If you’re planning your first visit to Barcelona, you’ve most likely booked a visit to Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and Park Güel. (If you haven’t, stop immediately and reserve your tickets online ahead of time. Thank me later). You’ll most likely plan to see the city’s picturesque Cathedral, visit the Picasso museum, drink some sangria, stroll down Las Ramblas, and fill your belly with as many tapas as humanly possible. You’ll see the sights but what about understanding Barcelona and its culture as the locals do? You’ve come to the right spot.
Many come to Barcelona expecting to practice their secondary school Spanish but are instead confused to find a language resembling a strange Latin-y mixture of Spanish, French, and something else entirely scrawled onto signs, street names, menus, and spoken by locals. Barcelona lies at the heart of Catalonia, one of the country’s 17 autonomous regions. In Catalonia, the Catalan language reigns supreme and many Catalonians are fiercely proud of their culture, language, heritage and identity. Catalan flags fly from balconies and rooftops across the city and region, especially as calls for the territory’s independence from the rest of Spain become increasing vociferous. However, rest assured. Although Catalonians are educated solely in Catalan in school, most are seamlessly bilingual.
Eating Like a Local
Tapas are the ubiquitous snack of Spain and have made Spanish cuisine popular around the globe. It is loosely agreed that the word tapa comes from the Spanish word ‘tapar’ or to cover, as a chunk of bread would usually be placed over a drink to keep flies out. From this simple practice some serious culinary creations have evolved.
In Barcelona you will find both tapas and pinchos (also spelt pintxos, pronounced ‘peen-chos’, in Basque). While tapas are usually small sized portions of food or free snacks served with drinks, pintxos are a ‘Basque-ified’ take on the Spanish word ‘pincho’, or pierce, and usually consist of a toothpick-pierced slice of bread holding together whatever tasty nibble is placed on top.
Whether tapa, pintxo, or pincho, while in Barcelona it’s important to get your hands on as many as possible. Highly recommended are grilled octopus (order pulpo a la plancha), omelets (thinly sliced potatoes held together with egg), croquettes (crispy balls of anything with gooey insides), olive and anchovy skewers, pan con tomate, blood sausage (morcilla) and, let’s be real, anything with jamón (cured thinly sliced pork). Note: while it may be tempting to get your hands on some ‘authentic’ paella, be warned. The dish is native to Valencia so unless you’ve done your research on the best spots, ordering it at a restaurant in Barcelona is a sure fire way to stick out as a tourist. A last word of warning: avoid eating along Las Ramblas like the plague- don’t be that tourist!
Speaking of anchovies and blood sausage, plan to come prepared as well as hungry to Barcelona because the city’s food scene is not for the faint of heart. Legs of curing pork (hoofs attached) hang from Barcelona’s markets and eateries, a shocking sight to vegan and vegetarians and a nod to darker times in Spain’s past. The tradition dates back to the Spanish inquisition when the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities were heavily persecuted. Practicing Christians (or terrified Muslims/ Jews) would hang pork products from their homes and establishments to demarcate the space as Christian, warning those who weren’t in the process.
The practice of hanging ham from Spanish ceilings endures to this day, not as a religious warning but because it produces the perfect cured meat. To try it, tuck into one of the city’s tapas joints or pintxo bars along Carrer de Blai where plates of pintxos line the bar’s countertop. To order, serve yourself (or point to what you want if the pintxos are behind glass), paying per toothpick at the meal’s end for what you have consumed.
Alternatively, for the perfect piece of jamón head to one of Barcelona’s must-visit food markets. While Mercado de La Boqueria is steadily making its way to the tops of many tourist’s agendas, locals tend to view it as a bit of a tourist trap. As a savvy tourist, make it a pit stop but include other more local markets (often with the same foods for cheaper), such as Mercat de Sant Antoni, Mercat de Santa Caterina, and Mercat de San Andreau. With stands upon stands of freshly shaved jamón and chorizo served in paper cones, fresh juices, tapas bars, sea food mongers, and cheese sellers, Barcelona’s markets are a little slice of foodie paradise.
Explore Like a Local
It is said that people in Spain work to live not live to work, a sentiment that is impossible not to feel as one ambles along its cobble stone streets and in and out of its outdoor cafes and plazas. To do as the locals do, enjoy leisurely afternoon drinks, people watching, and late dinners in the charming squares of Passeig del Born and Placa del Sol. These charming plazas are full of life, overflowing with vivacious locals late into the evenings.
Combine people watching with a bit of culture by checking out the Macba museum in the edgy, artsy neighbourhood of El Raval. The museum of contemporary art is full of interesting pieces from international artists and best of all free on Saturday’s from 16:00- 20:00. Afterwards, grab a coffee and some churros con chocolate in the square surrounding the museum and digest the art you’ve just seen while watching skateboarders show of their moves in the space they’ve claimed as their own impromptu skate park.
For a stark contrast to the museum’s art, continue your stroll through El Raval to discover some of the city’s best street art. Be sure to hit the Three Chimneys urban park, the city’s only purpose built graffiti park, and the large mural at the corner of C/ Sant Pau and C/ del a Riereta, a tribute to Catalan artist Joan Miró. The Gothic Quarter and neighbourhood of La Ribera are also home to some beautiful and thought provoking graffiti pieces.
The Antic theatre is another great place soak up culture and local vibes. It’s a part-time theatre and independent creative gathering space for students, playwrights, and artists who work by day and relax under a fairy lit tree by night. .
One of Barcelona’s biggest charms is its location near the sea. While it may be tempting to take a jaunt down Las Ramblas to Playa de La Barceloneta, it’s worth it to take the quick 15 – 30 minute train ride to one of the city’s lesser known beaches. Skip the crowds, teenagers, and the hawkers by heading to any of these three gems: Platja de Bogatell, Platja de Castelldefes or Platja de Garraf. (Tip: platja means beach in Catalan). You’ll have a more relaxing experience and may even get to watch/ join in on the impromptu beachside volleyball tournaments!.
Last minute notes
Barcelona operates on the time schedule of a hung-over university student, so do not expect much to be open early in the morning, especially on Sundays. Early risers will be hard pressed for early morning eats as cafés, restaurants, and stores generally open late and close even later, with a two-hour siesta period of closure usually occurring in the later afternoon.
Public transportation is generally accessible, even to those who are not fluent in Catalan. To avoid ques and the horrible stress of operating the ticket vending machine, purchase a ‘HolaBCN’ card online. The card includes unlimited metros, bus, tram, and suburban trains during its validity period (from 2 to 5 days). Excitingly, the metro ride to and from the airport is also included. Uber and rival app Cabify have suspended their services in the city, but locals use the MyTaxi app, which works like Uber but with the existing local taxis.
With these few tips and facts about Barcelona, you’re on your way to having a more ‘authentic’ Barcelonan experience. Grab your passaporté and get traveling. !Salud!
Tours & Accommodation
We also have a range of great tours available in Barcelona, both Private and Small Group tours. Click the link below and feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
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