Barcelona is a city incredibly close to my heart. It’s where I’ve lived for nearly three years, and it still excites me to this day. Sandwiched between mountains and Mediterranean, and packed with stunning architecture and exciting sights, it’s a place with so, so much going for it, and so, so much going on. Cities like this don’t go unnoticed, however, and as parts of Barcelona struggle to keep their charm and authenticity against tacky tourism and globalization, this article aims to shed some light on the real, authentic Barcelona – from the eyes of a casi local.
I’m going to start this with the places you can – and can’t – avoid, of the city’s famed sites. Nowhere better to crack us off than La Sagrada Familia, the epic brainchild of the great Antoni Gaudi. This is something you need to see and no visitor to BCN should miss it. Gaudi’s gigantic temple is an astonishing piece of art, as impressive from the inside as it is out. The park of Montjuic up on the hill overlooking the city is a great spot and is so big you can feel totally alone in a lot of areas. La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous street, is definitely a place to avoid if you’re after authenticity, while the venue itself is beautiful, it’s now hugely overcrowded and painted with tacky souvenir shops, dodgy overpriced tapas restaurants, and about as Catalan as an Irish Pub in Benidorm.
The majority of tourists to Barcelona go to Barceloneta beach. It’s the closest to Les Ramblas and most tourist accommodation and has been made famous in ads and pictures due to it sitting next to the sail-shaped glass-covered W-hotel. The W is, however, just a hotel, and the heavily overcrowded beach here is dirty and avoided by locals at all costs.
The beaches generally get better the further up the coast you go. If you’re on a tight schedule or don’t fancy getting on a train, head to the beach at Bogatell/Marbella for a cleaner, more relaxed vibe with actual Catalan people. Better still, if you hop on a train for half an hour north you have the beach at Montgat Nord which is empty and peaceful. Towards the south of the city on a half-hour train, there’s the long wide beach of Castelldefels, famous for windsurfing and being the home of many FC Barcelona players.
Wander around the touristy gothic neighborhood for half a day and see the cathedral and churches, then forget about it if you want to see the most authentic parts of the city. Check out the traditional, yet artsy and bohemian district of Gracia. It’s streets inhouse great bars and restaurants, galleries and quirky shops. One of the top spots to recommend here is Placa del Sol, a big open square in the center of Gracia full of activity and decent bars and tapas joints where you can sit outside, the best of these being a place called Sol Soler. Wander from here through Gracia’s pretty streets and you’ll stumble upon lots more lovely little plazas and parks.
The neighborhood of El Born is another that offers a unique insight into the city, with a very distinct feel to it. This is more central than Gracia, sitting next to El Gotico and Barceloneta, and has loads of good bars and restaurants to try out, as well as Galleries like the Picasso Museum and many smaller more independent ones. El Born is also right next to Parque De La Ciutadella – a great spot to walk around or picnic in on a sunny day.
El Raval is an area that splits opinions, but I love it. It’s Barcelona’s most multicultural barrio and it offers something very different in terms of its shops and restaurants to any other in the city. The hipster area around the modern art museum MACBA and Carrer de Joaquin Costa is full of vintage clothing shops, record and skate shops, affordable bars and decent places to eat, and no shortage of skaters. Raval also boasts the most amount of open spaces for grabbing a drink outside on a hot day, as well as parks to relax in.
Honorary mentions here go out to the up and coming area of Poblenou, which can be explored from the beaches of Bogatell or Marbella as mentioned earlier, and Poble Sec – the best place to go for Pinchos in the city – especially on Carrer de Blai.
Let’s start with ways to know the places to avoid. Number one – any restaurant that has pictures of the food outside it or in its menu, is guaranteed to be below par. Barcelona has loads of restaurants like this, and the food in each one is both low quality and highly basic. Number two – any restaurant on La Rambla shouldn’t be tried, the food isn’t just bad but it’s heavily overpriced. Number three – any restaurant where you can’t see or hear any Catalan or Spanish people dining is a no-go.
If you follow the steps above, you’ll be unlucky not to find some really good food in the city. TripAdvisor will tell you some of the “best” places to go, but due to its recommendation, many of these places will have put their prices up and changed from their original selves to cater to their growing tourist market. Here I present the best, most authentic places to eat in BCN today, of the non-touristy collection.
- Jai-ca, Barceloneta. For me the best in the city, especially for seafood tapas. This place became so popular with locals they had to open another on the same street.
- Casa Lopez, Gracia. The most authentic Catalan tapas restaurant I can recommend. Hidden away in Gracia and completely unshowy, the food and atmosphere here are fantastic and the prices are incredibly reasonable.
- Tantarantana, El Born. Great tapas and traditional dishes, in a quaint and romantic restaurant in El Born.
- La Malandrina, Barceloneta. An Argentinian/Uruguayan Barbecue restaurant and steakhouse that’s really quite special and yet relatively unassuming and unheard of. Very reasonable prices and big portions.
- Teresa Carles, El Raval. The best vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever been to. Modern, inventive vegetarian cooking that really works.
- NAP, El Borne. A Neapolitan pizzeria that’s always full of regulars and for good reason.
- The Ramen Shop, El Gotico. Breaking the rule here as there are some pictures inside the menu, but this is a true little-discovered gem for Ramen and dumpling lovers. Tucked away in a side street of El Gotico.
- The Fish and Chips Shop, Eixample & Gracia. Serving a Catalan take on fish and chips that really elevates the British classic. Amazing food in quirky surroundings.
Bars and Nightlife
Around Plaza Catalunya, Les Ramblas and El Gotico, you’ll be approached by loads of promoters for bars and nightclubs, and while this is annoying it’s also something you need to just blank out. Any bar or club that needs promoters in a city that likes to party as much as BCN is not a good one.
Vermouth is the most traditional Catalan tipple, with many local-type bars across the region brewing their own stuff. Check the bars on Carrer de la Mercè to try some in a very traditional setting. These bars also serve a lovely Catalan milky spirit served with cinnamon and ominously referred to as ‘la leche’ (the milk). El Raval is perhaps the best area for bars in the city, especially around Carrer de Joaquin Costa. 33/45 is a really cool bar with a nice feel to it, as is Betty Ford’s. Neither of these has outdoor seating though, so if that’s what you’re after try Kino, next to MACBA. As mentioned before, Gracia has lots of good locally-type bars, as does El Borne.
BCN really does have loads of options for good clubs, most of which stay open right until 6 am. No matter what your favorite type of music, you’ll find a good dance spot somewhere in BCN any night of the week. This is something that is worth googling or checking out on Resident Advisor before you come.
This has hopefully given you some ideas about how to really experience Barcelona properly, away from the tourist traps. Go and enjoy, thank me later!
Cover Photo by Serra Verde Express