By: Pierre A Herman / Cover photo by: S. Pitta
With a new high-speed train connection from Paris and a growing number of environmentally friendly hotel and dining options, Barcelona makes low-impact travelling simple, effortless and easy on the bottom line.
Starting with a 1 day, Best-of-Barcelona walking tour, I take a look at the city’s choicest sustainable accommodation options, the best organic and vegetarian restaurants, not to mention some eco-shopping ideas and a few tried-n-tested nightlife recommendations that are sure to make your holiday here an experience to remember.
Getting here from Northern Europe by environmentally-friendlier train is now easier than ever thanks to 4 daily, direct high-speed trains linking Barcelona with Paris. With speeds reaching up to 320 km/hr., the entire journey takes around 6h25 centre-to-centre, compared to 5 hours by plane when including ground transport and check-in. With fares as low as €59 euros one-way, it’s a wallet-friendly way to avoid short-haul flying while in Europe, with easy connections available at Paris’s Gare de Lyon station to other French, Swiss and Italian cities. Take a short RER train to Gare du Nord, and you’ve got trains that whisk you to London (with Eurostar) and to Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and further afield (with Thalys).
Click here for more information about TGV’s Paris-Barcelona service.
Don’t plan on needing anything other than a good pair of walking shoes for transport in Barcelona. And while a 10 journey pass for the public transportation network, which includes access to approximately 10 subway lines, 2 trams, funiculars and innumerable bus routes throughout the city comes in at under 10 euros, think of it as a last resort when sore legs and feet are begging you for respite.
It might be touristy, but you wouldn’t want to miss this amazing street so rise early to avoid the crowds and start your visit of this pedestrian-friendly city on the most famous pedestrian boulevard of them all, the “Ramblas de Catalyuna”, which splits the old town into two distinct neighbourhoods equally worth a good ramble. On one side, the winding streets of the “Barri Gotic” bring you the more than 600 year old Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the stunning Plaza Real square and the always well-frequented Picasso Museum. On the other, you’ll find the less polished but much hipper “Raval” district. Here, see the latest contemporary art at the MACBA and shop for fresh fruit and organic produce or have a bite to eat at any one of the 250 stalls and 10 restaurants at the famous Mercado de la Boqueria (opened in 1840).
After lunch, walk up the stunning Paseo de Gracia avenue past some of Gaudi’s urban masterpieces and continue until just past the grand Hotel Fuster where the avenue suddenly narrows into Gran de Gracia, the beginning of what was once a separate jurisdiction with its own town hall.
The “Grácia” neighbourhood (Fontana metro station for those with less time on their hands) is a young, slightly bohemian, and totally authentic district allowing you to experience a Barcelona seldom seen by tourists but loved by locals.
If you’ve got money to burn, have lunch in Grácia at Botafumerio, Barcelona’s most acclaimed fish and seafood restaurant with an exceptional wine list. Or head to Gut (pronounced “goot”) which gets great reviews for its creative Mediterranean-Asian fusion cuisine with lots of vegetarian and vegan choices.
Botafumerio │ C/ Gran de Gràcia 81, 08012 Barcelona / Reservations: 932 184 230
Gut │ Carrer del Perill 13, Barcelona / Reservations: 931 770 741 / Hours: M-Sat 1-4pm and 8-11:30pm. Sun 8-11:30pm only
(See more Barcelona dining options in the “EAT” section)
Gracia walking tour: For a basic introduction to the area, walk down Carrer de Asturias from Gran de Gracia until you reach the cathedral, working your way seaward until Travessera de Gracia, then turning right and meandering back to the main drag. Along the way you’ll find organic wine shops, eco-market restaurants, second-hand furniture shops and the SoleRebels upcycled shoe shop.
With more time, freely navigate the tightly woven grid of narrow streets and picturesque squares chock-a-block full of food and clothing shops, bars, cafés, and markets, stopping off for one of the best gin-tonics in town at Elephanta, a cosy, alternative gin bar and tea house offering more than 50 varieties of tea and over 40 different kinds of gin, plus 20 ingredients to create any one of their cocktails.
Elephanta │ C/Torrent d’en Vidalet 37, 08012 Barcelona / +34 932 376 906
Just before sunset, walk through the Parque de la Ciudadella and on to Barcelonetta, where you can hop on a two-wheeler at Barcelona Rent-A-Bike (rates start as low as €6 euros) and start working on your tan while taking in the breath-taking views along the city’s beach promenade. Stop for a mojito at one of the many chiringuitos (beach bars) and contemplate the waves and the impressive modern art sculptures.
Cross town and dig into authentic and mouth-watering tapas on the pedestrianized Carrer de Blai in the city’s Poble Sec district (metro: Poble Sec or Parallel), where even the choosy diner is spoiled for choice with several dozen tapas and international food restaurants attracting a young, international crowd.
Cap the night off with some locally-made, sweet vermouth and eclectic live entertainment (you may be asked to participate!) at the Gran Bodega Saltó, a historic wine and tapas bar with an interior (designed by English artist Steven Forstor) that is part heritage and pure fantasy.
Gran Bodega Saltó │Carrer de Blesa 36 (Poble Sec, Barcelona) / Tel: 934413709
If bunk beds and a laid-back, youthful atmosphere are on the agenda, try Sleep Green, Barcelona’s only EU Ecolabel-certified urban hostel, smack-dab in the heart of the city near Plaza Catalunya.
