Ahhh, Barcelona. Capital of the exquisite, the idiosyncratic, and the seriously bold. Spain’s most whimsical, cosmopolitan city wows with sun-drenched beaches, legendary architecture, wild clubs and world-class food. Barcelona is quite proud of its Catalan culture and language, which you’ll probably hear much more frequently than castellano and Spanish. Whether you’re strolling through the broad, tree- and modernista building-lined avenues of l’Eixample by day, bar-hopping beneath the walls of the Gothic churches of the Ciutat Vella at night, or napping away the afternoon in one of Gràcia’s shady plazas, if you take a second to look around, you’ll be mesmerized by the city’s ubiquitous charm. Oh, and did we mention there’s also a beach? Save it for last—once you head there, you’ll be hard-pressed to leave.
Though a large and complex city, Barcelona’s barris (neighborhoods) are fairly well-defined.
The Ciutat Vella (old city) is the city’s heart, comprised of El Raval (west of Las Ramblas), Barri Gòtic (between Las Ramblas and Via Laietana), El Born (between Via Laietana and Parc de la Ciutadella), and La Barceloneta (the peninsula south of El Born).
Farther down the coast from the Ciutat Vella is the park-mountain Montjuïc and the small neighborhood of Poble Sec between Montjuïc and Avinguda Paral·lel.
Farther inland from the Ciutat Vella is the large, central, rigidly gridded zone of l’Eixample, and still farther away from the sea is Gràcia.
The Plaça de Catalunya is one of the city’s most central points, located where Las Ramblas meets the Passeig de Gràcia; it is essentially the meeting point of El Raval, Barri Gòtic, and l’Eixample.
Sights in Barcelona run the gamut from cathedrals to casas to museums and more. Here’s a brief overview of what each neighborhood has to offer.
El Gòtic is Barcelona’s most tourist-ridden neighborhood; despite the crowds of foreigners, however, the Gothic Quarter is filled with alley after alley of medieval charm. Beginning along the sea and cutting straight through to Pl. de Catalunya, Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s world-famous tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare that attracts thousands of visitors daily. El Born is a sight in itself, with ancient streets surrounded by sloping buildings or crumbling arches suddenly opening onto secluded placetes. El Raval has its own beauties, from the medieval Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau to the present-day artwork housed in the modern buildings of MACBA and CCCB. L’Eixample’s sights are mostly composed of marvelous examples of modernista architecture; the Sagrada Família, in particular, is a must-see. Barceloneta is filled with Catalan pride, from the red-and-yellow flags hanging on apartment balconies to the museum devoted to Catalonia and its history. Gràcia contains the epic mountain/modernista retreat, Parc Güell, as well as a few independent examples of this historic Barcelonan style. Finally,Montjuïc—you know, that big hill with the castle on it that you can see from just about anywhere in Barcelona—is home to some phenomenal museums, a model Spanish village, and, of course, that castle.
Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions in Barcelona. Click the links to reserve tickets or local guides.
You’ve probably been to a tapas bar, but you might not have known that tapas is not a type of food—it simply refers to the way the food is presented. The bite-sized portions served at the bar are not to be mistaken with appetizers. Spaniards eat tapas most commonly after work, well before dinner, or while just out drinking with friends.
If you’re in Spain during the summer, you will most likely end up getting gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. One thicker variety of gazpacho is salmorejo; think of it as the delicious lovechild of normal tomato soup and traditional gazpacho.
Barcelona is well known for its paella. Common at village festivals, this rice-based dish can be flavored with pork, seafood, veggies, snails, and whatever mystery meat is found in the freezer that week—it really doesn’t matter. Just cook up some rice, let it marinade for forever (at least all day) with whatever flavoring suits you best, and you’re done!
No matter what you eat, your primary goal in Spain should probably to get your hands (and tongue) on some jamón ibérico. In simple terms, it’s Spanish ham. But there is so much more to it than that. The ibérico pigs are treated like royalty, allowed to roam the countryside stuffing their fat faces with acorns for two years. After being butchered, the ham is salted and cured for two years, during which time it loses at least 20% of its weight and gains about 400% of its monetary value. Make it your life goal to find some of that thinly sliced piece of heaven.
