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Barcelona Essentials: Know Before You Go

Last updated on May 8, 2019

As many travellers quickly realise, myself included, Barcelona is just that little bit different to the rest of Spain.

Whether you’re coming to soak up some rays at one of the city beaches or are more interested in nibbling and slurping your way through the old town, here’s what you need to know before setting foot in the Catalan capital. 

Barcelona blogger Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals
Words and photos by your “learnt it the hard way” guide, Ben Holbrook.

You’re not coming to Spain, you’re coming to Catalonia

A Catalan flag hangs in the Gothic Quarter.

As the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia, Barcelona is a large city (the second largest in Spain after Madrid) with an immensely strong sense of identity.

Bolstered by two thousand years of historical and cultural heritage, their own language, unique cuisine and a strong work ethic, Catalans are ardently proud and regard themselves as being significantly different from the rest of Spain. “Catalonia is not Spain” they scream and shout and spray paint on the walls.

Castellets (human towers) in the Gothic Quarter's handsome Placa Jaume for the annual La Merce festival (every September)
Castellers in Placa Jaume during La Merce festival ~ An important Catalan tradition.

In fact, many Catalans dream of independence and feel they would be better off – financially, politically and culturally – if they didn’t keep getting ‘dragged down’ by the rest of the country. And perhaps they’re right. Barcelona holds the title of ‘fourth most economically powerful city by GDP in the European Union and the 35th in the world’ and is now one the world’s most successful city brands.

I can’t speak for them, of course, and I’m not saying this is the stance all Catalans have, but I think it’s important to at least be aware of.

Catalonia’s official language is Catalan, not Spanish

Because many locals believe that Catalonia should not be part of Spain.

This is something many travellers are unaware of before arriving in Barcelona. Although Spanish, or Castilian as it’s known locally, is still the most commonly spoken language in Barcelona with 45.9% daily users compared to 35.6% daily users of Catalan, Catalan is the official language of Catalonia.

It’s important to understand that although Catalan contains elements of Italian, French and Spanish, it is an entirely unique language. Be careful not to dismiss it merely as a local dialect – it is far, far more than that.

Why? Because, apart from the fact that, quite simply, it’s their native language, when Spain was under the control of Franco, the brutal dictator who led a rebel militia to overthrow Spain’s democratic republic in the Spanish Civil War and ruled the country until his death in 1975, the language, along with all Catalan cultural traditions, was prohibited.

One of the many parts of the city that hint to its battle-scarred history.

But it wasn’t just prohibited, it was stamped upon, oppressed, violently exterminated. Franco was notorious for his use of concentration camps, forced labour and executions on his mission “to enforce a brand of traditionalist and authoritarian Spanish nationalism that harboured no expression of the distinct ‘minority cultures’.”

Even giving a child a Catalan name was considered a serious crime under Franco’s rule.

When Franco died in 1975 (just take a moment to consider how recent that was), the Catalan language was revived by the local democratic government, and after 36 years of oppression, the Catalans were finally free to celebrate their culture and traditions, and, most importantly of all, speak their own language.

Barcelona is not Seville

Las Arenas Shopping Mall - one of Catalonia's many repurposed bullrings.
Las Arenas Shopping Mall – one of Catalonia’s many repurposed bullrings.

The Spain you dream of, the Hemingway-hued bull fights, flamenco fiestas and sangria-sloshing paella feasts… that’s not really Barcelona, or anywhere in Catalonia for that matter. If that’s what you want then you’d be better off going to Seville, or somewhere else in Andalusia.

Of course you’ll still find all of this in Barcelona, in the same way that you’ll find Irish pubs in London, but just know that these are not Catalan things.

Paella comes from Valencia, for example, flamenco from Andalusia. And Catalonia was the first of Spain’s autonomous regions to ban bull fighting.

That said, you can get a good paella in Barcelona as long as you know where to go. Check out my post for my personal suggestions.

Sangria is for suckers

From left to right, caña (small beer) and vermouth
Vermouth’s what you want, not sangria.

Ah yes, the most Spanish of all stereotypes, but I don’t think anyone drinks it apart from tourists, no matter what part of Spain you’re in. It’s as if it was invented purely to justify charging half-witted, sandal-scuffling map-wielders an extortionate amount for nasty plonk. Just don’t do it.

Instead of sangria, order “tinto de verano” (summer red wine), which is red wine with lemonade, ice and lemon. It’s basically the same thing, but because the locals drink it too – even if only in the summer – you won’t instantly reveal yourself as tourist/target by ordering it.

If you’re in Valencia then you can drink my favourite drink of all: “aigua de Valencia” (Valencian water), which is Valencian orange juice with cava, gin and vodka.

And then of course, if you really want to drink like the locals, you’ll want to drink vermouth, a type of sweet fortified wine (pictured above). I know, I know, it’s a bit of a grandma drink, but here in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it’s what everybody drinks as a boozy aperitivo before lunch. Squirt some “sifon” (like soda water) in it if it’s too strong and be sure to order some olives and “conservas” (tinned shellfish), which the Catalans approach as an art form. Here’s where to do it.

Barcelona loves to celebrate

Barcelona (and the rest of Catalonia) has is its own rich culture and traditions, such as the castellers (human castles) and correfoc (fire runs) of La Mercé, calçotadas (street barbecue parties to celebrate the arrival of spring) and all sorts of other bizarre traditions, especially around Christmas. There’s always some kind of celebration to get involved in.

Barcelona is a large cosmopolitan metropolis with many different layers

Placa Reial (Plaza Real) Barcelona - Square off La Ramblas
Brazilian capoeira performers in Placa Reial.

