Barcelona, a city of 2 million people on the northeast coast of Spain, is one of the most visited cities in Europe. In 2019, it received 12 million tourists, many of them day-trippers off cruise ships or European long-weekend travelers seeking sun, sandy beaches, and late-night partying.
This year, thanks to Covid-related restrictions on cruise ships and night spots, tourism in Barcelona is less than one-tenth of its previous level. When our housesit in France ended, we couldn’t resist what might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Barcelona without big crowds.
Our strongest impression from spending two weeks in downtown Barcelona was of local residents enjoying their city once again. The places we saw the biggest crowds were outside hip new restaurants, at the main concert hall for a performance by a local chorus celebrating its 60th anniversary, and on the big shopping streets, where department stores and boutiques were touting “Black Friday” sales. (Yes, despite the lack of a Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday is a day—or week—of pre-Christmas sales in both France and Spain. The name is always in English.)
Some of the other impressions we’ve formed of Barcelona are probably timeless. But others come with the very big caveat that we haven’t experienced the city under normal conditions for tourists.
- Barcelona is a sprawling city, stretching back from the Mediterranean coast along the plain between several hills. It has expanded rapidly at times, especially in the second half of the 1800s, when the old city’s walls were knocked down and new neighborhoods were laid out in grand urban planning schemes that led to a boom time for architects, builders, and other craftspeople.
- Streets are narrow and winding in the oldest parts of the city—a stark contrast to the wide, straight boulevards in the planned areas, such as the district of Eixample (pronounced “eh-shem-pleh”), where we stayed. Plazas and ramblas (pedestrian streets) are scattered around the city. But there’s less green space than in other cities we’ve visited.
- Probably the most internationally famous thing about Barcelona—other than its champion soccer team—is its quirky architecture. That quirkiness is most closely associated with Antonin Gaudi and other architects who developed a style called modernisme (Barcelona’s version of Art Nouveau) between about 1890 and 1910. Many moderniste buildings have been lovingly preserved around the city. Some, like the ambitious Sagrada Familia church, are still under construction. Our next post will focus on these architectural wonders.
- Unlike cities such as Paris or Vienna, Barcelona doesn’t have a uniform appearance. Most of the buildings in the city are 5- to 7-story buildings of apartments or offices, with shops on the ground floor, but their design styles are all over the map. This being Spain, balconies and big bay windows with metal railings are common, wherever the space allows.
- Barcelona is an international city. Besides tourists, it has a large immigrant population and lots of foreign students. That multiculturalism is most obvious in the diversity of restaurants (at least 12 countries’ cuisines were available in a two-block radius around our hotel). It’s also apparent in the mix of languages you hear on the streets each day.
- While international, Barcelona is also fiercely proud of its own regional culture. This part of Spain is called Catalunya (Catalonia in English) and for centuries was its own principality. The local language is Catalan. (The language that Americans call Spanish is known as Castilian here, for the region of Castile in central Spain.) Catalan has some words that resemble French, Italian, or Castilian and some words that seem entirely unrelated to those languages. You hear and see Catalan everywhere in Barcelona: on TV, on signs, in restaurants and shops, in official speeches. Although some countries’ minority languages are dying out, Catalan seems to be thriving. You don’t need to learn Catalan to visit Barcelona, though. Castilian Spanish or English works fine almost anywhere.
- There’s a strong rivalry between Barcelona and Spain’s capital, Madrid. The heated rivalry between the cities’ soccer teams is just a manifestation of the centuries of political and military conflict between the two cities. Catalonia was on the losing side in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s and again in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Both times, armies of the central government in Madrid occupied Barcelona and repealed much of the city’s self-government and autonomy. Barcelona only regained its political autonomy in the late 1970s after the death of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco.
- Signs of Catalan nationalism are visible everywhere in Barcelona these days. When the provincial government organized a referendum on Catalan independence in 2017 that the central government considered illegal, some independence leaders were arrested and imprisoned until this past June. Signs of support for the jailed officials, such as Catalan independence flags and yellow ribbons, are still visible on balconies around the city.
- Barcelona is a good city for museum lovers like us. Our favorites were the museums of Catalan history and Catalan art. Both were exhaustive and well presented, and we saw and learned lots of new things. We spent more than five hours in each museum, but people who are less inclined to read every single sign can see them more quickly.
- Barcelona is very easy to get around. Many tourist sites are within walking distance of each other. There’s also an extensive and easy-to-use bus and subway system. The Eixample district has a network of dedicated bike lanes, which are also used by people on scooters and skateboards. Car traffic in the city can get pretty jammed, so the food delivery drivers often make their deliveries by motorbike, bicycle, or even scooter.
- Saint George (Sant Jordi in Catalan) is the patron saint of Barcelona. You can find images of the saint killing a dragon on buildings all over the city, with the saint representing Barcelona and the dragon representing the main foe of the day (the Muslim caliphate in the Middle Ages, the Spanish government more recently). The feast day of St. George, April 23, is one of the biggest holidays of the year in Barcelona. People celebrate by giving each other red roses (part of the original St. George legend) and books (to mark the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare on that date).
- Barcelonans have a love-hate relationship with tourists. Tourism provides a major economic boost to the city, but as the number of visitors has grown, local residents have held demonstrations protesting their effects on the city. A particular problem is how many downtown apartments have been bought to rent to tourists, creating a shortage of apartments for residents and driving rents up sharply. We often rent AirBnB apartments when we travel. But we didn’t want to be part of the problem in Barcelona, so we chose small hotels instead. They seemed very glad for the business right now.
- Without our own kitchen, we ate out for almost every meal in Barcelona, and most of them were quite good. There are bakeries on nearly every block, and perhaps because of Barcelona’s proximity to France, the croissants and pastries are almost as good as they are north of the border. Like elsewhere in Spain, fresh orange juice is available in almost every cafe and bar, and it’s delicious. Barcelona also seems to specialize in good sangria, which made Chris very happy. Food trends that are popular right now include poke (a Hawaiian raw-fish dish) and American-style brunch (complete with eggs Benedict and mimosas). We also saw far more vegetarian and vegan dishes on menus than we’d seen in Spain on previous visits.
- Barcelona has a reputation for pickpocketing, so we were careful to keep our phones and wallets zipped inside our purses and to wear our purses slung across our chests. When Melissa was occupied with taking photos, I kept an eye out to make sure no one got too close. We never had any trouble with pickpocketers, and didn’t hear about anyone else who did. Maybe that crime has waned with the decrease in tourism. Or maybe it helped that we weren’t wandering drunk through the narrow alleys of the old town at 2 a.m.
- If you visit Barcelona, don’t forget to go upward. There are great hilltop views over the city and the sea from Montjiuc (site of a former Spanish army fortress and many of the stadiums for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics) and from Park Guell (the site of a failed hillside housing development of the early 1900s that was turned into a big park).
To sum up, Barcelona isn’t our new favorite city, but it was an interesting place to explore. We’re very glad we got a chance to experience it with minimal crowds. It’s a serious city with a long history, an international feel, and some fierce patriotism. Most of all, it’s a city that gives you a million reasons to look up and appreciate the artistic details as you stroll along.