The DIY tour
A guided walk is the quick and easy way to learn lots about a place but at €10-€20pp the cost can soon rack up, particularly for a family. Guiding yourself keeps the price down and lets you choose your own pace. The Ruta del Modernisme winds through the city linking more than 100 examples of Catalonia’s famed take on art nouveau. You could be cheap and read descriptions of buildings from the ruta’s rather clunky website, but the accompanying guidebook is only €12 and gets you a discounted entry to many sights. All the biggies, such as Gaudí’s Sagrada Família and the Palau de la Música Catalana by Lluís Domènech i Montaner are on the ruta but you can search out the work of lesser-known architects, such as my favourite, Josep Maria Jujol.
• rutadelmodernisme.com, guidebook available from Museu del Modernisme de Barcelona
The free tour
As in many other cities, a new type of tour has taken off in Barcelona in the last few years. Tours are “free” – you just give your guide what you think is a fair tip at the end. Simple. But are they any good? I tried half a dozen tours of the Gothic Quarter and soon felt like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Most of the tours were average and one was spectacularly bad – it took us nearly an hour to actually get to the Gothic Quarter and, no, I don’t want to buy a ticket for your tapas tour and, no, George Orwell wasn’t shot in Barcelona. But I’d heartily recommend a couple. I expected to take against Sandemans New Europe because it’s a bit of a corporate behemoth but my guide, Leon, was brilliant. I also loved the passion of Laura from Travel Bound.
• Tips average around €10-€15pp, 2-3 hours, Sandemans (newbarcelona-tours.com), Travel Bound (travelbar.com)
Street art in the Raval district
You can’t fail to notice the city’s obsession with the spray can; every metal shop shutter in the Raval, just off the Ramblas, seems to be covered in designs. But I hadn’t seen anything until I walked the barrio with Dominic, who spent his teenage years leaving his mark on commuter trains in Sydney. He taught me about tagging, throw-ups and stencilling, and showed me the work of famous street artists such as El Gordo (fat guys with square faces on tiles) and BCN Cans (cans sprayed with a letter then stuck together to spell out messages such as “Tonight the streets are ours”). A squad of city workers armed with paint brushes polices the streets to wipe out graffiti but they’re fighting a losing battle.
• Free but tip appreciated, 2 hours, barcelonastreetstyletour.com
Barcelona’s food hotspot
The food scene in the district of Poble Sec at the foot of Montjuic hill is hotter than a guindilla pepper. I have some favourite places, such as Mano Rota, but put myself into the hands of the experts to discover more. Barcelona Eat Local’s tour, unusually, started in the morning but that did mean we got to sample great bacallà (salt cod) in the market and visit a wine shop owned by a cava producer for a glass at noon before patatas bravas (probably the best I’ve ever had) and jamón in a very trad restaurant, and then Ferran Adrià’s favourite lunch stop – the king of molecular gastronomy apparently loves old-school offal. The Barcelona Taste tour is in the evening and we ate spectacularly well, from anchovies in a modern tapas bar to octopus in an Argentinian-run joint and Szechuan fish in a place that epitomises Poble Sec right now. These tours are undoubtedly expensive but they include all food and drink and are a world away in quality from the €15 old town tapas tours.
• barcelonaeatlocal.com €70pp; thebarcelonataste.com €80pp; both around 3 hours
The family tour
Dragons, giants, pooing peasants – and sweets. What’s not for a child to like on Runner Bean’s Kids and Family tour? I borrowed four, aged four-12, and we set off with guide Ann-Marie. She enthralled the kids with the grisly story behind the Catalan flag illustrated with her own drawings. There were games, puzzles and jokes as we wandered the Gothic Quarter learning a bit of history. The children loved the tale of how Saint George (Catalonia’s patron saint) slayed the dragon and saved the princess and visiting the workshop where giant figures are made for the city’s many festivals. They were a bit uncertain about singing Ann-Marie’s version of the Catalan song about the Christmas log that poos turrón (nougat) and looked appalled when she pulled out a figurine of a caganer. Who can blame them? The tour finished at a shop making artisan candy. Sweet.
• €15pp (free for children aged up to three), 2½ hours, runnerbeantours.com
An architect’s view of the new Barcelona
A group of young architects are behind Barcelona Architecture Walks and I signed up for their Barcelona and the Future City stroll. Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes was to be the new centre of Barcelona in its 19th-century expansion but it ended up little more than a vast, unlovely traffic junction. The square is now a building site as the city authorities try to rescue this space. Guide Jordi explained some of the theories of urban planning – keeping within a beginner’s comprehension/boredom level – before we walked by some of the new buildings here, such as Encants market and the Design Museum, the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona. A fascinating glimpse into an architect’s world and the challenges of imagining a city’s future.
• €30pp, 2½ hours, barcelonarchitecturewalks.com
A photography tour of the Born district
I always pick up my camera with a heavy heart, imagining that it stops me from just seeing stuff. That’s probably why my photographs are so terrible, and why Fran from Foto Ruta Barcelona had his work cut out. Our small group met in the Born and Fran explained a few basics: light, perspective, the rule of thirds (about composition) and encouraged us to experiment. I didn’t lie on the pavement like one of the group to get a pug’s view of street life but I did snap away at shapes, colours and details. Days later I still found myself looking at familiar streets in a new way. We compared photographs at the end and mine were by far the worst – but, gulp, here’s one (above).
• From €80pp, 3 hours, foto-ruta.es
The Raval, guided by the homeless
There are reckoned to be at least 3,000 people living on the city’s streets but they can be almost invisible to tourists. Hidden City Tours was set up by a Brit to employ, as guides, people who have been on the streets. Former taxi driver Jaume led me on the new Street Life tour amid the Raval, taking me through an average day in the life of a homeless person, from where to sleep (a park in summer, a bank’s cashpoint lobby in winter) and how to keep clean (library washrooms) to how to make money (blowing giant soap bubbles) and where to eat (for example, one of Barcelona’s poshest hotels delivers a giant free paella each Thursday to soup kitchen El Chiringuito de Dios. Jaume is now off the streets and back working as a driver as well as guiding.
• From €15pp, 1½ hours, hiddencitytours.com
Montjuïc hill has always offered a splash of green in this densely packed city. Biologist Mónica is charming and passionate and took me on a fascinating nature tour of this hulk of rock. It moved from descriptions of flora and fauna – such as how the uniform weight of the seeds of carob trees, found on Montjuïc, are the basis for the carat – to explanations of how nature has affected the look of Barcelona. For example, we stopped at an oleander shrub and Mónica showed how Antoni Gaudí used the unusual structure of a stalk as the model for the columns of the Sagrada Família. She also found time to bring in social history, explaining how the hill was once covered in shanty towns, housing a fifth of the city’s population in the 1960s. Mónica’s partner Nick does a great Spanish civil war tour in Barcelona.
• €25pp, 3½ hours, barcelonawildlife.com
The Jewish quarter
I stooped through a little door in a dark, narrow street behind the cathedral and back to the fourth century. This is the only remaining synagogue in what was once a thriving Jewish community, which lasted from Roman times to the 15th century. More than 10% of the city’s 40,000 population in the 14th century was Jewish, all squeezed into a few streets. Jon, from New Jersey, walked us round their barrio, explaining how Jews played a key role in the life of the city; the doctors, lawyers and fixers of their time. The Catalan kings loved the taxes they paid and protected them – until they let the Inquisition have its fun. Jews were expunged from history; street names were Christianised and headstones from the Jewish cemetery were ripped up and used in new buildings – you can still see them on a wall near the cathedral.
• From €10pp, 2 hours, barcelonadreaming.com
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