Planning a visit to Barcelona, the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea? Well if not, you should! The Catalan capital’s influence in commerce, education, entertainment, media, fashion, science, and the arts make Barcelona one of the world’s leading tourist, economic, trade and cultural centers. Last year nearly 8 million people spent the night in Barcelona, the Ciutat Comtal or City of Counts, which is Cap i Casal de Catalunya or the Head and Heart of Catalonia. Spain’s first “Smart City,” it is one of the world’s most visited cities, out-ranked by only London, Paris and Istanbul. Here, you will find fabulous food, friendly people and plenty of wine and spirits to help you enjoy this world-class destination.
I spent a week there this Spring and my visit ended much too soon. Of all the places I have visited to date: Amsterdam, Athens, Montpellier, Paris, Puglia, Santorini, Sicily, Tokyo, Tuscany, Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Austin, Baltimore, Carmel, Chicago, Charlotte, Charlottesville, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Fresno, Greensboro, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Louisville, Lexington, Lodi, Memphis, Miami, Mobile, Napa, New Orleans, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Paso Robles, Portland, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Sonoma, San Antonio, Seattle, Tampa , Toledo, Williamsburg, and Washington, D.C. among them, Barcelona is my favorite. From its culture to its food, people and nightlife, I would move there in a heartbeat and take up lessons in Catalan, even though Spanish and English would do me just fine. There is a romance and vibrancy, a history and modernity to the city that makes it truly special. But if you’ve only a few days to spend in this Mediterranean jewel, here are 10 Things you will definitely want to do to make your visit memorable.
1. Stroll La Rambla. A tree-lined street with a pedestrian walkway down the center, La Rambla (Catalan pronunciation: [ɫə ˈrambɫə]) is a street in Central Barcelona that is popular with tourists and locals alike. Connecting Plaça de Catalunya in the center with the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell, La Rambla forms the boundary between the quarters of Barri Gòtic, to the east, and El Raval, to the west. Here you will find leather and shoe shops, cafes, candy shops and bakeries. It gets quite crowded around the Apple Store (some things never change) so pay close attention to your traveling companion and your wallet, so neither gets lost in the crowd, especially in the evening. Plenty of stylish boutiques abound, but if you must do it all in one place, head to El Corte Ingles, Spain’s largest department store chain on Plaça de Catalunya. Designer fashion, luggage, and a housewares department street level and above as well as a basement with groceries and great prices on booze from all over!
2. Shop La Boqueria. With origins dating back to the 13th century, El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria began as an open air market, where neighboring farmers came to sell their fruits and vegetables to locals and those passing through. The years added fish mongers, butchers and cheese mongers and florists. Today you can find fresh fish and sea food; salted fish and tinned food, along with butchery, charcuterie and offal (organ meats). Poultry, wild game and eggs as well as fruits and vegetables are sold here, too. Looking for herbs, fresh bread and pastries? Here too, as well as bars, restaurants; frozen foods, artisan products, plus Greek and an Italian hand-made pasta and of course, wine. Think Seattle’s Pike Place Market on steroids — and then some. Described as “a temple to gastronomy” by Chef Ferran Adrià, the market is a member of Emporion, the European Association of Markets offering Excellence in Foods. It now includes a Culinary Classroom, open to children and adults alike. La Boqueria should not be missed! To learn more about La Boqueria visit their website, here.
3. Eat Jamón! Jamón ibérico (Spanish: [xaˈmon iˈβeɾiko]; which only accounts for about 8% of Spain’s cured-ham production, is very expensive and not widely available abroad. What can be extremely pricey, especially in the United States, is plentiful in Barcelona. Also called pata negra and carna negra [ˈpata ˈneɣɾa]; “black hoof”) it comes from the black Iberian pig, which lives primarily in the south and southwest parts of Spain, including the provinces of Salamanca, Ciudad Real, Cáceres, Badajoz, Seville, Córdoba (Denomination of Origin Los Pedroches) and Huelva.
