September is my favourite time of year in Barcelona, and that’s mainly because of Festes de la Mercè. Just three weeks after the city has returned from the month-long August break, Barcelona goes on holiday once again for the biggest celebration of the year. There’s everything from quirky theatrical performances to acrobatics in the castle, interactive installations and colourful folkloric parades.
What is La Mercè?
La Mercè is one of the biggest festival events in Barcelona’s calendar. It’s the time when all the neighbourhood barrios come together to celebrate as a city. The four-day event celebrates the Verge de la Mercè, or the Virgin of Mercy, one of Barcelona’s two patron saints. While the festival’s origins lie in religion, it has very little to do with that today, and is more a celebration of Barcelona itself.
When does La Mercè take place?
The festival occurs over a few days in late September. The day of La Mercè itself is always 24 September, and the celebrations fall somewhere around this date each year. This year, it will take place from 20–24 September 2019.
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What happens during La Mercè?
La Mercè is a huge citywide event, which is essentially made up of lots of different festivals all taking place at the same time. There are in fact so many that even locals find it hard to keep track.
The BAM Festival is the live music part of La Mercè, with concerts happening in various locations throughout the city, while the MAC Festival is all about performing arts, dance and street theatre. These performances usually take place at the Parc de la Ciutadella and the Arc de Triomf area, and feature everything from the downright weird to amazing cultural performances from around the world.
Nits al Castell or Nights at the Castle, is a programme of daredevil circus acts and acrobatic performances, which take place at Montjuic Castle and the neighbourhood of Nou Barris in the north of the city. The Mostra de Vins i Caves de Catalunya is Barcelona’s wine and cava celebration, which this year will take place in the barrio of Sant Antoni.
As well as these individual events, there are also several traditional Catalan folkloric elements of La Mercè, such as parades of giants; correfocs (fire runs) with firework-spraying devils; and castellers (gravity-defying human towers).
What’s more, many city attractions, museums and buildings are free or discounted during La Mercè. If there’s a city building you’ve always wanted to enter but is not usually open to the public, check on 24 September, as chances are it could be open. There’s not usually an official list, so it’s best to check on individual websites beforehand.
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What are the main highlights that I shouldn’t miss?
There are hundreds of different events going on during Mercè, so it’s impossible to see them all, and it can be quite overwhelming. One of the most important things is to get hold of a programme. They do have one online, but the English translation is very limited, so try to get yourself a printed one from one of the tourist offices.
If you only have time for a few of the events or are feeling confused about what to see, I’d recommend sticking to the highlights. These include the opening parade down La Rambla (happening this year on 20 September), the light projections on the City Hall in Plaça Sant Jaume (on every night of the festival from around 8.30pm–midnight), and the giant’s parade on the morning of 24 September. The festival culminates in a huge pyromusical display of water, fire and music to say goodbye for another year. This takes place on the night of the 24th at Plaça d’Espanya.
If this is your first time seeing a Catalan festival, the most traditional parts of the celebration, such as fire runs and human towers, shouldn't be missed: check the programme if you don’t want to miss anything. Most of them will happen around Plaça Sant Jaume.
If you’ve seen the most traditional parts of a Catalan festival before, then concentrate on seeing as many of the individual performances as possible (mainly around Parc de la Ciutadella and the Arc de Triomf).
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What about events for children?
Mercè is all about family, and almost all the events are child-friendly. Kids will particularly enjoy the parade of giants, as well as the circus performances and street theatre at the MAC Festival. Besides all this, there is a large area of Parc de la Ciutadella which is entirely dedicated to kids. These include lots of eco-friendly rides, toys and games, many of which are hosted by the parents. There are also puppet shows, storytelling and workshops. Keep in mind that everything will be in Catalan, but even if your kids don’t understand, it will still be entertaining. Be aware: if you or your children have never experienced a correfoc (fire run) before, be prepared as it could be quite scary for them.