“Barcelona is a very old city in which you can feel the weight of its history…” ~ Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
When I saw the 900 metre-long queue of tourists snaking around the block, I was so thankful I’d researched many Barcelona tips before my visit. Luckily for me, I wouldn’t have to join them in the glaring sun waiting for hours on end to enter this amazing place.
Skipping ahead of the sweaty queue-goers to go inside, a kaleidoscope of coloured rays shone through the windows like I’d never seen in a cathedral before, causing my jaw to involuntarily drop. After dreaming of visiting since I was a young girl, I couldn’t believe the day I finally got to lay eyes on the remarkable La Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s masterpiece.
And according to that queue out front, it wasn’t just me who longed for this experience! If only those folks had researched some Barcelona travel tips first, they wouldn’t have needed to waste their day waiting.
Barcelona is one of Spain’s (if not Europe’s) most popular tourist destinations, having received around 32 million visitors per year. This means overcrowding and sometimes disappointing experiences for tourists who aren’t prepared.
Due to its exploding popularity, poor Barcelona has been host to a number of overtourism issues in recent years. When visiting Barcelona for the first time, it’s wise to have a few tricks up your sleeve to not look like a tourist and ease the burden for locals.
If you want to learn how to avoid contributing to overtourism in Barcelona and better “blend in,” read on for more!
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Crucial Barcelona tips and tricks to avoid looking like a tourist
Do book popular activities and experiences in advance
If you look at Barcelona on a map from above, you’ll notice each city block is generally square. The length of each block is 300 metres, so you could imagine my surprise when I arrived with pre-purchased tickets to La Sagrada Familia to see a queue wrapping around three sides of the block for people without tickets!
As mentioned in my guide to Europe’s top attractions, didn’t these people realise they could have pre-purchased their tickets and avoided wasting much of the day lining up to get in? Don’t let that be you!
It’s easy to book the below popular experiences in advance to avoid missing out.
Don’t rent an Airbnb
If you truly want to experience the city “like a local” as homestay accommodation platforms promise, the best way is to avoid them altogether and book your stay in hotels or hostels. Say what, now?
While I realise this sounds counter intuitive, tourists are ultimately competing with locals for accommodation, in turn diluting the local cultural heritage. The sad reality is unregulated homestay accommodation has caused numerous issues for locals who need to live and work in popular tourist destinations across the globe, including Barcelona.
The local population of Barcelona declined by 11% from 2015 – 2019 as locals were pushed out of their own city. I explain all about the illegal listings, shortage of long-term rentals and why locals were forced to look elsewhere for housing in my comprehensive guide to Airbnb problems.
Furthermore, many neighbourhoods overrun with unregulated accommodation sat empty during 2020 when tourists stopped coming. Help preserve the local cultural identity of Barcelona by leaving residential properties for locals who need them most.
Do stay longer (and in the city centre)
Give dear old Barcelona the time she deserves without rushing around to check places off a list in a day or two – stay longer to soak it all in! Basing your stay in a central location such as Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) means you’ll be able to enjoy popular places after day trippers have long gone, too.
TIP: I stayed in Hotel el Jardí in the Gothic Quarter. It was in the best location tucked away from La Rambla and other main streets, but so close to many of the nearby attractions. There were plenty of restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, too, and I enjoyed the view over the square below from our balcony.
Do avoid the free museum days
While many people will encourage you to take advantage of these free days, I have to disagree if you value saving time over saving money.
It’s wonderful that the museums offer free days so everyone has the opportunity to appreciate the national treasures housed within, however there is a huge downside.
I actually missed visiting the Picasso Museum as I had planned on visiting it during a free day to save money. When I arrived, the queue to get in was almost a kilometre in length – and wasn’t moving! Deciding to cut my losses, I left to do something else rather than waiting for an unknown amount of time to gain entry.
Do understand the difference between Catalan and other cultures in Spain
One thing that surprised me on my first day in Barcelona was seeing flags for Catalonia – not Spain – proudly flying from apartment balconies.
