Barcelona, general hints tips and safety advice

Park Guell

Do I need immunisations for Barcelona?

You don’t need jabs for Barcelona but it’s a good idea wherever you go to make sure all your normal vaccinations are up to date, such as polio and tetanus.

What language do they speak in Barcelona?

Barcelona is in Catalonia where both Spanish and Catalan are spoken. If you speak Spanish you will be fine. Catalan is more like French and many people also speak French. English is widely spoken in the tourist areas but even in the more out of the way places I managed to make myself understood with a mixture of the few words of Spanish I know, French, English with a little mime thrown in. If you don’t know any Spanish or French a phrase book will come in handy and if you have an iPhone there are quite a few good apps available where you can listen to the pronounciation.

Should I be worried about terrorism in Barcelona?

Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon today and you should take care wherever you travel, even inside the UK. For example don’t leave bags unattended, keep away from any suspicious packages and report them to an authority figure.

The Basque Separatist Group ETA is a group fighting for independence for Catalonia. Formed in 1959 they have carried out terrorist attacks throughout Spain but there have only ever been two attacks in Barcelona, one in 1987 and another in 1991. I don’t believe that terrorism is any more of a treat in Barcelona than it is anywhere else. After all in the UK we have lived with our own separatist group, the IRA and are well aware of the dangers. I didn’t see any ETA graffiti during my time in Barcelona, although the graffiti artist is very much alive and well there, and I have seen it in many parts of France.

Do I need a visa for Barcelona?

British citizens don’t need a visa to enter Spain. If you are not a British passport holder check with your travel agent or the embassy before you book. Visas can take up to six weeks to arrive. 

What money do they use in Barcelona?

Barcelona uses the Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted and you can withdraw cash from most ATM machines. It is worth checking with your bank what charges will be made for using ATMs, what the exchange rate will be and the maximum you can withdraw so that you don’t have any nasty surprises when you return.

As with many other European countries shopkeepers and cashiers will ask to see your passport when you pay with a credit card and will record your passport number on your copy of the bill. Make sure you keep your passport with you when you are shopping to avoid embarrassment.

A word of warning. Take the same care when using your credit card or debit card as you would in the UK. Never give your pin to anyone. Always cover your pin when getting cash from an ATM or in a shop. Always check ATMs for skimming devices and cameras, as you would in the UK. ATM and credit card fraud is a worldwide fact of life.

Who should I tip and how much in Barcelona?

Tipping is not the norm in Barcelona and will not be expected in restaurants, bars, hotels or taxis. In restaurants service charges are included in the bill. VAT may not be shown on the price lists in restaurants and cafes but the menu must say clearly if it is or not. In Spain VAT is called IVA so the menu will say ‘IVA no incluido’ or similar. If the service has been particularly good or if you are with a large party and feel you would like to tip a few coins will do.

Are beggars a problem in Barcelona?

Al the reports I read said that begging on the streets and the metro was a big problem in Barcelona and that the beggars were often women and children and they were quite loud and persistent. My own experience was different. I did see a few women in hijabs sitting quietly in the street holding out their hands and on the metro there were a few buskers but they were definitely not threatening.

The City Council provides a good Social Welfare service to help support those without resources, the homeless, senior citizens and people in crisis so there should be no need for begging. If you are confronted just walk away and ignore them, as it is always possible that they are a diversion for muggers. There is currently a proposal to make begging illegal but this is still in the study stage at the moment.

What to eat and drink in Barcelona?

Catalonia has a good reputation for traditional cuisine. As with all Mediterranean food olive oil, garlic and tomato are the essential ingredients but if this sounds boring have no fear, the chefs of Barcelona are very creative and you will find some mouth watering combinations that you might not come across in the rest of Spain. You will notice influences from France and Valencia  and, as you would expect, there are some excellent seafood dishes.

