Avoiding the crowds in Barcelona

The Mediterranean metropolis, the Catalan capital, one of Europe’s most consistently popular tourism destinations: Barcelona is famed for its iconic architecture, particularly the work of Antoni Gaudi, the pulsating La Rambla, its Gothic Quarter and its stunning beaches. Over the last few years, it has also become known as one of the most visible victims of the overtourism phenomenon, and for the increasingly high-profile efforts of its populace and mayor to deal with it. We anticipate that as awareness of the problems caused by poorly managed, mass tourism grows, that Barcelona and its spirited citizenry will become an example of how they can be solved while continuing to make the city a welcoming, desirable place to visit – responsibly.
Barcelona’s incredible surge in popularity, and the subsequent problems the city has encountered in recent years, stem largely from the 1992 Olympics. In 1990, fewer than two million tourists stayed in Barcelona, while in 2017 it was almost nine million. Local residents have become increasingly vocal with their complaints and protests about overtourism, and the strain it puts on resources, public transport and community cohesion. Barcelona’s busy port, which accepted over 100 cruise ships in 2017, and the growth of accommodation platforms such as Airbnb, have also contributed to the situation.
We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience Barcelona’s unique culture and its spectacular architecture, such as Antoni Gaudi’s iconic Sagrada Familia. But there is definitely a better way to travel there, limiting your own impacts and ensuring that the economic benefits of your stay are spread more evenly. The great thing about doing that, however, is that it’s likely to make your trip far more enjoyable.

Responsible tourism in Barcelona

To begin with – you don’t need to actually holiday in Barcelona. In fact, we highly recommend staying elsewhere and travelling in for a day or two, especially in peak season. Barcelona is a popular day trip during activity holidays in Catalonia (it’s just 40 minutes by train from Girona) and Costa Brava resorts. Time in the city is also a common bookend of stays in the Spanish Pyrenees (Sort is under four hours away). If you stay outside the city and travel in you can holiday in relative peace and quiet, well away from the crowds.

If you do stay in Barcelona, then stay in locally owned hotels, and try to eat in locally owned restaurants – that way more of your money stays in the local economy. Local is always best, including when it comes to guided tours. Not only does using a travel company that offers small group tours using local guides create employment, but it means you’ll get a deeper insight into the culture of Barcelona, perhaps picking up some useful tips on where to eat, where to drink, where to dance, or places to see that the vast majority of larger tour groups will never hear about. It’s a win for you, and it’s a win for Barcelona too.

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Things to see and do in Barcelona

There are several ‘musts’ in Barcelona: you ‘must’ see Gaudi’s magnificent, still incomplete Sagrada Familia, perhaps as well as his other famous Barcelona architecture such as Parc Guell and Casa Mila; you ‘must’ take a ramble along La Rambla, lined with bars, restaurants and street artists; you ‘must’ explore the medieval Gothic Quarter, and you ‘must’ wander the colourful, bustling food stalls of La Boqueria.
But any later than mid-morning, and especially in peak season, and you ‘will’ be sharing these attractions with thousands of other people, wielding their cameras and selfie sticks, shouldering their way to the best views, ensuring that it takes forever to get anywhere on foot and filling public transport to overflowing.
So here’s what you ‘ought’ to do. For the must-sees, start as early in the day as you can to avoid the crowds and the big tour groups. And when planning your itinerary, whether you’re there for a week, a long weekend or just popping in for the day from Catalonia or the Costa Brava, think about visiting some of Barcelona’s less well-known and therefore much quieter attractions. Skip the hordes that clog up La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter in favour of other neighbourhoods such as Barceloneta, El Born or El Raval. And instead of La Boqueria, try one of the many other Barcelona markets where you’ll be rubbing shoulders more with the locals than other visitors. As for the Sagrada Familia – you’ll get a great view from one of the nearby parks, without the need to be swallowed up in the crowds around it.

Best time to go to Barcelona

With mild, usually quite dry winters, Barcelona is popular pretty much year-round. You’re never going to have it to yourself. But definitely avoid the peak season months of July and August if you can, and instead look at the cusp of spring and autumn, not coincidentally also superb times for walking in the Spanish Pyrenees, or cycling in Catalonia, when you can expect to encounter substantially fewer other visitors.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alfons Taekema] [Parc Guell: Ulf Liljankoski] [Mercat de Santa Catarina: malouette]
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