Barcelona travel tips to reduce overtourism and give back to locals rather than take away, include everything from avoiding the overcrowded sights and exploring lesser-visited neighbourhoods to visiting over the quieter winter and Christmas and New Year season.
We thought it time to ask a local expert for some Barcelona travel tips to reduce overtourism so we consulted Guillermo Jaques, co-founder of Barcelona Slow Travel, a responsible tour company which specialises in sustainable and local private tours to discover the real Barcelona.
If you’re a regular visitor to Grantourismo, you’ll be familiar with our ‘slow, local, experiential’ quest and know that we’ve long been advocates of slow travel, local travel and experiential travel. When we launched on New Year’s Day 2010 with our yearlong global grand tour, our aim was to inspire people to travel more slowly, more locally and and more experientially, which for us was to travel in ways that are more sustainable, more engaging and more immersive.
We felt then and still believe now, that these forms of travel, which we see as being interconnected, not only make for more meaningful and more memorable journeys for travellers, but they also make for better experiences for the locals that travellers encounter and the local communities where you stay and spend your time and money.
Barcelona is one of our most favourite cities in the world and we’ve spent a lot of time there over the last two decades or so. While our early trips in the Nineties focused on the sights – they’re special after all and who wouldn’t want to marvel at Antoni Gaudí’s magical Sagrada Familia? – on later trips we stayed in an apartment in Gràcia and boutique hotels in more off the beaten track areas, where we explored local neighbourhoods, shopped the markets, cooked local food, and generally got more of a taste of local life.
Since our 2014 Barcelona trip, when we witnessed anti-tourism protests and spotted banners hanging from balconies with the messages “Shhh!! Please let us sleep!!”, “Tourists, pack your bags and go home!” and others that a guide told us were too rude to translate, we’ve been increasingly concerned about the problem of overtourism in Barcelona and its impact on the city.
Every summer Barcelona suffers from heaving crowds of tourists who have helped destroy the soul of the heart of the city. The ‘Airbnb Phenomenon’ and so-called ‘sharing economy’ have resulted in the ‘local’ part of communities being lost and have produced angry local residents who resent the presence of tourists in their neighbourhoods, some of whom wreak havoc.
Below you’ll find countless Barcelona travel tips to reduce overtourism and help locals feel the pulse of their city again; suggestions as to how you can be a responsible traveller in Barcelona, a traveller who is part of the solution rather than the problem.
For more interviews with locals from Barcelona and beyond see our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.
Barcelona Travel Tips to Reduce Overtourism – Local Tips from Guillaume Jaques of Slow Travel Barcelona
We chat to Guillermo Jaques of Slow Travel Barcelona about everything from whether it’s possible to both see the sights and slow down to his best Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism.
Q. Tell our readers about Barcelona Slow Travel.
A. Cristina and I started Barcelona Slow Travel in 2013 after a yearlong trip to Southeast Asia, which opened our eyes to the needs of a different type of tourism in our city. We were a young couple in our early thirties, passionate about slow travel, slow food and slow life. When we returned home, we knew we wanted to offer authentic experiences to travellers visiting Barcelona. We began offering cooking classes before adding tours in Barcelona and the surrounding countryside. Our mission is to offer real experiences that immerse travellers in Barcelona life, while being sustainable and respectful of the local people, culture and environment.
Q. What does ‘slow travel’ mean to you?
A. For us, slow travel means slowing down and not rushing through places to allow time to interact with the local people, culture and traditions of the places we’re visiting. It is having an authentic and immersive stay that will not only offer a more meaningful experience, but will also have a long-lasting, positive impact on the local communities.
Q. Why did Barcelona need a slow travel company?
A. Barcelona has been suffering the consequences of mass tourism in recent years. The city has changed quickly, and not for the best, under the influence of the fast growing numbers of tourists. Though the problem is not so much the number of tourists, but rather the fact that most of them do the same things, stay in the same neighbourhoods, and visit the same places, mostly looking for the cheapest options of everything.
The number of private apartment rentals exploded, increasing house prices in Barcelona. Many small local businesses have shut down, only to be replaced by big international chains. This has made some Barcelona locals perceive tourism as something bad, when they used to be open to foreigners visiting.
We believe that tourism can be much better, and can be used to improve local lives instead of making life worse. We created Barcelona Slow Travel as a way to improve the situation for both travellers and locals by offering more immersive tours and activities in small groups, taking travellers off the beaten path, promoting the local economy, and preserving the local culture and environment.
