From October, 2015
As expected, I fell in deep love with Barcelona. No surprise really. I have yet to meet anyone who has told me otherwise. It’s charming, it’s hip, its weather (even in October) is damned near perfect and then there is the food… simply magnífico. But more on that later.
Overall, Barcelona is a walking and eating city. The people are simpatico and stylish so get out your comfy (but chic) footwear and say “Hola” while strolling through the spindly, spider’s web of streets that give this town its mojo. (But please Americans, leave the Nikes, ball caps and cargo shorts stateside. And under no circumstances shame us by showing up with a fanny pack).
To start, let’s discuss the where and what to do.
The first one I’ll make easy for you: Las Ramblas. Two words. Don’t bother. It’s not just guidebooks incessant warnings to watch for pickpockets that make you want to store your money and valuables deep inside a body cavity or the hordes of tourists wandering down the boulevard zombie-like behind a guide with a hoisted unopened umbrella. It’s well…much ado about not very much…not very pretty, not very charming and not very worth your time. I would almost guarantee that we did not pass one native while there. (Think no New Yorkers hang in Time Square).
Now to be fair, we only walked down about half way clutching our pockets in a tense fist before we said…“Meh”, so perhaps we missed something outstanding down the other half. But from our vantage point it just looked like more of the same frothy souvenir shops and eating establishments with menus depicting unappetizing food in five languages. In hindsight, I do wish I had had greater fortitude to push through to La Boqueria, the amazing food emporium sadly situated on…Las Ramblas. But we were toast before we got there. So I will recommend that unless you have seen every other possible delight in Barcelona, don’t put “Las Ramblas” on your must-do list. Go circle the lovely Plaça de Catalunya at the top with an amazing fountain and then give a gaze up at the Columbus Monument at the bottom on your way to the beach in Barceloneta. In my opinion, it’s all you need. Others may disagree, but hey this is my story.
Now that that’s out of the way…absolutely see everything else. By foot is best, but being a large expanse there is great public transportation and the taxis aren’t terribly expensive.
We were there for five days and feel like we only scratched the surface, so while we didn’t get to see it all, we did see a bunch and here are the highlights:
Segrada Familia…a transcendental experience for the faithful and heathens alike. Hope to live to see it completed. It is a marvel of art and science. After spending a bit of time in Gaudí’s Barcelona, I feel a bit badly that the word “gaudy” is derived from the style of this genius. In truth, nothing of Gaudi’s is “gaudy”. It’s all just right. From ergonomic drawer handles to a ruffle of a school roof to cathedrals buttressed with arbor-inspired columns, nothing is there for mere embellishment.
Park Güell…like a fairy tale movie set. A little bit of a schlepp, a cab-ride north of the city but a delightful way to spend a morning.
Casa Milá…Spectacular rooms in a corner apartment building with a Gaudí master façade looking out at the grand boulevard Passeig de Grácia in the Eixample section of the city. Lots to see and ohh and ahh about. (Especially the fact that some people still live in the apartments! You aren’t privy to those, but no matter how architecturally significant the place is, who wants to live in a building hosting a gazillion backpack-toting turistas traipsing through your lobby?).
Only saw the façade of the other major apartment, Casa Batlló, but hear it is quite the show inside. If the mosaic serpent on the roof is any indication, I’ll bet it is. Also didn’t get to see Palau Güell, but go take a gander if you still crave more Gaudí.
NOTE: All of these activities need tickets. Get them on-line and in advance to minimize your time in line with said backpack toting turistas. Also, a little Gaudi goes a long way. Don’t try and do All Gaudi/All Day. One activity per day is just the right amount of splendiferousness.
Picasso Museum…definitely go but not at the expense of Gaudí (Barcelona really is his sandbox). In a great old building in the heart of El Born. Mostly younger Pablo, but you really do get to see the genesis of his genius. Another morning activity.
NOTE: Tickets required. Again, on-line to avoid in-line.
