Barcelona Culture 101
Probably the most important thing you need to know when traveling to Barcelona is that the city is the capitol of Cataluña (Catalonia), an autonomous region in the northeast of Spain. And as such, most people here consider themselves primarily and culturally Catalan, not necessarily Spanish, which is a very sensitive distinction in Barcelona. Especially with political tensions being so high right now.
So if you’re coming to Barcelona expecting to see all of the classics typically associated with Spanish culture — think, enormous bullfighting matches, paella on every corner, Flamenco bars galore — get ready for a surprise. Because most of the traditional “Spanish” offerings are just here for tourists, and aren’t very authentic. (Also, bullfighting has also been completely outlawed here since 2010.) The good news though? You are coming to a city that is absolutely rich in its own gorgeous, unique, delicious, warm, and magical Catalan culture. So soak it up, and make the most of your time in Cataluña while you’re here!
Here’s a bit of background about the city to keep in mind:
Spain Vs. Catalonia = It’s Complicated
- With recorded history dating back to the Roman Empire, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain + Portugal) has always been a collection of dozens upon dozens distinctive cultures, each with their own traditions, customs, and languages. So as you can imagine, when the country of Spain formed and all of those regions were expected to come under the same flag, tensions formed, many of which continue to this day. Most of those regions still hold tight to their unique customs and languages. And one of those regions, of course, is Cataluña, whose capital is Barcelona.
- During Franco’s regime (which only recently ended in 1975, so keep in mind that half of the people you see in Barcelona lived through the transition), Catalonia was stripped of its autonomous authority. And, amongst other things, thousands of Catalans were imprisoned, and Catalan language was banned. Since Franco’s fall, there has been a renaissance of Catalan culture and pride here in Barcelona.
- Many locals here have long considered themselves Catalan, not Spanish, and tensions between Barcelona and Madrid have flared up more strongly again in recent years, sparked in part by economic interests.
- The official language of Cataluña is Catalan, not Spanish. You’ll notice that most of the signs around the city are in Catalan. And nearly all locals here speak both Catalan and Spanish (and often, English too).
- You’ll also see the flag of Catalonia flying everywhere in Barcelona, with gold and red bars is capped with a star and blue triangle. It hangs from balconies across the city in a display 0f cultural pride.
A (Very) Brief History of Barcelona:
- 19 B.C.E.– Augustus, who became Roman Emperor, conquered the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Portugal and Spain). The beginnings of this city was known as Barcino. (<– Keep an eye out for that word at historic landmarks here!)
- 500-1000 C.E. – The Roman empire crumbled around 500 C.E., leaving the peninsula vulnerable.
- 711 – The Moors, invading from North Africa, took over the Iberian Peninsula. Despite this, the impact on Barcelona and outlying Catalonia was somewhat limited.
- 801 – Barcelona was re-captured by Charlemagne’s son, and the area became part of the Frankish empire.
- 1469 – King Ferdinand II and Isabel of Aragon married, joining the two largest kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. Christopher Columbus’ first stop after his trip to the New World, was to report to the monarchs in Barcelona.
- 1500-1800 – Madrid became the new capitol city, diverting resources and trade routes from Barcelona, hastening its decline.
- 1714 – The War of Spanish Succession found Catalonia on the losing side. Their culture and language were diminished as Madrid continued its rise.
- 1854 – Queen Isabella II permitted the opening of the still-standing Roman walls so that Barcelona could expand, spawning modern innovations and growth.
- 1939-1975 – Francisco Franco ruled Spain, attempting to homogenize the culture during his time in power – including suppressing the regional culture of Catalonia and others around the Iberian peninsula. Violence and intimidation were commonly used as methods to achieve his goal.
- 1992 – Barcelona hosts the Summer Olympics after a complete overhaul of its waterfront and many key sites around the city, re-establishing its presence as an international city.
- 2017-2018 – In late 2017, Catalonia held a referendum (deemed illegal by Madrid) in favor of formally separating from Spain. Then, the Catalonian government formally declared itself independent from Spain. Madrid responded by shutting down the local government and set a vote in December of 2107 to allow new representatives to be elected. Pro-Independence candidates carried the majority.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen next, but most seem convinced that this question of Catalonian independence will be hotly debated for the foreseeable future. That said, visitors here should know that the political tensions have in no way made us feel unsafe here. Even large marches with hundreds of thousands of people feel passionate, but completely peaceful. So don’t let any political worries keep you from coming to visit! :)
Barcelona Food Culture
Considering Barcelona’s centuries of history, its rich agricultural landscape and its current position as an international modern city, the food culture here is rich and diverse. To understand the cultural roots of the food of this region, you’ll actually need to look more to the traditions of Catalonia, versus those from Spain itself. Catalonian cuisine is alive and thriving here in Barcelona, and so fun to explore! (But Spanish food staples such as paella or tapas aren’t originally part of the culture here, and are mostly available nowadays for tourists.)
That said, Barcelona is a thriving food hub featuring cuisines from all over the world. So you can find wonderful, family-owned tapas bars on the same street as trendy ramen shops, Argentinian empanadas next to curry, bibimbap next to an arranccini stand, and everything in between. And all of this — of course — set against the backdrop of a city with some of the world’s best wine.
Barcelona is a delicious place to eat. ;)
In many ways, Barcelona is a young city, with bars and clubs carrying the party through the mornings. And tourists will also note that it’s also a late city. Dinner starts for locals around 9:00 or 10:00pm, and many bars stay open until the early (or late) hours of the morning. If you’re traveling the main tourist areas of the city (Eixample, Gràcia, Ciutat Vella, Gótic, El Born), you’ll often find it easy to be out late in the evening, as much of the city is still out doing the same. Beyond the food scene, there are concerts, theater, bars, and a remarkable array of local festivals throughout the year to conclude a good day of seeing the city.
Though incredibly diverse, Barcelona is most widely known as the home of Moderisme (not to be confused with Modernism), a movement that reached its peak at the turn of the 20th century. It’s often compared to the parallel movements of Art Nouveau in France, and the English Arts and Crafts movement. In addition to architecture, which served as its vanguard, Modernsime also found place in the world of literature, theater, sculpture and painting, heavily influencing the culture of Catalonia and beyond for over a generation.
Antoni Gaudí is widely considered the most famous architect emerging from this movement. Aside from his masterpiece-in-construction, La Sagrada Familia, there are many Gaudí-designed buildings scattered throughout Barcelona which have made indelible marks on the city’s unique landscape.
Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudí and Salvador Dalí all spent significant parts of their lives in Catalonia. And their creative energy persists in this place, which you’ll be able to feel while strolling through any of the museums, public spaces, concert halls and architecture that continue to give Barcelona its unique vitality. If you’re interested in seeing live music or taking in some art exhibits, there are an abundance of options to choose from here.
Like any international city, we’ve found diverse pockets of people hailing from all across the planet, mixed in with Catalan locals and others from across Spain. And the uniting factor we’ve noted with everyone is that they all love living in Barcelona. It’s pretty amazing, really. Tourists and locals alike always seem so glad to be here. So if you’re here visiting, be sure to give everyone you meet a quick kiss on the cheeks, ask questions and get to know their stories, and your time here will be all the richer for it.
For More Barcelona Travel Recommendations…
Check out our Gimme Some Barcelona Travel Guide, which includes a constantly-updated list of our best recommendations on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat in Barcelona. Plus, we’ve also shared a bunch of our best Barcelona-specific travel tips, so that you can navigate the city like a local.
Also, feel free to download our Gimme Some Barcelona Google Map, which includes all of the recommendations listed in our travel guide.