It’s low-impact urban accommodation in an airy, fresh-faced hostel that combines free Wi-Fi with ultra-modern kitchen and bathroom facilities, and a comfortable night’s rest on what’s promised to be high quality mattresses. sleepgreenbarcelona.com
Casa Camper is a funky, minimalist boutique hotel (think IKEA crossed with Roche Bobois) opened by the eponymous Spanish shoe company promising a “simpler, more human, and more respectful way to relate to our world.”
Located in the heart of the up-and-coming Raval district, Casa Camper is down the street from “las Rambas” and literally around the bend from the MACBA museum of contemporary art. This place isn’t in your face about being green, but few hotels can boast solar panels to heat water and a water-recycling system in every room. And the stylish recycling bins take sorting trash to a new level.
While costing more than a hostel, the freebies are endless, ranging from complimentary bikes for rent and stacks of books to contemplate, to a complimentary 24 hour buffet of light meals, snacks and beverages and a full, complimentary breakfast! casacamper.com
If more luxury is what you’re after, then the magnificent Neri boutique hotel might fit the bill. In a beautifully restored eighteenth-century stone palace which has combined the historical elements of the interior with modern art and plush surroundings, 22 rooms and a lounge/library overlook the Barrio Gotico, meaning you’re perfectly located to visit the old town on foot or bike.
Despite all the history (a stone wall from the 12th century still stands and both Roman and Phoenician artefacts were found under the hotel during its restoration) solar panels on the roof stand out as a salute to 21st century realities. hotelneri.com
For the ultimate low-impact experience, why not stay in someone’s home? B&B Roser is a cozy bed & breakfast run by a long-time resident (and acquaintance of this writer), located just up the street from the busy Parallel avenue and popular restaurant hub Carrer de Blai. No lift, air conditioning or bathtub, but the large, comfortable and exceptionally quiet double room with welcome pack and all-day, continental breakfast buffet are sure to please, as is Salvatore, a welcoming host who loves to treat his guests to Italian coffee or some organic tea and help them get better acquainted with the city. bebroser.blogspot.com
Barcelona is reputed to have more than half of Spain’s vegetarian restaurants and the Raval neighbourhood is the undisputed hub of vegetarian dining in the city. One of the best in the area is the highly esteemed Sesamo where the organic ingredients are sourced from the Boqueria market down the street. This purveyor of slow food features a cozy, intimate dining room and an ovo-lacto-veggie menu (there are vegan options as well) where presentation and taste are a true art-form.
Close by is Teresa Carles, a bright, market-style organic & vegetarian restaurant named after the chef where the focus is on freshness and creativity. The menu features a bit of everything, from salads to seitan burgers and artisanal pasta, and highly recommended are the vegetarian ceviche, shitake carpacio, and homemade croquettes made of artichoke, spinach, funghi and cheese. Wash it down with Teresa Carles’ own house wine or homemade lemonade with mint and agave syrup.
For a younger crowd and more accessible prices, try Organic +, also in the Raval. A cafe-style restaurant with globe lamps and high, wood-beamed ceilings, they serve excellent salads, rice dishes and vegetarian pizzas.
Around the corner from the Museu Picasso in the Barri Gotic, La Báscula, is a popular hippie-chic, co-op vegetarian café where you can order an organic caña (beer) and check out the progressive flyers in the front hall as you wait for your table.
If you start to miss home, don’t miss Federal, an Australian-run cafe-bistro which gets packed as much for its stylish interior space and patio as for its menu. Located between the Poble Sec and San Antoni market areas, excellent coffee, smoothies and home-made pastries are on hand, as well as burgers, quiches, salads and weekend brunch, all made with organic (and if possible, local) ingredients. Try the French toast (made vegan with soy milk on request) with pure maple syrup and a pot of Earl Grey for a hard-to-find Anglo treat.
La Báscula │ Carrer dels Flassaders 30, Barcelona
Sesamo │ Carrer de San Antoni Abat 52, Barcelona / Tel: 931 770 051
Teresa Carles │ Carrer dels Jovellanos 2, Barcelona / Tel: 93 317 18 29 / teresacarles.com
Organic + │ Carrer de la Junta de Comerç 11, Barcelona / Tel: 931 770 052
Federal Café | Carrer de Parlament 39, Barcelona / Tel: 931 873 607 / federalcafe.es
Barcelona’s fashion consciousness translates into a growing tribe of young designers, many of whom create both eclectic and eco-friendly gear perfect for your travels.
Head to La Manual Alpargatera for a pair of traditional Catalonian espadrilles made with natural vegetable-fiber (hemp, jute, esparto grass) soles and cotton or linen uppers. Around since 1943, they’re perfect for the street and the beach.
Take home a piece of Barcelona at Demano, in the city’s fashionable Borne district. Their patchwork pop art design is comprised of recycled materials like PVC polyester from banners promoting cultural events, and made into everything from messenger bags and laptop sleeves to key chains and even kites.
Or pick up a stylish t-shirt from Thinking Mu, a local casual-clothing company which produces everything using 100% organic cotton, emblazoned with cheeky prints and green lifestyle slogans.
La Manual Alpargatera │ Carrer de Avinyo 7, Barcelona
Demano │ Carrer dels Carders 36, Barcelona / Opening hours: 11am-2pm, 4-8pm
Thinking Mu│ Stocklists: thinkingmu.com
Watch to learn about Barcelona’s solar power revolution: