new way of experiencing barcelona

What are the best tips to fall in love with Barcelona? 

You’ll find out in this guest post by Thomas Plaatsman, Founder of Cultural Reads Here’s his story.

Do you know the real Barcelona? 

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist cities in the world, with 7 million visitors per year. 

It’s famous for its bars, restaurants, and beaches, but how many tourists really understand the city?

I moved to Barcelona in 2014 for an Erasmus exchange. At the time, I received a list of food & drink tips in Barcelona from a friend and later shared my experiences in my post about learning Spanish

Nonetheless, I felt I hadn’t been able to share my connection to the city. 

How could I change that?

When I contacted Carlos and The Free Tour Shop, we devised a plan. 

Why not share books, movies, and souvenirs and link what they teach us to physical locations? 

Instead of sightseeing, we’ll take you on an adventure. 

You’ll build an understanding of the city, get to know its character and connect to it on a deeper level. 

In this post, I’ll share ten resources you can use to have a unique city trip unlike any other. 

Are you ready to connect to Barcelona? 

Let’s first start with a short history. 

Barcelona, Catalonia & Spain | A Short History

Barcelona is the second biggest city in Spain, home to 1.6 million people, and the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia.

The earliest settlements in Barcelona (specifically the neighborhood El Raval) date back to 5000 BC. Naturally, there’s not much information from that time, so we’ll fast-forward to the Roman Era in the 1st century BC when Barcelona was known as Barcino, an important city with a grid layout and defensive walls. 

Towards the end of the Roman Era, a Germanic people called the Visigoths took over, then the Moors followed, and later Christian nobles. As a reward for their fight against the Moors, these nobles received large plots of land called the Catalan Counties, including the County of Barcelona, which was the start of Catalonia.  

From the 8th-12th century, these counties were autonomous regions until they became part of the Crown of Aragon during the 12th century (see image below). Despite the new ruler, the Catalan Counties kept most of their autonomy. 

However, this was about to change.

How Did Spain Become a Country?

In the late 1400s, Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I of Castile, queen of Castille y Leon. Their marriage was the start of Spain as a country (see the image above) and meant the end of autonomy for the Catalan Counties. The area was now under Castilian control, and ‘Castellano’ is still used interchangeably with ‘Español’ to refer to the Spanish language.

After two decades of succession, we arrive at 1700. In this year, the Spanish King Carlos II died childless, which led to the War of the Spanish Succession. The war had to decide whether the Habsburgs (the Austrian side of the family) or Philip V (the French would rule Spain. Catalonia supported the Habsburgs but was defeated on 11 September 1714 after the 14-month siege of Catalonia and Barcelona. Catalonia lost its autonomy, and the Catalan language and culture were suppressed. Despite being long ago, 11 September is still an important holiday in Catalonia.

What followed during the 18th and 19th centuries were several conflicts, including the Napoleonic Wars, which were primarily between republican (pro-independence) forces and monarchies. The republicans won, and in 1931 the Second Spanish Republic was formed. As part of the republic, Catalonia regained a Statute of Autonomy.

Image from the YouTube video The History of Catalonia

Franco’s Dictatorship | No More Catalan

The Catalan autonomy didn’t last long because, in 1936, Franco’s forces tried to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish Republic. This led to the Spanish Civil War between Franco’s forces (monarchists and nationalists) and left-winged Republicans (including the Catalans). Franco succeeded and constructed a dictatorship that lasted nearly 40 years. Catalonia again lost all autonomy, Catalan culture was suppressed, and the Catalan language was no longer allowed.

Franco died in 1975, and Catalonia regained a sense of autonomy like during the Second Spanish Republic.

I included this historical summary to better understand Barcelona and Catalan culture, the history between different political preferences, and the contrast between the national government and local autonomy. It also gives more background info to help understand things like the controversial 2017 independence referendum.

You’ll re-encounter a big part of this history in the ten tips below. Some examples are the books The Shadow of the Wind (#1) and George Orwell’s Hommage to Catalonia (#8), the Refugi 307 bomb shelter (#2), and the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (#7). This background info also helps put architecture into a historical context, such as the construction of the Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral (#4) and the Eixample neighborhood (#6).

10 Recommendations to Understand Barcelona on a Deeper Level

1. Shadow of the wind

Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite books of all time. This novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes place in the post-Spanish Civil War in Barcelona. The story follows a young boy named Daniel who becomes enchanted by a mysterious book and embarks on a quest to uncover its secrets. As he continues reading, the scary story intertwines with his life in ways he never imagined. 

During this adventure, Daniel delves into the labyrinthine streets of the city. Because of this, the richly detailed and atmospheric portrayal of Barcelona becomes an integral part of the narrative, intertwining the city’s history, architecture, and culture with the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. 

If you’re a Carlos Ruiz Zafón fan, you could consider having a cocktail in the Mariposa Negra, named after a butterfly in one of Záfon’s other books, Marina.

2. Refugi 307

Refugi 307 is a hidden tourist gem that most people don’t know. During the Spanish Civil War, between 1937 and 1939, a total of 1903 bombs hit Barcelona. The population had less than 90 seconds to get cover, which led to a massive network of 1400 air raid shelters. Refugi 307 takes you on a tour through these shelters and the stories of the people of Barcelona during that time. You can only visit on Sundays for the affordable price of €3.50. You can make a reservation here.