A breakfast staple is Pa amb tomàquet, thickly sliced rustic bread rubbed with garlic and fresh tomato and drizzled with olive oil. If you are a seafood fan try Sarsuela, a kind of seafood casserole medley with fish, shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, prawns, you name it they can be in there along with olive oil, tomato, lemon, paprika, white wine, sherry and spices. Fideua is the Catalan version of paella with a combination of shellfish, meat, poultry and vegetables but with fideus (little noodles) instead of rice. Calçotada are baby onions braised with a special Catalan sauce of tomato, garlic, olive oil, red pepper, and almonds called Romesco. The most famous Catalan desert is Crema catalana, a cold custard with a caramelised sugar coat. Patisseries, gelaterias and chocolateries are everywhere too displaying mouth wateringly tempting treats.

Tapas is a great idea if there are a few of you and you want to try lots of different dishes. Expect to pay between 1 and 3 Euros per dish on average . At that price you can afford to experiment a little and if you don’t like something you haven’t lost much. Be brave and you will be pleasantly surprised.

One of the most famous Catalonian chefs is Ferrán Adrià who achieved world wide fame with his “nueva cocina española” deconstruction movement. His dishes mix the most unexpected flavours and provide contrasts of temperature and texture. He wants to surprise and delight his clients. If you want to try his or his followers restaurants however, be prepared for a shock when you get the bill, as it is an expensive experience.

Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day served between 2 and 4pm and many restaurants don’t open until 8.30pm with most people not eating until well after 9. The best deal in local restaurants is a basic one course meal called plat combinat but if you want three courses the menú del día is a set price meal which many restaurants serve at lunchtime. Most bars and restaurants serve snacks and there are lots of fast food places with xurros amb xocolata (churros with chocolate) being a good local example. Asian restaurants are very good if you are a vegetarian.

The legal age for drinking alcohol is 18 in Spain and there are a huge array of places to drink ranging from the local bars to Irish pubs and American theme bars. It is usual to be billed when you leave rather than pay as you go along.  The best nightclubs don’t open until after midnight and the trendier they are the later they open. Barcelona is a great place for night owls who want to party but the locals don’t drink to excess so if you don’t want to stand out as a tourist follow suit. Be warned, nightclubs will charge as much as ten times the price for drinks as the local bars (possibly why they don’t drink too much).

In Spain the terms café and bar are more or less the same. There are different types of bar specialising in different types of drink, if you want wine go to a bodega, for beer choose a cerverseria and if your tastes run to champagne visit a Xampanyeria or champagne bar.

Are drugs a problem in Barcelona?

Drugs are seen more as a health concern than a criminal offence in Spain and under Spanish law possession of soft drugs for personal use is not a crime although, public consumption can be penalised by administrative fines. Even so it is a crime to manufacture, cultivate or traffic drugs and it is up to the police to decide what is personal use and what is intent to supply. If the decision goes against you, you could end up with up to six years in jail.

I had heard that drugs, especially soft drugs, were peddled everywhere and that tourists may be offered drugs in the street, in the bars and nightclubs or even on the beach. This was not my own experience but perhaps I just don’t look the type. If this is not your kind of thing and it happens to you just politely decline and they should leave you alone. If it is your kind of thing bear in mind that, although the laws are more lenient than those in the UK you could still face up to six years in jail especially if you use them in public. If you want to go on holiday and take drugs the best place to go is Amsterdam.

What about health and safety in Barcelona?

Although I did not experience it, street crime, pickpockets, muggings and robberies are a problem in Barcelona. It is a city with an overworked police force, budget constraints and high unemployment which doesn’t help. Sound familiar? Take the same care as you would in any big city in the UK and beware of distraction crime, someone offering you flowers on the street, waving a map and asking for directions or saying you have something on your jacket and offering to brush it off. Don’t let people get too close to you and if you can’t avoid it in crowded places keep a tight hold of your personal possessions especially cameras and handbags. Don’t leave your luggage unattended as bags have been stolen while people check into their hotels.

It’s a good idea to keep your money and passport in a money belt and only take as much cash as you need, keeping the rest in your hotel safe. Don’t take risks by walking in quiet, unlit areas after dark. The Old Town is meant to be particularly dangerous at night. Thankfully the pickpockets tend to avoid violent crime because they don’t want to attract police action and risk a jail sentence.

Along with street crime there are quite a few street scams. Anything that looks like it’s too good to be true probably is and games like three cups and a coin are fixed, the only people you see winning are the accomplices.

