5 Best & Essential Things To Do In Barcelona! An Insider’s Guide.

After living in Barcelona for 2 life-changing years, Ben Holbrook shares his personal recommendations on the best things to do and see in this sun-drenched city.

This is the same advice I would give my best friends when they came to stay in Barcelona – this is my insider’s guide

1. Placa Reial – Music, Palm Trees, Restaurants & Good Times

A beautiful square located just off Las Ramblas, it’s a must see for anyone looking for traditional Spanish and Catalan restaurants in Barcelona. Placa Reial (Royal Plazza) is also home to some of Barcelona’s best nightclubs. Check out Sidecar for live bands and indie rock music or head over to Jambore for pumping hip-hop and dance classics, you can also catch some live Flamenco performances here, but it’s worth mentioning that Flamenco is not a Catalan tradition. In fact, it comes from the south of Spain, and the Catalans will expect you to know that.

My friends and I used to grab a street beer from the guys in the street (never pay more than 1.50 for a street beer in Barcelona) and sit on the fountain in the centre of the square. We’d spend hours just sitting there, enjoying the atmosphere.

Placa Reial (Plaza Real) Barcelona - Square off La Ramblas

2. Get Lost in El Born & El Gotico

El Gotico and El Born are home to some of Europe’s most beautiful and oldest streets. Even after living there for 2 years I would still get lost in the windy streets and stumble on something new. Quirky little cafes, bars and shops make these areas the ideal place to spend an afternoon and get a feel for the real Barcelona. Both El Born & El Gotico are dirty, smelly and sometimes dangerous, but nothing can compare to these rustic streets. You simply cannot say that you’ve seen Barcelona until you’ve seen, and got lost in, these ancient streets.
Amazing Graffiti in the back streets of El Born and El Gotico in Barcelona

 

3. Kick Back, Grab a Drink and Relax at One of Barcelona’s Beaches

Barcelona is one of Europe’s best beach cities. In fact, I think it won some kind of award for that very title, and it deserves it. There’s a beach for everyone and almost anything goes.

Barceloneta is the most popular beach in town. It’s incredibly over-crowded and you’ll be lucky to get a space to stretch out, however, this is where all the action is. Chiringuitos (beach bars) pump out loud reggae music and people sip on expensive Mojitos (5-10 Euros). Young people from all over the world show off their toned bodies and smoke strong cigarettes (among other things) and the constant buzz of beach life makes it impossible not to feel excited.

Barceloneta Beach lifeguard in the SummerWARNING: The huge amount of tourists at Bareloneta attract the city’s best pick-pockets. DO NOT leave your bag, even for a second, not even to go to the toilet or to go in the sea. I’ve also seen pick-pockets’ hands in tourists’ bags on the metro – take extra care on the “yellow” metro line. 

Once you’ve experienced Barceloneta take a walk along the promenade that takes you to almost all of Barcelona’s best beaches. You’ll see the scene change as you get further away from Barceloneta. Locals play volleyball near Port Olimpica and some of the wilder beach-goers make the most of the nudist beach, Marbella. In fact, nudity is legal at all of Barcelona’s beaches, and in the city too. You may even see the elephant man and his friends, who seem to hang out (literally) across the city all summer. They’ve got some great tans!

A close up of a bright red can of Estrella Damm on the beaches of Barceloneta, Barcelona

 

4. Get High on a Rooftop Terrace

There are countless rooftop terraces in Barcelona, the problem is, nobody knows where they are! They tend to be located at the top of Barcelona’s exclusive hotels and they like to keep it that way – exclusive and elusive. When you find one, you’ll probably find a sign that says that their rooftop terraces and pools are only for the use of their guests. In reality, however, things are a little more flexible. Admittedly, the staff won’t let in groups of lads on tour, or rowdy hen groups, but if you’re dressed decently and introduce yourself politely they will welcome you to their hidden paradise. 

