The Sweet Spot: Barcelona

by  Lane Nieset | Updated on Oct 7, 2019
Barcelona / Gatsi/iStock

Thanks to its beachside locale and buzzing nightlife scene, the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region has long been a favorite for backpackers. Serving as a backdrop for films like Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as well as inspiration for artists and architects like Picasso and Gaudí, it’s no surprise the vibrant city continues to attract tourists in record numbers. Last year alone, Barcelona received 30 million visitors, coming in ahead of jetset favorites like Ibiza.

While the seaside town can be considered a 24-hour fête, with dinner kicking off close to 11 p.m., Barcelona is more than a party haven. Get lost in the winding alleys of the Gothic Quarter, where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped inside a living museum, or join the crowds at one of the many tapas bars, sipping on Cava and sampling a series of light bites that truly capture the taste of Catalonia. Whether you’re looking to save at the market or splurge on a Michelin-starred meal, here are a few tips to help navigate through the best Barcelona has to offer.

The Perfect Time to Visit

May to June, September to October  

Similar to many Mediterranean coastal cities, Barcelona benefits from a mild climate. Summers are warm and dry, while autumn and spring are known to be the wetter seasons. Winters are cool, but the weather here rarely drops below freezing (temperatures hover in the 40s and 50s), so no need to worry about snow. August is one of the hottest—and quietest—months of the year, with temperatures sometimes reaching 95 degrees. During this time, locals head off on a month-long summer holiday or escape to the beach, while some restaurants and shops shut their doors for vacation.

May and June are two of the most popular months to visit, since temperatures are in the 70s, making it ideal for strolling around town. In June, the city springs to life with music festivals like Primavera Sound (whose lineup mimics Coachella), while beaches start getting busy in July. The best time for a swim in the Mediterranean is September, when the water is warmer and crowds start dying down.

The Cheapest Option

January to April

You’ll find some of the best rates in the off season, when Barcelona is at its coldest (think low 40s in January) and wettest (April is notorious for spring showers). Average temperatures can reach the low-60s in March and April, meaning you’ll just need a light jacket (and umbrella) when walking around town. This is also a great time of the year to visit Barcelona’s more famous attractions, such as the Sagrada Família, without having to fight your way through a throng of tourists. If you happen to be visiting before Easter, you’ll be able to experience Catalonia’s version of carnival, Carnestoltes.

The Smart Place to Stay

Generator Barcelona

Generator Barcelona is unlike any of the hostels you’ll find lining the streets of the Gothic Quarter. Set in the Gràcia district near La Sagrada Família, Generator offers everything from private quads with bunk beds to a penthouse apartment with a terrace showing off a 180-degree view of the city. The design-savvy spot (think Hungarian concrete floor tiles and an oversized wooden birdcage) is close enough to the action on Las Ramblas, while still feeling secluded enough so you don’t have to worry about noise rising from the street. Our favorite part: the signature Fiesta Gràcia bar, which features a 300-lantern hanging installation inspired by the annual Festa Major de Gràcia.

Claris Hotel and Spa

Set inside a 19th century palace, Claris Hotel & Spa is a mix of classic and modern, with over 400 pieces of artwork, including Spain’s largest private collections of Egyptian art. Each guest room is done up in a slightly different style, from grand suites with Hindu sculptures to junior suites with Pre-Columbian antiquities. One of the hotel’s stand-out features is the rooftop pool, where you can catch glimpses over the well-heeled Eixample neighborhood. 

Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona

Home to Barcelona’s largest suite (complete with with sweeping views over La Sagrada Família), Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona is truly one-of-a-kind. Set along Passeig de Gràcia, one of the city’s main shopping streets (where you’ll find the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton), the century-old property may look like it’s out of your price range, but it’s on the surprisingly affordable side in the off-season. 

What to See and Do

Join the locals sipping on vermouth while digging into tiny tapas dishes that can cost as little as $3. Shimmy up to the bar at any spot lining Carrer de la Mercè in the Gothic Quarter and you’re sure to have an authentic (and affordable) experience.

The bustling Quimet y Quimet is one of the oldest and most famous tapas bars in the city. The former wine shop serves up a menu of contemporary tapas alongside artisanal vermouth, but what it’s really known for now is its canned seafood and meats, or conservas.

Albert Adrià’s Michelin-starred Tickets may be out of budget, but you can still get a taste of the chef’s iconic cuisine at the gourmet Bodega 1900, a modern version of a traditional vermuteria.    

The city is home to 39 food markets, but one of the most iconic is the Boqueria Market on Las Ramblas. Open until 8:30 p.m. every day except Sunday, the market is a great way to soak up Catalan culture, sampling products from around the region and noshing on tapas outside of typical eating hours at stalls like El Quim. If you’re picking up picnic fare, skip the stalls near the front, which can be pricier than the ones further back.

From the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona’s beaches lie a short stroll or train ride away. Arguably the most famous is Barceloneta Beach, the closest to the city center. If you don’t mind the trek out of town, Castelldefels is a local pick for swimming and letting the day slip by at the many chiringuitos, or beach shacks, lining the shore.

For some of the best views over Barcelona, take the 1930s cable car from Barceloneta Beach up Montjuïc hill, where you can soak up 360-degree vistas from the castle. 

If you want to splurge, the beachfront W Barcelona also shows off stunning shots of the city (and serves up top-notch cocktails) from the 26th floor club, Eclipse.

For a memorable cocktail, swing by the speakeasy-inspired, world-famous Dry Martini.In the hip El Born neighborhood, Paradiso is another speakeasy hidden behind a fridge door at a pastrami bar. Indulge in a late-night sandwich while waiting for the notoriously long line to die down.

If you’re not already acquainted with Cava, or Spanish sparkling wine, take a seat in the square at La Vinya del Senyor. Let the team here guide you through the endless list of vinos from around the globe as you admire the glowing 14th century Gothic basilica, Santa Maria del Mar, just across the way. Added bonus: the church is free to enter if you want to take a peek.

Teresa Charles has made cold-pressed juicing mainstream thanks to her increasingly popular juice bars scattered around the city. If you’re in town on the weekend, try the brunch at her healthy eatery, Flax&Kale. And, if you’re looking for quality coffee while walking through the Gothic Quarter, pop in Australian-inspired Federal Café.

Tips to Save More

Hop on the Aerobus from the El Prat airport, which will whisk you to the city center in 30 minutes. Get your bearings on a free walking tour through the city’s Gothic Quarter, exploring the oldest part of Barcelona with a local guide from SANDEMANs NEW Europe.

You don’t need to shell out in order to see Gaudí’s architecture. While entrance to the Sagrada Família will cost you, other must-visit sites like the Park Güell are free (unless you enter the Monumental Zone).

The Museu Picasso is free Thursday afternoons from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and the first Sunday of every month from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If you plan on having a whirlwind sightseeing trip, opt for the Barcelona Card, which includes access to museums like the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, as well as public transportation. 

Entry to 1881 per Sagardi, the fourth floor roof terrace at Museu d’Història de Catalunya, is free. Here, you can enjoy some of the best views over the port.

Lunch and dinner start much later in Barcelona than the rest of Europe, so don’t plan on sitting down for a meal at night until after 8 p.m. Tipping isn’t customary, but most people tack on 5 to 10 percent (or round up if they’re ordering a drink at the bar).

Keep in mind that many towns in Spain still take a customary afternoon siesta, with restaurants and shops closing their doors around 2 p.m. for lunch.

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