I was randomly selected by security on my flight home from Barcelona. “What was the purpose of your trip?” Family vacation. “How long were you here for?” Four days. “What did you do while you were here?” Siesta, cook breakfast, eat seafood, Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Las Ramblas, Boqueria, eat paella… “What was your favorite?” Siesta. “You came all the way here and you liked siesta the best?” Yes… I was very tired.
Paris took it out of me, and Barcelona was the perfect 180. The weather was better, the food was fresh and not as heavy, and there wasn’t as much to do. So chill, can you say, siesta? I didn’t get it when I was younger, but I get it now. Cerrado, siesta. Everything basically closes at 2PM and opens again around 5PM. It’s all about night life, so immerse yourself in local ways, slow down, take a break. Tranquillo.
I’ll admit, I’ve had a meh relationship with Spain. I’ve been 3 times now, and it never really blew me away. I also found that in years past, people weren’t as friendly and guarding from petty theft was exhausting (more on that in a later entry). Last time I was in Spain I said it would be my last, unless I was going back to Barcelona. I always wanted to go back for some reason – maybe because I got caught in torrential downpour on Las Ramblas, so I felt like I missed something significant. So here I was. My third trip to Spain, my second to Barcelona.
Our approach with this trip was to wing it and go with the flow. We honestly didn’t plan anything, and it ended up being a great trip. Key takeaways: It’s a very livable city (my Dad went from seeing himself live in Paris, to Barcelona). The (sea)food and late night scene are on point. Siesta siesta. Apparently I get my inclination to strike conversation with strangers from my dad. Who can really understand standard business hours here, it seems like it was at everyone’s discretion. And… I am no longer meh with Spain. I realized that while it doesn’t wow me, it holds a no se que of being a laid back, livable place. Barcelona, anyway.
When to Go: 3 days is plenty of time to see core Barcelona at a leisurely pace. We went in the coldest month, and it wasn’t cold by any means. Still, I’d say go sometime between spring and fall to enjoy the best weather.
Where to Stay: AirBnB. My parents stayed in a hotel, and the kids stayed in an apartment – the apartment was better, in our opinion. We had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room with pull-out sofa, a kitchen with dishwasher, a washer-dryer, and a terrace, all of which could have easily accommodated the 5 of us. We went to the grocery store and bakery every morning, and my sister whipped up amazing breakfasts. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, a necessity to avoid hanger, and a great way to start the day as a family. It also gives people time to get ready while the early birds get breakfast going. When we went around asking what everyone’s favorite part of Barcelona was, we all said breakfast. 🙂
We stayed by the Sagrada Familia, which ended up being the perfect location for us. It gets one of the biggest sites, the Sagrada Familia, out of the way. You end up walking by it multiple times and admiring the architecture at different points of the day. The area is well connected by the metro, and not too far from Park Guell. Fun Fact: The church is always under construction – the estimated completion date is 2026.
How to Get Around: Uber is not available in Spain, but the metro is so easy and very convenient. We took taxis for some longer hauls, but otherwise the metro proved to be the most efficient and cost effective option. Taxi Tip: There is a surcharge for more than 4 people, and for bags. Be aware when traveling to and from the airport. The driver from the airport urged us to put our smaller personal bags (totes, backpacks) in the trunk, and ended up charging us per bag. The driver to the airport, on the other hand, only charged us for actual suitcases. You should only be charged for suitcases. Read more here.
Local Tips Barcelona is in the Catalonia region, which speaks both Spanish and Catalan. I learned from my taxi driver that they learn both languages in school, but they are totally different. Barcelona is also a late night city. People don’t go out to eat until 9, 10PM, but make reservations anyway – you never know.
Travel Tips Watch out for pickpockets – Spain is notorious for them. Despite my heightened city spidey senses, I had an encounter with a team of 3 pickpockets in Madrid, and catching them in the act… a story for another time. I didn’t sense any lurking on my recent trip.
What to See/Do:
- Main Sites: Park Güell, Sagrada Familia, La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, Picasso Museum
- Add’l Sites: Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, Park de la Ciutadella
- To Do: Flamenco Show, Walk through El Born and Gothic Quarter, Gaudi Sites
- Day Trips: Montserrat Monastery
What to Eat: see below for more detail
- Seafood & Tapas: La Paradeta, Cañete, Ciutat Comtal/Ciudad Condal, Pinotxo Bar, El Quim, Bodega 1900, Tapas
- Paella: Salamanca, Can Majó, 7Portes, everywhere, though Tip: according to a local, never order a paella that is under 20€ per person, because it’s probably $h!t. You are paying for fresh quality, so don’t skimp out on the seafood paellas – always get the special seafood. Even if its 36€ per person.
- Other: Disfrutar, La Flauta, Eater
Shopping: Spain is home of great brands such as Zara. Check out the massive department store El Corte Inglés and other Spanish brands sprinkled throughout the city.
