There’s a chance that in this wonderful travelling life of ours that your path will meander through Barcelona, and I'm here to tell you that it’s the most wonderful idea to do so. I’ve been living in the Catalan capital for 15 years now and can confirm that there’s never been a better time to visit.
The independence movement has simmered down to the occasional peaceful protest and the at-times puerile anti-tourism sentiment that tacitly accompanied it has thankfully nicked off too. Plus, the post-pandemic investment in walkable streets and bike lanes means that the city is an exceptionally pleasant place to amble about, camera in hand, happily snapping away at the city’s great monuments.
When you do come, you’ll be joining the 20-something-million tourists who visit this city of 1.62 million inhabitants, who all take up space inside and around the aforementioned monuments. It’s a real bump-and-bumble jungle out there most of the time – so we think it’s high time to give you some local-ish knowledge of alternative spots to get those holiday happy pics when visiting Barna (remember: Barca is the football team, Barna is the city).
You should visit Sagrada Familia…
We can’t imagine a world where we’d tell you not to visit Antoni Gaudi’s still-unfinished hallucinogenic cathedral masterpiece. Begun in 1882 and forecast for completion by 2026 (the centenary of the architect’s death, but expect that to blow right out), this unparalleled wonder of Catholic architecture is unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else, and thus is very deserving of a visit. Because of this the Sagrada had almost 4 million visitors in 2022, making it a very busy city block* indeed. I have to pass it on my way to work and let me tell you, it’s hectic.
*Speaking of city blocks, the Sagrada Familia trust is in negotiations with the city to bulldoze three full city blocks and displace up to 1000 families just to complete the construction with an audacious set of stairs. Suffice to say that’s not overly popular.
…but also visit Casa Vincens
There are a few Gaudi buildings in the city, but my favourite is the modernist Casa Vincens, in the Gracia neighbourhood. Honestly, I never knew it even existed and passed it casually on a Saturday stroll and was blown away by the beauty of the facade – the dearth of tourists making the experience not only more pleasant, but enabling me to actually get a feel for the place rather than being herded around in awe like in Sagrada Familia. Plus, as this part of town sees less out-of-towners generally, you won’t get ripped off when you buy a ham and cheese bocadillo and an ice-cold cerveza, so you’re winning on multiple fronts up here.
You can’t visit the Bunkers De Carmel anymore…
Previously, a trip to Barcelona wasn’t complete without a sunset trip up to the Bunkers de Carmel on Turo de la Rovira – so much so that crowds clambering for a spot atop the structure – Spanish Civil War-era anti-aircraft batteries – have forced local authorities to implement a nighttime curfew up there, meaning that it’s now closed from 7:30pm-9am (sunset in summer is between 9-10pm). Such a shame! But it was getting dangerous with limited access and exits and everybody scrambling about with tout-bought tins of beer impairing their clambering abilities.
…but you can see the sunset from the Parc De Carmel
Which, as the name suggests, is right there where the Bunkers are, but across the road, and up a more demanding incline (don’t worry, we’re not talking mountaineering here – it’s just a city hill). The Mirador de la Farma looks out over the city via Parc Guell (another of Gaudi’s) and has arguably better views than the Bunkers – and being a park laden with bush paths, there aren’t singular entry and exit points to close off.
BONUS: if you really want to make an afternoon of your sunset sesh, you can head to the outer barrio of Singuerlin where you’ll find (after a reasonable upwards stroll) the Poblat Ibèric Puig Castelar. This isn’t only a hilltop vantage point with unparalleled views up and down the coast, over the city, and inland towards the Pyrenees, but also the remnants of an Iberian village from the 6th Century BC. See how the ancients lived (hint: it was cramped).
The beach at Barceloneta is alright…
But by jove it’s crowded, dirty, and annoying. Created in the 15th Century, it was home to a fisherperson’s shanty town and coal-spewing Dickensian factories until the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games inspired town planners to import sand from Egypt, bulldoze the shantytowns and rehome the many minority Roma inhabitants elsewhere, then create the palm-tree lined boulevard and beach we know today. But the sand they imported is a little more dirty than sandy, and gee it gets busy with tourists, and with such an influx of tourists come the touts and thieves and so on… Look, it’s worth checking out, but if you really want to enjoy a beach day it’s best to go elsewhere.
…but the best Barcelona beaches begin at Bogatell
If you continue along the boulevard from Barceloneta, you’ll pretty quickly arrive at Port Olympic, and from there to the north you’ll find a promised land of beaches with real un-imported sand, wide spaces, far less people (and a higher local:tourist ratio, so less touts) and great paella restaurants and chiringuitos, or beach bars. But if you want a real Barcelona beach experience, jump on the Rodalies trains and head out of the city. To the north, you can take your pick from Badalona, Montgat, Masnou or Premia de Mar (where your guide lives, a mere 25 minutes from the downtown Arc Triomf station), or go south to Castelldefels, the already-too-chic Gava, or the LGBTQI-friendly beach resort of Sitges.
Vicky Cristina went to Tibidabo…
Atop Barcelona’s highest point, and featured in the director-who-we-won’t-name’s film, the Tibidabo amusement park – while tame by modern amusement park standards – offers incomparable views across the city. Prior to the 20th Century, this part of Barcelona was largely unvisited – frequented only by flocks of sheep and a few country-style estates, but once the funicular was put in, the area became a tourist attraction and the theme park followed. You’ll notice Tibidabo from almost anywhere in the city due to the white Sacred Coeur Temple, with its statue of Jesus.
…but she should have made a day of it by visiting Collserola
Tibidabo is just one part of the sprawling Collserola Park, which many claim to be the largest urban green space in Europe if not the world – equivalent to 22 of New York’s Central Park. You can hike the manifold trails crisscrossing the mountain range, including the very popular and mostly flat-going Carretera de les Aigues, have a vermouth in the quaint village of Vallvidrera, or even indulge in the winter-time tradition of barbecued calçots (a type of spring onion) washed down with copious amounts of red wine. Beware though, this is the domain of wild pigs, and while usually not dangerous at all, a pair of Collserola pigs did rough Shakira up and try to steal her purse…
There’s more to Montjuic than its castle…
The other peak in Barcelona that’s heavily visited is the seaside stronghold of Montjuic and its impressive castle, easily reached by cable car or up stairs that’ll have you satisfied, albeit satisfied and gasping for air. The Montjuic Castle – the site of manifold atrocities by both the Catalans and their enemies over the years – is these days a pleasant historical building in an even more pleasant park where amateur archers take the place of firing squads, and tourists are now the only torturers within its walls.
…for example, the Olympic pools are some of the best in the world
The whole of Montjuic is worth exploring though – especially for a 1992 Olympics tragic like your narrator. You can visit the stadiums used in the games, now used very regularly to host concerts (I saw Elton John there last night) and not left to rot like many modern Games installations, and see where the Spanish archer infamously (and they say intentionally) overshot the Olympic Flame which was lit from the inside and not by his flaming arrow.
If you’re a normal person and not a 1992 Barcelona Olympics tragic like myself, you can still enjoy the Olympic diving pools, perched on the side of the mountain with some of the best views in the city and open for public bathing in July and August (it also has a bar to buy snacks and drinks and not wait 40 minutes before swimming – joy!). If you think that a pool on a hill isn’t a great recommendation, just look at how it fares when featured in the film clip for Kylie Minogue’s banger, Slow.
And that’s just the beginning of not-so-touristy things to do in Barcelona. When you come to town, why not look me up? I’ll be on the diving board preparing a triple pike with a glass of vermouth in hand. Adieu!