Reasons to experience Barcelona off the beaten path
Why is it worth seeing Barcelona off the beaten path?
Before diving into the hidden gems in Barcelona, we need to talk about a very important topic: overtourism.
Like so many popular places, Barcelona has been suffering from the masses of tourists flocking to the city day by day.
When you walk down La Rambla between the masses of people, queue to enter one of Gaudí’s fascinating architectural pieces of art, or try to get a spot by the beach in summer, you get a feeling of how exhausting tourism can be. Both for locals and the environment.
With the rapid growth of tourism since the city hosted the Olympic Games in 1992, Barcelona’s visitor numbers grew faster than the city was able to manage. The tourism board massively pushed this through facelifts such as the tons of imported sand in order to transform the industrial port into a beach. At the same time, more and more souvenir shops replaced local handicraft shops.
The cruise visitors are probably the worst (making up 2.7 million), along with 16 million day trippers each year. They arrive after their breakfast on board and don’t support local cafés, shops, or restaurants. Also, they book tours through their cruise agency leaving even less support for the local economy.
No wonder the port of Barcelona became the most polluted port in Europe (along with Palma de Mallorca) in 2019.
Even those who stay overnight spend an average of only 2 days, which leaves almost no space besides visiting the typical “must-sees”.
It’s no surprise that many Catalans are no fans of the mass tourism that changed their city so aggressively. And they’ve shown this in public protests many times.
While tourism plays a large role in the Catalan economy (making up around 12 %), there has to be a movement towards more sustainable tourism
and away from attracting a growing number of visitors. Actually, the city council has forbidden the construction of new hotels
in the city. As the first steps of a strategic plan for improving tourism are conducted, let’s hope the city will be a role model for a tourist destination that managed to get its act together.
How do you avoid the crowds in Barcelona?
Visit the city in the low season – Avoid the summer months (from May to September). The mild climate allows warm, sunny days also in winter. I had 22 degrees in November last time.
Avoid weekends – Barcelona is a popular destination for weekend trips, so it’s especially crowded from Friday to Sunday. Try to visit during weekdays.
Spend time in local neighborhoods, such as Gràcia and Poblenou instead of sticking to the touristy areas. That’s where you can stumble upon so many hidden gems in Barcelona.
What else to do against overtourism in Barcelona?
Stay longer – Don’t try visiting Barcelona as a day trip from your beach holiday on the Costa Brava. You won’t be able to properly see it in such a short time anyway. And the longer you stay, the more sustainable your trip gets. Please don’t fly for just a 2-3 day trip. And don’t take a cruise! Period.
Support local businesses – Spend money in local businesses: cafés, restaurants, shops. This way, your money reaches those who make up the heart of the city.
Pay respect & learn a few words Catalán instead of Spanish, e.g. say “bon dia” instead of “buenos dias”, “gràcies” instead of “gracias” and “adéu” instead of “adios”.
These should be more than enough reasons for you to actually visit Barcelona off the beaten path. It’s not only a more valuable experience for you, but the city itself also benefits from a more sustainable kind of tourism.
But now I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Let’s dive into Barcelona’s hidden gems.
Explore the hidden gems in Barcelona
1. Local neighborhoods | Get lost in the alleys
Just a short walk from many highlights in the city and you’re right in one of the most authentic quarters of Barcelona. Around Plaça del Sol where locals love to hang out after work and meet for a caña (a small glass of beer) and its surrounding alleys, you get a feeling of the true Barcelona life.
Its many independent boutiques and cafés are worth a stroll off the beaten path in Barcelona. There’s always something going on in the bustling Gràcia neighborhood. So take your time and sit down for a drink and soak up the lively area around you. Maybe there’s even a street musician around.
Well, the Gothic Quarter is not quite an obscure hidden gem in Barcelona, as it’s quite central and a popular area. But in some alleys, it feels like you fell right into the scenes of “The Shadow of the Wind” in a 1930s Barcelona. And you may even find yourself alone in one of the narrow, winding alleys, as there are just so many.
Besides, there may be a new pleasant surprise across every corner, such as a small courtyard or an ancient church.
Don’t miss the Basilica de Santa María del Mar, already stunning from the outside. And stop for a glass of Vermut at the Plaça dels Traginers where locals love to meet next to the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress.
If you’re a book lover like me, you’ll also love following the traces of the old Barcelona like in the Shadow of the Wind. The book’s storyline actually takes place mostly in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. So check out Carrer de Santa Ana (the supposed location of the Sapere bookshop in the story) and mystic Plaça de Sant Felip Neri (where Nuria Monfort, one of the protagonists lived). This square is especially interesting, as a bomb exploded here in 1938 during the civil war, and you can still see the traces of the immense force in the many holes in the walls.
