Okay so truth: I didn't like Barcelona that much the first time I went. I found it overly touristy, and my dad getting pickpocketed €400 on the metro didn't help either. However, once you step outside of the tourist traps, you'll discover a city full of bohemian vibes, late-night meals where the cava flows and tapas never run out, and passion in each conversation. Full of color and eccentricity, leave behind the straight and structured lines of most Western architecture to get lost in the quirky world that Gaudí has created. Prepare for late nights out that fade into early mornings, as the people are just as playful as the buildings. In Barcelona, the siesta life is real and needed, but with beaches, parks, and plazas galore, you won't be at a loss for scenic spots to take a mid-day snooze.
Avoid the summer months when the city is crammed full of tourists, and go in the off-season to more easily find the richness beneath the surface that locals get to enjoy. Enjoying life is easy in beautiful Barcelona.
Before you go
Barcelona is the capitol of the very proud state of Catalonia, and you'll widely hear Catalan spoken alongside Spanish. With the recent downturn of the Spanish economy, the Catalonian separatist movement has gained much more traction, as the region is one of Spain's wealthiest and most productive. I both 2014 and 2017, Catalonia voted to secede from Spain- a move that Spain considers unconstitutional. While the international media has largely reported the popularity of secession amongst Catalonians, as you talk to urban locals in Barcelona, you'll find that many who are against it chose to not vote in what they considered an illegal election, so the numbers are hugely skewed. Come prepared with a basic understanding of the movement so that you can ask and engage with locals about the matter.
where to stay
While I often suggest AirBnB as a great way to experience local life, the site has gotten a lot of flack from locals in the last couple of years as the city has become more and more of a crazy tourist destination. With people converting apartments into AirBnBs, Barcelona has seen a shortage of housing causing a big spike in prices. Save housing for locals and instead stay in a place that is regulated:
Itaca Hostel- This hostel is in the perfect location, smack in the middle of the Gothic Quarter, trendy El Born, and walkable to Eixample. It's shockingly quiet at night even though it's right next to everything.
La Casa Antonio Petit Hotel- While technically a hotel, these feel more like apartments, meaning you'll have the best of both worlds. The tile floors are absolutely charming, and the big vaulted ceilings and pristine white walls create an enchanting place to wake up in each morning. Careful- the rooms are close to each other, and noise carries, so don't stay hear if you're planning on being loud. We had a neighbor come by and ask us to be quiet late at night/early in the morning, which was fair, but we just felt really bad. Also, this is in an absolutely perfect spot to get to most of the main highlights just by walking. This location is especially good for a first-timer.
Catalonia Park Güell- Located in the wonderful Gracia neighborhood, this area is a little further from the main tourist attractions (other than Park Güell itself, of course), but it's where many people in their twenties and thirties actually live and spend time. You can also quickly hop on the subway and get to the subway. If you want a more authentic experience of what it could be like to live in Barcelona, stay in this area. This area is better for someone who has been to Barcelona before and seen all the main highlights.
SSA Gracia Apartments- Another great find in Gracia. You can find many other similar ones by going to hotels.com and searching for "Gracia, Barcelona, Spain."
what to do
Las Ramblas + Mercat de la Boquería- You won't find many locals walking down La Rambla street. Full of street performers, newsstands, and people selling little trinkets, there's lots of life happening on this stretch of road, but if you don't like crowds, walk through quickly to the best stop: the Mercado de la Boquería, a great market full of fresh produce, all the jamón, colorful smoothies, and little bakeries and cafés to enjoy a quick breakfast.
Passeig de Gracia- Walk down this main street dotted with grand Parisian-style architecture which are storefronts to Chanel, Gucci, and the likes, but stop at Gaudís masterpieces- Casa Batlló and Casa Mila (you can get tickets to get in ahead of time). They'll be like no other buildings you've seen before. This is in the Eixample neighborhood, which is the more modern area with "newer" architecture and streets on a grid.
Park Güell- Buy tickets ahead of time, and they'll give you a timeframe for when you should come in so that you don't have to wait forever to enter. Prepare an ample amount of time to explore the full grounds, a Gaudí masterpiece. You can visit part of it for free and outside of your designated time frame, so you could come an hour early to explore.
Casa Mila/La Pedrera- This is one of Gaudi's famous buildings, and I suggest getting tickets ahead of time for the night showings. The best part is the rooftop, which they turn into a light show after dark.
