I wasn’t sure what to expect from Barcelona, as we’d heard a very mixed bag of stories before we went.
We’d been specifically warned against driving through on our big European road trip, as highway banditry there is a bit out-of-control generally, and absolutely horrendous for cars marked as being driven by tourists, as ours was. The common trick, apparently, is for an accomplish on a scooter to drive past and slash your tires, then when you stop a ‘helpful’ local pulls up, distracts you, and steals a bunch of your possessions. We know a couple who had this happen to them twice on one trip – the second time as they were driving to the police station to report the first time. On top of that, it is also renowned for being one of the pick-pocketing hotspots of the world, and we have several friends and family members who have been mugged there.
On the other hand – it has beautiful beaches, sunshine, amazing food, culture, history, B’s favourite band happened to be playing at a convenient time (Maroon 5 – tickets in London were sold out, as usual), and we know people who, with all Europe has to offer within easy reach, have chosen to go back to Barcelona again and again. There is obviously something pretty special about the place.
We booked a long weekend to go and find out for ourselves.
On our first morning we set out excited, very happy to be in a hot place again, and also without our big camera as we were still a little apprehensive about Barcelona. Our hotel was in a district called Poblenou, once industrial and now a little industrial-chic in places, and very nice. You might find yourself a little lost-in-the-middle of nowhere if you wander around aimlessly a lot, as we do, but in the main bit there are a bunch of pedestrian-only streets with nice cafes and bars, full of people and generally a very nice place to be during the day. It is also right next to the beach and an easy half an hour stroll from the main town. After breakfast we headed that way, and ended up spending the entire day just wandering around, doing nothing much and enjoying it hugely (so much so that we didn’t even take any photos at all, even on our phones). After the British cold, it was just so nice to be somewhere warm and relaxed.
To be honest, we spent the large majority of our time there relaxing rather than powering around doing things, which doesn’t make for such a good story. So instead of doing that, we’re just going to tell you about some of our highlights from the four days we spent in Barcelona.
Construction of this rather unusual building started in 1882, Gaudi got involved a year after that, and now, a mere 133 years after things kicked off – construction has only recently passed the halfway point, back in 2010. With a rather hopeful estimated completion date of 2026, the second half will pass by a little quicker than the first, but it still definitely isn’t going to be a rushed build. You’d suspect a project which has taken more than a century to date may not have remained entirely cohesive, and from the outside there are one or two visual clues that this is indeed the case.
On the inside it is even weirder, but at the same time very beautiful. I actually find it quite hard to describe, as I’ve never really been anywhere quite like it before. Organic, light, colourful, geometric yet curvy – it is unique as a building, strange as a church, and really just quite a wonderful place to be in. Sagrada Familia is also the single most visited monument in all of Spain, so, as usual – go as early as you can. We pre-booked for the opening (a week in advance, and times were already limited), and the place was absolutely packed.
If you’ve got time, take a trip up to the top as well. The views of the city are pretty fantastic, plus you’ll get to see some of the weird architecture up close (it makes even less sense). It is tight, narrow, and a bit of a climb down though, so if those things don’t appeal maybe just stay at the bottom and keep looking at all the pretty colours.
We miss the beaches from back in New Zealand, and so loved the chance to spend a bit of time at one over here in Europe. Barcelona is famed for the beautiful beaches, but I’d never realised that many of them were actually very recent additions to the city – all the beaches to the east of the Olympic Harbour are man-made, and were constructed as part of the city’s redevelopment for the 1992 Olympic Games. I’d also never realised that Barcelona had hosted an Olympics before either – isn’t travel great for highlighting ignorance? Anyway – the beaches are great, the water a perfect temperature, and the bars which will bring you a nice glass of sangria out to your spot on the sand a fantastic idea. Also, topless sunbathing is very popular there, as for many beaches in Europe. Either watch out for that or something to watch out for, depending on your views on such activities.
Barcelona is a great city for walking. With the ocean and all the massive boats on one side and the hills on the other the walk to and from town is pretty spectacular, and the old town just has so much going on. Every little part of it is subtly different, and it is also actually pretty huge: we wandered around for a long time while we were there, and I never really got the feeling we were repeating ourselves. Wandering around this city with nowhere in particular to be is just such a great experience, so put aside a heap of time for this, if you ever go. Bar-hop, try the tapas, people-watch, explore, get lost and find something awesome – I can’t recommend it enough.
The evenings are where things really get fun. One of the evenings we were out and about we found a big band playing music in front of an old church, and as it was really nice we stopped to watch for a bit. Not long after, a few people linked hands and started a dance, and were soon joined by some more, and then some more – pretty soon there was a huge crowd of people just having a dance in the street. It was obviously reasonably regular because everyone seemed to know the moves, but it certainly wasn’t organised or anything – people would just wander up, clearly on their way to dinner or something, join in for a round or two then break off and continue on their way. We loved it.
After that we headed up an alley behind the church, and stumbled into something even more random – a street opera performance. At first it looked as though the old guy performing was being hassled by some young kid dressed like a bit of a gangster – damn youth of today – but it soon became clear this was all part of the fun. The older guy could certainly sing, but this kid would have to have been one of the most talented people I’ve ever heard sing. He was absolutely amazing, and I resolved once again to try to stop making snap judgements based on appearance alone.
