Barcelona is the kind of city that casts a spell over its visitors. Enticed by the epic architecture and promise of deep-running history set in the context of a coastal Mediterranean getaway, millions of travelers arrive every year to see the charms of Barcelona for themselves.
Despite this popularity, it’s often misunderstood – especially if you fail to escape the typical tourist pitfalls. For me, though, it’s a city that always called me back and a place where I felt the most at home, but I admit that there are many missteps travelers can make in a city this big, popular and culturally complicated.
Today, the spotlight often shines on Barcelona for its overtourism problem, and local resentment makes itself known through aggressive graffiti near popular attractions. In some cases, this has even forced city officials to restrict access to once off-the-grid spots like the Carmel Bunkers, simply because the crowds have gotten out of control. In my years of living in Barcelona, I’ve learned how to avoid shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and enjoy the city as a local would. Here’s everything you should know before you come to Barcelona, from the essential safety tips to the cultural landscape.
1. You can’t see the whole city in a day
Barcelona may not be the biggest city you’ve ever been to, but it is massive when you consider all the ways you can entertain yourself. Because there is so much to see, the ideal number of days for a trip to Barcelona is between two and five. That should be enough to cover the must-sees, but if you want to explore more in the surrounding area, 10 days would give you additional time to plan day trips either to nearby cava wineries, the Costa Brava, or even as far north as the Pyrenees for a day of skiing.
2. There will be lots of tourists
There’s no use denying that overtourism is an issue in Barcelona, but you can plan to avoid the crowds by traveling during the off-season or trying to get an early start on the day before the cruise ships pull in and the streets fill up with visitors.
You can also book many tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in the long lines, but in some places, you won’t be able to avoid the crowds. Try to space out the big attractions in your itinerary so you have some breathing room in between, ie, don’t go from the Sagrada Familia to Casa Batllò.
3. Avoid traveling during big events
Barcelona draws big acts from around the world every summer as a mainstay on the music festival circuit. But unless you’ve got your ticket to Primavera Sound or Sonar already, you may want to avoid traveling during these weekends or any other time when large trade fairs, like the Mobile World Congress, take over the city. It’s already an expensive city, but accommodation rates skyrocket when a big influx of visitors is on its way.
4. Know what cultural events to look for
If you want to have an authentic cultural experience in Barcelona, you can look for local events that embrace Catalan traditions like the parades of giants, human tower gatherings, Sardana dance circles and the Correfoc fire parades. You may stumble across them if you’re traveling over a holiday like Holy Week, but if you want to secure your odds, make a trip in September when the city celebrates La Mercè, one of Barcelona’s patron Saints, with a week of festivities that include cultural events and free concerts.
5. There’s more than one Rambla
Everyone will tell you La Rambla is a must-do, but for me, walking the Rambla feels a lot like walking through Times Square back at home – crowded, touristy, and to be avoided whenever possible. Thankfully, the city has more than one Rambla, where you can actually enjoy the slow strolling these city features were built for. In the center, you can venture down the Rambla del Raval with its famous Botero cat sculpture, or go a little bit out of the way to walk the Rambla del Poblenou from Diagonal all the way down to the beach.
6. The beaches get better the further away from the city center you get
Barceloneta is the most famous beach in Barcelona, and the adjacent neighborhood is worth checking out for its narrow streets and great tapas spots, but travel further down if you actually want to lay out on the beach. Barceloneta can get very crowded and noisy with tourists, so walk or cab your way past Port Olímpic to Platja de la Mar Bella. Because all the beaches in Barcelona are artificial, built for the 1992 Olympic games, the sand isn’t the nicest, to be frank. If you can travel outside the city to Sitges or up the Costa Brava, you’ll find more tranquil and scenic beaches.
7. Get to know Catalan culture
An autonomous region of Spain, the subject of Catalan independence is still a touch-and-go, but you should be respectful to the locals by learning about all the distinct characteristics that give Catalans their cultural identity. Show a little curiosity, and locals will be more than happy to tell you all about their favorite traditions, from wintertime onion barbecues to the cheeky caganer ("the pooper") a beloved Christmas icon.
8. Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish
If you’re looking for the quickest way to offend a Catalan, this is the one. Almost everyone in Barcelona can speak Catalan and Spanish, and the tourism circuit is well set up for English-speaking clientele, so you should have no problem getting around. However, you can make a good impression on your hosts by learning a few words. Some are similar to Spanish and French, like “Hola” and “Merci” for “Hello” and” Thank you,” but you can also try “Bon día” for “Good morning” and “Adéu” for “Goodbye.”
9. Pickpockets are a real issue
Just about everyone in Barcelona has a first or second-hand pickpocketing story, including me (they slipped two credit cards out of my wallet while I was working on my laptop in a crowded cafe). You should never let your guard down, especially when riding the metro or walking down crowded tourist areas like La Rambla. Keep your phone put away whenever you’re not using it, and never leave it sitting out on the table if you’re dining outside.
1o. Public transportation is safe and efficient
Although you do have to mind your belongings for the nefarious pickpockets, one of the best things about living in Barcelona is how easy and efficient public transportation is. I’ve had generally positive experiences, and it’s easy to connect to the major train and bus stations for adventures outside the city.
You may also see the red shared bikes called Bicing, but don’t bother trying to rent one because they’re only for residents. If you want to take advantage of Barcelona’s bike lanes, you’ll have to get a rental from a shop, but be strategic about how and where you lock it – bike thieves are as common as pickpockets.