This feels like a terribly self-indulgent thing for me to do – you know, who cares about what the piddling CMO from a middling youth travel company has to say…
A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO BARCELONA
All who visit Barcelona will fall in love with the city for life, and half of them were probably robbed while here. The Catalan capital, sparkling on the shores of the Mediterranean, is Spain’s second largest city (until the separatists get their way), a hub of art and culture, of fine dining and €1 street beers, to wander the maze that is the city centre, the watch the sunset from a hilltop and marvel at the organised chaos of it rooftop sprawl, and to party like an absolute motherlicker. Every year millions of tourists descend on La Rambla, Sagrada Familia, and other traps, which is why we created this backpacker’s guide to Barcelona to help you avoid following the masses and annoying the locals.
Stoke Travel is based in Barcelona, so we have a fondness for, and a familiarity with, this great city. Don’t let independence troubles turn you off, the city is safe and alive while the population sort out their differences. Politics in this city have always unfolded in the streets, with the people participating, an attribute that adds to the liveliness and anarchist spirit of this, quite possibly the best city in the world.
Facts About Barcelona
Population of Barcelona: 1.6 million in the city, 4.7 million in the greater Barcelona area, making it the sixth most populated urban area in the EU
Tourists to Barcelona in a year: 32 million, half of the day trippers
Languages spoken in Barcelona: Catalan, Spanish (Castellano), lots of English and French. Saying hola and adéu to shopkeepers is a nice touch if you don’t speak the lingo.
Price of things in Barcelona: coffee €1.50, beer €2 (50¢ supermarket), three course lunch meal with wine €10, decent bottle of wine (supermarket) €4, pack of cigarettes €5, gram of cocaine €60
Times things happen in Barcelona: 10am work starts, lunch 1-3pm, siesta 2-5pm, finish work 6-7pm, dinner 10pm, bars close 3am, clubs close 6am
Average summer temperatures in Barcelona: high 30°C, low 21°C
Average winter temperatures in Barcelona: high 14°C, low 5°C
Getting Around Barcelona
Walking around Barcelona: The preferred method of moving around Barcelona is on foot. This city was made for walking, and that’s just we do, because we’re cheapskates, because walking is often more convenient, because it’s good for a curvy butt and especially because it allows us to explore new parts of the city off the tourist trail. Nowhere in Barcelona is really more than an hour from anywhere else, by foot, unless you’re going from outskirt to outskirt. Bring some comfortable shoes and start trekking.
Biking around Barcelona: there are plenty of bike lanes in the city and, apart from the hills to the west, it’s mostly flat. The city sort of slopes down from the hills to the sea, so if you’re rolling downwards you’ll end up at the beach — easy! You can hire bikes from plenty of stores in the city centre, and even join a guided bike tour, just to find your wheels and get a feel for the city. Fat Tire do great tours operating out of Plaza Sant Jaume in the city centre. The public Bcing racks that you see around town are for residents only, sorrrrry.
Public transport in Barcelona: pretty good! The metro links up almost everywhere, with gaps filled by buses, trams, cable cars and weird trolley things that go up mountains. We recommend grabbing a T-10 card for less than €10 and that will give you ten trips, to take when your legs are sore from all the walking. Google Maps does a great job of giving you detailed public transport instructions, so make sure you’ve got mobile data.
Taxis in Barcelona: like taxis everywhere, they’re a good option to hit up the airport, or late at night, or if you’re in a rush, but are more expensive than the other ways of getting around. Apps like MyTaxi make finding a ride easy, and Cabify works really well for longer journeys. No Uber here because the cab drivers protested, which is a big shame.
Driving around Barcelona: not as hard as you’d think in a city like this, with some big roads traversing the city from north to south, one giant one cutting it diagonally (called Diagonal, believe it or not) and a ring road running around it. Parking is a nightmare in the city, with pretty much all street parking costing €2.50 an hour with one or two hour limits. You can park for free in the city everywhere from 8pm-9am and from 2pm-4pm, Monday to Saturday, and free all day Sunday. If you do have a car, there are plenty of paid underground spots (the SABA chain that are everywhere are the most expensive), or you can park for free on the outskirts of the city, like up at Montjuic, or on the beaches north of Nova Icaria. Just make sure you don’t leave any, and we mean any, valuables in the car.
