Please help me find the real Barcelona
September 11, 2018 11:22 AM   Subscribe

I’m in Barcelona for the next 4-6 days, and so far I kinda hate it. Please help me find the real city hiding within the toxic tourist mess.

In the midst of an epic 17-day trip to Spain. I’ve been to Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, and Sevilla, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I fell in love with every one of those cities. Today I arrived in Barcelona, which everybody seems to love, but so far, I hate it. I guess it doesn’t help that I’m staying in Barri Gotic, which I imagined would be an historic city center, but instead seeks pretty grimy, sketchy, and overrun with tourists. Las Ramblas feels positively toxic and absolutely overrun with tourists. Everywhere I go, crowds of tourists. Tourists tourists tourists.

Don’t get me wrong — I know there are a lot of sights to see, and I plan to see all of them. I have my trusty copy of Rick Steves Spain, I’ve made my Sagrada Familia and Park Guell reservations, I have the Barcelona Art Card. I’m good on all the sightseeing stuff. But when I visit a city, I like to get a feel for what the city is really like, what it’s like to live there, what the people are like, that kind of thing. Everywhere else in Spain, this has been easy, fun, and pleasurable. Barcelona feels ... challenging. Everywhere else I’ve been in Spain has just been so totally chill! Even Madrid seemed like a more-chill NYC. I liked Madrid quite a lot, actually.

And so I turn to you, AskMe : where do I go to experience the real Barcelona? Is there a real Barcelona in there to be experienced? Where do the locals hang out? Where can I go when I’m not sightseeing so that I don’t go insane?
posted by panama joe to Travel & Transportation around Barcelona, Spain (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: * also this trip has included Granada, which I absolutely loved. In fact, that’s the last place I visited before BCN.

Maybe part of what I’m experiencing is extreme culture shock after spending nearly a week in Andalucia?
posted by panama joe at 11:23 AM on September 11, 2018

The urban planning world is currently obsessed with Barcelona's superblocks - I would love a chance to go and see them in person. The whole purpose of them is to make neighborhoods more neighborhoody, so they might be just what you're looking for.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:27 AM on September 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

I don't know if it's your thing, but Barcelona has some great bespoke cobbler types who make amazing shoes that will never fit anyone other than you... and they're not all outrageously expensive either. Serious old-school craftsmanship.

They're mostly in the Gothic Quarter (?) if I remember right.
posted by rokusan at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

I loved Barcelona, didn't book/queue for the touristy stuff but walked around from park guell in the north to the water on the south. Crowds are awful but they tend to clump together so just pick a side street and head away from them. Stop for sangria and tasty looking forward on a regular basis! I don't think you can fully avoid crowds if you want to see the sights but walk quickly and confidently and you can still make progress.

I found granada, in particular the alhambra awfully touristy though, yes the mountains of the rest of andalusia are far more quiet.
posted by JonB at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2018

I enjoyed the Gràcia neighborhood while in Barcelona. My impression when walking around was that there were more locals than tourists.
posted by Blissful at 11:37 AM on September 11, 2018 [11 favorites]

There's a little area called Barceloneta that's just southeast of the Barri Gotic - you have to cross a couple of busy roads to get there, but once you get inside and away from the waterside it's very quiet. I had a lovely lunch in the Plaça del Poeta Boscà, next to a covered market that was the opposite of the super-crowded Boqueria. If you walk all the way to the tip there's a (somewhat overpriced) cablecar that goes to Montjuic, where you can walk to see the Olympic Stadium and a (completely deserted, when I was there) beautiful old botanic garden.
posted by theodolite at 11:52 AM on September 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

When I visited I went to go see the Camp Nou (the stadium where Barcelona FC play). I just walked around it and there wasn't much there but it was kind of nice to take the tram out to a more regular area. This was in the summer when no soccer was being played, I'm sure it would be quite a different story on a matchday.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:07 PM on September 11, 2018

If you've been watching any news you must know that there is a sort of war between Barcelona residents and tourists. The city is, as you see, becoming a theme park. Mass tourism is indeed the problem. CNN also controversially listed it this year as one of the places responsible tourists should avoid.

Madrid is much larger and also has public spaces like the Retiro so it can absorb them to some extent.

The non-chill vibe you may feel is that tension the locals feel for the tourists. Never mind that Barcelona is Catalan, not Spanish, and already feels its culture threatened. This is the first thing that a tourist has to understand I guess: Barcelona is not Spain in the same sense that the other cities you have visited are. Most regions have their own history (Basque, Galicia, etc) but the Catalonians feel this now especially so.

All that said, I love Barcelona but I love it because it is a city with a lot of culture. I love walking around Gracia, L'Eixample, and the Born. The bookstores are amazing (Disclaimer: I read Spanish and Catalan) Last time I was there we didn't go anywhere near the Ramblas. Try going to Montjuic if you want some breathing space - the Miro museum there is quite fantastic. There are lots of great hidden places in the city and it is a wonderful city to explore. It is just much more challenging to find enthusiastic locals to hang out with because of: see above.
posted by vacapinta at 12:17 PM on September 11, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'll second the Miro museum as a semi-hidden gem. Walking that area was a lot of fun.
posted by Dmenet at 12:28 PM on September 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Barri Gotic and Las Ramblas are nightmares, and if it's anything like it was when I was there, full of prostitution and street crime after dark. Poble-sec (go to quimet i quimet!) might be more your speed, and I wouldn't overlook the hilly La Font d'en Fargues neighborhood which is much quieter than the main areas, a nice hike on foot with views of the whole city.

But really there is no way for a traveller to see the "real" anywhere if they don't have a local guide who can show them around and take them to gatherings and places that only locals go to.