My personal recommendation is to head to Hotel 1898 toward the top end of La Rambla (it’s on the right, above Starbucks). Jump in the lift next to reception and go up to floor 7. You will come out directly on the rooftop terrace, next to the bar. Order a drink, or ask where you can sit, and they will provide you with a menu. I ordered a Heineken for 6 Euros and Sylvie had a glass of Cava, complete with strawberry garnish, which was also 6 Euros. The waiter asked us if we had a room number but didn’t seem at all bothered when I said “no”. Despite the signs in the hotel which say that the terrace and rooftop pool are only to be used by guests, nobody stopped or questioned us and we made the most of the epic views across the Barcelona skyline. 

We were clearly the only “non-residents” at the pool and I couldn’t help but wonder who these lucky people were. They were obviously very rich but, at the end of the day, we were living the same dream at a total cost of 12 Euros!
Rooftop Terrace at Hotel 1898 on Las Ramblas Barcelona with the views of the city in the background

5. Escape to Sitges (Only 20 Minutes From Barcelona)

Barcelona has it all, but if you feel the need to get away from the city and go where the locals go for a holiday, then cute but classy Sitges is a must. Jump on the metro and head to Sants Estacio, then get the Renfe train to Sitges. You can use your T10 metro card (although technically you shouldn’t) and you’ll be in Sitges in 20 minutes. Even though it’s so close to the city, it has a completely different vibe. It’s clean and chic and you’ll totally understand why this is where the rich and famous Spaniards have their holiday homes. The broad board-walks are lined with tall palm trees and rows and rows of classic cafes and restaurants. The bars are surprisingly cheap considering the wealth this town attracts, but you may as well grab a couple of cold ones from a corner shop and hit the beach – the views are even better!

You may also notice that Sitges is somewhat of a gay haven and the town is full of flamboyant gay bars and clubs. The town frequently erupts into extravagant festivals and the legendary Sitges Carnival is something I will never tire of. Sitges is simply amazing and has to be seen to be believed.

girls cycling along the promenade in Sitges Barcelona

People celebrating Catalonia day in Sitges, Barcelona

Recommended Accommodation in Barcelona
People always ask me where they should stay in Barcelona and my answer is always the same: Rent an apartment!

It often works out much cheaper than staying in a hotel and allows you to really get a feel for “living” in this sun-drenched city. Having your own kitchen also means you can buy local produce from the markets and enjoy it whenever you feel like.

Check out Waytostay.com for a huge selection of apartment rentals in the city. They’re based in the city centre and have a genuine passion for the service they offer – I totally recommend them.

About Ben Holbrook

I set up this blog after moving to Barcelona and falling head over heels in love with Spain. Follow me and get my insider travel tips on the best things to see and do across Spain and the rest of Europe, as well as my personal recommendations on where to eat, drink and be merry in all the right places! Follow me for more insider top tips > www.twitter.com/ben_holbrook
This entry was posted in Barcelona, Barcelona Photography, Europe, Spain, Things to Do in Barcelona, Travel, Travel Photography, Urban Adventures and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to 5 Best & Essential Things To Do In Barcelona! An Insider’s Guide.

  1. Colin Lewis says:

    Great Review of Barcelona and surrounding areas Ben, in fact as good as any I’ve read on any travel web site, Swansea needs you to boost it’s travel awareness, so don’t stay away too long.

  2. GerryS says:

    Going to Spain in the fall. Good info, THX

  3. Belle says:

    Ben: thanks for this. You really just made me fall in love with Barceloma. Question for you. Will this be a good place to take my 13yr old. I promised her I’d love to give her the gift of traveling around the world. She turns 13 this year and looking for something fun but with a historical or humanitarian or learning experience imbedded in at some point. Was thinking Barcelona. Any thoughts or anywhere else you can suggest?

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hi Belle, thanks for the comment.

      I think , as Spanish cities go, Barcelona could quite easily be the most ‘child-friendly’.

      You’ve got all the beaches and promenades for playing/swimming/cycling/roller-blading/skateboarding etc. The architecture is magical and, I would imagine, relatively interesting for youngsters. There are ice-cream and waffle stops on every corner and enough variety of food that you won’t struggle with picky eaters. Although I’m not a big fan of La Ramblas (too touristy), it is a good place to find all kinds of food. Not just tapas.

      Maremagnum, at the marina of Port Vell, has an IMAX theatre, an aquarium with shops/restaurants. And it’s only a stone’s throw away from Barceloneta beach and La Ramblas.

