When seeking scoop/tips prior to our trip to Barcelona, the number one place that seemed to always come up was to check out Las Ramblas. So I figured, Las Ramblas it is, on our first day in Barcelona.
Well, we walked down this sweeping pedestrian street on the first day and found this stretch to be one big crowded, noisy clusterfuck saturated with overpriced restaurants along with shops and street stalls on both sides of the street selling shit that nobody really needs. I just did not get the appeal of this area and why tourists flock to the main areas of Las Ramblas and Placa Catyluna.
Our initial impression of Barcelona after the first day walking down the the length of the overcrowded main drags of Las Ramblas and Passeig de Gracia was not the best. I turned to Barbie and said, “oh no, while the architecture looked real cool, the congestion caused by this mass amount of tourists was just too overbearing. Is this what’s in store for us in Barcelona?” We saw these areas once during our week in Barcelona and never went back.
However, one important thing I have learned during our extensive RTW travels is to ignore the first impression, and simply wait to form an opinion until after you get settled in. Well, that could not be more true in this case. By the second day as we explored further, we both really took to this very cool city and the wide diversity of things to do outside the main touristy sites. We were here in Barcelona late September. Our thinking was, we would avoid the crush of the main summer tourist season. Although significantly less crowded in September, I cannot fathom being in this city during the peak summer months.
We decided we wanted to experience the city a different way and stay in a neighborhood with more locals. Being the savvy travelers that we are, the best decision we made was to rent an Airbnb apartment in the locals only, Gracia neighborhood. The Gracia area is a cool, relaxed-laid back place with a great deal of character. The quiet streets, bohemian vibe, delicious food, and unique culture made it the perfect neighborhood for us to stay in Barcelona. I think we would have had a completely different (and less positive) experience of Barcelona if we had stayed near Las Ramblas. I simply cannot understand why this area is so recommended.
The other good alternative funky area to stay in (but more crowded than Gracia) would be the El Born area, which has many cool alleyways and shops. If you want to be close to the city beaches, La Barceloneta is steps away from some of the best urban, sandy (not stone) beaches in the world. Usually city beaches are complete dirty pits. However, I was really impressed with the cleanliness of the Barcelona city beaches, particularly Bogatell Beach. They were fun places to hang out and observe the scene. The other big city beaches that are aesthetically comparable are in Sydney, Australia. The beaches spread across Sydney are on the Big Doug list of other top urban beaches. We look forward to revisiting many of these beaches later this year, during the summer months that we plan to spend in Oz. (November – January)
As a result of the crowds at the main tourist sites, we sought refuge by bike riding, hanging on the urban beaches and relaxing in the many open space green parks, with our favorite being Ciutadella Park. The e-bike tour we took up to the peak of Monjuic Park, where many Olympic events were held, was really fun. This park was a little green oasis away from the stone city. Glad we opted for the e-bike tour because no way Flashpacking Barbie nor Big Doug would have appreciated the very strenuous climb up to the peak by regular bikes.
We walked and rode our bikes by the main touristy Gaudi buildings/sites. Apparently, this Gaudi guy was a heavy hitter here in Barcelona. We were able to see the outside architecture of thes sites but did not pull the trigger to go inside. Barbie and I despise crowded, confined spaces and most of these sites were just way too crowded for us to enjoy. Having to queue and pay to walk around any overcrowded site with tourists breathing down our necks, is a big pass for us. However, there are exceptions. I can see myself queuing for something like a Winslows turkey dinner at the Spa, but that is about it. A man has got to draw a line in the sand on what a man queues for in the game of life. Good thing Barbie is on the same page as me here. It’s the little things that make a couple compatible.
We did make one exception to our no queuing rule. We were going to bite the bullet and get our asses to the popular La Sagrada Familia site. Well, not exactly. We happened to be in Barcelona during the massive La Merce Festival with huge celebrations throughout the city. As a result of the festival, the Sagrada Familia was only open for 1/2 days and tickets to get inside were all sold out. Therefore, we simply checked out this site from the outside and it was pretty impressive. On the positive side, we saved the hassle of being in another crowded space and we were 48 euros richer not having to purchase tickets. We then proceeded to knock off the next checklist site, Parc Guell, which sits on a big steep hillside with sweeping views of Barcelona. Fortunately, we entered the park at the top of the hill and the park was a maze of pathways leading us all downhill. If you are looking for a great sweaty workout, simply start at the bottom and work your way up to the viewpoint at the top of Parc Guell.
We both really enjoyed the lifestyle here in Barcelona. One thing I took notice of, particularly in the local neighborhoods, is the locals seemed to really enjoy congregating and chilling in outside public spaces called Placas. (check out video below). The Placas are basically outdoor squares with benches and tables surrounded by small eateries and takeout places. There is a shitload of these Placas spread throughout Barcelona. By day, you will see families, kids and dogs playing around. At late night, adults sit in small groups, even directly on the cement floor, drinking and shooting the shit. Despite the fact that everyone was drinking, I found it amazing how quiet and peaceful the setting was. No drunks acting up or talking loud here in the Placas.
