What you need to know before visiting Barcelona

It’s crazy that it’s been more than two whole months since I was in Barcelona! While I’ve posted before about some of the specific places we went to, I wanted to do another post with more of an overview for visiting the city as a whole. Traveling is more than just showing up to attractions, and I think it’s important to know at least a little bit about the culture, history, and language of the place you’re visiting before you arrive. I am obviously not an expert on Barcelona, and my knowledge is still limited, but I did my best to be observant during the trip, and I learned a lot.

Background Information

If possible, it’s always good to know a bit about where you’re traveling. Having some background knowledge on your destination’s history, political climate, and demographics will help you get more out of your visit and be a more respectful, responsible visitor.

This page (on a website run by the UN Habitat) explains the city’s population, history, economy, and more.

This 2015 interview with the mayor of Barcelona gives some insight into the local perspective on growing tourism rates in Barcelona. It’s in Spanish, but using Google Translate would at least give you the gist of it.

Transportation

We traveled a lot on the city’s subway and train system while we were there. While navigating public transportation in an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar language can sound intimidating, it really was pretty easy to navigate! We never had to wait more than about three minutes for the next subway train to come, and maps are posted in the stations and on the trains. We were told the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were responsible for creating such an efficient public transportation system. Today there’s a free app to help you navigate the system as well.

You can buy tickets from an automated machine at each station, and you should be able to do the transaction in English. They accept credit cards or cash, but if you want to use a card, know that you may be asked for a PIN on your credit card, even though we don’t use PINs for credit cards in the US. When you notify your bank or credit card company that you’ll be traveling internationally, you might want to ask about this.

We also used the trains to go to a town on the outskirts of Barcelona. They run on a set schedule and less frequently than the subways, but the ticket purchase process is similar, and we didn’t have any problems with it either.

Uber is not available in Barcelona, but the subway system really was easy to use, so getting around is still pretty easy!

The airport is on the south end of the city, a bit removed from the center. There are taxis there, and it’s also possible to take the subway to/from the airport to connect with the rest of the city.

Wifi and Phone Service

In general we were able to get wifi at cafes or restaurants, but it wasn’t available for free in public areas like in Mexico. In terms of directions, you can load them while you have wifi and still see your current location as you walk. If you’re traveling with a group and might be splitting up at all, having a cell signal is helpful. Still, my whole family was just on airplane mode for the week, and we were fine.

Language and Signage

Barcelona is in Catalonia where Catalán and Spanish are spoken (both are official languages). If you speak Spanish or French, you’ll likely be able to read Catalán fairly well. Most signs (including those you’ll find in the subway) are in both languages, although Catalán is typically a little more prominent. Honestly I’m not sure I really heard Catalán spoken, although I could be wrong. In our experience, English is widely spoken, and Spanish and English speakers shouldn’t encounter many problems communicating.

Barcelona’s Political Status

A Catalonian flag and sign expressing support for political prisoners on display in the Gothic Quarter.

Barcelona’s two languages belie a more complex political situation. This 2017 BBC article gives some background on the Catalonian quest for independence, and this February 2019 article covers more recent developments in the political controversy.

Catalonian pride is on full display in Barcelona, and while we saw many Catalonian flags on display throughout the city, the only Spanish flags we saw were on government buildings! Yellow ribbons, which we saw displayed prominently throughout the city, also indicate solidarity and support for Catalonian independence.

Food

There are lots of good restaurants in Barcelona, and specific dishes stood out to us more than any specific restaurant. Make sure you try paella, churros and chocolate, and tapas. Tapas is more a style of eating than a specific dish–the group orders several smaller plates, allowing everyone to try a little of everything. My favorite dish was probably patatas bravas, potatos with cheese sauce.

Tipping is not expected like in the US, and if you do want to leave a tip, amounts are generally less than in the US (more like 5-10%).

Lodging

We stayed in a flat/apartment rented through AirBnB. We had four bedrooms, a kitchen, and even a washer and dryer, which was really nice. We were able to do things like buy groceries for breakfast and some other meals and had a good amount of space for seven people. Overall we had no problems with our AirBnB, but there are a couple things to note:

  • Our host charged a tourist tax when we arrived. I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was a few Euros per person. We had not been warned of this and paid in cash then (we weren’t going to see the host again before leaving). I don’t think this was a scam or anything based on what we knew of other people’s experiences, but we didn’t know about it beforehand.
  • Make sure you lock your apartment! Our local hosts emphasized the importance of doing this and said thieves know which apartments are rented out to tourists and may therefore be easier prey.

After the trip, I learned that AirBnBs are a bit controversial (as is the rise of tourism in general) in Barcelona. Here are two newspaper articles (one in English and one in Spanish) that explain the controversy. They’re worth reading while planning a trip. Our lodging was arranged for us, and I don’t know what the hotel market is like.

What to wear

We visited in early-mid March, and the temperature was generally in the upper 50s-60s. The weather was similar at the end of the school year in Chicago, and by that point I defiantly wore sandals and shorter dresses anyway (honestly I would go outside, and it would genuinely feel warmer than I expected), but I wouldn’t recommend doing that in Barcelona! I wore jeans and a mix of short sleeve and long sleeve shirts during the week but always kept a jacket handy. I wore close toed shoes–you won’t see anyone wearing sandals at that time of year. I saw some people wearing fairly heavy coats, which didn’t feel necessary to me, but then they hadn’t experienced -50 F windchills like I had!

Safety

I heard a lot about pick pocketing in Barcelona before the trip–the city is notorious for thieves. Fortunately no one in our group had any problems. Still, visitors should take this risk seriously. Don’t carry anything more than the essentials (I didn’t take any money or cards out with me since I was with a group), and keep your bag in front of you. Don’t leave your cell phone out on the table in a restaurant or cafe either! We don’t think twice about doing this in the US, but our local hosts repeatedly warned us against doing this. Always keep a close eye (and hand) on your belongings.

That said, we always felt safe in the city, and as far as I know there aren’t particularly high rates of violent crime. This shouldn’t be a deterrent from visiting, but it’s something visitors should be aware of.

Attractions

Barcelona has beaches as well, but in early March it was too cold to do anything more than walk along the waterfront!

With this post I wanted to give more of an overview of Barcelona and the factors that go into planning a trip and ensuring a good experience so that you’re free to enjoy exploring the city. For more detailed descriptions of what to do in Barcelona, check out these posts.

The Cathedral and Gothic Quarter

Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is a beautiful city, so enjoy your visit!

Do you have any tips to add?


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