      Parc de la Ciutadella is also a great place for kids and adults alike. There are huge fountains, a boating lake and the Arc de Triomph (just like the one in Paris) as well as Barcelona Zoo and other museums that focus on the city’s history and wildlife. La Sagrada Familia (which I used to be able to see from my bedroom window) is an incredible experience for all ages, although I wouldn’t necessarily wait in line to enter – seeing it from the outside would probably suffice a youthful mind. Parc Guell, in the north, is a fantastic way to burn some energy and experience the best of Gaudi’s work, whilst enjoying panoramic views of the city. For Catalonia’s answer to Disney Land, adventure up to Tibidabo in the mountains. It’s different in all the right ways!

      In regards to going out at night, I would avoid La Raval and the areas around Las Ramblas, which can become a little too alternative at night. Stick to neighbourhood bars near where you are staying or, better yet, head up to Gracia and enjoy the more family-friendly vibes of their squares and open-air restaurants and bars.

      In short…
      Barcelona is probably one of the best Spanish cities to visit with kids/teenagers – there are lots of fun things to do and the history is colourful enough to capture the imaginations’ of all ages. This becomes even more apparent when you compare it to the likes of Madrid, for example, which could be a little too stiff for younger people.

      Be careful in the later hours and when travelling on the metro – thieves can spot a tourist a mile off, and they are incredibly talented at what they do. Also, be careful when exploring the Born and Gotico areas, if you get separated in those streets it can be VERY difficult to find each other again, even if you both have cell phones!

      I hope this helps – please don’t hesitate to ask me any other questions you may have!

      ~ Ben

      • Sue George says:

        Great information – thank you. We’re off for our first visit with our 12 and 10 year old and this has been the best info I’ve found.

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  5. Vicky says:

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for all the info, I am going in June with some friends for 4 nights and i found your reviews very helpfull as you advise on little things and details a tourist would never know about.
    I do have two questions though and hoping you can help:
    1. Apart from Las Ramblas which i guess is the most touristy place for tapas, which other area or tapas bars would you reccomend for food? Anything casual that gives u the real feel of the culture would be great.
    2. Is there anywhere in Barcelona where you can hear live spanish guitar music? not flamengo obviously since it is not originated from catalunya.
    Thank you .

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey Vicky, thanks for your comment. Here are my answers to your very good questions :)

      Yes, stay away from La Ramblas, although El Born and El Gotico are close by and offer plenty of tapas bars – still a little bit touristy.

      1. For tapas with the locals, I would recommend going to….

      Gracia in the north of the city (green metro line to Fontana), look for the little squares and terraces that are filled with ugly silver tables and chairs, they are where the locals go for cheap beer and good tapas. Remember, tapas isn’t really a fancy affair. My favourite area of Gracia would have to be Plaça de Sol; it’s a small square full of colourful, traditional Spanish/Catalan buildings, bars and a very local vibe (but still warm and friendly). Any of the bars or restaurants here will serve great tapas. What’s more, it really comes alive at night and there are a few little nightclubs close by which are a lot of fun – I had my 27th birthday here.

      For something a little more formal, check out my other post: Top 3 ‘Non-Touristy’ Barcelona Restaurants.

      2. Live Spanish guitar music….

      Let’s see. When you think of Spanish guitar music, you are basically thinking of music which has little to do with Catalonia. This means it can be hard to find in Barcelona, but you can find it. Personally, I would head down to El Gotico (the old part of the town to the left of La Rambla) at night. The best Spanish guitar players often come here to play to passersby as they stroll through the narrow, ancient streets.They’re pretty much there as soon as the sun goes down – just follow the music.

      Another good spot for free live music is outside the Cathedral at the bottom of Portal de l’Àngel (the road that runs parallel to La Rambla). I used to go there every Sunday and there’d always be live music on the go. There are also lots of nice terraces and tapas bars to choose from, so it might be ideal for you guys.

      • Vicky says:

        Thank you Ben, very helpful and detailed indeed :) i surely will take loads of your suggestions. Take care and keep us posted :)))

  6. jennie says:

    Hi Ben,
    We are taking a Med cruise with a 12 and 14 yr old and have one day in Port at Barcelona. We love food, cool (and somewhat safe!) streets and beaches. Can you recommend the best of those things in the 10 hours we have on shore? :)

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hi Jennie,

      Sounds like a great trip you’ve got planned!

