The first stroll around town after a transcontinental flight is always disorientating, but in Barcelona, a bleary-eyed traveler might check her passport to make sure she’s in the right place. This is Spain, right?
Technically speaking, yes. But ask any Barcelona native and you’ll get a different answer. The city is part of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, and its famous feud with Madrid is not new. Catalonia and Spain joined in the 15th century, and government attempts to make the region “more Spanish” have only bolstered Catalan pride in its unique history, language, and culture.
Get to know Barcelona through its Catalan roots and discover a city where passion runs deep and fiestas — sorry, we mean festas — take on a life of their own…
Bridging the Collserola Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona occupies an enviable corner of Spain where a hike and a dip can happen in the same hour. Its location also defines the diversity of its neighborhoods. The inclined streets of Sarrià host an array of elegant, old-world townhouses, and the homes that dot the hills started out as summer retreats for Barcelona’s rich. Take the funicular to the top of Tibidabo, where an ornate cathedral and vintage amusement park afford panoramic views of the city. Then head east to beachside Barcelona — streets are narrow in this former fisherman’s town, and some of the city’s best seafood can be found in its tiny, family-owned eateries.
Catalan cuisine is an eclectic mix of ingredients from the mountains and the sea, born from overlapping traditions and a dedication to local fare. You’ll find mixed dishes of meat and seafood on many restaurant menus, along with items that are Catalan staples: Pa amb tomàquet (fresh-baked bread with tomato and olive oil); a spicy farmer’s sausage called bottifara served tapas-style with white beans; and escudella, a hearty stew made with winter vegetables. Markets overflow with fresh produce, and some of the city’s best dishes are meat-free, like the caramelized onion-stuffed artichoke hearts at vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles.
Hanging out over a cup of coffee or glass of cava might be the closest thing Barcelona has to a citywide pastime (that, and cheering on FC Barcelona football, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive). In sunny weather, sidewalks brim with café tables that are always packed, no matter the time of day. Order a café cortado — espresso with a splash of milk — to jump-start your morning, or if it’s that kind of morning, try a Catalan trifásico, which adds brandy. While Las Ramblas is the obvious choice for outdoor imbibing, head to the neighborhoods north and east for local hangs. Gràcia, a free-spirited quarter with lively plazas, is the perfect place to laze away an afternoon.
“Wear non-flammable clothes” is a real sign that you’ll see at the Correfoc festival. The annual “fire run” is part of La Mercè, which is the largest of Barcelona’s many festivals. Drumbeats throb as participants dressed as devils light giant pitchforks of fireworks that shower the crowd with sparks.
La Mercè honors Barcelona’s patron saint, and during the weeklong festival, more than two million people flood into the city to experience a full-on Catalan pridefest of music, parades, traditional dances, and revelry lasting well into the next morning. Can’t clear your calendar for late September? There are street parties in some form nearly every month of the year, including the mid-summer Saint Joan festa and Gràcia’s August celebration, when papier mâché lanterns turn village streets into an electric fairyland.
Like the city itself, the music scene in Barcelona is diverse and nonconformist. It’s a genre-busting, experimental blend of influences that stem from the region’s own multi-layered heritage. There’s a familiar beat behind much of contemporary Catalan music — the feverish rumba Catalina, a pulsating, flamenco guitar-driven style that started in Barcelona’s Gypsy community in the 1940s.
Make no mistake: flamenco guitar is not the same as flamenco music, which is native to southern Spain. Opt for an underground indie performance or a rumba Catalana show (La Rumbeta, in Barri Gòtic, hosts nightly concerts and jam sessions).
Gaudí’s architecture isn’t the only stylistic imprint on Barcelona. The city’s homegrown fashion designers shape the visual identity of the city, and they’ve gained prominence on an international stage — Barcelona has its very own Fashion Week. Custo Dalmau’s eponymous line leads the way in haute couture, while local boutiques stock creative wearables that appeal to a wide audience. Stop by Ivori, in ultra-hip El Born, to browse a curated selection of clothing, shoes, and jewelry by Catalan designers, or pick up an edgy, hand-painted graffiti bag at Pinzat in the Gothic Quarter.