Today, 62% Barcelona’s inhabitants were born in Catalonia, with almost 24% of residents being implants from other parts Spain and some 17% of residents hailing from other countries such as Pakistan, Italy, China, Ecuador, Bolivia and Morocco. This is the reason you will find the things mentioned above (flamenco shows, paella, etc.), and why you’ll also stumble upon streets that feel more like you’re in Pakistan than Spain. It’s what I love about Barcelona – its kaleidoscope of ethnicities.

Respected universities and the city’s obvious charms also attract a large international student population, and some 11 million tourists from around the world also add to the air of being “everywhere but nowhere”.

Barcelona is much more than just a tourist destination

Barcelona city skyline - from aboveI often see tourists walking around, standing in the road taking photos, generally acting outrageously as if they were at a giant holiday resort. But Barcelona is a real city where people have lived and worked for countless generations. If I get fed up and annoyed with tourists, I can only imagine how they feel about them, even if they are bringing in the big bucks.

Remember your manners, make an effort to speak Spanish and/or Catalan. At the very least you can say “bon dia” (hello in Catalan) or “hola” (hello in Spanish).

Barcelona has problems too

Street art in Raval, BarcelonaIt’s worth remembering that Barcelona has its fair share of crime – way more than most residents are even aware of. There’s violence, drugs, prostitution, illegal street hawkers, pick-pocketers, rude ruffians, thieves (someone stole my bike this summer and everyone I know here has had a phone pinched) and unruly groups of scumbags.

I was having a beer at one of my favourite bars the other day when I saw an Indian man running at full speed into a wheelie bin in the street. Milliseconds behind him was a larger man with a big beer belly that jiggled around and hung out of the bottom of his eagle-adorned leather jacket as he kicked and punched the man on the ground until a small stream of blood flowed between the cracks in the tiles beneath him. We put him in the recovery position, but he was shaking and juttering so violently that I thought he was going to die right in front of us. The police arrived shortly after but hardly appeared shocked or in any way concerned by the incident. Gang violence, perhaps? Who knows.

Unemployment is also a problem and has remained steadily around 20-something percent for the last few years. And that’s only accounting for the people who are legally supposed to be here.

Barcelona is (still) a creative breeding ground

The graffiti-enhanced La Carboneria building in Barcelona's trendy Sant Antoni neighbourhood.
The graffiti-enhanced La Carboneria building in Barcelona’s trendy Sant Antoni neighbourhood.

It’s one of the reasons I always wanted to move to Spain. The Arts are so much more part of the mainstream, especially in Catalunya, which has assumed the role of muse to all sorts of creative geniuses.

Salvador Dalí, the eccentric surrealist, was from Figueres, just a few miles up the coast from Barcelona, and he spent many of his formative years in Barcelona.

Joan Miró, the painter, ceramicist and sculptor who said “I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music,” was born in Barcelona and studied art in the city.

Pablo Picasso may have been born in Malaga, southern Spain, but it was in Barcelona that he became an artist and the city left its mark on him long after he moved to France. The vast majority of the paintings from his “Blue Period” – whores, beggars, friends, landscapes – were inspired by Barcelona and the people he met here.

But it’s not just about the historic vanguards of art

Barcelona continues to act as a mecca for contemporary artists and creative thinkers. Explore the street art and be sure to visit modern art galleries, like the MACBA and Miscelanea.

More about Barcelona’s world-class art galleries

And though there’s not enough time in the world for me to discuss every single artist that found fame in Barcelona, I couldn’t move on without mentioning Antoni Gaudí, the genius architect born in Reus, just outside of Barcelona, who spent his life developing the Modernist movement. His masterpieces – Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, Palau Güell, Parc Güell and many more – now shape the look and feel of Barcelona.

And while we’re on the topic of architecture…

There’s more to Barcelona’s architecture scene than Gaudi

Torre Agbar ("giant penis") and CMT building in Poblenou - a hotbed of innovative architecture.
Torre Agbar (“giant penis”) and CMT building in Poblenou – a hotbed of innovative architecture.

It goes without saying, no trip to Barcelona would be complete without exploring the legacy of Gaudi, but there’s much more to the city’s architecture scene.

From the space-aged communications tower in Montjuïc to the bizarre 22@ district in the ex-industrial Poblenou neighbourhood (where you’ll find the New Encants Market, Design Museum, CMT Building and Media-TIC Building), there’s plenty of contemporary architecture to explore in Barcelona.

It’s not just about the urban charms

Collserola, Barcelona - the world's largest metropolitan park)
Collserola – the world’s largest metropolitan park and my favourite place to be.

Boxed in by a dramatic mountain range to the rear of the city and a 5 km stretch of Mediterranean beaches to the front, Barcelona’s 1.7 million residents occupy a relatively compact space, although these geographical limitations have forced the local government to invest their budgets in improving what they already have, as opposed to expanding outwardly, which many say is at the heart of the city’s high quality of life.

But it’s not a green city – a friend of mine here told me he read somewhere that, per capita, Barcelona has the same amount of green space as Tokyo, which isn’t very much. The parks are special though, and although most visitors find their way to Parc de la Ciutadella for a siesta, most miss the 8,000 hectare Collserola Park, the largest metropolitan park in the world. Not only is it eight times larger than the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, but it’s twenty-two (22!) times larger than New York’s Central Park.

I’ll be sure to keep adding to this as I’m sure I have forgotten a lot of important stuff, but hopefully this will help you get a little bit more clued up.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more updates. Thanks for reading. 


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  1. Thanks Ben – this was a great piece. Barcelona is truly a unique city – blown away by Gaudi’s work among a million other things. Liked the bit on the “non-urban” charms – you’re 100% right there.

    Take care!

    • Gracias David! Really appreciate your comment. Thanks for following! Hasta pronto. Ben

  2. Elizabeth Elizabeth

    Great tips. Thanks!

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