**Update – we were back in Barcelona April of 2019. We left the city more in love than the last time, and are even considering spending an extended amount of time there. As we were on our own this time, I have updated this post with more helpful information from theft to transportation and everything between. Any questions, please reach out.
We decided to jaunt over to Barcelona Spain to visit friends who have been living there for the past year. I had never been to Barcelona, and this would be Lenny’s third trip. We were excited to see everyone we had been missing, and could not wait to take in a new culture. Not knowing much about Barcelona besides Gaudi, and the promise of good food, I dove in without any preparedness. This is not like me, but I figured we were in good hands with our friends who were living like the locals.
After a long flight over, we dropped bags off at the apartment, grabbed an excellent European coffee and headed out for a long leisurely Tapas lunch at Cal Pep with our friends Will and Evelyn. This Pan con Tomate was my first introduction to my love affair of the tomato bread.
My first impression of Barcelona was as we began to land, was that it was rather modern. Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain and is the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia. It is home to three-quarters of the population being Catalonia, while only one-eighth is that of Spain. It is quite evident throughout Barcelona, giving it a rather liberal as well as rebel culture; which we enjoy. We could felt which neighborhoods had a strong presence by the flags that were being flown, as well Catalan is still spoken and studied in schools. The city has a feeling of old meets new, which means there is a little someone for everyone to enjoy, whether history, culture or lazing around. What is your favorite way to vacation?
Unfortunately, our time in Barcelona was only five days, which proved to be too short of a trip. We did not want to overload our schedules with a tourist agenda, as we were there to spend time with our friends, so our days were spent wandering the city, taking in sites, and eating long lunches and late dinners. A lifestyle I could become accustomed too. My favorite neighborhood was the Barri Gothic with it dark and dingy alleys, and hidden gems tucked away. Perfect for wandering around, losing yourself and enjoying a small bite of tapas and wine. Another neighborhood that we enjoyed losing ourselves in was the Gracia, which has more of a residential feel, with old world charm tucked in and around alleyways, old crumbling buildings, and pieces of history scattered about. Great neighborhood markets and gems of restaurants were found there.
We felt honored to have been able to enjoy Giants Parade, and well as watching the Castellers perform one lazy Sunday afternoon. If you are not familiar with either, you will want to see both, as they are only two charms of Barcelona. The Giants Parade is made up of vast puppets of kings, queens, and other nobles, and they wander the streets of Barcelona, performing. The massive puppets tower of humans, as they dance, spin and put a smile on everyone’s face. It was amazing to see. The Castellers are performers who make human towers; it is out of this world. This Catalan tradition began at the end of the 18th century in Tarragona, when rival groups began to compete by constructing different kinds of human towers. It is something to watch as they scurry up on each other’s shoulders building these towers.
Sleeping: We usually stay in an apartment when we travel overseas as we want to experience more of a “living like a local” feel. The apartments we wanted to stay in were not available this trip, so we opted for hotels. I did include the flats as a friend owns them and I feel confident that they are very nice.
Hotel Arts Barcelona – We spent four luxurious nights at this 5-star hotel located by the sea in Barcelona. This hotel is located in the La Barceloneta neighborhood which is nestled between the Gothic area and the beach. There are plenty of places to walk to for meals if you do not want to eat at the hotel. I only enjoyed breakfast as well as drinks at the bar; I recommend both. The breakfast was a buffet that had a little something for everyone from a cereal bar to meat and cheese. The bartenders were fantastic as well as very informative on Barcelona and places to visit. We enjoyed a glass of wine there at the end of every evening by the end of our stay we felt like we were leaving the family. Overall, the hotel was impeccable, and the staff was very attentive. The rooms were immaculate and comfortable with dreamy sheets on the bed. The pool area was drop dead sexy, and for a gal who is not really into pool time, I did not want to leave this area.
Hotel Praktik Vinoteca – We, also, spent four nights at the end of our trip at this lovely boutique property located in the Eixample neighborhood. We joked that this neighborhood was a comfortable twenty-minute walk from everything that we wanted to see or everywhere we wanted to eat at. The hotel is part of the Praktik hotel group – they have three other properties that have a different theme. Did you know the trend in hotels this year is properties with food themes? We opted for wine since we love wine! The rooms are small which is typical of European hotels. The room was very clean, and the beds were very comfortable – the first time in twenty years that I slept 12 hours straight! The only complaint was that the place was noisy on a Friday and Saturday night, as we were at the front of the property – next time we would request a room on a higher floor at the back of the hotel (we had room 204). There is a lovely breakfast room at the back of the property which had an adjoining terrace. There is an optional breakfast buffet, for the price of the buffet, I would probably eat somewhere else for breakfast as we did not find it super impressive. Maybe we got there too late. The terrace is a lovely area to enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day; we loved it! The staff was accommodating as well as engaging. Overall, we enjoyed the hotel and would stay again.