Day 1: La Paradeta, Siesta, Las Ramblas, Cañete
We arrived on a Tuesday morning and ventured out for lunch. I did a quick search for seafood options nearby and decided on La Paradeta. We love seafood, and this could not have been a better find. Apparently it gets pretty busy, but we got there right before siesta and dodged the crowds. We walked in to a bed of fresh, live seafood. I asked if they had a menu, and she said no – you pick the seafood, we weigh it, and cook it in the back. No menu. No frills. Love. That said, it’s a little tricky to order in that you have no idea what everything is going to come out to. I decided to just go with it – too much of a headache to think in kilos and euros. We’re on vacation!
My advice, get it all. It doesn’t get fresher than this, and the price to quality ratio is very honest. We ordered with our eyes – Octopus, bundles of razor clams, jumbo prawns, squid calamari, seafood soup, bring it on. Everything was delicious. We could have done without the seafood soup, it was basically a broth with a few mussels, but everything else was delicious! We were off to a great start.
We went back to our rooms for a little siesta before heading out for dinner. We took the metro to Las Ramblas, which… was not that exciting. I don’t know what I was expecting! My memory of Las Ramblas was literally running down the street through the fattest downpour, ducking under anything we could find along the way. My siblings said it was way more exciting 11 years ago with street performers and such; maybe it’s just “not happening” on a Tuesday night.
I made reservations at Cañete before we left, and I’m glad we did. It was packed. It’s one of the best places to go in Barcelona (I’m seeing features and reviews after the fact). Thanks to my sister’s friend for the recommendation. The ambience was cozy, and the restaurant was bustling with locals. Good signs. While mostly good natured, the waitstaff seemed spread thin and therefore didn’t really help us walk through the menu. Our waiter was a bit impatient, and it didn’t help our English to Spanish ratio didn’t quite match up, so we ended up ordering a bit haphazardly.
Bowl of cockles (now I know, berberechos), croquetas, tuna tartar, steak with foie gras, paella, tomato bread, desserts, and our favorite, the plate of fresh sea urchin. We literally “ooo”ed at the sea urchin. Quite honestly, I’d say the dishes were hit or miss. I don’t think the food lived up to the hype. Sea urchins, croquetas, and steak with foie were great. Don’t get the paella, or we soon learned, don’t get the 20€ paella. You can skip dessert. Others not memorable. It was good, but perhaps if we ordered differently, I would have a higher recommendation.
Day 2: Sleep in, Breakfast, Park Güell, El Born, La Boqueria, Ciudad Condal
After much needed rest and a hearty breakfast, we set out for Park Güell. Insert crying heart. It was not an enjoyable experience (for me). Anyone who visited before October 2013 would share my sentiment.
My memories of Park Güell is of a beautiful park charmed with Gaudí design, where locals went for walks, where you could lounge around the serpentine benches, and where you could grab beers with friends and watch the sunset (sin crowd).
When we got out of the taxi, I was surprised to see throngs of people everywhere. I made my way over to an entrance point and was told we needed to buy tickets for the “monumental zone,” pointing to a massive line. Tickets… I don’t remember buying tickets… They sold tickets by entry time, were very strict to enforce it, and there were multiple entrance points to manage the crowds. Once you got in… holy cow. I just couldn’t. Igh, I hate crowds. New York Translation: I hate people. Tip: buy your tickets online, it’s cheaper.
The park was a mad house of way too many tourists trying to take a photo. They literally come to take a photo. People were waiting by the lizard (which you can’t touch), the serpentine bench (good luck), every square inch. At one point, we managed to find a seat on the bench to eat the sandwiches we thought we would be enjoying at the park… but people literally surrounded us, waiting to take a picture. Dear Lord. But hey, look at this picture I got with no one in the background! 😉 On a note of levity, try to see through the people and appreciate the architecture and design of the park. I’m sure it’s different with a fresh pair of eyes…
Then vs. Now. While shuffling through the park, I talked with some of the security (!) guards. I told them I had been here 11 years ago, and don’t remember it being so crowded – or paying to get in. Or there being security. One guy shared that they started ticketing in Oct’13 due to high tourism (=$) and for maintenance/preservation. On my way out, I was telling the girl scanning our exit tickets that the park just wasn’t what it used to be, and she sadly agreed- she used to ride her bike through the park, and the locals weren’t happy about the massive crowds.
We made our way to the charming El Born neighborhood, where the alleys are lined with charming shops and galleries. A great place to wander and get lost in. We made our way over to La Boqueria, where we admired the pretty candies and various stalls. I wandered off to charcuteries, where I learned more about jamón ibérico de bellota, and my dad wandered off to seafood, where he bought a bag full of sea urchin. More on this later.
Spain is known for ibérico ham, and the best quality is bellota. These pigs are not only free-range, but also roam oak forests and only eat acorns, giving them a noticeably rich and nutty flavor. The guy I spoke with was more than happy to share his knowledge and let me sample the differences between regular ibérico and bellota, and then bellota from different regions. It’s pretty pricey, but well worth a souvenir for home. One time my friend bought an entire leg of ham and a suitcase to smuggle home, but… turns out that’s pretty expensive. I settled for a sheet of bellota for 25€. We also bought delicious Catalonia nougat at Vicens from the sweetest girl who learned how to speak Korean… from her customers. I kid you not, on this trip we learned Korean people are everywhere.
