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Student Guide: Secrets of Barcelona

Tips to help you discover a secret Barcelona and take a bite of the local culture, gastronomy and lifestyle while you're at it

Written by
Time Out Barcelona Editors
Cities are like people in that you never really get to know them fully, they can let you down, or they can surprise you when you least expect it. To introduce you to Barcelona, we’ve come up with this list of secret spots you’ve got to discover. From here, the relationship can only grow. Barcelona has seven hills, or 'turons' – Modolell, Monterols, Putxet, Creueta del Coll, Rovira, Peira Carmel and finally, La Muntanya Pelada, the highest and most impressive of them all. From the top of La Muntanya Pelada (‘The Bare Mountain’), after you’ve climbed the green, undeveloped slopes, you’ll find a vantage point with uninterrupted 360-degree views of the city – a unique perspective guaranteed. Let’s take a moment to give thanks for Barcelona’s real bread bakeries – the new ones, like Baluard in Barceloneta, or Barcelona-Rekyavik, with loaves worth their weight in gold; and the old ones, like Mistral on Ronda Sant Antoni, or the Forn Roura in Sant Gervasi, with probably the best white loaves in the city: great thick, chewy slices, densely textured and flavoursome, as good toasted as fresh. A world away from the sliced loaves you’ll find in the city’s supermarkets, Can Roura’s bread is a delicacy that whisks Barcelonans straight back to the suppers of childhood.
FORN ROURA Calaf, 15 (Sant Gervasi) | T. 93 209 1769 At the heart of the Sants district you’ll find La Ciutat Invisible (The Invisible City), a self-organising co-operative that works to promote political and social change. They have a fantastic bookshop and a great range of humorous agitprop T-shirts, they’re involved in graphic design and communication, participate directly in issues affecting the neighbourhood, and have published books like 'Que Pagui Pujol!', the story of punk in ’80s Barcelona. La Ciutat Invisible is a template for citizens’ projects: instead of giving up and being trampled on, they favour wide-ranging, constructive activism, with contagious ideas and enthusiasm.
LA CIUTAT INVISIBLE Riego, 15 (Sants) | T. 93 298 99 47 At the foot of Tibidabo stands the house Gaudí designed for his personal friend, the merchant Jaume Figueras; it’s a fascinating building that was closed to the public until September 2013. For many years it has been the home of the Guilera family, who recently decided to share it with visitors, while remaining permanent residents. With views of Barcelona spread out beneath it, this is a site that has seen human lives come and go. Long before Gaudí made his designs a reality, Martí the Humane, the last monarch of the House of Aragon, built his palace here – and later, Serrallonga, the legendary Catalan bandit, is said to have used the ruins as a hideout.
TORRE BELLESGUARD Benedetti, 16 (Sant Gervasi) | 93 250 40 93
Christmas in Catalonia means 'torró', the traditional nougat that comes in more varieties than there are presents under the average Christmas tree. But one of the most exquisite of all must be the 'torró de crema cremada' – based on crême brulée – made at Can Foix in Sarrià. This shop, which first opened in 1886, already has a claim to fame: J.V. Foix, the son of the founder, became one of Catalonia’s most important 20th-century poets. But the 'torró de crema cremada' is something else: every bite explodes on the palate like a bomb of pure pleasure. It’s rich, ultra sweet and extremely addictive.
FOIX DE SARRIÀ Pl. de Sarrià, 12-13 (Sarrià) | 93 203 04 73 It’s often when you take a wrong turn that you end up finding what you were really looking for. It’s good to get lost once in a while. And you need to brave some aromatic alleyways if you want to find places as vibrant and interesting as La Virgen or 23 Robadors. Both are in the Raval, and both are places where things happen – wild jam sessions, film projections, flamenco. While a storm of gentrification and prettification rages unabated outside, this is where Barcelona’s real underground survives.
23 ROBADORS Robadors, 23 (Raval) Indigestió is a professional non-profit organisation that has been working to promote alternative music in Barcelona since 1995, writes Jordi Oliveres, the driving force behind the project, on their website. They publish magazines like 'Nativa', put on concerts like Hipersons, and promote ‘spaces for reflection’ like the Indigestió Forums, which this year brought together luminaries of the city’s music scene to talk about ways of bringing music and musicians closer to society. Their work is essential if we are to renew ideas and debates about culture and the city.

