Barcelona Festivals

Carnaval dances through Barcelona in February just before Lent, most flamboyantly in Sitges, though Barcelona’s Carnestoltes are also wild and colorful.

Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week before Easter, is Spain’s most important celebration everywhere but Barcelona, where the city empties.

La Diada de Sant Jordi is Barcelona’s Valentine’s Day, fused with International Book Day, celebrated on April 23 to honor the 1616 deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare.

La Fira de Sant Ponç brings farmers to town with produce and natural remedies on May 11.

La Verbena de Sant Joan celebrates the summer solstice and Midsummer’s Eve with fireworks and all-night beach parties on the night of June 23.

La Festa Major de Gràcia Barcelona’s village-turned-neighborhood, Gràcia celebrates its fiesta in honor of Santa Maria with street dances and concerts in mid-August.

Festes de La Mercé celebrates Barcelona’s patron saint, Nostra Senyora de la Mercé (Our Lady of Mercy) for a wild week beginning September 24.

Catalan for Beginners

Anyone who questions how different Catalan and Spanish are need only have a look at the nonsensical Catalan tongue twister “Setze jutges d’un jutjat menjen fetge d’un penjat” (Sixteen judges from a courthouse eat the liver of a hanged man) in Spanish: “Dieciseis jueces de un juzgado comen el higado de un ahorcado.” Catalan is derived from Latin and Provençal French, whereas Spanish has a heavy payload of Arabic vocabulary and phonetics. For language exchange (intercambios), check the bulletin board at the Central University Philosophy and Letters Faculty on Gran Via or any English bookstore for free half-hour language exchanges of English for Catalan (or Spanish). It’s a great way to get free private lessons, meet locals, and, with the right chemistry, even begin a cross-cultural fling. Who said the language of love is French?

Ciutat Vella, Quintessential Barcelona

Stroll the Rambla and see the colorful Boqueria market before cutting over to the Catedral de la Seu in the city’s hushed and resonant Gothic Quarter. Detour through stately Plaça Sant Jaume where the Palau de la Generalitat, Catalonia’s seat of government, faces the town hall. The Gothic Plaça del Rei and the neoclassical Plaça Reial (not to be confused) are short walks from Plaça Sant Jaume. The Museu Picasso is five minutes from the loveliest example of Catalan Gothic architecture, the basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. An evening concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana after a few tapas and before a late dinner is an unsurpassable way to end an epic day in Barcelona.

The Raval, behind the Boqueria, holds the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the medieval Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, the Sant Pau del Camp church, and the medieval shipyards at Drassanes Reiales. Palau Güell, just off the lower Rambla, is a key Gaudí visit. A short hike away, the waterfront Barceloneta neighborhood is one of Barcelona’s most characteristic and picturesque districts, as well as a prime place for a paella on the beach.

The post-1860 Checkerboard Eixample

A morning touring the Eixample begins at Gaudí’s still-in-progress magnum opus, the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. On the way back to the Eixample’s vertebral Passeig de Gràcia, swing past Moderniste architect Puig i Cadafalch’s Casa Terrades as well as his Palau Baró de Quadras. Spend the afternoon in the Eixample touring the undulating facades and stunning interiors of Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. Other Eixample architecture includes Gaudí’s Casa Calvet, not far from Plaça Catalunya, the Fundació Tàpies, and more far-flung Moderniste gems such as Casa Golferichs, or Casa de la Papallona out toward Plaça de Espanya. Rambla Catalunya’s leafy tunnel is a cool and shaded promenade lined with shops and sidewalk cafés.

Upper Barcelona: Gràcia and Sarrià

For a more rustic and restful urban excursion, try the formerly outlying towns of Gràcia and Sarrià. Gràcia is home to Gaudí’s first house, Casa Vicens, and his playful Parc Güell above Plaça Lesseps, while the tree-lined lower reaches of this intimate neighborhood are filled with houses by Gaudí’s right-hand man, Francesc Berenguer. Sarrià is a village stranded in the ever-expanding metropolis, with diminutive streets, shops and restaurants, and the Monestir de Pedralbes, a venerable monastery with a superb Gothic cloister. Also in Sarrià are Gaudí’s Torre Bellesguard and the Colegio de les Teresianas.

Art in Montjuïc

Montjuïc offers various art collections at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, while the nearby Fundació Miró features Catalan artist Joan Miró’s colorful paintings and a stellar Calder mobile. Down the stairs toward Plaça Espanya are the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion and the restored Casaramona textile mill, now the Caixaforum cultural center and gallery.

Safety in Barcelona

Although muggings are practically unheard of in Barcelona, petty thievery is common. Handbags, backpacks, camera cases, and wallets are favorite targets, so tuck those away. Coat pockets with zippers work well for indispensable gear, while cash and a few credit cards wedged into a front trouser pocket are almost unassailable. Handbags hooked over chairs, on the floor or sidewalk under your feet, or dangling from hooks under bars are easy prey. Even a loosely carried bag is tempting for bag-snatchers. Should you carry a purse, use one with a short strap that tucks tightly under your arm without room for fleet hands to unzip. A plastic shopping bag for your essentials will attract even less attention.

When to Go

For optimal weather, fewer tourists, and a sense of local life as it is, the best times to visit Barcelona, Catalonia, and Bilbao are April-June and mid-September-mid-December. Catalans and Basques themselves vacation in August, causing epic traffic jams at both ends of the month. Major cities are relaxed and, except for tourists, empty in August, though Gràcia’s Festa Major in Barcelona and Semana Grande in Bilbao keep these two cities very much alive during the festivities. Small shops and some restaurants shut down for the entire month, musical venues are silent, but museums remain open.

Summers in Barcelona, though occasionally very hot, are usually not too steamy for comfort. Temperatures rarely surpass 100°F (38°C), and air-conditioning is becoming more widespread. In any case, dining alfresco on a warm summer night is one of northern Spain’s finest pleasures. Bilbao’s legendary siri-miri (drizzle) keeps the city cool in summer, though winters can be irritatingly wet. All in all, spring and fall offer the best weather and temperatures at both ends of the Pyrenees. Barcelona winters are chilly enough for overcoats, but never freezing: ideal for walking, fireside dining, and hearty winter cuisine.