Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, I’m thrilled to share an interview from Barcelona: 10 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Eat, & How to Fit In. These tips are courtesy of Mariana Calleja, a nomadic doctor who lived in Barcelona for years before hitting the road.
I am Mariana from Costa Rica, born and raised there with a happy, warm, and green childhood. I went to college and med school and have always had an itchy curiosity and thirst for the world. That’s what made me take a flight to Barcelona, a place I always dreamt about. The city was even better than my dream, so I decided to stay.
Nowadays, I work part time as a doctor and spend rest of my day doing freelance social media and writing work. I daydream a lot, too, about projects and travels.
What to Do In Barcelona (The Basics)
Barcelona is a touristy destination, indeed, but there are also hidden places to enjoy. The touristy stuff needs to be seen, because it’s awesomely beautiful. Some attractions are free and some others have an entrance fee, but it is all worth it.
What’s worth paying for? The Sagrada Familia church, La Pedrera and/or Casa Batlló (the Gaudi houses), Museu d’Història de la Ciutat (the Barcelona City History Museum, with its underground Roman ruins), Park Guell, and the Palau Musica Catalana and Liceu theaters.
What should you visit for free? Montjuic Magic Fountain (a gorgeous combination of water, music, and colors that will leave you speechless and with goose bumps), Montjuic Castle (which has the best views of the Mediterranean sea and the port and feels so peaceful), the beach walk and coastline, Ciutadella Park (which is an artsy park), Las Ramblas, Boqueria (the famed Ramblas market), Raval (our Chinatown), the Gothic quarter (the old city center), the Gracia neighborhood (where Park Guell is located), and the castellers (human towers), if possible.
Hidden Gems for Seasoned Travelers
First, I’d recommend the café at the Gran Teatre del Liceu (the opera house); despite being on the touristy Ramblas, it is a beautiful and antique art nouveau building that may be enjoyed at anytime, day or night. They serve great churros, too, which are tough to find in town. If you are there for the opera, have a glass of sparkling wine before going in, just like the Catalans do.
Salterio, located at Sant Domènec del Call 4, is my favorite tea room in the world. It’s been four years since I discovered it and it never fails to impress me. It’s a lovely, cozy spot right downtown, but completely isolated from everything. There’s no wi-fi or mobile access, so you’ll have an unforgettable experience living in the moment. Enjoy the experimental teas, Arab pastries, and delightful ambience.
Where to Stay
The gothic quarter is a classic and beautiful neighborhood with a very different feel in the daytime vs. the evening. It is lovely both times of day and, for me, feels like being inside a story. The best time to wander around the neighborhood is at sunset. It also has amazing history all over the place, plenty of museums, and good connections to everything by foot or via public transport.
Gracia and its old town—which used to be on the outside Barcelona, but is now connected to the city via a street called Paseo de Gracia (a very well-known street)—have great nightlife and lovely architecture along their narrow streets. There are lots of little, local businesses and the neighborhood is well connected to everything by foot or via public transport. At siesta time, the whole neighborhood closes down, which is very authentic and also fun to see.
Eixample is a wide and varied neighborhood right in the middle of the city. Particularly beautiful are its wide streets and tall modernist-style buildings. Grab your camera and don’t ever look down again. It’s simply gorgeous. Plus, it has uncountable coffee shops, tea rooms, bars, and tapa or drink spaces. As with my other suggestions, it is well connected to everything by foot or via public transport.
|Did I mention that I wrote a book full of these interviews?
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Montserrat is 45 minutes away by train from Plaza España metro/train station. It is a peaceful monastery on top of a mountain with impressive views. It deserves a visit.
Sitges is a nice town, 30 minutes away by train, with lovely walks, history, and food. They have the best fideua (a traditional fish and noodle dish a little like paella, which you must try while you are in the region).
Girona, the main city of the Catalan province of Girona, is a city that deserves a whole weekend (rather than just a day), as it has incredible history, ruins, and buildings. It is also close to the delightful Costa Brava and the Pyrenees. In such short distances you can go from snow to the beach. It’s not to be missed. And the food…oh the food! It’s just an hour away by train, the trains run very frequently, and a budget ticket is no more than €15 round-trip.
There are also some wonderful medieval towns in the countryside that I would recommend, including Besalu and Santa Pau in La Garrotxa. They are accessible by bus (or, of course, you can rent a car).
There is a hot-air balloon company, Vols de Colom (www.voldecoloms.cat), which is the perfect way to experience the majesty of the entire area—from white-peaked mountains to the golden Mediterranean sunrise. This is a must!
Finally, Tarragona is a good choice. A former capital of the Roman Empire, it has an impressive set of Roman ruins along the seaside. It is simply unique—and just an hour and a half away from Barcelona (with very frequent train service).
What to Eat
Pa amb tomaquet is the truly unique local dish. Simple and tasty (you will want it every day afterwards!), it’s made with a slice of bread (called pages) slightly toasted and served with half a tomato, a garlic clove, and olive oil. You must take the garlic and rub it against the bread, then do the same with the tomato, then add a bit of salt, and, finally, put some olive oil on top. Best dish ever, I promise.
During wintertime, the thing you must not miss is the traditional calçots—a particular kind of grilled onion that you will only be able to find in Catalonia during the cold season.
For tapas, choose anything involving seafood, calamari, boquerones (fresh anchovies), or grilled veggies (like artichokes).
Of course, you should also try the fideua—a special kind of paella made with tiny, thin pasta cooked with tons of garlic, calamari, clams, and shrimp and served with a special handmade sauce called aioli (which is similar to mayonnaise, but way tastier).
Where to Eat (Best Bars & Restaurants)
Ciutat Comtal, at Rambla de Catalunya 18, usually requires a 15- to 30-minute wait, but is totally worth it. This place is seriously loved by the locals. They serve mostly tapas, but such good ones. Perfect for drinks and casual dinner. Average price per person is 15 to 25 euros. And it’s right downtown, next to metro Paseo de Gracia.
Can Cargol, at Calle Valencia 324, is Catalan food at its best. The average price is no more than 30 euro per person with drinks, dessert, and/or coffee. They’ve got large portions and grilled food is their specialty. Mmm. You’ll find it close to the Verdaguer or Girona metro stops.
How to Meet Locals & Make Friends
The best way to meet people is at meet ups and language exchanges, since Barcelona has it’s own language and there are plenty of foreigners living in the city.
Foodie meet-ups are quite fun, too. There are a lot of them and locals really enjoy eating.
Getting involved in some Catalan/local activities, such as the traditional human tower making, is a great gesture and will help you meet real locals.
Best Places to Take a Photo
The beach, Park Guell, Montjuic hill (for the best views of the port), and Tibidabo Mountain (for a wide and complete city view).
Final Notes & Other Tips
Many people ignore the fact that Catalonia has a very unique and different language, culture, and history from the rest of Spain. So, it is a good thing to know a bit of this in advance. Locals will be thankful for it, because they truly are in love with their region. They are proud of it and they want to show it to the world, to share it. So it is nice to see tourists enjoying it and learning from it as well.
Don’t be too nervous about the language, since everyone speaks Spanish, too, and they won’t be rude about it. It’s just a nice thing to know before arriving. Signs at the airport and on the streets will be shown both in Catalan and Spanish.
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