It’s not unusual to order a coffee in one of Barcelona’s hundreds of local cafés and be served a cup of brownish, dirty-looking water that smells burnt and – should you unwisely force it down – sends you staggering to the nearest WC. But there are still traditional establishments that take pains to serve a decent – and even a magnificent – cup of joe. One of these is Cachitos. Señor Paco, a waiter of the old school, explains that making good coffee isn’t easy: it’s about the quality of the water and the raw material, the pressure, the coffee machine, and the way these key elements are combined. They use dry-processed beans from Cafés Bou, and a La Speziale espresso machine, lovingly maintained. The results are outstanding: an inch of delicious coffee, the black pearl of the barrio – for only €1! Quite the bargain.
Ronda de Sant Pau, 4 (Raval) | T. 93 329 28 11 Over the last 20 years, Barcelona’s gay scene, which once fought for LGBT rights in a festive atmosphere, has been consumed by an all-powerful money-making machine. Superficiality, dumbing-down and even discriminatory attitudes are all criticisms that have been levelled at Barcelona’s ‘Gaixample’ district. Fortunately, at the heart of the district you’ll find the headquarters of the Col·lectiu Gai de Barcelona, an alternative, activist association where everyone is welcome, the beers are cheap, and you don’t need a gym membership and a designer T-shirt just to start up a conversation. The group is also one of 30 associations and businesses that sponsor Barcelona’s Gay Pride Parade, which takes place in June every year.
COL·LECTIU GAI DE BARCELONA Passatge Valeri Serra, 23 (Eixample Esquerra) | T. 93 453 41 25 In C/Gignàs, in one of the old city’s many hidden corners that make time stand still, you’ll find Ca l’Agut, a restaurant that dates back a whopping 90 years to 1924. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was a popular hangout for the bohemian set, and numerous painters traded their work for meals with friends. Those paintings remain today. This jewel serves home-made food as tasty as it is reasonably priced. For only €12 you can feast on a dish of lentils followed by roast turbot and spuds that would make the angels sing. And further down the menu there are frogs’ legs, crisp fried aubergine, and pigs’ trotters stuffed with botifarra sausage – glorious local delicacies. The service is friendly and attentive, the dining space roomy, the walls covered in paintings. Unsurprisingly, there are locals who eat here every day.
AGUT Gignàs, 16 | T. 93 315 17 09 And no, we don’t mean a morning watching the comings and goings in the emergency room. The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by modernista architect Lluís Domenech i Muntaner between 1905 and 1930, has reopened its doors to the public. Forget the impersonal feel of modern hospitals, the off-white walls and cold fluorescent lights. Domènech i Muntaner’s hospital was inspired by the techniques of the most up-to-date hospitals in Europe at the time, filtered through his own highly aesthetic vision. He transformed what could have been routine functionalism into a garden city of genuine beauty, divided into 12 pavilions that are connected by underground passageways, which are now a part of the guided tour. A major landmark on the map of Barcelona’s modernista heritage, the Hospital Sant Pau is only a ten-minute walk from the Sagrada Família.
HOSPITAL DE SANT PAU Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167 (El Guinardó) Allioli is a simple emulsion of garlic and olive oil, but in his gastronomic memoir 'El que hem menjat' (‘What We Have Eaten’), Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that this crude, rustic, quintessentially Mediterranean sauce was a staple of peasants and fishermen, village inns and taverns; giving energy at the end of the working day; warming the body in winter; and, with a good wine, exciting the imagination and stimulating conversation. We couldn’t agree more. There are bad ones and great ones, but the latter are a perfect complement, as in the case of the allioli at Can Lluís. This well-known restaurant has a secret, like someone who keeps the crown jewels in a salt-cellar: it has the best allioli in town – dense, an almost transparent gold in colour, with a subtle extra something that sets eyelids a-flutter. A warning: you’ll want to slurp up every drop, but then not even your own mother will dare kiss you.
Cera, 49 (Raval) | T. 93 441 11 87 They’re legendary but disputed, they generate love and hate, their fans are always defending them.... This is the charm of a place that for years has had a reputation for making the best patatas bravas in Barcelona and that, in fairness, out of respect for the legend and despite the controversy, we can’t leave off any list of the best bravas in town. Far from the lovely contemporary versions taking the tapa to a new level, those from Bar Tomàs are a portion of asymmetric, oily potatoes, perfect to combine with a dish from this spot with undeniable charisma.
BAR TOMÀS Major de Sarrià, 49 (Sarrià) | T. 93 203 10 77
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