Chances are, you have a friend, family, or coworker who has traveled to Barcelona in the last few months. Barcelona is a hot destination, especially in the winter months like February, because it’s a city with plenty of sunshine, fairly warm weather, and sandy beaches to lounge around on.
Last year everyone, including my best friend H and her husband, were fed up with winter. We had it with scraping ice off the windshield, walking around in freezing wind with rain and snow, and never seeing the sun. Our friends raved about Barcelona’s good food and weather and, after googling a few photos of Spain and Catalan cuisine (and consequently drooling on the keyboard), we ended up booking February flights for Spain.
**Skip to the bottom to see my 7 day itinerary and travel tips**
Jamon Y Queso
I first have to comment on my constant culture shock at the quality of food in Europe as an American. It’s hard to find fresh baked bread in grocery stores here, and if we want high quality sliced meats we have to pay well over $10 for the good stuff. Every time I eat a hotel breakfast in Europe, I’m floored with the assortment of freshly baked breads, spreads of cheese, and different types of meat trays.
Barcelona was no different. When the four of us went to the Aldi near our airbnb in Barcelona, our reaction to jamon and cheese was probably like the conquistadors seeing Mayan gold for the first time. We held the jamon like it was a brick of gold, we caressed the manchego cheese like it was a diamond. We loaded up our shopping basket like the apocalypse was coming, mostly because:
Damn. That jamon y queso is cheap!
Entire blocks of high quality cheese were easily under five euros. The package of jamon, freshly sliced and colorful, was two freaking euro. Freshly baked baguette bread was less than half a euro.
Needless to say, we bought a lot of jamon, cheese (queso) and wine. We had enough to feed a mormon family for days, perhaps even weeks. We went a little crazy.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s where the stomach troubles began…
Beware the Pintxos
If you google “must eat food Barcelona” right this minute, I’m sure they’re going to mention something about Pintxos in there.
Pintxos are small snacks on toothpicks that are popular in Northern Spain, but can be found in most of the country. Barcelona has a famous area near the Montjuïc Castle called Poble-sec that is famous for Pintxos. Going into a Pintxos shop is like entering instagram heaven: trays upon trays of beautiful snacks with fish and fresh vegetables and meat and cheese and breads all stacked side by side in a rainbow of colors. Getting a few trays of pintxos with a glass of wine or beer is what some Spaniards described as the perfect afternoon.
“I’m kind of worried that these things have been sitting out so long,” H held up the pinxtos and inspected it, “I mean, we don’t know how long they’ve been sitting out here??”
“Eh, they’re all cooked, it’s fine,” I chomped on a pinxtos and washed it down with some red wine. “It’s just fish and cheese and stuff.”
H looked skeptical, but shrugged and ate the pinxtos anyway. In the end we weren’t huge pinxtos fans, but at least we could knock it off the “to-do” list. After eating the pinxtos we explored some of Gaudi’s architecture in the city and went to a northern hillside neighborhood (Carmel Bunkers) to watch an absolutely mesmerizing Barcelona sunset.
“My stomach doesn’t feel well,” husband commented on our walk down from sunset. “I… really need a bathroom.”
We rushed back to our airbnb where husband used the bathroom again, and again, and again, and again. In fact, he got up every hour to use the bathroom. We played some loud Spanish pop music on the TV to mask the sounds of his misery from the bathroom. We could hear him crying ‘damn those pinxchos!’ in between flushes. It was a rough night for husband.
“I can’t last 30 minutes without a bathroom,” husband said sadly the next day. “You guys explore the city today on your own, I’ll stay home and rest. I’ll join you to see Sagrada Familia tonight.”
Mercado de La Boqueria: aka, tourist hell
On every single travel blog or show where they venture to Barcelona, they will tell you to go to this market. It’s where chefs get their fresh food, they say; it’s where you can try different Spanish cuisines and meet real locals.
Well, that’s bullshit. This place is tourism at its finest. We were immediately put off by the market with its overpriced fruit, food and tapas. We found a spot at a wine bar and decided to have a quick drink there to make the most of it. I put my bag on a hook in between my legs, thinking that it would be near impossible for anyone to snatch a bag from this angle.