Q. Do you think too many tourists rush through Barcelona ticking off the top sights – Las Ramblas, La Boqueria, Sagrada Familia, Picasso Museum, Guell Park, a Gaudi building or two – and move on? What would you like to see them do instead? Barcelona travel tips to reduce overtourism
A. Yes, but many of them don’t even have the time to do all of the things you mentioned! So, first things first, for your readers coming to Barcelona: plan enough days to be able to have an authentic stay. We recommend three days minimum, but seven days is better. Next: don’t only see the top Barcelona sights. There are so many more authentic things to do in Barcelona that will have a more positive impact for the local population.
Travellers should try to fit in a cultural experience, such as seeing the Castellers (human towers) or Correfocs during local festivities that occur throughout the year; discover off-the-tourist-radar neighbourhoods; visit local and authentic markets, cafes, bars and restaurants; rent a bike and visit nearby beaches, such as Barceloneta and coastal towns outside of Barcelona; and take a train and discover small villages and family-run wineries in local wine regions such as the Penedes.
Q. Is it possible for Barcelona visitors to see the sights and slow down on the same trip? Attractions such as Sagrada Familia are hard to resist. On my first Barcelona trip with friends in 1997 we did the sights. But on later trips with Terence we slowed down and concentrated on local travel – we did lots of walking, explored local neighbourhoods, strolled the beachside, did pintxo and vermouth bar crawls, a road trip around the wine regions. Do you think slow travel in Barcelona comes with a second or third visit?
A. Whichever combination works out best for people – it really depends on the individual – although we have noticed that many people looking for a more slow travel-oriented stay are people who have already visited Barcelona before. But many travellers come and try to do at least one authentic experience, even on their first stay in town.
For my wife and I, travel is more about people, food and experiences. So when we travel, we don’t visit sights or must-do attractions, our whole trip is alternative and we try to live just like locals, go to off-the-radar destinations, and that’s a lot of fun. That’s a way to do it, 100% slow travel. But combining a more slow and local experience with sights is great too. And if everyone would do this in Barcelona, we would no longer have a mass tourism issue!
Q. Barcelona has a massive problem with overtourism, which we’ve written about before here, as we’ve witnessed the changes to the city over the years. Can you describe to our readers what overtourism means for Barcelona locals?
A. Mass tourism has resulted in overtourism in Barcelona, which means that there is an excess of tourists at the same spot at the same time. This is what we’re seeing for most of the year in Barcelona’s old town, el Gotic, where there’s a huge demand for tourist apartment rentals. More and more apartments in that area are being rented to tourists (legally or not) because they can be rented at a higher price, which means fewer apartments to rent for locals.
Therefore, the housing prices increase exponentially. So, as fewer locals can live in the old town, they move to a different neighbourhood, which raises the prices of housing there. And so on. The housing situation is so bad now that even surrounding villages of Barcelona have been affected by the price rises, which forces people to move further away from Barcelona.
Now back to the situation in the old town: since there are more tourists staying there, there is a demand for more touristic services. Small family-run businesses (with no appeal to tourists) are disappearing and being replaced by big international chains. That radically changes the atmosphere of the neighbourhood, slowly forcing local people away, and making the neighbourhood even more touristy and less authentic. This is what has happened in Barcelona’s old town, in el Gotic, parts of Raval, el Born, and parts of Barceloneta, although all neighbourhoods are affected in terms of housing.
Q. We think that slow travel and local travel – we see them as related as by slowing down people have more time to get an insight into local life and make meaningful connections with locals – is one answer to overtourism.
A. Absolutely! Slowing down is the best way for visitors to open their eyes to what’s happening around them, and find ways to be more sustainable and improve the local life. Also, if they go away from touristy spots, they’ll end up in local neighbourhoods where they can spend their money at locally owned, locally oriented businesses, which will have a more positive impact on the life of locals.
Q. Here’s the dilemma: if we discourage people from staying in the Old City that’s heaving with people, and the Gothic Quarter and El Born, which have been transformed by the Airbnb phenomenon and lost so much authenticity, and we direct people to local neighbourhoods such as Gracia or Eixample, are we sending them somewhere where they’ll be welcomed or is there a risk that we could be partly responsible for transforming another neighbourhood into a tourist destination? Perhaps they won’t be welcomed because those residents will fear the same thing happening to their ‘hood?
