Barcelona: The Beginner’s Guide

From the beautiful architecture that is scattered throughout the city, to grubby side streets and alleys, Barcelona is a city of stark contrasts, a place where cultures from all over the world convene, but where less-than-P.C. locals commonly refer to Asians as “Chinos,” Muslims as “moros” and confuse women dressed up for a night out on the town with sex workers. So it’s no surprise that, visitors, expats, and natives alike often have a bipolar relationship with the Catalan capital. We love the sun, but hate the heat and humidity. We adore traditional neighborhood shops, but bemoan the impossibility of Sunday shopping.

Of course, loving a city is a lot like loving a person. You’ve got to accept it how it is, not how you want it to be. Barcelona is no exception. Here are our best tips to help newcomers survive and enjoy this city by the sea:

6 Important Rules for Surviving Barcelona:

Barcelona Scenes

The sunset over the Besós River, a Barcelona skyline graffiti, and a palm tree in Barcelona’s Marina neighborhood.

1.     Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Valuables Closer. This sounds far easier in theory than it actually is. Carry a purse that zips or closes tightly shut with a buckle or tie that you can wear securely across your body. Wallets and valuables in front pockets only, please. Never leave phones out on tables, or bags and jackets with valuables inside hung on the back of chairs. If you put your bag on the floor, hook it around a leg. Don’t leave anything you want to keep unattended or out of your line of sight, period.

If despite your best efforts, you have something stolen, go back to the scene of the crime. Thieves often discard everything but cash and electronics steps away from where they nabbed your bag. Also, be sure to go to the police if you want to be able to make a claim with your travel insurance.

Barcelona food

Anchovies with roasted red pepper and goat cheese on pa amb tomaquet, fried squid feet, and creamy crema catalana

2.     Search out authentic eats. Skip the eateries near Las Ramblas, Plaça Catalunya, the area directly surrounding Barcelona’s big museums (MNAC, Picasso, MACBA), Plaça Espanya, Parc Guell, and Sagrada Familia Temple. Venture further afield or you’ll get ripped off, both in terms of the price, and the quality of the food. Don’t bother with restaurants that have menus in more than three languages (in Barcelona Catalan, Spanish and English are fairly common), all-day open kitchens, and “international” cuisine, either.

Instead, eat like a local on a local schedule, at places that cater to locals. That means breakfast 8-10am, lunch 2-4, and dinner 8-10pm. It may require some adjustment, but it’s worth it, ‘cause you’ll get fresher, better quality food, even if you have to whip out your trusty Spanish-English dictionary.

 3.     Skip cheesy souvenir shops. Official Museum shops are okay, but the little storefronts around Barcelona attractions like the Picasso Museum,  La Rambla, and the Gothic Quarter are just selling you Barcelona-themed junk made in China. If you really must have an “I heart Barcelona” tee, find one of the Chinese Bazaars away from Plaza Catalunya in traditional neighborhoods like Marina, Gracia, Eixample, and Sants for a better deal and a taste of local living.

4.     Walk and use public transport. Forget about renting a car or a motorcycle. Parking and traffic are a pain, and the few places you can’t get to on foot or in the subway, you can get to on bus routes. After hours, you can always get a taxi and no driving means you can enjoy plenty of cocktails and cava.

5.      Take your time. The pace of life in Barcelona is notably faster than in some Spanish cities, but is likely to be slower than you’re used to. Instead of trying to fit in as many activities as possible around rushed meals and coffee breaks, relax and take your time. Service at restaurants and stores is notoriously slow, as in, you have to chase down your waiter to get you the bill. So embrace a little down time between Barcelona adventures.

6.     Dress for the occasion. Barcelona may be hailed as a casual city on most travel sites–the city isn’t overflowing with men and women in business suits–but there are some limits. Flashy tennis shoes and athletic gear are for tourists, teenagers, and locals who are actually exercising. Shorts are becoming more common, but unless they’re fashionable and well styled, forget about wearing them anywhere but on the beach.  If you happen to be female and  plan to go out and dance, try to wear a jacket or something that’s more covered up until you get there to avoid uncomfortable situations with creepy old misogynists who may mistakenly assume you’re up for purchase.


Need some tips on what to do in Barcelona? Here some favorites from a long-time local:

Top 5 Things to do in Barcelona:

·      Vintage Buys – Shopping for vintage treasures at Els Encants flea market (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) and Holala Vintage, anytime, any of the four locations around town.

·      Views from Above – Get in sweeping views of the city skyline from the rooftop of Las Arenas shopping mall. Or put on your hiking shoes and climb up Montjuic. Be sure to stop off at the Miró Museum.

·      Architecture Walk – Stroll along Passeig de Gracia and pose for pictures with striking Modernista buildings and wrought iron and mosaic streetlights.

·      Authentic Tapas – Have a drink and authentic tapas at El Vaso de Oro or La Bodega Peninsular en Barcelona’s Barceloneta neighborhood.

·      Picnic in the Park – Shop for edibles at one of Barcelona’s food markets and have a gourmet picnic in one of Barcelona’s many green spaces. Particularly beautiful if somewhat off the beaten path, are Barcelona’s Garden Labyrinth  (featured in the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) and the Rose Garden at Cervantes Park.

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