If you’re looking for something other than the traditional sights of Barcelona, there are plenty of secret spots in the side streets. Amazing views, a prison, an owl, street food, wonderful markets and unconventional street art are just a few of Barcelona’s many hidden and different experiences.
Barcelona is so much more than beaches and Gaudí, and I love diving deep into all the great stories that the city’s many less touristy places hold. Some of Barcelona’s offbeat experiences can be found right next to major tourist attractions and you may have walked past them without noticing, others are visible throughout most of the city and yet we overlook them. You’ll have to search a little further in the narrow streets and nooks of the city to find them, but they’re worth it. Here are some of my favourite alternative experiences in Barcelona.
1. The view from Tibidabo church
From most of Barcelona you can see the giant temple, Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, which sits atop Mount Tibidabo. The temple consists of a basilica, on top of which a church was built, and was completed in 1960.
When you see the neo-Gothic temple from downtown, it seems a bit more sombre than it actually is. The church is a popular place for locals to get married because it is located in the middle of an amusement park. The best thing about the church, though, is the view you get of the whole of Barcelona as you make your way to the top. You can get most of the way by lift, but to get to the top you’ll have to climb some stairs. The view of the city with the amusement park and the big Ferris wheel in the foreground as well as the sea is worth the whole trip.
Templo Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, Cumbre del Tibidabo
The amusement park at Tibidabo
If you’re bringing children, they’ll love a visit to Tibidabo’s old amusement park, Parc d’atraccions, which opened in 1905 and is among the oldest in the world.
Many of the rides have achieved cult status, including the red plane carousel from 1928. The plane is a replica of the first plane that flew from Barcelona to Madrid.
The amusement park has 30 different rides, from the quiet ones to the more wild ones like the roller coaster. The Ferris wheel from 2014 one of the newest, but very popular. From 130 metres above sea level, you can enjoy views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean.
Many filmmakers have used the theme park and Tibidabo as a location, including. Woody Allen in the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
OBS! You can take the cable car from Doctor Andreu Square, but it is often out of service (and under renovation for autumn 2020). Alternatively you can take bus T2A Plaça de Catalunya
Tibidabo Amusement Park, Plaça del Tibidabo 3
2. Modernista stations
Barcelona’s other main train station, Estacio de França, is worth a look even if you’re not going by train. Inside the beautiful modernista building are the most beautiful decorations in marble, crystal and bronze. Notice the windows, ceiling, walls and floors.
França station was built in 1848 and it was from here that the first trains to France departed (hence the name). Today, trains out of Spain and to several other Catalan cities depart from the station.
Take a look in the fine cafeteria, which also retains its original decor.
Estacio de França, Av. del Marquès de l’Argentera
3. Street food market in the green
For a different outdoor experience, head to the hip street market Palo Market Fest, held in Barcelona’s Poblenou district on the first weekend of every month.
The colourful outdoor market in Barcelona is held in a green area away from the tourist hordes and is packed with food trucks where you can buy everything from traditional to healthy and organic fast food. The area also has small bars serving beer and cocktails.
The market is also filled with stalls where you can shop for vintage fashion, street wear, jewellery, delicacies, crafts, books and records. In addition, concerts and workshops are held.
Palo Market Fest, Carrer dels Pellaires, 30-38
4. Barcelona’s owl
Barcelona’s answer to the Irma hen at the lakes in Copenhagen is the owl, which sits looking out over the bustling traffic from the top of a building at the corner of Avinguda Diagonal and the hip street, Passeig de Sant Joan.
In the 1970s, the owl was an advertisement for a company that produced illuminated signs, and it was created by Rótulos Roura.
The business has long since closed, but the locals were so pleased with the owl that it was allowed to stay. Today, the owl no longer has a light and no longer functions as an advertisement.
Avinguda Diagonal / Passeig de Sant Joan
5. Visit Barcelona’s former prison
A visit to the former prison, La Model, is one of the more sombre, alternative experiences in Barcelona. But it’s interesting and surprising, and you’ll learn.