      You can see a lot of Barcelona in 10 hours, here’s what you don’t want to miss.

      1. Passege de Gracia > Stroll up La Rambla as quick as you can, walk across Plaça de Catalunya (the big square in the centre of Barcelona) and then onto Passege de Gracia. This is one of the streets in Barcelona which I think best sums up Barcelona’s unique, bohemian/extrovert style. Its bold Art Nouveau/Gothic/Gaudi architecture is truly awesome and it’s here that you’ll take your best Barcelona snaps! The kids’ll love it too!

      2. El Born > As you stroll back down Passege de Gracia (definitely worth seeing for the second time) towards the sea, head to Barcelona’s oldest streets and enjoy tapas and vino/milkshakes in one of El Born’s many bars and restaurants. It’s only a short, but very picturesque, walk back to the beaches where you’ll find oodles of fun.

      3. Beaches > All of the beaches are great but I would recommend the strip next to Port Olympica if you want more space to relax and for the kids to run riot. There’s also a McDonalds nearby, which is great if they aren’t digging the local delicacies.

      Basically, there’s so much to do immediately next to the ports that there’s no need to worry about using the Metro or any other public transport. Trust me, as soon as you get off the ship it’ll all be there, waiting for you to enjoy.

      Have a fantastic time! ~ Ben

  7. Agnes says:

    Hi Ben,
    Do you know by nay chance a good accomodation option in Barcelona?
    I am planning city break at the beginning of June and have no idea where I could find not too expensive, but conveninetly locateted to city centre hotels or B&Bs?
    Could you also please recommend good night club for Saturday night?
    Many thanks

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey Agnes – If you are looking for a hostel then I would definitely try Hostelbookers.com.

      If you are feeling adventurous then I would search Loquo.es and look for Barcelona locals that are privately renting out rooms or whole apartments (pisos). This may be tricky if you don’t speak good Spanish, but there are always lots of English-speaking locals offering affordable accommodation, too.

      Failing that, I would try Airbnb.com where you can find beautiful apartments to rent across Barcelona for very good prices. I just booked an apartment in Valencia with these guys.

      And of course, if money is no option I would stay in one of the many beautiful hotels on Passege de Gracia (or anywhere near Placa Catalunya) – these are centrally located and great for seeing the city. And there’s also the W Hotel, which is the iconic beach hotel where Shakira filmed the video for her hit, “Loca”. Have an incredible time in BCN! Saludos ~ Ben

  8. Simon says:

    Hi Ben,

    We are 3 of us guys from Dubai who are planning to go to barcelona for 3 nights and then to ibiza for 3 nights. Other than the 5 points you mentioned above do you have any idea of what 3 single guys can do in barcelona and secondly do yo have any idea about Ibiza?

  9. Lauren says:

    One of the best sites with recommendations! Thank you

  10. Madison says:

    Hey Ben! Thank you for your journal – it seems like a cool idea!:) think i’m definitely gna do hotel 1898 enjoyin the terrace if the weather allows :) I am goin’ there by myself soon in june about 3 days. Since i’m a girl, i’m lil bit afraid where would be the best place to stay like from las ramblas to el gotico.

    Where would be the best place you would recommend?

    Also, would there be somethin’ that i could enjoy as a single?haha i would love to have my own time there – im thinkin’ maybe i should go at least a day in the beach getting some tans! and i love art, music, and fashion – def thinkin’ bout chillin’ at las ramblas as well :) thanks

  11. Great review of Barcelona… the beach really is amazing. I just spend 2 weeks in Barcelona and I was there most days.

    I’d love to stay longer and really get to know the city. Any idea what the job scene is like for a native English speaker without a lick of Spanish speaking ability? Slim I guess?

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey Andrew – glad you had a good time, thanks for your comment. I’m still missing it like crazy, even two years after leaving! Jobs are tough in Barcelona, even if you speak 10 languages! But it all depends on what you want to do. English teaching is possible but very competitive and you’ll need to get trained. But good luck!

