If you haven’t been to Barcelona, you’ve probably heard from friends or colleagues who have about how great it is. They’ve probably urged you to go there. Or if you’ve mentioned you’re planning on going there, they’ve no doubt told you that you have to visit Sagrada Familia, La Rambla, Tibidabo, Parc Guell, and of course the beach!
These are the things most of the guide books, travel blogs, twitter, friends, family and colleagues recommend. And I also certainly do recommend visiting them. But they are far from the exhaustive or defining list of what is great about Barcelona.
This TED talk speaker makes a very valid point when she talks about the fact that our elevated expectations of a place, based on what hear, can result in a sense of being underwhelmed when we finally come face to face with it.
Tourists, tourists and more tourists
For instance, people may not have told you about the swathes of tourists congregated on the Rambla from day to night, especially during the hot sticky summer months, and despite the many entertainers, walking down it can, if you’re anything like me, seem far from entertaining. Similarly, the Sagrada familia is a hot-spot for tourists out in in their droves. Trying to navigate your away around all the selfie-sticks and photo-taking can feel like a minefield.
Then there’s Parc Guell, one of Gaudi’s famous works, situated high on the upper reaches of Barcelona. You trail up there via metro and on foot, up a steep road, only to discover you have to pay to enter the Gaudi section. Whether you think it is worth the money is of course subjective. And it has to be said, even if you choose not to pay, you can still enjoy a pleasant stroll around the surrounding paths and take in some fantastic views over the city.
Sun, sea and sand
Many people come to Barcelona primarily for the sea and the sand. The first beach you are likely to hit when heading from the city centre towards the sea is Barceloneta. There, during the long summer season it is crammed full with sun-worshippers and people selling beers, mojitos and even massages. It can, for some, seem too crowded and chaotic. However, this is easily resolved, just by heading a bit further in the other directions towards one of the many beaches in and around Barcelona. The further out you head, the more spacious and relaxed the vibe tends to be. See below for my recommendations.
Hot and humid
Coming from one of the wettest cities in the UK, I’m certainly not one to complain about the weather in Barcelona! The sun is almost always out and grey skies are few and far between. The summers are long and hot, but with temperatures rarely going much over 30C, so it isn’t as extreme as the far south of Spain. But, being positioned, Barcelona is a very humid city, which can make for a lot of sweating and discomfort. Hence in August, the depths of summer, people tend to slow down and take their holidays from work in order to relax, escape and go for lots of refreshing dips in the sea.
These are of course just some of the (pretty minor) downsides of Barcelona from my perspective. But I am never affected by a feeling of being underwhelmed. This is because I have come to discover and love so much more about this vibrant eclectic city.
Here’s my recommendations for getting the most out of Barcelona:
The alternative tourist trail
One of the things I love about Barcelona is there are so many alternative things on offer. Rather than spending all day or weekend hopping on and off a pricey tour bus, there are plenty of other ways to get around and take in all the sites. A fantastic way is to go on a bike or walking tour, of which there are a great many on offer. You can even incorporate working out with your sightseeing by going on a running tour! The great advantage these tours have over the city bus tours is that they are far more personal and will take you into the quirky nooks and crannies that the bus doesn’t reach. You can also find tours covering different themes such as art, history, and there is a great one that I did based on the famous Shadow of the Wind novel which was based in Barcelona. So, you can find something catering to your individual interests.
Head for the beaches outside Barcelona
For a change of scene and to escape the Barceloneta crowds, I highly recommend hopping on a train and heading to one of the many delightful beaches just a short distance from Barcelona. From Sants Station you can take a short train ride to Sitges, a very pretty seaside town (although the beaches can get busy), or Casteldellfels, which has a very long and wide stretch of sand, making it easy to find a decent space all for yourself without being invaded. From Plaza Catalunya, there is a train which works its way up the coast via Badalona. Montgat beach is just 25 minutes from Plaza Catalunya by train, yet you really get the sense of having left the city and the beach spacious and clean. What’s more, it’s under 6 euros for a return train ticket.
Explore different neighbourhoods
Away from the main tourist centre, there are various neighborhoods (or barrios) each with their own distinct character. Exploring them gives you a real feel for Barcelona and its people. There is the trendy and bohemian Gracia neighbourhood, which preserves its feel as a distinct village despite being a short walk from the top of Paseig de Gracia, linking it to the city centre. At the other side of the city, there is Poble Sec, which has a very different but equally buzzing vibe. From here you can also head up to explore Montjuic, where there are plenty of gardens, paths and green spots to explore and relax away from the crowds.
These are just a few suggestions for getting the most out of Barcelona. In a city rich in alternatives it’s just a case of considering all the options and going a little off the beaten track.