From Gaudi to Jordi, soccer to fashion, Barcelona is on many a bucket list. The stylish city packs a hefty sightseeing punch so, grab your camera, slip on a pair of comfy shoes and head underground. The metro system is as user-friendly as our own MTR – pick up a T10 ticket (10 journeys) and make a beeline for Plaça de Catalonia. After admiring the neoclassical statues, feeding the pigeons and buying match tickets at the tourist office, pause for coffee and a spot of people watching at local landmark Café Zurich. As soon as the caffeine kicks in, set off along Las Ramblas, the broad pedestrianised boulevard that serves as ground zero for tourists.
Jugglers, street artists and souvenir kiosks compete for your attention and the tree-lined thoroughfare is home to countless cafés and eateries. Las Ramblas is never more crowded than on Sant Jordi Day, each April, when couples exchange gifts – a rose for the women and a book for the men (guys here still seem to prefer that to a computer game). Sweethearts browse the stalls in search of the perfect present, distinguished authors sign copies of their books and the heady smell of roses fills the air.
Talking of fragrant surroundings, enlightened local authorities are addressing air and noise pollution with an initiative designed to confine heavy vehicular traffic to large perimeter roads. The scheme, known as superblocks, will transform side streets into vehicle-restricted “citizen spaces”, with an emphasis on leisure, cultural and community activities.
You don’t need a background in town planning or architecture to appreciate the distinctive creations of Antoni Gaudi. Examples of his quirky work can be found across the city and guided tours are popular, although many visitors prefer to organise their own itineraries. Another iconic structure that draws the crowds is Camp Nou Stadium. The home of FC Barcelona transcends mere sporting endeavour; Catalan identity, civil-war grievances as well as a yearning for independence are bound up in the fortunes of the team. Remember: Barça refers only to the football club; the city itself is known locally as Barna.
After witnessing yet another victory for Messi and Co – perhaps in El Clásico, against arch rivals Real Madrid – hop on a shuttle bus to the designer outlet village at La Roca, 40 minutes away. Much of the stock is “last season” or end-of-line, but no one rummaging through the rails seems to mind. Bagging a bargain is a breeze as items are discounted by up to 60 per cent and, who knows, you may soon be able to pay for your purchases with Barcelona’s new “social currency”, due to be rolled out next year. Spain’s central bank has described the parallel monetary system as both impossible and undesirable, which should ensure Catalans embrace it with gusto.
Being on many a bucket list is not without its problems. Barcelona’s 1.6 million inhabitants were overwhelmed by almost nine million visitors last year. The tourist-clogged Ciutat Vella district has lost 13,000 residents in eight years; forced out by escalating rents and excessive noise, amid claims that tourism has become a bigger problem for the city than poverty. In a delicate balancing act, the needs of locals who make a living catering to holidaymakers has to be weighed against the wishes of those for whom tourism brings neither prosperity nor benefits. A proposal by the mayor to introduce a cap on the number of visitors is likely to further polarise opinion.
By applying a theoretical model known as Doxey’s Irridex (“irritation index”), scholars are able to measure how community attitudes towards tourists change over time. What begins as a mutually beneficial exchange for both host and traveller invariably degenerates as the number of visitors increases. (Look no further than Tsim Sha Tsui for evidence.) In Barcelona’s case, resentment and hostility have become commonplace. One consequence of this antagonism is a recent rule banning tour groups of more than 15 from entering Boqueria Market during peak hours. Barcelonés complain they’re unable to do their shopping in the congested venue and stallholders resent being photographed dozens of times a day.
Las Ramblas is certainly one of Barna’s focal points but don’t expect to see many residents shopping here for daily provisions. Most outlets are unashamedly aimed at enticing tourists to part with their euros. After dusk, you’re more likely to encounter prostitutes than local families taking a leisurely passeig, or evening stroll. The Catalan capital has well-documented problems with pickpockets and sex workers are definitely worth keeping an eye on, so to speak. If a sweet-talking siren gropes you on Las Ramblas, it’s going to cost you. Probably a mobile phone or wallet.
The metro is the most efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to get around but not all the platforms and public spaces are air conditioned and, in the summer, they can be extremely hot, humid and crowded. And as a pollution-lowering initiative, the superblock project should be applauded, but with locals abandoning the city in droves, how many will still be living in the neighbourhoods earmarked for inclusion by the time the scheme is implemented?
If you buy your match tickets from the tourist office, you’ll end up in the soulless section of the Camp Nou Stadium, reserved for curious sightseers who all had the same idea as you. Instead of the rabid Barça faithful, you’ll be surrounded by holidaymakers who spend most of the game taking selfies and asking which team is which. If, for some reason, you can’t snag a ticket; there’s always Gaudi’s masterpiece. The Sagrada Familia is a must-see but, be warned: scaffolding will spoil your photos and the three-hour wait to get in would test the patience of a saint. The church should be finished in 2026, if you don’t mind hanging around.
Bullfighting, which was banned throughout Catalonia in 2010, may be about to make a comeback. In a move that has as much to do with politics as sport, the Constitutional Court in Madrid has repealed the ban on the grounds that bullfighting represents “common cultural heritage” and should thus be preserved. Wonder if the bulls have been consulted.