After living in this sun-drenched city for 3 life-changing years, Ben Holbrook shares his personal recommendations on the very best things to do in Barcelona.
This is the same advice I give my best friends when they come to stay in Barcelona – this is my insider’s guide.
UPDATED August 2015: I moved back to Barcelona and have updated this blog post with an additional 5 of the best things to do in Barcelona.
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 (amongst 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 farther away from Barceloneta. Locals play volleyball near Port Olimpica and some of the wilder beach-goers make the most of the nudist beach of Marbella. In fact, nudity is legal at all of Barcelona’s beaches. 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 I didn’t.
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 boardwalks 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.
6. Take Part in Barcelona’s Vermouth Ritual
The locals call it “fer el vermut”, which basically means to “do vermouth”, and it’s easily my favourite way to kickstart a lazy day of eating and drinking in Barcelona. It’s an old-school tradition that’s enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in the last couple of years. The ethos is simple: you meet up with friends and/or family before lunch and have a couple of vermouths and a little tapas aperitif to get the appetite going.
My favourite vermouth bars can be found along streets like Calle Parlament and Calle Blai in Sant Antoni and Poble Sec, though there are many excellent spots all over the city.
7. Tapas Crawl Your Way Through Barceloneta
The proper way to eat tapas is to hop from bar to bar, sipping on a drink or two and devouring tapas along the way. My favourite ‘barrio’ (neighbourhood) for tapas crawling is the old fisherman’s quarter of Barceloneta, which despite being packed with tourists – because it’s right by the beach – is where many locals go for the city’s best tapas. Stick to one or two dishes per bar (the goal is to visit as many as possible) and be sure to ask for the house speciality (el especialidad de la casa). If they don’t have a speciality, it’s not a real tapas bar, get outta there!
8. Slurp Your Way Through Barcelona’s Booming Craft Beer Scene
I can’t express how excited I was when I moved back to Barcelona and discovered that it was overflowing with craft beer! With local Catalan brewers setting up shop on a weekly basis, there are tons of seriously good brews to try out and plenty of craft bars to prop yourself up at. I’ve spent a rather absurd amount of time “researching” them all and recommend paying each and everyone a visit.
9. Take the Fast Track to Gaudi’s Best Work
For years people asked me whether or not it was worth visiting Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (the Gothic church with the dramatic spires that has yet to be finished). And for years I said I didn’t know because I had always been put off by the 5-hour-long lines to get in and so had never experienced it.
But then I was sent on a writing assignment to try out a “skip the line tour” and my mind was blown. Whether you’re an architecture fan or not, walking through the heart of this inspired structure is like being transported to a parallel universe, a divine sanctuary of peace and perfection. I’ve seen all of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona and I’d have to say that if you only see one cultural site in Barcelona, you should make it this. But be sure to pay a couple of euros extra to “skip the line” – it’s absolutely worth it.
10. Take in the Sunset and Epic City Views from Mirablau Bar
If you look upwards and away from the sea from almost anywhere in the city you’ll see the dramatic silhouette of Sagrat Cor church, which is perched at the peak of Mount Tibidabo. Just below the church, not that you can tell just by looking at it, is a little bar which hangs over the hillside and affords what I consider to be the most breathtaking views of Barcelona. Head there for about 7pm, earlier to be sure of getting a table, and order cañas (cold beers) and tapas to sip and nibble on as you take in the elevated views over the city and down to the sea. It’s incredibly romantic and I couldn’t be luckier to live a mere 15-minute walk away.
Make it Happen: Take the L7 train (not metro, train) from Placa Catalunya to Avenida Tibidabo (15-minute ride). From here you can either follow the scenic, yet very steep, road of Avenida Tibidabo all the way up to Mirablau bar (a good 30 minute walk) or cross the street and hop on the vintage (and very romantic) blue tram that rattles its way slowly up the hill and stops literally just outside the bar (another 15-minute ride).
NOTE: There is an open terrace sort of bar just where the tram stops, but that’s not the bar I’m talking about (the views do not compare in the slightest). Walk a little farther and you’ll see the sign for Mirablau – try to grab a table in the window.
It often works out much cheaper than staying in a hotel and allows you to really get a feel for “living” in the 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.