While it used to be an area of which visitors were warned, this has totally changed over time. Raval is home to the iconic MACBA museum (Museum of Contemporary Arts), along with many cultural cafés and bars. Its diversity is like a collection of tiny festivals. You can feel that the inhabitants have put quite an effort into getting rid of their neighborhood’s shady past.
Some still warn from walking around Raval at night and to be careful of pickpockets. But let’s be realistic – in which big city this isn’t an issue? Always use your common sense and you’ll be fine.
Meaning as much as “the new village”, Poblenou used to be a large industrial quarter. It was loud, ugly, and dirty. Although still an important area for Barcelona’s industry, it has been brightened up by lots of cafés popping up on La Rambla de Poblenou and its surrounding streets. Most of all, street art has transformed it into a hip neighborhood where graffiti is not only tolerated but most welcome. Some of Barcelona’s coolest hidden gems can be found on the walls of Poblenou. Modern architecture, music, and design start-ups have brought back life to the old factories off the beaten path in Barcelona.
El Born (Ribera)
Do you want to go for a drink where the locals go? Then El Born is where you need to head to. Officially the neighborhood is called “Barri de la Ribera”, but everyone likes to refer to it as “Born” or “El Born”. It’s full of artists and unique shops and seems to be loved by students as well. No wonder, you can forget time over here and hop from bar to bar until the break of dawn catches you.
Poblenou | street art & the beach
2. Street Art | Gaze at pieces of art in public
El Petó (“The Kiss”)
A few people know about this hidden gem in Barcelona, as it’s a favored photo spot. However, you should take the time to take a closer look. The mosaic artwork of “the kiss” is made up of hundreds of small pictures, each telling its own story.
What all these pictures have in common is that they all reflect what freedom means to the individuals who’ve shared their pictures for this piece of art. So you can see totally different moments, snapshots of personal moments, and individual memories.
Added together, they form the large picture of a kiss.
Embellishments of industrial buildings in Poblenou
By the end of the 1980s, Poblenou has been something like the birthplace of graffiti art in Barcelona. It has been intentionally used to brighten up old industrial buildings. So take your time when strolling through Poblenou and keep your eyes open for its colorful garage doors, walls, and whole buildings. It’s the perfect area to get lost off the beaten path in Barcelona.
Head to the following areas: around the old chemical factory La Escocesa, around NauART, and around the streets C. del Peru, C. de la Selva de Mar, and C. d’Espronceda.
A giant hot air balloon, right in the heart of Barcelona, and so few know about it! It covers a whole large wall of an abandoned building. A building that has been declared a site of historic interest by the Barcelona city council.
It used to play an important role in the Okupa Movement
, during which many empty buildings were occupied in protest against a system in which people have to dedicate their earnings mostly to housing. After many debates, La Cabonería has been evacuated by police forces in 2014. But the large balloon remains. And it spreads a message that is still hot: What system are we living in when people dedicate their whole life to working in order to own a home and live in constant fear of losing both?
3. Viewpoints | Experience Barcelona from above
Turó de la Rovira (Bunkers del Carmel)
A magical view opens up while you walk up the old steps, some of them broken, some of them sprayed. You can see the whole city, with its landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia and Camp Nou, and the seemingly endless sea touching it. This spectacular view isn’t such a hidden gem in Barcelona anymore. Many love to come up here, especially to watch the sunset with a beer in hand. But it’s breathtaking any time of the day. You can also bring some snacks and do a picnic up here.
While it used to be off the beaten path in Barcelona, the 360° view is just too stunning to be kept secret. But it’s still free from any souvenir stalls or restaurants, making it less crowded than other viewpoints.
Each part of the bunker tells a story of a dark past. So don’t just come up here to admire the view. Take a few minutes to actually enter the bunker and learn about its history and role during the Spanish Civil War.
You can either walk all the way up or take the buses no. 22 or 24 towards Carmel. From the bus stop “Ctra del Carmel – Mühlberg” it’s just a few minutes walk up.
The hill is the perfect place to take a break from the bustling city and to get off the beaten path in Barcelona (as long as you stay away from the amusement park that’s also located there). You can spot it from far away due to the iconic Sagrat Cor church that rests on its top.
Walk along the panoramic walking path “Carretera de les Aigues” (which is almost completely flat but offers amazing views) or take a hike further up the mountain.
Montjuïc is another perfect place to escape the city’s hustle and bustle. While its castle, fountains, and cable cars are well-known and popular, its cemetery is a hidden gem in Barcelona. The resting place for many victims of Franco’s regime offers a scenic view across the harbor. With its many sculptures and angels, it makes up a beautiful park.
During summer, there is another reason worth visiting on top of Montjuic Mountain. The castle is transformed into a huge outdoor concert venue and outdoor cinema on several evenings. With an awesome mix of classics and new movies, all shown in their original language, there’s something for everyone.
