20 Essential Tips For First-Time Visitors to Barcelona
I’m going to walk you through the most essential tips for your first visit to Barcelona. These are things to do and things NOT to do to prepare for your trip. After your feedback from A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Barcelona, I decided to deep dive into what Barcelona has to offer. This is the first post in my new series, Barcelona Travel Tips. Throughout November, I will show you more about Barcelona’s food scene, culture, festivals, art, neighborhoods, and best attractions.
First time in Barcelona: Here’s what to keep in mind
1. Be sensitive to the politics
Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, where there has been a movement for independence for years. Because Catalunya is the wealthiest part of Spain, the Spanish government distributes Catalunya’s money to poorer regions, like Andalucia. This has bred resentment among Catalanes, who believe the policy is unfair. That resentment, combined with a huge sense of pride, are the main forces behind the independence movement.
Right now, the former leader of the Parliament of Catalunya is in exile because he called a referendum for independence in 2017. That’s how serious the situation is. It’s important to be aware of the somewhat tense political atmosphere. Choose your words wisely if you end up discussing politics like I normally do. You don’t want to unknowingly offend the locals.
2. Book your La Sagrada Familia ticket ahead of time
La Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in Barcelona and the second most visited attraction in Spain (after La Alhambra in Granada.) Before you go, you can book your ticket online at the La Sagrada Familia website. They sell out fast, and you may not be able to buy them at the door. Book at least 3 days in advance to be safe.
A basic entrance ticket is 15 euros. But a better way to experience La Sagrada Familia is to do a guided tour. You can get a ticket with an audio guide for 22 euros or a human guide for 24 euros. If you want a more personalized tour, then I’d highly recommend the Get Your Guide La Sagrada Familia Tour. Get Your Guide is a top-notch tour company that I used several times across Europe. Their La Sagrada Familia Tour allows you to skip the long lines and explore the church at your own pace with an audio guide. You also get access to the Nativity Tower. Learn more about the La Sagrada Familia Tour.
To make sure you’re fully prepared for your visit to La Sagrada Familia, also check out the 5 Mistakes To Avoid at La Sagrada Familia.
3. Take a free walking tour
Walking is the best way to explore Barcelona. You can either design your own self-guided walking tour or join a group tour. There are tons of free walking tours in Barcelona to get to know the city. You can simply Google ‘free walking tours Barcelona’ and browse through the options. I did a 2-hour walking tour with Free Walking Tours Barcelona and didn’t like it. Maybe it was the guide I had, but his narration bored me to tears! Plus he moved too fast. The tour dragged on past the 2-hour mark so I just left. You could try Sandeman’s walking tour in Barcelona. I’ve done their walking tours in Edinburgh and Prague and had a good experience. I figure their Barcelona tour would be just as good.
4. Use the multi-day metro cards to save money
If you plan to stay in Barcelona for 3 or more days, you can a T-10 multi-trip ticket. It allows you to take both the train and the metro and costs less per ride compared to a single ticket. You also consider getting the Barcelona Hola Travel Card, which gives you unlimited metro and bus rides for 2, 3, 4, or 5 days.
5. Don’t plan on taking an Uber
Uber currently doesn’t operate in Barcelona. The Spanish government banned it in 2015 after some protests against the company’s policies. Uber is back in Madrid so there’s a chance it may return to Barcelona. At the moment, though, don’t plan on using any rideshare services, including Lyft and Cabify.
6. Watch your purse
Unfortunately, Barcelona is a haven for pickpocketers. I’ve personally never had any problems with them, but thefts do happen. When you’re in the metro, keep your belongings in front of you and close to your body. Also, pay attention to your surroundings, especially in busy areas like Las Ramblas. Don’t flash your expensive iPhone or watch. Basically, follow the same common sense precautions you take when traveling anywhere.
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7. Drink cava and vermouth instead of sangria
Here’s something that may surprise you: Spanish people don’t drink sangria! What? I know. it’s surprising, right? What I mean is that you will almost never see a Spanish person go to a bar and order sangria. Normally, they make a pitcher of sangria at home and drink it on a hot day.
The drinks that Barcelona locals order at the bars are cava and vermouth. Spanish vermouth is known as vermút rojo, and it’s white wine infused with caramel, cinnamon, and some herbs that give it a red color. Cava, a sparkling white wine, is a staple drink of Catalunya. You can down some while eating tapas.
8. Skip La Barceloneta Beach, go to Nova Icaria Beach
Maybe I’m picky about beaches because I live in California, but La Barceloneta was just awful. With brown sand and trash everywhere, this is possibly the worst beach in Europe. Not to mention the hundreds of tourists occupying every square inch of the place. Then there are the street vendors pestering you to buy their souvenirs. Well, people have to make a living so I’ll give them a pass. My point is that La Barceloneta is neither a beautiful nor relaxing beach.
There are a couple of alternatives to La Barceloneta. First up is Mar Bella Beach, which takes 40 minutes to get to if you board the tram from the city center. The only issue is that this is a nudist beach mostly filled with couples. As a solo traveler who likes to wear clothes, that might be sort of awkward.
