Barcelona, despite being the most touristed city in Europe, is still my favorite place to travel in Europe (other than Amsterdam, which was my home for 11 years). Why? It has good weather (for Europe), very low prices (for Europe), good food, sea, mountains, wonderful neighborhoods and architecture, including plenty of my favorite kind – late 19th century and early 20th century in the very large neighborhood called Eixample (pronounced Uh-SHAHM-pluh in Catalan). In the height of summer however, the amount of tourists is so overwhelming that I would want to avoid the medieval core of the city altogether, so for a first time in Barcelona I think May or September is a better bet.
The main street through the medieval core is called La Rambla and although you may find yourself walking it once, you’ll want to avoid it. Definitely do not eat there as restaurants and cafés are tourist traps. However, one side of La Rambla is the Born neighborhood, which is the upscale part of the medieval core, and well worth exploring at quieter times. Also the Boqueria market is on La Rambla which is a must-see, but again, go at a quiet time. On the other side of La Rambla is the El Raval neighborhood, also medieval, and full of more recent immigrants, particularly from Arab countries, Africa, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
I tend to stay in Eixample within walking distance of the grand Passeig de Gràcia, which is full of the major Spanish and European upscale chain shops for clothing and household items.
I love just walking around the central neighborhoods that are quieter like Sant Antoni and Poble Sec and just enjoying the atmosphere, the trees, the cafés.
In summary, for a short stay, choose from the following short list:
- A stroll along the Passeig de Gràcia (upscale chain stores for shopping, cafés, admire Gaudi’s building “Casa Batlló”
- Wander through the Born neighborhood from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the Plaça Reial and visit the Boqueria market – you will see La Rambla along the way – you must do this at as early in the morning as possible as the crowds are awful in the afternoons
- Visit the individual Gaudi works La Sagrada Familia church (2.5 km from Plaça de Catalunya) and my personal favorite, Parc Güell (a park, 4 km from Plaça de Catalunya) – you will probably want to take the subway, bus or a taxi
- Walk the busy but wide boardwalk along Barceloneta beach which is immediately adjacent to the central area. Stop for a drink at one of the many beachfront cafés or have a meal at Aqua restaurant (be sure to reserve during peak times)
- Enjoy an aimless stroll in a neighborhood such as the Eixample, Sant Antoni, Poble Sec
- Visit the Miró museum (the “other” great surreal artist besides Dalí) on top of Montjuic mountain – you can also admire a castle or two and some of the Olympic venues. There is a fun and slightly scary old teleférico (aerial tramway) that will take you to the old city and Barceloneta beach from here, but the wait can be very long during tourist season.
My restaurant list is not very extensive (just what I know):
- Cerveceria Catalana for good tapas; however you really cannot go at lunchtime (say 1-4) or dinnertime (say 7-11) because the waits are very long. Carrer Mallorca 236 at Rambla de Catalunya
- for Basque tapas, Sagardi’s tapas bar (not its restaurant), Carrer Muntaner 70
- for a casual restaurant meal, Bosque Palermo, Carrer Valencia 163
- Me, for upscale but casual world fusion cuisine, Carrer Paris 162 at Muntaner, catarsiscuisine.com
- Agua, on Barceloneta beach, elegant but casual: Passeig Maritim 30, tel. 932251272
The language you see on most signs is Catalan, which is close to Spanish but many words are more like French or Italian; it is not as some people believe a “mix” of Spanish and French but rather an old language with its own history and culture.
However, in the city, a slight majority actually has Spanish as a native language and is the more common language of communication. I have never had any issue whatsoever speaking Spanish in Barcelona, although I have heard this is completely different outside the city. Of course many or most people in the more touristed areas know English to some extent.
Favorite hotels is the Cram as it’s well priced, in Eixample and near the Passeig de Gracia.