Jamón ibérico is delineated in three grades with the hams labeled according to the pigs’ diet. An acorn diet is considered the most desirable:
- Jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn)- The finest grade is jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn), and is cured for 36 months. This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests (called dehesas) along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during their finals days. It is also known as jamón ibérico de Montanera. The open exercise and diet have a significant impact on the flavor of the meat.
- Jamón ibérico de recebo. The next grade is called jamón ibérico de recebo. This ham is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of grain and acorns.
- Jamón ibérico de cebo. The third type is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico. This ham, cured for 24 months, is from pigs that are fed only grain.
Jamón ibérico is a great way to start the meal, and perfect with a glass of Cava, the sparkling wine of Catalan.
4. Visit a Museum. Barcelona is filled with museums and art centers. From the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) to the Museu de la Xocolata, there is something for everyone to see in Barcelona. Pablo Picasso arrived in Barcelona when he was but 13 years old and was painting major works in just two years. You can see a collection of 3,000 Picasso pieces in five adjoining medieval palaces; Berenger d’Aguilar, Baro de Castellet, Meca, Mauri and Finestres. Entrance at Carrer Montcada. Museu Picasso is open Tuesday to Sundays: 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (including holidays), but closed on Monday. Ticket prices run 6,50 to 14 euro, depending on exhibit with free entrance to students each day, and to all the first Sunday each month. Tickets often sell out, but you may purchase advance admission online. For more information visit the museum website.
5. Appreciate Architecture. The city of Barcelona has an amazing collection of Art Nouveau buildings, perhaps the largest of any city in Europe. Modernisme, as it is known in Catalonia, took hold of the city after 1854, when the previously construction-free military zone’s medieval walls were torn down to make way for development and expansion. A rigid grid system of streets, designed by civil engineer Illdefons Cedra i Sunyer, marks the Eixample (expansion), with fabulous architecture with facades at 45-degree angles overlooking the intersections or squares. The exceptions include a few diagonal streets; the aptly named Avinguda Diagonal which runs from Pedralbes to the sea, and Avinguda de Gaudi with runs from the Hospital de la Santa i de Sant Pau, designed by Modernista architect Domenech i Montaner to Antoni Gaudi’s church of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most spectacular Modernista building.
The Quadrat d’Or or “Golden Square” contains many of the best examples of Modernista architecture including Casa Milà, commonly known as La Pedrera, Gaudi’s daring building with wave-like facade with chimney roofscape, and Palau Baro de Quadras with its ornate double facade. On one side, a neo-Gothic palazzo, on the other, a “modernista” residential block, described best as “a chocolate box bursting with imagination which changes depending on which side” from which you view it. You can take a two-hour guided walking tour of Barcelona’s Modernista buildings for less than 20 euro. Tours are available in Catalan/Spanish, English or French. Visit Barcelona Walking Tours for more information.
6. Dine at El Cercle Just past Catedral de Barcelona and El Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC) in El Gotic you will find Restaurant El Cercle with its four distinct dining areas: La Biblioteca (The Library), La Quartre Estacions (The Four Seasons), La Barra (The Bar)and El Jardi (The Garden). A feast for mind, eyes and appetite, El Cercle is housed in a building dating back to the 15th Century and features sushi to “Catalan classics revisited.” Everything from the fennel salad, both beautiful and delicious, the mouth-watering acorn-fed pork rib and the delicate lemon meringue “pie” (it’s more like a tart) is tasty! El Cercle is located at Arcs 5, First Floor 08002 Barcelona (Reial Cercle Artistic) The Terrace is open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Indoors from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. to 12:00 midnight. For more information visit their website.
7. Visit Cavas Freixenet. Located in the heart of the Penedés region in the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Cavas Freixenet (pronounced Fresh-eh-net) is easy to reach by both car and by train. In fact, the entrance to the caves is just 50 metres from the Sant Sadurní d´Anoia train station, a mere 42 minutes from the center of Barcelona. Tours range from 1.5 to 2 hours and are designed for individual adults or families as well as students and schools. As you approach the entrance of the Welcome Center you will spot the famous black Freixenet bottle car, created for the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona. I’m told it still runs, after all these years!
