All of the things that make Spain wonderful—the food! The wine! The culture!—also make it unlike other parts of the world, and that’s particularly true of Barcelona.
The following insights will aid you during your time in the city and will both improve your experience and help you to feel less like a tourist. Should you tip? When can you eat? Should you skip the touristy bits? We’ve got answers and a few tips to help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful city.
There are a few major attractions in Barcelona that rank highly on most Spain bucket lists. If you are hoping to check some of the world’s top attractions off your list, you will need to plan. For big-ticket sights like the Sagrada Família, Park Güell, and the Picasso Museum, you will need to book tickets before you arrive. Also, plan ahead if you wish to attend a performance at the Palau de la Música Catalana.
Catalan Culture Is Strong
Before the rise of modern-day Spain, there was Aragon, a kingdom on the Iberian peninsula whose territories included the regions we know as Catalonia and Aragon, as well as Roussillon, a part of southern France. The Catalan people and their culture are tenacious, and Barcelona—the capital of Catalonia—remains solidly Catalan. This means that you’ll see signage printed in both Spanish and Catalan and will also hear Catalan being spoken. While you won’t be expected to learn the language, it’s a sign of respect to learn at least a few Catalan words. As a visitor, you should also keep in mind that the Catalan bid for independence remains an unresolved and politically sensitive issue for a number of people, and the polite thing to do is to avoid talking about Spanish politics in public.
You Don't Need to Tip (But Rounding Up Is Nice)
Service industry jobs in Europe tend to pay better than they do in the U.S., and in Spain, tipping is neither expected nor required. Rounding up a euro or two in a restaurant where you had good service is an appreciated gesture, and the same goes for throwing in an extra euro for a cab ride, or even just letting your driver keep the change.
Meals Are Late and Long
The Spanish internal clock is set about three hours behind that of America, which means late lunches and even later dinners. Brunch starts at noon, lunch begins at two or three, and dinner at ten or eleven. Keep in mind that meals, and particularly dinners, can be multi-hour affairs as well, with the potential for more than one round of food and undoubtedly multiple drink orders. If you’re not up for adopting the Spanish meal schedule, you can, of course, eat whenever you want, but you won’t always have the same restaurant options available off-hours, especially for lunch.
Watch out for Thieves
For all of its charms, Barcelona—like most major cities—is also a place where petty theft is common. Pickpocketing, mugging, and bag snatching remain an issue in Barcelona, and this is particularly true in any location where you’ll find crowds of distracted people, such as train platforms and on La Rambla. Leave original documents in your hotel and instead carry photocopies if you think you’ll need to show ID. As with any major city, keep bags and purses closed at all times and wear them on your front. If you are a victim of theft, dial “112” (which offers services in English) or visit the Help Centre for Tourists at 43 La Rambla; it’s open 24 hours a day.
Go Ahead and Order the Bottle
You already know that Spanish wine is world-famous, but you might be surprised—and delighted—to hear that in Spain it’s also wildly inexpensive. Spain offers some of the best wine values in all of Europe, and ordering a bottle of wine in a tapas bar could easily mean spending less than ten euros, with that same bottle costing half of that in a shop. Even better, northern Spain has fabulous wines and many quality appellations (areas producing distinct wines). A particularly good one is D.O. (Denominación de Origen) Cariñena, a wine-producing area near the city of Zaragoza.
F.C. Barcelona Is Everything
Not only is F.C. Barcelona one of the single best teams on the planet, but they also have an incredibly successful youth soccer program designed to groom the next generation of sports idols. All of this means that soccer fandom is basically a religion.
INSIDER TIPIf you want the full F.C. Barcelona experience, find a bar during a match and enjoy the experience of watching—and feeling—a game with locals.
The Beaches Are Free but Busy
Barcelona is a seaside city, and that means easy access to the beach… which means everyone goes. For that reason, the most central beaches—Barceloneta and Sant Miguel—are also the most crowded and chaotic. If you’re looking for a stretch of sand that isn’t completely crammed with people, leave the city entirely: there are beautiful, clean beaches just outside of the city that are perfect for day trips.
The Restaurants Are Great, but You'll Want to Eat at the Market
While it might be hard to turn yourself away from one of Barcelona’s countless restaurants, at least one of your meals should be a picnic of ingredients like Jamón Ibérico, olives, cheese, olive oil, bread, and tomatoes—or whatever strikes your fancy at one of the city’s many incredible markets. Barcelona’s most famous open-air food market is La Boqueria, but other top options include Mercat Santa Caterina in La Ribera, Tutusaus in Upper Barcelona, and Plaça del Pi in Barri Gòtic.
La Rambla Is Super Crowded
Once upon a time, the wide avenue called La Rambla was considered one of Barcelona’s essential tourism destinations, and then everyone went there, all at once! La Rambla now maintains a reputation as a loud tourist trap known for its illegal betting, drinking, and pickpockets. It’s not exactly an unsafe area, but it’s not exactly fun in peak tourist season, either. Regardless, you will find yourself compelled to visit La Rambla because it has to be done. In summer especially, do yourself a favor and visit early in the day.
Sunday Is a Day of Rest
Spain is a Catholic-majority country, and while Barcelona doesn’t completely shut down on Sundays, it is a day when a significant number of businesses close. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still have fun or find a place to eat, but your options will definitely be limited, and stores (including supermarkets) will likely not be open.