Yeah, I know, we all want to the concierge at the W to snag us a great table at Tickets where they take reservations two months in advance. I also want a talking French Bulldog name Paco, but let’s be real.
This isn’t how most of us travel and because there is so much more to see and do in Barcelona, and you aren’t missing much if you take a different approach. Barcelona has been experiencing a tourist boom that is actually doing more harm than good, as it has become increasingly impossible to get into any attractions or highly rated restaurants without lining up for hours, booking a year in advance and selling your first born to pay for all “skip the line” type tours. My first tip is to go in the winter time. Come on, we are Canadians so don’t even start with the “it’s cooooold in the winter”. The average February daytime temperature in Barcelona is between 11°C and 15°C which is a gorgeous spring day for us. You will find fewer crowds, fewer lines, cheaper prices and more accessibility to places that would be impossible to visit in June.
Honestly, it’s cheaper and way more fun to stay in an apartment in a more residential neighbourhood so you can pretend you live there for a few days. You can buy Iberico ham and cheese and cava and keep it in your fridge, sip vermouth on your little balcony and yell “HOLA” to people passing by below on their way home from work. For the price of a tiny, European hotel room you can rent a gorgeous 1 bedroom apartment with a terrace.
Tapas – tapas and pinchos are offered just about everywhere but that doesn’t mean that great tapas are served everywhere. When wandering, look for places that are full of people who are NOT screeching in English, German or French while they play sword with their toothpicks.
Mercat de Sant Jesep de la Boqueria – Yeah, you have to cross Las Ramblas to get there but it’s well worth it and, yes, these two spots are also on every list, including Anthony Bourdain’s, but for very good reason so suck it up- put up with lines and go! Hold your purse tight, keep your pockets empty and run across the Rambla, quick like a bunny to get there. This should be the only time you spend on Las Ramblas. Go first thing in the morning and swing by Pinotxo Bar for a glass of breakfast cava and a plate of their Garbanzos con Morcilla y Espinacas or Chickpeas with Black Pudding and Spinach. Follow that up with a cortado and some pastry.
Now, walk around, grab a ham cone and have a look at all of the beautiful produce, meat, fish, candy, dried delights and make your way to the other MUST in the market, El Quim and order a plate of Fried Eggs with Baby Squids. Trust me. This is the ultimate breakfast of champions here. Consider a second cava, a small glass of beer or a sherry. It IS the morning, after all.
Mercado de Santa Caterina is a great option if you want something smaller, and a bit off the tourist grid – Stop at Barcelona institution Bar Joan for cheap, traditional tapas.
Barri Gotic, Raval and El Born – You can spend a couple days just getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow, winding streets of these neighbourhoods but at least you will always have ample access to great coffee, drinks and food. To me, this is the heart of the city so if you can’t explore any other neighbourhoods, start here. Then, if time permits, move on to Gracia, Eixample, Barceloneta if it’s hot and you are a beach person, Poble Sec and Sant Antoni.
EATING & DRINKING:
Just so you know, these are the mealtimes in Spain:
Breakfast: 7:00 am to 9:00 am breakfast
Almuerzo (mid morning snack): 10:30 am to 11:00 am
La Comida (lunch): 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm
La hora del aperitivo (tapas time): 8:30pm to 10:00 pm
La Cena (dinner): 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm
Don’t get all hung up on eating Paella (Valencia in the undisputed home of paella) here when there is so much amazing Catalan food to devour. Venture out and try Calçots, Romesco, Pa Amb Tomàquet (pan con tomato in Castellano), Excalivada, Butifarra, Fideuas and Crema Catalana. Remember, these are the Catalan names and although many restaurants will also have Spanish menus on hand, be prepared to set your iTranslate or Google translate app to Catalan. Lunch is the main meal of the day so get the menu del dia, pig out, have some drinks and save the evening for tapas and a light dinner – I will say that, because we don’t eat like this, most North Americans are happy to eat a big, late lunch, go out for tapas and skip any sort of dinner altogether.