You may remember Catalonia wanted to separate from Spain a few years back? Catalonia, the region in Spain, has its own traditions, language and cuisine that date back centuries. You’ll earn massive brownie points with locals if you address them in Catalan rather than Spanish!
TIP: Many signs at airports and public transport areas feature Catalan, English then Spanish… in that order.
During the Spanish Civil War (1939-1975), General Franco suppressed the Catalan language from being used in the education system, media and administration in favour of Castilian (Spanish). You could say Catalans are making up for lost time today.
While most Catalan people are bilingual and can speak Spanish, Catalan is not derived from Spanish. It’s more closely related to French and Italian languages, and Catalan cuisine has a French influence, since the region shares a border with France.
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Do learn some Catalan to score points with locals
Even though Spanish is an official language in the region of Catalonia, if you can manage some basic Catalan words and phrases the locals will love you for it!
Although they may speak English, it is always polite and a sign of respect to address locals in their native language first.
Did you know Barcelona is actually pronounced Bath-e-lona?
Some basic Catalan phrases include:
- Hello / Hola
- Goodbye / Adéu
- Please / Sisplau
- Thank you / Gràcies
- Good morning / Bon dia
- Good night / Bona nit
- Yes/No / Sí/No
- Where is..? / On esta..?
- I would like… / Jo prendré...
- How much is… / Quant val…
- I don’t understand / No ho entenc
- Do you speak English? / Que parleu anglès?
TIP: Find out how to learn more basic Catalan phrases and their pronunciation quickly in my guide to learning any language for travel.
Don’t drink the tap water
As with many old European cities, the streets can tend to have wafts of sewage smells at times. No wonder you may not want to drink the tap water! While the Barcelona Public Health Authority has confirmed tap water is safe to drink, it doesn’t taste all that good.
There is a movement in Barcelona to reduce plastic waste by providing Refill Aqua stations around the city. Be a responsible tourist and bring a reusable bottle you can refill with filtered water at shops, restaurants and even hairdressers for free (or at a low cost).
For refill stations, the Refill Aqua Instagram profile mentions featured business names and addresses in their Refill Station Story Highlights.
Do start your day later and end it later
Spain is one of the few places where you can not feel guilty for sleeping the morning away! In theory, Spain is in the “wrong” time zone, using Central European Time rather than Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) for its longitude.
It’s been this way since WWII when General Franco set clocks to be hour earlier to correspond with the time in Nazi Germany as a show of solidarity. The clocks never changed back so the time in Spain today doesn’t correspond to the Sun, as it rises and sets much later.
This leads me to…
Don’t arrive at nightclubs early
As the days start later in Barcelona, so do the nights. Nightlife doesn’t kick off until 10:30pm, considering most workers finish their day at 8pm!
TIP: Avoid any people going around to tables handing out red roses. They’re trying to take advantage of visitors who may not know the value of the local currency or the exchange rate. I’ve known of tourists who paid €20 for a single rose – just ignore these pesky scammers – I’ve written about more tourist scams down the page.
Do take time to properly appreciate the architecture and its cultural significance
Sure, Barcelona is home to some of the most photogenic architecture in Europe. But did you know most tourists don’t realise there is much more to it than a pretty photo opportunity?
The now beloved architect Antoni Gaudí hailed from Barcelona and is adored by locals. His architecture style was heavily inspired by nature and religion. Look closely at his late 19th century works and you’ll spot organic elements and the rules of nature featured. They truly are in a class of their own!
TIP: Poor Gaudí. Unfortunately this mastermind was run over by a tram in 1926 and no one knew he had died until days later. His work was more greatly appreciated and internationally recognised some 30 years after his death.
Don’t let your guard down
Like most major cities, Barcelona attracts pesky pickpockets and they prey on unsuspecting, distracted tourists. Be on your guard at all times, especially in crowded places.
While pickpockets usually hang around the popular tourist spots such as La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, La Rambla and on the metro, there are some areas of the city that are best for tourists to avoid.
