Stroll, eat, and drink your way through Barcelona’s beach-side barrio.
When I first arrived in Barcelona almost a decade ago, I loved spending hot summer afternoons at the beach, my haven in those early days, but it took me longer to explore the streets of its 18th-century barrio, Barceloneta. At first glance, it might appear that there’s not much to the neighborhood, but it’s worth taking the time to uncover its gems.
It remains a unique neighborhood in many ways, for the salt-of-the earth character of its residents, and—until only recently—for its resistance to the commercial makeover taking over the rest of the city center. Its narrow grid of streets is a contrast to the warren of the city’s Gothic quarter, with remarkably compact apartments and tiny balconies strung with laundry. Many also proudly fly the bright blue-and-yellow neighborhood flags symbolizing the collective pride of its residents and their revolt against the insidious tourism (and tourist apartments) slowly destroying their way of life. Yet, these small details are easy to miss, especially in the height of summer when the crowds swell and the sea beckons. The tensions may not be evident to foreign eyes, yet it’s important to note the ways in which the mass tourism plaguing the neighborhood is shaping locals’ lives.
If you want to learn more about Barceloneta’s rich history, the ideal place to begin your walk is at the Barceloneta metro stop. A quick backtrack up Pla de Palau (putting the port at your back) will bring you to the corner of Passeig d’Isabel II, where on the corner you’ll find the old farolas de Pla Palau, a set of lampposts thought to be one of Antoni Gaudí’s first commissioned works for the city of Barcelona. Taking two rights will bring you down Passeig d’Isabel II and onto Carrer de la Duana, which runs into another less obvious wonder, El Baluard del Migdia. What looks to be little more than an unlikely square of undeveloped space is actually a section of the old fortification wall, dating back to 1527, intended to protect the city from coastal invasions.
Head out Carrer de la Marquesa and make a left onto Pla de Palau. Once you pass the metro stop and cross the main thoroughfare, Carrer del Dr. Aiguader, you’ll be on Passeig de Joan de Borbó, which will take you in a straight shot to the beach. This leafy avenue is brimming with distractions, from the sandaled masses heading for summer sun, to the bars, restaurants, and street markets which line it. It’s worth taking note of the first building across the street. Housed in a former warehouse, the History Museum of Catalonia (Museu d’Historia de Catalunya) offers a wealth of insight into the city’s history, but perhaps its biggest draw is its rooftop terrace, which offers impressive views of the port. After night falls, it’s a great place to grab a drink and listen to the resident DJ. Another worthwhile stop is the nearby Casa de la Barceloneta (Carrer de Sant Carles, 6), a preserved house from 1761 which functions as a small museum offering fascinating collection of historical photographs showing the quaint origins of this neighborhood and its evolution. In it, you can see the original barracks built to house the La Ribera residents who were pushed out when the 70-acre Parc de la Ciutadella was built and which conveniently became home to many of the city’s fishermen.
If you’ve gotten an early start, then breakfast probably beckons. Scenesters seeking out an Insta-friendly feast would probably be happy perched on one of the terrace tables at Brunch and Cake by the Sea with an acai bowl and avocado toast. But in Barcelona, breakfast the traditional way happens about 10 a.m., and consists of a tallat (half coffee, half scalded milk)—cortado in Spanish—and a bocata, a sandwich usually consisting of a slice or two of jamón on a white baguette. Most of the bars sell them, including the excellent Forn Baluard, one of the best bakeries in the city, but the most atmospheric option is La Cova Fumada, located just beyond on Carrer del Baluard, situated on the leafy plaza Poeta Boscà. It’s best known for its bombetas—which means “little bombs” in Catalan–large, round croquettes made of meatballs coated in fluffy mashed potatoes and bread crumbs and then deep fried and served drizzled in mayonnaise and spicy tomato sauce. I’d been hearing about these legendary bites for years, but it wasn’t until I finally tried them that I understood what all the fuss was about. This is the kind of food that truly characterizes Barceloneta’s past: simple, stick-to-your-ribs fare designed to keep Barcelona’s hardworking fishermen well fed.
Weekends are a great time to visit Barceloneta, when families pony up to the local bars for vermouth hour at noon before tucking into a paella lunch a couple hours later. A great place to start is just across the plaza from La Cova Fumada at Bar Electricitat, enchanting for its no-frills atmosphere. Take a seat at one of the marble tables and ask for a vermut negre or a blanc—both are good. The vermouth hour usually includes a pre-lunch pica-pica: small plates of canned fish, anchovy-stuffed olives, spicy patatas bravas-–fried wedge potatoes slathered in fiery tomato sauce–and potato chips. If your stomach can handle it, soldier on to Bodega Fermín just next door and stock up on Basque-style pintxos (pinchos), slices of baguette topped with all manner of toppings, like Spanish tortilla, oily sardines, and roasted peppers filled with tuna salad. They also have a great local craft beer selection.
