When it comes to selecting European cities to visit in the winter, especially around the holidays, Barcelona may not be the first to come to mind. Instead, cities of France and Germany and their legendary Christmas markets are more likely to get your attention. You may imagine being bundled up in warm clothing, strolling hundreds of decorated stalls while drinking mulled wine. I’ll admit that sounds lovely, but I will also point out, that the weather in Barcelona is better, the crowds are smaller and the prices quite reasonable. So let me be more specific and share some things to do in Barcelona in the Winter.
Why you should visit Barcelona in winter
Visit the Christmas Markets
Yes, Barcelona does have Christmas Markets, but they are considerably smaller than those found in other European cities. I did not plan my trip to Barcelona based on these markets, but I did enjoy spending some time there. The first market we visited was Fira de Santa Llucia which is located in front of the Gothic Cathedral. The location at night is lovely, especially with the enormous cathedral doors lit up. You’ll find about 50 stalls selling a variety of artisan wares, most dedicated to Christmas. What you will not find at this market is food. However, since you are in the Gothic Quarter, there is no lack of restaurants, bars and cafes.
The next market we visited was Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Familia, which as the name suggests, is across the street from the most iconic site in Barcelona. This one we visited during the daytime just as the stalls were beginning to open. The placement of the stalls around a park and within view of Sagrada make for a beautiful scene. Here you will find a few food stalls selling churros and chocolate and roasted chestnuts.
What is uniquely Catalonian about these markets is the selling of Caganer figures, which if you look closely are all pooping. Yes, you read that right. In Catalan its good luck to add one of these figures to the nativity scene. There is no disrespect intended, instead this is believed to be a remnant of the pagan tradition of celebrating fertilization. Men, women, children, politicians and cartoon figures can all be purchased pooping and added to your Christmas decorations.
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Enjoy the Wine and Tapas
Ok, I’ll admit, this can be done all year in Barcelona, but it’s especially nice to duck into a warm tapas bar on a cold night. Even better, tapas and wine are very reasonably priced. Many plates are between 2 and 3 Euros and a nice glass of wine under 5 Euros. But if eating outside is more your style, this is also possible in the winter. Outdoor cafes do not shut down here in winter, instead they are covered in three sided tents and warmed with heaters. I was so intrigued by this idea that my husband and I opted for an outdoor dinner after our visit to the Fira de Santa Llucia. After placing our order I began feeling chilly and wondered if we had make a mistake. And then the waiter appeared with blankets! Barcelona in the winter can get cold, but fortunately not freezing, so outdoor dining is usually possible and clearly preferred by the locals.
One of our favorite tapas experiences was at El Nacional, located along the beautiful Passeig de Gracia. This historic building has been converted into a group of stylish bars and restaurants. Here the decorations for Christmas are extensive and simply lovely. Dozens of large lighted stars and balls hung from the ceiling while twinkle lights decorated the bars. This place is popular with locals and visitors alike, so expect to wait for a bar stool or a table.
Plenty of Museums and Other Indoor Attractions
While outdoor attractions remain open all throughout the winter, in the event of rain or significant drops in temperature, there are plenty of indoor options in Barcelona.
Probably the most famous attraction in Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia. It’s lovely to look at from the outside, but I found the interior simply stunning, making it perfect for visiting on a chilly day. We spent over an hour walking through the beautiful sanctuary and enjoying the genius of architect, Antoni Gaudi. There is also a museum below the sanctuary which provides some history and background on Sagrada.
With 55 museums in Barcelona, visitors have plenty of options to learn more about the history, art, sports, food and architecture of this great city. Admission fees can add up, so I recommend researching the free days or times offered, or consider the discounts offered for children, seniors and others. Some of the museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, or every Sunday afternoon.
The first museum we visited was FC Barcelona. This was not originally on our agenda for the trip, but I was glad we took the time to see it. Football (soccer for us Americans) is central to the Catalonian and Spanish culture. And FC Barcelona is a legendary team that has been around since 1899. This admission price combines both the museum and the stadium and therefore we also saw the players’ locker room, press room and broadcast booth.
On our last night we visited Museu Picasso which is home to over 4,000 works by the legendary artist. The collection includes paintings Picasso completed as young as 14 years old as well as those he finished shortly before his death. Even the buildings in which the museum is housed are quite lovely.
Stories about Barcelona being overrun by tourists are endless. The city has been trying to address this issue for a while, but so far, to no avail. I think the answer is simple–encourage tourists to come off season, especially during the winter. It’s an amazing city full of important sites, but if the tourists were better spaced throughout the year then the impact to local residents might be manageable. For us, the benefit was shorter lines and smaller crowds.
Another benefit? Great photos. Crowds mean always having strangers walk into your photos and ruining the perfect Instagram moment. Reduced crowds mean the opportunity for better photos. I’ve written before about the value of traveling off season and our entire trip to Barcelona seemed to affirm this.
I hope I’ve convinced you to add Barcelona to your future travels, and preferably, during the winter. Whatever reason sways your decision–reduced hotel rates, Christmas markets, endless seasonal decorations, warm and delicious food, and copious indoor attractions–I am convinced you will not regret it.
Bio: We’re Wendy and Jason Lee and we are Empty Nesters who love to travel. We both work full-time, but do our best to carve out plenty of time to explore locally, nationally and around the world. Most of the time we travel as a couple, but when schedules permit, we also enjoy traveling as a family with our two grown children. At this point in our lives we have more control of our schedules and the resources to see the world, so we want to make the most of every minute. Camping, backpacking and staying in hostels aren’t really our style. We prefer nice hotels or AirBnB’s and certainly enjoy unique tours, good drinks, and eating well. When traveling farther afield isn’t possible, we instead opt to explore our own backyard, Southern California.