This guide to the areas to avoid in Barcelona explains where and why.
Do know the local scams, petty theft tricks (and how to avoid them)
This is one of the most important tips for Barcelona. Unfortunately it’s a fact that people who look like tourists are susceptible to being targeted for scams. If you know the sneaky tactics in advance and are prepared, you can avoid landing yourself in trouble.
Scammers can seem just like regular, friendly people, so it helps to travel with a healthy dose of skepticism. The best way to deal with anyone who approaches you is to completely ignore them and keep walking. Yes, this may sound rude but it works!
As a rule of thumb, never leave your valuables unattended in cafés or at the beach, as they likely won’t be there on your return.
Some common tourist scams in Barcelona include:
- A scammer spilling some kind of sauce on a tourist, offering to help clean it, then swiping the tourist’s pockets without them noticing.
- When withdrawing money from an ATM, a tourist’s card gets stuck. A friendly local just happens to be waiting there and offers to “help,” but takes their money in the process.
- People giving out seemingly free flowers (as mentioned earlier).
- Scammers asking tourists to sign a random petition, then pick their pockets whilst their hands hold the clipboard.
- Official-looking yet fake fines left on the windshields of tourists’ rental cars. Can either mean someone can jump into the unlocked car whilst the tourist is distracted by the ticket and snatch valuables. Or, the ticket has payment information that goes to a scammer’s account.
- Scammers deliberately leaving a wallet on the pavement and observing tourists passing by. On seeing the lost wallet, tourists usually pat their pockets to check their own wallet is not lost, therefore giving away where their wallet is being kept to the spying scammers.
Don’t wander around aimlessly with your phone’s GPS
A sign for any decent pickpocket of a lost tourist is someone constantly checking their phone and looking frantically around for a street sign or landmark.
As I like to say: Always look like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. If you’re truly lost, go into a store to check the map on your phone and try to figure it out there. This will ensure you minimise any unwanted negative attention.
TIP: Even better, practice a little Catalan and ask a local worker if they can help you.
Don’t eat on La Rambla
While I’m all for getting out there to enjoy local eateries, this busy street is one of the worst places to eat in Barcelona. La Rambla is usually insanely crowded, busy and packed with tourist-trap restaurants you’re better off avoiding.
Branch out and explore a little further for amazing gastronomy in the L’Eixample, El Raval and even Barceloneta neighbourhoods. Find a list of locals’ favourite Barcelona eateries here.
TIP: Do try tapas! These tasty small dishes are great to share or a satisfying snack! Sample fresh local calamari, prawns, breads, meatballs, jamon and other cold meats. Tapas can be hot or cold. New to Spanish food? Learn more about what to eat in Spain here.
TIP: Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria undercover outdoor market stocks plenty of fresh local produce and snacks including seafood, cold meats, nuts, olives, cheeses, herbs, spices, fresh fruit, veggies and even chocolates. While this popular spot is located on La Rambla, you’ll find locals shopping here too.
Do you tip in Barcelona?
Generally speaking, no, tipping isn’t expected and locals won’t usually do it. However if you’re feeling generous, somewhere between 5% – 10% will be appreciated.
Do head to a local pub and enjoy the soccer
Barcelonians LOVE their soccer (football) and hold their FC Barcelona team dear in their hearts. Get involved and catch a game at a pub or bar with locals – the atmosphere is the next best thing to actually watching the match in person!
TIP: Scammers in pubs will also try to pull the red rose trick on you that I mentioned earlier. It’s best to not engage them at all.
This can be said for anywhere. While I highly recommend taking your time to allow all your senses to soak up Barcelona’s unique atmosphere, don’t be that annoying tourist who isn’t aware of folks around them.
People are busy getting to and from work, so it’s best to keep to the sides when out exploring to allow others in a hurry to quickly pass.
