To see the real Barcelona, head off the beaten path

by Christopher Erasmus

Looking for Barcelona's best architecture, food and nightlife? Then head away from the ramblers on the Ramblas

Fourteen million tourists hit Barcelona every year. The central plazas and streets throng with jugglers, tumblers and musicians eager to entertain the visitors in the evening light, but the inflated prices and nagging sense of falsity can spoil one’s time there. Better seek the deeper recesses of the city, tapping into local knowledge or discovering for yourself what the city holds, away from the brightest lights.

The better backstreets of Barcelona

As the largest city on the Mediterranean, Barcelona has a vast array of bars. One of the best is Espit Chupitos, a small, dark shots bar that consistently draws a young, cosmopolitan crowd eager for its bullets of booze. Now a small chain, they supply alcohol in forms never before seen: with penny sweets, with flames, with water pistols and, my favourite, with crackling sherbet, shots of champagne and fingers in ears. I have never seen it advertised in a tourist brochure, but Espit Chupitos represents the constant, buzzing life independent from tourism that, paradoxically, draws in so many of Barcelona’s visitors.

To bus tour or not to bus tour?

Not. The open-topped tour from the corner of Plaça de Catalunya isn’t worth the money in my opinion. And I think the Nou Camp’s lawn is fine, but many modern stadia are equally grand. Vast parts of the city centre can appear as a shrine to Gaudi, from the lamp posts to the balconies studded along the roads running northwest of the Plaça, and you can appear to be on an architectural tour when just meandering.

If you are intent on seeing sights then take a cab or walk; from the Monument a Colom you can reach the Sagrada Familia in about 40 minutes. Taxi rides are trouble-free, and for groups of three or more, very affordable. Their ranks are scattered regularly along all main roads. By all means ramble down Las Ramblas, but the only things worth pausing for are the fantastic, child-baiting street artists and the brilliant expanse of the San José market, selling everything from smoothies to sheep’s heads.

Finding food

The area between the Ramblas and the Via Laietana is fascinating, with elements of buildings both secular and religious dating back to Roman periods. Here you can find a lunch for €20 or even €10, going up to three hearty courses and including rabbit paella or paprika-heavy sausages. Remember that tapas is a snack not a meal, and is expensive if treated as such. Also, the further from any major thoroughfare, the cheaper, and better, your meal will be. Be aware, also, that many restaurants may not open for dinner service until seven or eight (or later in some cases), and factor that in if you have a flight out in the evening.

If you have already seen the biggest tourist draws then head down smaller streets, away from the brands, big businesses and the greatest crowds. One of the most interesting and often near-deserted quarters is the small antiques zone roughly across the Ramblas from the market; poke around the small shops and smart charcuteries, peer into the small residential courtyards interspersed along the ancient, cobbled alleys and, if you can translate the menu, try and get a traditional meal of pig’s trotters in a very, very ‘local’ restaurant, but be aware, aquí, no hablan inglés.

Roderigo Dodger and other urchins

Barcelona’s pickpockets can seem to be stationed every hundred yards, and though special care should be taken, this does not mean you should shun the backstreets. Most thefts occur on major, busy roads and the problem is so pandemic that the criminals are shockingly sloppy - they can often be spotted before absconding with your belongings, or those of a less careful citizen. As with any large city or unfamiliar area, the deeper you go, the greater the risk of encountering unpleasantness. However, almost all the city remains safe, providing normal care and attention is paid. Avoid walking any street in the early hours if alone and intoxicated, especially the Ramblas, which can support a startlingly large population of transvestite hookers and similarly seedy types.

With accommodation, hostels are vibrant and often heaving. The security room in the Sun and Moon Hostel was left unlocked when I stayed there some years ago, and my phone was stolen from my bag. Hotels are more secure, but more expensive. It is your choice, and there is a lot to choose from, but crime ought not spoil a trip to this fantastic city.

Christopher Erasmus

Christopher is a freelance writer with family ties across four continents and travel experience across every one except Antarctica; it will happen, provided it has not melted before he has enough to pay for the trip. He has worked as a reporter in Malaysia and spent two teenage summers sampling the unique culture as a PR / waiter in 18-30 resorts in Greece, which he describes as like Gomorrah, only hotter, and messier in the morning. His last great trip was a three and a half week tour of central Peru, which inspired a fascination with the jungle that has yet to be sated. Chris' next trip is across America, on the roads from Boston, New York and Washington across the plains to Salt Lake City and San Francisco, then by air to LA, Vegas, Southern and Western Texas, Memphis, New Orleans and Miami. It'll be quick, it'll be rough, and, in theory, it'll be cheap. Stephen Fry did just do it, but he didn't do it for less than three and a half thousand pounds. The task is to see if anyone can.