Some might argue that paella is the gastronomic heart and soul of the neighborhood. There’s a wealth of paella joints worthy of a visit if you can make time for a leisurely lunch. The classic places like Can Majó and Can Solé, which have been turning out the prized rice dish for decades—and in the case of Can Solé, since the turn of the century—are always packed. I prefer to make my way up past the port Xiringuito Escribà on Bogatell Beach, a 30-minute stroll from the end of Passeig de Joan de Borbó. Although you’ll need a reservation, the outdoor restaurant offers a beachy vibe, and the paellas are exceptional. The pasta version, made with short noodles called fideuà and a mix of seafood, is a Catalan classic worth trying. Once you’re there, take advantage of the beach out front, a much less crowded stretch of sand the locals seek out to avoid the tourists further south.
If you’re not up for an all-day eating affair, you can stop into the Mercat de la Barceloneta back in Plaça Poeta Boscà and pick up all the fixings for a picnic lunch. With its graceful, modern roof, the market adds a sense of architectural richness to the antique heart of the neighborhood. Like other neighborhood markets, it stands as a vital center for the community, but it’s far less crowded than the city’s famous and ever-touristy Boqueria Market. Pick up slices of rich jamón and manchego cheese for entrepans (sandwiches), olives, canned fish, and fruit for a light lunch.
From there, you can take Baluard straight to the beach, but if you don’t mind delayed gratification, you can swing back on Baluard, hang a left on Carrer d’Escuder and a right on Carrer de Sant Miguel to arrive at the pleasant Plaça de la Barceloneta with its beautiful Parròquia de Sant Miquel del Port, where the castellers sometimes gather on holidays to build their human castles.
From the plaza, it’s an easy hop back over to Joan de Borbó where you can continue your walk to the sea, perhaps stopping at the portside food stalls to gather cured meats and cheeses for a seaside snack. Bypass most of the restaurants along the way, since they’re nefariously overpriced. One exception to this might be La Barra de Carles Abellán, which offers good bang for the buck, although certainly avoid Abellán’s eye-poppingly overpriced beach bar, La Guingueta. Near the end, the ever-packed Makamaka is a tempting spot, as much for its beachy vibe as for its Bloody Marys—a relatively recent import to Barcelona.
Just past Makamaka, you’ll be at Plaça del Mar, the main plaza where Passeig de Sant Joan de Borbó meets the water. From this point, you have two options: head south towards the W Hotel or north along the beach towards Vila Olimpic and the marina. Heading south is ideal if you’re looking for an upscale meal or a luxe chill-out zone in a slightly less frenetic area of the beach, known as Platja de Sant Sebastià. It’s worth noting the walk there will bring you past a section of the beach beloved by nudists, often shamelessly bronzing themselves on foot. The Beach Garden at the base of the Club Natació Atlètic de Barcelona offers a rustic outdoor bar in the warmer months, while the base of the W is crowded with more high-end options. Gallito is a good option for a Mediterranean lunch, and the W Hotel’s own Salt Restaurant and Beach Club is a perfect place to sip on a drink with your toes in the sand.
Heading in the other direction from Plaça del Mar, you’ll stroll along the boardwalk which is packed in summer, passing paella restaurants, lively beach bars, elaborate sand sculptures, and a packed beach filled with eye-popping sights, from barely-there bikinis (generally only the bottom half) to shockingly small speedos. Not far up the beach you’ll find what appears to be a stack of boxes, but which is actually the statue of L’Estel Ferit (The Wounded Shooting Star) by German artist Rebecca Horn, built to commemorate the original wooden beach bars (xiringuitos) that were torn down in a bid to clean up the city for the 1992 Olympics. Eventually, past the Parc de la Barceloneta, you’ll come to the area of the beach home to the major nightclubs. It really comes alive at night, although taking the stairs down to the beach you’ll find the club terraces, which convert to restaurants during the day. A couple of them become afternoon chill-out zones, not bad if upscale cocktails and house music are your thing. The last stop on your tour is back on the upper deck. In the late afternoon light, Frank Gehry’s golden fish (Peix d’Or) looms luminous, a shining example of the new face of Barceloneta.
If the sun is sinking and hunger is gnawing, take a swing back through the back alleys to discover more of Barceloneta’s Catalan cuisine. Those seeking fresh seafood might consider popping into classic hotspots like Kaiku, La Bombeta, Montolio Can Maño, or Bar Bitácora, although it’s essential to know that many places in the neighborhood don’t take reservations (Bitácora being a rare exception), and people begin queuing for dinner well before opening hour at 8 p.m. Most wait times can run over an hour unless you’re one of the first in line. Meat lovers might prefer La Malandrina, which serves up local sausages like white or black botifarra, as well as premium entrecôte and creamy potatoes for under 15 euros.
I usually end my days in Barceloneta hankering for an ice cream. There are lots of shops lining the main avenue, but it’s worth the walk up past the Barceloneta metro stop, across Passeig d’Isabel II, and into the small, grassy plaza of Pla de Palau. You’ll find one of the city’s best gelaterias, Gocce di Latte, there. If you can bear the crowds, a stop into the city’s beloved La Xampanyeria, with its endless flow of cheap cava and bar bites, will put a sparkling glow on the day’s end.