Being a foreigner in a city means that you often get to play host or tour guide. Barcelona is one of those great cities that offers plenty for a first, second, or third… time visitor.
Besides all its major sites, the city has a different personality and varied events in each season. However, after you have played the guide to the billionth visitor you get a bit tired of seeing the same things again and again, never mind trying to fit them into a normal schedule when you are possibly working and they are on holiday.
Nowadays I send my friends off to see the major sites, and select a few that I can enjoy with them, every now and then I rotate one of the “typical” tourist must-sees into that list, because usually the top sites are up there heading the lists of every guide book for a reason, and you can always appreciate a new aspect.
These, however, are my top five alternative things that I try to do with my guests. If you visit Barcelona, see if you can add them to your list.
1: Montjuic Cactus Garden
I had been waiting for this garden to open again to the public, since the first moment I laid eyes on it when I first arrived in Barcelona. It was a long wait, almost 3 years! Apparently it had been closed for 5 years due to rehabilitation, I’m happy to report that it is now open!
The garden is situated on Montjuic, near the MiraMar hotel. It overlooks the harbour, and so you can wander around in what seems to be a Mexican desert filled with huge cacti but when you look up, find yourself in the Mediterranean, with a vista of blue waters and gigantic cruise ships. It makes for an interesting tableau, as well a fun photo shoot.
You can end off your wander around the gardens with a coffee or beer at the Miramar restaurant & cafe next to the cablecar (Teleferico)stop, or if you are there in the evening, you can dine at the MiraMar hotel.
Montjuic, by the way, is a great place to spend the day. You can spend hours wandering around the various museums, including the Miro Museum, or the ornate Catalan Art Museum, overlooking Plaza Espanya.
Plaza Espanya also holds the fantastic Caixa Forum (which is FREE) and always has an interesting selection of events and exhibitions. Montjuic is also home to the Olympic stadiums, as well as the Castle which offers spectacular views over Barcelona.
If you are visiting during summer, you may be able to catch the Castle Outdoor Cinema, which shows a number of Version Original Movies outdoors in the castle moat. Also open only during summer is the local secret “La Caseta” an outdoor barbeque restaurant in the Castle forest. You can lounge in a sundeck, while sipping Moritz as a Dj spins tunes or munch on Spanish sausage or crepes while taking in the unusual views of the Barcelona graveyard and harbour container fields.
2: La Caixa Science Museum
The Cosmo Caixa or the Science museum of Barcelona offers up a fantastic array of interesting exhibition halls and permanent installations. The architecture of the building combines the old and the new, and as you wind down through the glass and brick construction you can learn about how the earth evolved.
My all time favourite thing about this museum is, however, the stunning Amazon forest display. The museum contains an entire ecosystem showing a cross section of forest and river. You can sit and watch piranhas and crocodiles frolic below massive trees festooned with creepers, while jungle fowl flap from branch to branch. I mean what could be better about an museum that has a planetarium and, And, a piece of living Amazon forest?
If you have the energy after the museum, you can walk up the hill to the beginning of the funicular that goes up to Tibidabo, and enjoy a beer overlooking the city at the Mirablau. It’s a different vista of Barcelona, and the restaurants windows frame the view to the sea beautifully. If it’s not too late you could also catch the tram up the hill. A taxi could also take you up.
3: La Boqueria & a wander around in Raval
No trip to Barcelona is complete without a stop at the famous Boqueria Market. I mentioned it in my last Barcelona illustrated guide, and I can honestly say I never tire of the place. Of course, I don’t live too close to visit every day, and so each trip is fun in it’s explosion of colour, tastes and smells, even for me! I always buy a weird juice combination and it’s interesting to go from displays of bright sweets to creepy, slimy tentacles in the fish section.
You can enjoy tapas in the Mercat or if you like there are plenty of cafes in the surrounding area. If you walk out the bottom or the back of the Market into the streets, you find yourself in Raval.
La Rambla forms the border between the area known as the “Gotico” and “Raval”. Home to many foreigners, Raval has a somewhat exotic flavour to it. You can find little cafes filled with delicacies from around the world. Raval is somewhat notorious in the guide books as an unsafe area, but this really only applies if you are not keeping an eye on your bag or are stumbling around the dark alleys, after too many mojitos, at 3am. It’s no different than any other area of Barcelona during the day, and well worth a walk-about.
You can find hidden gardens, great bookstores, fabulous outdoor cafes, and the CCCB, a great stop for museum junkies. A peek at the plaza in front of the Modern Art museum unfolds in the clacking and scraping of a thousand skateboards as enthusiasts gather and polish or show off skills.
The Gotic quarter is stuffed full of fascinating cafes, shops, and plazas. You can walk through alleyways of graffiti or find yourself in a cloister garden in an ancient Gothic cathedral. It’s one of the perfect places for people watching, and trust me, after walking around discovering secret corners of shopping or culture, you will want to sit down and relax.
There are plenty of places for tea, coffee or snacks, and all you have to do is find a spot, enjoy your surroundings, and take some time to chat to your friends, your travel buddy or absorb the atmosphere. One of my favourite places to unwind after some shopping is Caj Chai.
We were introduced to this small tea room by some friends, and I’ll never look back. It’s my go to place for Chai, but they also offer all sorts of Chinese, British and refreshing fruity teas. The snacks are yummy too, and you can snuggle on couches and read a selection of their books. It’s tucked away in the Jewish quarter and is close by two interesting shops: La Basilica which sells fascinating jewellery and Sabater Hermanos a soap shop next to the historical Sant Felip Neri Plaza.
5: A day trip into the surrounds.
There are plenty of places of interest outside of Barcelona. I will be featuring my favourites in the next illustrated guide. I love to pick a direction and go exploring in the car. This may be a bit difficult for everyone, but if you happen to have a car available or are renting one, the collserola has a number of scenic drives (and walks). La Floresta and Sant Cugat are well worth an exploration. Sant Cugat is host to the famous (and large) Mercantic Market for all things vintage!
The coast to the south offers up the tiny beach village of Garraf, which I always try and visit with friends. And up in the mountains behind Sitges you find farm lands dedicated to the cultivation of grapes and the Cava industry that goes along with it. You can sample various cavas and olives while enjoying them in the typical scrub landscape of the Spanish Med.