Insider’s Guide to Vibrant Barcelona (Part One)

The iconic exterior of the Sagrada Familia.
The iconic exterior of the Sagrada Familia.

Vibrant, colourful and positively bubbling over with life, Barcelona boasts an events and sightseeing agenda to wear out even the most ardent tourist. I still sometimes feel as if I have only scratched the surface, but you get more from a scratch here than just about any other city in Europe. Let us first deal with the two things that you have undoubtedly heard of…

La Rambla

The most famous of Barcelona’s avenues runs all the way from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the port. It can be very pretty on a nice day when the sun is shining (as it often is). However, whether it remains, as Victor Hugo aestheticised in the 19th century, “the most beautiful street in the world” is another matter. To unashamedly stuff another literary reference into this paragraph, Federico García Lorca, arguably Spain’s most famous poet, described it as “the only street I wish would never end.” Well, he obviously never had to dodge hawkers trying to flog selfie sticks or half-crazed promoters promising free cocktails in their beach-side hyperclub. Or maybe he just loved that kind of thing. One part that he probably did love was ‘La Boquería’ market. This food market half way down La Rambla is a real assault on the senses. It’s almost like it was designed for one of those adverts that show off the colour range of TVs or mobile phones. Admittedly it doesn’t have oranges and watermelons exploding in slow motion (presumably they’re working on it), but it’s still a foodie’s paradise and a great place to just have a walk around.

La Boqueria market, a wonderland for the senses.
La Boqueria market, a wonderland for the senses.
La Sagrada Familia

What not to say: “Whoooah, crazy church dude, it totally looks like it’s melting.”
What to say: “Ah yes of course, el Temple Expatriori de la Sagrada Família, Barcelona and Gaudi’s great incomplete modernist monument, due for completion in 2026, the centennial anniversary of the great architect’s death. Of course the question is whether or not the current heads of the project have remained true to Gaudi’s original plans.”

This icon of Barcelona is definitely worth a visit. If you’re there in summer, make sure to get there early as the queues can be immense.

Don't get neck ache! The celestial ceiling of the Sagrada Familia.
Don’t get neck ache! The celestial ceiling of the Sagrada Familia.
Food

Like any large cosmopolitan city, Barcelona has food for all tastes, but obviously we are still officially in Spain so “tapas” is the watchword here. This style of eating isn’t for everyone though. If you’re a UK-style eater through and through and you just want your pie, chips and gravy on a plate to yourself in the corner, washed down with some warm mead, then you may be a bit flustered at first. You may feel slightly dazed as you watch the wave of small dishes arriving at your table, your fellow diners diving in, seemingly unburdened by any notion of establishing a fair distribution. The key is to try and get into that Mediterranean, laid-back state of mind – stop mentally calculating whether your friend may have exceeded his fair share of the olives and just enjoy the wonderful array of flavours.

You can find great tapas bars in most areas, but I have found that ‘Poble Sec’ is one of the best areas to head to if you’re in the mood for a social meal. A standout bar/restaurant is Quimet i Quimet, one of the standard bearers for Barcelona tapas. Alternatively, one street, Carrer de Blai, is lined with Tapas bars on both sides. Take a stroll down it and stay for a while in a bar that takes your fancy, or hop from one to another. A place that I’ve frequented on this street is ‘la taquesta de blai,’ where they offer miniature tapas dishes (pinchos) for a euro each and specials for 1.80. Remember to keep the toothpick that comes stuck in your chosen dishes as these are tallied up at the end to work out your bill. Of course there is also a huge range of restaurants to appease those of other tastes. For a great burger, I would recommend ‘La Central Hamburguesería,’ on Via Laietana. Or to sample some typical Catalan cuisine; the restaurant ‘Mussol’ on Carrer d’Aragó offers a great range in traditional regional dishes.

A flavour of the tapas scene, Barcelona.
A flavour of the tapas scene, Barcelona.
Drink

You can hardly move in some areas of Barcelona without stumbling upon a little gem of a bar. The range of options is staggering but here are a few that I would recommend:

Big Bang Bar:

    Located in the rough-and-ready area of Raval, this is a great place to head if you enjoy live music. Open from Wednesday to Sunday, this bar offers either open mic nights or high quality Jazz jam sessions. Open every night with no entry fee. Drinks are reasonably priced too.

L’Ovella Negra:

    Located just off the top of La Rambla, near to Plaça de Catalunya, this cavernous bar is a student favourite. Whereas many bars around La Rambla are sleek marble and glass things that generally feel as authentically Spanish as a Gatwick airport paella, this place, in contrast, has an earthier, slightly no frills feel. It is usually filled with Spanish and international students having a good time; black sheep by name, black sheep by nature.

Limehouse:

    Located in the trendy, bar-filled Born area, this low-lit establishment has a friendly ambiance, an international and open crowd and supposedly one of the best mojitos in Barcelona.

Sugar Bar:

    Seconds away from Plaça Reial, this bar could either be described as intimate and chic, or just cramped depending on your mood. Arrive sooner rather than later if you want a seat (and cheaper prices). Good atmosphere, good music, and a long list of cocktails and beers (try the delicious local ‘Barcino’ beer).
The city by night.
The city by night.
Getting around

The best travel ticket to buy if you’re in Barcelona for a short or medium length stay is probably the ‘T-10’. This ticket gives you ten journeys on any transport system (buses, metro, ferrocarril) within Barcelona for €9.90. Sorted.

Coming up in Part Two: Culture, clubs and miscellaneous gems.

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