My name is Mat, I’m 39yrs old and I live in Southampton. (I moved down here from South of London 20yrs ago and have stayed ever since).
My first trip to Barcelona was for La Noche Vieja (New Year’s Eve) in 2004. It was around this time that the “no frills” airline boom really started to take off (no pun intended), and quite a number of my then work colleagues booked short breaks to Barcelona via Ryanair’s Bournemouth to Girona service.
Tying in with this my family normally had a couple of nights somewhere in the UK or France for NYE, so given the great things my work colleagues said about Barcelona I suggested to the family we went to Barcelona… and that’s where my 10yr (ok, its 11yrs and counting) obsession with Barcelona started.
The first trip was booked relatively last-minute with not much planning; our hotel was Hotel Alimara Barcelona close to Mundet metro stop. One of my abiding memories of that trip was spending seemingly hours each day on L3 of the metro going back and forth into the city centre. We obviously did some of the touristy stuff that first trip (as well as trying to avoid tourists!). Las Ramblas, Sagrada Família, Park Güell and Gaudí’s buildings etc. but I’d seen enough to want return – so we returned for the next two NYE’s (the next one my Dad had an extended stay in a Barcelona Hospital as he had his 2nd brain tumour and the following year my Mum and I had a bad case of food poisoning from a restaurant close to Plaça Espanya!)
Over the following few years I was able to return quite a number of times. This included England vs Andorra football that was played in Barcelona twice, stag do’s and a trip to celebrate my parent’s wedding anniversary. I also for a couple of years became a socio of FCB and managed to get tickets for Dad and I to see two El Classico’s. (Subsequently I have seen probably circa 15 games at the Camp Nou and whilst 100% it is worthwhile to see a game there, the atmosphere is nothing like British or German league games).
I have now totalled over 50 visits to Barcelona since 2004 and like to think I know the city very well – but still so much to see and do. Indeed, some friends I now have in Barcelona haven’t been to some of the bars/restaurants I recommend to my friends in England – but equally there are lots that I haven’t visited that they recommend.
2015 was a great year for me as I was able to take extended gardening leave before starting a new job and so spent more time than normal in Barcelona… indeed I did end up getting offered two jobs in Barcelona. Start paying an English salary and I would have said yes!
I feel very at home in the city and don’t class myself as a tourist – I rarely need a street or metro map, only occasionally need to ask someone for directions to refresh my memory, and I know the maze of streets around the Barri Gòtic like the back of my hand!
What changes have I seen over the last 10yrs?
So what changes have I seen in the city? Firstly and probably obviously is tourism and immigration. On the tourism front the amount of Americans visiting Barcelona has increased significantly and in terms of immigration Asians, Far East and Hispanics amongst others now have their own communities. On my last couple of trips I have noticed an increasing number of Japanese restaurants popping up – one day I will try one.
Like lots of cities around the world, Barcelona has undergone a lot of new building works and regeneration. The W Hotel has only been up a few years, but seems part of the furniture – along with Las Arenas and the Archaeological Museo in El Born. One obvious “regeneration” project is the Sagrada Família. I visited a couple of times in those early visits but then didn’t go for years until 2014. Looking back at the photos I took then it is interesting to see how much more work has been done on it.
My favourite change or improvement is the increase in real ale and craft beer bars! To name drop a few that I like; BlackLab, BierCaB, La Cerveteca. El Vaso de Oro is also worth a mention given they brew their own pale ale.
My top attractions and things to do
I am by no means an expert and there is still so much for me to explore but here, in no particular order is some of my recommendations and places I enjoy going back to time and again or have just visited once so far and would like to go back to.
- Parc de la Ciutadella – A great place all year round, but especially on a sunny day to relax, have a walk around and people watch. I enjoy taking a picnic (fresh pan, jamon y queso mandatory) and a couple of beers and relaxing the hours away.
- Las Playas – Miles of sandy beaches along the coast in Barcelona, but in the summer they get too busy for me (especially Barceloneta beach) so I have hired a bike from one of the many bike hire places and cycled up along the flat coastline. Badalona, El Masnou and Mataro aren’t far. All family friendly, cheap bars and you could also get the train easily enough from Arc de Triomf.
- Barri Gòtic and El Born – Walk and get lost around the streets and side streets of Barri Gòtic y El Born. Lots and lots to explore (including plenty of bars!) and don’t worry if you get lost, the area isn’t that big so you are never really far away from a main road. I love walking around the same streets on each visit and seeing what new bars have opened since my last visit… and obviously trying them out!
- Barceloneta – The same as above can be said for Barceloneta and trying out the dozens of seafood restaurants and bars.
- Montjuïc – If feeling a bit more fit and wanting something more strenuous to burn off the previous night’s excess then walking up Montjuïc hits the spot. Easily accessible from the city centre and plenty of rest points along the way up to the top. The view from the castle at the top on a clear day is great.
- Tibidabo – Likewise for a great view of the whole city and you want something a bit more strenuous walk up to the top of Tibidabo. The views are great and it’s where the old style amusement fairground for kids is. You can get public transport up to Tibidabo if you wish.