I first visited the prison in 2017 with my Spanish teacher, just three months after the last prisoners had been transferred to newer and more modern prisons. We could still feel the raw and uneasy energy that still hung in the air after the prisoners had moved. I visited the prison again in 2019, and although the energy is different now, a visit to the prison still makes a deep impression.
La Model is centrally located in the Sants district and served as the city’s only prison for 113 years. Here sat everything from thieves convicted of petty crimes to political prisoners to mass murderers. La Model was, when it opened, ultra modern, and became a strong symbol of power.
The enormous prison consists of six wings, centred around a large control tower, from which the prisoners were monitored. You can see the former cells, the spartan library and the visitors’ room, which give a good insight into what life as a prisoner was like. After the civil war, between 20,000 and 30,000 prisoners were held here – about 20 per cell.
La Model has housed some of Catalonia’s most notorious – and famous – political prisoners, and some of the cells are decorated as they were when the prisoners lived here, telling their stories. You’ll also hear the macabre story of the execution of Salvador Puig Antich in 1974, which caused an international outcry. In La Model, over 1000 prisoners were executed – including in the prison post office.
La Model de Barcelona, Carrer d’Entença, 155
6. Symbolic street art mosaic
One of Barcelona’s most impressive pieces of street art is The Kiss of Freedom, which consists of hundreds of small photo mosaics that together illustrate two mouths in a kiss.
The work is created by artist Joan Fontcuberta, who works from the concept “The world begins with every kiss”. The work was purchased by the newspaper El Periódico, which asked readers to submit a photograph of a moment of freedom in which they or their loved ones could appear. The artist then collected all the images in mosaics and assembled them into the final work, which was published in 2014 to commemorate the fallen during the War of Succession (1701-1714).
Also note the sign next door quoting poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The sound of a kiss is not as loud as a cannon, but its echo lasts much longer.”
You’ll find the 8 x 3.8 metre street art piece in a small square, close to the cathedral.
The Kiss of Freedom, Placa dÌsidre Noell
7. The Civil War shelter
At the foot of the Montjuïc mountain is a gigantic underground tunnel that was used as a shelter during the Civil War.
The first of 192 bomb attacks by Franco’s army hit Barcelona on 13 February 1937. As the attacks intensified, civilians who involuntarily became protagonists joined forces to set up shelters. Refugi 307 (shelter number 307) in the Poble Sec district is one of over 1000 shelters built by civilians. The tunnel is 4oo meters long, 2 meters high and 1.6 meters wide and a silent witness to the cruelty of war.
Refuge 307 is now part of the city’s historical museum and you can walk around the narrow corridors and see what living conditions were like underground. There are rooms, toilets, water supply and a first aid area.
Refugi 307, Carrer Nou de la Rambla 175
8. Discover the history of perfume
On Barcelona’s grand, fashionable shopping street, Passeig de Gracía, the perfumery Regina hides a little gem of a perfume museum. The museum is hidden in the back room, so it’s not easy to spot from the street.
Opened in 1961, the Perfume Museum houses 5000 different objects divided into two sections – one displaying perfume bottles and flasks from earlier cultures, and one from the modern. Here are bottles and perfume bottles in materials such as glass, bronze, ceramics and precious stones, some dating back to the Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans.
The modern section delves into the boom of the perfume industry in the 18th century and the stories of some of the greatest modern manufacturers such as Estée Lauder, Givenchy, Lanvin, Christian Dior and Chanel. Chances are you’ll find the bottle of your youth perfume here.
In addition to perfume bottles and flacones, you can also see a number of fine boxes with, among other things, perfumed soaps.
Museu del Perfum, Passeig de Gràcia 39
9. The local food market
A few steps from Barcelona Cathedral you’ll find the Santa Catarina food market, which despite its location in the city’s most touristy area is visited by far fewer tourists than the famous La Boqueria food market on the Rambla.
The building that houses the market is one of Barcelona’s most interesting architectural gems and is worth a visit in its own right. Built on the site of a former monastery, it was completely renovated in 2005.