Gracia neighborhood- This is the bohemian neighborhood where young locals actually live, and you'll find tons of young people drinking in the plazas or at the bars throughout the neighborhood. It's perfect for a chill night of drinking and hanging out.
Parc de la Ciutadella- This beautiful park is a great respite from the rest of the city. Full of lots of trees, green space, ponds, and fountains, this is the perfect place to take your afternoon siesta in a beautiful atmosphere.
Barceloneta- This is the main beach, and in summer months you'll find it packed, so head north if you want something a little less crowded. Also, NEVER leave your stuff unattended to go swimming. I saw countless groups get robbed. Sad!
La Sagrada Familia- The most-visited tourist attraction in the world, I insist that you buy tickets online ahead of time. Otherwise, consider your day just standing in line. Yes, it's still under construction, but most of it has been finished, so you will be able to see a lot. It is a true work of art!
El Gotíc + El Born + Picasso Museum- The oldest area of Barcelona, you'll feel the rich history while strolling through the cobblestone streets and stopping at a little café for a coffee and croqueta. The Picasso Museum is located here as well, which houses many of his works and talks about his life. I lived here for a month and never came close to discovering all the hidden alleys.
where to eat
Alsur Cafe (El Born)- All the Alsur Cafes are excellent, but I spent almost every day when I lived in Barcelona working from the El Born location because of its homey interior and perfect plaza patio. They have breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, deserts, alcohol, and plenty of tables & outlets, so it's basically just the perfect place to spend the day if you have a long day of work ahead.
El Xampanyet- My favorite restaurant in all of Spain and maybe even the world! Walk into this crazy bar buzzing with life and head straight to the bar. You can get a table, but the excitement of being at the bar is outrageous. Standing room only, they'll ask you if you want [insert food item here], and just say yes to everything. The food was outstanding and cheap, so order the whole menu! Get a large pitcher of the house cava (sparkling wine distinct of the Catalonia region) while you're at it, and be prepared to be giggling with glee by the end. It's a great start to the night, with so much energy as you shout out your orders and rub shoulders with the locals packed around you. You're sure to make friends.
Xirio Ca la Nuri- Located right off the beach, enjoy the laidback beach vibes even though everyone is still dressed to the nines because, you know, Europe... Order the Ca La Nuri paella, and you won't be disappointed. Paella comes from Valencia, but I lived there a month and still think this is the best paella I've had. This mixed with the views of the blue Mediterranean and beautiful men riding by on bikes equals heaven.
Centric Canalla- This was the first place my friends and I ate at in Barcelona, and we all just laughed because it was everything we could have hoped for. It's very small and intimate on a quaint no-cars-allowed road, and they have a prix-fixe option written on the wall with a wide variety of different tapas. I suggest just going with that so that you can try them all and ordering more things a la carte later if you're still hungry or want more of something you particularly enjoyed. Rest up with a generous pour of wine and just sit back, relax, and watch the food steadily continue to roll out.
Ciudad Condal- Locals love this place. You can't go wrong with pan con tomate, tortilla (not Mexican flatbread style! It's like a potato omelette), and any type of seafood. The environment is a little dressier, so come here for a nicer dinner as opposed to a typical, casual tapas bar. They have a great outdoor patio.
La LLesca- Shake things up a bit (but not too much... It's only a little bit different) with specifically Catalan food instead of Spanish. The menu is all in Catalan with no Spanish or English translations, so be prepared to Google incessantly or just point to things as you see them coming out to others. Our waiter also barely spoke Spanish. It's all part of the experience! Some specific things to order that are typical of the region: longaniza (type of sausage similar to chorizo), crema catalana (a desert similar to flan), pan tumaca (bread rubbed with tomato), escalibada (cooked eggplant & red peppers).
El Nacional- You MUST go here! It has a stunning interior that is a designer's dream. There are sit-down restaurants along the exterior, but I've never actually eaten at them because in the middle there are counters with bar stools you sit at that have delicious tapas and pintxos (Basque-style small dishes), and it's really fun to just point at things and try a lot.
Brunch & Cake- The most Instagrammable brunch place of all time full of all the avocado and pink juices you could ever want. Always a line, but it goes quickly.
Paradiso- the "it" very trendy cocktail place of the moment in El Born.