In fact, take a little café con leche break post-Picasso in a hidden gem of a café/bar called Café Bornet on a little street that runs perpendicular to the museum. Great vibe; casbah feel. Peaceful with great sweets (and great free WiFi). And if you’re lucky, a neighboring merchant’s “perro” named Canu comes to hang out for free belly rubs. C/de la Barra de Ferro, 6, 08003 Barcelona; https://bornet.wordpress.com/
Barceloneta: Lovely beach walk. A bit too much of a hike to stay there in my view but worth a stroll past the topless bathers over to the the mirrored, sail-like W Hotel that has great views, a great restaurant and what I hear is a great club.
El Born & The Ribera: We rented a lovely flat in a great quiet square in El Born. And the five flights to the rooftop abode not withstanding, it could not have been better. By far my favorite part of town. Less touristy than Barri Gotic with better shops and more of a Soho vibe (that is, Soho before it became as touristy as Barri Gotic). Would recommend staying here or in Eixample. Superb local shopping for Spanish labels and locally made/grown wares. Fab boutiques with a special shout out to trendy jewelry. Barcelona Cathedral is pretty darn amazing…wander by in the evening when it is resplendently lit. (A lovely hotel facing the park around the square from our flat was the Hotel Picasso which gets great marks on Trip Advisor)
Eixample: Area just north of El Born. Think more like the Park Avenue posh part of town. Every designer vending in every major city in the world is here. But a great place to wander the streets. Where most of the high end chic hotels are as well. Great grub.
Mont Juïc: Great vistas from the top of this mountain enclave that hosted the 1992 Olympic Opening ceremony (remember the caldron lit by the archer?). Lots to see (including the Joan Miró and Catalan Art museums to name a few). Take the cable car up and the funicular back down. Can easily spend the day up here.
OK, now the food.
Thanks to all who had the pleasure of eating and drinking in Barcelona before we did as well as contributions from travel blogs, The Guardian and the good ole New York Times. Before I begin…a side note. Barcelona is a good food value (make that everywhere we went in Catalunya). Really, I mean it. Dinner at some really high brow places rarely hit over $100 (thanks also goes out to the dollar pulling almost even with the euro). But the really big part of the value is that by American standards, the wine is virtually free. At least it seemed that way to my New York sensibilities. I thought we were ordering a glass of wine for €16 euros (about $16) which wouldn’t seem at all odd to us, but actually it was for the whole bottle. In fact, some spots just kept refilling your glass with no additional charge…just like Coke refills at Burger King! And do go with the local Spanish wines. Varied and so fabulous.
Important note: If you didn’t know this about Spain before, let me enlighten you: NO ONE EATS DINNER BEFORE 9PM.NO ONE.PERIOD. So if you have an Early Bird Special constitution, Barcelona and frankly all of Spain ain’t for you. Most folks don’t even venture out before 10PM weeknights and weekends for their evening meal. And having seen a lovely table of 70-somethings sit down for dinner after us at 11:30PM, I know it is not a universal senior thing to eat by 6 or perish. So look at it this way, you get a whole lotta day out of each day of your trip.
Last words on the subject: eat and drink…A LOT. We did and have no regrets.
Here are our top picks for eating and drinking in Barcelona:
In El Born/Ribera/Old Town:
Café del Born: Our go-to local café. Had many of our breakfasts here. Great location on a big square, but not too nutty and definitely a local hangout. 10 Plaza Comercial St, 801; +34 32683272
Big Fish: Great dinner spot for well, great fish. Funky/elegant interior right in the square with Mercat el Born. C/Comercial, 9; +34 932 68 17 28; http://www.bigfish.cat/
Senyor Parellada: Great old mansion of a place right in the old town of El Born. Classic Catalan cooking. Great one dish meals with rice. Think it would be best when there is a bit of a chill in the air. Very cozy and attached to a chic little hotel. C/Argenteria 37; +34 93 310 50 94; http://www.senyorparellada.com/en/