There are four other options remaining: San Sebastiá, Bogatell, Nova Icária, and Sant Miquel. San Sebastiá and Bogatell are frequented by older people while Sant Miquel is overcrowded. That leaves Nova Icaria as the best option. It’s calm, relatively clean, and just 25 minutes away from the city center. No nudists there either.
Nova Icaria Beach: Passeig Marítim de la Nova Icària, 60, 08005 Barcelona, Spain
9. Time your trip to coincide with a festival
You can plan your trip for late September in order to experience the five-day Festes de la Mercè. During the festival, the whole city lights up with fireworks, dancing, free concerts, and the famous correfoc, a procession of men people blasting fireworks into the air.
Another festival you may want to catch is the Festa Major de Gràcia, which takes place in the Gracia neighborhood eery August. There is a competition to see which street can create the most elaborate decorations. You’ll also find free concerts and outdoor events.
10. Take advantage of the free museum on Sundays
The Picasso Museum and the Barcelona City History Museum are both free on Sunday afternoons and evenings. If you can save money on museum tickets, why not? That’s more money for food and souvenirs. Time your trip so you can be around on a Sunday to take advantage of this freebie. The museums are free from 3 pm to 8 pm.
11. Enjoy musical performances at Palau de Musica Catalana
This is a concert hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only stunning, but it also hosts some of the most talented musicians from Spain and beyond. You can watch Flamenco dancers, singers, and musicians. Check their website to see upcoming shows
Palau de La Musica Catalana: C/ Palau de la Música, 4-6, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
12. Don’t spend too much time at Las Ramblas
Las Ramblas is the main pedestrian street in the city, where you’ll find the popular La Boqueria Market. The problem is that this street is packed with tourist traps like the paella stands you’ll find in the middle of the passageway. I wouldn’t buy anything on this street, whether it be food or souvenirs. I also wouldn’t spend much time here because it’s really just a long street with shops. Not much to see honestly.
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13. Explore the one of a kind street art
Barcelona has a thriving street art scene much like Madrid. There has been a long-standing community of graffiti artists, whose works you’ll mainly find in El Raval and Poblenou. Here is some street art to check out:
- Peix, a gigantic fish sculpture by Frank Gehry, who also created the Guggenheim Museum
Carrer de Ramon Trias Fargas, 2, 08005 Barcelona, Spain
- El Gato del Raval, Fernando Botero’s bronze sculpture of a cat in El Raval.
Rambla del Raval, s/n , 08001 Barcelona, Spain
14. Climb to Bunkers del Carmel for great views
Bunkers del Carmel is one of the best places to get a 360 view of Barcelona. Getting up there is a bit of a Climb, but the views from the top are so worth it. You could take a blanket up there and stay for a while like a lot of visitors do.
Bunkers del Carmel: Carrer de Marià Lavèrnia, s/n, 08032 Barcelona, Spain
15. Wander the streets of the Gothic Quarter
The Gothic Quarter is a perfect place to meander for a while. Home to architecture dating back 2,000 years, it’s essentially the old part of the city. That means the whole area is sort of like a museum for Roman history and architecture. Some of the top sites to check out are the Gothic Cathedral, King’s Square, and the tapas bars, including La Alcoba Azul and La Plata. The Gothic Quarter is a nice place to just meander and get lost for a while.
La Alcoba Azul: Carrer de Sant Domènec del Call, 14, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
La Plata: Carrer de la Mercè, 28, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
16. Eat ‘churros con chocolate’ on Calle Petritxol
Calle Petritxol is a street in the Gothic Quarter that is famous for its churros. Churros con chocolate are a Spanish breakfast staple that you must try. On the street, you’ll find lots of vendors like Granja Dulcinea and Petrixol Xocoa. You can also try Porras, which are bigger and fluffier than churros. I actually think they’re better than churros.
Granja Dulcinea: Carrer de Petritxol, 2, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
Petrixol Xocoa: Carrer de Petritxol, 11, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
17. Have a drink at the Bar Marsella
This bar was once frequented by the likes Ernest Hemingway, Antoni Gaudi, and Salvador Dali. Founded in 1820, it is the oldest bar in Barcelona. The most famous drink on the menu is the absinthe. This bar was also featured in the movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Bar Marsella: Sant Pau 65, 08001 Barcelona, Spain
18. Rummage at Els Encants Vells flea market
If you want to find a unique souvenir to take home from Barcelona then head to Els Encants Vells flea market. Here you can find items like vintage clothes, paintings, jewelry, pots, and silverware. Located right next to the Design Museum, this market has two floors. You’ll find some random, outdated junk in the mix, but there are also some rare gems. You just have to look around for a bit. When you’re done shopping, you can get some food at the restaurants on the second floor.
El Elcants Vells flea market: Carrer de los Castillejos, 158 Avinguda Meridiana, 08013 Barcelona, Spain
19. Beware of the perception of Black women
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20. Of course, get some tapas
There you have it – the best tips for your first visit to Barcelona. Follow these and I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time. Be sure to leave your questions in the comments section below.
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