There was a couple next to me who engaged in some conversation, saying they were tourists, and continued to eye me. I saw them pay the bartender for only one drink–something I thought odd–and watched them walk off.
It wasn’t until one minute later I looked down to check on my bag… only to find it was no longer there.
“My bag is gone!” I screamed. H’s husband gasped. H yelled holy shit for the whole bar to hear. The bartender looked at me wide eyed.
In a frenzy I immediately ran around the market searching for that couple, as I knew they must be the culprit; they were the only one in close enough proximity to grab the bag between my legs. I was in a sea of people and they were nowhere to be found. I located a security guard and tried to explain my situation in English, but realized he could only speak Spanish. My Spanish is god awful, in fact it is non existent, but with a few gestures the security guard understood what had happened. He said there were no cameras, that I could attempt to fill out a police form, but that was all I could do.
I was heartbroken not because of my lost wallet or drivers license; those are all easily replaceable (and luckily my passport was not in the bag). I was in tears because my husband’s nice camera was in that bag, and I borrowed it so I could take photos for him while he was dying on the toilet. I literally carried the backpack around my stomach like a pregnant woman the entire day as a precaution, only to have it stolen in one minute of carelessness.
Husband was very kind and did not get mad about the camera, he was just glad we were all safe. I tried to cheer myself up, saying that after all these years of travel and living abroad I was due to get robbed sooner or later (it was my first time ever getting pick pocketed). Besides the camera we didn’t lose much else, and it was a valuable lesson for me.
Husband told me that it was nothing to cry about, and that he was going to do his best to go with us to Sagrada Familia despite his stomach issues.
For all those planning a trip to Barcelona: skip this market. Seriously. It sucks. Even before I got robbed, we were not impressed. Las Ramblas, the major shopping street alongside it, is also a tourist hellhole. It was the most forgettable part of Barcelona and I’m sure most other travelers will tell you the same.
Sagrada Familia: Unfinished Beauty
People from all over the world come to Barcelona for this epic, unfinished masterpiece. This cathedral may well be an eternally unfinished piece; it’s been under construction for 150 years! This is Gaudi’s masterpiece and, while he never saw it finished before death, it still lives on as an ode to him (speaking of Gaudi, he had the worst death ever, perhaps even worse than poor Van Gogh, seriously, read about it).
Poor husband was walking around Sagrada in a daze. His face was ghost white and, despite the throngs of tourists, the gurgling of his stomach was audible for the entire cathedral to hear.
As we were admiring the beautiful stained glass windows of the Sagrada, I felt husband turn me around and grab me by the shoulders. “Mary, I need a bathroom. I need a bathroom now.”
Luckily Sagrada has many, many bathrooms to accommodate the throngs of tourists and husband avoided the unthinkable. After the trip, when I asked him what he thought of Sagrada, all he could say was:
“I’m just glad I didn’t shit my pants in the Sagrada Familia.”
Girona Minus One
After we got home from Sagrada, husband’s stomach was finally on the upswing…
…but now it was H running to the bathroom, puking and screaming while cursing the pinxtos.
H’s husband and I eyed each other, knowing that we were next in line for the pintxos plague. We prayed to the Barcelona pinxtos gods that we could make it through our day trip to Girona planned for the next day.
H, being the champ she is, said that she could make the trip to Girona with us despite her upset stomach. She got up early and made the long one hour trek with us from our airbnb to the Barcelona city station, even with her stomach on full-throttle-gurgle mode However, immediately after purchasing our high speed tickets to Girona, she ran to the nearest bathroom and disappeared for 20 minutes. She emerged from the bathroom, defeated, saying that she was in no shape to go to Girona. We helped her get a taxi back to the airbnb and, sadly, we went to Girona without her. Although it was lonely without H, I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed Girona. Those smaller towns in Europe are the true sweet spots.
Girona was stunning. It’s a hot spot for British retirees, and it’s a Game of Thrones filming location to boot. This walled city is charming and chock full of history.