Cal Pep: The choreography was as good as the food. A 20 person counter (I believe there is a back room for larger parties, but all of the theatrics are up front). You wait for a seat (no res) along with local folks hovering enough for the dalliers to pay up and finally relinquish their spots. Occasionally a drink while waiting is offered from the colorful stewards running the show counter side. But this place is really about all fish, all the time. If they have a menu, it didn’t pass by me. Our charming barman asked of food allergies, we said none and he went to town crafting an amazing selection of fish tapas punctuated by the best sole I’ve ever had, fileted with surgical precision right in front of us. Would not recommend for a big group. We waited for an hour and there were 2 of us. But since they kept refilling our wine glasses (with no extra charge) who cared! Placa de les Olles 8; +34 93 310 79 61; http://www.calpep.com/#_=_
Bar Guzzo: A few doors away from Café el Born is this charming, yet chic little bar that plays smooth Miles and serves up their unique take on an Old Fashion. Very grown up and dignified up until about midnight where it becomes a club scene. Looked fun but we just weren’t hip or hard of hearing enough to venture in for the late night festivities. But super-duper for a pre-dinner cocktail and small plates. Plaza Comercial, 10; +34 936 67 00 36; http://guzzo.es/#_=_
Fermi Puig: Higher end place with a renowned chef by the same name. Tasting menu that was superb. (Had a cannelloni in which the “pasta” was paper thin avocado encasing the whole business). Worth it with the wine pairings. Finer edge to Catalonian fare. Nice occasion spot. Service, style and substance were all divine.C/del Balmes 175, Sant Gervasi-Santaló; +34 93 624 1835; restaurantfermipuig.com
Bar Mut: Throwback of an old bar with a very new take on food. Great for lunch after Segrada Familia. Not too far away. Best ceviche I’d ever had. Not the kind of spot you’d suspect would have a sommelier but they did and he recommended a great crisp white that went perfectly with my fish. Pau Claris 192; +34 93 217 43 38 http://www.barmut.com/#_=_
Paco Meralgo: Great modern tapas spot. Get the spicy potatoes, a Catalan specialty. Recommended by two Spaniards and we were the only Americans there. Sleek interior and fun ambiance; young, chic urbanistas, but without hipster airs. Food was amazing from the first olive to postre. C/ Muntaner 171; +34 93 430 90 27; http://www.restaurantpacomeralgo.com/home/#_=_
Barceloneta and places a little outside of the Old Town:
Can Pineda: Made a booking online which we didn’t know had been canceled until we got there. They took pity and after our best long faces, graciously seated us and boy were we pleased. Traditional Catalan cooking from a master (apparently) which is why booking the day of was not a good idea. We savored every bite. Fish, meat all fabulous. The owner spoke not a word of English but could not be more enchanting helping us through the menu. Cozy and a must as well as a fave of Gwyneth and Mario. C/Sant Joan de Malta, 55 – Bajo; +34 931763243; http://www.restaurantcanpineda.com/
Pez Vela: Beachside dining at the W Hotel’s trendy cove-facing boîte. Had a wonderful lobster paella. Very casual (again, no cargo shorts please) and worth a lunch if the weather is nice. It was still warm enough for us to eat al fresco at the end of October, but not sure after the November winds come in. Food and ambiance were great, but if you can’t enjoy the terrace dining, may not be worth the trek to the tip of Barceloneta. Passeig del Mare Nostrum 19-21; +34 932 21 63 17; grupotragaluz.com
Bohemic: I know that all the buzz is about Tickets in this part of town (San Antoni, near Mont Juïc) but since getting a reservation there is about as easy as a gyno appointment less than 6 months out, I say head down a block and turn left to this amazing little establishment run by a family. Mamma waits tables and sonny cooks up a storm. Catalan cooking with a bit of Asian flare. Sublime. Can not believe Tickets would have been better. Do not miss. Some of the most inventive food we had in Barcelona. C/de Manso 42, Sant Antoni; 34-93-424-06-28; bohemicbistro.com.
NOTE: I would strongly suggest reservations for dinners definitely, and for lunches if you are more than 2. Even off season, restaurants are full. Also, none of these spots would be considered “family friendly” unless you have very really well-behaved, foodie kids who don’t mind a 2-3 hour meal that doesn’t begin until 9PM at the earliest.
A few last dining notes. The bread is beyond delicious. Eat it often. The universal specialty of fresh bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil is a must at every meal. The Iberian ham (think prosciutto) is like no other and, World Health Organization be damned, also worth eating at least daily if not at every meal. Café con leche at pretty much anywhere in town puts Starbucks to shame for half the price in a quarter of the time.
So enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. We’re already thinking about when to go back.