Transportation: (updated 2019)
There is no Uber in Barcelona so plan accordingly. The taxis were easy to use and affordable. The Barcelona Metro system is fantastic as well. We used very often the first time we went but this time we opted to walk most of the time. If you decide to use the Barcelona Metro, you can purchase a Barcelona Card which provides 2, 3, 4 or 5 days of metro travel. I always feel the best way to really take in a city is to walk.
Theft: (updated 2019)
Before we left for Spain we heard horror stories about how theft is on a rise in Barcelona. We heard so many stories that we were rather nervous this trip. To be honest with you – it was OKAY! We never once felt unsafe and we walked a lot and were often in very crowded areas. It is basically like traveling anywhere else in the world – you need to be aware of your current situation and be smart. Do not have your phone out while walking around. Keep a zippered bag near and dear to you – and use common sense. There is theft everywhere, and especially in tourist areas.
Sites: updated 2019 – book anything you really want to see ahead of time. The lines were insane and we did not get into some sights that we really wanted to this recent trip.
Barcelona Bus Turistic – I have been traveling with Lenny for over 10 years, and this was the first time I heard about him liking bus tours. We took this particular tour, and it was the perfect way to become acquainted with the city and areas to come back and visit later on. Book your tickets online to save a little money.
La Sagrada Familia – became somewhat addicted to the art and architecture of Gaudi during this trip, and this modernist masterpiece is a must see. Buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid waiting in line, and possibly not getting in, as well plan to arrive early and spend at least half of the day wandering around and taking it all in. It is really spectacular, and we are hoping that we live a lifetime to see it’s completion which is slated for 2026, 150 years after being started.
La Catedral – the cathedral of Barcelona. We only walked around the immediate area both in the evening and during the day, and it is gorgeous. We peeked in but the crowds were taking over, and we decided to save it for the next trip. I love old churches, and this cathedral did not disappoint. **2019, went early and could not get in. Next time will book a tour there.
La Rambla – a pedestrian thoroughfare that is worth the walk for the people watching alone. Tuck into the small streets and alleyways for more of a local feel with regards to food and drink. Most places right on the walkway are a bit touristy. ** 2019, a bit of a tourist trap and theft is up. I avoid and prefer to walk around the smaller streets that branch off of this street.
Merca de la Boqueria – a food lovers heaven, as well as one of Europe’s greatest produce markets. ** 2019, GO EARLY! We tried to walk through around 11:00 am and it was packed and could barely get through it.
Casa Vicens – this is actually the first house that Gaudi designed, and it just opened to the public in 2017. A bit of history on it, it has regular folks living in it until 2014, then was taken over to be redone and opened to the public. They suggested seeing this property first to have a better understanding of his other works throughout Barcelona. We booked a tour here after learning we would not be able to get into the other two Gaudi exhibits, and we were not disappointed. The tour was small and very personalized, we could ask as many questions as we wanted and after the tour had as much time to explore on our own. The property is small but never felt crowded. After learning about Gaudi’s work on this property, we were able to see more of his influence throughout our walks in Barcelona from buildings to lamppost design. We did do the first tour of the day, but I would book one closer to sunset next time as it would photograph beautifully.
Palau Dalmases Flamenco – we heard that seeing a flamenco show was a must do in Barcelona. We researched a few of them online and this one caught our interest the most as it stated that it was in a palace from the 17th century in an old gothic building that was lite by candles. It did not disappoint at all. The show lasted about 45 minutes, and included preassigned seats – we were in the back row which worked perfectly for taking photos as you could stand up and not bother anyone. The admission includes the show as well as a glass of wine or beverage of your choice. The performers were amazing, to say the least. One of the women, who was an amazing dancer is 65 years old and puts us all to shame. Highly recommend doing the 7:30 pm show and then grabbing dinner at La Alcoba Azul which is close by. Next time we are in Barcelona we plan on taking in one of the Operas that perform in the same space. Be sure to buy your tickets online, ahead of time, as it sells out!
Basilica Santa Maria del Mar – I love old European churches and exploring them is a highlight of mine. I feel they are the heart and soul of a city, and that you can really begin to understand the area as well as the history better by losing some time in them. We stumbled upon this church while we were walking around waiting for the Flamenco to start. The church is beautiful, inside as well as outside and I would love to do one of their tours during my next visit. The evening we stumbled upon the church they had a free concert playing which was really lovely – nothing like church organ music to end a day of site seeing.