Tarragona: When Catalonian Independence Ruins my Birthday
The next day was my birthday and, after a day of rest, H recovered enough to travel. I was overjoyed that the four of us could finally travel together.
I picked Tarragona as my birthday city because it has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in all of Europe. As a sucker for Roman history, I was excited to see colosseums and other historic roman ruins in this lovely seaside village.
However, when we arrived in Tarragona, we were greeted to signs that said all of the Roman ruins and most of the museums were closed because of the Catalan protests. It just so happened that on my birthday, a famous Catalan politician was going on trial and the whole country was in an uproar.
So what does one do when all tourist sights are closed and you’re stuck in a small Spanish town all day on your birthday?
You get some vermouth, you order some patatas bravas and other hot tapas, and you get drunk with your friends. Luckily restaurants were open that day, and we had one of the best meals of my life at a small seafood restaurant near the coast. After lunch, we lounged on the beach wall and took siestas under the mediterranean sun.
While my husband and friends were napping, I took a stroll alongside the beach and watched the waves roll in and out. I looked back to the city facing the sea to see children playing on a jungle gym in a park, and a couple holding hands and looking out to the waves. In that moment I admired the beauty of the Spanish coast, and looked back to the my friends fully relaxed and snoozing on a seawall in the South of Europe. In that moment, despite food borne illnesses and robberies and other mishaps on the trip, I was so grateful for the opportunity to be in Spain with the people I love. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
“It was a fun trip Mary,” H said to me as we recounted the journey later on. “But I’ll never forget the stench of that airbnb. Your husband and I kept that airbnb toilet busy, and I’m sure the smell of our shit still lingers on there.”
“As for me” husband said, “I don’t think I can even look at jamon y queso for another year. The pinxtos plague got me good.“
To this day, I have no idea why me and H’s husband did not fall ill to the Pinxtos plague. In fact, we are not even sure if it was the pinxtos that did H and my husband in–it may have been the jamon, or queso, or something else. We’ll never quite know what plagued us on this journey, but one thing is for certain:
I’m never eating pinxtos again.
My 7 Day Barcelona Itinerary
Day 1: Land in Barcelona, go to park del la ciutadella (near the arc of triopmf)
Day 2: Explore Montjuic Castle, walk around el ravel and pablo-sec (avoid pinxtos), and see sunset at carmel bunkers in Northeast area of city
Day 3: Montserrat tour, suggest setting up with a tour company, very easy
Day 4: Walking city tour of the old city (near Basilica del Santa Maria), Sagrada Familia, Park Guell
Day 5: Day trip to walled city of Girona and back (do not need tour)
Day 6: Day trip to Tarragona (do not need tour)
Day 7: Go home
Tips for Barcelona Travelers:
- Montserrat was so amazing. Totally worth it. Taking a tour bus saves on time and logistics hassle.
- Girona was equally amazing, highly recommend it as a day trip. Just walk the walled city and visit the cathedrals. Cute cafes all around.
- Tarragona if you’re a roman history nerd, or if you just want a quiet seaside town and some stunning ocean views
- For accommodations in Barcelona, stay somewhere away from Las Ramblas and the epicenter of the city. We stayed near the Arc de Triompf, which was a quiet neighborhood still accessible to major sights. Highly recommend this area. Gracia is also nice.
- We went to “El Paradiso,” a famous speakeasy that gave me a cocktail in a seashell that came in a treasure chest. No joke. Totally worth it and very affordable compared to bars in the states. Go “early” during off season and you shouldn’t have to wait.
- Do Menu del dia for lunch. Almost all Spanish restaurants offer a menu del dia and it’s a great deal. Three course meal with wine for 15 euro? No brainer. Just do it.
- Reserve all Gaudi tickets in advance, especially Sagrada Familia. We had to reserve Sagrada tickets TWO DAYS in advance. Don’t procrastinate.
- Go during off season. We went in February and it was still insanely crowded, so I can’t even imagine how mobbed this city is in the summer months. Avoid June-August.