If Barcelona isn’t on your must-see list, I think you should add it. It is without a doubt one of the coolest cities I’ve been to. The people, the food, the architecture, the weather. Everything seems to come together in perfect synchronicity to create this fun, energizing, and beautiful city.
The tone of my visit to Barcelona was set at the first bar I stepped foot in. It was called El Drapaire De La Cervesa Artesana in the El Raval quarter of the Ciutat Vella district, not far off Las Ramblas. I don’t speak Spanish or Catalan, but I’m no stranger to the word “cervesa.” The bartender was friendly and happy to chat. That’s something that’s always annoyed me about a lot of Portland bars – the lack of bartenders giving a shit, or even pretending to give a shit. But this guy was great! He pointed out the Lagunitas banner hanging on the wall and asked if I’d ever had it. Living on the West Coast I have most definitely had my fair share of Lagunitas IPAs. Coincidently, one of the two Lagunitas reps living in Spain was coming by the bar that night to check on reorders. We chatted for a while about craft beer using lots of hand gestures and strings of simple words to describe more complicated things we were trying to explain. His English was minimal and my Catalan is, well, non-existent.
The rep showed me a few other bars in the area, like Bar 33/45, another craft beer-focused bar. After four or five beers and a flight earlier in the day, I was tempted to call it a night. Fortunately, I made plans a couple days beforehand to meet up with Robin, a Barcelona local, that night.
Robin is a friend of a guy named John. I met John at a photo shoot for work the day before I flew out of Portland. John used to live in Barcelona and he connected me with Robin. And Robin turned out to be a pretty kick ass tour guide. Funny how things work.
I met Robin at Bar Calders, home of the cheapest gin and tonics in the city (€3.50). It was in the Sant Antoni neighborhood, not far from El Raval where the night began.
We started our tapas crawl with two traditional Spanish tapas. Pan con tomate and Ensaladilla Rusa. Pan con tomate is a crusty bread with a thin tomato sauce spread on top, or the tomato is rubbed directly onto the bread. Robin explained how the origin of this dish came from Catalan cooks trying to avoid food waste - they had a stale piece of bread and an overripe tomato. By combining the two and adding some olive oil and salt, otherwise trash-destined ingredients were transformed into a traditional, and quite delicious, dish.
Ensaladilla Rusa was our second Spanish staple. Nearly every tapas joint in Barcelona has their version of the dish. Ensaladilla Rusa is a mayonnaise-based dip that usually contains potatoes, tuna, peas, and carrots. Although I was hesitant and expecting a mouthful of mayo, I was pleasantly surprised by the lightness of the dish. The solid ingredients were super fresh and crisp while the mayo was actually used pretty minimally to bind everything together.
After another gin and tonic, we left Bar Calders and continued on our tapas crawl.
Stop #2: Vermut. Vermut is in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona, a much less touristy area. Walking into Vermut it was obvious that the patrons were regulars. That made me excited (and relieved I was with a local). We ordered beers, fried little croquets with all sorts of meaty fillings, and this heirloom tomato salad that’s hard to put into words. I’ve never had a salad that was so satisfying – it was both refreshing and indulgent.
There was a thin layer of fresh greens at the bottom, topped with the star of the show: five or six thick-cut slices of heirloom tomatoes in an array of colors and flavors. Those were topped with quartered avocados, grated parmesan, and a thick, sticky, sweet balsamic dressing.
I didn’t think it was possible to get this infatuated with a salad. I guess you learn something new every day.
Robin and I ended the night with a leisurely stroll back toward the center of the city and called it a night. Day 1 in Barcelona: Boomshakalaka.
The Airbnb I stayed in was wicked cool. It was right off Las Ramblas and up three floors through an inconspicuous door on a windy alleyway street. The apartment was bright and airy and full of fun art pieces and quirky knick knacks. Before it was converted into an apartment it must have been a creative office space or something more compartmentalized. In the main living area, there were four different tile styles.
In fact, all over Barcelona, I found myself looking down and noticing a high level of detail on the ground. Even the average street sidewalks adorned neat patterns.
One of my favorite things I did in Barcelona is something that I usually wouldn’t do in general: A guided bike tour. To my defense, this wasn’t one of those 30+ people tours with a guide wearing a headset and branded polo giving the tour from a script. It was an “Airbnb Experience.” It was a group of three (me + a couple from New York) and Jordan, the tour guide. He was originally from San Fran, moved to Barcelona 13 years ago and never looked back. He was a hipster if you've ever seen one. He was also super knowledgeable, fun to chat with, and allowed us to see most the city in a single afternoon. We rode through a bunch of gardens, including Parc De La Ciutella, one of the main public parks in Barcelona.
And also got to see some of the more recognizable landmarks in the city. Like La Sagrada Familia, which has been under construction since 1882 and won't be complete for at least another 9 years!
And Casa Milà, one of the many famous Gaudi structures in Barcelona.
Our last stop on the tour was to Elsa y Fred, one of tour-guide-Jordan’s favorite spots. Jordan ordered us a bottle of local-made sangria and 8-10 different tapas. I was too hungry and excited to remember to take photos of the first few plates, but I did manage to get a couple terrible snaps of our final two dishes: a tuna tartar with a puffed black rice cracker and a beef tartar taco.
The “Airbnb Experience” was certainly that. It didn’t feel corny or forced; it was just a great opportunity to connect a knowledgable local with tourists eager to explore. Check it out if you're ever in Barcelona.
My last night in Barcelona perfectly summarized my time in the city. It was relaxing, fun, and food-filled. After leaving La Boqueria, a huge, open-air market off Las Ramblas where I got a jar of saffron and this couscous/paella/enchilada-like dish,
I strolled down to the beach for sunset. I was lucky enough to catch two street bands. One super legit group:
And another not-so-legit group who harassed everyone for money after their rendition of "La Bamba."
I enjoyed them both, especially because I was drinking a beer sea-side on a 70-degree evening. As the night went on the sun began to set and golden hour arrived. These photos immediately take me back to the day and time - slightly buzzed, feeling the sun warming (and probably burning) my skin, both happy to be in Barcelona and sad to be leaving the following day.
For my final Barcelonian meal I headed to Belmonte in the Gothic Quarter, a Robin-recommendation. When I arrived I sat at the bar. Merce the owner, hostess, bartender, and only waitress, greeted me. I told her Robin sent me and she smiled.
I ordered the house red and a few small plates: Pan con tomate (again!), truita, and xato. I was expecting the truita to be a tortilla filled with different ingredients, sorta like a quesadilla, but instead, it was an eggy omelet. I ordered mine with chorizo and croutons. Merce told me that was Robin’s favorite so I figured I couldn’t go wrong. I’m still not sure how I feel about croutons in an omelet. I guess it makes sense as an alternative to toast on the side, but the texture kind of threw me for a loop.
The real star of the meal was the xato. It was a combination of crunchy, leafy greens and fresh, cold seafood. I couldn’t even tell you what all of the sea creatures were, but they were awesome. It all came together with a lemony, anchovy-y dressing and briny olives.
It’s apparent the Spanish know their shit when it comes to salads. They also seem to know their shit when it comes to living a good life. Everyone I encountered in Barcelona appeared happy, balanced and eager to engage. They seem to live with a work hard (but not too hard), play hard attitude that radiates throughout the city. It was a beautiful place and I can’t wait to go back.