You know you're alive when you visit the Catalan capital – whether funky boutique shopping, avant garde architecture or wonderful cuisine is your scene, Barca has it all, and some!
Barcelona can also be fabulous value for money, even when the Pound will only just buy you a Euro.
There is plenty to do and see for next to nothing, whilst there are loads of reasonably priced hotels and restaurants to choose from.
With so much on offer, it is difficult to know where to start but eclectic La Rambla is as good a place as any. The 1.2km straight road stretches from the main port up to Plaça de Catalunya and there is something to see and do every step of the way.
La Rambla is a perfect place to people watch, be they one of the myriad of buskers and street entertainers (the Beethoven impersonator perhaps, or the luminous lady dressed from top to toe in bright yellow!) or one of the beautiful people who don their Ray Bans and Manolo Blahniks to see and more probably to be seen. The road is lined with surprisingly inexpensive street cafes and restaurants, perfectly placed for eyeballing the locals and tourists over a drawn out iced coffee.
Nip down the many side streets for independent boutiques selling quirky clothing & hip accessories, leather goods with friendly prices and colourful souvenirs inspired by Barcelona’s large African community. Browsing is almost as much fun as buying for the budget conscious.
If walking up from the port, the side streets to the right all lead to Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s gothic quarter with architecture dating from medieval times and leafy squares & narrow alleyways housing ethnic cafes, chilled bars and bric a brac stores selling interesting junk and the odd bargain gem.
You can wander quite happily for a few hours; just get yourself lost in the labyrinth of small streets and witness people going about their business as they have done for centuries. Old men with walnut like faces pulling carts laden with fruit and vegetables for sale, groups of scruffy youngsters playing ball or hide & seek and gatherings of fishwives sharing the local gossip. Refresh yourself with a fresh orange juice from one of the street vendors dotted about.
Barcelona’s main cathedral is also situated in Barri Gotic and is well worth a visit. Work started on erecting its huge gothic façade in 1408 but was not in fact finished until 1889. Spain’s ‘mañana’ building policy has been a long tradition it seems!
Wining & Dining
Barri Gotic is home to my favourite restaurant in town, el Gran Café situated at 9 Carrer d'Avinyó.
The large wood panelled restaurant is on two levels, the balcony level over-looking its huge grand piano, with the downstairs diners reflected off giant gold-framed mirrors. The lighting is intimate, the music unobtrusive and the atmosphere just right. The extensive menu is varied and great value to suit most budgets – start with delicious sea urchin served in its prickly shell or gazpacho, Barca’s trademark cold tomato soup, a main dish of paella, risotto or roast pork and finish with crème de Catalan (they claim it as their own dish, discovered allegedly before the French produced brûlée!).
Wash it all down with rose cava and still get change out of €20 a head. A word of warning, the place is very popular with tourists and locals so book in advance on 93 318 79 86. Out of towners tend to eat at about 8 whilst the locals don’t tend to roll up until 10 at the earliest – plump for the 2nd sitting for a more authentic meal shared with Spanish families and groups of amigos.
A cheaper option is the bar/cafe Kasparo situated at Placa Vicenc Martorell close to Las Ramblas. Sit outside on the square of this family friendly establishment and enjoy fresh fish and delicious tapas at very friendly prices. It is very popular in the evenings so phone ahead and book on +34 93302 2072.
A daytime alternative is to visit the traditional food market off Las Ramblas and stock up on a picnic of bread, pate, tomatoes, fresh fruit and some local wine and to then take the funicular up to Montjuïc Hill for a picnic in the park. There are wonderful views of the city and port from up there too.
Barcelona is also on the coast of course - take the metro to Port Olimpic, regenerated for the 1996 Olympics and now home to lots of seaside restaurants. €10 Euro will buy you a delicious plate of calamari and ice-cold beer whilst sat on a boardwalk as the ocean crashes in a few feet away - a wonderful setting for sunset.
Barcelona’s Favourite Son
Antoni Gaudi may have died resembling an impoverished tramp, but his memory and legacy is revered by the Catalans. View his uniquely oddly designed buildings Casa Mila and Casa Batlo, situated nearby all the department stores of Diagonal or stroll up to amazing Parc Guell with its fairy tale gatehouses straight out of Hansel and Gretel and surreal architecture covered in brightly coloured mosaics.
These are all gratis to see and wander round – you will have to pay a small fee to get into his other great work, La Sagrada Familia, although you can see most of the exterior complete with ornate gargoyles and sculpted oranges from the periphery if you are short of cash or wish to avoid the crowds.
The Parc Guell experience is often augmented by free concerts in the grounds. On my visit, a hugely gifted local musician called Ernesto Nebuloni treated us to a beautiful Spanish guitar session in an incredible setting below Guadi’s vaulted ceiling and brightly coloured columns. The atmospheric repertoire lasted over an hour - an incredible bargain for the price of a few of Euros tossed into his guitar case.
Staying & Getting There
Budget options are readily available, particularly around the Barri Gotic. Stay at Hotel California for clean bedrooms with wooden floors and marble bathrooms – rooms are fully equipped for a comfortable stay and a twin or double will cost you about €60 per night with basic breakfast or slightly less if you fancy breakfasting with the Catalans at a nearby coffee shop.
Alternatively the central, clean and comfortable Principal Hotel on Junta de Comerç , just 2 minutes walk from La Rambla, also costs €60 for a double/twin. Rooms are slightly on the small side but are spotlessly clean and warmly decorated in bright colours. Rooms have air-con, small balconies and there is also a roof terrace. Free Internet access in the lobby.
Hostal Fernando has a fabulous location right next to the cathedral. It has dormitory beds available for €20 if you are on a very tight budget or spartan but clean & comfortable doubles for €60 including breakfast. Rooms have showers, air-con and flat screen TVs.
There are also plenty of budget flight options from easyJet & Monarch etc.