Barcelona is one of the world’s most visited cities and my home town. With so many tourists coming every year, it sometimes can feel that you are permanently surrounded by others and that there isn’t anything new or different to see or do that hasn’t been done a million times before. But in this article, I am going to prove to you that there are a lot of unusual, unique and interesting things to do in Barcelona that most tourists have never heard of. Heck, even I, a local, discovered a few new places when I was writing this list of the best unusual places in Barcelona. So get ready to be amazed as you discover a side of the city that you have never seen before.
Interested to read more about Barcelona? I have written a lot about the city as it is my home, but also, after 100+ countries visited and living and working in over 30, still my favourite place in the world.
1. Drink the water that will bring you back to Barcelona
Thousands of people walk past Canaletes Fountain, at the top end of La Rambla, everyday without realising its historical and present-day importance. Unless you happen to be around on a day Barca wins an important game or competition that is, then you may notice fans congregate around this small landmark.
The city’s most famous fountain is an ornate design built in the 1890s and topped with a lamp post. It is located where another 17th century fountain used to be. Its name, related to a water canal, refers to its historical use. Before the walls of Barcelona were demolished, the fountain used to be the first one to receive water from the main canal that distributed it to the outside part of the city from the mountain of Collserola. As a result, it was known for having the freshest water and queues were a common sight as locals came to get the best water in the city.
With congregations of people, savvy businessmen decided to open stores in the area and it became a happening and busy spot with cafes and other establishments trying to attract visitors to their doors.
But it is not its appearance or historical role which makes the fountain noteworthy today but its location. This is the spot where FC Barcelona’s fans have celebrated the team’s victories since the 1930s.
Why would that be the case, you may wonder? The fountain is right in front of the former local office of the Madrid newspaper El Sol who picked this spot because of its popularity, driven by the fountain’s water qualities. At that time, when there were no newspapers and no radio, sports fans used to congregate in front of the newspaper to find out the scores of games. El Sol had one of the largest boards and so it became the most popular. When FC Barcelona won a game, its fans would find out here and then celebrate or lament accordingly.
Sports in Catalunya and in Spain are synonymous with politics and so the police was never too far from the spot to control any disagreements which developed into full blown fights.
It is also said, as mentioned on an inscription on the fountain, that if you drink water from the fountain, you will return to Barcelona. So make sure to snap a photo and have some fresh drinking water before you leave!
2. Listen to street opera & concerts with incredible acoustics
Street peddlers, magicians, human statues and artist of all types fill the pleasant streets of Barcelona in what feels like an open-air stage. But there is a special alley at the back of the Cathedral where musicians, artists and even opera singers can be found almost daily showcasing their talents.
While this may not be special on its own, what makes it truly unique are the acoustics of this particular spot. Between the ancient walls of the Cathedral and the official medieval buildings around it the sound is magnificent and if you close your eyes you may think you are in a modern, perfect auditorium. Opera singers are particularly amazing at this location and I have seen tenors sing to the top of their lungs in front of an impromptu audience of passers by that were mesmerised by the beautiful location and its incredible sound.
3. Dip melindros in hot chocolate at a traditional granja
Eating churros and hot chocolate is one of the most popular things you can do in Spain but while there are hundreds of cafeterias around serving them, there is one in particular that holds a special place and you should not even order the churros.
Tucked in Petritxol Street, a dark alley in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, is this old granja, the name used to refer to a type of cafeteria that is most popular in the afternoons for tea time, which has been serving hot chocolate and melindros (soft sponge fingers) for decades.
Granja Dulcinea was founded by Juan Mach and Elvira Farràs in 1941 and is still located in the same spot. This is one of the oldest and most traditional granjas in Barcelona and if you speak to the elderly locals they will all have stories of their childhood celebrations spent at Dulcinea.
Go inside and take one of the wooden chairs in this cave-like spot. There is even an attic for first storey balcony views. You can order churros if that is what tickles your fancy but I suggest you go for the melindros instead, the Catalan companion to the hot chocolate which is sure to have you come back for more.
And remember, churros (and melindros) with hot chocolate are not meant to be a dessert item in Spain, they are a tea time snack, so do as locals do and come at around 4-5 PM.
4. Eat & drink heavenly sweets and liquors
Caelum, a tiny shop and cafeteria in the Gothic Quarter, serves and sells sweets and liquors made in nunneries, monasteries and other religious congregations across Spain.