Turó de la Rovira (Bunkers del Carmel)
4. Structures | Admire architectural artwork off the beaten path in Barcelona
Library of Catalonia & Jardins de Rubió Lluch
Any book lovers out there? If you are one, just as I am, strolling through the alleys full of books (some of them as old as the 15th century) may be just what you love.
The best part of it: Embraced by the historic building that used to be a hospital you will find a wonderful oasis: Jardins de Rubió Lluch. A lush courtyard full of orange trees and greens surrounded by historic archways. You can also find a cute little bar in there and old Spanish men playing chess.
If hidden little gardens are your thing, you should also check out Jardí de la Fundació Julio Muñoz Ramonet.
As one of Gaudí’s first buildings, Casa Vicens has quite a different look from its famous brothers and sisters. It’s inspired by the Mudéjar style, a mix of Spanish and Arabic design. Besides, it’s also lesser know and thus lesser visitors. No long queues over here, even though it’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.
It’s located on a side street of the Gràcia neighborhood, which is why it’s further off the beaten path in Barcelona.
I’ve only visited it from the outside so far, but I’ve heard that its courtyard is exceptionally beautiful (next time, I really want to get in)!
Watching like a castle across Avinguda Diagonal, Casa Terrada looks quite majestic with its towers. In fact, it’s not just one building but three (each belonging to one of the Terradas sisters in the past).
Taking a small tour with an audio guide is said to be interesting in order to learn a bit about the Terradas sisters. But most of all, the view from its beautiful roof terrace is what brings people here – at least those few who know about this hidden gem in Barcelona. Pssst, this is a secret sunset favorite!
Hospital de Sant Pau
Even though the one-of-a-kind Hospital de Sant Pau is a World Heritage site, it’s not as crowded as many other structures in the city. It’s indeed quite off the beaten path in Barcelona, as it’s a bit further outside. But from the famous Sagrada Familia, it’s actually not far at all!
And it’s such a beautiful building that it’s worth stopping by. Actually, it’s one of the world’s largest modernist structures.
Casa Vicens & Casa Terradas
5. Museums | Visit alternative places for modern art
Not far from well-known addresses such as the Picasso museum, you can find the Moco Museum displaying pieces of Pop Culture including Andy Warhol and popular Banksy artworks. It’s not as busy as the city’s other museums, so it could be described as a bit off the beaten path in Barcelona, although you won’t find yourself alone in there.
Especially on a rainy day, you can easily spend a few hours in here. For me, it was the perfectly spent rainy Friday afternoon after a week full of sun. Check the prices, as they differ depending on the time you want to enter (during the late afternoon/early evening you get tickets for 14.50 Euros).
IDEAL Centre d’Arts Digitals
If you’re a fan of augmented reality, virtual reality, or audiovisual projections, check out this center of digital culture. Here you can view audiovisual 3D art projects of famous artists such as Dalí. It can also be a great introduction to modern arts for children.
But don’t expect a traditional art collection over here. This is an immersive technological experience.
6. Beaches | Soak up the sun at the less touristy stretches of sand
Platja de Bogatell & Platja Mar Bella
The number of visitors flocking to La Barceloneta – the city’s most popular beach, takes every charm from it (at least in my opinion). But you don’t even have to walk far to experience beaches just as beautiful but with a more local vibe and a bit less crowded.
Platja de Bogatell and Platja Mar Bella are local’s favorites to meet for a volleyball match, to go surfing, or to walk their dogs after work. The place just spreads a relaxed, positive vibe I can’t really put into words.
Even during the winter months, there’s always a good vibe and some locals hanging around, going for a run, or meeting friends here. And it’s super close to Poblenou to get a drink or eat out after your time by the beach.
Beaches for day trips
If you feel like escaping the city for a day and not just spending your time at a city beach, you’ve got many stunning options around:
Platja Castelldefels – just outside the city but far away so it’s only visited by those who like to be off the beaten path in Barcelona
Platja de Palafrugell – a truly pristine beach with crystal clear water north of Barcelona
Costa del Garraf – a 5 km stretch of sand with shallow water and enough space, so visitors don’t go on each other’s nerves
7. Markets | Stroll through local markets
While everyone knows the famous “La Boqueria” market in Barcelona, few have heard of the beautiful alternatives.