      Ben

  12. Libby Murray says:

    I can’t tell you how amazing these reviews are!! Defiantly best page I found. I’ve spent the past week in banyoles training with my rowing team. Before we head home we have all day Saturday in Barcelona. By all day I mean 10am to 5am, (we are staying until we leave for our flight).

    What are the ideal places to hit in one day and what should we do during the day and the night? Sorry for this loaded question, but any insight would be great!

  13. Mudit says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great info and helps a great deal with my travel dilemmas! i am planning a trip this October. I really want to see some beautiful countryside, Bullfighting (in short authentic non-urban spain). Does Barcelona have some day trips or should I choose Madrid or any other port of entrance in Spain?

    Thanks a ton in advance!

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Gracias Mudit, very kind of you.

      The first thing I think you need to be aware of is that bullfighting is banned in Catalonia, so you won’t find it anywhere near Barcelona. In fact, Barcelona’s bullring has been turned into a shopping centre.

      I have been to a bullfight in Madrid and it was a pretty crazy/authentic experience. I would recommend it, but be prepared for some serious gore. I’ve never seen so much blood and it really is a very cruel “sport”. In fact, I feel bad “recommending it”, but I understand the desire to experience culture. The man in front of me collapsed because it was so gruesome and they had to call and ambulance.

      If you do go to Madrid in October, be prepared for some mediocre weather. Unlike Barcelona and other cities further south, Madrid can get quite cold and wet, but I’m very much in love with it and truly believe it’s worth a trip.

      Join me on Facebook and let me know if I can help with anything else!

      Adeu colega! :)

      Ben

  14. Barry Charles says:

    Well intentioned, but probably the worst insider guide I have ever seen. I am staying in ElBorn which is the highly yuppy and one of the safest areas in the city. In what world would it be considered dangerous? Compare El Born to the characters you might meet late at night around Las Ramblas or the alleyways by Placa Real. Weird advice.

    Two years in town and your insider pick is Placa Real, one of the most touristy and annoying places in the city? You couldn’t have found a couple of cool bars to suggest that are off the beaten path? I’ve been here for ten days and i can do better than that. This city is teeming with nondescript doorways that lead to cool/semi secret spots.

    Come on, Ben, you are holding out, man!:)

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Thanks for the comment, Barry! You seem like just the kind of person I’d like to go for a beer with.

      Well, What can I say, I’m sure you can indeed do much better. How about I give you a platform to show off your skills?

      I’ll look forward to seeing your tips right here when you get a chance.

      Warmest regards,

      Ben

  15. Niati says:

    Wow. This is one of the most detailed reviews I’ve found yet. Thanks:)

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  17. Danny says:

    Hi,
    Great info for planning a trip. Bit of a random question, do you know of any specific places, areas which would be a great setting for an engagement photography shoot? Something architectural, parks, streets, funky areas ect.
    Any help would be awesome
    Thanks

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey hey Danny! Good to hear from you!

      I would suggest:

      El Born and Gotico for gritty street photos

      Tibidabo for epic mountains and views over the city and ocean (also see Parc Guell and Montjuic for more of this)

      An check out the terrace of the W Hotel, on the beach, for epic beach/ocean shots.

      Hope that helps!

      Saludos,

      Ben

  18. Elisa says:

    Very informative tips! Thanks for posting. Could you please help with a query I’ve got?
    We will be in barcelona at the end of August for 5 days & would like to know if accomodation in Barceloneta would suit our family of 2 adults & 2kids – 4 yrs & 4 months old. I can’t quite get my bearings in terms of where its located so I’m unsure if it’ll be too noisy at nights due to tourists & whatnot ? Although we are planning on eating out every night & not returning till late, we don’t want too much commotion. Thanks:)

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hola Elisa,

      Thanks for getting in touch! If you’ve got kids and you want lots of space, I’d recommend getting your own apartment. There are loads of great places near the beach and it’ll work out cheaper because the hotels in that area are super high-end. Check out Waytostay.com – they’re based in the city and seem to have the best selection.

      Barceloneta is noisy and touristy, but at the same time, it’s probably as noisy as anywhere else, and they build the apartments there to block out the noise.

      Hope that helps! Let me know how it goes. Ben

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