Barcelona is a city I can’t stop returning to. Since my first trip back in 2007, I’ve returned again and again, even living there for a few months. I love the winding streets lined with balconies, and independent bars, restaurants and shops. I love the sea, the beach and the gorgeous parks filled with laidback folk and the sounds of guitars and pan drums. It’s a city that reveals more secrets every time I visit.
Here’s a little guide to get you started in the city.
It’s a huge city with many different neighbourhoods, but here are a few of my favourites:
This is where I lived. It’s the older part of town and is made up of atmospheric winding streets, pretty squares and tons of little bars, cafes, restaurants and shops. It can be touristy in places (especially closer to the Rambla) and you may see the odd stag do parading about, but that doesn’t dominate the area, and you can almost always find a quiet or local spot. You wouldn’t want to miss this part of the city.
Born / Ribera
This area is similar to Barri Gotico but a little more up-market. Its centre piece is the wonderfully imposing Santa Maria del Mar church, which gives way to a maze of little streets. Metro stops Urquinaona or Jaume I are good jumping off points for the barrio.
Raval is on the other side of the Rambla to Barrio Gotico and is often referred to as “the wrong side of the tracks” due to its past reputation as a no-go area for tourists. Since the 90s, it’s started to clean up its act and is now a trendy area that rivals Gotico and Born for excellent restaurants, bars and cafes. The further north you go (which is home to the university), the smarter it gets, with the southern end still being pretty rough around the edges.
Gracia is one of my favourite barrios. It has a great bohemian village vibe and a thriving Catalan community. Situated in the north of the city, it’s a little more out of the way than my other favourite barrios, but definitely worth a visit to lounge and people-watch in one of the plazas.
This working-class enclave has some great tapas bars and is a great place to wander around in the day en-route to the seafront, which it borders. I particularly like walking along the promenade next to Port Vell and then following it along the coast. Barceloneta has a different flavour at night. It’s next to the Port Olympic, which is home to some of the city’s most touristy clubs and is magnet for the city’s stag dos. For my taste, it’s best avoided.
Things to do
Parc de la Ciutadella
This park is one of my favourite places in Barcelona, if not the world, especially at weekends. It’s the perfect place for people watching, full of slack-lining hippies, guitar players, tap dancers and families picnicking. It’s pretty big, so take a walk around and choose your favourite spot. The park is accessible from the Born area or you can walk down from Arc de Triomf.
This sculpture park high above the city was designed by Gaudi and is brilliantly absurd with great views. Even if you’re not a fan of Gaudi, it’s still worth seeing.
Some people love it, others hate it. I’m most definitely in the love-it camp, but either way, there’s nothing quite like the Sagrada Familia and I’d definitely recommend taking a look, even if just from the outside.
I didn’t go to the Picasso museum until I moved to Barcelona, and I’m not sure what held me back as it’s brilliant, offering a fascinating insight into the artist’s life and the trajectory of his work.
From Plaza Espana, you can walk up to Montjuic (one of the hills surrounding Barcelona). I have only ever walked down, but I’m told the ascent is quite a climb. If you’re not feeling up for the hike, you can get the funicular from Parallel metro stop. From there, it’s easy to visit the Miro museum, which holds regular exhibitions alongside the permanent collection. From Montjuic, you can get the iconic cable car across to the beach. In the summer, they hold open-air cinema nights in the moat surrounding Montjuic’s Castle. If you’re there at the right time, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a spectacular evening.
If you’re looking for modern art, the MACBA is the place to go. It’s in the northern part of Raval, near the university. I’d also recommend the Caixa Forum museum, which often holds interesting contemporary art exhibitions.
And finally, I may not like the Rambla but you have to go there to get to the Boqueria Market. Despite being wildly busy, it’s a wonderful “must-see” market, full of fantastic fruit and veg. There are also some great tapas places at the back.
Barcelona is full of cute cafes and Lilipep in Borne is one of my favourites. It has tall imposing wooden doors that peel back to reveal a small artsy haven with sofas and colourful artwork. It’s just down from the Picasso museum.
Clandestina is another of Barcelona’s independent cafes, artfully decorated with colourful umbrellas. The tea menu is delightful and there’s good wi-fi inside.
This is a wonderful hidden gem tucked away behind the city’s shopping district in an area filled with antiques. Fitting in with the vintage theme, Caelum is a charming underground cave specializing in wine, cakes and all things sweet. It’s really worth searching for.
Barcelona is one of the first places I tasted the digital nomad life and this was the café I’d most often go to for long writing sessions with a cup of coffee. It’s a sprawling café that spills out onto one of Born’s plazas, and is a great place to wile away many an hour, chatting, working and eating cake. It also a lively place in the evenings when the coffees switch to cocktails.
