Tapas & Tempranillo: A User’s Guide to Barcelona

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain / Photo by Sarah Sampsel

Spain is essentially a constant series of restaurant visits strung together by Gaudí, Picasso, the beach and a lot of house wine. There is much to do in the vibrant city of Barcelona, including visiting great museums, seeing the unique architecture, and partaking in the abundant nightlife. We did all that. We also spent a few additional days in Benicàssim, a small beach town on the coast.

We snagged a direct flight from New York to Barcelona and took the A2 bus from the terminal into the center of town. We arrived at our Airbnb in the narrow, winding streets of El Born and wasted no time finding our first serving of boquerones and tomato bread (two important staples of any trip to Barcelona) at this nearby café.

I’m not a nap person, but that changed in Spain. Naps are the afternoon activity of choice. They get you out of the hot sun and humidity and set up your body’s clock for a long, productive night of eating ham. If you’re already on EST time, you can pretty much stay that way… no need to adjust your schedule too drastically because everything in Barcelona happens late. The town, the food, the crowds — everything is most compelling at night.

Feeling well-rested and ready for adventure once again, it was time for some tapas! The practice of having dinner around 10 or 11 p.m. deems it necessary to have a few drinks and snacks earlier in the evening. This delicious cultural tradition is high on my list of favorite things about Spain.

First stop, the nearby Xampanyet. This bar is located in a busy area, but don’t be spooked by the tchotchke shops and tourists surrounding this little gem. It’s a 3rd generation, family-run tapas bar and it’s the real deal. Get there early and stand at the counter to watch the wait staff fulfill hundreds of orders with speed, precision and surprising accuracy. They never miss a beat. Soon after finishing one of your plates, there is reliably someone there to clear it for you while you order some more.

(l to r) Scallops in oil in the foreground, squid and other oily treats behind; Our first round, cheese and chorizo, jamón serrano and salmon montaditos paired with Estrella beer and a glass of house white wine; Boquerones behind the glass / Photos by Sarah Sampsel and John Niedermeyer

Damn, was that fun. We started with jamón serrano, then a few plates of salmon with boiled potato, cheese and chorizo montaditos (which is something delicious served on top of equally delicious bread). Another round of Estrella beer and house white, another round of tapas. This time, some squid in oil and a plate of scallops. Not yet feeling satisfied to walk away from all these flavors, we ordered some pan con tomate (which translates literally to bread with tomato). This is a dish very representative of Catalan cuisine, and you will see it in just about every restaurant you go. After an experience like that, I never wanted to sit down for dinner again.

The main event of our first night in the city was to see some Flameco. Though this tradition is not native to Catalunya, it was still a great excuse to see a show at the gorgeous Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall and familiarize ourselves with the alluring tradition.

The concert hall, finished in 1908, is a work of art. Circle the building before going in to see the detailed sculptures and paintings on the facade and doorways. When inside, study the ornate paintings and sculptures in the entryway and stairwells. When you finally arrive in the hall, find your seats and spend some time looking at the sun-like stained glass ceiling and the ornate pillars covered in flowery relief sculpture throughout the venue. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful.

Exterior shots of Palau de la Música Catalana / Photos by Sarah Sampsel
Interior shots of Palau de la Música Catalana and the finale of the flamenco show / Photos by Sarah Sampsel

The show was visually stunning. The Flamenco dancer’s outfits perfectly complemented their movements and added a level of drama to an already passionate performance (who knew a scarf could be that versatile!). There’s opera-like singing, beautiful live music with guitars, piano, violins, lots clapping and stomping—a little something for everyone.

We enjoyed a few pre-show, post-tapas drinks at the nearby bar, El Bixto — definitely a good option for tapas if you find yourself in the area. And afterwards, in order to fulfill the wine, meat and cheese quota of the day, we finished our night at Can Cisa Bar Brutal. This is a natural wine bar in El Born with a seriously knowledgable wait staff and a deep bench of cured meats and cheeses. This was probably the best charcuterie and Tempranillo of our trip.

Our cheeseboard at Can Cisa Bar Brutal / Photo by Sarah Sampsel

A visit to Barcelona without immersing yourself in Gaudí is not a proper visit. You absolutely most visit Sagrada Família. It’s a busy place, but you really do have to see it to believe it.

We bought advanced tickets online with an audio guide as well as access to one of the towers. We chose the tower on the Passion facade simply because Google said it was slightly taller then the one on the Nativity facade.