We didn’t want to venture far for dinner. I suggested we walk by Ciutat Comtal/Ciudad Condal for tapas. The place was packed. They said the wait was only 30 minutes for a group of 5 so we waited…. over an hour. We weren’t too happy about that, but our waitress was so friendly and the atmosphere was just right. They offer your traditional tapas, and everything comes out quickly. We ended up with the best seat in the house, and after an array of tapas and wine, we left the evening happy campers.
So remember my dad bought a bag of sea urchins earlier? He basically loved the sea urchins from our first meal so much, when he saw a whole pile of them at the market, he bought them all. Well, it turns out it is not easy to open and clean, and they smell like @$$. Thank you YouTube for your tutorial on how to open sea urchin. It turns out for bigger wins, you need a bigger urchin. Who knew they got so big.
Day 3: Sagrada Familia, El Born, Picasso Museum, Paella
I was the only one out of the 3 kids who had never been in Sagrada Familia, so I literally rolled out of bed and went with my parents in the morning, while my siblings hung back and prepped brunch. The church is unlike any other. It’s a symphony of light, a duet of classic and nouveau. To some, like my dad, the church doesn’t make sense – they keep working on it and the meaning is lost. To others, the bridge across generations and time transforms to something unexpected. Definitely worth checking out, however brief or long. Don’t forget to look up.
After a leisurely lunch, we went back to El Born to the Picasso Museum. I remember walking by with my friend- there was a massive line, and we had just been to the Picasso museum in Paris, so I had passed on waiting the line. This time, my sister went online to purchase tickets in advance and made reservations for free tickets. Suhweet Scoop: It turns out Thursday afternoons and the first Sundays of the month are free! Winner winner. Make sure you reserve time slots, you will not be admitted without tickets, free or not.
The museum is extensive, covering styles across his life. Depending on whether you are interested in the evolution of his style or not, it’s a Barcelona must for most.
Side note, we walked through a second market in the El Born neighborhood – Mercado de Santa Caterina. We got there when they were closing down, but I immediately noticed the bellota was less than what I paid at La Boqueria. I mean, who knows if there is a difference in producer or bellota quality, or I overpaid. If I had more time, maybe I would care and look into it more. Anyway, I talked with one of the ladies at the market, and asked her questions about the bellota, the difference between the two markets, and whether this was a local market. She said Boqueria is solamente turistas. Aquí, turistas y lugareños (locals). Wish I had more time to go back and check it out!
We wanted good paella on our last night, particularly black rice paella. For a local favorite and good black rice, our host directed us to Salamanca. Of course I did a quick Yelp/FourSquare search, which should be taken with a grain of salt because they are only used by tourists, and my reaction was “ooo, Salamanca isn’t the favorite choice, it only has 3 stars on Yelp. Can Majo and 7Portes look more popular.” I was doubting our reservation so I asked a girl working at the Picasso Museum, and she said she only heard of Salamanca. We got to the restaurant a little past 8 and… there was barely anyone there. Eep. Should we have gone to Can Majo? Why is there a Salamanca II next door? Observation: It’s interesting how these reviews really effect our impression, even when we know we can’t fully trust them. It turns out everyone, all locals, started coming in around 9:30/10pm. We ordered 2 different types of seafood paella, and guess what, they were delicious. Lesson learned: And friendly reminder, don’t overthink it. Also, the local was right. Pay more for better paella. They were so good!!
Day 4: Shopping, Walk around, Pinotxo Bar.
Our parents had an earlier flight, so after breakfast the three of us walked around the city, did some casual shopping, grabbed a quick bite at Pinotxo Bar in La Boqueria, got some pastries for the road, and left for the airport… where the security guard was waiting to ask me about my trip.
And that concludes my family vacation. Our trip was awesome and there was a lot of quality time. I’m happy I got to travel back to Barcelona, and even Spain, one more time with my family. My impression of Spain changed yet again, and this time, I left thinking about what I would do the next time around.
It’s been interesting to travel back to places, and see how the world has changed over time – especially Europe. I guess it’s one of those things you had to experience first hand to tell the difference, but let’s just say, people are much nicer now, perhaps more open minded? I attribute these changes to social media, which has made the world a smaller and less reclusive place. Social walls have been chipped away, information has become more accessible… it’s really, pretty amazing. Also, these are definitely the early signs of getting old. Back in my day, there was no Yelp or GoogleMaps. Hah!
So never say never, but if I were to come back to Barcelona, I would come back with friends specifically for the late night scene. We never stayed out past midnight on this trip sooo I’m definitely interested to see what this late night scene is all about! Hasta luego!
- 2007: Long Weekend / Winter / Girls’ Trip with Michal / Madrid + Barcelona
- 2010: 2 Weeks / 10-Fall / Craziest Impromptu Sisters’ Trip / Madrid, Toledo, Salamanca, Portugal, Sevilla, Granada, Morocco, Amsterdam
- 2018: 4 days / 2-Winter / Family Trip / Paris + Barcelona