A. Exactly, that’s a very good point. That’s why we never recommend the same place to all our customers and we try not to go too often to the same spots in our experiences. Otherwise you know that you’ll be spoiling the places. There’s something very interesting to understanding mass tourism. It is the importance of conformism in the process. What is a ‘must do’? How could there be something that every single person, no matter their age, interests, and so on, all need to visit?
This is something we’re trying to explain, and that works also for recommending authentic places and activities. Every person is unique and they have their own interests and needs, and can therefore prefer one neighbourhood over another, one restaurant to another, and one activity to another. Understanding this and accommodating these interests and desires is the real solution to overtourism, not saying “you need to go to this neighbourhood because it is more authentic” because if we start saying that to everyone, within five or 10 years it won’t be authentic anymore!
Instead, when we are asked for recommendations by our clients visiting Barcelona, we try to understand who they are and what they like before giving them any recommendations. At the moment, tourists are much more welcomed in Barcelona’s authentic neighbourhoods than they are in touristy neighbourhoods where the atmosphere is definitely more commercial.
Q. Some Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism for our readers… where should travellers stay in Barcelona for a slow travel experience in a neighbourhood where they’ll be welcomed?
A. It really depends on each and every one of your readers, but here are a few local tips to give them an idea of spots that are still authentic and quite nice to visit. Start with Gracia, which you mentioned already – this part of town is absolutely charming, with a very artistic and alternative vibe. It’s great if people like small local shops, bars, restaurants, and clubs, and especially if they’re into organic food and a healthy lifestyle.
Poblenou is perfect if people want to relax and stay (a bit) away from Barcelona’s centre. It’s located close to the beach and has some pretty cool bars – especially craft beer bars – and a very (very) relaxed vibe. Eixample, near the modern centre, might be known by tourists, but it is still big enough to have kept its local atmosphere. The architecture is incredible, as is the food scene. Avoid it if you don’t like to sleep in noisy streets, as this is the area with most car traffic in Barcelona.
And, of course, people can always stay in Barcelona’s countryside and get quickly and easily into Barcelona’s centre by car or train, depending on where you’re staying. The Penedes or Alella are great areas for wine lovers, while small villages on the coast can make for good retreats in the summertime. Avoid Sitges in summer though, as it’s very crowded.
Q. A few more Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism for our readers, please. Best times of year to visit and times of year to avoid?We spent the Millennium New Years Eve in Barcelona and we had the best time ever. It was super cold but what an amazing experience. Obviously people should avoid the peak periods, such as summer, when the city is overwhelmed?
A. Once again, this is a difficult recommendation to give, as it most certainly depends on each one of your readers. Winter is definitely a good time and a very underrated time of year to visit Barcelona. It’s usually sunny and not too cold. It doesn’t usually freeze in Barcelona, although we might have a week or two of very cold weather, and November through March are the least busy times for tourism. It’s also the only time of year you can experiment the Calçotada, a unique local tradition where we eat giant grilled onions called calçots!
However, spring and fall are absolutely incredible time of years, both with great weather, and lots of stuff happening, such as local festivities and traditions, local festivals, and a lot of local life in the street. Summer – July and August – is the time to avoid if you want to stay in Barcelona’s centre, as it’s the busiest time of year. If you don’t mind a bit of humidity there are great getaways in local neighbourhoods or in the countryside inland for a fantastic and not very touristy stay at this time of year.
Q. Right, we need some more Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism, please. What about Barcelona’s busiest attraction? Is there ever a good time to visit La Rambla these days when it’s not heaving with tourists?
A. I honestly don’t think the Rambla is worth visiting anymore, at least at the moment. But, surely, if people really like to go, early morning would be the best time. Great alternatives for photographers would be the Born neighbourhood in the early morning, for sure, otherwise it’s too busy too! I recommend the Bunkers del Carmel for sunsets and the Pedralbes monastery and surrounding neighbourhood if people really want to get off the tourist radar.
Q. Where do you suggest people eat and drink and, again, are there places to avoid so people aren’t adding to the problem of overtourism? Are there places where people can still mix with locals and get a warm welcome like we could in the old days and not feel like they’re impinging on their private space?
A. We recommend going to the small, family run restaurants in Barcelona if people want an authentic experience. Most restaurants in town will offer a warm welcome. If they don’t, that’s just because the waiter has had a bad day so people should not take it personally. It’s just a Spanish thing!
