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.
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.
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.
WARNING: 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!
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!
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.
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.