Thursday, 2 February 2012

Barcelona - survival tips

While we were in Barcelona for less than 48 hours - it was long enough to pick up some basic essentials. For most tourists, Barcelona is essentially a short, city break destination. Time is limited so hopefully these top tips should be useful.

Like most first time visitors to Barcelona, we didn't have enough time to do everything. So for any omissions (of which there will be lots) and glossing over, I apologise. Also bear in mind that we went in January, so some of our experiences were coloured by changeable weather.

Having said all that - if you are off to Barcelona - YOU LUCKY PUP!

It was a slow burn, but by the end of our visit, I was in love!

So here are my top tips:

Ride the right bus

While I don't usually use 'hop-on / hop-off' tourist buses, with such a short amount of time - and it was raining, we decided it would be a good introduction to the city. There are two main bus companies - Barcelona City Tour and The Touristic Bus. We used the latter.

The Touristic bus has three routes (red, blue and green). The red and blue were the only ones running when we were there. 

We rode the blue route, to the north of the city, first. This was a mistake!

While it's really helpful for getting you to Park Güell (the nearest metro is about 600m away), the Tramvia Blau (which takes you to Tibidabo in the hills to the north) and the Barcelona FC football ground, on the whole it was a lot of wide avenues, shops, office and apartment blocks which could have been in any European city.

Tramvia Blau.

My advice would be to ride the red route first (which includes Montjuïc and the port) and then use the blue route (combined with a day metro ticket) to get to some of the more interesting places, rather than riding the whole circuit. 

It is quite expensive - we paid 31 Euros for a two day pass (sadly not 48 hrs), so it's worth giving your tactics a bit of thought before hand.

Mind your language

Don't do what I did and automatically speak to people in French. It won't make you very popular. And don't get "La cuenta" muddled up with "cerveza". Imagine my surprise when a beer turned up instead of the bill!

But do have a go at speaking Spanish -  try practising before your holiday in your local tapas bars!

Beware of ham

Should you fancy a plate of local ham, be aware that Iberian ham (or jamón ibérico) is not thick and rustic, but worth more, pound for pound, than gold dust. 

13.20 Euros we paid for this plate!

jamón ibérico.

Clearly carved by the nipples of virgins from celebrity pigs.

It was very nice though.

Remember to say "Tapas Portion"

If you fail to heed this advice, you will find yourself wading though your own body weight in battered squid rings!

Choosing wine in the supermarket

My usual rule back home is - "spend over £5.00 and it should be fine".

In Spain, you can get lots of great wines for under 5 Euros, and without many of the more recognisable labels, choosing wine can be a challenge.

When faced with such a problem, I usually just scan the shelves for wines where only a few bottles are left. I work on the basis that if it's good enough for the locals, then it's good enough for me.

Failing that, I choose one with a nice label!

Use the Metro and use your feet

It's a very dull piece of advice, but the metro in Barcelona is great. It's very straight forward to fathom and the ticket machines are easy (and in English). You can buy singe / multi trip tickets, or one day / two day etc. passes, and then once you are fully tooled up you can ride the metro like a local.

The metro is also really (and I mean exceptionally) frequent. We never waited more than 2 mins 33 secs. The reason I know that is that you get a constant second by second count down on the information board. Every time one arrived bang on time, I had the Countdown theme music in my head and a vision of Carol Vorderman!

Much of Barcelona is also really walkable. Take a wander down Las Ramblas and soak in the atmosphere - all walks of Barcelona life can be found there. Stroll around the Port Vell. Walk into - and then out of very quickly El Ravel (where we found both the backpackers hostel and the prostitutes). 

Definitely do a walking tour round Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter). We used the AA Essential Guide to Barcelona which took us from the Gothic Cathedral to Plaça del Rei, Plaça Sant Jaume and Plaça Sant Just, past Barcelona's oldest church and the Roman walls and out onto the esplanade by the port (Passeig de Colom).

The Barri Gòtic is a maze of alleyways and shadows. It's really easy to miss bits or get lost (though you are never too far away from somewhere you'll recognise). A walking tour just helps you to make the most of it.

PS - contrary to what the guidebook says, worshippers don't always do Catalonia's national dance, the sardana outside the Gothic Cathedral on a Sunday - boo!

Don't wear flares in La Sagrada Família

I don't say this on religious grounds, but more in terms of health and safety.

La Sagrada is stunning. It's interior, which is like nothing I have ever seen before is like a giant inside out iced wedding cake. It made me weep it was so beautiful - well done Gaudi!

La Sagrada Família.
Little man on the front of La Sagrada Família.
A glimps inside La Sagrada Família.
You can get a ticket which includes a trip in the lift to the top of one of the towers. This is well worth doing, but if you have even the slightest phobia of spiral staircases then take the lift back down again. While you get some absolutely amazing 'up close' views of the stone figures on the way down, the stairs themselves are terrifying. It was the one occasion where I wished that Gaudi had put functionality over artistry.

Fabulous view from the top of La Sagrada Família.
Beautiful close up.
Whereas most spiral staircases have a central column - Gaudi had decided that was for wimps. The visual effect is of an ammonite or unfurling fern frond. The reality is a bloody big hole down the middle which seems to stretch to the very depths of hell itself.

Holy Jesus Christ!

Mother of God and all the little saints!
If like me you find yourself in flares, turn them all the way up to your knees. Now is not the time to risk a trip hazard. Make sure your hands are free, take a deep breath and talk yourself down one step at a time. Tell yourself that if you did fall, it's unlikely that you would fit down the hole in the middle and be prepared to have found God by the time you pop out at the bottom - conveniently in one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. 

It's almost as if Gaudi planned it!

Find an excuse to visit The Ayre Hotel Rosellon

We stayed there for two nights and not only was it superb, with the best view of La Sagradia from the roof terrace - they also had their windows cleaned by Cirque du Soleil.


While on the subject of Gaudi

We didn't have time to see everything that Gaudi has to offer (so we didn't get to Park Güell, or go inside La Pedrera / Gaudi's House). But we did visit Palau Güell (Güell Palace). After renovations which started back in 1945, it finally re-opened to the public last year. 

It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and it is wonderful. 

Palau Güell.
Looking straight up to heaven.
On the roof top.
There will be more about Palau Güell in future blogs so I don't want to peak too soon, however I would urge you to go - and be prepared to spend a bit of time there. It's not one to be rushed!

When the sun sets, make sure you are on Montjuïc

Watch the first part of the sunset from the steps of The Museu National d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) which is the big building with the domed roof. The light and view across the city is breath taking.

View from MNAC


But for the second part, sprint like Linford Christie (Olympic Gold Medal Winner, Barcelona 1992), up the escalators and past the naked man on a plinth to the Olympic park, and watch the sky melt into a gold of it's own behind a massive inverted ski pole which doubles up as a telecommunications tower.

Olympic Park Barcelona (photo taken by Gill Raine).

The lights, cascading water and sunset all conspired to bring on the water works (yet again). It was a beautiful moment as I thanked my friend Gill for being such a good friend to me over the years. However the moment was shattered when she told me not to talk daft and get a move on because it was getting dark!

And finally - make a plan

And then be prepared to change it - and then change it again and again as you get drawn into one thing after another. Accept that you won't be able to do everything - but relish the fact that you'll just have to come back. To see the things that you missed first time around and then to do the things that you've already done - all over again!

Also in this series:

You might also like to read Barcelona - first impressions.


  1. Barcelona is an amazing city. You've got some fantastic photos here. Thanks

  2. Thanks - I really loved it and would love to go back :-)