Do use the metro instead of taxis to get around
The metro (TMB) in Barcelona is one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to 1924. Don’t be fooled by its age however, it honestly rivals the London Tube or New York subway!
It’s so easy and cheap to get around in Barcelona by metro, with 160 stops over 12 lines. Tickets only cost a few euro each way (2.60) and can be purchased at station ticket machines.
TIP: The Hola BCN travel card allows unlimited use on the metro, bus (TMB), urban railway (FGC, Zone 1), Montjuïc funicular, tram (TRAM), and regional railway (Rodalies de Catalunya, Zone 1) for 2, 3, 4 or 5 days. This is handy if you plan on solely using public transport to get around! Buy Hola BCN here.
NOTE: Since March 2021, Uber became available in Barcelona again after a 2 year ban by local authorities. Taxis can be expensive and multiple short journeys can add up quickly.
Do use a small bag rather than huge backpack
As I discuss in more detail in my favourite travel resources guide, avoid carrying a large backpack where possible as this makes it evident you’re a tourist. Save your back the trouble and embrace being a minimalist when travelling.
If you absolutely must take a backpack, wear it on your front in crowded areas so it’s always in your line of sight.
TIP: Ladies, carry a small crossbody bag with a zip closure and wear it at your front.
Don’t show off your flashy valuables
Have more than you show! The last thing anyone wants when visiting Barcelona is to fall victim to a sneaky pickpocket. Unfortunately they are rife in this popular tourist destination.
It’s wise to leave the flashy designer labels and other expensive gear at home that will draw unwanted attention. It’s easy to avoid looking like a target – blend in!
TIP: Also remember to take out travel insurance before your trip, just in case.
Don’t dress up like an Instagrammer
Not everyone is going to agree with this unpopular opinion and that’s okay. But please remember the point of this article (and my blog in its entirety) is to help you NOT look like a tourist by blending in as best as possible.
Unfortunately, visitors being dressed to the nines for the sake of pretty Instagram photos is going to make it really obvious to pickpockets that they’re tourists. We want to minimise any unwanted attention.
Do explore on foot with a local guide
While most articles will advise on taking free walking tours in Barcelona, I’m a believer that locals should be paid for their time and knowledge. Traits of a responsible tourist include giving back to locals, not just focussing on what we can take.
My suggestion is to skip the free walking tour that attracts large groups (because they are free) and pay a local guide to show you their favourite hidden spots. These small group tours (or even private) help ease overcrowding. They’ll also give you interesting insights into the city you may not have discovered on your own.
TIP: ByLocals run numerous tours by local residents. There is a Barcelona travel guide to suit every kind of traveller’s interests, take a look at their small group tours in Barcelona here.
Do be aware about optional bikini tops on the beaches
If, like me, you didn’t grow up in Europe, you may be surprised to see women of all ages going topless at the beach.
Having spent an entire leisurely day on Barceloneta Beach, there was a time where it appeared I was the only woman wearing a bikini top. While this probably did make me look like a tourist, that’s what I felt comfortable with but you do what feels right for you.
While baring it all may not be what we’re used to at home, I say good for them. Remember the benefit is no tan lines!
Concluding these Barcelona travel tips to not look like a tourist
This concludes my top Barcelona tips for how to avoid looking like a tourist! I’m not pointing out the negative things about pickpockets to scare you, I would rather be honest by bringing them to your attention. By knowing what to expect and how to avoid them, you can be prepared and confident for your Barcelona trip.
From making the most of your travel time by booking popular experiences in advance to learning about differences between regions, cultures and language in Spain, now you know all the Barcelona travel tips to enrich your experience that most visitors will never grasp in a whirlwind visit.
What did you think of these tips for visiting Barcelona? Would you add any to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to learn my strategies for how to “be invisible” anywhere? I’ve spilled the beans in my #1 Amazon New Release book!
While you’re here, why not check out more of my travel guides and itineraries for Europe, or for advice and more tips on how to be an invisible tourist, check out my complete “Be Invisible” archive here.
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Until next time,
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