Staying off the Tourist Trail (or Not) in Barcelona

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My one day in Barcelona as part of the Ultimate Train Challenge adventure from Portugal to Vietnam doesn’t start well. The overnight train from Granada is long, hot, and the catalyst for what I think is a flu coming on. The arrival station in Barcelona is controlled chaos, and in my fevered state getting my onward ticket is challenging.

Knowing that I have to leave from another station this evening, I choose to go straight there so I can store my luggage for the day, maybe catch some time in the lounge (such as my Eurail Pass permits), and rest assured that I’m never too far from my ultimate departure point.

Thing is, the second station – the one with international trains departing regularly – is a ghost town. Whether renovations or construction is the culprit, nothing is operational, or even existent. The real hub seems to have been the station I came from; there aren’t any obvious trains returning, I have eight hours to kill, and I don’t have the energy to fight my way back there.

I’m confused, I’m tired, and, well, grr. Things aren’t going smoothly. My worst fears of being sick during the train challenge seem to be coming true, and I’m none too happy about it.

See also: Staying Healthy on the Road – Natural Preventions and Cures

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Turn that Frown Upside Down

After having an inner temper tantrum, I decide the best thing I can do (the only thing, really), is persevere. I find a hostel willing to store my luggage (and by “store” I mean leave it out in the open in the reception area, but beggars can’t be choosers) for a criminal sum of money, and I set off to explore Barcelona.

The real Barcelona.

You know, the one that is devoid of tourists and tourist traps.

This, I discover, is a naive mission that proves harder than it looks, but reveals some interesting insights.

Cruising La Ramblas

I’ve been to Barcelona before, in a former life as a cruise ship passenger (which was also my first time in Europe). I fondly remember strolling La Ramblas and being bewildered by the sensory overload of tapas restaurants, markets, flower stands, artists, and buskers.

La Ramblas, crammed with tourists(?)
La Ramblas, crammed with tourists(?)

This time, walking up La Ramblas, I’m ever-aware of the multiple cruise ships in the harbour and the crush of tourists on all sides. I harbour no ill-will whatsoever towards these cruisers. Rather, in my slightly dizzy state, I’m just looking for a nice place to sit down, have a coffee and a bite to eat, and do some writing.

On La Ramblas, I’m swarmed by people encouraging me to eat at their restaurants, and north-African men selling odd whistles. I had no delusions of finding somewhere “off the beaten path” to eat on La Ramblas itself, but on principal I don’t eat anywhere as a result of an aggressive person pushing a menu in front of my face.

restaurant on La Ramblas, with hawkers proffering menus
restaurant on La Ramblas, with hawkers proffering menus

Whereas once I may have found this whole scene charming, I now find it affronting.

I know there are hoardes of tourists here, but are there any locals? Would somebody from Barcelona be caught dead on La Ramblas? Do tourists and locals alike enjoy this fresh chaos, or is it manufactured?

Market Food

I duck off La Ramblas and go into a marketplace selling fresh and prepared foods. I remember this place too, at the time thinking it was “off the beaten path” because it wasn’t precisely on the main drag and because it sold fresh food like meat and fish that tourists wouldn’t buy.

This time, I’m wary.

I stop at a restaurant of sorts (really just a bar around a food stall that small groups of people sit at to order – quite charming really) and listen to the voices. Are the customers here tourists? Are they being ripped off by high prices and low quality food, or is this a good place to catch something to eat myself? People are speaking lots of languages. I don’t know Catalan well enough to recognize it, and I’m sure I hear tones of German, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. It seems to be a hodge-podge. Most certainly there are tourists, but I’d love to know if anybody local would dare to be seen eating here.