Visiting that tower was where we began our tour. Being inside this intricate structure so high up in the sky was invigorating — the hot sun and still, humid air were absent at that elevation and the expansive city view below stretching it’s way to the Mediterranean was worth the extra Euros. Looking directly down, you’re afforded a close-up view of smaller towers and vibrant Venetian glass tiled across their cartoony, bulbous tops. We returned to ground level by taking a long, dizzying walk down an endless and tightly-spiraled staircase. What fun!

(from top) Nativity facade; Walking inside the narrow tower; A view of Barcelona from the Passion tower; Surrounding towers from the Passion tower; Interior shot of the nave; The altar; Passion facade detail; Light coming through the windows; Details of the stained glass / Photos by Sarah Sampsel and John Niedermeyer

Entering the church is like walking into the woods on a sunny day. A place where tall trees allow beams of light to peer through their leafy tops and hit the ground below in beautiful patterns. The inspiration from nature is apparent — how the sun shines through the color wheel of stained glass, how it hits the columns of pillars that split upward like branches that support the arched nave, the textures and cutout shapes — everything. It’s hard to compare the feeling of walking around this enormous church to any other place.

Sagrada Família is still under construction so when you’re inside, the angelic music is mixed in with a cacophony of saws and hammers. Visiting an unfinished cathedral of such historical significance is unique — most cathedrals in other European cities that took decades to complete have been finished for centuries. It’s fun to think about going back in 20 years to see it finished.

More Gaudí? Sure, why not. After leaving the cathedral, we headed toward Gràcia, the less touristy and relaxing neighborhood at the foot of Park Güell. Before heading up there, we found Amélie — a small café located in a charming restaurant-lined square for lunch and beers.

(l to r) Making a pan con tomate and having a snack at Amélie; Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia / Photos by Sarah Sampsel and John Niedermeyer

Park Güell is a public park situated on Carmel Hill. It used to be completely free to enter, but tickets are now required to visit the main Gaudí monuments. The ticket line was long so we opted for a free hike to the top of the hill for the far-reaching views of the city. On the way up, we weaved in and out of pillars and other architectural features designed by Gaudí, explored the lush landscaping and trees, and were able to view the monuments from walkways above. If we had the time, we would have packed a picnic to relax and enjoy the sunshine—a perfect location for that.

Park Güell architectural features and buildings / Photos by Sarah Sampsel

With another day full of sightseeing and napping complete, that evening we headed to a tapas bar called Quimet y Quimet in El Poble Sec, a neighborhood southwest of La Rambla. At this point, we felt like pros and wasted no time elbowing our way to the counter to get our hands on more oily and delicious snacks. We had Galician southern cockles, baby broad beans and cod, razor clams, pâte with onion and truffle oil, leeks with caviar, and fresh anchovies in vinegar. I could have kept going, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

Afterwards, we wandered in the direction of home, through the neighborhoods of Sant Antoni and El Raval, crossed La Rambla and took a break at a dive bar in El Barri Gotic. We found a cocktail bar back in El Born — Rubi Bar. This is where you have a gin and tonic, a.k.a a ‘gintonic’. Mine was house-infused with balsamic and black pepper and it was served in the biggest goblet I’ve ever seen in my life. We stayed for only one drink, and I’m glad I left some gin remaining in that tub-of-a-glass because, as we walked out (my head buried in Google maps), I stepped all over the delicate foldable fans of an unsuspecting street vendor. He told me to pay for them, I said that I absolutely wouldn’t, he said that was fine and then started laughing (I think we were both drunk).

Off for a night cap then!

Tapas at Quimet y Quimet (clockwise from top left) Leeks with caviar, roasted red peppers and olives; Boquerones in vinegar and pâte with onion and truffle oil; Baby broad beans with cod in the foreground, razor clams and red wine in the background / Photos by Sarah Sampsel
(l to r) An enormous house infused gintonic; The interior of Rubi Bar / Photos by Sarah Sampsel

Waking up at 1 p.m. is a sign that you’ve perfectly adapted to the culture. We had a proper brunch at Picnic and enjoyed two cold bottles of Vichy Catalan sparkling water. This water is very special. It is so bubbly that when you pour it into a glass, the bubbles dance happily onto your face when you drink it. This felt extra nice after a night of oversized gintonics. The café was a little slice of Brooklyn. We had chipotle bloody marys, huevos rancheros, smoked salmon eggs benedict and a delicious side of quinoa hashbrowns with dill sour cream. This was the first meal we sat down for in two days.