- Montserrat – If you want to combine walking, views and a day trip then I loved Montserrat. Easy to get to on the train and the cable car up to the mountain is spectacular. One day I’d like to spend the day cycling around the area. Tip: If it’s a sunny day before you get the train back in to Barcelona at the end of the day, allow time for a drink in the bar on the train station. The garden is very peaceful and the views are spectacular looking up to the mountains.
- Refugi 307 – If you have an interest in the Spanish Civil War the (fairly) newly discovered and opened Refugi 307 is very interesting. It’s the bomb shelter and tunnels in Montjuïc. The tour is about 1 hour.
- Bunkers del Carmel – Something that involves a bit more of a hike is Bunkers del Carmel that offers a view similar to that of Tibidabo.
- Museu d’Història de Catalunya Rooftop Café – Another tip to get a good view of the city (and hopefully a chance to soak up some rays) is to visit the roof top café of the Museu d’Història de Catalunya. Take the lift straight to the top floor. It’s worth hanging around till sunset for the view.
- Basílica Santa Maria del Mar – Walking around and about by the Basílica Santa Maria del Mar at night…especially out of season when not so busy. Very nice and relaxing sitting outside a bar looking at the basílica light up.
A small selection of my favourite bars and restaurants
- La Fonda del Port Olímpic – Walk past all the disco bars for the stag and hen do’s in Port Olímpic and in the corner is a large and very popular restaurant. We went there for NYE in 2004 and have never looked back! Never had a bad meal, wide variety on the menu, great service and very well priced.
- La Pineda – A xarcutería on Carrer del Pi. A tiny bar with only a few tables and chairs. Well, I say a bar… it’s really a shop selling meats that has a couple of tables! Always busy – but worth it.
- La Plata – On Carrer de la Mercé. A small place, full of locals which is a good sign. Cheap wine which is a bonus! Only serve a few tapas dishes but they are all really good quality. The botifarra and the pescaditos are fantastic.
- Can Paixano – On Carrer de la Reina Cristina. Famous for selling meat and cheap Cava! Very, very popular with tourists and locals alike. I normally go there early when it has just opened for some breakfast as it can get packed later on in the day. (In November I visited and they had a bouncer on the door at lunchtime letting one person out, one person in). All the different meats I’ve had have been great and the Cava is nice as well as being dirt cheap. In fact, it’s so cheap you can’t just go there to drink a load of booze – you have to eat something as well.
- The Café inside Mercat de la Barceloneta – I don’t know its name, it’s not one of the ones as you walk in the main entrance, it’s at the back and is where the locals and workers go. Cheap and good food. The bocadillo de morcilla y cebolla is fantastic.
- Dry Martini – On Carrer d’Aribau. 1920’s style gin & tonic/cocktail bar. Very smart and not too expensive compared to other cities given the style and quality.
- The Secret Bar (Barcelona Pipa Club) – On Plaça Reial. Takes a bit of finding the 1st time – but is great. A Sherlock Holmes style bar with a few different rooms. Serves a mean G&T as well. I don’t think I’ve ever left the place sober!
- 7 Portes – On Passeig d’Isabell ll. This place is famous in Barcelona for paella. It’s popular and you often need to book a table. If you look at various online review sites it does seem to get its fair share of bad write ups, but I’ve never had a bad meal or bad service. The botifarra with white beans is very tasty!
- El Vaso de Oro – On Carrer de Balboa in Barceloneta. Hugely popular bar with locals and tourists – which hopefully shows it’s a good place to eat and drink, but it gets very busy and it has a very narrow bar so gets very crowded. The morcilla is great and the home-brewed pale ale is nice as well. This bar is a little more expensive than others, but is worth it and has lots of choice of food.
- Pork Restaurant – On Carrer del Consolat de Mar. If you like a meat feast then this is for you. A real shame that I think this place is under used – I’ve never seen it busy, but whenever I have been there the food has been great (although the service can be somewhat slow). First time I went there I had a large plate of different types of sausages accompanied by a small salad bowl to be healthy. The added bonus of this place is “Steve’s Special Beer” from Liverpool that they serve. Very drinkable and I certainly like a drop or two!
- El Born Bar – On Passeig del Born. Nice bar, lots of choice and yet another bar that serves a decent G&T! Friendly staff and is right on the main street/square in Passeig del Born.
- Numeronueve – On Carrer de la Vidriería. A fairly new lively bar in the El Born area. Not too expensive and great selection of cocktails. Ideal for a few drinks on your bar crawl around the side streets.
What’s next for me in Barcelona?
There is still so much I want to explore and see in Barcelona, but also I want to spend more time visiting the towns and villages throughout Catalunya.
I’m sure I will get a couple of weekends booked in the diary before this, but my next big trip to Barcelona is August 2016, getting the train from London to Barcelona (via stop overs in Paris and Girona) for my 40th birthday. Super excited by this already. Travelling with my parents with maybe one or two friends joining us in Barcelona for a few of the 10 days I will be in the city. Not surprisingly I have got loads planned already!