If you're hating Barcelona's crowded morass of tourists, maybe get out of town? The mountain towns north of Barca have beautiful hikes, friendly locals and often cute little hotels.
posted by dis_integration at 12:35 PM on September 11, 2018

Yes, get away from Las Ramblas, definitely, and the skeevier parts of the waterfront area at night.

Randomly, based on my own fondly recalled time in Barcelona: we spent a bit of money going to architectural attractions like Parc Guell and Sagrada Familia (hopefully you got a ticket that includes going up in one of the towers). I also enjoyed Casa Battlo and especially La Pedrera. Another architectural draw are the grounds of the Hospital de Sant Pau. If you are at all interested in taking pictures, going to these architectural sites will fill your time there.

I agree with the person who suggested wandering around in Gracia. Go to a concert at Palau de la Musica Catalan. A day trip to Monserrat. Another day trip to Figueres and the Dali museum. If you're an art museum person, the Fundacio Miro, MACBA, and Museu Picasso art museums are great.

Also, it's a serious food town, though there are probably as many recommendations as there are recommenders. Most decent guides should keep you away from the crap. Look for weekday "menu del dia" meals in early afternoon. Places I remember going to include Lluis de les Moles (slightly pricy), Petra, Atril, La Rita, Tapas 24 (hyped but really good), Terra d'Escudella (if you're out that way check out the observation deck on the top of the Arenas Mall), Mason David (in the Raval). Find someplace to relax and drink vermùt on a Sunday afternoon. (Though then you will crave it and search vainly for it when you get back home.)

Not sure where you're from, but don't be a space cadet waving your phone around or leaving it on bars or cafe tables, the way people do in the US, or it will get stolen; don't be paranoid, just smart with your phone and wallet and backpack if you have one, as you would be in any crowded world tourist destination.

Too bad you're not there a couple weeks from now, because the Mercè festival is wild and huge fun.
posted by aught at 12:39 PM on September 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, our favorite place to eat was Tapeo , especially the stuffed squid.
posted by Dmenet at 1:14 PM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I didn't like Barcelona as much as I hoped to (and very much loved all the other cities in Spain that I visited), but I really liked the rest of Cataluña. Can you leave and go to the coast and up to the mountains?

I liked, for example, Vall de Nuria.
posted by vunder at 1:30 PM on September 11, 2018

I enjoyed the Barcelona Street Style (Graffiti) Tour. I went on the bike version.
posted by gregglind at 2:52 PM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Check out Montjuic - my friend was living there recently. Also there’s old Spanish civil war bunkers on the hill, with stunning views of the sea and mountains. It wasn’t too busy when I was there at least and a nice place to escape the busy hordes for a bit.
posted by Willow251 at 4:11 PM on September 11, 2018

I enjoyed the design museum and the flea market a lot! Much less touristy over that way.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:16 PM on September 11, 2018

My recollection is that the botanic garden takes a bit of time to get to on public transportation, but was worth the trip. I was there in early April, I think, so I don't know what it would be like in this season.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 5:44 PM on September 11, 2018

I did a couple of great tours while I was there a spanish civil war walking tour and a bike tour that doesn't seem to be running any more, sadly. It's a great city to get around by bicycle. I stayed in El Born, and it was less touristy madness the further from La Rambla we went.
posted by kjs4 at 6:56 PM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I stayed (and strolled) in L'Eixample and thoroughly enjoyed the vibe. I also went on a bike tour run by Steel Donkeys - we went through some touristy areas but also quieter everyday things. Plus I got confortable riding a bike there and that's a great way to cover a lot of rambling around town.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:02 PM on September 11, 2018

When I studied abroad there a few years ago, El Raval was my favorite neighborhood to wander around, usually starting near the University/MACBA. There was a vegan restaurant there I stumbled into that I really loved -- and great vintage stores.

+1-ing Gracia as well.
posted by kylej at 8:28 PM on September 11, 2018

I love Barcelona, but I only go into the Barri Gotic for specific errands or events. Last time I was in Barcelona for work, but brought my kids, our air bnb host told my girls they could go anywhere but there and El Raval while I was working. We stayed in Gracia, which was lovely, both in terms of sights and food. If you can, change where you live, I'd find it stressful to live there even if I only came back for sleeping.
That said, if you can find a local to show you around, even the old quarters in Barcelona have secret charms and a rich cultural life. It's just that the people of Barcelona are not very eager to share that knowledge with random tourists. They are a bit like Venetians that way.
posted by mumimor at 2:39 AM on September 12, 2018

We were in barcelona last year and i know what you mean - honestly it was worth it for some really incredible eating and the sagrada familia alone.

we did a culinary backstreets tour of gracia (the "made in catalonia" tour - it looks like they have one running friday) and it was incredible - we've used them in several cities and they always do an incredible job.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 5:50 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Barceloneta. (The other recommendations are all really good too, but lots of people don't know about Barceloneta and it's my favorite part of the city in a way.) I love Barcelona. I never go to the Ramblas, unless I have to walk up it to get from one place to another. You're not wrong, though, about the tourist situation--I have been going there for years and have watched it change a lot for the worse in that regard--and I've only ever been there in the shoulder or off season. It's one of the European cities, along with Venice and a few others, that's just overwhelmed with tourists right now and trying to figure out how to limit it.
posted by tiger tiger at 5:50 AM on September 12, 2018

oh and a 1-2 punch of coffee at Nomad Coffee and a churro from Xurreria Laietana around the corner is a hell of a way to start a morning.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 5:51 AM on September 12, 2018

It's also a wonderful city for just walking for hours/miles. As someone suggested above, just go for a wander and turn down some side streets--soon enough you'll find yourself off the beaten path (and often in the presence of some beautiful architecture).
posted by tiger tiger at 5:58 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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