Barcelona is one of the hottest destinations in Europe – quite literally – during the summer months, and more than 7 million travellers will visit the coastal city this year. With this slow travel guide we hope to help those millions to not only see Barcelona, but experience in the best way possible.
Since approaching a more slow method or travelling in our first year of travel in 2012 we’ve found ourselves experiencing places in a depth that we missed on our previous holidays together.
We’d visit all of the attractions that people would point us too, and consult whichever paper travel guide we were carrying at the time, but once our long weekend was over we’d look back and realise that we’d seen the place, but not felt it.
Why Slow Travel?
By stepping back and exploring the slow travel movement we’ve seen ourselves not only saving money and be able to see places like Berlin on a shoestring budget, we’ve also experienced them in ways that regular travelling never offered us.
We’ve spent the past couple of years travelling slowly and have regularly explained why we’ll never travel another way again, and it always comes down to the experience element of it and the local people we meet because of it.
We’re in no rush to see the world and this definition of slow travel is ultimately the reason why:
Slow Travel: to travel slowly, taking time to appreciate what’s around you, through relationships with locals, prolonged exposure, and the observation of foreign culture.
Why Travel To Barcelona?
Barcelona is universally loved throughout the world and is often described as having "the best of everything".
It’s a city where almost everything you can think of is at hand, no matter if you’re a foodie in search of Catalonia’s greatest tapas, an adventure traveller who wants to spend hours chasing waves at the beach, or an amateur historian who wants to explore a city that has within it’s boundaries examples of past Roman, Visigoth, and Moorish rule.
Away from the sun, sea, sand, and setas; Barcelona is a social beehive full of people and a deeply sown sense of tradition and culture that continues to inspire people within the fashion, music, and architecture industries around the world.
You only have to take one afternoon long walk through the heart of Barcelona to experience the fun-focused heartbeat of the city.
Because of the uniqueness of Barcelona many more people will be travelling to explore the many neighbourhoods of the city between sunbathing, drinks, and a shopping spree in the many luxury stores; and we’d like to enrich their experience with this, our Slow Travel Guide to Barcelona.
Our Slow Travel Guide to Barcelona
No matter if you’re in Catalonia for a long weekend or a month of relaxation, the best approach to experience a new culture is to try and integrate yourself fully without breaking the budget.
For longer stays trying to get the most value out of your hard earned travel budget is most important.
Here are the four steps we follow to maximise our budget:
- Find affordable accommodation
- Uncover the best way to eat affordable
- Choose the best transport option
- Pick the best things to do for your budget
Having recently spent just over ten days in Barcelona we’ve uncovered a number of ways in which you can tackle each step.
Find Cheap Accommodation in Barcelona
There are a number of ways in which to find cheap accommodation whilst slow travelling and all five of our favourite methods will work in the city.
Stay rent free by pet and house sitting
We’ve been advocates of house sitting ever we first learned about it via Globetrotter Girls and her brilliant book, The Ultimate Guide to House Sitting.
Through her articles and book we learned all about how people across the world are staying for free in fantastic apartments and homes around the world for almost free, all in return for watching over the house and the pets living there whilst the owner is away.
We’ve had great success with it over the past two years and have stayed (pretty much) rent free in Germany, the UK, France, and even Spain for over 10 months during that time.
Pet and house sitting has also reached the shores of Spain and there are already sitting assignments in Barcelona that are waiting for applicants.
The biggest bonus of house sitting for us has to be the length of time we do them. Being able to stay in a local’s house for several weeks gives you plenty of time to see how a local really lives, something that can’t easily be matched when staying in a hotel.
Rent an apartment or home
Our second favourite method for finding accommodation is to explore apartment rentals and sublets.
During the four months we stayed in Berlin we used a mixture of house sitting and subletting to extend our stay and explore the city in more ways than a long weekend may typically allow.
In Barcelona the same opportunities are available.
During our stay we elected to stay at an OK Apartment at the base of Montjuïc that was quiet and surrounded by locals, yet only a ten minute walk away from both El Raval and Plaça d’Espanya.
