I spent about 36 hours in Barcelona recently. My friend V and I planned a 3-city tour of Spain, and Barcelona was the first stop.
We scrambled at the last minute to find a ride to SFO since the BART strike nixed our original airport-transpo plans. Thank you Lyft, for coming to the rescue!
We made it to Barcelona without incident and hopped on the Aerobus, an inexpensive shuttle to the city center and various Metro stops. As we exited the Metro station that first night on our way to the hotel, the familiar smell of ganja smoke wafted past us, not just once, but a few times. I gave my friend a knowing look. It’s like home in San Francisco! I liked the city already. If a city is down with its citizens freely hanging out with Mary Jane, chances are it’s down with other fun-loving shenanigans, and I enjoy not having to fear getting arrested for some random minor offense I didn’t know was illegal.
However, unlike San Francisco, Barcelona was really humid. The subterranean train stations felt like steam rooms, yet somehow I didn’t feel like I was getting free skin exfoliation.
Highlights and things we learned in Barcelona:
It’s true what they say: the Spanish really do eat late.
In many US restaurants, at 10pm on a weeknight, they may seat their last customer, if not preparing to close. In Spain, 10pm is when the dinner party is in full swing. The hot time to arrive at dinner in Spain appears to be sometime between 9:15pm and 10:20pm (or 21:15pm and 22:20pm in the spirit of the country).
That first night, we grabbed a (late for us) dinner at Paco Meralgo, a tapas bar and tavern in the Eixample district.
Our first night in Barcelona, we ate dinner at Paco Meralgo, at my friend’s recommendation. Here is where we discovered many restaurants have menus in both English and Catalan (and/or Spanish). At the top of the menu photo you can see a dish called “Cuttlefish ‘Obama’ croquettes”. I don’t know what Obama had to do with those croquettes, but they were mighty tasty. We entered around 9:30pm on a Tuesday night and the resturant was pretty packed with a lively group of people. We were lucky enough to score two seats at the bar, seated next to a French-speaking couple, who spoke what sounded like good Spanish, to the servers.
Gambas con al ajillo or prawns with fresh garlic. These were served sizzling and very well seasoned. The shells were crispy and soaked in the flavor of the sauce. Mm mmm.
Foie con pan or foie gras on toast. I’ve tried foie gras no fewer than six times and have yet to like it. The 7th time in Spain, wasn’t the charm. I’m okay with this though – I already have enough guilt over eating meat as is. If I liked foie gras, I’d think this was very good.
Pan de tomate, a popular Catalan tapas appetizer made with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and salt. Unfortunately, I don’t like fresh tomatoes (the more processed the better, ha!), so while I appreciated the dish’s value, my taste buds didn’t care for it.
Flor de calabacín y mozzarella aka zucchini flowers with mozzarella. Reminded me of one of the pizzas at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, except in tempura form.
Langostinos de Sant Carles plancha (grilled langoustine) and Albóndiga de sepia (known as cuttlefish “Obama” croquettes in English). The langoustine was okay, I didn’t love it. The Obama croquettes, however, were flavorful and cooked just enough to be crispy, not enough to be burnt.
The next night, at Cuidad Condal, even with an English menu, I didn’t understand all the dishes, so I just ordered an assorted tapas platter. Clockwise: fried anchovies, clams in garlic sauce, ham croquettes, grilled prawns (gambas roja) and at center, grilled Padron peppers with sea salt. I loved everything! The croquettes were the best I had on the trip, the clams I could have eaten plates of and I even ate and enjoyed the peppers, which is unusual for me. Top meal for sure! I also met some friendly Americans from Texas, though the bar was full of a mix of locals and tourists.
Cava, Spanish champagne, is a popular drink with Barcelona residents. I loved it; it was light, fresh and crisp.
It’s probably a good idea to buy tickets early to visit La Sagrada Familia
By the time we arrived at the tourist-magnet, Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia church, the line was days long…if you didn’t buy tickets online.
Famous Spanish Architect, Antoni Gaudi’s impressive basicalla cathedral, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Construction began in the late 19th century and probably will not be finished until the mid-21st century.
Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, Spain. One of the most visited sites in all of Spain. Construction has taken over 125 years and is still in progress. The design is so intricate and the attention to detail so impressive, you could stare at it for days.
Ham is kind of a big thing
We visited La Boqueria, an open-air market in the center of the city and we saw ham, ham and more ham.
More scenes from La Boqueria market in Barcelona. I ate more anchovies in a little over a week in Spain than I think I have in my whole life. They were pretty good too!
More scenes from La Boqueria market in Barcelona. It’s just off La Rambla, a busy street in a touristy area. However, locals also shop at the market which has a diverse selection of foods.
Ham is kind of a big thing in Spain and that was on display at the La Boqueria market in Barcelona. The market was huge and many stands were serving some form of ham: burritos, sliced, shots, sandwiches, etc. Jamon Iberico is what Spain is known for and it is very, very good and comparatively cheap compared to when I’ve had it in the US. I’m going to miss eating all the fine ham.
A Walking tour is the way to go
Many cities offer free walking tours and Barcelona is one of them. It’s a great way to get a condensed history lesson and see the sights the city is known for. Our tour guide was a younger guy from London who’d been living in Barcelona for three years. His energy and humor made for richer tales. Along with us on the tour were couples from London and Denmark, an Aussie duo and a trio of girls from Mexico.
We took an informative 2.5 hour walking tour through the Gothic district. We learned A LOT about Spain’s ancient history and saw landmarks like the Santa Maria del Pi church, Barcelona Cathedral, tourists and even los ninos in school.
Barca! There was art to be found everywhere in the city.
El Call, the former Jewish “ghetto” in Barcelona and also location of the oldest synagogue in Europe.
It’s not everyday you get to stand on Roman ruins
George Orwell plaza in the Gothic district. Interestingly, this was one of the first public spaces in Barcelona to have video surveillance installed. It also used to be known as “Plaza Trippy” because of the drug deals, drug use and other assorted underground activities took place there.
Art is everywhere
Spain doesn’t mess around with its art. Even things you think aren’t art, are art. You’re walking on the sidewalk and the tour guide tells you, “Oh, by the way, you just stepped over a Miro work.” Well, damn. I don’t expect to find intricate mosaics beneath my feet on the daily! What other groundart have I been missing?
This sculpture in Plaça de Sant Miguel is a tribute to “human castle” climbers.
A Gaudi-designed lamp post in Plaza Real
Arte de la calle or “street art” found in the Gothic district of Barcelona
An art exhibit alongside the promenade
Giant, fiberglass lobster by Javier Mariscal.
A Lichtenstein sculpture, Cap de Barcelona aka “The Head”
More art on the waterfront
A tapas bar named after the famous Spanish painter, Picasso, using the image of his painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” inspired by Avinyo Street in Barcelona.
The buildings look magnificent at night
This former mansion now houses a movie theatre. Captain Philips, with Tom Hanks, just opened.
Antoni Gaudi’s, Casa Batllo. Majestic to see at night. I was mesmerized by the light, color and detail.
Generali Seguros building in the Eixample district of Barcelona. The architect was a Gaudi disciple.
There is so much more to see in Barcelona and I only hit a fraction of it. Another 24-36 hours would probably have been sufficient. Lack of time notwithstanding, I consumed enough of Barcelona to decide that it’s a dynamic, artful and cosmopolitan city. I get why people love it.