Delicious Spanish cuisine and a distinct cocktail culture make this medieval city a must-see
Barcelona, one of the world’s most delicious culinary destinations, is the perfect place for a vacation no matter what the time of year. Winter temperatures never get too cold and what’s not to love about strolling a medieval city stuffing your face with incredible ham and cheese whilst washing it all down with the best cava you ever tasted?
So, save this to your favourites and watch the ever-excellent YVRDeals page to see if you can get a bargain. I bagged a $450 all-included return this summer with Air France, and frankly for those kind of prices, you’d be crazy not going to Barcelona.
Read on for my 10 culinary highlights...
1. Take a food tour
My advice? You’ll have jetlag so check in to your accommodation, take a 45-minute snooze and then hit the ground running with a food tour and a side of history. I headed out with Devour Barcelona on their Taverns, Tapas and History of Barcelona tour, which I absolutely loved. We made three food stops over four hours as we explored the medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter and Born neighbourhood. I learned so much about the history of the city and saw things I’d never have imagined existed there. The highlight was the Roman columns at the Temple of Augustus which incredibly are part of an apartment building (yes, some people in Barcelona have Roman columns in their kitchens!), which you can see for free.
We saw walls pockmarked with bullet holes from the Spanish civil wars and the exact spot where Christopher Columbus met Isabel and Fernando in 1492, where now you can have a drink in the square and feel the incredible weight of history. And, of course, we ate and ate and ate... salt spangled anchovies, crunchy one-bite little fried fish, incredible jamon and simple yet delicious bites of crusty bread rubbed with fresh juicy tomato. Along the way we drank cava in age-old bodegas and vermouth made just a few miles away.
2. Drink a Bibero
Spain may not have much of a reputation as a coffee destination, but where they may miss out on premium roasters and artisan blends, they absolutely own batshit crazy espresso-based drinks. Take, for example, the carajillo—a heady blend of espresso and brandy (or rum), which you’ll find people drinking in the morning or as an afternoon pick-me-up. My favourite though is the bombón or biberón, a shot of espresso over a shot of condensed milk. This is the best drink in the world for hung-over mornings or when you need a rocket shot of caffeine and sugar to get you started.
3. Eat all the ham
Ham has been elevated to a fine art in Spain. Sliced fresh in wafer-thin slices off the leg, and hanging proudly from the ceiling in most tapas bars, the one thing you need to know about jamon is to eat as much as you can, because ham back in Vancouver will seem like ashes in your mouth in comparison.
You want to track down the finest jamón ibérico de bellota. This is made from pata negra (black foot) pigs who live happy free-range lives in the forests between Spain and Portugal, stuffing themselves with olives, acorns, herbs and fresh grass along the way. For the last period of their lives, they eat a diet of only acorns which gives the ham its unique and wonderful flavour. Cured for 36 months and meltingly tender, look for the black label which is the best and comes from purebred Iberian pigs.
Marbelled with fat which melts as you rub it between your fingers, pony up at any bar and order a ración (larger portion) and prepare to enter ham heaven. My advice: stay away from the ‘Jamon Experience’ on the Ramblas—this is a nonsense tourist trap, the only ‘ham museum’ you need is at the counter of any decent bar.
4. Find your favourite croqueta
Think you know croquettes? Think again. Here in Canada we usually get the kind that are mostly mashed potato with a light sprinkle of say, chicken or ham. In Spain, the croqueta is a different beast altogether. A thick creamy béchamel sauce is the base for these babies and the jamon serrano could be replaced with shredded salt cod, chicken, finely-chopped chorizo, cheese or vegetables. Deep-fried and the perfect pairing with cava, beer or vermouth, have at it and find your favourite. One of the best places to try a variety is at the excellent Senyor Vermut bar which has around 15 different kinds. The chicken ones are terrific.
5. Dive into gin-tonics
Thanks to Shaun Layton importing the Spanish-style gin-tonic to Juniper this past year, we’re all now familiar with these fabulous fishbowls of aromatic gin and tonic. Return to the source at the marvelous Old Fashioned Gin Tonic Cocktail Bar in the Gracia district to see what the fuss is all about. This tiny bar which seats around 20 people, has a superb selection of artisan gins from around the world with an emphasis on Spanish ‘ginnovation,' brands such as the amazing Ginraw which sous-vide their botanicals and the deliciously savoury Gin Mare. Pick from dozens of different G&Ts or indulge in their terrific house cocktails.