This characterful, cosy restaurant, full of unusual instruments and bright colours, looks deceptively small from the outside, but spreads downstairs too. It’s run as part of an Argentinian co-operative, which also owns a second vegetarian restaurant, Bascula, in Born. Unfortunately Bascula is currently victim to some unfortunate town planning rules, which have forced it to run as a take-away joint only. Luckily La Cereria still remains, serving some deliciously eclectic pizzas, salads and crepes. There’s also an impressive tea menu, huge cocktails and wonderful homemade cakes. It’s the only place in Barcelona you can find authentic Maté.
This small, elegantly hodgepodge restaurant isn’t an obvious choice for vegetarians, but one of the three daily mains is always veggie, and unfailingly divine. It’s tucked away on a side street in Barrio Gotico, and is a good romantic choice. That said, I also held my birthday meal there one year. The square around the corner is a good spot for some al fresco pre- or post-dinner drinks.
While the Boqueria market is a must-see in terms of atmosphere and scope, Santa Caterina market is a stylish alternative, designed by the same architect as the Scottish Parliament. It’s worth seeing for the architecture, but an even bigger draw is the restaurant inside. All the food comes fresh from the market, the ceilings are high, there are plenty of trees, and it manages to pull off a rare and wonderful combination of calm and bustle. The menu features food from around the world including Catalan specials and plenty of vegetarian options. The tofu curry is delicious. Reservations are recommended.
For tapas, I always recommend El Vaso de Oro. It’s a guidebook favourite, but also very popular with locals as the quality is top-notch. The narrow, rowdy bar is a great place to try some of the classics in an authentically Spanish atmosphere. Steve and I are in love with the pimientos de padron, often called Russian roulette peppers because one in ten is very spicy. I’m also a fan of the clara – a refreshing beer mixed with Fanta Limon. If Vaso de Oro is full, there is another good, and slightly cheaper, option around the corner called Jai-ca (Calle Ginebra 13).
Passieg del Borne
This is cheating as I’m naming a whole street of bars, but I really like sitting outside at pretty much any of them. There are two great take-away pizza places serving slices – one specialises in thick crust and the other in thin. A special mention also needs to be given to Sandwich and Friends (Passeign del Borne 27), home to one of my favourite sandwiches – the Bernie – toasted with avocado, cheese, sprouts and salad. It may sound simple but it’s also awesome.
Bars / Nightlife
Although Pipa Club is perhaps Barcelona’s best-known secret, it still feels delightfully special to press the doorbell with a nondescript ‘P’ and be buzzed inside to the rambling, hidden bar. The atmosphere varies depending on the night, but ranges from being a low-key bar to a pumping live music venue. It’s tucked into the corner of Plaze Reial in Barrio Gotico.
Carrer de la Reina Cristina, 7, 08003
I was reading a guidebook to Barcelona while on a train in London when an elderly man opposite struck up conversation and started to wax lyrical about his youth in Barcelona. He raved about a place called the Champagneria, and drew me a little map of how to get there. I followed up and it became one of my favourite places in the city. It’s a tiny, hectic little bar that serves five types of cava, ranging from 60 cents to one euro, as well as a plethora of ham and cheese. If you want to buy more than one drink, you have to buy a tapa too. It’s an excellent thing to see, but if the crowd is too much for you, buy a bottle and drink it on the beach.
C/Sant Pau, 65
This atmospherically run-down bar in Ravel specialises in absinthe, the famously strong liqueur that originated in France but is banned there today. I wouldn’t try more than one!
Robadors, 23, Ravel
Robadores is a fun bar any night of the week, but on Sunday it shines when hosting its weekly flamenco jam session of local musicians. Get there early to beat the crowds.
Carrer dels Almogàvers, 122
Razzmatazz is the queen of Barcelona’s club and music scene. I’m not into super clubs but this one has many rooms with something for every taste. It also attracts lots of big name djs and bands so be sure to check the listings.
Barcelona in the summer is full of people drinking beers outside on the streets. From the beach to the plazas to hubs like Rambla de Raval, you’ll find people enjoying the balmy nights. It’s a great way to meet people.
What to avoid
The Rambla was a huge disappointment to me. I had imagined it to be something elegant and beautiful when in reality it’s a wildly busy thoroughfare jam-packed with tourists, living statues and awful food. Whatever you do, don’t eat there.
Unfortunately Barcelona has some pretty lax laws when it comes to theft and the city is rife with pickpockets. So many people I know have had something stolen including me during my first visit to the city, and another time with Steve. The Rambla and the beach are popular targets. Don’t be scared – you just need to have your wits about you.