The huge wooden structure has a beautiful, undulating roof, covered with colourful mosaics. Under the roof you’ll find a host of stalls selling tapas bars, vegetables, meat, fish, cakes, bread and ready meals.
Enjoy a tapa with the locals at one of the bars. It’s also a great place to shop for delicacies to take home.
Mercat Santa Catarina, Av. by Francesc Cambó 16
10. The ancient synagogue
Although Barcelona’s ancient synagogue is located in the Jewish Quarter, in the middle of one of Barcelona’s most touristy areas, many people overlook this little gem, which is located in a narrow street.
The synagogue dates from the 6th century. It is the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe. It is built on a foundation of Roman walls, the remains of which you can still see. The synagogue served as the centre of Jewish life in Barcelona until 1391, when the Jewish quarter was looted and over 300 Jews killed.
After many years of being hidden and forgotten, the synagogue is now used for religious ceremonies on festive occasions and as a museum. Just 60 square metres below street level, the synagogue gives you an insight into the history and culture of the Jewish community in Barcelona.
Sinagoga Mayor, Carrer de Marlet 5
11. Guided tour of street art
Street art is a big part of Barcelona’s cityscape, where you’ll find works by a host of local and international artists. The districts of El Raval and El Born in particular have a high concentration of street art.
Barcelona Street Style Tour offers guided tours of Barcelona’s street art in the neighbourhoods of El Raval and El Born. The tours are guided by knowledgeable people with great insight into street art and its history.
The guided tours are free, and you’ll meet the guide at the Arc de Triomphe if you’ve chosen the tour of el Born and at the contemporary art museum MACBA if you’re going on the street art route in El Raval.
I have been on both tours, which are highly recommended. Since many of the street artists have created works in both neighbourhoods, you can get a lot out of just joining one of the tours. Choose the neighbourhood you want to get to know better.
Tip the guide when the free tour ends. You can also go on a guided street art tour by bike. It costs 23 euros. Book the tours on the website.
12. Pit stop in the garden of the ancient theatre
How about a coffee in a green oasis, away from the hustle and bustle, in the centre of Barcelona?
In a narrow side street, just opposite the famous Palau de la Musica, you’ll find a hidden gem in the back garden of the ancient theatre. Here you can sit in peace and enjoy your coffee under a shady tree and read a book.
Antic Teatre is a creative and social centre that organises theatre performances, concerts and workshops. The bar with a lovely terrace and garden is open every day, where you can meet the locals and enjoy breakfast, drinks and sandwiches. I often have a late breakfast in the garden, where the atmosphere is particularly calm.
Antic Teatre, Carrer de Verdaguer i Callís 12
13. A museum full of cannabis
A Picasso work with an illustration of a man smoking a pipe, loads of hash pipes in various shapes and materials, hemp gloves, paper and gloves, as well as advertising material and cannabis bottles.
Barcelona’s Museum of Cannabis, Marijuana and Hemp is by no means one of the city’s best-known museums, despite the popularity of smoking marijuana in the city. Marijuana is legal for private use in Barcelona, and you can buy it in several kiosks as well as coffee and smoking clubs.
Housed in the beautiful modernista Palau Mornau, the museum is packed with items that tell the story of the cannabis plant and its uses.
In the stately rooms with fine wrought-iron balconies and stained-glass windows, you can explore the collection, which includes works of art illustrating the use of cannabis through the ages, tools and implements used to make hemp products, and a medical cannabis section that tells of its use since the 1800s.
Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum, Carrer Ample 35
14. Flower market
The market “Concepción” (or Concepció in Catalan) is one of the long list of the city’s oldest market. Located in the heart of the Eixample district, it opened its doors in 1888. The market was designed by the famous Catalan architect Antoni Roviras i Trias, who also designed another famous market in Barcelona: Sant Antoni.
As well as being packed with stalls selling meat, fish and vegetables, like other food markets in the city, it stands out from the rest with a large flower section that’s well worth a visit.
The flower market extends over a large area at one end of the building and right out onto the pavement. Here you can enjoy the sight of the many flowers that Catalans love to put in pots on their balconies and vases in their living rooms.