After a brief film about the history of the company, with its iconic boy in the red cap, you will descend into the oldest levels of the eight-level building, excavated in 1922, for an explanation of the Penedes region, the making of cava and how technology has gradually been incorporated into the méthode traditionnelle. You will learn more about the grapes required: Xarel·lo, Macabeu and Parellada that come from both Freixenet estate vines and over 1,200 grape growers in the region. Then visitors will board a miniature train to view the latest expansions to the cellar, blending tradition and state-of-the-art technology. The train then takes guests to the tasting room, where visitors aged 18 and older are invited to taste cava, while younger visitors are offered grape juice. Your visit ends at the “Dolores Ferrer” shop. Here, you can purchase items related to the world of wine and cava.
Tour prices range from 4,50€ for guests between the ages of 9 to 17 to 5,65€ for large groups, seniors and large families. Individuals can tour for 7,50€ each and children aged 8 and under are free. Special arrangements can be made for private group tours as well with food or gift for an additional fee. What a great diversion between a week of business meetings! Tours are available in several languages, and reservations are required. For more information, visit the Cavas Freixenet website.
8. Buy a Bottle (or Two or Three or Four!) at Tannic by Freixenet. Imagine a place where you can find 150 wines from 21 wineries on 3 continents. In addition to the Cava of Catalunya, the Freixenet Group stand behind wines from not only Spain’s designations of origin: Rioja, Penedes, Rias Baixas, Priorat and Montana and Ribera del Duero but also wines produced in Bordeaux, Sonoma, Melbourne, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. You will find bottle designs and labels not available in the United States, as well as gourmet chocolates, cheeses, meats, olives and olive oils, vinegar and jams; all designed to pair with the selection of wines available. Organized educational tasting seminars, cooking and pairing presentations are also on the schedule.
The store is located in the Paseo Sant Joan Bosco, 41, in the neighborhood of Sarria, less than 5 minutes’ walk from the stop Les Tres Torres FGC line that connects the neighborhood with the central Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona. For more information visit www.tannicbyfreixenet.com
9. Eat Tapas in Barri Gòtic. In Texas we like to sit down to a big meal early in the evening, but in Barcelona the locals go bar-hopping late for tapas, or small plates. They’re a bit more than snacks, more like our “starters” or appetizers. One of the best areas to find many good tapas spots in close proximity is Barri Gòtic, Catalan for Gothic Quarter. The center of the old city of Barcelona, Barri Gòtic stretches from La Rambla to Via Laietana, and from the Mediterranean seafront to Ronda de Sant Pere. Like La Rambla, or any crowded busy tourist area, it can be a prime spot for pick pockets — so keep your wallet close to your heart, and your purse close at hand. Pay attention to your surroundings and keep your head out of your iPhone. Walk with a group. Be sensible! During my trip we visited three tapas bars. Our number 2 stop had lost our reservation, or perhaps had another group of Americans pretending to be us. Not to worry, our first and third stops provided us with plenty of tasty food choices!
Our first stop was El Xampanyet, one of the best known bars for cava and tapas. Established in 1929, then called Ca l’Esteve, El Xampanyet is described as “a landmark in el Born that keeps all its personality.” Here we feasted on anxoves, (anchovies) Llom d’ibèric català (Iberian pork loin Catalan), Calamars (calamari), Pa amb tomaquet (bread rubbed with tomato, garlic and olive oil) and truita de patates (traditional potato and onion omelette).
Zagat-rated El Xampanyet is located at Carrer de Montcada, 22 (Barcelona), next to the Museu Picasso. Closed Mondays, and for the month of August, El Xampanyet is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 12 noon to 4 p.m. and from 7:00 to 11:30 p.m. On Sundays it is open afternoons from noon to 4:00 p.m. Popular with tourists, it does not accept reservations.