Barcelona Accommodation Options
Where to stay in Barcelona: depending on your needs, you’ll find hostels and hotels all over the city, at different price points, from super seedy to Sheik of Oman worthy. There are also plenty of Airbnb properties around, but many are illegal and you run the risk of being hated by your neighbours, or evicted by the police. As far as districts are concerned, we find the best spots for backpackers are central, like El Born (touristy and trendy), Gotico (touristy and touristy), Raval (less touristy, edgy), Barceloneta (beachside, locals don’t want it to be touristy), and Eixample, Poble Sec and Poblenou, moving away from the centre. Accommodation in any of these barrios will be central enough to move around on foot and/or bike, and is well linked by public transport.
Couchsurfing in Barcelona: we don’t know many people in Barcelona with a spare bed (rent in the city is insanely high by Spanish standards, so any empty beds are filled with paying bodies), so you’ll definitely be sleeping on a couch. Like Couchsurfing anywhere, just keep your wits about you.
Where to sleep in your car in Barcelona: don’t, just don’t, unless you want to get stolen along with your car stereo and sold into an illegal belly-dancing ring. If you have a camper car, you can consider parking it in an underground carpark and sleeping the night, but make sure it has 24h access, otherwise you might get stuck.
Camping in Barcelona: there are a few spots, but they are all outside of the city, like Camping Masnou, along the beaches to the north, or Camping 3 Estrellas or Camping Estrella de Mar by the beaches on the other side of the airport to the south. You’ll have to rely on public transport, your own car, or the camp site’s shuttle buses to get in and out of the city itself.
Best Hostels in Barcelona: there are plenty of hostels in Barcelona, ranging from the cheap to the very bad, as well as the very expensive and fantastic. We recommend the Amistat Beach Hostel, Hostel One Paralelo and The Hipstel. Hostels in Barcelona are busy year-round with staff providing plenty of opportunities for guests to party and explore the city together. Like always, before you arrive do your research to find the best hostels for your tastes.
Best Hotels in Barcelona: all hotels in Barcelona city centre are expensive, even the very bad ones. You may be lucky and score a good deal, so keep an eye on the various booking engines if you feel like a bit of luxury for the night. For a real pleasant waste of money, check out the W Hotel that overlooks Barceloneta Beach.
Barcelona Food And Drink
What to eat in Barcelona: everything! Everything you come across, always and wash it down with something delicious too. On top of the Spanish treats you’ll find around town, there are some Catalan specialities that you should try while you’re here, like pa amb tomàquet, the national plate that is bread with tomato, garlic and olive oil rubbed into it, botifarra, traditional Catalan thick sausage, or fuet, it’s cured, thin cousin. In the winter time you have to try calçots, long, thin onions that are barbequed and dipped in romesco sauce, or any number of traditional meat, vegetable and bean stews adored locally, including escudella and ollada.
Best places to eat in Barcelona: anywhere not on La Rambla, or that seems too full of tourists, as it’s likely going to be subpar food at a premium price. We suggest eating all day, just walking around and stopping in places for tapas and drinks whenever you feel like it. There are plenty of cheap places to eat in Barcelona, particularly the bars that advertise menus del dia for €10, and the little bars that display seafood in glass cabinets and cook it on the hotplate for you. They are all over the city. Also, the restaurants around the city’s fresh-food markets, like La Boqueria, or the less touristy Mercado de Santa Caterina, often have great fresh food, just check the price. Don’t come to Barcelona expecting great paella, that’s more of a Valencia thing, though you can find some very good ones in Barceloneta. The rule for paella is that if the rice is yellow, then it’s no good — good paella should be golden brown. We’ve spent plenty of time finding the best restaurants and bars in Barcelona, so this guide can take some of the guesswork out for you.
