Visiting Barcelona: 8 misconceptions unmasked
A city of around two million people, Barcelona receives a robust seven million tourists a year. That’s a lot of people coming to the city! And it should be no surprise that many tourists come with preconceived notions, and generalizations about locals and the Catalan capital abound. We dive into a few of these myths to help visitors sort fact from fiction, so you can hit the ground running next time you come to town.
1. You’ll see authentic flamenco
This one is tricky, because you very well might catch some flamenco in Barcelona. There are a handful of clubs in the old city center featuring women in tight, bright ruffles and wailing vocalists. But flamenco is not part of Catalan culture. This is akin to visiting Seattle and trying to find the best Philly cheesesteak. If you want authentic flamenco, then you should go south to Granada and Seville to see the real deal. If you must see flamenco in Barcelona, then try JazzSí, which is an out-of-the-way bar in El Raval that has weekly shows. Also, when the flamenco festival De Cajón is in town, you’ll find some excellent performances. Otherwise, why not see regional music? Search out Rumba Catalana or see some Catalan rock and roll at Sala Apolo.
2. The food is spicy
This is another common misconception. People tend to think that Spanish food and Mexican food have spice in common, but in fact Catalan and Spanish cuisine is pretty tame. Apart from garlic, onion, pepper and paprika, not much spice is used. Forget Tabasco sauce and chili peppers. The closest things to jalapeños in Spain are guindillas. They’ve got a nice vinegar-pepper kick to them. Then there is the tortilla. Don’t confuse your Spanish tortilla—which is similar to an omelet—with the Mexican version.
3. Barcelona is a beach, so wear a bikini
Nothing is more offensive to locals than tourists coming into shops, bars, and restaurants without shoes, shirts or pants on! This is especially common in La Barceloneta and other waterside ‘hoods. Spaniards and Catalans are laid-back about dress and lifestyle, but mealtime is sacred. They may be anything-goes while on the beach (there is no body shame here, and topless or nude sunbathing is common), but once you’ve left the shoreline it’s time to get dressed.
Another tip: wear your sandals. You might think that it’s all good to walk barefoot back to your beachside hotel after a morning on the sand, but you’re likely to step in A) dog doo doo B) wads of spit C) recently flicked cigarette butts D) garbage in general or E) the leftovers of someone’s fallen ice cream cone. The sidewalk may look clean with your Ray-Bans on, but it’s probably not.
4. Service is super friendly
Locals don’t tend to chat with random people on the metro, or in line at the grocery store, or even at the bar. They tend to stick to their established friend circle. That said, don’t be afraid strike up a conversation with someone. Just because they don’t tend to initiate, does not mean they are not open to talking to you.
You might also come across some unfriendliness in restaurants. Servers in Barcelona can get a bad rap for being grumpy and sometimes dishing out rough customer service. Although this can happen (and it will, probably at some point during your trip), it’s also important to remember that waiters don’t work for tips, and perhaps that has something to do with it. Big city attitude is also part of the issue. Outside Barcelona in smaller villages, service tends to be better and smiles are offered more readily. On the plus side, turning tables is almost non-existent in Spain, so no one will rush you out the door.
5. You’re visiting Spain
Wait, no. Or yes? Technically you are in Spain when visiting Barcelona; but look up and scan the balconies. You’ll see many Catalan independence flags hanging all over town. Catalonia is a region of Spain whose government is currently trying to separate it from the rest of Iberia.
6. All Catalans want independence
Nope. Some do, some don’t. It’s complicated. What most people want in Barcelona and Catalonia is more local control over where tax euros end up, and even more important, work. There is still very high unemployment all over Spain. Separatists have always been active in Catalonia (as well as the Basque Country, Galicia, and even in Andalusia), but since the 2008 election of conservative president Rajoy, the issue has become increasingly hot. Want to get the locals talking? Ask them about independence while visiting for a lively conversation, as almost no one is apathetic about the subject.
7. Barcelona is very expensive
Yes and no, because compared to the south of Spain it certainly is. Compared to Northern Europe, it’s not even close. Compared to Madrid, it’s about even. The holy trinity of olive oil, wine and cheese are inexpensive, excellent and abundant. Eating out can be very friendly to your wallet if you stick to tapas and local restaurants, and the fabulous food markets have tons of bargains. And while tickets to get into many of Barcelona’s famous sights can be pricey, you don’t have to visit every single Gaudí building to get a feel for the city.
Then there is the cost of sleeping. While it’s easy to spend more than $100 a night on a hotel room in downtown, you can still find plenty of hotel bargains all over the city and even cozy digs for under $70.
8. Everyone guzzles sangria and eats paella
You’ll see lots of people on La Rambla drinking pitchers of sangria and tucking into platters of neon-yellow paella. Avoid this tourist tradition if you can. Locals do not usually drink sangria, and though they do enjoy paella at local spots, you would never find them digging into a platter of the frozen stuff served along the main tourists routes. Instead have a glass of some of the best wine in the world at a local wine bar, as Spain is revered for its reds and whites. Or even better, order a bottle of sparkling cava. It’s very affordable and produced in nearby Penedès.
One generalization that is no myth is the Spanish love of fiesta. No matter where you go in Spain, whether it’s Catalonia or the Basque Country or Madrid, you’ll find people celebrating life.