Feeling rejuvenated and ready for more exploring, we headed to the Picasso Museum. We had purchased tickets online that morning which allowed us to skip the line and quickly enter the galleries.

What a wonderful museum — it’s small, less crowded than some, and I didn’t feel rushed or overwhelmed because of the scale. It takes about an hour or two to get through the whole thing. You begin your tour with Picasso’s early works, mostly paintings and studies when he was an art student. Nudes, sketches, copies of Dutch masters that mimic style, color and brushstrokes. He copied the styles of Cezanne and Velázquez with so much care and detail.

Later in his career, after inventing what we now know as Cubism, he sought to paint Las Meninas in his own vision and the museum has an entire room dedicated to his quest. There are dozens of portrait studies and color explorations of the painting. Some with reds and bold colors others with deep blues and greens. In the end, he opted for this final version.

Post-Picasso, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about and walked to La Rambla. This place is full (full!) of tourists and people hawking selfie sticks — these appear to be the hot item of the season for street vendors. It’s certainly a gorgeous place, which explains the draw, but it was absolutely overrun with people. When you get there, the first thing you should do is leave as soon as possible.

Since we were nearby, we escaped the madness and stopped at La Boqueria, the giant open-air market that touts amazing seafood, produce, gelato, fresh juices and cured meats. We walked the tight pathways between food stalls and found a little restaurant to take a tapas and wine break — we ordered green peppers (similar to shishitos!), pan con tomate, and the ever-present jamón ibérico.

La Boqueria (clockwise from top left) Prawns; Pan con tomate and white wine; Lots of ham; Seafood stall / Photos by Sarah Sampsel and John Niedermeyer

That night we had dinner in the neighborhood of Sant Antoni at Fàbrica Moritz Barcelona with some friends. This is a brewery situated in a space designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the same designer of the Torre Agbar building. Sharing a meal with two vegetarians provided us a glimpse into completely different Barcelonian cuisine: baba ganoush, olives, a big plate of sauteed veggies, and boquerones (couldn’t resist).

Afterwards, we were back in El Poble Sec to a pedestrian-only street packed with terraces. My advice here, and this goes for any outdoor dining, if you see a table, pounce. We were able to conquer a chairless one and slowly acquired those chairs until we were all happily seated. We ended the night with one more glass of wine across the street from our Airbnb at Artesans, a cozy spot with an extensive gin selection.

Our last day in the city involved a venue change (the night before we were down in Benicàssim). We stayed at the very tall, shark-like glass W Barcelona, on the tip of the Barceloneta peninsula. We had endless views of the water, the horizon and the industrial side of the city (kind of like Red Hook!).

We had been in the city nearly a week and had yet to visit the water’s edge so we were anxious to grab our bathing suits and head down to the beach for some sun and sand. The hotel is right on the water and walking out the back door delivered us onto a beautiful walkway lined with palm trees and open-air restaurants. There is a private beach for those staying at the hotel. We found two chairs, an umbrella and some albariño from the Salt Beach Club.

The shore, with it’s city and water views, is a gorgeous place. And even though the area was rather crowded, we managed a quick swim and enjoyed some time reading and relaxing. Post swim, we ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant on the beach for our last night in this amazing country.

(l to r) The W Barcelona Hotel; A view of the water and Barceloneta from our beach chairs / Photos by Sarah Sampsel and John Niedermeyer

Ahh, Barcelona. It’s cosmopolitan, yet congenial. It respects and honors its traditional and proud Catalonian roots while also being stylish and modern. The people everywhere were welcoming and made the city seem quaint and that much more beautiful.

Sarah & John / Selfie

Everywhere you look something interesting and delicious competes for your attention. The Jamón ibérico, the wine and cheese, the handmade shoes and clothing in quaint little boutiques, the mix of modern and gothic architecture, the Mediterranean Sea — it’s so easy to fall in love with the culture and the speed at which life seems to settle into here. No plans yet to go back, but I don’t see that being the case for long.



Skier. Runner. Traveler. Natural wine enthusiast. Current Design Director at Work & Co in Brooklyn. Former strategy and design at The Washington Post.

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Sarah Sampsel

Skier. Runner. Traveler. Natural wine enthusiast. Current Design Director at Work & Co in Brooklyn. Former strategy and design at The Washington Post.