By Jennifer Ceaser
With its gorgeous seaside setting, fantastical art nouveau architecture and seriously tasty tapas, Barcelona is one of Europe’s most enchanting cities — and fast-becoming one of its most popular.
More than 8 million visitors are expected in the Catalan capital this year — nearly half of them will queue up to enter Gaudi’s famed Sagrada Familia. And while you should definitely plan on seeing the city’s top landmarks — Park Guell, the Picasso Museum, Montjuic Castle among them — try getting off the tourist track and soaking up some local flavor. Here are five tips to help you experience the real Barcelona.
1. Stay outside the city center. It may sound appealing to wake up in the heart of the old city, in its moody, medieval Gothic Quarter, or near the posh Passeig de Gracia — but you’ll pay a price. Hotels in these much-in-demand areas — as well as along the Barceloneta beachfront — are expensive; and in the case of the Gothic, the streets are noisy, with revelers hitting the bars until well after 3 a.m. Consider instead a neighborhood where locals live: Poble Sec is just a 15-minute walk to La Rambla; its narrow, hilly streets leading up to Montjuic are dotted with small restaurants and bars, while the car-free Carrer de Blai brims with outdoor tables where you can enjoy tapas and a glass of vino tinto with nary a tourist in sight. Poblenou is a quiet residential area with its own long, leafy Rambla lined with locals-only restaurants and bars; it’s a short stroll to the beach and 20 minutes by Metro to the old city.
2. Dine late — or even later. Like most Mediterranean cities, Barcelona doesn’t really get going until late in the evening. Often restaurants won’t begin serving until 8 p.m.; a typical dinner here starts at 9:30 p.m. and can last several hours. (Lunches, also long, are generally eaten at 2 p.m.) So if you don’t want to dine in a roomful of tourists, adjust your mealtimes accordingly.
3. Stand up for tapas — and don’t toss the toothpicks. A typical tapas joint will have a bar area (with no seats) where you can serve yourself a variety of hot and cold bites. Wonder why nobody is at the tables? Simple: You’re charged more to sit — whether inside or out on the terrace — so do as the locals do and stand. (And those toothpicks sticking out of the tapas aren’t just for show — that’s how your bill is calculated.)
4. Avoid La Rambla. This broad pedestrian boulevard stretching from Placa de Catalunya to the harbor may be Barcelona’s most historic thoroughfare, but you won’t find many locals strolling here. Clogged with tourists and overflowing with stalls selling cheap souvenirs and overpriced, mediocre cafes, La Rambla is also a notorious spot for pickpockets.
5. Skip the paella and sangria. Barcelona may be in Spain, but it’s proudly individual, with its own language (Catalan), food and drink. Paella hails from Valencia — a city 200 miles to the south — and what you’ll find on the menus in Barcelona is a poor, usually pre-made version of this regional rice dish. (A soupier rendition, arroz caldoso, is more popular here.) Sangria may be freshly made, but it’s not a traditional drink in Barcelona — the only people ordering it will be tourists. If you want something alcoholic over ice, try a glass of vermouth instead.
Looking for a low-cost way to get to Barcelona from the West Coast? Level, a new airline that will launch in June, is advertising flights from Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (OAK) to BCN for as little as $185 one-way.