Barcelona, like Paris and London, is really a city of villages, each distinct neighbourhood boasting its own unique identity and character. Once you’re satisfied you’ve seen enough city sights, leave the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) and Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and amble over to one of these atmospheric quarters instead. Simply saunter the backstreets, browse shop windows and mouthwatering food markets, and drop into local cafés and bars. Here’s our guide to Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods to explore:
Our ‘home’ for the last two weeks, Gràcia is now our favourite Barcelona neighbourhood. While it’s a block away from the upmarket L’Eixample area (see below), you won’t see any tourists in Gràcia. If you do, it’s probably because they’ve decided to stroll down to the centre from Park Güell and have got lost. Lucky them! Gràcia is great!
Once a separate village that was absorbed into Barcelona in the 19th century, Gràcia has maintained a strong identity and real sense of community – in fact it boasts one of the city’s liveliest festivals, the 8-day Festes de Gràcia held every August, which Gràcia residents Julio and Sergio tell us is not to be missed.
Densely populated, with a combination of medium-rise apartment buildings with shuttered French doors, ramshackle colonial-style residences with wrought iron balconies, and the occasional modern building, the area is inhabited by Barcelona’s bohemians, musicians, artists, designers, and the like, hence the tiny galleries, ateliers, young designer boutiques, and music shops, that dot the skinny streets.
During the day, Gràcia’s narrow lanes and sunny squares, such as Plaça del Sol, are filled with young families and students enjoying coffee on the café terraces or simply soaking up the sun. In the evening, locals cram the cafés, line up outside the art house cinemas, or can be seen chatting outside tango studios and alternative theatres in their sweats or dance gear.
Late at night, the casual ethnic eateries along Carrer Verdi (mainly Arabic: Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian) and in the surrounding streets (Catalan, Basque, Japanese, pizza, and contemporary tapas) are crammed with locals, while the tiny bars on every square are buzzing with groups of friends, young and old, enjoying each other’s company.
TIP: If you’re not staying in Gràcia (although we think it’s by far the best place in Barcelona to stay), a great way to discover the neighbourhood is to head here between 10am and noon or 5-7pm to browse the shops or after 9pm to eat and drink. The bars don’t get going until around midnight and on weekends the streets are busy with revellers until the morning so prepare yourself for a long night.
Often called Barcelona’s ‘Fifth Avenue’, L’Eixample is the city’s most upmarket area. In stark contrast to Gràcia’s narrow lanes, here you’ll find broad tree-lined boulevards that are home to grand buildings boasting elegant wrought iron balconies, elaborate decorative murals, splendid domes and sculptures, and other ornate eye-catching details.
The main promenade of L’Eixample, Passeig de Gràcia, is lined with posh designer shops, from Chanel to Yves-Saint-Laurent, at the Gràcia end, and, closer to Plaça Catalunya, ‘high street’ stores such as Zara, Mango and H&M. It’s also home to two of Barcelona’s beloved modernist architect Antoni Gaudi’s buildings, La Pedrera (Casa Milà) and Casa Batlló, so you will see other tourists here, shopping and grazing on tapas after doing the sights.
Once off the main drag of Passeig de Gràcia, however, it’s pretty much locals only. The parallel streets and side streets and dotted with busy tapas bars, restaurants, casual eateries, cafes, bakeries, wine shops, and design stores, and are definitely worth a wander.
TIP: Head across to Passeig de Gràcia’s parallel street of Rambla Catalunya with its pedestrian strip dotted with alfresco cafés, and pull up a seat to watch the local action. You’ll find the same fashion boutiques lining Rambla Catalunya, only here they’re crowded with locals. You’ll also discover many smart little ‘bistronomics’, some, such as Cinc Sentits, with Michelin-starred chefs at the helm. You can stroll Rambla Catalunya all the way down to the centre and Las Ramblas.
LA RIBERA & EL BORN
Bordering the Barri Gòtic, La Ribera is Barcelona’s medieval quarter, boasting dark skeletal lanes of tall, narrow tenement buildings with washing hanging over their balconies, and on their ground floors, vibrantly-painted garage doors hiding away chic boutiques, galleries, gourmet food stores, and tapas bars.
El Born is the name given to the lower quarter of La Ribera, south of Carrer de la Princesa, which has a hip vibe. While the neighbourhood was once the heart of Barcelona’s alternative, arty scene, with a similar vibe to Gràcia, it’s tapas bars are now firmly on the itineraries of gourmet tours, and its streets see plenty of tourists exploring after a visit to the Picasso Museum and Santa Maria Del Mar.
TIP: Don’t be afraid to leave the main drags and explore the quieter, tiny alleyways – this is where you’ll find the more interesting boutiques of young up and coming designers, and art ateliers and galleries. Avoid the area on Monday when everything is closed after the busy weekend. The best time to browse the shops and galleries is Tuesday to Friday when locals are more patient and happy to chat. For lunch buy some queso, jamon and vino or eat at one of the bars at the Santa Caterina Market (far less touristy than the Boqueria) or for dinner, hit the El Born restaurants and tapas bar after 10pm when the tourists have gone back to the hotels and the locals are just starting to head out.
This grungy, alternative area – home to Barcelona’s immigrants, artists, designers, students, and young expats – hasn’t lost its streetwise vibe despite the number of intimidated tourists who pound its gritty pavements throughout the day. Don’t be surprised if you see drug deals being done in the backstreets, and other shady goings-on; just look the other way.
While, like La Ribera-El Born, the area is in all the guidebooks, apart from the Sant Pau del Camp monastery, the Gothic Biblioteca de Catalunya, and the excellent cutting edge MACBA (Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art) and CCCB (Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture), there is actually little for sightseers to see
TIP: Like La Ribera-El Born the best days to browse the shops of Raval are Tuesdays to Fridays, and the later the better when you’ll be shopping with locals rather than tourists. Carrer Tallers is the street to head for street fashion and music stores. On Saturdays the vintage clothing shops wheel out their racks of clothes and drop the prices to create a bit of a market atmosphere, while on Sunday there is a collector’s market, specialising in books, comics and movies, on Comte d’Urgell. The time to hit the bars is well after midnight.
South of El Born, extending to the seafront and bordering Barcelona’s harbour, Port Vell, is Barceloneta. A former fishing village, this fascinating neighbourhood boasts a warren of skinny streets lined with tall tenement buildings with a fish market and square at its centre. Apart from the jewellery shops in the corner near Fonda Litoral, the backstreets are often empty apart from residents going about their business.
The seafood restaurants overlooking the boats bobbing on the harbour are alluring, but they throng with tourists. You’re best trying the backstreet places. Off-season you’ll find few foreigners on the beachfront – it’s mostly locals out for a stroll or to get some exercise. Come summer though the beach is crammed with locals and tourists alike and it’s almost impossible to find a spot to lay your towel on the sand.
TIP: If you love a good beach, skip Barceloneta’s in summer when it can get uncomfortably crowded (go south to Sitges if you must) and instead hit the seafood eateries and beachside bars after dark; the later the better. The rest of the year, the backstreets are always worth a wander, while the beachside promenade warrants a stroll around sunset when the locals are stretching their legs
OTHER AREAS: If you’re staying in Barcelona for a couple of weeks, make sure you explore the affluent areas of Les Corts and Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, a short stroll from Gracià, home to superb little restaurants, shops, bars and nightclubs that never see tourists entering their doors; the multicultural, working class area of Poble Sec, which has some very good tapas bars; and the middle-class neighbourhood of Poble Nou, for an insight into everyday life in Barcelona devoid of tourists.