parks in the world. Located on the hills above Gracia, the views from the park are stunning.
If the park is too relaxing, head to the action-packed Las Ramblas. While there aren’t many locals on this pedestrian only thoroughfare, Las Ramblas is an attraction onto itself. Running from Placa Catalunya to the sea, Las Ramblas is packed with street performers and souvenir kiosks.
Located just off the Ramblas is the famous fruit market, La Boqueria. Sheltered underneath a large steel canopy, La Boqueria is the best place in Barcelona for a quick lunch. The market’s vendors sell all kinds of different fruits and juices and there are several restaurants inside the market that offer counter-side dining. Make sure to walk into the interior of the market and away from the its entrances for the best prices when buying fruit.
The nearby neighborhoods of El Gotic and El Born are the locations of some of Barcelona’s coolest (free) cathedrals. In El Gotic there is the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, a beautifully maintained cathedral, notable for its secluded cloister that houses a small lake and thirteen white geese. El Born, on the other hand, has the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. Built in the 14th century, this still-active church has an absolutely stunning interior.
Once the sun sets the premier free attraction in Barcelona is the Fonta Magica light show at Placa de Espanya. The show consists of laser lights and a large fountain timed to music and it is one of the coolest ways to spend an evening in Barcelona. What truly makes it so special are the surrounding buildings, like the intimidating Palau Nacional.
A more local way to spend an evening in Barcelona is to hang out in one of the many squares or placas that can be found in the city. No trip to the city is authentic without a night spent drinking beers and eating tapas at Placa del Sol in Gracia. Known for being a student hangout, it’s almost impossible to break the bank here. Another great square, also located in Gracia, is Placa de la Virreina. Not as rowdy as Placa del Sol, Placa de la Virreina has some pretty good restaurants. In El Gotic, Placa Reial has a legitimate claim to be the most beautiful square in the world. This square is less suited for budget travelers though, as it is mostly filled with high-end restaurants and fashionable patrons.
The Best Things In Life Are Certainly Not Free
[Also see "Barcelona: The City of 'God’s Architect'"]
The Sagrada Familia is Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, a stunning cathedral with spires 560 feet high. From afar it literally dominates the Barcelona skyline and up close, the intricacy of its beauty is mind blowing. Unfortunately the exterior of the church is a work in progress, as it has been since construction began in 1883. The entrance fee to the cathedral is €12.5, but be prepared for long queues and the scorching Barcelona sun.
Speaking of Antoni Gaudi, his most well-known works outside of the Sagarada Familia are the houses Casa Batllo and La Pedrera. Both of them are located on Passeig de Gracia and both were commissioned in the early 20th century as private residences for wealthy businessmen. However, these houses are far from your average private residences. Gaudi had few constraints and he created some of the most beautiful and bizarre houses ever built.
Casa Batllo is slightly more popular with visitors. Built in 1877, it has a wild exterior that is covered in mosaic tile. The interior is very colorful and each room has a different style than the last. The entrance to Casa Batllo costs €18 or €13 for students.
La Pedrera, completed in 1912, is located only a few blocks from Casa Batllo. While its design isn’t quite as wild as Casa Batllo’s, it’s still very unique, especially its inner courtyard. What really makes La Pedrera special, though, is its roof. Its wondrous roof seems as if it’s straight out of a fantasy, with varying floor-levels and strange columns and the views are amazing! Admission to La Pedrera is €14 or €10 for students.
Another interesting cultural attraction is the Palau de la Musica, Barcelona’s home for classical music performances. The shows can be quite expensive, but the palace itself is truly magnificent. It’s worth checking out, even if only for a tour.
Let’s talk about football and the world’s best football team, FC Barcelona! Seeing a Barcelona football game is a perfect complement to an already great holiday. The season starts in August and tickets begin at €40. To get multiple adjacent seats, tickets should be purchased well in advance. Otherwise a large amount of seats are put on sale 72 hours before kickoff. Just remember that ‘Messi es dios’ and Madrid can suck it!