There are a number of other great websites on which you can find apartments to rent and sublet in the centre, plus larger houses in the suburbs if you’re travelling in a group larger than a single family. Of them all the most recommended by friends and expats living in the city are:
- Craigslist – Still going strong after twenty years online, Craigslist is easy to use and regularly has offers listed of apartments to rent both short and long term.
- Loquo – This is the Spanish equivalent of Craigslist and is just simple and easy to navigate. It’s full of hundreds of classified ads for everything you can imagine, apartments included.
- Idealista – Idealista isn’t just a apartment and house rental site, it covers every kind of building rental you can think of, from office space to holiday home.
- Pisocompartido – Boasting over 100,000 ads for housing across Spain, Pisocompartido is perfect for both couples and families looking to sublet short-term, and also for those who’re happy to rent just a room for a few weeks.
- Student Rooms & Apartments in Barcelona on Facebook – One great tip that we’ve used previously is to search on Facebook for groups such as this one. It takes some patience and a little common sense to spot the scams, but there are plenty of sublets to find here.
- Spotahome – A map-based rental site, Spotahome is perfect for those who want to choose on location first and price second.
Find an apartment short term with airbnb
Another service that we’ve become sworn converts to is airbnb, a service that allows locals to rent out their spare rooms or entire apartments to holidaymakers and people in town for business.
Started by a couple of guys who wanted to rent out part of their apartment whilst a conference was in town, the website no longer offers just one bed. Today there are over 1,000,000 beds listed on the site across 190 countries, and airbnb continues to grow as more locals advertise their own vacant homes whilst on their holiday.
What we love most about airbnb is that most of the listings are real homes and by sharing them or renting them out completely we’re offered all of the comforts that come with it. For example, as vegans having a space to prepare food from time to time is incredibly useful, something we’d never have in a hotel.
Ultimately the prices on airbnb tend to be either a fraction of the price of staying in a hotel, or at the very least cheaper in comparison, especially if you’re planning to rent for a couple of weeks.
Book a long stay in a hotel or hostel
Neither of us were aware of this option until we met with someone doing the very same in Kyiv, Ukraine.
During our stay in a dorm room at a hostel in Kyiv we discovered that one of the people staying there wasn’t just in the room for the weekend, but was staying for months whilst he was studying at university. Why? Because he’d bargained with the owners and got himself a cheaper weekly.
Of course this did mean that he had to sacrifice his privacy and learn how to handle a constant influx of other travellers (who were usually quite rowdy), but he made such a huge saving compared to the local rental price that it was worth exploring.
If you’re thinking of staying for a couple of weeks or more than a month and want the comforts of a hotel or the atmosphere of a hostel, then be sure to talk to the management whilst in Barcelona and see if you can’t bargain a lower price.
We recommend the following hotels & hostels:
- Hostel: Hostel St. Christophers
- Design Hostel: Generator Hostel Barcelona
- Hotel: Hotel Market
- Hotel for Families: Barcelona Universal Hotel
Stay With A Local with Couchsurfing
Ultimately the best way to learn about your new location is to spend time with a local, and there aren’t many better ways to maximise that time than to stay with them.
Friends of ours say that airbnb has given them great experiences with locals (and we’ve had similar great times too), but nothing really compares to the personalised experience that Couchsurfing offers.
With over sixty Couchsurfing experiences to date across the world it’s safe to say that we’re huge fans of the community and have a borderline addiction. We’ve stayed with so many fantastic people who have not only let us into their homes, given us a place for the night, and more-often-than-not shared with us a meal; they’ve also given us an insight into how a local really lives.
Our many hosts have always gone to great lengths to explain how it is to live and work in our chosen destination and will often spend time telling us of all the things to try, see, and do during our stay.
It’s perfect for slow travel because it’s based on experiences, but it’s best used for short periods and not for weeks at a time. Try mixing up your stay with a couple of nights with a Couchsurfer and some time in a hotel or rented apartment.
Where To Eat In Barcelona
Everyone seems to adore Spanish cuisine, and we’ve both really enjoyed it over the months we’ve spent in the country over the past two years.
