Walk down the Ramblas – Barcelona’s main old town promenade – and you’re presented with one of the greatest free shows in Europe. Musicians, magicians, human statues, flower-sellers, strolling couples, pavement cafés, theatre-goers, jewellery-sellers, portrait-painters, caged birds, newspaper stalls, souvenirs, shoppers, drinkers, backpackers and beggars – it seems like the whole of human life is represented there.
From top to bottom – from Plaça de Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus monument – takes less than half an hour to walk, and packs in more verve, excitement and colour than many cities manage in a year.
But you have to know how to tackle the Ramblas. Even though it’s a fixture on every Barcelona itinerary, not everyone gets the best out of Spain’s most famous street. Here’s how to survive – and thrive – in brilliant Barcelona.
Come when the locals come
The locals love the Ramblas. It’s the heartbeat and emblem of their dynamic city, and for Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca it was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end”. It’s not like London’s Oxford Street, where no self-respecting Londoner would ever set foot – the Ramblas is a true part of Catalan culture.
So you might be wondering where the locals are, as you push your way through the heavy numbers of tourists clogging up the central promenade?
That’s easy – they’ve already been and gone, first thing in the early morning, to buy flowers or have a stand-up espresso on their way to work. They’ll come back in the early evening for a stroll and a chat. And they’ll definitely be back in their cars at around midnight, horns blaring, flags waving, if Barcelona wins a big football game.
Cafés and restaurants – walk on by
Locals may love the Ramblas but few of them would eat and drink there. Those outdoor café tables look inviting, but you’ll pay a small fortune for average food in the company of tons of tourists. You’ll do infinitely better on either side of the Ramblas – literally just a few steps away in the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) or El Raval neighbourhoods.
There are two exceptions.
Café Zurich, right at the top of the Ramblas in Plaça de Catalunya, is a traditional meeting place, with brusque waiters gliding around a burnished wooden interior. It’s good for a breakfast sandwich and a coffee before starting your stroll.
And at the other end of the day, the age-old Café de l’Opera (opposite the Liceu opera house) is just the place for a midnight brandy. Sit inside and soak up the faded gentility and period flavour.
Stand still and enjoy the free show
The famous human statues on the Ramblas elevate the simple act of standing very still into an art form. There are ghosts and gladiators, Simpsons’ characters and centurions, men in boxes, women dressed as fruit, floating flower sellers, skeleton cyclists, talking portraits and adult-sized babies in prams.
And we haven’t even got to the truly weird ones yet. My all-time favourite? The body lying under a pile of rubble on the side of the Ramblas. All you could see was a head, a leg and an arm, while every so often the buried body emitted a plaintive moan. That was it. All day. Genius.
A stand-up glass of cava and some tapas at Bar Pinotxo is a Barcelona tradition, especially early morning with the market traders or late at night when chefs from the surrounding restaurants start to trickle in.
Be sensible – stay safe
The Ramblas once had a very seedy side, but it’s been much cleaned up over the years. I dare say you could still find a whispered offer of “hashish!” if you really tried, and ladies of the night still taunt callow tourists in the lower side streets, but on the whole the Ramblas is a pale imitation of the infamous ‘China Town’ scene of the 193os that at once horrified and fascinated observers like George Orwell.
And if you are enticed into playing cards or dice with a man on the street, however, easy it looks to win, you only have yourself to blame.
Don’t ignore the history
It’s easy to get caught up in the human drama of the street itself, but don’t ignore the history. Hard to believe now, but the Spanish Civil War was played out across the rooftops of the Ramblas – Orwell had to dodge sniper fire here and the lovely Betlem church near the top was burned and sacked inside by the anarchists.
Or there’s the graceful Virreina palace, home to the city’s giant carnival figures which are paraded through the city each year. Or take a tour around the opera house, or duck into the ‘Bosc de les Fades’ grotto bar inside the wax museum, or ride the elevator to the top of the Columbus monument for amazing city views.
One Ramblas visit is never enough, that’s for sure.
Want to read more Barcelona stories?
Check out 5 great free things to do in Barcelona
Malabaras (statues) en las Ramblas by Kom bo, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Ramblas (Barcelona, cycling skeletons) by Joaquin Moreno, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Barcelona by Moyan Brenn, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Spices shop – La Boqueria by marimbajlamesa, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Pinotxo Bar by Yasuke Kawosaki, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Cafe de l’Opera by Daniel Garcia Peris, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
La Rambla Barcelona by Matthieu Marquer, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0