If you love markets, check out at least one of the following:
Palo Alto – An alternative hidden gem in Barcelona where you can find street food, books, clothes, and handicraft in an artistic industrial area (but it only takes place a few times a year)
Mercat de Sant Antoni – On the edge of the Raval neighborhood this is the place to go for fresh groceries on weekdays or vintage clothing, books, and antiques on the weekend flea market
Mercat Encants – Don’t miss this flea market if you’re looking for a vintage bargain. From jewelry, paintings, and other curiosities – Mercat Encants has it all (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays & Saturdays)
8. Food | Munch at alternative places
Barcelona is a foodie’s paradise. There’s something for everyone – from traditional Spanish restaurants, unusual dining experiences to vegan heaven. You don’t really have to look for them, as you’ll stumble upon amazing restaurants on every corner. But here’s a selection to try some alternative places.
Don’t leave Barcelona without trying some local food:
Paella – Served everywhere along the Spanish coast this rice dish (traditionally with lots of seafood) became something like the national dish
⇨ Where? Paco Alcalde
– Some say, here you get the best paella in town (also a vegetarian version!)
Tapas – Even though Tapas aren’t originally from Catalonia, you’ll find Tapas restaurants all over Barcelona. Typical Tapas are Pimientos de Padron (fried green peppers with sea salt), Champiñones al Ajo (Mushrooms with lots of garlic and olive oil), Tortilla de Patatas (Spanish omelet with potatoes), or Patatas Bravas(fried potatoes with a yummy red sauce)
– For Tapas in an authentic atmosphere off the beaten path in Barcelona
– Gràcia’s place to go for Tapas right at Plaça del Sol
– A traditional restaurant for great Tapas right in the center of Barcelona
Pa‘ amb tomaquet / Pan con tomate – As breakfast or a snack any time of the day (A tomato is squashed onto a piece of white bread with a bit of oil and salt on top). You can get it almost everywhere.
Crema Catalan – The typical dessert from this region, comparable to Creme Brulee. It’s served in many restaurants all over town.
Churros con chocolate – A sweet traditional Spanish breakfast – fried dough that you dip into liquid chocolate
⇨ Where? Granja Dulcinea
– Everyone with a sweet tooth has to try the Churros con chocolate in this hidden gem in Barcelona
Vermouth & Cava – No, Sangría is not what locals order. Instead, go for vermouth or cava (sparkling wine).
– To have a drink outside on Plaça dels Traginers among locals
– Where the locals go for a drink at reasonable prices
Vegetarian is a trend almost everywhere, but rarely I was surprised by so many vegan options in one city as in Barcelona. Here’s just a small selection:
- Vegan Corner – A small cafe with lots of Spanish classics (such as Tortilla) but all vegan
– Super popular for breakfast with lots of vegan and gluten-free options. Don’t forget to reserve a table for brunch.
– A crazy yummy selection of vegan burgers in Poblenou, and definitely off the beaten path in Barcelona.
Flax and Kale
– Great selection of healthy vegan dishes in 3 locations in Barcelona
Unusual places to eat
– You’ve never eaten in a parking deck? Then you should try this hidden gem in Barcelona serving amazing pizza and pita.
9. Day trip from Barcelona | Visit gorgeous Girona
Besides all the hidden gems in Barcelona itself, you can also visit a hidden gem closeby, as Girona’s proximity to Barcelona makes it a super convenient day trip. There are many direct trains from Barcelona to Girona every day that take less than 40 minutes.
From Girona’s station, it’s just a short 15 -minute walk to the historic center.
And honestly, Girona was an incredibly beautiful surprise to me. With its well-preserved city walls and the Jewish quarter, its many bridges and awesome cafés the small city of Girona has a lot to offer.
So, on a day trip to Girona, there’s so much to see. Here are some recommendations for your day trip to Girona:
- Walk along the old city walls and climb up at least one of its towers. In my opinion, they’re the best viewpoint across the historic center with its many churches, historic monuments and bridges.
- Visit the Banys Àrabs (Arab Baths) – For only 3 Euros you can enter this beautiful site with its Arab influenced architecture and get an insight of how a wellness break looked back in the days.
- Stroll through the narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter – one of the best preserved in Europe
- Walk up the stairs (yep, there are many stairs in Girona) up to the Catedral de Girona (Game of Thrones fans may recognize the building and its stairway)
- Spend your lunch or coffee break in one of the many hip cafés such as La Comuna, La Fábrica or Eat Sleep Cycle – loved by the local bike scene and veggie lovers (vegans will love the amazing choice in Girona!)
- Cross Pont de les Peixateries Velles for a nice view of Girona’s riverside
- Join a free walking tour to dive deeper into the city’s history (there’s also a tour leading you through the filming locations of Game of Thrones, as there are many to be found in Girona).
10. Hidden gems in Barcelona | Accommodation
When it comes to accommodation, you may quickly feel overwhelmed by the huge choice of hotels and apartments.
So here’s a selection of beautiful eco-boutique hotels in Barcelona that I can warmly recommend, as they are the favorite choices of a dear friend who lives in Spain.