Visiting Barcelona for the First Time: 7 mistakes to avoid
Despite being a “small” big city of just 1.5 million people, Barcelona can feel overwhelming to the 8 million tourists who visit each year from across the globe. From staying in the wrong location during your visit to eating a frozen paella warmed up just for tourists, it’s easy to fall into tourist traps… especially if visiting for the first time.
We’ve made many of these errors ourselves in the past, and we’re here to help you avoid making these rookie mistakes when visiting Spain’s second largest metropolis.
1. Staying out in no-man’s land to save bucks
Just the other day I met a couple on the train who were coming to Barcelona for a few days from Paris. I asked them where they were staying and they said Sarrià. “Oh…” I said, and they could see the look of concern in my eyes. Sarrià is a nice area, but it’s not well connected by metro, and it’s not central (there is a train that goes there). Most of the couple’s time was undoubtedly spent negotiating public transportation or paying for taxis.
It may cost you more to stay centrally, but if you only have a few days, it’s worth the splurge of a few extra euros. In the long run you will save money, time and headaches by getting a place in central neighborhoods like Gothic Quarter or Eixample.
One word of caution: La Rambla is centrally located, but it can be crowded and touristy, so if you like a little more peace and quiet try Hostal Fernando and Hostal Goya, both of which are located just a few blocks from the main stretch.
2. Bringing valuables with you to the beach
You’re asking for it by bringing valuables to the beach—either you’ll lose your keys in the sand or a thief might end up with them. Either way it will put a damper on your vacation. The beach is the last place you want to bring money, cameras or expensive smartphones. Do the selfie later, post-playa.
If you do bring your valuables to the beach, never leave them unattended. If someone comes up to you asking you for a light for their cigarette, the first thing you should do is turn around—his buddy might be behind you stealing your bag.
When I go to the beach, I bring a book and my house keys. If I think I might want to buy something to eat or drink at one of the beach bars (which are plentiful and offer lots of tasty snacks from May – October), I roll up a €10 and keep it in my book. I never bring my wallet with me if I am going to be swimming or sunbathing alone. If you go with a friend, then take turns swimming and watching your stuff.
One more thing: Never sleep or camp on the beach. It is illegal, dangerous and not particularly comfortable.
3. Tipping American-style
It’s hard to not tip if, like me, you come from a tipping culture. However, it is not normal in Barcelona to leave a 10-20% tip, as the tip and tax have already been included in the bill.
If your beer costs €2.75, go ahead and leave them the remaining €.25 if you must. Locals almost never do. And forget about leaving one for a coffee barista. In a restaurant, if the service is exceptionally stellar, you might tip 10%.
4. Eating frozen paella
If you see a brightly colored dish of neon rice that some shady folks are trying to sell as paella on La Rambla or elsewhere: Avoid! Paella should not glow in the dark.
Instead, head down to La Barceloneta and have an authentic paella, or rice dish, by the seaside at La Barceloneta Restaurant, El Suquet de l’Almirall, El Nou Ramonet or almost any of the other seafood joints in the ‘hood.
Note that those in the know do not eat paella for dinner. It’s a lunch dish. Walk to La Barceloneta around 1 PM and search for a place that seems popular with the locals. That’s where you want to be. Normally eateries that have photographs of the food (or the menu in 20 languages!) are not going to be the real McCoy.
5. Spending all your time in the center city
Most of the tourist sights are in the Gothic Quarter, and visitors spend a big chunk of their time along these cobblestone streets. They are right to do so, as top attractions like the cathedral, Roman wall, medieval buildings, history museum, Picasso Museum and hidden plazas are worth a gander.
Of course La Rambla cuts through downtown, and you should walk it up and down at least once. After the Gothic Quarter many travelers head towards the Gaudí triangle (Passeig de Gràcia’s Casa Batlló, La Pedrera and La Sagrada Família) and maybe Park Güell. There’s a lot to see.
When I speak to people who have visited Barcelona I often hear “It’s SO touristy.” Indeed. The rookie mistake is to spend too much time, or all your time, in areas that cater only to visitors. Make sure to take a break from the well-worn Gaudí track. Find popular ‘hoods where locals live, lounge, and linger. Go up to Gràcia for the day or a night of bar hopping. Eat lunch in Poble Sec. Party hardy in El Raval. Chill at the clothing optional beach close to Poblenou.
Like any touristy city, there are two sides to Barcelona, and the residential side takes some work to discover, but it’s worth the effort.
6. Eating breakfast in your hotel
I can think of very few times that I’ve been offered a hotel breakfast that was worth it. For some reason the price for toast, jam, juice, limp cheese and coffee at a hotel is usually about three times more than it would be in any nearby local bar. They can get away with this sometimes, because guests seek convenience.
If you want to save €10, then find a cafe or bakery and have breakfast for €3 or €5 instead of €18. It’s true that for this price you will not get eggs and bacon or pancakes and waffles. But, if you want excellent coffee and a buttery croissant, or a ham sandwich and a fresh OJ (typical morning fare in Barcelona), you will find a staggering array of options at low, local prices.
7. Buying the HolaBCN Metro pass
The HolaBCN! passes are sold at tourist information points, on the airport bus and in the metro stations. They are not a good deal when compared to a normal metro card. If you are going to be in Barcelona for more than two days, buy the T-10, which gives you 10 rides in the city for about €10. Note that this pass can also be used on the bus and tram.
Note: You need to buy the T-10 in a metro station (not on the bus or tram), and you can buy T-10s with cash or credit card.