On the safety side of things – I know it has a reputation, but we found Barcelona to be perfectly safe, and never threatening. We spent a huge amount of time walking around the city at all times of day and night, and never felt even a little uncomfortable. Be smart and look after yourself and your things, as in any big city, and we think you’ll probably have a great time.
I have been instructed to fill you in on the food and concert, so here goes.
One of the main reasons we were excited to return to Spain was for the food. On our previous travels, we tasted some seriously fantastic and varied food in Spain (although lacking in vegetables) so were interested to see what Barcelona had to offer. We were not disappointed. The way to make your way around this city is to snack. Around every corner there is another cute tapas bar or seafood restaurant, or market. The choice is too overwhelming, you may as well try it all. So we did.
We generally started off each morning the the bakery-come-coffee shop around the corner from our hotel. This way we could get our caffeine fix, one of our 5+ a day (through our delicious glass of freshly squeezed orange juice) and Alex could continue his mission carried over from Italy to try all of the local pastries. Alex’s favourite turned out to be mini chorizo wrapped in puff pastry. I stuck to the simple, but perfect, baguette rubbed with fresh tomatoes (I’ll count this as another serving of vegetables) soft cheese and freshly sliced jamon. Delish.
The old town was great for little hole in the wall tapas bars with the traditional fare: fritatas, chroizo, croquettas, and of course, a leg of jamon. When exploring the old town, we would stop ever two or so hours for a little snack, rather than stopping for large meals, and we were able to try a great selection of food. One word of advice: the main streets of Barcelona are full of over-priced tourist traps, serving pretty average looking, expensive food. Once you step down any side street and explore a bit more, the city totally changes. There were so many amazing looking places, it was hard to choose where to go.
Patatas bravas was a hyped-up Spanish dish that before Barcelona, we were fairly disappointed with. We had only tried it once, while we were in San Sebastian and thought it was extremely overrated. What we had been served were fried, but soggy, potatoes with mayo that had been mixed with mildly spicy sauce. We decided to give it another try since we saw it on the menu at one place we stopped. What we were served, completely changed our minds about patatas bravas. It was so good, that we made it our mission to try more and find the best. Unfortunately, the best one was the first one that we had, but the others were not that far behind. So lesson of the day: save your patatas bravas eating for Barcelona, and stick to the pinxos in San Sebastian.
There was one EPIC fail of our culinary adventure. My boss had recently been to Barcelona with his wife so I asked if he had any recommendations of places to eat. He majorly talked up this place called Salamanca on Barcelonetta beach. After I asked, I had about 2 hours of him going on and on about how amazing the seafood was, how I must try the paella, that the prawns were to die for etc, etc. We had a free night and decided to give it a go. We caught a taxi there since we were tired from walking around all day. The taxi driver dropped us off right outside and it was nothing like what we expected. It had very dated decor and did not look like a place that you would go on and on about, but it was in the right place, so we thought that it would just be some sort of hidden gem. It was not. The food was disgusting, preprepared (pretty much just a chuck in the microwave job), expensive, horrible atmosphere. Just a giant disaster. We were so grumpy about this, and complained about my boss’ poor taste in food (being British, it was surprising we listened to his advice) for the next couple of days. I was going to give him so much grief when I got back to work. Then on our last day we were walking along Barcelonetta beach and stood right in front of a beautiful restaurant. Then I noticed the name… Salamanca. Everything made so much sense. We had been dropped off literally one block away from this amazing restaurant and had gone to this hideous other place!! My boss cracked up when I told him the story when I returned to work, then went straight into a big spiel on how I had missed out on the meal of my life. Oh well, can’t win them all.
Another honourable mention would have to be the famous covered market, La Boqueria. This place was in the heart of Barcelona, filled to the brim with the most amazing, colourful food you could imagine. I have to say, the cherries that I bought there were, hands down, the most delicious cherries that I had ever tasted in my life. Here, Alex saw a delicious looking sausage on a stick, so like an excited child, quickly rustled up enough loose change to buy it. No sooner had the money and food exchanged hands, did he drop it on the ground. I am sure he almost cried.
The last part of this tale is the main reason we were in Barcelona to begin with – the Maroon 5 concert. I have loved their music since I was probably about 15 and much to the annoyance of my family, have pretty much played them on repeat since then. I had never been able to go to one of their concerts before so was beyond excited to finally be seeing them live. They did not disappoint. I also found out that Spain is a great place to go to a concert if you have general admission tickets (and are tall like me) as I was at least a head taller than all of the people at the concert. I had a great view the whole time. Even Alex enjoyed himself, saying that Adam Levine was the best ‘entertainer’ that he had seen live, and this being high praise as we have seen the Foo Fighters and I would have assumed he would have picked Dave Grohl. Alex got a great photo from the night that basically sums up my experience at the show:
Our overall impressions of Barcelona were amazing. We loved this place, can understand why people give such glowing recommendations, and return many more times. I am sure we will be back one day.