The Best Local Experiences in Barcelona
This guide is all about the best local experiences in Barcelona, how to eat local in Barcelona and what the locals do in Barcelona. A local experience when travelling is always the best experience and the fastest way to get to know a destination. I have been lucky enough to call Barcelona home for the last two years and have fallen in love with the Spanish/Catalan way of life. Come on a journey with me through plazas and vermouth bars, cobbled streets and balconies draped in flags. Barcelona is so much more than Las Ramblas and overpriced cocktails on the beach, let me share with you my local Barcelona.
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My Local Experiences In Barcelona
If we’re going to talk about being local then I feel like I should share with you my backstory and how I ended up in beautiful Barcelona. I’m a travel agent and work in the Travel Industry, so living internationally has always been a huge goal of mine. It was actually through my husband’s work that we were offered the opportunity to live in Barcelona.
Arriving in the city I was awed by the beautiful old buildings and the small cobbled streets. We instantly fell in love with the tapas way of life, ordering small plates and sharing Patatas Bravas or Galician Octopus with rich Spanish oil and bright red paprika. We had some culturally funny moments when we decided to have a late lunch and turned up at 1pm, to still be the only people in the restaurant until 2pm. And when I discovered my first Correfocs I made a common mistake and stood in the front row (I moved pretty quickly when they lit the fireworks).
I’m proudly Australian, but I didn’t move to Spain to recreate a mini Australia. I wanted the real experiences and the chance to do what the locals do in Barcelona. I still have my vegemite for breakfast some mornings, but will also do pan con tomate. We have an Australian Football League (AFL) subscription, but well also head to our local sports bar when Barcelona are playing Real Madrid (great atmosphere). Have a read of my list below and make sure you get to live like a local while visiting Barcelona.
Eat Patatas Bravas
Where to eat local is always an important question while visiting, but you can’t do this unless you also figure out how to eat local. We fell into this knowledge by accident and by lots of taste testing.
Patatas Bravas is one of the best dishes ever invented. If you’ve never had it, I highly recommend getting to your local Spanish restaurant and giving it a try. Patatas Bravas is made with roughly chopped potatoes that are fried to golden perfection (sometimes boiled, fried and baked for the absolute perfect ones). They are then covered with creamy, golden, aioli. In some places, they’ll use mayonnaise instead, but that’s just really weird. Next, there’s the spicy, tomato style sauce. This is always thick, and probably the spiciest thing you’ll find in Spain.
Eat Pan Con Tomate or Pan Amb Tomat
Pan con Tomate is super simple, but when it’s done well, very tasty. It’s definitely a must for a local experience in Barcelona. Usually, it’s on lightly toasted crunchy bread. They then put olive oil (usually Spanish) on it and then tomato and salt and pepper. The most traditional method uses special tomatoes that the Catalans grow for Pan Con Tomato. They cut them in half and then rub the tomato over the bread until nothing is left except for the skin. They’ll then add olive oil, salt, and pepper, and sometimes aioli.
Some Spanish are Catalan, but not all Catalans are Spanish
Catalonia has been a part of Spain for almost 500 years. The Catalans are very proud of being Catalan. You’ll notice all the flags hanging from balconies and the yellow ribbons all over the city. They have a unique sense of humour and a strong sense of community. The neighbourhood where I live is very Catalan and they all greet each other in the street and get together and have street parties for Paella or Calçotadas. During the Franco regime, the Catalans were not allowed to speak their own language and forbidden to call themselves Catalan. Now all restaurants must have a menu in Catalan and it must be taught in schools. They’ll love you if you speak Catalan to them, so it’s a good idea to learn a few phrases when you visit.
Good Day: Bon Dia
Please: Si us Plau
Thank you: Merci
Good Bye: Adéu
Learn to Drink Vermut
If you want a very local experience in Barcelona then you should go for a vermouth, or vermut as it’s said here. Vermouth is an old fashioned drink elsewhere but has surged in popularity in Catalonia. It’s sort of like a fortified wine, but also a martini, it’s hard to explain. What you want to do is meet up with friends on the weekend, usually from midday onwards and sit in plazas or at tiny bars and talk and drink vermut. A lot of places now make their own, and if you find the right bar you can get a glass for less than two euros.
I really enjoy the atmosphere in the bars. It’s very social and fun and relaxed. We’ll meet up with friends and sit in the plazas in summer when it’s cooling down in the evening. Or we’ll buy a bottle of homemade vermut from our local bar and then drink on our terrace as the sun sets.
