This is the unedited and unabridged version of an article I originally wrote for Expedia.
With bright blue skies, world-class Christmas markets and a spirited selection of cultural Christmas traditions, Barcelona is unquestionably one of the jolliest European cities to visit during the festive season.
The winter months aren’t quite hot enough for body bronzing and cocktails at the beach — though you’ll still find plenty of people in their swimwear who disagree — but Barcelona’s mild Mediterranean climate makes it perfect for exploring the ancient shopping streets and Christmas markets. The broad streets of Plaça del Angel, Las Ramblas, Gran Via, Rambla de Catalunya, and Passeig de Gracia are all decked out with twinkling trees and glittering light displays, ensuring you feel filled with the joys of Christmas as you stroll from designer boutiques and dazzling department stores to quaint coffee shops and cutesy Christmas markets.
Don’t miss El Corte Ingles shopping centre just off Plaça Catalunya for some serious festive shopping, especially for the sales that start on January 7th, and be sure to explore the independent stores hidden away from the centre for one-off items and hand-crafted gifts.
Dating back to 1786, the Fira de Santa Llucia Christmas market occupies the city’s expansive plaza in front of the Gothic-spired cathedral and offers a truly sensational festive shopping experience. With almost 300 stalls selling everything from hand-carved wooden toys and mistletoe to traditional turrón and local wines, you’re certain to find something a little bit different for that special person.
But for an extra-special Christmas shopping experience that only the locals know about, Nati Navarro, who was born and raised in Barcelona, reveals where the locals do their Christmas shopping.
“Fira de la Sagrada Familia market is a magnificent sight with stalls selling beautiful little trinkets and edible delights,” she says. “And with Gaudi’s sensational Sagrada Familia church as the backdrop, it’s probably the most magical Christmas market in Europe.”
Traditional Christmas Eats
Tempting treats include traditional Spanish turrón, which is sweet and sticky nougat made with toasted almonds, and smoked chestnuts which can be found roasting on an open fire and served from the little makeshift stalls in the street throughout the city. But the Catalans forgo the turkey feasts in favour of their own delicious Christmas treats.
“We love to eat ‘escudella i carn d’olla’ at Christmas, a sort of hearty stew with slow cooked meats, seasonal vegetables, giant pasta shells stuffed with meatballs, and chickpeas.”
The Catalans also make use of left-over meat on 26 December by filling cannelloni shells with it and topping with a rich, creamy béchamel and melted cheese sauce. Delicious!
Wash it all down with lashings of locally produced sparkling cava, which is actually the exact same product as champagne but much more affordable, and you’ll soon be up and rocking around the Christmas tree!
Quirky Christmas Traditions in Catalonia
Each region of Spain celebrates Christmas with their own traditions, but as I discovered when I moved to Barcelona all those years ago, Catalonia has the quirkiest. As you stroll the market stalls you’ll notice a couple of peculiar characters:
“In our nativity scenes we have a special figurine called ‘El Caganer’, which represents a peasant wearing the traditional Catalan red cap with his trousers around his ankles as he defecates,” explains Nati.This may seem garish and blasphemous to many of us, but the origins of the tradition offer a more wholesome explanation. The Catalans believe that the peasant’s faeces is actually fertilising the land, ensuring good luck and a bountiful harvest for the following year.
These figurines are sold in their hundreds of thousands at the Christmas markets and shops around Barcelona, and many of the shopping centres pay tribute to the quirky tradition with giant caganers that stand as tall as a house — quite a peculiar sight for most visitors who don’t know the full story!
Forget Santa Claus, Catalan children get their presents from the rather peculiar Christmas character called “Caga tió”. Presumably some kind of descendent of the “Caganer”, “Caga Tió” is a wooden log cut from a tree with a smiling face drawn on the front and a red blanket to keep it warm. The children feed it orange peel and nuts from early December until Christmas day when they hit the log with sticks and sing songs encouraging it to “poop nice presents”. After the singing and the stick-beating, the kids lift up the red blanket and, low and behold, there are the goods.
You couldn’t make this stuff up!
The Three Kings
Though many Spanish families get together to celebrate and exchange gifts on Christmas day, the main event is actually saved for January 6th, when bigger gifts are given and received to symbolise the gifts that the Three Wise Men brought to baby Jesus in Bethlehem.The day is also marked with the extravagant Three Kings Parade, which sees the streets come to life with marching parades and dancing kings, who hand out fistfuls of sweets to the excited children (and adults!).
So if you crave new experiences and want to discover Barcelona without the vast amount of tourists that flood here in the summer season, Christmas presents the perfect opportunity. Don’t forget to leave plenty of space in your suitcase to pack your loot!