Barcelona is an almost ideal European city, one with near-perfect weather year round, miles and miles of beaches, iconic parks, striking architecture and colorful neighborhoods that march to their own beat—artistic, sophisticated, bohemian. No wonder it ranks #3 in the world (right behind Tokyo and Dubai) in our Place category, which measures both the natural and the built environments of a city.
Steeped in history and wearing its cultural identity proudly on its sleeve, the capital of Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain with a history of attempted secession—as the October 2017 attempt to leave and resulting police violence that flashed across screens globally demonstrated yet again. Despite two terrorist attacks and the police clash with mass protesters, tourism dipped only momentarily before bouncing back—to the possible dismay of the many locals who see tourism as a threat to their city.
With the introduction of the Strategic Tourism Plan 2020, the government continues to curb tourism and curtail practices that negatively affect locals—like real estate investors who snatch up apartments only to rent them on Airbnb, depleting an already limited supply. In the past two years, 2,355 illegal tourist accommodations were closed down, and a team of 100 spotters and inspectors was hired in 2018 to check that they remain closed, to detect new cases and to go after organized networks operating more than one property. Meanwhile, a campaign called Fair Tourism BCN aims to raise awareness among local residents and visitors alike about the negative effects of illegal home rentals.
A word of advice: do your research before you book your accommodations. Once here, though, go to El Born—a neighborhood known as much for its eclectic nightlife as its popular Picasso Museum. Go park yourself at any bar or restaurant in El Raval and you’re bound to make friends with the local artists, musicians or designers who call this neighborhood home… and maybe end up sharing a plate of pintxos with them. Explore Gràcia, a small village that’s been incorporated into the city and is popular with the young families who live here, as well as the hordes of tourists who end up here on their way to Gaudí’s colorful Park Güell.
Don’t be surprised to hear locals speaking Catalan as you walk along the narrow lanes of Barri Gòtic, Europe’s largest Gothic quarter and the heart of Barcelona. Here you’re likely to stumble upon a lively square buzzing with buskers and adoring audiences. Nearby, revelers spill onto sidewalks from tiny cafés and bars. Look a little closer and you might also find the remains of a centuries-old Roman wall… or the spray-can work of a street artist whose portfolio you’ll see in a New York gallery a year later. Want more modern architectural wonders? Barcelona and Gaudí have you covered. The two go together like café con leche, and it would be sacrilege to leave the city without a visit to L’Eixample—the neighborhood where Gaudí’s Gothic masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, is scheduled for completion on the centenary of the architect’s death in 2026.
While you’re in L’Eixample, you should look into Viba Barcelona, a customer loyalty card designed to provide an incentive for people to shop locally. Loyalty card shoppers will be rewarded with at least 1% of the value of their purchase in points to exchange for future purchases, initially at the same establishment. They will also have access to offers, draws, promotions and additional benefits at participating establishments and municipal centers for culture and sports, as well as discounts on admission to Barcelona Zoo and promotions at the city’s museums. The initiative comes into operation in the autumn in L’Eixample, with the rest of the city’s shopping hubs and markets able to join in February 2019.
One benefit of over-tourism that residents can’t argue with is the tourist tax, which invests tourism-generated revenues back into the city. For example, a new footpath scheduled for completion in 2020 will open up the Sant Pau Art Nouveau site and improve pedestrian connections between the Guinardó neighborhoods while adding commercial vitality to the area.