Because the food is rich some people may get mild stomach upsets so if you have a sensitive stomach it is wise to take some immodium in your luggage just in case. I would also avoid uncooked fish or shellfish.

The water is supposed to be safe to drink but as it has been treated with different chemicals to the water in the UK it is better to stick to bottled water. I always avoid drinking tap water abroad and I brush my teeth with bottled water too just to be safe. There is no point ruining a lovely holiday by getting sick if you can easily avoid it.

If you do get ill you can easily get common medicines over the counter at local chemists or farmacias. Spanish medical facilities are among the best in the world. Hotel staff can usually call you a good doctor if necessary or arrange transport to the local hospital where there should be English speaking doctors. Make sure you get your E111 card which entitles you to free or reduced cost medical treatment. This can be obtained from any post office in the UK or you can apply online http://www.e111.org.uk/apply.html. Make sure you allow time for it to arrive before you travel. Even so health insurance is a must, the E111 form only covers basic medical care and if the worst happens you, you will have enough to worry about without adding how to pay or how to arrange a way to get home to your list.

One of the reasons people get ill is too much sun and dehydration. This can cause stomach bug like symptoms and very bad headaches not to mention sunburn. Drink plenty of water if you are travelling during the summer. Always wear sun protection, if you are fair skinned wear a high SPF cream and reapply regularly. Take a leaf out of the local’s book and stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day between noon and 2pm.

Beaches in Barcelona have lifeguards and are marked by different coloured flags to show the level of safety. Green is safe, yellow means take caution and red means stay out of the sea. North of Barcelona, along the Costa Brava the seabed is rocky so take care. Water pollution is not a problem but in summer jellyfish may be a problem. Although they are not poisonous they can give a nasty sting. The local chemist will be able to help of you do get bitten.

Barcelona can suffer from smog due to the nearby industrial belt so the air quality is not always good. If you suffer from respiratory illnesses bear this in mind and make sure you have enough of your usual medication.

Public toilets are not easy to find, although I did see one, but if you get caught short the best solution is to go into the nearest bar or café for a quick coffee and use their facilities. The local solution appears to be to go on the streets. Sadly this means that some of the streets especially near Placa Catalunya or La Ramba have their own peculiar aroma and the little puddles you see are not necessarily from the rain.

Barcelona is as liberal as any other European city in its acceptance of gays and lesbians, including homosexual marriages.

Shopping in Barcelona, where and what are the best bargains?

Shopping is a favourite pastime in Barcelona but you will have to bear the local idea of time keeping in mind when planning your shopping trip. The working day usually starts at 9am but there will often be a breakfast break around 11 and lunch is between 2 and 4 pm. Lots of shops close between 2 and 5pm then reopen again from 5 until 8 or 9pm. Most stores close on Sundays but the big shopping centres open 7 days a week.

The Spanish seem to have an eye for style and create some beautiful items. Look out of clothes, shoes, artwork, designer purses and handmade scarves. The Plaza Catalunya is a good place to start a shopping trip. Lots of interesting shops can be found in the streets that spread out of the square with Spanish stores like Zara, Mango and Blanco amongst others for fashionistas.

The huge department store El Corte Ingles has 7 floors of goods to choose from. The Paseo de Gracia, has mostly designer stores such as Gucci and D&G, if you are a label freak this is the place for you. The two main shopping centres are Maremagnum and L’illa Diagonal. Maremagnum is in the old port (use metro line 3 Drassanes or 4 Barceloneta)  and as well as shops there are restaurants bars and clubs. L’illa Diagonal  also has bar and restaurants, choose metro line 3 Maria Cristina.

If you want something a little different go into the narrow streets of the Gothic, Raval and Born districts. The Gothic Quarter is great for jewellery, art and clothes, although some are a little touristy.  On Carrer dels Escudellers there is a ceramic warehouse selling locally made plates, pots, tiles and the like. The Raval, recently transformed from a red light district it is now the place to be for young artists and students. Here you will find hand made crafts along Calle Fernandina, poster and music shops and hippy clothes and accessories can be found in Carrer dels Tallers. The Born is ultra trendy filled with up and coming designers. Sadly it can be a bit expensive but it is fun to window shop if you have the time.

