|View of Barcelona from El Turó de la Rovira, a civil war gun emplacement on a hill near Park Güell. Photograph: Dosfotos /Design Pics/Getty Images/Axiom RM|
Savour the Catalan capital by avoiding the pricey and the touristy in favour of favourite local hangouts, from outdoor cinema to great beaches and vermut bars
Take in the view
Barcelona street life is irresistible, but sometimes you want to rise above the crowds. A ride in the cable car across the harbour is great but expensive (single ticket €11). You’ll get an even better view from the cocktail bar at the top of the waterfront W hotel. You do not even need to have a (pricey) drink, but the people-watching makes it worth it. I think the best view in Barcelona is also probably its least well known. El Turó de la Rovira (free) is a civil war gun emplacement on a hill near Park Güell and once you’ve recovered from the climb you can look out across the city to the sea, up the coast towards France and back to the Pyrenees. The rooftop tour of the beautiful church of Santa Maria del Marcosts €8 but gives you a fascinating insight into its construction and a unique view across the rooftops of the tightly packed streets of the Born district.
Catalan vermut, a fortified wine spiced with herbs, is vermouth’s down-and-dirty cousin. It fell out of fashion 50 years ago but is now making a remarkable comeback and vermuterías are some of the city’s trendiest drinking spots (even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame have opened one: Bodega 1900). Vermut was traditionally drunk after mass and before a late Sunday lunch but it took the revival to add that extra ingredient for a supremely relaxed weekend afternoon - free live music, and so vermuts musicals were invented. You’ll find them all over town on Sundays – and often Saturdays – but the district of Poble Sec, a 10-minute walk from the Ramblas, with its mix of old-fashioned drinking holes and fashionable hangouts should see you right.
Gran Bodega Saltó is the grandaddy of vermuts musicals. The crowd watching the acoustic performers often spills out from its kitsch interior on to the street. Free, but a donation of a bottle of olive oil for a charity helping the poor locally is requested – there’s a supermarket nearby. Try also vermut and DJs at Olivia Vermutería and Bar Rufián. Poble Sec’s raucous festival runs from 18-26 July if you need another excuse to visit the barrio.
The street art scene
The still-gritty Raval district, just off the Ramblas, is the colourful hub of the city’s urban culture. Any available surface is fair game for anything from stickers to stencils and flyers to murals. You’ll find plenty of examples just by wandering the streets or join a tour such as the highly-rated Barcelona Street Style Tour (free, donation requested). Sunday is a good day to explore because shop shutters, the canvas for many an enthusiastic artist, are down. The former industrial barrio of Poblenou, just beyond Port Olímpic, is another hotspot. Its innumerable warehouses are fast being turned into fashionable lofts but there are still lots of unloved buildings to go at. For the last couple of years it’s been the setting for Ús Barcelona (see a video of the 2015 event at vimeo.com), where a whole street, including parked cars, is transformed by artists over a weekend in May. Food vans, DJs and bands add to the fun.
New five-star hotels pop up in Barcelona with alarming regularity. But there are still plenty of great choices even if you’re not Pippa Middleton. The Praktik chain of hotels is fab. Simple, affordable rooms in wonderful locations, with a bit of glamour thrown in. Its latest, Praktik Vinoteca (doubles from €79, room-only), has a reception hall lined with thousands of bottles of wine, all for sale. Free tastings are held on the pretty terrace and bodega tours are organised. It’s in the Eixample area, minutes from the posh shops on Passeig de Gràcia and some of Gaudí’s most famous buildings. Newly opened Teatro hostel in Poble-sec (dorm beds from €13) is good fun. It’s stuffed full of theatrical props and fabrics, the dorms are comfortable and the highly-experienced owner really knows how to look after travellers.
Open-air cinema is a summer tradition in the city. The screenings on Montjuïc hill(until 7 August, tickets from €6), in the shadow of the castle, are now in their 13th year. The programme is always a crowd-pleaser and this year includes The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs and Moulin Rouge (all subtitled into Spanish). But you don’t have to schlep all the way up the hill to get your film fix this year.Cinema Lliure a la Platja is on the beach, runs until 16 August and is free. Its programme is more eclectic but looks fascinating. Foreign films are subtitled into Spanish; Spanish films have English subtitles. If you don’t want sand in your popcorn, then films from Mecal – the International Festival of Short Films and Animation of Barcelona – will be screened outdoors all summer at Poble Espanyol(€6.50) and on the rooftop of the Hotel Silken Diagonal (free).
