Imagine if someone dropped Manhattan, arguably America's city-est city, right on top of San Diego, arguably one of America's beachiest cities. The result would be a vast improvement, and I think most locals—whose homes and businesses weren't instantly crushed—would likely agree. And that unique combination of coast and cosmopolitanism is the real appeal of Barcelona Spain.
Barcelona Spain is the best of both worlds.
As a tourist destination, Barcelona Spain provides all the amenities of a modern, major city like New York City, including its cool museums, edgy art galleries, fancy restaurants, trendy bars, MDMA-addled rave parties, and crack-addicted bridge trolls selling their bodies for five euros.
This Southern European hotspot offers you all those same cool museums, edgy art galleries, fancy restaurants, trendy bars, and MDMA-addled rave parties, but with crack-addicted beach bums selling their bodies for only four euros—you'd be surprised how quickly those savings add up.
Barcelona is one of the few major cities that's built right on a beach.
Sadly, major cities situated on sunny beaches aren't as common as they should be. In fact, there's really only Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Nice, Miami, Tel Aviv, and a few others. (Sure, you could take the NYC subway to the beach at Coney Island, but then you're at Coney Island, which brings up a lot of other questions about your life choices.)
Yet even without its Big City cred, Barcelona could still be a famous beach-town on the merits of its waterfront alone. Granted, it's no La Concha, San Sebastián and lacks the powder-white sand of Clearwater, Florida, but at least Barcelona's beach isn't some rocky-ass excuse for a beach like the ones in California or Maine—you shouldn't need a freakin' wetsuit to get in the water, brah!
No, Barcelona's inviting beach is long and wide, extending far out into warm Mediterranean waters, all bathed in bright sunshine. Only the fetid, corporeal forms of sun-blistered tourists mar the otherwise beautiful scene.
I didn't call Barcelona a European hot-spot for nothing.
We were both fully aware of Barcelona's location relative to the equator, yet instead of dressing for a day at the beach—i.e., lounging in designer swimwear under a cabana chugging chilled Estrella Galicia—we went to the beach wearing long pants because we're f@#$%ing stupid.
Rather than stripping down to our skivvies and risking public indecency charges, we rented bicycles and rode up and down the beach promenade for 45 minutes.
We figured the breeze off the sea would prevent us from getting too sweaty, but we were wrong—very, very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that we had to ultimately duck into a fish restaurant to avoid dying of Sweaty Legs Syndrome, which I'm fairly confident is a legit medical condition.
The best way to travel to Barcelona is really fast.
Having had good luck with European trains in the past, we booked seats on the Alta Velocidad Española, Spain's high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona. First opened in 2008, the train line is capable of speeds up to 350 km/h (217 mph) which is pretty fast for a passenger vehicle that doesn't have a shiny Buggatti Veyron badge stamped on it.
Once we got underway, the speedometer at the front of our rail car indicated a speed of over 300 kilometers per hour, or a very respectable 186 miles per hour. Driving from Madrid to Barcelona—even at Spain's legal maximum of 75 mph—would've taken at least five hours, assuming everyone else was home and asleep.
Instead, we traveled the almost 400-mile distance in two and a half hours, or about the time it would take to get through any airport security line. Considering how clean and pleasant the train was, the entire experience exceeded the company's tagline: “Hey, it's better than one of those budget European airlines.”
Like Schrödinger's cat, Barcelona Spain exists simultaneously in two different states.
Not everyone who lives in Barcelona Spain considers themselves Spanish. Nor do they even consider themselves “living in Spain.” In these people's minds, they're Catalans. Never heard of 'em? Maybe that's because they're an autonomous community located in the northeastern corner of—wait for it—Spain (it's over near Barcelona).
Certainly, I get that many Catalans want to be their own independent state like the Vatican or DisneyWorld®, but is independence worth all the hassles of self-government? Look at all the problems the United States is having. We've had almost 250 years of practice, and we're still not any good at it.
Despite oft-shouted Catalan claims to the contrary, most people consider Barcelona to be Spain's capital and its second-most populated municipality. Hell, Barcelona is the fifth-most populous urban area in the whole European Union. So you know the place is popular, and with lots of good reasons.
Full disclosure: This wasn't my first trip to Barcelona Spain.
I'd been to Barcelona before on a business trip in 2004, fully ensconced within an upscale, English-speaking bubble created by the Spanish production company that my advertising agency had hired to shoot a TV commercial there.
It was the first time I realized that not everyone had to—or even wanted to—learn English. I was taken aback when questions to the locals were met with quizzical looks and, more confusingly, Spanish responses.
They were joshing me, I assumed, so I repeated my question—in English again, only louder and more slowly—until it was made clear to me that other countries have their own distinct culture, heritage, and shockingly profane curse words.
