Barcelona is overrun with tourists. From our observation, the tourists were largely German and French, with a smattering of Brits and Americans, and fewer Australians. This wasn’t unexpected, but it gave certain parts of the city a distinctly theme-parkish feel, especially La Rambla.
Within minutes of setting foot on La Rambla, I was done. It’s a mob scene. The rotating crop of living statue performers varies widely in quality (our favorite street performer was a guy in a large, jacked-up box, kind of like a locker, who shot out and yelled at people randomly). By day, aggressive street vendors with squeakers chirp and tweet at you. They’re trying to sell the squeakers, but it’s so profoundly off-putting…I never saw a sale go down. By night, the same group of guys deploys light-up whirligig things into the air via some kind of rubber-band slingshot mechanism…these are €2. Again, never saw a sale.
We found that it was sometimes tough to penetrate the tourist veneer of Barcelona. If we’d had some kind of cultural emissary (a friend, relative, whatever) who was familiar with the city, or if we spoke Catalan or Spanish, I’m sure that we would have a different perspective.
As it was, our most authentic experiences occurred outside of the big sights. We stayed in a hotel in Plaza Espanya. There’s a park named for Joan Miro just east of it – we strolled through early one evening and saw kids playing, dogs galloping around, old men playing some kind of game involving rock-tossing and pin-knocking-down, and lots of runners (almost all of the ladies made me hurt for them: apparently properly supportive sports bras are tough to come by in Barcelona?). There were also quite a few basketball courts, all of which were on dirt, not concrete.
Another day, we went to MACBA in El Raval, then wandered around the neighborhood, ending up at an indoor flea market and Mercat de Sant Antoni, which is smaller and dramatically less touristy than the Boqueria on La Rambla. Here we had an awesome lunch – I had some kind of beef pastry thing and S had a selection of small fried fishes, with lots of wine and beer and olives and Catalan bread.
Several tourist books and sites warned us away from El Raval because of rampant street crime, but we came and went without issue. One night, we hung out on a bench by Botero’s El gat del Raval people watching while we waited for an absinthe bar to open (it never did, and we didn’t make it back, more’s the pity). It was obviously sketchy, but we didn’t see anything untoward in progress (unlike in Copenhagen, where we literally walked through a drug deal outside the train station).
I’m sure one of the reasons Barcelona was so overrun with tourists was the awesome weather: it was sunny in the low- to mid-70s the entire time. Bliss.