I like Barcelona and have found myself there a few times over the last year or so, each time exploring different parts of the city. One thing has become clear though from these trips, the city has a preoccupation with famed architect Antoni Gaudi. Granted, that preoccupation is well warranted. One of the most revolutionary architects the world has ever seen, his work is peppered throughout the Catalonian city from mega-sights like La Sagrada Familia to smaller, more intimate apartment buildings. But it is an obsession, and as a tourist – especially if you’re there for the first time – it can all be a bit much. With that in mind today I want to share a few experiences I personally love in and close to Barcelona that have absolutely nothing to do with a certain architect named Gaudi.
One thing I did know before visiting Barcelona is that anywhere you go in Spain, food is at the center of the travel experience. From regional favorites to the omnipresent jamon and cheese, prepare to let your waistband out a few notches while luxuriating in this great city. To learn more about the food culture of not only Barcelona but the entire Catalonia region, I joined a Context walking tour focused on the Pica-Pica style of tapas. In 2017, tapas are a worldwide phenomenon, but in Barcelona the local tradition of enjoying small bites either before or as the meal have been a tradition for generations. Pica-Pica can mean a variety of things, but at its base it simply includes light bites, great drinks and fun conversation with friends. Barcelona comes alive in the evenings and that’s when our tour of the up and coming Poble Sec neighborhood began, eventually visiting several different cafes and restaurants in the area all specializing in different styles of small bites. Not only was the food incredible, but learning about the local culture by living it was the ideal foodie re-introduction to Spain and made me look forward to the rest of my trip that much more.
While my most recent visit was not my first time in the city, I was traveling with someone who had never before been. There was one to-do item on his list that he didn’t want to miss, a live Flamenco show. Bordering on the ultra-touristy, I was a little dubious at first, but the evening turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Flamenco is so much more than just a dance. This classic art form is very much based on the music traditions and folklore of Southern Spain and is all about story telling. It’s also mesmerizing and for more than an hour I sat transfixed by the dancers and musicians as they improvised one complicated set of performances after another. I had booked the evening online without a ton of research to be honest and the evening also included a meal beforehand. To be clear, the dinner was very touristy and it was obvious they welcome thousands of foreigners every year. But the flamenco itself, that was different. That was real, it was beautiful and it was a performance I know that I’ll never forget. If you want to skip the meal you can also buy tickets for the show only but, whichever option you choose, it truly is not to be missed.
While Barcelona could easily consume your entire trip, I think it’s important to get out and see more of the beautiful Catalonia region. One simple way to do that is by visiting the nearby Abbey of Montserrat. An easy drive out of Barcelona, it was great to see the scraggly Mediterranean landscapes that lead up to this ancient and important religious site. Most agree that there has been a monastery on this spot high up in the mountains since 888, and ever since that time there have also always been about 80 monks who call this remote hermitage home. Today it’s an easy day trip from Barcelona and offers insight into a different aspect of Catalonian culture and history, away from the Gaudi buildings and tapas restaurants; a destination that is naturally reflective and introspective. Plus, on a clear day the views of the valley below can’t be beat.
While it’s also one of the busiest parts of town for tourists, turns out there’s a good reason for that. The heart of Barcelona’s old town, the Gothic Quarter has some of the city’s most important and beautiful sights. I quickly fell in love with the cobbled lanes that snake through the quarter creating a labyrinth I didn’t mind falling into. One of the key sights is the Barcelona Cathedral, which is the actual seat of religious power in the city and not La Sagrada Familia. Nearby there are any number of cafes and restaurants where you can sample some delicious Catalonian cuisine or try a glass or two of wine. It’s also very easy to walk to Las Rambla and the famous market, La Boqueria from this traditional center of the city.
One evening as I walked back to my hotel after spending the day exploring the historic central areas of Barcelona, I couldn’t help but smile. The sun was shining, everyone was out and about and there seemed to be a sparkle in the air. Certain cities are just inherently beautiful, not only aesthetically, but on a more meaningful level and Barcelona is one of those cities Everything there just clicks, from the people to the food and the culture, everything just feels right which is also probably why it’s been such a popular place for tourists to visit. More than just visit though, I imagine that Barcelona must also be a wonderful place to live and, believe it or not, that’s what we as travelers need from a destination. Although we only spend a very short amount of time in any new place when we travel, in order for us to well and truly love the experience, the cities, towns and villages must themselves have all of the important elements not just for tourists, but for the people who call these areas home. They need to be well rounded otherwise as travelers, it won’t be a positive experience just as it wouldn’t if we were to call these cities home. Traveling to a new place is a disruptive experience for both the traveler and the destination, but a necessary one. It’s through this disruption that sure, we the traveler grow and learn, but it also helps the cities themselves. It helps them rise up to the challenge of providing new services, adding value and just being an overall wonderful place to live and visit. That’s the symbiotic relationship of travel and in Barcelona, this partnership is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen, whether locals and tourists realize it or not.