Restaurants: I have updated this list and put dates next to the descriptions. If you are looking for more of a tourist approach to eating out – my travel posts are not for you. We like to eat as if we live in a city and seek out good food that is reasonable with a local flair.
Castell De Xative Restaurant – outstanding Valencia-style paella, located in a quiet neighborhood. Be sure to eat all the crusty bits off the bottom of the pan. ** 2014
Goliard – is located in the Gracia neighborhood, and we had an outstanding lunch there. They offer a fixed price lunch menu for about 20 euros including a glass of wine per person. I am a picky scallop eater, and these were cooked to perfection. Outstanding service. ** 2014
Cal Pep – was our first meal in Barcelona, and consisted of many tapa style dishes featuring the freshest seafood. They basically seat you, ask if you want wine and if there is anything you do not like. Then they feed you generously with what is fresh and available that day. Great spot for a long leisurely lunch. ** 2014
La Alcoba Azul – I am not even sure how we found this place. I think I was searching for local food, great tapas, cool atmosphere, and it came up. It is located in the Gothic area of Barcelona, and it definitely has a great atmosphere – dark, intimate space with candlelight. Cool little bar that serves lovely cocktails and delicious wine. The food was outstanding and was the best tapas we had throughout our trip. The red peppers stuffed with goat cheese, honey and drowned in olive oil was ridiculously good. The octopus was cooked perfectly. The ham, be sure to order all of the Spanish ham. We loved it so much that we went twice in a week! ** 2019
Bar del Pla – a tapas bar that we stumbled upon one afternoon. It looked amazing on the outside, so we had to go in. Plus, it was beer o’clock time. We enjoyed a couple of cold beers and the best chicken croquettes that we had the entire trip. We had wished that we were really hungry as the food coming out of the kitchen looked amazing. We will definitely be going back next year. ** 2019
Vinitus – this was the “fanciest” spot we ate at during our week in Barcelona. When I say fanciest do not worry about it being expensive as it was completely affordable and the food was amazing. We the grilled clams were smoky and juicy, and the cod with honey aioli was out of this world. Highly recommend if you want something a little more special than a traditional tapas spot.
El Pintxo de la Barceloneta – This was a Basque tapas bar near the Hotel Arts Barcelona. It is tiny but worth going early for or waiting for a table later on in the evening. The Basque tapa bars are different as there is a bar area that has premade cold finger sized bites that you can put onto a plate and then order hot tapas. The food was really good, and I am sure we overate as we could not decide on a few choices and ended up trying many that were offered that day. Great atmosphere.
Ikatz – This was a second Basque tapas bar that we found and it was near our second hotel in the Eixample neighborhood. The owners were Basque and they let you know it! It was the same set-up as the previous place we ate at – cold bites were premade and we had to order the hot choices. Again we overate. Everything was really good. We were on a quest for the best octopus and this spot did it right – tender and flavorful.
Bar Jai Ca – was a tapas bar near the Hotel Arts. It has solid reviews online and was always packed with a very local scene. The portions were HUGE and honestly, not sure what the fuss was all about. It was my least favorite food – the atmosphere was nice with lively music and families but the food did not do it for us.
Barraca – we popped into this spot that was near the Hotel Arts the night we arrive in Barcelona. It was raining and it was the closest spot near us that looked good.d. The tapas were really tasty and the wine was very good! Little did we know but we should have had the paella as it was the one spot that friends who use to live there said had the best paella. We heard this from a few other locals too. Will definitely go back next year for the paella.
Shopping: We are not big shoppers, and we tend to stroll around a neighborhood and if we see something we love, then we buy. Usually, we buy street art that reminds us of our trip instead of touristy trinkets. I do love espadrilles and usually buy when in France. We found a great shop during this trip, and Lenny insisted that I buy a pair! This little shop was in the Gothic area and they had a great selection of stylish espadrilles as well the service was fantastic. Be sure to check out Barcelona HM
Restaurants – here are only a few restaurants we didn’t get a chance to try but want to next time. I have an even more extensive list of places to go that friends who have lived there have passed on. If you would like – send an email and I will share. Too many to list here.
Though our trip was short on both occasions, we loved the passion as well as the pride that was felt throughout Barcelona. A city that was rich in history as well as culture. Don’t worry Barcelona, we will be back as we feel we only tasted a small part of you, and there is so much more to enjoy.