What to drink in Barcelona: also, everything. You can drink the tap water, though it’s not very nice it won’t kill you. Bottled water is much of a muchness, but the Vichy Catalan sparkling water is pretty special and locally made. The beer from here is Estrella Damm and comes with a red label, sold by men on street corners late at night for €1 a can. Catalan wines are amazing, like those from Priorat, Montsant, Penedes and Terra Alta, you should try a bunch while you’re here (check out the ¿Wine Not? wine tastings for an unpretentious and hilarious introduction to Catalan and Spanish wines). Many bars also make a delicious vermouth, that you can absolutely enjoy of an afternoon. As for the best places to drink the heavier stuff, or just somewhere nice to enjoy a few too many vinos, we like to spend our nights in El Born, Raval or any of our other favourite bars in Barcelona. Or for a cheap place to drink in Barcelona, just take a bottle of wine to the beach and enjoy it while the sun sets…
Scams and crime in Barcelona: we might not be the first people to tell you this, but Barcelona truly is a city of petty criminals. Not many backpackers enter Barcelona and leave without a story of having something borrowed from them by nimble fingered thieves. There are many tips and tricks to avoid pickpockets in the city, but above all just keep your wits about you, don’t carry anything that you don’t absolutely need, especially when out drinking, make sure you lock all windows and doors in apartments and hotel rooms and don’t leave anything valuable or tempting in parked cars. Unfortunately tourists are targets in the city, so try to blend in where possible and don’t let strangers within touching distance.
Terrorism and public danger in Barcelona: unfortunately Barcelona was the site of a terrorist attack in August, 2017, that saw many people, mostly tourists, lose their lives. Since then authorities have increased their presence around areas that people congregate in, and have implemented measures to prevent this kind of thing happening again. Mostly, Barcelona is a safe city, so there’s no need to avoid it. There are some quite lively protests in the streets that can result in a hefty police response, and while they’re exciting to witness things can escalate and you might get hit with a rubber bullet. If you see a large group of police rushing anywhere, best avoid it.
Best Places To Visit In Barcelona: The best place to visit in Barcelona really is everywhere, because everywhere is amazing and if you stick to the main tourist sites you might miss out on the backstreet wonders, nevertheless it is best to go in with a plan, so here we go.
Best Barcelona beaches: this is a seaside city and beaches are important. The main beach barrio is Barceloneta, and along it’s beaches you’ll find lots of life, dirty sand and annoying touts selling drinks and offering massages. A little further north, but still in Barcelona, the beaches of Nova Icaria, Bogatell and Mar Bella offer volleyball, a bit more space, nicer sand and less touts. Mar Bella is also the city’s nudist beach and gay beach, so if that’s you, then you go do you (there’s also a nudist section along Barceloneta, just by the sports centre — you can’t miss it).
Barcelona sights: the most famous are La Rambla, which is a busy pedestrian street full of rip offs, and Sagrada Familia, which is a spectacular church that’s expensive to enter and always full. You’ll have to check these out, so just get it over and done with. Sagrada Familia was designed by Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, who also designed La Pedrera, Palau Güell, Casa Batlló, and Parc Güell, which its amazing views over the city. On the subject of amazing views, the Bunkers Del Carmel offer one of the best sunsets in the city, Montjuic and its castle are great for a short hike (and for fans of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics it’s like a shrine), and Tibidabo is the highest point and home to some pretty terrible amusement park rides. Another favourite building is the Palau de Musica, which wasn’t made by Gaudi, but we think it’s pretty damn nice all the same, and the Arc de Triomf is good for an Instagram shoot, but we’re not sure which triumph they’re celebrating.
Barcelona districts: Barcelona is a city of barrios, traditionally separate villages, each with its own distinct character and vibe. From the sea: Barceloneta is an old fisherman’s village that has recently seen an unwanted increase in tourism. You’ll find authentic bars, good paella and, if you’re an obnoxious tourist, unfriendly locals.
El Born has trendy restaurants, and fashion boutiques, is the epicentre of Barcelona’s burgeoning cocktail scene. It’s a young barrio, with plenty of expats from Spain, Europe and abroad and sits adjoining the Ciutadella Parc, with its duck pond, cruel zoo, wooly mammoth statue and very impressive fountain (that Gaudi interned on, true story).
Gotico is the oldest barrio of Barcelona and also the most chaotic and tourist-filled. The dark, medieval streets are the best places to be mugged, but are also full of fun bars and clubs. Plaça Real is a romantic plaza with a fountain in the middle, fringed with clubs, and Plaça Sant Jaume is where the Catalan government house and Barcelona town hall are. There are often protests here, and if you’re lucky you might see the human castles that Catalans love making. At the top of the Gothic is Plaza Catalunya, which is full of pigeons and the gross people who like having them on them.