Sangria is Spain’s drink much the same way that a vodka Red Bull is America’s—it gets you drunk, and most people would never drink it in the light of day. It’s made by mixing wine with fruit juice and whatever cheap liquor one can easily acquire. Usually it’s rum, bourbon, and whiskey. Yes, we meant to say “and,” not “or.” Think of it as the Spanish version of frat boy punch. Another way to utilize bad wine? Tinto de verano—“red wine of summer.” Just take the old/cheap/bad-tasting wine you have/found/made and mix it with some lemon soda. Mix it with Coke, and you have a kalimotxo. The hotter the day, the more mixer you use, and you’ve got yourself a refreshing summer drink.
If beer is more your thing, Spain isn’t famous for its selection. Most bars will just have one beer on tap, and it will most likely be a Mahou, though Cruzcampo and San Miguel are also popular. In Catalonia the standard is Estrella Damm.
Limited mainly to Barcelona and nearby cities during the final decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, the modernista movement threw splashes of color and trippy architectural motifs all over Catalonia. Its most famous innovator is undoubtedly Antoni Gaudí.
Volatile, emotional, always in need of a muse, Picasso is everything we expect a painter to be. Picasso is credited with starting the Cubism movement, commonly called the “What the heck is happening in this painting?” movement, and made a tremendous political statement with Guernica in 1937, depicting the bombing of civilians by fascists during the Civil War.
Heavily influenced by Picasso, Joan Miró moved the 20th century into Surrealism. An unsmiling man always dressed in somber suits, he took his work very seriously. Not that one could really tell. His playful colors and simple forms bring to mind children’s artwork. Look closely though, and there is a certain dark feeling to his work that stays with you.
There’s no way to have a conversation on surrealism without the movement’s star: Salvador Dalí. With a moustache to die for, greased back hair, and always in a suit, Dalí was a character whose ultimate goal was to get at the greater reality of man’s subconscious. Most famous for his painting The Persistence of Memory, (a dorm room favorite) Dalí did much more than paint. He did everything from sculptures to book illustrations to jewelry design. Judging by all the photos we found of him, he also enjoyed intensely staring people down and walking his pet anteater and his ocelot, Babou.
Barcelona loves to party. The city operates on a seemingly endless festival schedule. To get you started, here are a few of our favorites.
A more intelligent, civil alternative to Valentine’s Day, this festival celebrates both St. George (the dragon-slayer and patron saint of Barcelona) and commemorates the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes. On this day, Barcelona gathers along Las Ramblas in search of flowers and books to give to lovers.
These days light a special fire in every pyromaniac’s heart as fireworks, bonfires, and torches light the city and waterfront in celebration of the coming of summer.
This week is the biggest LGBT celebration in the Mediterranean, and Catalunya is no exception. Multiple venues throughout the region take active part in the festival, which culminates with a parade through “Geixample” and a festival.
Festa Major is a community festival in Gràcia during which artsy intellectuals put on performances and fun events in preparation for the Assumption of the Virgin. Expect parades, concerts, floats, arts and crafts, live music, dancing, and, of course, parties.
Catalunya’s national holiday celebrates the end of the Siege of Barcelona in 1714 as well as the reclaiming of national—whoops, we mean regional—identity after the death of Franco. Parties are thrown, flags are waved, and Estrella Damm is imbibed—lots of Estrella Damm.
This massive outpouring of joy for one of Barcelona’s patron saints (Our Lady of Mercy) is the city’s main annual celebration. More than 600 free performances take place in multiple venues. There is also a castellers competition in the Pl. Sant Jaume; competitors attempt to build castells (literally “castles,” but in this case human towers) several humans high, which small children clad in helmets and courage then attempt to climb.