Overall, not much has changed in Barcelona since then, but the city certainly looked a lot better through the light-gathering windows of the stylish Omm Hotel where I stayed the first time. Extensions placed in front of its windows capture sunlight and transform the hotel's 91 rooms into a peaceful haven. Unfortunately, the hotel's minimalist approach to decor belayed its maximalist approach to pricing.
A nice hotel in Barcelona for those not on an expense account.
For this non-business trip, we booked the much more reasonably priced, but far more hideously named, Grums Hotel & Spa. Our room was very clean, comfortable, but clearly designed for differently abled folks. Still, it was the only hotel room we had in Spain where pulling two twin-size beds together wasn't considered equivalent to a queen-size bed. So you know, points for that, I guess.
We chose the Grums Hotel & Spa mostly because it was located at the foot of Montjuic Hill overlooking the harbor. That made it a conveniently short walk to the Museu Maritim de Barcelona (where, ironically, we never went), and only a slightly longer walk to the city's amazing beach (where, unironically, we went often).
When we weren't at the beach regretting our clothing choices, we spent our time seeing other parts of the city, like Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. It was only a sweltering 30-minute stroll away.
Wearing black is optional when visiting the Gothic Quarter.
The city's gothic quarter (or Barri Gòtic) is the center of Medieval Barcelona, a maze of narrow streets and squares which encompasses the oldest parts of the city. It's not to be confused with Medieval Times, a fake castle encompassing a former TGI Fridays. Medieval Barcelona (or, Barcino, as it was called then) is surrounded by the now-crumbling remains of the city's 1.5 kilometer-long Roman Wall which dates back to ~16BC, when Italians first got into the construction business.
Like most other gothic quarters in Europe, this one oozes Ye Olde World charm. And by “Ye Olde World” I mean, don't try to drive your rental car through its narrow-ass streets.
The medieval Barri Gòtic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small streets opening out into squares like Plaça Reial, so watch out for pedestrians, joggers, and SmartCars.
Plaça Reial (or Royal Plaza) is an attractive, neoclassical square in the middle of Barri Gòtic. Beneath its large colonnade, you'll find lots of cafés, bars, and restaurants with outdoor seating, and some of the city's most famous streetlamps.
The streetlamps were the first project given to an up-and-coming young architect who would one day make Barcelona so popular that even we would visit.
La Rambla is Spanish for “Street of Many Tourists.”
Barcelona's world-famous “La Rambla” is a tree-lined, promenade stretching for nearly a mile through the heart of the city. Like Plaça Reial, this iconic asphalt swath is lined with restaurants, bars, and cafés. But mostly, it's lined with out-of-shape tourists looking for someplace to rest after walking for nearly a mile.
Sitting down anywhere along La Rambla is a pricey proposition because you have to order from one of those restaurants, bars, and cafés in order to occupy a seat.
And with so many tourists—far more than I remember from the last time I was here—the attraction of people-watching on La Rambla is now really more like tourist-watching. Visiting La Rambla is almost pointless now unless you like watching exhausted tourists balk at high prices.
Worse, the street's popularity with tourists has unfortunately drawn the attention of pickpockets and, albeit less unfortunately, the attention of Spanish prostitutes…um, or so I'm told.
Local Catholics trick gullible tourists into doing slave labor.
Most of the world's colossal stone-based churches were built pre-1900s, so it's somewhat unusual to find one still being constructed today. It's especially surprising to the workmen and naive tourists who've been building it for a hundred years. They probably assumed they'd be finished by now.
Begun in 1882, “Sagrada Família” (aka, “Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family”) is the trippiest work-in-progress Roman Catholic church on the planet. Or any other denomination, really. Its bizarro-world architecture was so far ahead of its time that the church was designed with a built-in gift shop and pre-wired for Ethernet (only Cat2, disappointingly).
From the outside, the Sagrada Família church resembles something straight out of Walt Disney's nightmares, with creepy, organic-looking spires and weird carvings that only a crazy person would dream up. Had the church been built in a less sunny locale like, say, Portland, this sacrilegious-looking structure would've been burned to the ground long ago.
On the inside, things were less disturbing and more pre-postmodern. The church's nave looks like a stone forest, with soaring arches that resemble the canopies of trees. For an extra fee, they will let you ascend the steps inside the church spires to get a great view of Barcelona Spain.
Barcelona's Sagrada Família was designed by a full-on crazy Catalan.
The church's brilliantly eccentric architect, Antoni Gaudí, was a visionary genius capable of seeing the future but, sadly, not oncoming traffic. In 1926, while strolling to a different church, Gaudí got hit by a street tram. His injuries weren't fatal, but—because the locals mistook him for a dirty hobo who was unworthy of emergency medical care—he died in the street where he lay.