Designer chic and cheap
The stunning new Museu del Disseny (€5) puts on one site several museums that had been spread across the city. A whole floor is devoted to its fashion collection, giving you an idea of what the Kardashians of the 18th and 19th centuries would have been wearing. You’ll also find floors of examples of textiles, decorative arts, product design and graphic art. The city council is pouring investment into this part of town, Glòries. One of Barcelona’s most interesting, eclectic and downright bizarre markets, Encants (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday 9am-8pm), is in a fabulous, new semi-enclosed building. Browse stalls selling everything from antique mirrors and obscure garden tools to boxes of vinyl records and fake-fur jackets under a spectacular giant copper-coloured reflective roof. There’s a tempting set of food stands on the top floor where you can sit and wonder what to do with that stuffed bear you’ve just bought.
Barcelona’s not a city of big parks: blame the medieval walls that kept people crammed together, and then developers in the 19th century who screwed with the open areas planned for the new town, the Eixample. So grab a bit of space when you can. Ciutadella park, just beyond the Born district, has plenty of grass, shade, spectacular fountains and some prime examples of modernisme buildings. A little known green, yellow, orange, pink and red gem is the Parc de Cervantesrose garden (free) in Pedralbes, which has nearly 250 varieties and lots of quiet corners for lounging. Parc de Laberint (free), once the estate of an aristo, is the city’s oldest garden, with waterfalls, streams, canals and ponds. But the clue to its big appeal lies in its name: a beautiful maze of two-metre-high hedges. Can you find “love”, a statue of Cupid, at its heart?
Royale with queso
Food trends sweep through Barcelona faster than a pickpocket down the Ramblas. And often they’re just as welcome. Burgers are big, very big but not in a “supersize me” sort of way. I like Sagàs on the edge of the Born. It has a more seriously foodie place (Els Casals) towards the Pyrenees but here it’s kept simple and delicious, using the meat produced there. A burger’s about €8 but worth every penny. Bacoa is a small chain dedicated to all things griddled and stuck between pieces of bread. Kiosko (Avenida del Marquès de l’Argentera) in the Born is my favourite – expect to pay about €6. Timesburg (burger around €6) in Poblenou is as trendy as its postcode but worth the trek. For more good-value food, that’s a bit more traditional, read my recent guide to menús del día (set lunches).
Famously, the Barcelonins only discovered the beach after the 1992 Olympics, but long days on the platja are now an essential part of summer. It pays to choose your bit of beach with care. As with most of Catalan life there’s a strict, unspoken system – try jumping the queue at the chicken and rabbit stand in the market to test this. So, each stretch of sand has its own character: the beach in the shadow of the W hotel has an unofficial nudist area; Barceloneta is always noisy and crowded, with the young (taking selfies) and the old (playing dominoes); Mar Bella is popular with gays and lesbians, and has an official nudist part; families like the slightly less busy Nova Icària. There’s a massive choice of beach bars and restaurants all along here, too.
Travel like a local
Tourists can’t use the city’s community bike scheme (cycle hire firms threw a wobbly at the threat to their profits) and haring around on a Segway scaring grannies and small dogs won’t win you any friends. Thankfully Barcelona’s public transport system puts many a city to shame. A single ticket costs €2.15 but only aguiri (foreigner) does that. A T10 ticket costs €9.95 and gets you 10 journeys on the metro, bus, tram and local train within zone 1 (pretty much anywhere 99% of tourists would venture). Do the math! It can be shared by different people, lasts up to a year and can be picked up at metro stations. It is also available at the airport train station making the journey into town (stops at Sants and Passeig de Gràcia stations) an absolute steal (a single ticket is €4.10). The T10 can be used on more than one type of transport and all count as a single journey as long as your journey is less than 75 minutes. So you can hop across town by tube, bus and tram for less than a euro.