3. Els Quatre Gats bar

Els Quatre Gats bar was Pablo Picasso’s favorite bar. He first visited the place when he was 17, encouraged by his friend Ángel Fernández de Soto, known as the Cranky friend and portrayed in the painting The Absinthe Drinker. Picasso made the painting during his Blue Period, the color defining his sadness after the suicide of his best friend Carles Casagemas, who also frequently visited the bar and appeared in the paintings Carles Casagemas and La Vie. Picasso also held his first exhibition here and designed the poster outside the restaurant, which is still there after restoring the bar to its original condition in 1989.

The owner of the bar used to work in the famous Le Chat Noir in Paris, which became his inspiration for Els Quatre Gats. The name came from a Catalan expression meaning “only a few people.” which refers to a group of people perceived as strange or outside. In this case, Picasso and his friends.

If you’re into art or Picasso, it’s worthwhile to visit. I’d also recommend the Picasso Museum, the first and only one opened during his lifetime, containing more than 4,000 works. 

4. Cathedral of the Sea

Step into the captivating 14th-century Barcelona (ruled by the crown of Aragon) in Ildefonso Falcones’s book, Cathedral of the Sea. The novel tells the story of the construction of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, which you can visit in El Born. 

The story revolves around Arnau, who rises from rags to riches, earning the respect of the entire city. His journey unravels the vibrant tapestry of medieval Barcelona, shedding light on its complex social dynamics, unwavering religious devotion, and the unbreakable bonds of community. If you prefer watching over reading, there is also a Netflix series.

5. La Champagneria Can Paixano

La Champagneria Can Paixano is one of the most incredible places in Barcelona. It’s a tiny bar that offers tapas and homemade cavas. Inside Can Paixano, there’s a small shop that sells cavas to take home. I’d highly recommend trying the pink bottle because it’s delicious and only costs a few euros.

6. Barcelona Rose Tiles

A friend who lived in Barcelona gave me a great Barcelona souvenir as a gift: a Rose Tile. Although the rose pattern seemed familiar, I had not realized its importance on Barcelona’s streets. That’s when I decided to do some research. What is the story behind these rose tiles in Barcelona?

In the mid-1800s, the population in Ciutat Vella (the area that includes Barceloneta, Raval, and Barrio Gótico) started growing very fast. Because of this, the city decided to build a new spacious neighborhood called Eixample. Since most people paved the 2.5 meters in front of their houses, Barcelona’s streets were messy and muddy. The local government, therefore, hired a company in 1907 to lay the pavements in Eixample. 

They hired Escofet-Tejera y Cía, a company that worked with famous designers like Gaudí. The organization presented 18 designs and decided on six final patterns, including the rose tiles. 

It’s a fun detail when walking around Barcelona and a great souvenir to take home. If you’d like to read more about the tiles, go to The Free Tour Shop or find the best five places to spot the tiles at the end of this post in Metropolitan Barcelona.

7. Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of a little girl who finds an ancient maze that leads into another world. In this maze, she meets the faun Pan, who tells her she’s a legendary princess with three essential tasks.

The film, which seems like a darker version of Alice in Wonderland or Narnia, takes place in 1944, during the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. The fantasy perfectly mixes fantasy with the horrors of the real world and the stories and fantasies of a young girl trying to escape war and oppression. 

Many people don’t know that this Spanish movie was made by Mexican movie director Guillermo del Toro and not by a Spanish director.

8. Homage to Catalonia

Did you know that the famous English writer George Orwell fought against Franco’s army as a volunteer soldier during the Spanish Civil War? In his book, Homage to Catalonia, he shares his experiences and disillusionment with the political realities of the conflict. Although the book explores various places, Barcelona plays a central role.

9. Boca Chica

Want to see a Picasso or Monet while sipping a cocktail? Then you have to visit Boca Chica. This fancy cocktail bar is a bit more expensive but compensates for it with real works by famous artists. The owner is an art collector and showcases several well-known works. This is a must-visit if you’re into art and excellent drinks and not on a budget.

10. The Spanish Apartment

The Spanish Apartment (L’Auberge Espagnole). You must watch this movie if you do an Erasmus exchange in Barcelona. Why? Because it’s about a group of people on Erasmus in Barcelona. What makes the film so good is how relatable it is for exchange students. The director later made a 2nd movie, called Russian Dolls, about the group’s reunion after five years, and a 3rd called Chinese Puzzle, which is 20 years in the future. I loved all three but found it challenging to come to terms with the passage of life, realizing that my journey would probably be similar to that of the movie characters.

I hope you enjoyed this post and found a way to connect to Barcelona differently. If you need additional tips, check out these Best Food & Drink Places in Barcelona, including the best tips from my friends in Barcelona. 

If you plan to live or do an Erasmus in Barcelona, check out my best way to learn Spanish: How to go from A1 to C2 post. For more books, movies, and music from Spain, you visit my blog’s Spain page.

Do you want more info?

This post was written by Thomas Plaatsman, Founder of Cultural Reads.

For more information about him and his amazing project promoting culture through books, music, movies from countries around the world. Check out Cultural Reads and join a fantastic journey!

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