The day we arrived in Barcelona, the Spanish government was sacked, and by the time we set out for our first day of sightseeing, the regional Catalonian government had changed too. This is certainly a place heading somewhere in a hurry.
Most visitors to Barcelona come for the food, the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, or both. However, such is the pressure of tourism on the city that you could miss the high points of both if you don’t do some advance planning.
It’s ironic that Barcelona is a food destination, as there’s a lot of ordinary food around town — much around tourist areas like the Ramblas.
Fortunately, there are some great tiny bodegas and exciting local restaurants just a short walk away. Many are in backstreets so narrow that you share them with cars and scooters.
Of course, the challenge is to find the good ones. You simply can’t do that alone — and many trip advisory services just direct you back to the Ramblas. On the recommendation of an English friend, I contacted Francesc "Cesc" Castro and Alex Cardona, the two young founders of Aborigens, a company that provides a wide range of food services. These range from food sourcing to hosted private food tours and self-guided food-orientated walking tours of Barcelona. Many of their clients are Australian.
We arrange to meet at El Tros Vall Llach, a small wine bar three minutes from our hotel. Within a few minutes of meeting them, I know that they could have nominated a similar venue near any hotel in town. Soon we are drinking wine from the bar’s own vineyards, and eating anchovies and cheese in a sunny courtyard.
My English friend Nigel had used this company for their expertise for a television documentary about Catalan cuisine. He still cherishes the list of restaurants they gave him to try.
“Our most popular tour is one called ‘Barcelona Beyond Tapas’,” Alex explains. “Tapas is Spanish, not Catalan, but we have adopted it here. There’s a lot of mediocre tapas around — even on some food tours that have permanent bookings at three or four standardised places.”
“No two tours of ours are the same,” Cesc adds. "It depends on what you want and what best matches that at the time.”
As they enthused about which restaurant we should try, I thought I’d let them know there was one slight problem — I have intolerance to large quantities of garlic. They professed mock despair: “Do you know when David Beckham was contracted here, he was asked his impression of Barcelona and he said the whole city smells of garlic? He was right.”
Nevertheless, following the food trail Aborigens sets out for us, there was just one dish that I could only taste because it featured crushed garlic. Now, that’s personalisation!
A tour of the backstreet bodegas of Barcelona works best if you develop a taste for vermouth, or “vermut” in Spanish. It’s not just cheap at about €2.50 a glass but seems to be the way each bodega defines itself.
The architecture of Sagrada Familia is definitely a must-visit in Barcelona
The two we visited (Lo Pinyol and Bodega Quimet) were full of locals — and that’s a rarity in tourist-flooded Barcelona. In each case, we ended up at a tiny table eating dishes that had been prepared with lots of care. Service was the opposite of quick and clinical, and it was all washed down with glasses of vermut.
The advice Aborigens offered well in advance was to make a booking at Teoric, a small restaurant just off Avinguda Diagonal. Owned by Teo Rubio and Oriol Casals, it’s in the vanguard of innovative Catalan food.
The printed dinner menu is only indicative, as several dishes are seasonal. Teo is ever present, and all the waiters are knowledgeable — and fluent in English. Each dish is a revelation of subtle flavours and clever presentation. We share six small plates including dessert and we each have two glasses of wine, and the total bill is just €50. No wonder you should book here as soon as you know you’re coming to Barcelona.
The architecture of Antonio Gaudi is a cliche of Barcelona but when you are so close to such flamboyant genius, it’s a shame to miss it.
If you haven’t been to Sagrada Familia for a few years, do yourself a favour and return. My last visit was just before the 1992 Olympics, and the interior of this cathedral was a building site with piles of wood and masonry. Now, it gleams as Gaudi’s interior forest of stone is brought to realisation.
Again, this is a remarkably popular attraction so don’t expect to simply walk up and buy a ticket — especially in the height of the summer season. It’s best to book in advance on the offical Sagrada Família website. Barcelona Museums, an unofficial website dedicated to the city’s sights and museums, sets out the various ticket options. The addition of the tower was interesting but not essential, however the audio guide was really worthwhile.
The best advice is to go early. There’s a pre-opening option but it seems that disorganisation may make it of limited value. However, if you book to start early in the day — say 9.30am — you’ll beat many of the large tour groups.
Casa Battló may well be Gaudi’s crowning achievement in home design — there’s enough clever innovation here to leave you breathless. It’s really, really worthwhile to pay extra for the pre-opening 8.30 admission so you’ll have the whole place virtually to yourself for 30 minutes. Head straight to the rooftop, then return quickly to the floor immediate above the ground floor entrance.
Barcelona has 39 different food markets. The best known is La Boqueria, off the Rambas. If you’d like to find more locals than tourists, visit Mercat del Ninot. And try the salt cod at Perello, a stall within the market.
La Ramblas is a fantastic destination for a sunny day out
San Antoni is an old market that has been beautifully restored and reopened. It’s well worth a visit.
The last word should go to Alex from Aborigens as he explained why it’s worth delving deeply into Catalan cuisine:
“Barcelona has a long, rich culture that was a blending of elements of Jewish, Moorish, and Mediterranean cultures and cuisines. But many restaurants simply produce what tourists expect so you’ll find tapas, paella, and sangria on the menu. It was only in 2014 that Catalan wine outsold Spanish wine in Barcelona. There’s a movement of young Catalan chefs producing great Catalan food — it should be sought out and supported.”
Have you been to Barcelona? What are your highlights?