6. Devour tiny fried fish
Think you’re a foodie bad-ass because you suck the head when you eat spot prawns? Then you’ll love these one-bite beauties. Usually these little fish or pescaditos are anchovies and they’re dusted with seasoned flour and then quickly deep-fried in oil and served piping hot. Crunch them all up! Yes, even the heads and bones and eyes and fins. This is true nose-to-tail eating and it’s absolutely wonderful. Over at La Plata they’ve been making this dish since 1945 and I also loved the ones served up at the Cala del Vermut (Carrer de les Magdalenes, 6).
7. Pull up a stool and eat at the market
Spanish markets are a thing of wonder for so many reasons. The ham! The cheese! The flowers! But best of all are the little lunch counters where you can chow down on the freshest produce, accompanied with an alcoholic drink. Now is the time to wonder why Granville Island doesn’t offer this kind of terrific service. One of my favourite spots is the Mercat de la Concepció, and there’s a great counter on the right-hand side which is the perfect place for a pit-stop snack of cheese, ham and a glass of cava. It’s laughably cheap and startlingly good.
Of course, despite my pleading with you not to, you’ll probably want to go to the tourist hell-hole of La Boqueria too on the Rambla. Watch your wallet if you do, but go eat at Pinotxo Bar (which is kind of great) and have their croquetas.
8. Start the day with a churros and chocolate sugar high
This is a two-stop breakfast that is probably the very best in the city. First head to the Xurreria (Carrer dels Banys Nous, 8, 08002 Barcelona), a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop which sells fresh-made churros (heavenly piped doughnuts) in twists of paper for a 1.20€ for about four. Take your treasures a few doors down to La Granja 1872 and order up some of their rich hot chocolate. My pick is always the Swiss which comes with a blanket of whipped cream on top. Dip in your churros and prepare to make Meg Ryan-style foodgasm sounds.
Yes: it's absolutely fine to take the churros into the other shop. No they don’t mind. Really, it’s what everyone does.
9. Drink vermut like a local
A little ways down the coast, past the excellent gay-friendly seaside resort of Sitges is Reus, the birthplace of Barcelona’s architectural hero Gaudi, and an important hub for wine and spirits on the world stage in the 18th century. Nowadays this charming cobble street city is home to Spain’s only vermouth museum in a rather excellent restaurant and it’s also where plenty of Barcelona’s Vermouth comes from. Post-recession, those delicious (but expensive) gin-tonics have given way to a return in popularity of what used to the traditional drink of Vermouth.
Hipsters have adopted the tradition of ‘L’hora di vermut’ or Vermouth Hour where you can enjoy tapas snacks with friends and family along with a drink or two of local Vermouth. It comes in either red (here called ‘negre’) or white varieties, and you can have the young fresh kind or the barrel-aged ‘reserva’. Most vermouth bars have it on tap and you can either drink it straight on ice with a garnish of orange or an olive or add a little effervescence with a dash of soda water from the ‘sifon’.
My favourte places to fer el vermut’ were at the bar at Senyor Vermut, where the reserva comes on tap, or trying the ‘prepat’ version (with gin added) at hipster central Moro Fi, which has three branches across the city.
10. Cocktail like a boss
Oh man, the cocktail scene in Barcelona is excellent. I’m going to give you three solid spots to try when you hit town.
First up, it’s pretty new and it’s really fun, Collage cocktail bar is funky with a great array of house cocktails thanks to manager Fernando’s innovative creations. Spread over two storeys and stuffed with gorgeous design details such as a beautiful antique tiled bar and on-trend chevron wallpaper, it’s hard to not just sink into one of the comfy leather sofas and spend the night there.
Next, the Caribbean Club, a small bar which stays open late serving Cuban-style cocktails to a wildly-appreciative crowd. Run by a wonderfully hospitable husband and wife team this has a phenomenal back bar, dazzling vintage soda siphon collection, and a thrilling barrel-aged cocktail program. Try the Negroni Chignon a dangerously drinkable concoction of tequila, mezcal, campari and vermouth.
Lastly, Boadas, the oldest cocktail bar in Barcelona which opened in 1933, the gentlemen behind the bar wear James Bond-style tuxedos and bow ties and mix up classic cocktails with style. Drink like Hemingway in this Art Deco treasure.