Besides the beaches and parks, we both really enjoyed wandering around aimlessly inside the maze of alleyways in the Gothic Quarter, La Barcelotta and particularly the El Born area. These places reminded me of Amsterdam minuses the canals and coffeeshops. Simply insert into the mix some coffeeshops in these areas and then Barcelona could compete with Amsterdam as one of the most happy places.
We took a day trip by train outside of Barcelona, to the beach town, Sitges. It was 45 minutes south of Barcelona along the coast. It was a good break from the big city life of Barcelona and was nice to get into the ocean and spend some time in this quaint little European beach town.
Three words regarding the food in Barcelona….. ‘Off The Charts’. The abundance of tapa bars in the city are great places to chow down and are so hassle free. ‘Hassle free’ entails, no dress code (shorts and flip flops), no need for reservations (simply step in and plant yourself on a stool), mellow relaxed atmosphere, great value for your buck, no tipping and fast service w/ tapas rapidly being served up. The basic strategy is simply inhale your tapas and then proceed directly to your next tapa bar for another tasting. Then rinse and repeat.
Some of the best value tapa bars are located in the many markets spread across the city center. The big kahuna of markets is the super touristy, Mercado de La Boqueria. Nice, but way too crowded for us. We preferred the three (3) markets more geared to the locals and without the frenetic pace of La Boqueria. These included: Mercat de l’Abaceria, Mercat de la Libertat (both in the Gracia area) and Mercat de Santa Caterina (El Born area).
Did I tell you the Spaniards love their prosciutto? It comes in many many different qualities and varieties and they carve it fresh right off the leg of the pig. In addition to the prosciutto, they sell all kinds of cheese at stalls in every market, in every store, and on every street corner. We have been gorging on both the prosciutto and various varieties of cheese. One piece of advice I can give you, if you anticipate throwing down prosciutto throughout the day like us, make sure to carry some dental floss with you.
Keeping up with our philosophy of slower travel, we were able to spend an entire week in Barcelona but really still needed more time to fit everything in. In my opinion, the 3-4 days most other travelers spend here in Barcelona before moving on to other places such as Madrid, Seville, San Sebastion, the Costa Brava/Costa Blanca is just way too short to effectively take in all Barcelona has on tap. Even though we are fortunate to have unlimited time on this journey, we are still oddly pressured for time. This is because our future travels must land us in other desired countries during their summer months.
A return to the beaches along the south coast of Spain along with the islands off the coast are definitely in the cards down the road when time permits. As a long term traveler, you just need to plan carefully and put the calendar puzzle together in order to visit each desired country at their optimal times. The goal is trying to avoid the overcrowded and overpriced peak tourist seasons while still capturing the warm sun around the world in other countries. Therein, lies the problem with our European leg of this journey. We only had the beginning of September thru mid October in Europe as we wanted to avoid the summer crowds. We needed to squeeze in our visit before the warm weather turned, all while getting to our other desired countries. We are now off to Lisbon and the beaches on the west coast of Portugal.
QUALITY OF LIFE INDEX – 7
The people of Barcelona appear to have a pretty good lifestyle considering they live in such a popular touristy city. The locals must really hate the flood of tourists that clog the streets and Metro during the peak spring/summer months. However, choosing to reside in one of the small peaceful enclaves (such as the Gracia neighborhood) coupled with the accessibility of surprisingly clean city beaches and parks to escape the crowds make Barcelona a good place. Some benefits that are available to Barcelona residents that I wish more cities in the USA would offer and making life in the city more pleasant are the following:
1) Free Wifi – the city provides Barcelona residents with the biggest network of free Wifi hotspots in Europe and is available on streets across the city.
2) Bicing – Barcelona is climbing up the world list of top bicycle friendly cities. Bicing is an innovative bicycling borrowing system that is an important part of Barcelona’s public transport system. Bicycle stations are strategically placed at Metro stations, parks and other key areas all over the city which allow residents to have access to bikes to get around. The objective of Bicing is to encourage Barcelona residents to make short trips by bicycle to help reduce the number of cars circulating in Barcelona. I believe this is similar to the Citibike system available in NYC.
THRU THE BINOCS –
One of the bizarre things I noticed about the stores, Tapa bars and other businesses is that they open and close twice during the day. For example, they open from 9 AM-1 PM, then close and reopen from 5PM – 11PM. They call this “Siesta Time” here in Spain, where I assume the employees go back home to cool out. The Siesta, is one of the most famous aspects of Spanish life – that dead period in late afternoon when everything shuts down in Spain, so people can go to sleep. The idea is the employees would then feel refreshed after their nap and would work until quite late in the evening, longer than they would have been able to without the siesta. I am down with this mid day napping concept, but clearly, this ‘Siesta Time’ would simply not work back in America. If you trust an American with ‘Siesta Time’, I can assure you most would not be coming back at 5PM for the second shift. Clearly, Americans would take total advantage of this ‘Siesta’ time off and would be cooked and done for the day after the first closing time at 1 PM. Employers would hear excuses like, “My kid got sick”, “I am stuck in traffic” or some other bullshit. Good luck getting an American back into the office after they leave the office. It’s almost like Americans are dogs. Once you hit that finish bell at work, then you just ain’t getting the American back to work until the next day. That is just the way Americans roll.