Dance in the Fire Runs
The Catalan culture has a few strange traditions, and one of the local experiences in Barcelona is the Correfoc (Fire Run). It’s definitely quite the event. So what is a Correfoc? It is literally a fire run. The participants hold large sticks or statues with many fireworks protruding from them. They’re then lit and they dance around showering the spectators in sparks. The crowd will either dance in the sparks (locals) or run away (usually the unsuspecting visitors). Correfoc is considered family fun and you will see parents with their children getting into the experience (the children are always well protected with goggles and clothing). So if you want the full local experience in Barcelona, throw on some long clothing and get dancing.
The first time I truly encountered a Correfoc was during the Gracia Festival in Barcelona. I was ordering burgers for dinner and heard drumming on the street while I was waiting. I wandered out and made my way to the front of the crowd and discovered children holding sticks dressed as devils and wearing chemistry glasses. An adult then came along and lit their sticks, and I discovered what a Correfoc was. I was one of the unsuspecting visitors running back from the burning sparks that were suddenly showering me.
After that first surprise, I’ve been back many times and always enjoy the crazy atmosphere. A lot of the Correfocs are held in January and February, so they can be a very local experience in Barcelona.
Cheer On A Castell
A castell is also known as a human tower, and that’s exactly what this local tradition in Barcelona is. A group of people (castellers) dressed all in white, with coloured sashes build a human tower. They start with a large base, which holds the tower, but also catches people if they fall. This is made up of many people leaning in towards the base with their hands on other peoples’ shoulders. They then will build the tower upwards with three to five stories of people. The tower is not complete until a seven-year-old climbs over the top blows a kiss and then climbs down the other side. This is incredible to witness if you see it. They will advertise big events on the Barcelona website, and a major competition happens during the Festes de Santa Eulália.
We accidentally found our first Castells. We had gone to photograph the Arc de Trimof only to discover a marathon was happening that day. From there we walked to the Barcelona Cathedral and Plaza Real and discovered a Castells competition by accident. It was amazing to watch them swiftly climb each other using the sashes as foot-holds. At one point one tower began to shake so violently it collapsed. I screamed, but everyone was okay due to the human base at the bottom. There are no safety nets, or mats when they do this so the base is super important. There are also no barriers, so the local thing to do is to get as close as possible.
How To Eat Breakfast In Barcelona
Coming from Australia where breakfast and brunch are the latest craze it took a while for me to get used to the lack of breakfast options in Barcelona. It is a popular city to visit, so there’s definitely a number of places in the central tourist area, but these places are not where the locals usually eat.
So what do the locals eat for breakfast in Barcelona? Breakfast for them is usually around nine or ten in the morning and isn’t quite like a breakfast you might be used to back home. The most common food is a bocadillo. This is a small sandwich or baguette with grated tomato on it or cheese, ham, or sometimes tortilla. This is usually accompanied by a café con leche (coffee with milk). You will find a lot of little breakfast bars in Barcelona with locals sitting drinking their coffees and ordering breakfast sandwiches.
If you want this local experience in Barcelona I can recommend Restaurant Collet or a small bar located in Mercat de la Llibertat.
Learn To Eat Late
A very local experience that you definitely have to get used to if you eat anywhere more local than a tourist restaurant is that the Spanish dine late. If you go to lunch at twelve o’clock the Spanish are probably still finishing their mid-morning snack. 1 pm is still early for lunch in Barcelona. If you can make it to 2 pm this is probably the most local time to eat. In summer it gets even later and you can catch them having lunch from 3 pm onwards. The same applies for dinner. You should try to have dinner from 8 pm onwards in Barcelona. 10 pm is still a totally normal time to have a dinner reservation.
This can work to your advantage for famous restaurants in Barcelona. One of my favourites is called Quimet & Quimet, but it’s also on the internet as one of the best tapas bars in Barcelona. If you go after eight o’clock it can be easier to get in as a lot of the tourists will have left already.
The first time we discovered the late dinning time in Spain was when we were in Madrid. We asked our hotel reception to book us a table at the oldest restaurant in the world (Sobrino de Botín). As we were suffering from jetlag I asked her to book the table for 7 pm. She called the restaurant, spoke in Spanish for a bit and then laughed and asked us if we could do 8:30 pm instead. As it’s very popular and famous I assumed it was very busy and booked out. Hoping to get in earlier we turned up around 8:10 pm. Well, guess what. The restaurant didn’t open until 8:30 pm.
Don’t Expect Anything To Happen Until 10 am
The early bird does not get the worm in Barcelona. It is best to do what the locals do in Barcelona and have an easy morning and start your day around 10 am. Almost all shops will only open at this time. The real beauty of Barcelona is when people are walking around. It has a lovely, relaxed vibe (away from Las Ramblas), and the plazas become places where friends and family hang out. The added bonus with a late start is that you get a late finish. Almost all shops will remain open until 9 pm.