Antoni Gaudí never got to see his humongous church completed. But, realistically, he never really stood a chance considering the laughably slow pace the place was, and still is, being built.
In fact, the Sagrada Família church won't be finished until 2026 at the earliest. That's 100 years after his death and more than 140 years after ground was first broken. Gaudí once quipped that his client—presumably, the Catholic god—was “in no hurry” to see the church completed. But that fact didn't prevent Gaudí from being called up to heaven early to give a progress report.
Gaudí's so-called “Block of Discontent” is proof that he likely did a lot of drugs.
I'm just going to let these photos of Gaudí's many insane buildings in this one Barcelona block prove my point.
Before taking Jehovah on as a client, Gaudí did one last secular job.
Gaudí's final building design is also one of his most famous: Casa Milà (aka “La Pedrera.”) This odd-looking stone apartment building was commissioned in 1906 by some rich folks who wanted to live on the main floor and rent out the remaining apartments to people with equally weird sensibilities.
To create the building's wacky façade, large stone slabs were first attached to a metal structure. Afterwards, the stone was carved into flowing shapes while in position. This “organic” architecture utilizes absolutely no right angles, much like the poorly constructed condo I once owned in California.
I'd recommend that you see the interior of Casa Milà during the day. I saw it at night, and the memories still haunt my dreams. Gaudí designed Casa Milà exclusively with natural shapes, so the place feels like being inside a gigantic squid-monster. Or onboard Captain Nemo's “Nautilus.”
The center of this modernistic building is a circular courtyard that's open to one very strange roof. A creepy set of stairs winds around the walls and up to the numerous apartments on all sides. In dim lighting, Casa Milà's unfamiliar shapes cast unfamiliar and startling shadows in your peripheral vision. The result of which is to make you look for an apartment in any other part of town.
The building's fantastical architecture is a cross between Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí. I'm not sure what's in the water over there in Spain—hallucinogens would be my guess—but the country produces some surprisingly dark and freaky-ass “art” for being such a sunny place.
What to eat in Barcelona Spain. (Pro-tip: Try the food.)
Montaditos are Spain's answer to beer nuts and buffalo wings. They're bite-sized, open-faced sandwiches that Spanish chefs make from whatever they have in their refrigerator. Montaditos are served as appetizers at cocktail parties, or as entrees at very overpriced restaurants. We ate tons of them as well as larger sandwiches called pintxos or pincho, a Basque word for “spike,” nee toothpick.
Several of the sandwiches we had came from one of Anthony Bourdain's favorite restaurants, a place called, “Quimet y Quimet.” [ERROR: NO TRANSLATION FOUND] This “restaurant” is a single room, maybe 10′ x 12′, with high ceilings and three walls lined with wine bottles.
Its fourth wall, the one facing the street, was non-existent, yet still had a door for some reason. You can enter through the door, or just walk in where a wall is probably supposed to be.
When you arrive, don't wait for a maître d' to find you a seat—there is none. Instead, just push forward into the mass of patrons already munching and milling about, working your way towards the counter. Once you're close enough, yell your order to the owner behind the counter like he's a bartender or a Spanish sushi chef.
He'll add your order to his mental queue, eventually make it, and then announce its readiness to pick up. Fight your way back through the crowd to the counter and retrieve it.
When you're done eating and want to pay, you simply return to the counter where the owner/chef/bartender guy will somehow—without any notes or receipt—remember you and your exact order—out of the hundreds he's done that day—and tell you how much you owe.
You'll likely feel bad about your own memory skills afterwards, and wonder if you should ask your doctor if Adderall® is right for you.
What else you need to know about eating in Barcelona Spain.
The insane people of Barcelona call hot dogs, “sausages.” You need to know that, you need to understand that—because it will matter when you order breakfast. Also, bacon is never served crispy in Barcelona.
They seem to think that soggy bacon is tolerable or even legal, but they are wrong. The only way to guarantee that you get crispy bacon is by slipping the waiter twenty Euros and saying this Catalan phrase, “Si us plau, feu que la cansalada sigui cruixent.”
Should you visit Barcelona Spain, or just quit your job and move there?
That's a really good question, and one that lots of people have no doubt asked themselves every waking day. Sure, ditching your miserable existence in America for a life-changing adventure in Barcelona sounds exciting. But some cities are such a hassle to live in day-to-day, that you'd be better off just visiting long enough to get the elective surgery you can't afford in the 'States.
For me personally, Barcelona Spain is one of the few foreign cities to which I could see myself moving. Language issues aside, the place has everything I look for in a home-base: warm, sunny weather, a vibrant downtown, and a nearby beach. In fact, the only thing it's missing is Portugal's unbelievably affordable cost-of-living.