Tapas is understandably a great part of the culinary offering in Barcelona but there’s so much more to experience if you go a little deeper into the culture.
Within Barcelona you’ll find a lot of Catalan-inspired dishes but by exploring the city and the neighbourhoods within it you can find many other great international flavours from across the world that every budget can afford.
The El Raval district of Barcelona is our own personal favourite as it’s where the widest variations in cuisines tends to be.
Within a five minute stroll around the neighbourhood you’ll find Spanish, Indian, Turkish, Italian, and Moroccan restaurants, all run by the very same mixed community that occupies the many apartments above each eatery.
It’s quite possibly the most diverse district of the city and one where your budget will go the furthest thanks to the hundreds of university students who also take their lunches in the same area.
Two highly recommended vegan restaurants in the area are Veggie Garden and Juicy Jones, which you’ll find pictures from in our Best Vegan Restaurants in Barcelona post.
El Born and Barri Gotic
Within the oldest part of the city are many great small eateries and a high quantity of the more classic Catalan restaurant.
The prices in this area are probably the most moderate in the city as it frequently has a high quantity of tourists passing through it due to how tremendously beautiful it is, but by walking around a little you’ll soon find an older place where only the locals go and where the prices are fair.
For the vegetarians and vegans amongst you we’d highly suggest a visit to Gopal, a classic vegan junk food takeway place that has great faux-meats and delicious cakes. Alternatively, be sure to take a look at the Blue Project Cafe, a raw vegan food restaurant that’s open throughout the day.
Just outside of the older Ciutat Vella centre of the city is Eixample where the highest concentration of Modernist architecture is to be found.
It’s within this district that you’ll find most of the upmarket restaurants in the city and the highest prices, though for the most part the cost will match the quality of the food.
For average slow travellers like us the restaurants here are slightly out of our budget, but for most holiday makers looking to try the finest food from both the Catalan cookbook and international cuisine, restaurants in Eixample are by far the best in the city.
Quite possibly Barcelona’s hippest neighbourhood today is Gracia, a village that was once outside of the city limits but is now very much a part of the heart of the city.
Within this district you’ll find a high quantity of great older cafes in which the older generation still spend every day, but next door to many you’ll find a cool cafe or bar that has featured in at least a hundred or more Instagram pictures.
Gracia is probably our second favourite area of the city to walk through – after El Raval – thanks to the number of cool design shops, vegan-friendly restaurants, and amount of street art that can be found there; and the food that we tried was just as interesting as the surroundings.
Again you can find a number of great local places to eat, but there are also so really fun and cool new places to eat at too that are just a little cheaper than their counterparts in Eixample.
If you’re health concious and want to experience the healthy, vegan, and vegetarian side of the city, explore our Best Vegan Restaurants in Barcelona post.
See our vegan restaurant recommendations:
Cook For Yourself
A perfect alternative for people who are renting an apartment or using an airbnb place with a kitchen is to make your own meals.
Some people may initially presume that cooking for yourself limits how much you’ll try of the local cuisine, but for those who are staying for a week or longer it makes plenty of economical sense to save a little bit and cook the occasional meal "at home".
Eating two or three meals out every day for a week can be a large expense and will soon drain your travel budget – so why not do both?
Personally we like to make at least one of our meals ourselves each day to stretch out money further, and to do so we make sure to find the best shops.
Shop at smaller grocery stores
Unlike some major cities in Europe there are still a number of smaller grocery stores and bakeries still open in Barcelona that offer well-priced and delicious fruit and veg from across the country.
By walking through the small streets and neighbourhoods you’ll easily find these smaller family-run places offering seasonal fruits and veg only – a great sign that everything is fresh – and for a very fair price.
Save at cheap supermarkets
We prefer to support small local businesses where we can, but inevitably there’ll be some item that we can’t find in the smaller shops, leaving us with no choice but to try some of Spain’s chain supermarkets.