Hidden away on a little side street in the Gothic area, Pla’s menu del dia is a steal at 14 Euro and let me tell you, their salad was one of the best salads I have ever had in my life. It is the perfect mix of modern, playful cooking techniques applied to more traditional Catalan dishes that is not pretentious or precious, much more affordable than you would expect and, most importantly, delicious. Start with a cava and finish with a vermouth and plan the rest of your day. This restaurant has a larger, sister restaurant but I prefer this smaller, more intimate place.
Old school Catalan at The Taverna El Glop and make sure you order the calcots if they are in season. Giant, sweet, green onions on steroids are char grilled and served with romesco sauce. You pull the charred, outer skin off, dip the soft insides into the sauce and then lower the whole thing in your mouth. This is messy business so make sure you are wearing something dark or, perhaps, wear a disposable rain poncho.
Tapeo Bar is my favourite place to share plates, modern tapas, lovely wine list, great service, it’s charming. If you suffer from table anxiety, you can make a reservation ahead of time as it is really tiny. This entire area is full of fun bars so just continue to bar hop until everything closes for the night. There is also a larger, sister restaurant that is always packed but we were very, very happy at the smaller bar.
Bar Mundial is a place to come as much for the experience as for the food.This El Born staple has been slinging solid tapas since 1925 and I don’t think it’s been renovated since, which only adds to it’s charm. Food is straightforward, drinks are refilled promptly and service is lively and friendly.
Grab a taxi (download the Mytaxi app) and mosey on over to the Poble-Sec neighbourhood to cruise Carerr de Blai. There, you can bar hop, share tapas and drinks in old timey bodegas that sit next to hip little bars. Be prepared to belly up to the bar to grab your own pintxos (keep the toothpicks – it’s how they keep track of what you eat) or yell your tapa order to the bartender and eat and drink standing up like the locals. These places get really crowded but that is part of the fun. Don’t be shy. Try to hit Blai 9, La Tasqueta de Blai and the Barcelona institution that is right around the corner, Quimet & Quimet – this place is insanely popular, they don’t take reservations and thanks to Anthony Bourdain, you will basically have to use all of your rugby skills in there but it’s worth it.
El Xampanyet is the place to go have tapas, cheap cava and vermouth with old guys since the 1930’s.
Going into every one of Gaudi’s buildings adds up as they are all around 25-30 Euro each so choose wisely. If you can only do one, do the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s still unfinished church. Pay for early morning entrance to La Sagrada Familia with a trip up a Nativity tower get tickets online in advance as it sells out quickly. If you can only fit in one interior Gaudi, this is the one.
You can follow this up with a visit to Park Guell – you must also buy your timed entrance tickets to get into the best part of the park.
If you have more time and a big budget, Casa Batlló is next and third under appreciated, dark lord fortress of Palau Guell in Raval (the inside makes up for the terrifying exterior). Not interested in the park? Go shopping in the heart of Gracia and hit Carerr Verdi, Carrer Torrijos and Gran de Gracia.
25 Euros gets you a drink and some moves at Flamenco at Palau Dalmases for an hour of wonderful flamenco in a Baroque palace from the 17th century. It feels less gimmicky than most of the other productions and you don’t have to eat overpriced, mediocre food in order to enjoy the show.
You don’t need me to recommend the obvious hop on and off tours, or tapas tours because those are a dime a dozen and you only need to check Trip Advisor for that, but these tours were remarkable, I learned so much that I knew nothing about and would take both of them again.
Runner Bean City of Contrast tour led by Catherine Howell – an exploration of the history of El Raval, only done as a private tour and worth every penny.
Runner Bean also offers other great tours as well as free walking tours that only require a tip to the guide.
Intensive 5 hour group Spanish Civil War tour by the guy who, literally, wrote the book, Nick Lloyd. For serious history buffs only.