After Tapeo lost our reservations we walked through a few streets to Disset (17) Graus Bar de Vins, a stylish wine bar, where our waiter heard that three of us were from Texas, and promptly brought Texas-sized portions. Disset Graus is a completely different vibe than El Xampanyet. Our first stop was frenetic, bright and crowded with an almost late-night-diner for pre-clubbing appeal, we had to talk loudly and crowd into a small booth to fit our little group of five. There is beer and cider on tap, and great people watching! Disset Graus is more subdued, dark, stylish and romantic, and one can easily converse without shouting. Think party group fun for Ex Xampanyet, and romantic date or business colleagues for Disset Graus.
Disset Graus prides itself on its 17 (“Disset”) “glass bread” torradas (toasts). “Glass Bread” is a farmhouse bread, referred to as “glass bread” due to its extremely crispy, thin crust. It is almost transparent, with scarcely any density at all with large air pockets giving it a delicate lightness and texture. Its contrasting textures and mild flavor make it the ideal base for the restaurant’s “torradas” billed as “an explosion of flavours for pairing with the best selection of Catalan wines.” Menus are available in English.
We enjoyed cold menu selections of smoked salmon on cream cheese, cured Fuet sausage and shredded prunes, and duck mousse, curiol cheese and orange with sweet mustard vinaigrette. Then came the hot items of Aubergine (eggplant) with mozzarella, caramelized onions and basil vinaigrette, blue cheese, raspberry jam and apple flambe, spicy sausage, goat cheese and honey, as well as “Classics;” a selection of Catalan cheeses, salmon tartar with ginger and “Crispy Chicken in its Gravy” which were a bit like panko breaded and deep-fried chicken strips.
Each of the Torrados are only 5,50€ with larger portion “classics” a bit higher. Needless to say, no one left hungry! Rather than pile our stuffed selves into a taxi, we opted for the long walk back to our hotel in the fresh evening air to help our digestion, with “Siri” leading the way (or perhaps aiding in extending our walk.)
Disset Graus is open every evening beginning at 8:00 p.m. You may find it at Carrer Antic de Sant Joan 3 y Passeig del Born C.P 08003 – Barcelona. For reservations, call +34 932 68 19 87.
10. Gintonic! At Dry Martini Bar
After a full dinner at El Cercle, or a tour of Tapas bars, you might think it is time to say “good-night!” — not without stopping for a night-cap. For many folks that means a “Gintonic” an amalgam of the English “Gin & Tonic.” While Gin bars abound, “Dry Martini” by mixologist maestro Javier De Las Muelas is like stepping back in time to the days of the Speakeasy.
With rows of bottles behind glass, pictures recalling the Silver Screen, and waiters in tuxedos in front of an opulent mirrored bar, a trip to Dry Martini will take you back to a time of bygone glitter and glam. In the beginning when the founder of mixology Don Pere Carbonell opened it over 30 years ago, the Dry Martini Cocktail Bar was a Martinería and served strictly a Dry Martini. But now you can get many a good stiff drink as well as those a bit more forgiving. Cocktails like the Gin Fizz, Margaritas, Negronis, Whiskey Sours to name a few are to be had. It has been called an icon to the cocktail universe, and is on the list of the 50 best bars in the world, and the third best Gin bar in the world! It also sells unique gifts to take back to that special someone who did not make the trip — including the maestro’s Cocktails and Drinks recipe book and his creative DROPLETS® kits – 100% natural, no alcohol, flavors for what he says “opens endless gastronomic possibilities both in kitchen and cocktails world.”
Dry Martini is located at Aribau, 162, 166 08036 Barcelona. The bar is open Monday through Thursday from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. and on Friday closes at 3:00 a.m. On Saturday it is open from 6:30 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. and on Sunday from 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. For more information visit their website, here.
There you have it! Ten fabulous things to do in Barcelona on your next trip to Spain. Learn a bit of Catalan before you go from Radio Lingua Network, and make the locals smile! And if you’re lucky enough to visit in the Spring, make sure to try the calçots!