I keep wandering around the market, allowing myself to get lost in the dozens of stalls selling fruit, meat, baked goods, fish, sweets, spices, dried goods, and prepared foods. I see things here that no tourist would realistically buy. This gives me hope.

spices for sale at a market in Barcelona
spices for sale


live fish - still moving at a Barcelona market
live fish – still moving!
suckling pig - I remember these from Segovia
suckling pig – I remember these from Segovia

Whoops: As I’m setting up a shot I realize I’m being stalked by somebody I suspect is one of Barcelona’s notorious pickpockets. I’d better keep moving. Whether or not there are locals at this market, I’ve staunchly labeled myself as a tourist with my camera.

What is the Tourist Trail?

I keep walking. What am I looking for, really? What is the right price to pay? What is an “authentic” experience? And how far (literally and figuratively) am I willing to go to get an authentic experience – especially if I’m feeling sick and tired? And if I ever get there, will it even be worthwhile?

I keep walking.

Following my nose towards the water, I find my way to the port and watch yachts sail by and people of all walks of life wandering. I’m sure that a large percentage of these people are tourists, but I’m also pretty sure that the large movie theatre attracts its own share of locals.

Besides which, at this point I’ve ceased to care.

I finally collapse at a restaurant patio on the harbour. There’s a 10% surcharge for sitting here. I grimace as I order a salad and coffee, but am satiated with a good free wifi signal. I settle in for an afternoon of writing, working online, reflecting, taking pictures, watching people, and feeling the gentle warm breeze off the blue waters of the mediterranean no more than 2 metres away. No office could afford a view like this; it’s worth the surcharge.

my "office" by the water - not so bad, even if it is a tourist trap!
my “office” by the water – not so bad, even if it is a tourist trap!

Maybe being a tourist isn’t so bad after all.

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15 thoughts on “Staying off the Tourist Trail (or Not) in Barcelona”

  1. Great post! I’ve been reading your blog for a while but this is my first time commenting; I think you have mentioned a few important point about the philosophy of travel (why we travel? what is an authentic experience? that kind of thing).

    As a native from Seville and living very close to the Cathedral & la Giralda, it breaks my heart to see tourists being ripped off by all kinds of hustlers as soon as I step out of my door; sometimes as close as 50 metres away from where locals live their daily life. It really makes you think about what we are looking for when we travel.

    In my humble opinion, there are three keys to a good travelling experience (myself not being a stranger to mistakes in this respect):

    1. Know the language, even if it is at the most basic conversational level. That will put you ahead of 90% of tourists and will make you stand out in front of the locals. You’ll also be in a much better position to defend yourself in dire situations.
    2. Travel really slowly. If you stay in a place less than 10 days (that’s my rough subjective measure; your mileage may vary), you spend all your time going through an adaptation period (which is the hardest one, because it’s the one where you learn from mistakes). If you stay longer, you’ll slowly start to get the knack and really enjoying travel.
    3. Make thorough research before travelling. I’m not talking about booking every hotel and deciding beforehand what you are going to do with every minute of your life while travelling. I’m talking about getting to know the culture, the people, the history of the city/country you are going to visit. Read books (not necessarily travel guides), try to contact with locals and ask them for information… it’s the kind of things that make your travel experience so much better, because you actually connect with the places you visit. They become more than just pretty buildings and funny people.

    Oops, sorry for the huge rant and any english mistakes 😀 Keep up the good work Nora, and get well soon!


  2. @Nacho – Those are great tips, thanks! Sometimes – and especially on this trip – time to learn the language or do thorough research goes by the wayside, but that’s when it’s good to know locals, who can answer questions and guide you in the right direction (literally, culturally, and linguistically)!

    For example in Prague where I am right now, I know a few small words of Czech, but my Czech friend said I really needn’t bother – small attempts at using Czech aren’t all that appreciated. I guess it really depends on the culture.

  3. Yes, we remember Las Ramblas, the market, the pier and movie theatre as well…

    It is annoying to pay such high prices isn’t it? Nothing drives us as crazy as that. We usually keep looking until we find what we want at the price we want to pay too.