The basement area of the store has the most unique and probably the widest selection of religious sweets in Spain available from the producers themselves. You will find things that you cannot find elsewhere other than the monasteries and nunneries themselves. Recipes are secret, and kept well behind the thick walls of monasteries, and some say that eating these sweets is like having a piece of Heaven.
It is best to ask the staff about each item as some of them have stories and come from places that are well off the beaten path across Spain. Their names are also pretty unique. You can have a celestial little pig, angel’s hair, little princesses, fairy cakes and other wonderful desserts.
Expect all items to be very sweet and using ingredients and recipes that are centuries old and possibly miraculous, who knows. They also serve liquor, as the sweets need some lubrication to be enjoyable. You can eat and drink in or buy to take away. I cannot think of a more unique souvenir from Barcelona.
5. Take pictures of the Gothic Quarter with empty streets
Barcelona is packed with tourists all day and night throughout the year and it sometimes feels like the city that never sleeps. My mother lives steps away from the Cathedral and she can testify to the fact that there is a party going on all night long all 365 days of the year.
However, as it happens with all cities that never sleep, there is a time at dawn, when the sun is just rising, when the city is almost completely devoid of any noise and traffic and when only the street cleaning brigades and the early risers fill the streets. You will not find any tourists at that time and you will surely be able to take all the shots you like without the crowds.
When I go back home I am usually jetlagged, so I have taken to enjoy the peace and calm that comes from the first hour of the day. With empty streets, the Gothic Quarter is most magical and it is then that you can truly feel the history of the walls which seem to be whispering age-old secrets.
When you’re done strolling around the Gothic Quarter in the morning why not take a guided walking tour, or one on a segway or bus. See below for details.
6. Photograph yourself with thousands of others
The Kiss of Freedom mural on Placa d’Isidre Nonell is made of thousands of individual photos printed on tiles and submitted by individual citizens of Barcelona for the mural as a response to a call by the newspaper El Periodico.
Each image of a moment, person, scene or event represents the concept of freedom to the participant. The artist, Joan Fontcuberta, titled the piece “El mon neix en cada besada”, or “the world is born with every kiss”, and designed it on occasion of the Tricentenary celebrations commemorating the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The mural was installed in 2014 and has become one of the most popular selfie locations in the city, especially for couples. Make sure to read Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quote by the mural, “The sound of a kiss is not as loud as that of a cannon, but it’s echo lasts a great deal longer.”
7. Sleep or dine in the Roman walls of Barcino
When Mercer Hotel was being built the team discovered a portion of the 1st century Roman Walls of the city of Barcino hidden at the back of the medieval palace that was to be the location of the hotel.
This delayed the renovation project which took almost 10 years to complete but provided an amazing setting to the hotel’s signature fine dining Catalan restaurant and turned the hotel into a national monument.
Mercer Restaurant offers some of the most magical settings for a restaurant in the entire city. Built around one of the 78 defense towers of the Roman walls of Barcino, the restaurant delivers wonderful food in an ancient setting.
The 28 room boutique hotel has several other historical elements dating from the 14th century, like the pointed arches in the lobby and courtyard area, and even has some paintings from the same period.
When you sit down for dinner you feel that the walls must have seen it all. Wars, disputes, and family tragedies. Roman soldiers used to run through the towers of Barcino’s walls in case of attack and, while you don’t have to run today, you can still sit among those same walls and enjoy a refined and romantic dinner like no other. Better yet, sleep in and wake up to enjoy a historical breakfast.
8. Pick sheet music from among 125,000 titles
This hole in the wall old family-run music store sells sheet music from all classics and even modern bands since 1880. This is a treasure trove with over 125,000 titles and a place that music lovers could spend hours in.
They sell sheet music for all instruments and styles from the classics to rock bands, from piano to flute from salsa to bachata.
Casa Beethoven has one of the most knowledgeable teams and the staff prides themselves in being able to help clients find what song they are looking for after they sing it for them. They are like a real-life Shazam, try them out!
On Saturday afternoon local music lovers and singers from the neighbourhood gather to sing and play the store’s piano in an organic get together that has been going on for years.
9. Watch impromptu skateboarding shows
The city’s skateboarders meet in front of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, MACBA, in El Raval every day to practice. The vibe is young and casual with a keen audience and lots of skaters of all levels coming here to peruse the many ledges at different levels, the sleek granite surfaces and the large open space. The design of the square in front of the museum, with ledges at various levels, drops, and stairs, is perfect for skating, so it is the most popular spot in the city for this sport.