What About That Culture Thing?
[Also see "Barcelona and its Greatest Artists"]
Barcelona has several world-class art museums, one of which is the Picasso Museum. Located in the heart of El Born, the museum is housed in a beautiful building that provides the perfect backdrop to its huge collection of Picasso pieces. Picasso lived in Barcelona during the early 20th century and the museum houses many of his early works. He was prolific during his career and his paintings span many different styles. Admission is €6 and the museum is free after 3 pm on Sundays.
Speaking of great artists, why not check out some of Catalonia’s best at the National Art Museum of Catalonia or MNAC. Located at Placa de Espanya, the museum is housed inside the beautiful and gigantic Palau Nacional. Its collection is extensive and a visit can easily last the better part of the day. There are great sections on Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art. Admission is €8.5 and or free on the first Sunday of every month.
One Catalonian that you won’t find much of at the MNAC is Salvador Dali. Fans of this artist can get a quick fix at the Permanent Dali Exhibition in El Gotic. The museum is small and can be seen in less than an hour. Admission is €8.
True Dali enthusiasts should visit Museum Dali in the small Catalonian town of Figueres. Figueres is located 2 hours north of Barcelona and can be reached via local trains that depart regularly from stations Passeig de Gracia and Clot. Dali designed the museum himself and a visit to the museum is a trip into the surreal.
Joan Miró is another of Barcelona’s celebrated artists. He was born in the El Gotic neighborhood of Barcelona and many of his early paintings are representative of Catalonian life. The Joan Miró Foundation is the place to go in Barcelona to see the painter’s masterpieces. It houses over 14,000 pieces of art and it is the largest Miró collection in the world. Admission is €10 and the museum is located in Montjuic Park.
Another interesting art museum in Barcelona is the Contemporary Art Museum or MACBA. The MACBA hosts an excellent collection of modern art from around Spain. Admission is €7.5, though new exhibitions are free on their first day and across from the museum there is an annex building that hosts a rotating free exhibit. The street skating in front of the museum is an extra incentive to visit.
Where To Stay
Hostels are easy to find in El Gotic. The best locations are near Placa Catalunya or the Urquinaona Metro Station. There are also a few hostels located in Sants or near Placa de Espanya, but while the public transportation system is excellent, these areas are a little far from the city center.
Can’t Sleep? Don’t Sleep.
Sleep is overrated, but Barcelona’s nightlife certainly is not! Barcelona is known throughout Europe for its raucous nightlife. The bars open early and the clubs stay open late. Don’t except any club to close before sunrise.
On a vacation there’s no reason not to start drinking in the daytime and at La Champagneria it’s possible to do just that. Located in El Born, La Campagneria is a quintessentially local bar. Opening at lunch, the bar serves tapas and cava. The bar resembles an old barn and inside it’s a constant struggle for standing space, however the prices keep people coming back for more. A glass of cava can cost as little as €.80 cents.
Another great bar, although not for daytime drinking, is the Rosa Del Raval. Located just south of the MACBA, this bar is a great place for people watching. It has a spacious interior with plentiful tables and even a few tables on the sidewalk outside.
Also worth checking out in El Raval is the Oveja Negra. Near Placa Catalunya, Oveja Negra has a healthy mix of foreign and local patrons. This bar has a bit of a reputation as a meat-market and it is exceedingly popular because of its low prices and famously delicious pitchers of sangria.
One more bar, perhaps the most memorable of them all, is Espit Chupitos. Chupitos is Spanish for shots and the bar certainly has a few of those! More than 500 to be exact. Located on Carrer d’Aribau in Universidad, the bar is frequented mostly by university students who come for the cheap prices. Shots start at just €2 and many of them are quite creative, with a few involving the bartenders setting the bar on fire. Check out the Monica Lewinsky shot, which is basically a shaken beer inserted into an oversized sex toy!
