Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for going local are an easy amble from the touristy city centre. Once you’ve seen the sights, leave the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) and Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and make a beeline for one of these lively local quarters to absorb the rhythm of everyday life.
Once you’re done with your sightseeing, you’ve been up and done La Rambla countless times and visited all the Gaudi buildings, it’s time to get off the beaten track and discover Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for going local — admire charming old shopfronts, graze your way through some markets, take in some street art, hit a laidback bar, or simply hang out and absorb the local colour and everyday life.
Barcelona’s Best Neighbourhoods for Going Local and Experiencing Everyday Life
Barcelona is a city of villages, each distinct neighbourhood boasting its own unique identity and character. Here’s our guide to Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for going local.
Our ‘home’ for the last two weeks, Gràcia is one of Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for getting an insight into local life. While it’s a block away from the upmarket L’Eixample area (see below), you’ll rarely see 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. Or, like you, they’re going local.
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 neighbourhood 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 sipping 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 jammed with locals, while the tiny bars on every square are buzzing with groups of friends, young and old, enjoying each other’s company.
LOCAL TIPS: If you’re not staying in Gràcia, a great way to discover the neighbourhood is to head here between 10am and noon to browse the shops, have lunch and coffee on a square, or between 5pm and 7pm for shopping, followed by some drinks and dinner. Note that locals book tables at restaurants after 9pm to eat and bars don’t get going until close to midnight. 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.
LOCAL TIPS: 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 specialising in contemporary Catalan cuisine, 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 back to La Rambla.
LA RIBERA and EL BORN
Bordering the Barri Gòtic, La Ribera and El Born have long been two of Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for ambling the backstreets and taking in scenes from everyday life. We got lost in the alleyways here on our very first trip to Barcelona together in 1999 when there were only a handful of restaurants and bars and very few shops.
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 interesting boutiques, galleries, providores, 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, its tapas bars are now firmly on the itineraries of gourmet tours, and its main streets see plenty of tourists exploring after a visit to the Picasso Museum and Santa Maria Del Mar.
However, if you leave the main drags and dip into the quieter, tiny alleyways, this is where you’ll be able to soak up some everyday life and discover the more interesting boutiques of young up and coming designers, design ateliers and art galleries.
Note, however, that this is a neighbourhood that has felt the negative impacts of apartment rentals (particularly hens and bucks night groups partying to all hours), so do explore quietly.
LOCAL TIPS: 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.
Barcelona’s most multicultural quarter is also it’s most alternative, home to Barcelona’s immigrants, artists, designers, students, and young expats. It’s this cosmopolitan flavour and cool edgy vibe that makes El Ravel one of Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for kicking back.
We like that it hasn’t lost its streetwise vibe despite the number of intimidated tourists who pound its gritty pavements each day as they make their way to the excellent museums that dot the area. Like La Ribera-El Born, the area is in all the guidebooks. El Raval is home to the beautiful Sant Pau del Camp monastery, the Gothic Biblioteca de Catalunya (the National Library of Catalonia), the cutting edge MACBA (Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art) and CCCB (Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture).
However, after getting their cultural fix, most foreign visitors move on. This is a neighbourhood where you’ll see prostitutes on street corners, shady goings-on and drug deals being done in the backstreets. Just look the other way. El Raval is still worth exploring for its quirky little shops, music stores, vintage boutiques, ethnic delis, antique bodegas, and cool bars.
LOCAL TIPS: Like La Ribera-El Born the best days to browse the shops of Raval are Tuesdays to Fridays, the later the better if you prefer to shop with locals than other 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 local residents going about their daily business, making this one of Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods to explore on foot. Washing hangs on lines between buildings. Old women gossip in their windows. And a breeze always seems to blow down the narrow streets.
The seafood restaurants overlooking the boats bobbing on the harbour are alluring, but they throng with tourists. You’re best slipping into the backstreet places or strolling further down the beach for a more local experience. Off-season you’ll find few foreigners on the beachfront — it’s mostly locals out for a walk, jog or surf. 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.
LOCAL TIPS: If you love a good beach, skip Barceloneta’s in summer when it can get uncomfortably crowded and visit in spring and autumn. Or go south to gay friendly Sitges. Hit the seafood restaurants for lunch 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 an amble around sunset when local residents are stretching their legs and getting in some exercise.
More of Barcelona’s Best Neighbourhoods to Explore
If you’re staying in Barcelona for a couple of weeks, make sure you also explore the well-off areas of Les Corts and Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, a short stroll from Gracià, home to superb little restaurants, shops, bars and nightclubs that rarely 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 that’s pretty much devoid of tourists.
Have you spent time in the Catalan capital? Which are Barcelona’s best neighbourhoods for going local in your opinion?