The first time I visited Barcelona was at the height of Summer about five years ago, and despite the fact that it was chockablock with people, I still fell in love with the city. The architecture is like something from another planet, the sun was shining, and the Catalan way of life is just as warm as that good old sunshine. But back then, Instagram was only just starting to become the institution that it is now (awkwardly I’ve met people who proudly declare that they travel solely to make their Instagram feed look good, which seems kind of an expensive task but whatevs), and these days the city is swamped with even higher numbers of tourists armed with selfie sticks and outfit changes and large backpacks like giant tortoise lumbering slightly-slower-than acceptable up the street. I spent last Winter visiting the city every single week, and I fell in love with it all over again, for a whole load of different reasons. Don’t get me wrong, summer’s great, but winter is the perfect time to visit Barcelona.
The most obvious reason to visit Barcelona during winter is that the city is significantly quieter than during the high season. This place can get so overcrowded with tourists that in the centre it can become rather tricky to navigate your way around, and personally I find locations like that stressful. I spent one day chatting to a lady in a T-shirt shop who did a downright superb impression of tourists stopping to gawk up at La Sagrada Família, getting all up in her pathway when she was trying to get to work every morning. On the one hand, the tourism industry in this city is huge, and therefore economically pretty beneficial, but on the other, Barcelona is struggling to cope with it. Visiting the Catalan capital in Winter means it’ll be less annoying for you as one of the throngs of tourists, and also less annoying for the residents of this lovely location.
Comfort food and cozy restaurants
I know that Spain is traditionally (for us English folk at least), the place for summer holidays and sangria, but there are so many cozy little restaurants and bars in the city, lit with a mixture of candles and ultra-low, warm lighting, that I’ve come to realise it’s the perfect place for comfort food on a Winter or Autumn day.
Your best bet is to stay away from La Rambla and the surrounding areas with their laminated tourist menus and head to somewhere like Gràcia, El Born or El Raval, which are packed full of nooks and crannies to tuck into a plate or two of Catalan treats. Make sure you try fideuà (similar to paella but made with pasta noodles), pan con tomate (literally bread with tomatoes but trust me on this one, hombres), mel i mató (a type of cheese served with honey and walnuts), and basically anything that’s on fire. True story. Foods involving fire, particularly when served, are awesome.
And naturally there are few things more warming in life than sitting in a tiny old bar in Barcelona eating churros con chocolate. I don’t care what people say, that dish is surely made to be eaten in the colder months of the year.
Related: One Day in Malaga, Spain
Just sticking to the sit-down restaurants and steering clear of the markets all over the city would be an actual cardinal sin. Okay?
The most famous of them all is probably the Mercat de la Boqueria, sitting under a roof with a stained-glass facade on La Rambla. The SMELLS IN THIS PLACE, YOU GUYS! Obviously tuck into cornets of cured meats and hard cheeses, candied fruits and nuts- and be prepared to deal with a few in-your-face sights of traders selling literally every single body part of animals that you can imagine. You will come face to face with sheeps’ heads. So, just to mentally prepare you on that one.
But Autumn is also the season for wild mushrooms in all their glory, panellets- tiny cakes made from marzipan and pine nuts- and in the markets and on street corners, roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes are cooked up and dished out to all the hungry passers-by. And even if you’re not hungry, the beaut smell from these chestnut-and-potato sellers will probs make your mouth water regardless.
One of the things that Barcelona is most famous for, is its incredible architecture. The modernist movement took off in a big way around here, with Gaudí being the most famous of Barcelona’s red carpet roll call of architectural masterminds. The quirky old soul; read up on his strange and wonderful life here.)
Mansions designed to look like dragons, skeletons or forests, sit side-by-side with rainbow-tiled and turreted creations like a parade of beauty contestants all striking their own weird and wonderful poses. And a huge number of these buildings are open to visitors; however, queues to get inside can go on for a long old time; in Summer you’d be better off booking your slot in advance so that you’re not waiting around in the heat forever. Unfortunately it makes the whole experience pretty similar to that of getting to Thorpe Park and realising that you’ll only have time to go on three rides as you accidentally came on the busiest day of the year.
If you go in winter however, chances are that you’ll be able to just breeze on in with little to no queue at all. The only building I did book in advance was La Sagrada Família, but I realised that even if I’d have turned up in the morning there would’ve been space for me to enter with a very minimal wait.
Related: Visiting La Sagrada Família
They do love a good old fashioned knees up in Spain, although obviously they do give these the considerably more glamorous name of a ‘fiesta.’
In late September is La Merce is a full on important in Barcelona’s jam-packed calendar. The festival commemorates the time in the 1600s when the city was plagued with locusts; they prayed to that lovely lass Our Lady the Virgin of Mercy. The locusts disappeared and the citizens declared that a festival should take place to honour her. There are fireworks galore, the city giants get taken for a glorious parade around the streets (yes, you read it correctly, Barcelona has a large collection of papier-mâché giants who are hugely important), and people build human towers called castellers.
It goes without saying that Christmas is downright beaut here; lights go up across the city and Christmas markets appear in the all the squares. Now, German Christmas markets are great and everything, but Catalan Christmas markets are totes worth a poke around as well, folks.
Around these parts it’s not Father Christmas who leaves presents for children at night, but the Three Wise Men traipsing about on their camels; and they arrive a bit later than Father C, on the night of the 5th January. To celebrate, there is a gigantic parade through the city. And I do love a parade.
Related: Easter in Cádiz, Spain
The gothic atmosphere
Barcelona’s gothic quarter is a seriously atmospheric place, and although I had fully fallen in love with it during the Summer that I first visited, it was during winter that it really came to life for me. The early morning or late afternoon shafts of light that crack through the narrow streets turning all the people to silhouettes, are just full on beautiful, even when there’s a bit of a chill in the air. In fact, the chill almost makes it more magical. If you’ve ever read The Shadow of the Wind, a book set in these gothic back streets of Barcelona, you will fully appreciate the city at this time of year. And if you haven’t read it, then go find a copy on the double because it’s an absolute beaut of a book.
The sun still shines!
Although there are chillier days, and the leaves still turn orange and gold before they tumble off of their branches, it really doesn’t matter because the sun still shines. During my entire time from November to February of visiting the city once a week, 90% of the days were super sunny and beautiful, and although it was maybe a little too chilly to go gallivanting down at the beach (I’m not that crazy, don’t woz), it was at least warm enough to sometimes not need a coat. And I am all about that no coat lifestyle.
- If you want to visit everything in Barcelona, the cost of attractions can add up super-fast. Museums have free entry once a month, and some of the buildings (I’ll be honest) are kind of a rip-off unless you’re crazily interested in architecture. Do your research beforehand and figure out which places would actually be interesting to you.
- The city’s metro network is AWESOME and frequent. A single journey is €2.20.
- If a waiter puts bread on your table and you eat it, you will be charged for it!
- If arriving by cruise ship, it’s fully possible to walk from the port to the city centre.
- In fact, if you have the time, it’s fully possible to walk everywhere, and this is definitely the best way to get to know the city.
- Catalan is a different language to Spanish, although there are lots of similarities.
- December to February are typically the coldest months, with highs of around 15°C.