Catalan Customs and Culture: What NOT to do in Barcelona

Sometimes, knowing what NOT to do when you’re visiting a new city in a foreign country can be just as important as knowing where to go, what to see, and where to eat. Catalan and Spanish culture and customs (yes, they’re not the same thing) are easy to navigate, but there’s a couple things you should know before you visit. In Barcelona, the epitome of the tourist is the “guiri” — the socks-under-sandals, fanny-pack-wearing hapless visitor that bumbles around Barcelona in a daze. That’s not who you want to be — you want to be and do like the locals. Here are some tips…

Wear a Real Madrid Jersey

“Madrid is burning, Madrid is burning” goes a popular Barça chant, and there are a lot of culés that would be very happy if the words were fact. FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid is the biggest rivalry in sports because it goes deeper than football. Catalans have always felt oppressed by Spain’s central government, especially during the Franco dictatorship, which banned the use of the Catalan language and manifestations of Catalan culture. During those years, Real Madrid represented the regime, and Barça was a vehicle of defiance. So don’t be the person that walks into a bar and instantly antagonizes all the locals by wearing the enemy’s colors 😉

Call Catalan a dialect of Spanish

catalan nationalist flag
Catalan nationalism is on the rise due to recent conflicts with Spain

Catalunya has been part of Spain for centuries, but Catalans have always spoken their own language (Method #1 to piss off locals: call their language a dialect of Spanish. Catalan is a language, and it is actually closer to French than to Spanish), had their own differentiated culture, their own political institutions, their own gastronomy, etc. As you may have heard, Catalunya held a secession referendum last year to leave Spain, and it is now going through the political fallout that event created. The situation is far from being resolved, so the issue of identity remains prickly in Catalunya.

Drink Sangria

Stay away from sangria, really

As a rule of thumb, avoid any establishment that advertises SANGRÍA!!! on a sign outside the door. There’s a 99% chance It’s a tourist trap. In fact, avoid Sangria altogether. You’re in Catalunya, if you want something alcohol-y but cool and refreshing ask for Vermut or Cava – Catalan sparkling wine. Get the Brut or Brut Nature kind, with little or no added sugar, it’s the best by far. As an addendum, follow the same rule with tapas: any establishment that advertises TAPAS with a big, loud sign and a ton of pictures is a no-go.

Expect to have your meals at a “respectable” hour

When in Barcelona, do like the barcelonins. Meal times in Spain are two o’clock for lunch and no earlier than eight o’clock for dinner. Most people have dinner between nine and ten. In general, Mediterranean cultures do things later in the day. On the weekends, people often don’t finish dinner until twelve o’clock, and many bars don’t start to fill up until after twelve. Which leads to…

Go to clubs while everyone is still having dinner

drinks at a bar
Barcelona is vibrant at night

In Barcelona, everything is open until later. Locals hit the bars around twelve o’clock, and most of them stay open until 3AM. The respectable time to go to a club is between two and three, any earlier and the only people you’ll be mixing with are other tourists. As a side note, stay away from the clubs along the waterfront near the Port Olimpic – they’re all tourist traps that play bad music and sell overpriced drinks. If you want a local experience, go instead to Apolo, Razzmatazz, Moog, Jamboree, Sidecar or Magic.

Go shopping at Siesta time

shops in barcelona
All the big chains stay open, but many smaller and more interesting shops close for lunch

Catalans take their lunch break at two o’clock, and after that is l’hora de la migdiada, siesta time. The big shops from all the big brands don’t close for lunch, but the smaller –and more interesting– ones often do. Don’t plan a shopping trip for between two and five or you’ll find yourself doing a lot of window shopping and missing out on some of the most interesting establishments.

Plan things to do in the middle of the day in August

bench in the port of barcelona
During the summer, spend the hottest hours of the day in the shade or in the water

Temperatures in August are often over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), especially in the middle of the day, when the sun beats down on the city with the force of a hammer banging on an anvil. As such, it’s a good time to be in the water on the beach or at a swimming pool (try the pools on Montjuic, awesome view and less crowded than the beaches), or just relaxing with a cold drink in the shade somewhere. Stay away from tours, monument visits, long walks, and essentially anything that is physically intense during these hours; your body will appreciate it.

Not keep an eye on your bags

The downside of Barcelona becoming one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world is that the number of people looking to prey on tourists has grown exponentially over the last years. Even so, if you keep a close eye on your bags, you won’t have a problem. Don’t leave anything unattended in public places, keep your wallet close to your body, where you can feel it, and when you sit down for lunch or for a drink keep your belongings on your lap or between your legs, never where someone can get to them without you noticing.

Treat tapas like fast food

Tapas are fast food mean to be eaten slow

Unlike in America and the UK, meals in Barcelona are long. People can often spend over three hours at a restaurant, especially if they’re having tapas. It’s tempting when you walk into a tapas bar to order a ton of food straight away, but the way to go is to get into a rhythm – order a few things, eat, chat, drink, order some more, chat some more, etc. Tapas are fast food meant to be eaten slow – the social aspect is just as important –if not more so– than the gastronomic one. And while you’re having tapas… never throw away the little tooth picks they come with! Many tapas places count how much you’ve eaten and how much you owe by the number of toothpicks on your plate. So hold onto them unless you want to deal with irritated waiters.

Spread butter on bread

tomato bread
Pa amb tomaquet is catalunya’s national dish

As familiar as it is to ask for butter for your bread when you’re eating breakfast or having a meal, don’t take the easy route. Challenge yourself – with pa amb tomaquet. Unlike many other countries whose national dishes are elaborate and complex, Catalunya’s national food of choice is composed of just three ingredients and can be made by hand with only a knife in under 1 minute. It is pa amb tomaquet, tomato bread, and it consists of bread rubbed with a halved tomato, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, and lightly sprinkled with salt. You’ll see it goes very well with cheeses and charcuterie, the preferred savory breakfast in Catalunya. If you want to take it up a notch add a sprinkle of cracked black pepper to it too.