Being On Time Is Not A Thing
The Spanish and Catalans are always fashionably late, it is just something you have to get used to. If you want a party to start on time in Barcelona, you have to tell your guests to arrive at least one hour before the actual party start time. When you attend big events like fireworks, bonfires, and parades they will always start late. This is not from laziness. They are just less orientated around being on time and more interested in enjoying things when they’re ready. A popular joke in Barcelona is “mañana, mañana”, “tomorrow, tomorrow”.
Take A Siesta (But Don’t Call It Siesta)
Everyone has heard of siesta time. It’s that great idea where the locals in Spain get to sleep during the afternoon. I’m sure it came about in the south of Spain when the daytime temperatures can be as high as fifty degrees Celsius. It makes sense to retreat from the heat for a few hours and then return when it’s cooler.
In Barcelona, the siesta is used so the shops can stay open as late as they do. A shop will open at 10 am and then close at 2:30 pm. It will then reopen at 4:30 pm and stay open until 9 pm. I quickly learnt that some Spanish find the term siesta offensive, because it conjures an image of an idle country who prefer not to work. What a siesta actually does is create longer working hours.
If you’re in the centre of Barcelona then you shouldn’t have a problem as they don’t do siesta. However, as soon as you leave the central areas, even ten minutes away by metro, you will have problems finding shops that are open from 2:30pm-4:30pm.
Take A Promenade and Enjoy The Plazas
The Spanish have a word that they use regularly called Paser. In English, it literally translates to “To Promenade”. This is very old fashioned in English. This was when well-to-do ladies and gentlemen would dress up and promenade around designated areas to be seen and gossip. This is definitely not old fashioned in Barcelona and is something the locals love doing. Promenading is different from walking somewhere with a purpose and timeframe. To Paser is to stroll and take your time. You should stop and look in shops, or wander down side streets.
If you come to a plaza you can stop and take in the vibrant life that is attracted to these outdoor areas. Plazas are always full of people. There are little cafes and bars with outdoor seating and people drinking vermut or caña (tap beer). Children will be playing on scooters or kicking footballs around. There’s usually a group of young people seated in a circle drinking beer. The plazas are the beating hearts of Barcelona. In summer I love to paser around my neighbourhood and then stop in one of the plazas and just enjoy the moment.
Attend A Calçotada
A calçotada is a BBQ where you eat calçots. This is a purely Catalan tradition and is what the locals love doing in Barcelona in Spring. A calçot is an onion that has been grown in a special way to make it long and thin. The flavour is juicy and sweet. A calçotada is a fun event with lots of friends and family. The calçots are grilled over a coal BBQ until the outsides are charcoaled. You then slip the outside off by gently tugging it and then dip the calçot in romesco sauce. It’s messy, you look ridiculous as you have to throw your head back to eat it, and its lots of fun.
You can have a calçot experience in restaurants in Barcelona during February and March. They even give you bibs to keep you clean. Otherwise, you can go for a walk and usually find a calçotada on the street on the weekend.
Just Go For A Walk And Find Something New
Some of my best local experiences in Barcelona have been found by accident. If you go for a simple walk you are bound to find something going on. I’ve walked down a street and found a castells competition, swing dancing in a plaza, correfocs, and a giant paella cookoff. It doesn’t matter what neighbourhood you’re in just go for a wander. It’s a great way to see the city and immerse yourself in the local way of life.
Where to eat local in Barcelona
El 58 – Excellent tapas bar with the best hummus and patatas bravas. No reservations allowed and the menu is a communal blackboard with the specials. In the Poblenou neighbourhood, which is also classed as one of Barcelona’s best unknown districts.
Sol Soler – Simple Spanish bar and tapas restaurant in the very local, Plaza del Sol. All the food is simple, Spanish, but well made. Get the tortilla and patatas bravas.
Quimet y Quimet – rated one of the best tapas bars in Barcelona. This place is tiny so try to avoid the crowds and eat at a local time. Order their sandwiches, they’re taste creations! I’d recommend liking seafood if you go.
Menu Del Dia
La Pubilla – Locals and visitors eat at this great restaurant. Everything is very Catalan and very well made. Lots of wines to choose from and the menu del dia is creative and full of flavour.
Petit Capet – This place is hidden down a side street and is very Catalan. The food is very tasty and the actual restaurant is tiny.
Las Euras – This place isn’t fancy, but it’s very cheap for a menu del die, and very local. Everything is simple and usually tasty. It’s not your fine dining option, but you’ll certainly have a local experience in Barcelona.