Barcelona Is Open! And These Are the Best Local Gems
Add Spain to the list of countries that have opened their borders to American travelers again. Here's the fine print: Per the U.S. State Department website, American travelers do not need to present proof of vaccination but do need to have a QR code received through Spain Travel Health portal. Travelers from other countries should check the Spanish Embassy website. If you're going to Barcelona for the first time, you're in for a treat — and you'll go home very well fed. If you're returning, you'll notice a few post-pandemic changes, most notably that the city is making great strides reign in over-tourism, an initiative we can all applaud. New York transplant Jennifer Ceaser reports on the best in her beloved city.
BARCELONA — Much has changed in Barcelona since I moved here in 2017. The pandemic was rough on this tourist-dependent city, with many beloved local bars, restaurants, and independent boutiques unable to weather the storm. Notable casualties include the entire Albert Adria mini-empire, including his famed Tickets, as well as several of the city’s oldest restaurants, among them the century-old Can Soteras.
But there is a silver living. Barcelona’s city council recently announced many measures to alleviate the over-tourism that has plagued the city for the past two decades. (In 2019, nearly 12 million visitors flooded this city of 1.6 million people.) Among them is a new website (and soon-to-be mobile app) Check Barcelona. Still in its formative stages, it will display information about crowd levels at different tourist hotspots and suggest alternatives to the most congested places. The aim is to encourage visitors to explore less-well-known attractions and districts outside the Old Town.
While I usually stick to more off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods like Gràcia and Poblenou, I still enjoy going out in the city center — you just have to know where the local gems are. And now that Spain has reopened to tourists, I can’t wait to take visitors all around my adopted city to these, my favorite spots.
Where to Eat and Drink
Bar l'Antic Teatre
Carrer de Verdaguer i Callís, 12; +34 933 15 2354
The best place in the city center for a casual wine, beer, or glass of vermouth al fresco, the bar’s sprawling garden is shaded by enormous trees, keeping you cool even on the hottest summer days.
Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 700; +34 93 545 8076
Atop the trendy design hotel Casa Bonay is this local favorite — a cozy rooftop spot done up in a tropical style with rattan furnishings, colorful cushions, and plants galore. The tapas and small plates are great for sharing, and in summer the smell of barbecue wafts across the terrace from the open-air grill. Don’t miss the grilled steak with chimichurri and the stellar octopus with black-olive mayo. They serve a great selection of natural wines by the glass, including my summertime choice, a wonderfully intense orange wine from Valencia.
14 De La Rosa
Carrer de Martínez de la Rosa, 14; no phone
My top pick for cocktails is this speakeasy-style bar, hidden away on a tiny street in the bohemian Gràcia neighborhood. (Hint: Look for the lighted red globe out front.) The owner was the former head mixologist at London’s fashionable Chiltern Firehouse, and he and his fellow bow-tied bartenders shake up sublime versions of classics — all set to a cool jazz soundtrack.
El Casal Cafe
Plaça Victor Balaguer, 5; +34 932 68 4004
Owned by two French brothers, El Casal serves up uniformly excellent, pan-European dishes in a lovely setting: a small, quiet plaza in El Born, just a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Maria del Mar church. There’s a well-priced menu del dia (lunch menu) of three courses, but I come here for the fantastic selection of raw oysters — one of the few places in the city where you can find them — and grilled Camembert with chutney. Reservations, especially on the terrace, are recommended.
The Cake Man Bakery
Carrer de l'Amistat, 18; +34 664 40 5965
I venture to this cute bakery in the artsy Poblenou district at least twice a month for the heavenly homemade cakes, cookies, tarts, and cinnamon rolls. The ever-changing lineup of treats is always tempting, but I usually wind up ordering a slice of the to-die-for chocolate vegan cake — and I’m not even a vegetarian! Lots of gluten-free options are also available, as well as savory breakfast sandwiches served on fluffy brioche buns on weekends.
El Palace Barcelona Rooftop Garden
Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 668; +34 935 10 1130
This rooftop terrace is a true oasis in the sky, with multiple seating areas surrounded by lovely gardens, shady pergolas, and a burbling fountain, plus great views of the city. And I love there’s always something fun going on: open-air movies, pop-up shopping events, summer brunch with live DJs and bespoke Bloody Marys. Menus change seasonally and are reliably tasty, if on the pricey side. Or you can just head here for a sundowner and enjoy the evening breeze and fab sunsets over the mountains.
What to See and Do
Bunkers del Carmel
Turó de la Rovira
When I want to show off my city in all its glory, I take visitors up — way up — to these hilltop bunkers for panoramic views of Barcelona, stretching from the mountains all the way to the sea. If you’re a history buff, look for plaques scattered across the site, describing how these anti-aircraft bunkers protected Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. (They’re also written in English.) Do as the locals do on weekends and arrive with a picnic lunch — it’s a steep climb but worth it for the jaw-dropping views.
Av. Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8; +34 934 76 8600
It’s always a treat to see what’s on at this exhibition space, set inside a magnificent Art Nouveau building at the foot of Montjuic. I’ve seen everything from Surrealist masters to Pop Art icons to a sprawling exhibit about vampires — all the shows are invariably well-curated. Plus, unlike the city’s perpetually packed Picasso and Miro museums, here you can actually spend time looking at the art rather than battling the crowds.
Plaça de la Virreina, Gràcia
The Gràcia district has many beautiful squares, but I think this one is the prettiest by far, flanked by old residential buildings and shaded by tall trees, with the grand stone church of Sant Joan de Gràcia as its centerpiece. While there are occasional tourists here, it feels authentically local, with area residents relaxing on benches and nursing coffees on cafe terraces while children run and play around the plaza.
Where to Stay
La Rambla, 109; +34 935 52 9552
You can’t get more central than this hotel, located right on the famous La Rambla and steps from La Boqueria market and the medieval Gothic Quarter. Set inside a landmark building, a former tobacco company headquarters, it brims with gorgeous original details, including intricately-patterned marble floors, rich wood paneling, and delicate filigree ironwork. Most rooms are conservatively decorated in a colonial style — dark wood floors, walls painted in deep greens and reds; Deluxe rooms on the fifth floor have spacious outdoor terraces. Go all out for one of the Colonial suites, featuring a sprawling, multi-level patio with a large private swimming pool and magnificent city views.
Carrer de Còrsega, 344; +34 930 12 1270
The stylish newcomer opened in late 2019 in a top-notch location, just across from the hip Gràcia neighborhood and a short stroll to the upscale shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. Brightly colored artwork enlivens the chic, minimalist black-and-white rooms, and higher category Patio rooms offer furnished balconies overlooking the surrounding residential buildings. There’s a nice-sized rooftop pool, plus an indoor pool in the lower-level spa. Best is the courtyard patio: You don’t have to be a hotel guest to dine in this tranquil spot, with a gorgeous tiled floor surrounded by olive trees and fragrant flowering bushes.