Near-perfect weather year-round, friendly locals with seemingly no worries, iconic food and culture—it’s a no-brainer why Barcelona had been a bucket-list destination for years, but I was overwhelmed by the number of tips, tricks, and recommendations breathlessly bestowed upon me by both travel professionals and BFFs. These inevitably yielded to an onslaught of familiar travel questions: Where do I eat first among all of the restaurants, from boundary-pushing and Michelin-rated to traditional hidden gems? What part of town do I stay in? Which museums are worth a visit? Am I going to have time to see it all? As someone with a neurotic tendency to meticulously plan detailed itineraries as far in advance as possible, I wanted to make sure I was guaranteeing an exciting and, perhaps most important, well-rounded trip. Here are my biggest takeaways, which will certainly come in handy for anyone heading to the popular Spanish city for the first time.
1. Consider ditching a hotel for an apartment
If you’re hoping to avoid the stuffiness or sterility of an expensive hotel and want to live life like a local, an apartment is going to be your best bet. We opted for a loft in Barcelona’s bustling, though central Gothic Quarter and couldn’t have been happier with our decision. The Plum Guide, which graciously hosted us for a couple days, has become an authority for European vacation rentals, holiday homes, and short-term lets. Their easy-to-navigate site showcases properties that have been personally verified by “home critics” and presented in a way that mirrors an upscale and exclusive matchmaking service like Raya. While there isn’t a swipe left or right option, I did feel like I was picking a perfect match for a hot first date. And that hot first date did NOT disappoint. The space was stunning, accented by authentically Spanish touches like wooden ceiling beams and terracotta floors that led to a mini, albeit adorable balcony. You truly can have the comforts of a home while you’re away from home and we were grateful to have found this homey respite after long days of walking, drinking, and eating entirely too much street-side gelato.
2. Eat tapas anywhere. Seriously…
Many restaurants will tout their tapas or pintxos (small snacks on toothpicks in bars) as “the best in Barcelona,” but it’s harder to find crappy food than amazing food, so feel free to stumble into any tapas bar along your route, stuff your face with plates of patatas bravas, jamón ibérico, and gambas al ajillo, and relish in the best that this Mediterranean metropolis has to offer. A few recommendations to start: quirky La Pepita in Gracia, trendy Vivo Tapas near the Diagonal metro stop, and Ziryab Fusions Tapas Bar in El Born (a perfect lunch before hitting up the Picasso Museum). More likely than not, you won’t be disappointed. And if you are, the plate is usually small and inexpensive. Cue Jay Z’s “On to the Next One.”
3. …but do splurge on one fancy dinner
One restaurant hot ticket (of many) in Barcelona is at the appropriately-named Tickets, an Albert Adrià establishment well-deserving of its Michelin star. We experienced 20-plus courses of Catalonian bliss, only to be brought into a Willy Wonka-esque dessert bar with more dishes to savor. The service was impeccable, the drinks were strong, and the standout bites include a deconstructed olive-S, a sour and oddly frozen carrot crisp, and nearly everything that is served with bread (which was wrapped in ham and used as a vessel for sinfully rich truffle cream with cheese). Your credit card will cry as it’s swiped, but the once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience is absolutely worth the indulgence.
4. Book a flamenco show
Attending a flamenco show felt like an almost-too-touristy activity to do, but would have been one of our biggest regrets, had we not. The music, dancing, and overall passion was a delicious slice of culture that set the tone for our entire trip. My recommendation is Palau Dalmases, though there are many other historical venues that will certainly satisfy a craving to clap your hands and shimmy what your mama gave you.
5. Go to a neighboring island that isn’t Ibiza
It may be a tourist’s instinct to venture to Ibiza for a more tropical Spanish escape, and while the island certainly is beautiful, it’s not the only one that’s less than an hour plane ride away. We chose Mallorca as a weekend getaway, which offered a picturesque blend of mountains, oceans, and James Bond movie-worthy coves. While Palma (the capital) is bustling with people from all over the world, I implore travelers to reside in a less-populated area like Alcúdia, home to our favorite hotel of the trip: Hotel Can Mostatxtins, which kindly hosted us for a few days to experience the property. The boutique beauty sits pretty among the historical town’s rustic streets, a modern beacon of luxury with a fabulous restaurant, spacious and airy rooms, and a famous dip pool housed in a cave (Speedos encouraged). It also is central to some of the island’s most gorgeous east coast beaches, making it a conveniently short drive to aquatic treasures and oceanside food options. Perhaps most appealing of all was Hotel Can Mostatxtin’s friendly and accommodating staff who provided us with some of our favorite dining, shopping (a nearby gift shop with the most scrumptious locally-grown olives), and excursion recommendations from the entire vacation. Frankly, a trip back to the majestic island and this wonderfully charming boutique hotel is worth the airfare alone.
6. Order wine with every meal
But make sure it’s a Spanish varietal like a leathery and cherry-forward tempranillo or a dry and bubbly cava (Spain’s version of sparkling) for a more authentic experience. It’s not abnormal to see locals enjoy a glass or two over lunch on a weekday, which made me seriously question what I am doing with my life and why America doesn’t follow suit. #priorities
7. Visit La Sagrada Família around sunset
Sure, the external architecture of Gaudi’s famed chapel is stunning and makes for an A+ Instagram shot, but it’s the stained-glass windows inside that really shine. And they shine more than ever as the sun sets, lighting the white space on fire with an orange and yellow haze that will turn anyone into a believer.
8. Walk everywhere and allow yourself to get lost
The beauty of Spain is that no two streets look alike. Every detail down to the color palettes of the facades, tiles of roofs, and narrowness of cobblestone streets is strikingly different, creating a visual overload that demands the latest iPhone camera. Ubers are also banned, so getting from one side of the city to the other isn’t cheap by taxi. (As if you needed another excuse to gorge on all the paella and churros. Walking will take care of that.)
9. Stay up late and explore the nightlife
We were really impressed with the area’s cocktail scene, with bars like Plata serving cleverly-concocted cocktails that are as fun (the use of props!) as they are delicious (fresh passionfruit!). Bartenders aren’t shy about incorporating the region’s freshest produce, nor do they skimp on alcohol volume like many American dive bars. And while it may be tempting to get a good night’s sleep: Don’t. The city truly comes alive into the wee hours of morning and can be capped with another round of—you guessed it—tapas.
10. Go in with zero expectations
This is easier said than done, but as someone who suffers from wanting to manage every second of a European itinerary, I can assure you that Barcelona will not lend itself nicely to these controlling habits. The city is blissfully chaotic and the best way to experience it is to surrender any preconceived notions of what it means to have a good time and just stereotypically live in the moment. Perception is rarely a reality when it comes to travel, after all, and this is the opportunity to truly let yourself (and all of your annoying habits) go. Wander, drink wine, laugh, and disfruta!
Header image courtesy of Getty Images/Pol Albarrian.