How do I get around in Barcelona?

By far the best way of getting around is walking. You get to see all the wonderful buildings and parks with the added advantage of burning off some of the cakes and chocolates that are bound to tempt you. The city is not as big as you might think and is mainly fairly flat (with the exception of the area around Guell Park which is VERY hilly).

If you are not a walker, Barcelona has a very clean, air-conditioned metro system, extensively updated for the Olympics in 1992, that will take you to most of the major sites. Trains run on time and if you miss one there is always another following shortly. The signs on the platforms have a countdown clock showing when the next train is due and they are eerily accurate. The metro is especially useful in the summer when it can be quite hot to walk everywhere.

T10 ticket

T10 ticket

The T10 ticket at 7.70 Euros is a bargain giving you 10 trips on the metro (one trip is normally 1.35 Euros so it saves almost 6 Euros). Although there are different T10 tickets for different zones the one for the main city centre area is Zone 1. See http://www.fgc.es/eng/planol.asp for a map of the different zones. Not only will you be able to use the ticket on the metro but you will also be able to travel on the trams, busses and trains in that zone (except the express bus service to the airport). Best of all you can use the ticket one more than one means of transport and it will still count as one journey as long as it lasts less than 1 and a quarter hours. So you can make changes at metro stops (as long as you don’t leave the metro) then finish your journey by bus, tram or train (or any combination of these).

You can buy T10 tickets from any metro stop or train station and the ticket is valid until the next February or until you use all the journeys.  If you are travelling woth friends you can share the card between you by passing it to your friends before you go through the barrier.  This is perfectly legal although you will almost certainly need all ten trips yourself if you are spending more than a couple of days in Barcelona and it’s such a bargain buying two or more is no real hardship.

Using your ticket is much the same as using an underground ticket in London. You simply put it into the machine at the barrier, it pops back out releasing the turnstile or barrier and you collect it and go through. Please note you have to put your ticket on the left hand slot then go through the right turnstile but if the barrier is glass sliding doors and not a turnstile you put your ticket on the right hand side and pass through the left. This can be a bit confusing so if in doubt do as I did and wait for someone else to go through and copy them. On busses there is a small ticket validation box inside the bus, if you can’t see it just ask. Every time you use the T10 you will see how many journeys you have left on the LCD display of the ticket machine.

Try not to damage or lose your card. If it gets too creased it may become unreadable and when you try to use it, it will be refused. If this does happen you can take the damaged card to the ticket office and they may issue you with a new one with the number of journeys you had left on your old card. This is a bit of a pain though so it is better to look after your card.

Another good way of getting cheap transport is to buy the Barcelona City Card. This gives you free travel on public transport plus over 100 discounts and offers at museums, attractions, shops and restaurants. You also get a free guidebook and a city map. There is a choice of 1,2,3,4 and 5 day passes with prices starting from about 25 Euros for adults and discounts for children. Children under 3 are free. Barcelona cards are available at Barcelona Airport or online 

http://www.barcelona.com/barcelona_city_tours/standard_bus_tours/barcelona_card .

You have to buy your ticket 24 hours in advance and it must be used on consecutive days.

Taxis are also plentiful and fairly inexpensive (although I have heard tales of huge charges for short journeys). A 15-minute trip should cost about 10 Euros.  Licensed taxis are metered and rates should be displayed in the cab. You should be charged no more than the sum shown on the meter but if you have a lot of luggage drivers may make an extra charge. The official taxis are yellow and black with a green light on top which is lit then the taxi is available. For people with limited mobility or for a taxi suitable for the disabled Barcelona Handicapped Adapted Taxis can be reserved by calling (0034) 93 322 2222, (0034) 93 307 0707 or (0034) 93 420 8088. Bear in mind that much of the centre of Barcelona is made up of pedestrian precincts or small, congested roads so taxis may not always be the best option.

If you have special needs or want to make trips outside of the city centre car hire may be a good option. Your travel agent or tour operator may be able to arrange this for you or you can ask your resort rep or at hotel reception.