It’s a common cliché, in the world of travel writing…
“Don’t be just another tourist on your next trip abroad, live like a local!”
And it sure does sound nice.
From what I understand, it goes like this: you learn a few words of the language in-flight, “integrate” into the culture on your way off the plane, make local friends at the taxi stand outside the airport… by the time you’ve checked into your AirBnB, you’ve practically been granted nationality.
Actually, no. It’s not like that at all.
But like many clichés, “live like a local” just sticks around. I guess you could say it’s not really off-the-beaten-path, as far as tired expressions go.
Either way, I have some experience in this field. When I was a real travel writer, back in the day, we were encouraged to write reviews of the places that locals go.
Try to give people the real “authentic” Spanish experience when they travel.
And the info in the introductions to the big travel guides would usually say something like “try to dress like a local – here’s how to blend in”.
(In Spain, a lot of guys wear shirts and pants, for example. Shoes are common as well. Women might wear something similar, or they might wear more traditional outfits known as “skirts” or “dresses” – also with shoes. Keep that in mind, next time you’re here.)
Incidentally, as a 6-foot-tall bearded ginger, there are really very few places I’ve ever felt like I was “blending in” – no matter what I was wearing. But hey, your mileage may vary.
In other words, I always found “dress like a local” to be strange advice. And “live like a local” as well.
On the other hand, when I moved abroad, people back in the US seemed to think that my life in Madrid was just some extended tourism – even years later.
Which was far from the truth: once you’ve got a bad job or two, a rent payment, and a phone bill to pay every month, it stops being tourism… it’s just life, however far from home you might be.
You might not hang out with a lot of locals, but you’re bound to have a more “real” experience if you stick around for a while.
The longer the better.
But what can you do to be more like a local in Barcelona, if you’ve only got a few days to spend?
You’re in luck, ‘cause I’ve got a few ideas.
Head out of town for the “other” beaches.
A lot of people who live in Barcelona would never go to Barceloneta beach – they prefer something further off. You could stay in the city and try the beaches a bit up the coast at Bogatell and Poblenou, or you could head down the coast to Casteldefells, or up to Badalona.
They’ll usually be quieter, the restaurants nearby will be cheaper, and there will be a lot less of the usual problems that mass tourism brings – crowds, pickpockets, etc.
If you’ve got some time, take a weekend to go to Costa Brava – Tossa de Mar is beautiful, and the other towns nearby are as well.
(You can skip Lloret de Mar. I’ve been and don’t recommend it.)
Go to a neighborhood bar or three.
If you’re outside the city center, these should be easy to find. They’re usually not nice to look at (maybe the door is decorated with pictures of squid rings and ham sandwiches) and they might be a bit dirty…
But hey, you wanted local. Don’t be afraid to stop in. The food might (or might not) be good, and the prices will certainly be better than at some fancier place in Gótico.
You should also try some of the local Catalan cuisine at a place like Cova Fumada in Barceloneta – get a “bomba” and some “esqueixada” if you can.
Or if you want a bit more upscale, try La Flauta at Calle Aribau, 32. Catalan food is simple and pretty good.
In any case, don’t be a victim of the guidebooks. Take a long walk, and try something that’s not on Trip Advisor. It’s bound to be an experience.
Climb a nearby hill.
There are plenty of hills around Barcelona, and many people head up to get some fresh air and exercise on weekends.
You can go to Collserola park (watch out for wild boars) and go for a walk down Carretera de les Aigues, or hike up to Bunkers del Carmel for a view of the city.
Or check out the castle on top of Montjuic, and stop at one of the bars in Poble Sec on the way back down.
(For fancy tapas, try Quimet & Quimet at Calle del Poeta Cabanyes, 25. Crazy good, since 1914. Or hit up one of the many pintxo bars in the area.)
And if you’re into something more active, Catalonia’s got plenty of hiking. You can check out some routes on your own… I’m not an expert, yet.
Let’s just say that the rest of the region is nothing like downtown Barcelona.
More Raval, less Ramblas.
Just a few blocks from the ultra-touristy area of La Rambla is El Raval, a gritty neighborhood that’s home to many diverse types of people.
