Much loved for its culture and creativity, Barcelona is one of Europe’s most visited cities. Escape the tourist crowds on a journey through vibrant back streets brimming with art and local life.
Sunday afternoon can be a surreal time to explore a city.
On the fringe of what was once a thriving industrial area, Barcelona seemed deserted. A wall crumbled onto a vacant lot. Traffic lights clicked through their cycles on silent streets. It felt like a forgotten city, but traces of life persisted everywhere: laundry fluttering below a window, an escape ladder cascading with geraniums, chairs and tables jumbled on a patio. And art – there was so much art.
We wandered the ‘hood – Spanish teenager Lucia, her English papa Mark and I – drifting from one wall to another, captivated by the visual treasure trail that unfolded before us. Huge faces peered from behind broken factory windows; human figures with paper-bag heads watched over two piles of earth. On the wall of an old warehouse without doors or windows, mystical creatures mused and watched and brooded. On that early-winter afternoon, with the Mediterranean sky a brilliant blue, this was a street-art world of spray-can colour.
We’d ended up on these streets by chance, wanting to connect with the ‘real’ Barcelona – the one beyond the tourist trail. From our hotel we’d climbed on the first bus that came along, then switched rides a few times, stitching together visual impressions of the city. Row upon row of grand, old buildings. A park edged with palm trees noisy with parrots. Ribbons of white beaches that, throughout the year, lure bathers. Lovers and families, travellers, solo wanderers, groups of students gradually moving through the streets, pausing on benches, sharing wine and a basket of bread with friends.
Winter is gentle in Barcelona – mild days and clear skies are common in this languid Catalan landscape. The metropolis, roughly the same size as Cape Town, stretches along a plain on the northeastern coast of Spain. It’s hemmed between the placid Mediterranean Sea in the east and the Serra de Collserola mountains in the west; France is just 100 kilometres away. Initially founded as a Roman settlement and called Barcino, Barcelona is now the capital of Catalonia, one of the wealthiest regions in Europe that enjoys (some will say endures) profits from around nine-million visitors a year.
Eventually the crowds thinned and the three of us jumped off the bus at a random stop, picked a direction and walked. We didn’t know it then, but it was soon obvious: as we explored the fringe of El Poblenou district, we were drifting through the very heart of Barcelona’s dynamic street-art zone. Around the city, throngs of tourists were lining up outside museums and monuments to see the work of Spain’s best-known artists, but out here we had large murals – some painted by the biggest names in Europe’s urban-art movement – all to ourselves and all for free.
Once home to artists such as Picasso, Dalí, Miró and Tàpies, and now packed with 66 museums, 26 Michelin-star restaurants and more beautiful buildings than you would care to count in the 101-square-kilometre city, Barcelona has long been revered for its cultural scene. It is loved for its Art Nouveau buildings – the result of the early 1900s movement that the Catalans called Modernisme (not to be confused with Modernism, which was a different style altogether) – and Barcelona’s streets, particularly Passeig de Gràcia, are like open-air architecture museums.
Perhaps the greatest building from the Modernisme period is now Barcelona’s main tourist attraction: the spectacular Sagrada Família. This Roman Catholic church was designed by Antoni Gaudí, who combined the bold columns, points and spires of Gothic architecture with the rhythmic lines and intricate details of Art Nouveau.
The church is still incomplete, 136 years after construction began, and official word is that the building should be finished by 2026, a century after Gaudí’s death. While construction continues, visitors are able to enter the church and wander through this manifestation of the architect’s wild imagination.
Creativity flows through the veins of this city. Everything about Barcelona seems carefully considered and designed – from street fashion and shop windows to façades, streetlights, Modernisme pavement tiles and even the structure of the city’s streets.
The grid pattern, which can clearly be seen from the towers of the Sagrada Família, was designed by Ildefons Cerdà, the civil engineer turned-urban planner who ‘invented’ urbanisation (both the word and the concept). When Barcelona’s old Roman walls were torn down in the 1850s, the city began to stretch into the area called Eixample (which means ‘expansion’) and Cerdà’s then-radical grid-pattern plan started to take shape: at every intersection the corners are cut back and rounded, opening up the spaces and bringing more light into the streets, allowing for better ventilation and visibility; there are also open spaces at the centre of each block.
It has many squares and terraces, yet one part of the city that defies this orderly structure is the popular Gothic Quarter, the old medieval Barcelona once contained within the city walls. Here a warren of pedestrian lanes are filled by the arched shop windows of trendy bars, artisanal butchers, jewellery makers and boutiques. There is an even older part of the city that is thrilling to explore – the bowels of the Barcelona City History Museum have been excavated, enabling visitors to walk the streets of Barcino as they were 2 000 years ago. These are the most extensive underground Roman ruins in the world, some 4 000 square metres, and visitors wander among the remains of an old laundry, fish factory and winery.
