I’ve been a resident of Barcelona for over 10 years, and oftentimes, I still feel like a tourist. This happens usually when I’m wandering with the crowds in Gothic Quarter or Born, or passing through the raucous-y Plaça Catalunya. I still visit tourist sites from time to time (yes, even the Sagrada Familia!). For that reason, I’ve come up with some Barcelona tips and tricks for YOU, especially if you’re a first-timer. Find out what you need to do before you come to Barcelona!
- Buy your tickets to the Barcelona top attractions ahead of time. Do this for two reasons 1) they’re often cheaper online, and 2) you can “skip the line”. Definitely do this for the Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Picasso Museum, and maybe Casa Batlló in the summer. [Read my ultra-useful Sagrada Familia tips here.]
- Make sure the museum you want to visit is open. Some museums are closed on Mondays. Don’t be a dumb-dumb like me, and take a 2-hour train ride to the Dalí Museum and realize it’s closed!
- What are the best places to go for a first-timer? In my opinion, if you have to pay to go INSIDE any Barcelona sights, it’s the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Other than that, you should experience walking around the Gothic Quarter and Born neighborhoods. <– These are the historical districts of Barcelona which are also packed with restaurants and bars. Then lastly, hit the port and beaches, and then get a view from Montjuic. That’s my order of preference.
- If you want to buy the most basic ticket to see the Sagrada Familia, you can only enter in before 2pm. A basic ticket (€17) covers this: access to the interior only with NO tour guide and NO towers. Plan your day in Barcelona accordingly!
Food, Eating, and Restaurants
- Know the eating schedules. Locals typically have breakfast around 8am (at home, if they work or go to school) and a mid-morning snack around 10:30am. Lunch is around 2-2:30pm. Dinner is around 10pm. So if you want to beat any restaurant crowds, go earlier – 1pm for lunch, maybe 8:30pm for dinner. (That’s what I do because I HATE waiting at restaurants with my kids.)
- If you’re going to have tapas with locals, expect to share from one plate. This tip is for people who are concerned about hygiene. Having tapas can be super fun because you share small appetizers – it’s a very social ritual! But sometimes, everyone just uses their fork to pierce the food from the shared plate straight into your chomper.
- Spanish is widely spoken, but Catalan is the official local language. A lot of the official government-run signs are just in Catalan, so even though some words look somewhat familiar, it’s in Catalan! Having said that, you can often communicate in English, but I highly suggest you try to speak Spanish – it will always be appreciated.
- “Catalonia is not Spain,” many say. It’s a common phrase – as it’s a highly charged and highly political issue for decades. The issue of Catalan independence has also been heigtened in the past few years. In general, Catalans see themselves differently than the rest of Spain. I’d say most would identify themselves as “Catalan” first, and if at all, “Spanish”.
- In a restaurant, if you order water, it’s bottled water. There is no option to get “a free glass of water”. If you want free water, head to the public drinking fountains around Barcelona, there are plenty. You can even download this app for where to find the fountains!
- The water in Barcelona is perfectly safe to drink. The taste is something else. Some locals buy water, some drink from the tap. A trick to get rid of the undesirable taste is to refrigerate the water. It seems to do the trick for us. My family and I used to buy bottled water, but not only does it get expensive, it’s also a pain to buy liters of water a week.
- From the airport. There are a few easy options to get from BCN airport in El Prat. Taking a taxi is the easiest but most expensive option, about 40 euros to the city. Taking the train is easy too! (I took it just yesterday!). Walk to the train station from Terminal 2. There are many attendants there to help you buy your ticket. There are several stops including Passeig de Gràcia, which is pretty central. The train is really cozy too, you just have to beware of pickpockets.
- The best way to get around is by walking or using the metro or bus. If you are going to Gothic Quarter, Born, or La Barceloneta, you can walk. But to get to Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Tibidabo, or Montjuic, you’ll have to use public transportation. Buy a T-10 card at any metro station. It’s a card of 10 trips with free transfers anytime you change modes of transportation like from metro to bus. You just have to make the trip within 1.5 hours, which is never a problem within Barcelona city limits.
Money and tipping
- Spain is part of the European Union, and the Euro is the currency. They do not accept dollars here anywhere. You can use credit cards. Sometimes a machine will ask for a PIN. So make sure you know what it is beforehand!
- Tipping at a restaurant is not expected in Barcelona. You do not have to tip for a 5 euro breakfast or for a drink at a bar. If you prefer, you can round up to the nearest euro. If not, leave as much as you want as servers work very hard and have low wages. For big groups or a high-class restaurant, 10% would be a good tip.
- Tipping elsewhere. For taxis, hairdressers, hotel room service, you can round up your loose change or tip 1 to 2 euros. Of course, tip more if you feel service was stellar. Again, it is NOT expected but definitely appreciated.
- Get in free in museums on the first Sunday of each month. Some museums are completely free, including the Picasso Museum. But you MUST reserve your Picasso museum ticket online in advance first. Do it the day before because you have to choose a time window, and they go fast!
- Eat a menu del dia for lunch. This is a fixed-price meal offered only during lunch. It includes the first dish, second dish, a dessert, and drink. Not all restaurants offer it. So when you do, it’s a pretty good deal.
- Hang out in incredible Barcelona’s public spaces for free. You don’t have to enter all the museums to enjoy Barcelona. In fact, you don’t have to buy anything! The best places (especially for a sunny day) are Park Ciutadella, the beaches like Mar Bella, Barceloneta to people-watch, squares in the Grácia neighborhood (Plaça del Sol, Plaça Vila del Gràcia), or Tibidabo where you get the highest and best views of Barcelona!
Beware of pickpockets. It BREAKS MY HEART every time a tourist gets their wallet stolen. It also PISSES ME OFF! Consider buying an anti-theft purse if you are a woman. I own two (Read my buyer’s guide to choose one). It has given me lots of peace of mind as I often have my hands full with my kids, my DSL camera, etc. You do NOT have to be paranoid about pickpockets. Relax, enjoy Barcelona, but be smart. Read more in my guide on how to avoid pickpockets in Barcelona.
- It’s polite to say “hola” when entering into a shop and saying “adeu” when exiting. It’s not necessary, just polite.
- When meeting new friends or being introduced, locals give a kiss on each cheek. It’s not a real kiss where the lips are planted tightly on the cheek. It’s more of a light “muah muah” with a light brush of the skin.
Wi-Fi and Internet Connection
- Know where the public wi-fi areas in Barcelona. They’ll save you from using all your data! You can find the stations here.
- For extra security, I suggest you use a VPN to keep your data secure and encrypted. It would be a complete disaster if your credit card information or other personal data got stolen.
That’s it! Did you learn anything new in my travel tips for Barcelona? Have any other questions? Let me know in the comments!
California native, churro aficionado, and mom of 3, Justine Ancheta writes fervently about Barcelona and Spain. Since 2008, she's been eating burnt onions (calçots) and tripping on cobblestones in the Gothic Quarter. She shares tips on popular attractions, exposes offbeat non-touristy spots, and gives insight on exploring Barcelona with kids. Her next Catalan culture challenge: top level of a human castle (castellers).