Once the bars close, usually around midnight, it’s time to head to the clubs. Barceloneta has two of the city’s largest nightclubs, Opium Mar and Shoko. These beachfront clubs are massive and beautiful. Usually frequented by wealthy tourists, the scene can be a bit over the top, so break out your polo shirts and black cards.
Nearby at Porto Olimpico there is a waterfront promenade packed with lounge bars and smaller clubs. Most of the clubs don’t have cover charges and while the drinks are still expensive, they are great places to dance and meet tourists. Reggaeton is a popular music choice at the clubs here.
For a more low-key club scene, go native and check out Sala Be Cool near Avenida Diagonal in the neighborhood of Hospital Clinic. This club is a popular choice with young Barcelonans and is for the most part, off the tourist map.
Near the end of Las Ramblas, in El Raval, there are some really great and hard to find clubs. The clientele can be a little snobbish towards tourists, so it’s best to go with a Catalan friend. A word of advice, there are plenty of club promoters passing out fliers on Las Ramblas and for the most part these clubs are overpriced and either empty or crowded with gullible tourists.
Special Events For A Special City
The month of August has some amazing events. It kicks off with Fiesta de Gracia, a weeklong festival that sees the entire neighborhood of Gracia transformed into one gigantic carnival experience. There are bands, DJ’s, makeshift bars and extravagant decorations, with almost every street having a different decor and musical theme.
Once Fiesta de Gracia winds down, it’s time for Fiesta de Sants across town. Located in the working-class neighborhood of Sants, Fiesta de Sants is much more low-key than its crosstown rival. The decorations aren’t as impressive and the crowds aren’t as plentiful, but it’s still plenty of fun and an altogether unique experience.
[Also see "On the Tapas Trail in Barcelona"]
Barcelona has some really great budget restaurants and the food is reasonably priced in its supermarkets as well. In the mornings the city heads to small bars and cafeterias for a donut or croissant and morning coffee. At lunch time many restaurants offer set lunches, with three-course meals start for as little as €6. Eating tapas is a must when in Spain and there’s no better place to do this than in Placa del Sol in Gracia. Plates of tapas usually cost around €2 and there is a large amount of variety. Paella is also a must when in Barcelona, even though it’s a Valencian dish. Cafes in tourist areas such as El Gotic and Porto Olimpico are good places to find the dish.
Don’t Call Me Spanish!
People in Barcelona are Catalonian and they have a distinct heritage and identity. Their language is Catalan and it is a bit different than Spanish, with influences from both Italian and French. The region’s identity issues are compounded by Spain’s turbulent past. From 1939 until 1975 Spain was ruled by the fascist dictator, Generalísimo Franco. During this time Catalonia’s heritage was suppressed, with the Spanish government even going so far as to ban the teaching of Catalan in the region’s schools. It’s therefore understandable why Catalonians don’t appreciate having their culture lumped together with Spain’s.
Transportation For The Common Man
Getting around Barcelona is a breeze thanks to its excellent public transportation system. The Metro is clean and efficient, although it doubles as a sauna in the summer months, and has numerous lines that transverse almost the entire city. The bus system is also pretty great and may be the better alternative when the heat underground becomes unbearable.
To travel on both the buses and the Metro, travelers should purchase a T-10. This card costs €8 and it contains 10 public transit fares. It can be purchased from machines at metro stations or from street-side tobacco shops and news kiosks.
Most travelers will arrive to Barcelona by plane and the easiest way to get into the city from the airport is to take the Aero Bus. This bus departs regularly from both terminals and takes passengers directly to the center of Barcelona, stopping at both Placa de Espanya and Placa Catalunya. The cost is €5.05 (the 5 cents is just to annoy travelers) and cash is the only method of payment.
[Also see "How To Travel Between Barcelona and Madrid"]
It’s Always Sunny In Barcelona
The weather in Barcelona is nothing short of amazing. The city has a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and mild winters. In the winter the average daily temperature rarely drops below 14 degrees Celsius (57 Fahrenheit) and precipitation remains low throughout the year.