There’s something about Barcelona that can make a visitor sway. Many things, in fact, including its striking architecture and overt celebration of art, its politically charged pockets of resistance and self-determination, its balance of grit and glamour, the beauty of its beaches and mountains, the way its old-world charm never holds back its post-modern rigour, its devotion to religion and football, and the importance it places on family, festivals and fun. But if Catholicism and football are the Catalonian capital’s official and unofficial religions, food and wine are its genuine obsessions.
Perched on Spain’s north-east coast looking out to the Mediterranean, the country’s second-biggest city warrants—demands, in fact—a reasonably lengthy stay to fully appreciate its charms in toto. The dynamism and spectacle of its city centre—with points of interest dotted in all directions if you use the Placa de Catalunya as your starting point—are enhanced when you also explore its sprawling outer limits, for all parts are intrinsically linked. Three to five days will give you a decent start. Failing that, plan multiple visits. You won’t regret it.
The same time-related rule ought to apply if you’re aiming to get the city’s full gastronomic experience. The stars of Barcelona’s cuisine are seafood, pork, lamb, vegetables, legumes, cheese, bread, chocolates, nuts, spices and olive oil. Dishes are prepared and enjoyed in all types of eateries, from rustic subterranean tapas bars (where worn wooden tables and chairs are stained by a sticky layer of beer froth and the sweet, butter-like fat of cured ham), to suddenly-hip, new-wave, mostly-white and straight-lined cafes (where old-style tapas are given a modern twist, beards and flannelette shirts are in vogue and the young(ish) owners’ command of English is generally flawless), to classic restaurants (that heat up late-evening, in line with the locals’ habitual eating patterns and are family-run institutions often fronted and controlled by a matriarch who cooks, arranges, recommends, quietly but effectively disciplines staff, and who can always find a tourist a table, no matter how packed her house is), and to world-famous, high-end establishments (including 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, where the service borders on theatrical and you go not for a meal but for an experience, complete with eye-opening interior design and the likelihood of a cuenta that will also make your eyes pop!)
If you’ve visited the city more than once, you’ll likely know what you enjoy eating and drinking and where to find it. For those yet to experience Barcelona’s intoxicating ways, here are some totally subjective recommendations to help give you but a taste of what you might stumble across in a day.
Aim to stay in or around the city’s heart, say, in the Eixample district, with its pretty boulevards, delightful buildings (including Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Batlló) and abundance of bars and cafés, shops and spots to stop and eat. Get yourself some comfortable shoes and open your mind.
Start your day no earlier than 8am (locals are rarely in a rush) with a standing Euro-style breakfast: a coffee, short and black, or longer with milk, plus a warm, just-made pastry. Don’t expect the quality of the sweet to match the type you might find in France or Italy, but do partake. And don’t be alarmed if your barista, say an animated elderly gentleman, just happens to be working the coffee machine with a lit cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. Engage him—there’s a fair chance he’ll make you laugh with a quirky anecdote or life rule to adhere to, before offering you a shot of hard liquor while taking one himself. Salud! The caffeine-and-sugar hit is necessary to fuel some intense walking, but be careful not to overindulge, as you’ll need to leave room for multiple food stops during the course of your day. (That early-morning shot is optional.)
Architecture and energy
Churches need not be your thing, but you must see—engage with—La Sagrada Família, another Gaudi masterpiece, albeit still incomplete 135 years after construction on this phenomenal work started. It’s a casual 30-minute stroll there from Eixample (or a five-to-seven-minute taxi ride). An hour or so—or a day or more—in and around the spectacular church should prepare you for a mid-morning snack. Bakeries and cafes surround what is still a building site (latest estimates have the masterpiece on track for completion around 2027). Grab another coffee and munch on simple but delicious treats including crusty bread with tomato and olive oil (a staple), jamon (cured ham, naturally, as adoration of the pig is a national religion!) in a crunchy bread roll, or open mini-sandwiches featuring combinations of avocado, tomato, tuna, salmon, anchovies and sardines. When you’re done, down a glass of horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nut milk, rice, sugar and spices, an elixir said to be high in anti-oxidants.
From here, you have multiple options. Hop-on, hop-off buses are the quickest way to get to all corners of the city, and the various routes are clues as to how vast this city actually is. Consider this mode for at least a preliminary look at attractions and points of interest including Gaudi’s amazing Park Guell and Casa Milà (popularly known as La Pedrera). Tibidabo mountain and Montjuic hill provide stunning views of the city; Poble Espanyol village is an open-air architectural museum that also houses a theatre, a museum, restaurants and artisan workshops, including a shop dedicated to all things olive oil. There are other parks and open spaces, museums, galleries and centres for the arts, the Camp Nou soccer ground (home of FC Barcelona), and the city’s beaches and broader waterfront. You also can take a cab or use the bus or very efficient subway train system to get to these and other spots, particularly those spread out. Alternatively, hit the footpaths—the most rewarding way of traversing the inner city.
A brisk 35-minute walk south of the basilica will see you reach the Gothic Quarter, the heart of old Barcelona—with its medieval buildings—and a labyrinth of small streets and lanes leading to quirky gift stores and yet another selection of cafés and the like. Pit and refuel—perhaps on handmade chocolates or slivers of almond-rich nougat and a coffee—before making your way west to the (in)famous La Rambla, the long, tree-lined street/mall that at night develops an other-world, circus-like personality best avoided. During the day, however, do feel at ease navigating the masses in order to take in these two attractions: the Jamon Experience, which features an audiovisual tour paying homage to the pig and explaining the ins and outs of the lucrative cured ham industry before finishing with an orchestrated tasting experience offered in multiple languages; and, but metres away across the road, La Boqueria, one of Europe’s most famous—deservedly so—fresh food markets.
La Boqueria requires at least two visits. Use your first (especially if you’re already full) simply wandering, studying the goods on offer, noting the vibrant colours, listening to stall holders and shoppers interact, buying a loaf of bread, a tray of fresh figs and some jamon for later, and observing locals laughing and loving their way through a late lunch of fresh seafood, for example, cooked effortlessly in front of them. Your second visit should focus primarily on eating, preferably after securing a front-and-centre seat at one of the many stalls specialising in this arrangement.
Your mid-to-late afternoon might be spent shopping, finding a spot in a public square to sample your bread, figs and jamon, or simply watching the world go by from a café.
Retire to your room for a quick snooze, a shower and a change of clothes. Venture back out around 6pm, and join the locals filling the city’s bars and cafes for conversation and debate over tapas (olives, chorizo, dips, twice-cooked potatoes, fried peppers, prawns, sardines, clams and mushrooms are but a handful of the huge range on offer) and drinks—stick with beer or a mixed drink dominated by vermouth.
Think you’re done? Hardly. There’s still dinner, but not before 9pm and often way after 10. Go with a grilled steak with vegetables or salad. Better still, try one of the many ways the Catalans cook bacallà (cod fish), including a version where it’s simmered with potatoes in water before being mashed (along with olive oil and garlic) into a puree. The puree is then stuffed into piquillo peppers, which are drizzled with a basil and tomato sauce before being baked in the oven. Ask your waiter to match the wine to your meal, and do take up his or her offer to try a dessert and sweet wine or sherry. Remember, you’re on holiday in one of Europe’s most captivating cities. Why wouldn’t you?