If you’re into exotic fruits and vegetables, it’s got quite a number of places that’ll help you out, and afterwards you can stop for a couple of cañas on the other “Rambla” – Rambla del Raval.
Okay, okay, the word “rambla” just means “boulevard”, so if you’re fact-checking me, the main one is technically five ramblas in one, hence the fact that it’s sometimes called Las Ramblas in plural. There are several more ramblas around town, but if you just say La(s) Rambla(s), you probably mean the one that goes from Colon to Plaza Catalonia – the one that’s got Boquería Market on it.
Other Raval attractions are the MACBA – the Museum of Contemporary Art (and the plaza outside which attracts a lot of skaters and miscellaneous young people) – and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània.
The barrio is actually famous, locally, for the narcopisos – our “local” versions of crackhouses. And while those are definitely a problem for the neighbors, if you’re just walking around in the daytime you should be fine.
Explore some lesser-known neighborhoods.
The Gracia neighborhood has a life of its own, with plenty of bars and restaurants, small shops, and artsy stuff.
And the industrial areas in Poblenou are fast becoming a hip place to spend time – the Rambla de Poblenou is a nice place to have a meal or a drink, and almost entirely free of tourists.
Also, the British press loves talking about Mayor Ada Colau’s new urbanism, which is taking back space for pedestrians in various parts of the city. On the ground, it looks pretty unimpressive, but who am I to say? Have a look: some of it’s around the Llacuna area of Poblenou.
Other places I find charming are Clot – the area just above the giant pickle-looking building in Glòries – and the aforementioned Poble Sec. And don’t forget my barrio – incidentally the best of them all – La Dreta de L’Eixample.
There’s a lot more to the Barcelona, in other words, than just Gótico and Born.
But is any of this the real local experience?
Well, yes and no. The city’s been virtually free of tourists for a year and a half now, since the whole outbreak of this Covid-19 thing, and while the more central neighborhoods have been pretty quiet, some of the other areas are more normal.
“The locals” certainly don’t spend their weekends at Sagrada Familia, and might not want to pay 10 euros to visit Parc Güell – I still remember when it was free.
On the other hand, locals do all kinds of things that you’re not going to do while on holiday…
Want a real local experience?
Call the electric company to report a problem. Or deal with a Catalan landlord for a few years. Or stand in line at the police station trying to renew your ID card.
That’s the real shit.
The fact is, while tourists are out seeing the sights, most of the locals are at work, struggling to get by on 1000€ a month.
That’s probably not what you think of as vacation. So feel free to live it up while you’re here too.
And I guess I should take a moment to mention that – contrary to what the Catalan Independence crowd likes to tell everyone – Barcelona is actually quite diverse.
There are literally thousands of Italians here, as well as Chinese people, Pakistanis, French(wo)men, Moroccans and more – all accounting for more than 15% of the population. In fact, in a recent survey, there were more than 300 languages spoken in the city.
All these people, to some extent or another, are contributing to the life Barcelona. They’re starting businesses, doing thankless jobs, paying rent and having families.
They (we) are Barcelona locals like anyone else, right?
Well, actually… the local political parties seem to largely ignore us foreigners, for a couple of reasons, I guess. On the one hand we can’t vote, on the other hand, we’re probably not as independence-friendly as they’d like. So I guess that for them we’re not really locals.
But the fact remains that we’re here, and (mostly) we’re staying.
So for some decidedly non-local flavor, check out some of the best international restaurants, or have a pizza from one of the many pizzerias. Get a kebap or a sushi platter.
Locally (and internationally) yours,
P.S. More authentic local experiences include going to one of the frequent riots to watch kids burn trash bins, being told to “go back to your country” by angry… uh… locals, and watching people in your neighborhood protest against tourism. But I’ve talked about those on other occasions.
P.P.S. What do you think about experiencing Barcelona like a local? Will you be joining the next anti-tourism protest? Does the sight of a Spanish flag make you want to start a riot? Or would you rather just have some local tapas and chill on a terraza? Either way is fine with me… leave me a comment below!