The amount of skaters you can find will depend on the time of the day and the day of the week but there are times when they are officially allowed. However, there is always action no matter the time of day or year with a mix of locals and visitors.
10. Take a look at the city’s oldest inhabited house
The oldest house in Barcelona is located on number 6 Carrer Sant Domènec del Call and dates back from the 12th century. It has been continuously inhabited and privately owned, although during a brief period after the Spanish Civil War it was a brothel.
You can tell it is the oldest because the facade is tilted as a result of the earthquake that shook the city in the 15th century. This is the same 8 point earthquake that caused the rose window of Santa Maria del Mar to collapse and kill many during the Corpus Christi celebrations in 1428 when the pilgrims were taking the virgin from Santa Maria del Mar to the Cathedral.
The building has undergone two renovation efforts which managed to revive the facade’s 14th century Gothic windows and its 12th century Romanesque ones which are believed to have been placed there from a separate previous structure.
The street where the house is located is being renamed to Salomo Ben Adret in 2018 as a request from the local Jewish community and in memory of a notable Rabbi.
11. Enjoy a hot chocolate in a modernist kitchen
There is a chocolate shop and cafeteria inside Casa Amatller, the building next to Casa Batllo, which not only offers traditional hot chocolate with a history dating back to 1797 but also an insight into what a modernist kitchen and house used to look like.
Chocolate Amatller was founded by the Amatller family who used to live in the building and remains a family-run business today in the hands of the Simon Coll family. Established in the 18th century, the business thrived on innovation and foresight and produced 11,000 kilos of chocolate in 1915 with cacao from Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, and Equatorial Guinea.
Since 2015, the chocolate, with its beautiful modernist packaging, is on sale at the store in Casa Ametller and you can also enjoy snacks and a hot chocolate cup made with its chocolate in a traditional bowl designed specifically for this purpose at the faborit cafeteria in the same premises.
Take a seat at the small patio at the back of the building where you can see Casa Batllo’s courtyard and back facade for a piece of quietness in the madness of the Golden Triangle of Passeig de Gracia.
The building is even open for guided tours which you can book below.
12. Visit what is left of the city’s only Roman Temple
This Roman temple devoted to Augustus is one of the least known monuments in Barcelona and probably one of the oldest remnants dating back to the 1st century AC. Although only four columns are left of the temple they are located where it is believed to have once stood.
The temple used to be located atop Mons Taber, the highest point in the city, and is believed to be the only Roman temple known in the city. It was built in honor of Emperor Augustus, who built similar temples in other parts of the Roman Empire at the time.
The temple eroded and was destroyed with the passing of time and what is left was found through various rehabilitation efforts in the city.
One of the four columns was made of the remnants of two columns discovered when one of the buildings standing at its original location was restored in 1850 and the efforts damaged the columns. The pieces found were put together to make one column which was placed at the Plaça del Rei for lack of space at the designated museum.
The remaining three columns were found at the end of the 19th century when renovation efforts at the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya unearthed them.
All four columns were finally placed at their current location at 10 Carrer Paradis and are maintained and managed by the Barcelona City History Museum.
13. See the Roman walls of the city from the top of Esglesia del Pi
The Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi is a Gothic church in the Plaça del Pi which has survived several natural disasters including an earthquake and mortar attacks during the War of the Spanish Succession.
While the church is nice to visit on its own, with the typical architectural Catalan Gothic design, it is even more interesting during the guitar concerts that are often taking place in the chapel.
However, one of the least known activities at the church is the bell tower tours that are offered several times a day and which will take you up the bell tower, one of the tallest structures in the Gothic Quarter.
From there, you not only have incredible 360 degree views over Barcelona from the highest accessible point in the Gothic Quarter but you will also be able to trace the old Roman walls of Barcino and see the separation between the city and the outside surrounding areas and the evolution of the first and second walls that were built to defend the city and are credited with guaranteeing Barcino’s thriving past.
The volunteer guides are incredibly knowledgeable on Roman history and will be able to point at the delimitation between today’s Barcelona and the former Roman city in a fascinating tour through the centuries. Bear in mind the tour takes you up several storeys above the ground and so it requires proper footwear. The spiral stairs are not suitable for those with severe fear of heights.
Buy the tickets online especially in the summertime when it can get fully booked. Consider also adding a night tour only available during the summer months, for an even more special experience. In this tour you will be visiting the crypt and learning more about the entire structure before heading up the bell tower. You can also reach out to the church and request a private tour via email if the pre-established tour times don’t work for you or you have a larger group.