I had George Ezra's Barcelona on repeat in my head well before we ever reached the city. In fact, it was basically in my head since we landed in Lisbon which isn't even the same country. It’s a beautiful, passionate song for a beautiful & passionate city. Barcelona is in fact located in the Catalonian region of Spain; we were of course aware of its contested nature but what we hadn't appreciated was its full history including how long the area has been contested & how fiercely. A 2014 referendum passed with 80%+ for separation, though formal actions to do so were blocked.
We were meeting up with my little bro who had been hanging around the city about a week to attend the Primavera Sound festival & we hadn't really thought through what we were going to do. I don't think we are in full swing "travel mode" again yet & therefore arrived as a less-than-prepared tourist. So, we figured we'd wing it, test out a few things & report back on some of our favorites - enjoy!
Barcelona's Top To-Do's:
Our first suggestion would be to stay in or as close to the Gothic Quarter as you can. Of course this will depend on what you most want to do in the city but we stayed in nearby El Born & just absolutely loved this area. The intimate winding streets contain evidence of the area’s 133 B.C. history, beautifully on display for the eager eye. You can spend hours getting lost in the maze of artesian shops, coffee cafes & ancient bars. Don't be embarrassed if you tucker out & find yourself in a centuries old converted coffee cafe tipping back espressos, nearly falling asleep on the velvet sofas, oops. Apparently, the little cafe we decided to take our leisure in is somehow important or historic...we became a sideshow for tourists to watch while their guide rambled off supposed relevant facts. In hindsight, we probably should have asked why this was included on the tour...but we did not.
In addition to local shops & bars you never know what basilica, castle, or fortress you'll run into weaving your way home. The area is central to other tourist sites such as the Arc de Triomf, The Cathedral La Seu & La Rambla, it’s also a quick 10-15-minute jaunt down to the beach. What's not to love??
While the Flamenco originated in Andalusia & Madrid holds the "claim" on the dance, it is very easy to find a wonderful performance in Barcelona & ranges from a 1 hour performance to a full evening of dinner & a show. We opted for a low-key spot a few blocks from our apartment. Located in a small opening of the wall to the basilica (we nearly walked right past it, unaware of it wasn't part of the church) you are treated to an intimate 40 or less person seating & a darkened room of cold stone all around you. The feeling itself transports you back to when the artistic dance was first viewed. The performance was spectacular & a drink of your choice is included with the price of a ticket.
Ben & I had a fun debate on flamenco vs. tango & unfortunately, we found ourselves on opposite sides of the aisle on this one. I loved the Flamenco while he preferred the tango. The tango seems a more intimate dance, with two people moving in unison & having to follow the other’s lead - having to follow is not really my thing so I voted for the strong & powerful flamenco (done together or as an individual). I've never been great at following :-)
I am convinced Ben is legitimately trying to destroy me via bike tours on this trip. Though I have long since recovered from our harrowing afternoon in Ensenada , I did find biking around Barcelona more difficult than Buenos Aires (probably because that tour took us out of the city while this one kept us in the heart of it). The tiny winding streets & hordes of tourists (who are all busy taking selfies) made for loads of fun speed traps. However, Ben was right to talk me into it, noting the aforementioned size of said streets, a bike tour was going to be our best bet to actually see anything. So off we went.
We used "Fat Tire" bike tour which took off from Plaça Sant Jaume, again located a few quick blocks from our apartment. For roughly 3.5+ hours we wound ourselves around the city seeing almost all the most notable sites around Barcelona, including the La Sagrada Familia, Palau de la Mùsica Catalana, & Parc de la Ciutadella. Our guide was very fun & obviously knowledgeable; she even listed out a variety of restaurants & bars in the area to check out later. Highly recommend them if you're looking for a tour that'll take you places the tourist buses just cannot reach.
Eating & Drinking
While Asia had many wonderful things, readily available good wines was not one of them. Oh how happy I was to be back in a place where we could order such great wines so inexpensively; and I just love a good Spanish wine. There's no shortage of wine bars & tasting opportunities (not even to mention just restaurants & shops) so we popped into Can Cisa a shop that specializes in all organic/natural wines.
If wine is not your thing, no worries, the Catalans apparently really like gin. Gin bars were all over the place. One little dive we popped into, the Lime House, offered over 90 different gin flavors, all mostly homemade. Cucumber is a safe classic & both lemongrass/Jamaican spice & ginger offer more bite with your bevie if you prefer a little adventure. Pro-tip: They also serve an amazing cheese-steak & a very nice Asian tofu wrap if you are somehow still hungry.
In terms of food, local cuisines of anchovies & octopus dishes are abundant but my favorite were the tapas. We could order dozens of small plates with everything from patatas bravas, goat cheese salad, & tuna with roasted eggplant. Tucked away on a side street is Arcano, a Mediterranean restaurant with fantastic steak, tuna & pasta; perfecto! Pastries & gelatos were always a stone’s throw away & we made sure to taste test several. Ben's favorite is always Pistachio & I had the most fantastic mint chocolate chip!
Need a little R&R after all the touring & indulgence or maybe just a quick siesta? Take the quick walk down to the beaches of Barcelona, gorgeous stretches of 4.5km man made beach. If you, like us, did not realize their beach was man made, don’t feel bad. It was apparently built for the 1992 Olympic Games in Spain & must be replenished with sand every year. Right off the shore you will find dozens of clubs & restaurants, and you're also not far from the casino or aquarium (though I assume those attract different kinds of patrons...).
A few other notables:
Antoni Gaudí was a famous architect in the City who died in 1926. The people here love him & are completely obsessed; he is also responsible for the Sagrada Familia. If you have interest & time it’s worth a trek over to Park Guëll to check out his previous home & an odd, frankly, abandoned housing development plan dedicated to his works. Pro tip: it wasn't on the bike tour because you schlep up a very long hill. Come in from the south side directly for easiest access.
La Sagrada Familia. I know we mentioned seeing this on the tour but you aren't able to go inside during the bike ride. The magnificent building is extremely popular & tickets are best bought in advance; its stunning & unique design make it completely worth it.
Barcelona is a rare find, even for Europe. A city where the residents always love being there & enjoy showing it off. It’s also one of the few places you can reach the shore in 20 minutes & in winter a ski resort in less than 3 hours (I’m waiting for the ask from Ben to move here). We simply cannot wait to come back.
"I'll be laying right by your side, in Barcelona" - George Ezra