Barcelona is the seventh most popular destination in Europe, a fact that filled me with trepidation before I flew there for an eight-day stay last month. I don't like crowds (I have three children, live in California, and have never been to Disneyland), and I certainly wasn't going to Barcelona to see the other 7.3 million tourists who descend on the city in a year.
Easy to say, but tricky to pull off. It's an irony of modern life that the more we travel to exotic destinations, the more generic those places become. If you covered my eyes, spun me in a circle five times, and then pulled off the blindfold in the middle of a random tourist-infested street, I'd be hard pressed to say if I'd arrived on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice...or the ferry landing in Sausalito, California.
To avoid confusing Barcelona with Sausalito, I asked travel expert Teresa Parker of Spanish Journeys, who lived in Barcelona for nearly a decade and arranges culinary tours to Catalonia, to reveal her secrets for seeing the city but not the crowds. And—good news. It turns out her common sense advice will work just as well if you travel to a popular destination other than Barcelona. So if you're headed to one of Europe's six even more visited cities, take note:
Photographs by Michelle Slatalla except where noted.
- Visit landmarks and popular tourist destinations before 9 am (or, in the case of museums, at the moment the doors open). "You want to go, see it, and then leave before the tour buses start queuing up," she says.
- Get out of town. Take a day trip to a town or small city an hour or so away. "Very few tourists venture off the beaten path," says Parker.
- Walk. And walk. And walk. The best way to see a city is on foot. And it's amazing how fast you can get away from the crowds if you start walking in the opposite direction.
- Take a break somewhere cool and quiet. "It's hard to get a break in Barcelona, which is not a very green-park-like city, but there are lots of churches, and inside of the churches is always cool and peaceful," says Parker.
- Head to a neighborhood you've never heard of. In Barcelona, you can walk north from La Rambla, the city's tourist-clogged central artery, and reach the Gracia neighborhood in about 15 minutes. "It's a real neighborhood, a place where you can feel the rhythm of the city, and poke around in little shops, and just be in a place," says Parker.
- Rent an apartment on a side street instead of staying in a hotel on a main street.
- Avoid the tourist-y waterfront and beachside restaurants. "Never had a great meal in one," says Parker.
- Realize that the best beaches may be out of town. "North of the city is where the beaches are more beautiful and pristine," says Parker.
- Ask people who've been there recently for recommendations. Or read local newspapers (Google Translate can make this painless) for tips, so you don't have to rely on less up-to-date magazine or guide book articles. "Usually they just tell you to go to the same places, over and over," says Parker. "Once a restaurant gets written about, it gets ruined and the locals don't go."
- Take a cooking class. "Barcelona is all about the food," says Parker.
Parker writes frequently about Barcelona; for more of her travel tips see Spanish Journeys.
Above: One of the most overcrowded spots in Barcelona is Park Güell, where the fanciful work of Antonio Gaudi (the city's most famous architect) lures so many tour buses that at peak times of day more than 1,200 visitors arrive in a 15-minute period. But you can avoid most of them; see our upcoming Park Güell post (tomorrow) to learn how.
Above: Barcelona's beaches are so overrun with crowds that we couldn't even see sand when we walked down there one recent July afternoon. Don't despair: See our upcoming post (Friday) about where to go to find pristine beaches less than an hour away.
Above: Keep from getting cranky by finding a shady outdoor cafe on a side street—walk a block or two west of the main shopping street Passeig de Gràcia into the Eixample neighborhood to find one—and order a coffee. Or glass of wine.
"The Eixample is a very beautiful 19th century neighborhood, very pretty and with wider streets than the crowded Gothic quarter," says Parker.
Above: La Boqueria is the biggest and most famous—and most crowded—of Barcelona's 40 open air food markets. It's such a fantastic market that you should visit it anyway (along with one or more of the other quieter neighborhood markets), but there's no reason you have to arrive at the same time tour buses are disgorging passengers at the entrance. We tagged along with one of Barcelona's best chefs on her daily marketing trip to La Boqueria; see our upcoming post (on Wednesday) for her tips about how to shop there like a local. Photograph by Pancho Tolchinsky.
Planning a trip? As part of our new Travels with an Editor series, all week long we'll be posting stories about our favorite Gardens, Shops, Lodging, and Restaurants in Barcelona.