I’ve been going to Barcelona for a long time – I backpacked in (and out again very quickly) in 1986 and later wrote the first Rough Guide to the city in 1992 (and another 8 editions after that). The Olympics in that year helped transform Barcelona from a fairly grotty port to a vibrant Mediterranean city and, if it lost a bit of soul along the way, it gained plenty in the way of sheer darned attractiveness to visitors.
Now, of course, it’s one of Europe’s top city-break destinations, with more boutique hotels, designer bars, hot chefs and high-end fashion outlets than you can shake a stick at. But there’s still plenty to do for free – here are five top tips for getting the best out of Barcelona on a zero budget.
Go to the market
The Boqueria on the Ramblas is the most famous market in Barcelona (probably in Spain) and I recommend everyone goes – it’s a great free show, full of the most amazing produce stalls. But it’s not the only show in town. Each Barcelona neighbourhood has its own market and they all have a distinct character (and far fewer tourists than the Boqueria). I like the designer-ish Mercat Santa Caterina, and also the beautifully restored Mercat de la Llibertat in uptown Grácia. For flowers and plants it’s the Mercat de la Concepció every time.
You did ‘Eat’, now it’s ‘Pray’
They started charging to see the interior of the mighty Gothic cathedral known as the Sé, though you can still get in for free at certain times. But there’s another church over in the neighbourhood of La Ribera that’s every bit its equal – Santa María del Mar. It’s a stunning, stripped-down space (much of it was trashed during the Civil War) with gorgeous stained glass, while outside you’re right in the heart of a buzzing bar and boutique zone.
Picasso 0 Miró 1
You don’t have to go to the Picasso museum – though I know you think you should. But it’ll be packed, it’s expensive and, whisper it gently, there’s no real must-see work in there. Make Miró your man instead – that’s Joan Miró, the great Catalan artist who (unlike Picasso) was born in the city. His museum, the Fundació Joan Miró, is another pricey ticket, but you can see Miró works for free at various places across town, including the pavement mosaic halfway down the Ramblas (Plaça de la Boqueria) and the towering statue in the Parc Joan Miró, not far from Sants train station.
This is a city with some of the most exciting architecture the world has ever seen, especially from the modernista – or Catalan Art Nouveau – period of the late 19th century. That means Gaudí, of course, and the Sagrada Família (of which you can see a lot from the outside, by the way), but also a whole host of other Catalan architects. The flagship buildings all have entry fees, but a walk down the main street of Passeig de Gràcia shows you the exteriors of some extraordinary buildings. My favourite? Gaudí’s La Pedrera – simply stunning, and with a destination café in the building that’s open to the general public.
Stretch your legs
The one thing I do every time I go to Barcelona is to go for a long walk. This is a fabulously walkable city, despite its size, with – for example – a five-kilometre beach front and large green spaces right in its heart. Take a stroll from the top of the Ramblas down to the port, hang a left at the Columbus statue along the waterfront and just keep going – past the fish restaurants in Barceloneta, through the Olympic port and on to the city beaches so loved by the locals. Or head the other way, from the top of the Ramblas, up along Passeig de Gràcia (past that amazing architecture) and into the village-y neighbourhood of Gràcia, with its small squares and hip restaurants. Something a bit more offbeat? Walk from Plaça d’Espanya, up the steps and escalators to the terrace in front of the national art museum, MNAC, for a great city view; then wind down into the old working-class neighbourhood of Poble Sec. One thing’s for sure – you’ll spot something new every time.