Typically it’s only for a milk-alternative like soy, but occasionally we’ll need other bits and pieces and will turn to the following stores to pick them up:
Of the above supermarkets we found that Lidl, Dia, and Mercadona were the cheapest to shop at.
Getting Around in Barcelona
Barcelona is a large city but it’s by no means unwalkable, it just takes a little time to do so.
During our entire stay we spent most of our time on foot and only ever used the metro system once to travel and that was only on the last day to reach the train station to leave the city; the reason being that:
- We have plenty of time on our hands so can take as long as we want to walk from one place to the next.
- We prefer to walk through a city to see it rather than zipping by underneath it.
The only exception to our standard preference to walking is when either there’s an easy to use bus route, or bicycles available to us; but sadly due to the short 30 minute usage periods the city bikes aren’t very practical for tourists.
How To Use The Buses in Barcelona (including HOHO)
Operated by Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, the bus network in Barcelona is a vast network that crosses the entire city.
A map of the city can be found online on the official transport for Barcelona website alongside timetables for all routes in the city, plus if you’re carrying a smart phone the easiest option is to open Google Maps and use the real-time updates for the route there.
Should you not have a smartphone with you then you’ll also find printed maps at each bus stop.
Tickets for the buses are bought from the driver and require exact change. There are no week long passes available so each journey must be paid for at the time taken.
Barcelona Bus Turistic
During our stay we were very lucky to be invited by Barcelona Turisme to use their Hop-On-Hop-Off bus service that runs along the most popular tourist attractions.
The Barcelona Bus Turistic runs across the city on two lines called the Blue Route and Red Route which cover separate parts of the city.
Passes for the bus run for one or two days and are easily purchased online via their online shop and include a 10% off the regular retailing price.
Trains and the Metro system
One of the simplest ways in which to navigate the city is the metro network which you’ll find stations for throughout the centre of the city, and further out into the outskirts of the city.
There are eight lines that go across the city numbered and named L1 to L11 and the system is fairly simple to use and works much in the same way as other metro systems around the world.
How To Use The Barcelona Metro
- Purchase a singular journey ticket from the automated sales machines inside the metro station.
- Use the maps inside the station to choose your intended route.
- Enter the platforms via the ticket validation machine and barrier
- Find the correct platform as signified by the coloured line number
- Board metro and disembark at your station (station names are announced in Catalan, Spanish, and English)
Single tickets for the metro currently cost (in 2015) €2.15, last 1 hour and 15 minutes for one singular journey, and allow for one transfer between public transport options (i.e, from metro to the tram).
For better savings it’s recommended to purchase a T-10 ticket for €9.95 which is good for 10 journeys on the metro in Zone 1 and will save you €11.55 compared to purchasing separate journey tickets. As a bonus the T-10 ticket can also be used on the Renfe train network.
There are also a number of day passes available via the automatic ticket machines inside of the metro station with a two day pass costing €14, and a five day pass for €32.
How To Use The Renfe Train Network
Whilst the Spanish train network agency Renfe does operate from the large train terminals in the city, the most common trips are out of the city and not within it.
For the most part trips in the city are best taken on the metro, but journeys such as getting from the Airport to Barcelona city centre or the reverse is best completed via Renfe.
One smart option for new arrivals to Barcelona from the airport is to purchase a T-10 ticket at the airport and then to use that for the entire journey into the city centre. It’s possibly the wisest and easiest to use option for tourists and travellers.
Get Unlimited Travel with the Barcelona Card
The above options are great and highly useful for people who’ll be extending their stay in Barcelona for several days or weeks, but for holiday makers on shorter trips the best option is to purchase a Barcelona Card which comes with unlimited travel on the public transport network.
The card not only is the easiest to use option for travellers, it’s also a free admission card to a number of museums in Barcelona, and offers discounts to a large number of other worthwhile attractions.
Cards are available at lengths of three, four, and five days; and are priced separately for adults and children.
As of July 2015 the prices are:
- 5 Day City Card: Adults for €60, Children for €32
- 4 Day City Card: Adults for €55, Children for €27
- 3 Day City Card: Adults for €45, Children for €21
For more details, visit the Official Barcelona Card Website.