    Like you say, you can be more forgiving with internet access! 🙂

    Thanks for taking us down memory/Barcelona lane

    Nancy & Shawn

  4. oh if only i had the opportunity to visit Barcelona! visit is the wrong word, i would live there… Nacho you are so right… you can’t savor the flavors of the city without LIVING there, shedding blood, sweat and tears along the way…

    as a New Yorker , i learned this early in life when dealing with tourists in a bus who wanted to take pictures of the hippies’ when i would be at Cooper Union in Astor Place, just because i hung around the guys with long hair, bell bottoms and all… i’m not going to lie, i took gratuities… i learned not only about quantum mechanics and covalent bonding, but how to hustle and haggle for a buck…

    first, con su permisso, sr., i’d move my ass into la Sagrada Familia… He is one of the top three mechanical artists in the world, along with Picasso and Dali… i’m sorry, but i’m too much of an artist and art lover to not want to exist in one of the most beautiful cities in the milky way…

    the Picasso Museum would be my next month’s habitat… i’m so intrigued, no i’m dumbfounded, how he went from cubism to abstract, that it reminds me of life itself…always the “what if” element…

    Dali i was fortunate to have met him on Christmas of ’77 and learned all about vanity of the soul and how he uses that to serve his art…

    Nacho you are so lucky to live in Barcelona, even if you have to endure the scalpers outside your doorway…life is like a highway, sometimes you get annoyed at the traffic, but you always arrive where you need to go… as does Nora, who i actually have a $100 bet with a friend of mine that she wins the Scavenger Hunt… and i’m not a betting man…

  5. and Nora, if you walked down Las Ramblas, without mentioning Gaudi, I think a special Scavenger Hunt bonus would be a picture of you eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger…

  6. @Keith – Ah yes, Gaudi. His architecture has a formidable presence in Barcelona, and I love looking at it.
    As for the McDonald’s cheeseburger – although I’m not totally averse to eating one ever again (we all have our weaknesses), I can’t actually remember the last time I had one if that gives you any indication of my total lack of addiction to the place.

  7. i didn’t say you actually had to ‘swallow’ it, just the pic would be an adventure in story telling for millenia to come…

  8. I so relate to this post. I lived in Barcelona about 10 years ago and there were times where I, an ex-pat, had this kind of experience. It wasn’t so easy to get off the beaten path for me, either. I lived in Gracia, which had some good spots, but plenty of tourists, too, depending on where I went. At times, I also became one.

    Nice view in that final shot–looks like it was worth it!

  9. @Lisa – Even as an expat, you couldn’t shake that feeling of being an outsider, huh? Maybe that’s the problem with expat life; in general it implies supplanting yourself in another culture, but not necessarily becoming a part of it. Then again, unless you’re born somewhere, I think it’s always hard (if not impossible) to fully integrate. The mission I guess is to what degree you can learn about local life while you’re there.

  10. I’ll have to agree with Nacho, it is quite unrealistic to blend in and discover any hidden gems just by visiting a place for a few days or even less. Having spent a good 7 years abroad, studying and working, I think that speaking the language, even at a very basic level helps one connect to the place.
    I’ve been to several places in Spain and love the spanish culture which I find very close to my own, however Barcelona has remained for years a dream target-destination.
    Your blog is probably the kick I needed to start planning my Catalan escape. Thanks for that
    Happy travels and take care 😉

  11. @Despina – Glad you’re inspired to escape to Catalan! Too bad I couldn’t make my way to Athens on the Train Challenge…..ah well – just means I’ll have to come back that way another time! (Hopefully you’ll be there!) 🙂

  12. I just checked, and there are THREE Mickey D’s in Beijing… as well as a KFC and a Pizza Hut… lucky you! go get that special Scavenger Hunt bonus pic girl!

    my brother is willing to double down on our bet if you do it…

  13. Sorry, there are like a dozen, and from the map it looks as if you can walk to one from any of the train stations in Beijing… I actually envy you at this point…

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