The Real Barcelona - My Family Travels

Barcelona is a city of contrast. Gaudi’s spires rise against sleek modern apartment buildings, and crowded, tourist-geared streets give way to quiet residential alleys. In some areas restaurant staff speak perfect English, and just blocks away they speak nothing but Catalan. For the most part, tourists visiting the city don’t give themselves a chance to see the contrast. They take the streets in from air-conditioned buses, hitting “important” parts of the city and the occasional Desigual. As lovely as these tours might be, I can’t help feeling that these people are missing the true city. A city isn’t all monuments and designer stores — especially, I found, Barcelona.

Finalist 2012 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship

After getting tickets on Expedia, I booked my family’s apartment on It was advertised to be just blocks from Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia cathedral. But when the taxi pulled up in front of the plain building on a street that was little more than a sidewalk, I wondered how. It was behind a small dog park and there was graffiti on the building next door. The closest store was a tiny, cheap convenience mart, which we nicknamed “Owens’” after the similar store near our house. Still, when I went up the cramped “lift” to the apartment and stepped onto the balcony, I could see the spires of the Sagrada Familia so close it was hard to believe there wasn’t a single tourist shop within sight.

Every morning when my family awoke, we went out and bought fresh fruit from the best ‘Frutas y Verduras’ market (there’s at least one on every corner); long, crisp baguettes and flaky pastries from the pasteleria; and fresh, flavorful, and oh-so-cheap cheese from a place we merely called “The Cheese Lady Shop”. At “home” we would make breakfast before setting off on our day’s adventures.

When we came home in the evening, we would either go to a neighborhood café for paella, tapas, or a delicious tortilla (at a restaurant called ‘Ole!’ on Calle de Mallorca); or we would cook for ourselves. One night we bought cuttlefish from the fresh fish market and cooked it with fresh vegetables—that was spurred by a meal on Icaria beach, where we discovered how delicious the native food was. At night we fell asleep to quiet city sounds—except the night before June 24th, when, for the Feast of Saint Joan, people set off very loud fireworks all night long.

The Barcelona Metro is the friend of any independent traveler. It’s clean, extensive, and only occasionally very crowded. You can get almost anywhere with the Metro. In my experience with Barcelona, the trouble with navigation only begins after you get off the train. My family spent almost an entire day wandering around looking for the cable car up to Monjuic castle, just to discover that the only access was from a special train at the very Metro stop we had come from (Port Olimpica). True, if we’d found it immediately we wouldn’t have seen the monument to Christopher Columbus, but my advice to travelers is still to know exactly where you plan to go and exactly how to get there.

Barcelona is beautiful, but I hope that I’m not the first or the last traveler to experience its underbelly. There’s more to it than the Placa Catalunya and Barceloneta Beach; though I went to both those places, they weren’t the defining moments of my trip.

The defining moments were tasting paella for the first time, exploring the Encants Flea Market, and discovering how delicious 60-centimos-a-bag candy is. It’s really good.

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