Our meanderings through the streets of El Poblenou took Mark, Lucia and me to a place where wine still flows: a tree-lined avenue locals sometimes call ‘the other rambla’.
In the Gothic Quarter, La Rambla is a busy pedestrian boulevard packed with souvenir stalls, restaurants and tourists, but along Rambla de Poblenou, late in the afternoon, we found ourselves among locals indulging in the sobremesa, meaning ‘beyond the table’, referring to the time after a meal when friends and family linger for hours, talking and watching the world go by.
Somewhere between the cafes, an old guitarist sang his blues while a woman seated beside him gossiped with friends. Chairs and tables spilled onto the boulevard and shadows stretched as the light softened. There seemed little reason for us to move on. When you find the right corner, Sunday afternoons can be the best time to experience a Mediterranean city.
Barcelona on the cheap
Barcelona is not the most affordable destination, but here are five ways to stretch your rands:
1. Book ahead
Advance bookings will often get you discounts on entrance fees to museums and historical buildings. The official Visit Barcelona website (barcelonaturisme.com) is an excellent resource.
2. Do your research
Some museums and galleries offer free entry on certain days, usually Sundays. See the tourism website for details.
3. Be your own guide
The free Visit Barcelona app offers ideas for itineraries and has free guides to themed walking tours. BCN Gaudí gives interesting insight into the architect and his buildings; BCN Paisatge was designed to highlight the ‘between places’ – murals, shops and landscapes around Barcelona.
4. Stay connected
Barcelona has one of the largest free internet networks in Europe (barcelonalowdown.com). At phone stores you can get a Spanish SIM card and 2GB of data (take your passport) for R225.
5. Make lunch your main meal
Many restaurants offer a set three-course menú del dia (menu of the day) for about R150.
6. Buy in bulk
It’s cheaper to buy bus or Metro tickets in a bundle than per trip. For info on the cards available, see publictransport.barcelona/metro_bus_tram/tickets_travelcards/
Plan your trip
Need to know
South Africans passport holders require a Schengen visa to enter Spain. It takes at least 15 working days to process and costs R964, plus there’s a R248 handling fee. sa.blsspainvisa.com Taxis, buses and the Metro are very accessible. The bus is cheapest; buy a 10-ride ticket for R154 at any station.
Casa Gracia is a sunny townhouse with high ceilings, marble floors and character filled decor. It’s a boutique hostel suitable for all ages in central Barcelona, on the fringe of local neighbourhoods that have more affordable bars and restaurants. It’s a fair-but doable walking distance from the popular old town. B&B from R224 per dorm bed; from R820 for a double room; from R970 for an apartment (sleeps three). casagraciabcn.com
Mandarin Oriental is on Passeig de Gràcia in the city’s shopping and business district. The chic hotel has a range of excellent restaurants and bars; the rooftop pool and terrace offer lovely views of the city. It’s not the cheapest option but it is an excellent base for fans of Gaudí, as several of his buildings are nearby. Double from R5 600. mandarinoriental.com/barcelona
See street art in El Poblenou. To get to the district, take bus No. 7 or the yellow Line 4 of the Metro. Streets (‘carrers’) to look out for include Espronceda, Pere IV, Selva del Mar, l’Agricultura, Josep Pla and Av Diagonal.
Go ‘underground’ at MUHBA. Barcelona’s history museum on Plaça del Rei in the Gothic Quarter is where you’ll find the excavated site of Roman Barcino. The museum has 12 other sites dotted around the city. Entry R105 per person, free after 3pm on Sundays.
Stroll down Carrer de Joaquín Costa, which leads away from the upmarket areas in Eixample and into the vibrant district of Raval. It’s packed with great cocktail bars and furniture and design stores.
Watch a free show. The Magic Fountain, created in 1929, is a lovely spectacle of light, music, water and colour (there are more than seven billion light-and-water combinations). onbarcelona.cat
Hang out at the art museum. The Museum of Contemporary Art has many important artworks, but the space outside is just as fascinating. It’s here that Barcelona, as seen from a tower of the Sagrada Família. the best skateboarders in the city gather to show off their skills. Museum entry R150, free on Saturdays. macba.cat
Relax in a lovely park. The 18-hectare Parc de la Ciutadella (in the Ciutat Vella district) was used for the Universal Exposition of 1888 and still has relics of that event: a lake and waterfall, the Umbracle plant house, Hivernacle glass house and Castell dels Tres Dragons. Entrance is free.