You can also find more cheap transport companies that we use in our Travel Resources page.
Get out of Barcelona
Barcelona is also a fantastic base from which to take day trips to several close-by cities.
The list of best destinations to visit include:
Girona is one of the oldest and most interesting cities within the Catalonia region and is forever remembered for the reds and yellows that cover the buildings that are built along the Onyar river.
Buses leave from Barcelona every day, but only on five occasions. The best choice is to take the train from Barcelona Sants which leave at 30 minute intervals.
You can see the beauty of the city in our What To See in Girona post.
Best reached via the same train station in Barcelona, Tarragona is one of the largest seafront cities on the Spanish coast and features an incredibly perfect and flat seafront that spans for mile after mile.
The city is historically important and features within the old city limits a well preserved and restored Roman amphitheatre.
Pilgrims from across the world travel to the mountain range and monastery of Montserrat.
Our friends Micheal and Randi visited in 2015 and loved the peaceful surroundings and beautiful abbey and would recommend it as a perfectly reachable day trip destination.
Whilst the town of Figueres may not be the biggest in the region, it is probably the most visited destination outside of Barcelona.
The reason that thousands-upon-thousands of people take day trips to the city is because of the Theater Museu Gala Salvador Dali, the official museum to the surrealist master.
Within a thirty minute train journey you can spend a day walking around the town of Sitges.
With beautiful architecture, interesting churches, and old narrow streets to walk around; there’s enough to see and do within a day and still have time to spend a few hours on their famous beaches.
Sitges is also home to one of the most active and friendly LGBT scenes and is often tipped as one of the best gay-friendly destinations in Europe.
From Barcelona you can also find several more great hikes in Spain gathered together by our friends, Just A Pack.
Things to do in Barcelona
There are a number of fantastic sights to see in Barcelona, and the architecture magnificence of Gaudi‘s Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo are chief amongst the best things to see in the city.
No matter what your budget you’ll find no end of things to do in Barcelona.
1. Sagrada Familia
By far the most popular tourist attraction within the city, Gaudi’s cathedral masterpiece is fascinating to see from the outside, but is a whole other world once inside. The architecture is beyond description, but the light inside that now passes through the new stained glass windows is beyond heavenly in description.
2. Join a Free Walking Tour of Barcelona
We’ve been on walking tours in many of Europe’s major cities and would always recommend tip-based walking tours. The guides are always enthusiastic and for the average tipping price of €10 per person, it’s hard to argue with if you’re eager to learn something about the city quickly.
3. Visit the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona
Within the El Raval neighbourhood is the Contemporary Art Museum Barcelona, a fantastic large three-floored building filled with some of the best Spanish and international artists.
4. Have a Moment of Reflection at the Monastery of Pedralbes
This magnificent still-active monastery came recommended to us by a local and was one of the biggest highlights of our second visit together to Barcelona. It’s a fantastic building to walk around and admire, and once within its courtyard, it offers a full silent refuge from the city outside.
The beauty of the three story building made it an automatic must-see inclusion on our five travel tips for Barcelona post.
5. See RCD Espanyol, Barcelona’s OTHER Football Team
Not many people know that there are actually two top tier football teams situated within Barcelona and that the "second team" is actually pretty good! We’ve only seen RCD Espanyol whilst watching La Liga in the days prior to travel when we would watch football (pretty much) every day.
We’d love to try and catch them playing on our next trip to Barcelona.
6. Join a Local for Dinner
If the idea of sitting in a restaurant to try the local cuisine doesn’t appeal to your slow travel hopes, why not share a meal with a local in their house instead?
Using the meal-sharing website, EatWith you can agree before you’ve arrived in Barcelona to visit a local’s house to try their customised menu based on a theme of their choosing.
Some locals will create a full meal from the traditional Catalan cookbook, but there are many others offering choices such as Indian, Japanese, Vegetarian, Vegan, or even South American.
Not only is it a fun experience and a chance to ask a local first hand for their tips for things to do in Barcelona, it also costs about as much as a standard day menu in a restaurant.