Of course, visitors should avoid all the restaurants near the tourist sights, such as La Rambla, Sagrada Familia, etc, and all the restaurants that display pictures of local dishes on their menu or their doors. Certainly, the best places if you’re looking for a warm welcome would be in Barcelona’s countryside. Getting there can take as little as 30 minutes by train or car, and local people love to mix with tourists there.
Q. What are some alternatives to the major sights and what kinds of things can people do to avoid the overtouristed sights and spaces and give back to locals instead?
A. There are many things to be done in Barcelona, far from overtouristed sights and spaces that can be amazing experiences and improve the local life at the same time. A few of the things we offer through Barcelona Slow Travel include visits to the local fishing harbour to meet with local fishermen and try the freshest local seafood in town. On our Barcelona Food Tour we go to local restaurants where we get a warm welcome and discover the real local, regional cuisine of Barcelona.
People can take our wine tour to discover organic family-run wineries, try local grapes and get an exclusive visit with the owner of the winery. They can try a farm to table cooking experience, where they visit organic local farmers, learn about seasonal produce, and harvest their own ingredients, before preparing a traditional Catalan lunch in a 400-year-old farmhouse. In winter, they can cook the Calçotada! People can also visit small, organic food producers of cheese, olive oil and wine in Barcelona’s countryside and discover Catalan traditions such as the human towers in an authentic setting.
Q. We need more Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism and help locals – what about Christmas and New Year? Are they good times to visit?
A. Yes, Christmas is definitely a good season to visit to experience local traditions. One of the most interesting of Catalan traditions is the Cagatió (translates literally into ‘Uncle Shit’). Traditionally, parents would go to the woods with their children to find a nice log and bring it home. Then, the children would pretend to take care of the log and feed it as if it was part of the family so that it would ‘shit’ them presents for Christmas. This is still celebrated nowadays and can be a very fun tradition to discover, for kids and grown-ups alike!
Christmas is usually celebrated on the 25th and 26th for lunch, but there are no presents exchanged that day. New Year’s Eve is celebrated first at home with a dinner with family, then we go out with friends. The most important days are the 5th and 6th of January as we celebrate ‘Reis’, the Day of the Three Wisemen or Kings. On the evening of the 5th, families with children will go and see the Cavalcada de Reis or King’s Parade, an event not to be missed if travelling with kids during those dates, starting at 5 pm on the 5th of January every year. Then, kids wake up early on the 6th of January knowing that the Kings have brought them presents. So the Kings are more famous than Santa Claus in Barcelona!
Traditional meals are served for family events during the Christmas season. Since it is impossible to be invited over Christmas to a local family’s home (those are occasions celebrated with family only), we thought it could be a good idea to offer a Christmas Cooking and Dining Experience for families traveling in Barcelona where Cristina and I host a Christmas cooking experience where we recreate our Christmas family recipes and offer a taste of the Barcelona Christmas experience.
We also offer a New Years Eve Cooking Experience on December 31st with traditional celebrations in which we cook and dine together before celebrating New Year’s Eve in the Spanish way, eating the 12 grapes at midnight and partying together afterward!
Travellers just need to keep in mind that many things will be shut on the 25th and 26th December and on the 1st and 6th January. Apart from that, don’t worry too much about cultural differences. Catalan people are always very proud to explain their traditions!
Q. As for overtourism in Barcelona, what do you think the future holds? Will there be a time when Barcelona welcomes visitors again? And is slow travel in Barcelona an answer?
A. Back when we started in 2013, we were the only travel company in Barcelona with values of sustainable tourism. Today, in 2018, we know over 30 small travel companies, sustainable hotels and hostels, and many people with sustainable projects in mind. We have also noticed a change in travellers’ mindset, as many more travellers are now considering at least one authentic experience for their Barcelona stay, and many times more than just one.
Barcelona’s new mayor is also pushing through laws to contain mass tourism and to develop sustainable tourism. It will certainly take a few years to have a real effect on Barcelona’s tourism, but we have a lot of hope for what the future holds. But what’s most important is the contribution of travellers: we need more conscious travellers who want to experience Barcelona in a slow and local way, to help us preserve the local life and create sustainable solutions for tourism in our beautiful city and region.
If you have been to Barcelona, spent any length of time there, or live there, we’d love to hear from you: we’d especially love more Barcelona travel tips to help reduce overtourism and help locals? Please leave suggestions in the comments below.