This is the unedited and unabridged version of the article I originally I wrote for Expedia.
Just a ten-minute metro ride from the centre of Barcelona lies the ancient and utterly charming neighbourhood of Gràcia. It was once physically and culturally independent from the rest of the city and it wasn’t until the old city walls were demolished in the late 1800s that it became swallowed up by what is now modern day Barcelona.
But the true beauty of this vibrant barrio is that it has somehow managed to retain its age-old traditions and values, making it feel as though it were a completely separate and self-contained city within the city.
Denizens of the barrio are extremely proud of their roots, with many fiercely proclaiming themselves as being from Gràcia, not Barcelona. This strong community spirit means there’s always something exciting going on, such as the iconic Festa Major (aka Gràcia festival), which runs every August and sees the locals celebrating with colourful street decorations and 24/7 live music.
Renée Christensen is a guide for Devour Barcelona Food Tours and knows the neighbourhood well.
“It’s truly one of a kind: charming, peaceful and with a seriously strong sense of identity,” she tells me.
But it’s an unusual barrio in many ways. It’s home to an eclectic and often contrasting mix of residents: a large elderly population, many of whom have lived here for generations, but also a high ethnic population. On the surface it feels distinctly family-oriented, with children running free through the leafy squares of Plaça de la Revolució, Plaça de Sol, and Plaça de la Virreina with its handsome church as parents watch on contently from cafe terraces. And as the sun begins to set, dolled up elderly folk take over the street benches to soak up the warm evening rays and catch up on “village gossip”.
And then, beyond the clatter of Catalan and traditional tapas bars, you can lose yourself off one of the many side streets and discover countless restaurants serving every cuisine imaginable, from Ethiopian to Vietnamese, Arab to Italian, as well as funky American-style burger joints and ultra-hip craft beer bars.
This ethnic diversity and juxtaposition of traditional-meets-contemporary attracts a bohemian crowd – plenty of bushy beards, piercings and tattoos to gawk at here – and the more culturally-curious traveller. It’s geared more towards pleasing the locals than the tourists, which makes it a very real insight into the city and the Catalan psyche.
When asked what makes it such a must-see for visitors in Barcelona, Renée gushes with enthusiasm:
“It’s a tight-knit community, many of the local businesses are family run and have been passed down through the generations. It makes for a very authentic corner of Barcelona, and thus a very authentic experience for visitors.”
And are there any particular places that she’d recommend?
“My favourite secret spot is probably Cal Pep. It’s an old-school bodega, way up in the residential area of Gràcia, and it’s just one of those neighbourhood bars that’s oozing with charm without even trying. You feel like you’re in someone’s living room or something. The same people are always there, and whether or not you’re a regular, they greet you just the same.”
For me, Gràcia is not about any particular spots, it’s about wandering and getting lost. Streets such as Carrer d’Astúries and Carrer Verdi are packed with independent fashion boutiques, bookshops and tiny emporiums selling all kinds of treasures and trinkets. There’s also the Mercat de l’Abaceria (Gràcia’s ancient food market), which rarely features in any of the guidebooks and has been offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and delectable cheese to the locals since 1892. It also houses three cute little workaday bars, where you can sip on a cold drink and people watch to your heart’s content.
And as so often happens after getting lost in Gràcia, it seems you always end up back on the iconic street of Gran de Gràcia, which is the top section of Passeig de Gràcia, home to many of Gaudi’s iconic masterpieces and ritzy big name designer stores. It’s like walking out of the past and back into present day.
So whether you want to experience authentic Barcelona, dine at family-run restaurants, people watch or shop, make sure you find time to do it in Gràcia, Barcelona’s secret neighbourhood.