Barcelona has a complicated relationship with tourism. As the most visited city in Spain, tourists inject billions of dollars into the local economy each year, accounting for about 12 per cent of the city’s GDP. But recently some frustrated locals have been protesting the high volume of international travellers – around 32 million people every year – who descend upon iconic spots like La Rambla and the Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter). It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit one of Europe’s most fascinating and diverse cities. But you should be informed, respectful and plan your trip well. Here’s what to know before you go to Barcelona.
From Australia’s east coast, it’s about 21 hours in the air. Fly 14 hours on Qantas to Dubai, then do a seven-hour leg from Dubai to Barcelona on One World Alliance partner Emirates. From Perth, fly 17 hours on to London on Qantas, then take a short two-hour flight from Heathrow to Barcelona on Qantas partner British Airways – it takes 20 hours total.
Australian passport holders do not need to apply for a special visa to enter Spain. Upon arrival in Barcelona, Australians are granted a 90-day tourist visa.
Landing at Barcelona El-Prat Airport
Getting from Barcelona El-Prat Airport to the city centre is quick and easy. Taxis pull up to ranks outside Terminals 1 and 2 all day and night. It’s a 20-30 minute drive, depending on traffic, and should cost around €30.
Alternatively, take the RENFE train service. Fast and clean, this runs approximately every 30 minutes from Barcelona airport and takes around 25 minutes to central city stops Barcelona Sants, Passeig de Gràcia and Clot. From these stations you can change to the Barcelona metro underground system. A single ride on the metro costs about €4, although if you purchase a Barcelona Card (€37 for two days) you’ll have unlimited public transport for 48 hours, as well as free entry to about 20 museums and discounts on more than 50 other attractions and services.
Drug offences carry heavy fines or imprisonment in Spain. Smart Traveller warns Australian visitors to Spain not to photograph military installations and to always carry identification – police can ask for ID and detain you if you don’t have any.
The language barrier
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain where recently there has been heated contention over independence. Spanish is the primary language spoken, but as much as 60 per cent of the population also speak Catalan, a language derived from Latin. It pays to learn some Spanish, and knowing even a few words in Catalan will win you brownie points with locals. If you’re flailing, young people in the service industry are the most likely to speak English.
Customs and etiquette
Many locals in Barcelona consider themselves Catalan, not Spanish, and are likely to be offended if you display ignorance about Catalonian identity and history. It’s an emotional and complex issue, so be sensitive in any discussions and read a few news articles on the separatist movement before you go.
Be respectful inside churches. Dress more conservatively than you might otherwise, and don’t take photos of people worshipping if there is a mass taking place. Don’t walk into a restaurant and expect to be able to order lunch before 1.30PM or dinner before 9PM. It’s less common in major cities like Barcelona, but don’t be surprised if a store or other business is closed 2-5PM for lunch and a post-meal siesta.
The Euro is the currency. At the time of writing, one Australian dollar bought 0.62 Euro cents. Check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
Alert your bank before you leave Australia, just in case your purchases are thought to be fraud and your account is frozen – the fastest way to ruin an overseas holiday.
Make sure your bank won’t hit you with extra fees when you use your credit card in Spain. Your Australian bank and Barcelona ATMs will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
Tipping is not essential like in the US, for example, but leave 7-10 per cent extra at a restaurant if you had a good experience. For tour guides, give €1 per person for a group tour or €20 or more for a private tour. For taxi drivers, it’s normal to round up the fare to the nearest euro. For a taxi from the airport, though, offer €1-2 extra.
Smart Traveller advises that the health risks in Spain are similar to those in Australia, and that the hospital facilities in Barcelona are of a high standard. As always before you travel, make sure your standard vaccinations are up to date and purchase travel insurance.
The Barcelona metro or underground system is extensive, punctual and clean. You can buy a single ticket (€2.20) but if you intend to take the subway more than a few times it’s worth buying a T10 Transport ticket, which buys 10 rides for a much cheaper €10.20. Taxis are plentiful, affordable and typically safe in Barcelona.
In summer (June to August) the average high is about 26-29 degrees Celsius, making the weather perfect for the beach but long days of sightseeing exhausting. Barcelona gets chilly in winter, with the average low temperature from December to February being 5-6 degrees Celsius. Snow in Barcelona is extremely rare.
When to go
Early summer (May/June) and early autumn (September/October) are the best times to visit Barcelona, when the weather is the most comfortable for exploring outdoors. The downside is these are some of the busiest times to visit, making queues longer and attractions like the Sagrada Familia or Park Guell much more crowded. In winter, even though it’s cold, skies are generally blue and attractions are far less crowded, so as long as you don’t want to swim at the beach, November-April can be a good time to go. If you want the summer experience, go June-September, although August is when many other Europeans descend on Spain, making it almost impossible to find affordable hotel rooms and queues at attractions unbearably long.
Due to the pro-independence movement in Catalonia, there is a chance of large-scale protests. Demonstrations can turn violent, so stay away. As with many major cities, petty theft isn’t uncommon, so always be aware of your belongings. Use common sense – avoid walking through quiet, poorly lit areas at night and where possible use ATMs located inside banks rather than those on the street.
The tap water in Barcelona is safe to drink, although some visitors dislike the taste. Most hotels will offer filtered water you can fill up a reusable drink bottle with while residential apartments often have a filter attached to the kitchen tap.
The dress code in Barcelona is generally relaxed. It’s a city on the beach, so like Sydney or Brisbane, it’s common for people to wear singlets, shorts and open-toed shoes in summer. Cover-up as much as possible inside churches – singlets and cleavage will likely cause offence – and go smart-casual at most restaurants.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to Spain take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
Accommodation on La Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous pedestrian thoroughfare, tends to be overpriced; hotels or apartments even just a couple of blocks away will be significantly cheaper. Placa de Catalunya, Barri Gottic, Barceloneta, Poble Sec and Montjuic are centrally located and well connected to public transport.
Phone calls and mobile data
Whether your Australian phone will work in Spain or not will depend on your provider and plan – check with your phone company before you leave. Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. You might be able to purchase a SIM card to use in your Australian phone once you land, but that will depend on whether your phone is locked to your Australian carrier – again, check with your phone company before you go. The European emergency number is 112 but in Spain 091 will get you police and 061 should be called for health emergencies.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Spain’s voltage is 220V compared to Australia’s 230V and the frequency of 50Hz is the same as Australia’s, so most devices should work without issue as long as you have a European adaptor to plug into the electrical wall socket.
Handy apps and websites
Uber if public transport fails.
Smart Traveller for safety information.
XE for currency conversion.
Barcelona Airport El-Prat for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.
Citymapper for public transport, walking directions and trip durations.
Gaudi’s Barcelona for a self-guided tour of the prolific architect’s works in Barcelona.
SpanishDict Translator is an app that translates Spanish to English and vice versa, complete with meanings and pronunciations.