Although Barcelona technically has two fútbol teams, Fútbol Club Barcelona (FCB) and the Real Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona (RCD), you can easily go weeks in the city without hearing mention of the latter. It’s impossible to miss the former, though, and with good reason. Besides being a really incredible athletic team, FCB lives up to its motto as “more than a club.”
During the years of Francisco Franco, FCB was forced to change its name and crest in order to avoid nationalistic references to Catalunya and thereafter became a rallying point for oppressed Catalan separatists. The original name and crest were reinstated after Franco’s fall in 1974, and the team retained its symbolic importance; it’s still seen as a sign of democracy, Catalan identity, and regional pride.
This passion is not merely patriotic or altruistic, though—FCB has been one of the best teams in the world in recent years. In 2009, they were the first team to win six out of six major competitions in a single year; in 2010, they won Spain’s Super Cup trophy; in 2010 and in 2011, FCB took Spain’s La Liga trophy; and in 2011, they beat Manchester United to win the UEFA Champion’s League, cementing their status as the best club in the world. Their world-class training facilities (a legacy of the 1992 Olympics) supply many World Cup competitors each year, leaving some Barcelonans annoyed that Catalunya is not permitted to compete as its own nation, much like England, Wales, and Scotland do in the United Kingdom. In fact, Spain’s 2010 World Cup victory disappointed much of the Catalonian populous and many die-hard FCB fanatics.
Because FCB fervor is so pervasive, you don’t need to head to their stadium, the Camp Nou, to join in the festivities—almost every bar off the tourist track boasts a screen dedicated to their games. Kick back with a brew and be sure not to root for the competition.
It’s probably best to fully adapt to “Spanish time,” or you might end up missing out on most of what Spain has to offer. Besides the little things, like being 15-20min. late for meetings or events, the Spanish basically overhaul their entire day’s schedule to better fit their night-owl lifestyle.
A prime example: meals. Lunches don’t happen before 1pm; most occur around 2pm and are usually followed by a siesta, during which most businesses will close. As for the evening, Spain is not constrained by any of the Puritan influences that Americans have to deal with—nothing closes at 2am and you can buy alcohol well after 11pm (looking at you, Boston).
How does this work, you might wonder? Let us walk you through a normal day. Wake up around 9am and eat a light breakfast. Work until lunch around 2pm, take a siesta, then head back to work from around 4 or 5pm until 8 or 9pm. Dinner is usually around 10 or 11pm. For the younger crowd, the bars only get interesting around midnight or 1am, and clubs only around 2 or 3am. Dance until 5 or 6am, stumble home to your bed, and get ready to wake up and do it all over again.
You’ve probably realized by now that Spain is a pretty divided country, meaning that Spaniards have a huge sense of pride in their home neighborhoods and regions. In fact, many of them would probably be pretty insulted that we keep writing “Spaniards.” Consider them Catalans/Basques/Andalusians/Romani/Madrileños first and Spaniards second.
Another tip? Avoid discussing the Spanish Civil War unless you know for sure which side the family of the person to whom you are speaking was on. Same goes for soccer. Unless you know with certainty that your audience is full of Barça supporters, you might want to hold off on describing the last game in excruciating detail.
Spaniards are very clothing-conscious: don’t expect to see anyone out in old sweats doing their errands. For tourists, these guidelines might not matter as long as you don’t mind being pegged as an out-of-towner. Proper church attire is a must. Wearing shorts or miniskirts while visiting churches and cathedrals is often not allowed and is always just plain rude. Women must have their shoulders covered, which may be the only real reason to ever wear a shrug. As a rule, keep it classy.
Meals in Spain are nothing to joke about. The Spanish eat late, and they’re serious about their food. Given the schedule that Spaniards keep, breakfast is rarely eaten at home and is hardly considered a meal. To make up for it, lunches and dinners are practically small holidays. Expect constant conversation and a lively atmosphere. Like everything else Spanish, the cuisine depends largely on what region of Spain you’re in. So sit back, pour yourself some tinto, and prepare to drool at the best that Spain has to offer.