Raval is across La Rambla from Gotico, and it’s traditionally the barrio of thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes. Some of its seedier edge still remains, which gives the place some life and frightens away the more timid tourists, but mostly now what you’ll find in Raval is immigrant families from all over the world, gentrifying hipsters and plenty of cool skater kids. Raval is home to some fantastic, unpretentious bars and cheap restaurants and the MACBA skateboarding mecca. For a backpacker, it’s a paradise.
Poble Sec is a more family orientated barrio that slowly makes its way up the lower slopes of Montjuic. The main star here is Carrer Blai, the walking street of tapas bars and terraces to drink on, and the nightclub Apolo. All of these barrios make up the historic part of town, which means smaller apartments, or at least lower roofs, small staircases without elevators (means a lot when you’re lugging your suitcase to the sixth floor — which can be eight flights up due to buildings in Barcelona starting on 0, then going to entresuelo and primero before hitting the first floor).
Eixample was built when city planners realised that the narrow streets were restricting airflow and making people sick. The streets are wider up here, buildings bigger and more spacious, and the barrio gives Barcelona the curious honeycomb grid pattern you see from above. Eixample is very spread out, but has a lot of nice restaurants, the gay Gayxample area and boutique shopping up the Passeig de Gracia.
Gracia used to be a completely separate village from Barcelona, but is now a short jaunt up the hill. It’s a family oriented barrio, very local and perhaps a little resistant to outsiders and the pressures of mass tourism. Plenty of cool bars and restaurants up here, some great plazas to drink vermouth in the sun, and the yearly Festes de Gracia, which neighbourhood associations decorate entire streets and compete against one another during a week-long outdoor party.
Poblenou an up-and-coming barrio that retains an authentic feel, despite being beside some of Barcelona’s best beaches. It’s a little out of the centre of town, separated by the Olympic village, and perhaps a little quieter than the other barrios, but locals here love it and are hesitant to leave.
Barcelona Festivals And Parties
Music festivals: every year there are new festivals popping up, many of them held in the vast Forum exhibition space to the north of the city. The most established is Primavera Sounds, that sees headline acts from around the world, as well as locals, and goes for three full days of absolute madness. Sonar is probably the world’s biggest electronic music festival and rages almost non-stop for 72 hours all over the city at various venues. Promoters will also put on “off Sonar” gigs for artists not playing the main festival, an absolute must for lovers of electronica of all genres. Cruilla festival is aimed to a slightly older crowd, but still attracts some outstanding acts, and Brunch In The Park/City is a smaller scale electronic music festival that is on literally every Sunday from April until October.
Clubs: plenty of clubs playing all types of music, every day of the week. Razamataz is the grandaddy, a sprawling maze of rooms playing some of the world’s best artists across all genres. Sala Apolo is on the other side of town and mostly features electronic acts. It’s really good on a Monday. El Row is a Stoke favourite, a place to really release the inner weird. There are the beach clubs, Opium, Shoko, Pacha, Catwalk, and they’re good places to dress up and buy bottles. La Fira is a reggaeton club, Jamboree is where you don’t want to end up, but always do, and Moog, Otto Zutz, Bling Bling, and City Hall are all places we’ve been more often than we’d like to admit.
Cultural Festivals: La Merce is the biggest festival in Barcelona, featuring music acts for free on stages across the city, plenty of parades, including the apparently dangerous correfoc fire march, human castles and so much more. Santa Eulalia festival celebrates the life, and gory death, of Barcelona’s original patron saint, and Sant Joan is the longest day of the year and acts as a welcome to Spain with fireworks and bonfires.
Food and wine fairs: these are harder to predict, but seem to erupt spontaneously all over the city. Vendors from around Catalunya will come to Barcelona and set up stalls, hawking their wine, cheese, cured meats and mostly anything else, while other times restaurants will get together and offer small plates. These are good opportunities to get well and truly trollied, while being absolutely cultural. Win-win.
Other events in Barcelona: Boat Parties cruise the Barcelona coast on either the Original Barcelona Boat Party, BBQ Boat Cruise and Champagne Sunset Boat Cruise from May until September.
The Andorra Ski Trip and enjoy the Pyrenees principality located about three hours from downtown Barcelona.
Spring Break Ibiza a hedonistic semester break on the world’s most famous party island.
For an alternative tour of the city, take part in a Bike Tours & Boozy Bike Tours, Beer Bikes, learn how to whip up Spanish and Catalan cuisine with Cooking Classes, and rage for the entirety of your stay with our Party Packs.
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