Hi Frugalistas! It’s cool, it’s fun and eternally hip – and it’s one of my favorite cities in Europe. Barcelona! Capital of Catalunya in Spain, fiercely independent and with a language and culture all its own, Barcelona takes centre stage in this edition of my short guides series.
Arriving in Barcelona
The train will drop you pretty much in the centre of town, making it an easy bus or underground train ride to wherever you are heading to. Arriving by plane, the airport is about half an hour from the Placa de Catalunya (the centre square of Barcelona) by airport bus. Buses leave every 10-15mins from outside the main terminal and cost just EUR9.50 return (a return ticket is valid for 7 days). Buy your ticket either from the little booth out the front of the bus stop – at the airport it looks incredibly disorganised, but is actually remarkably efficient with ticketing and boarding, or from the driver on the outbound trip. Unless you are traveling in a group of 4 or so, don’t bother with a taxi – the price, amenity and efficiency of the bus just doesn’t make it worth while.
Where to stay
The main things you want to see in Barcelona are all centred around a few neighbourhoods radiating out from the Placa de Catalunya. Each neighbourhood has its own particular vibe, so it really is just a matter of personal preference what vibe you prefer – find a good guidebook that describes the neighbourhoods well and take your choice. My own personal choices are either the Eixample (just to the north of the Placa, well located, and with good public transport links) or the Barre Gotic (the Gothic quarter to the south east of the Placa). Areas to avoid for accommodation? In my opinion, the Ramblas – the main pedestrian mall, and noisy, noisy, noisy (I learned that lesson the first time I stayed in Barcelona about 20 years ago). I understand the southern area of the Barre Gotic can also be a bit seedy, as can some areas between the Ramblas and the University.
Finding somewhere to stay
The world is your oyster when it comes to accommodation. A double room in a central good 3 star hotel with wifi and breakfast should come in round EUR100 or under. There are plenty of hostels and other reasonable options available. One thing I did notice the last time I was there – chain hotels tend to be not so centrally located, so maybe this is one town to go for local rather than an international chain.
Buses radiate from Placa de Catalunya. The underground train system is small and simple to use – exits for the main sites are well signposted, and little lights on the trains show your progress on the train route. Barcelona is also a great walking town. So stretch the legs and go for a wander – you’ll love it.
Where to eat
Spain, of course, is all about the tapas (also advertised as pintxos in Catalan) and Barcelona is no exception. A glass of vino tinto and a few plates of something that takes your fancy makes for an enjoyable meal, local style. In bars, or in restaurants with bar seating treat yourself to the little open sandwich-style tapas that differ from the little plates you see elsewhere. Follow the general good eating guidelines – avoid the Ramblas restaurants with their spruikers and picture menus, look to where the locals are, and ask your hotel for local recommendations.
For cheap and easy meals on the go, head to the Mercato La Bocqueria on the Ramblas for picnic materials, juices and brightly coloured fruit salads.
What to avoid in the food and drink department? Paella – it is a regional dish from Valencia and is often pre-made and microwaved. And sangria – largely considered a drink for tourists. Instead go for a local wine, or a glass of cava (the local sparkling wine).
What to do
Apart from eating, for me, Barcelona is all about the architecture. Watch the locals in the Placa de Catalunya, then head down the Ramblas to watch the tourists. On weekends the Ramblas hosts a small pet market and florist stalls and souvenir stalls abound.
Architecture in Barcelona is medieval (in the Barre Gotic), Art Nouveau (or Moderisme as it is known in Barcelona. In the Eixample) and wild – and that means Antonio Gaudi.
Head off the Ramblas and get lost in the Barre Gotic. Tour the Gothic cathedral and visit the geese – still kept there as a nod to the past when they were used as burglar alarms. The square at the front of the cathedral features a Picasso wall sculpture – just casually left in the corner. Find the square with the house Gaudi lived in, still pock-marked with bullets from the tragic Civil War of the 1930s.
Head away from the Placa de Catalunya and along the block of discord in the Eixample to take in the divine Art Nouveau buildings and the bizarre inventiveness of Gaudi. His take on Art Nouveau (or Modernisme) is crazy, but still anchored in the organic shapes and thinking of their more traditional neighbours.
Book ahead of time and spend forever taking in the riotous wonder of the Sagrada Familia – the magnificient, yet to be completed, Gaudi Basilica. Compare it to the dark, sombre Gothic cathedral (the fun of the geese and frog fountain aside).
If Gaudi in the outdoors is more your style, or if you just can’t get enough, head up to Parc Guel – large park where Gaudi’s imagination again runs riot – in their natural surroundings.
Shopping in Barcelona
Really, I’d rather not shop in Barcelona. It’s not that sort of town. But if you have to, try the specialty sweet and chocolate shops in the Barre Gotic or Il Corte Ingleses department store (on the Placa de Catalunya) for reasonably priced clothing and accessories. On the weekend on the Ramblas there are a number of local artists with some cute (but definitely not cheap) local art, and also some craft stalls.
Too much to tackle in just one post, or even just one visit, Barcelona is definitely a location to be savored and returned to often!