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It’s hard to think of a city that wears its charms more conspicuously than Barcelona. They’re all there to absorb, one by one, mountain and sea, wide, majestic avenues and tiny, lonely backstreets, oil-slicked shoebox bars and opulent eateries of innovation. The city first struck me at age 18; I was goose-bumped by everything that passed my eyes. It drew me in further studying abroad in college. And further again when I fell hard for a Catalan girl, who I somehow convinced to marry me.
Barcelona will make perfectly brilliant destinations elsewhere feel dim by comparison. Even if love for the Catalan capital comes at a cost. Barcelona is now the third-most-visited city in Europe, after only Paris and London. Its port houses two of the world’s largest cruise ships, the 6,328-passenger Allure of the Seas and its sister Harmony of the Seas. The architects of post-Olympic Barcelona never imagined the city in the grips of eight-hour tourists.
On top of that, 2014 marked the end of a grandfathered lease agreement that capped rent for old, family-run businesses deemed a vital part of the city’s social fabric. The rent on toy stores and small workshops occupying the most coveted real estate in the high-traffic corners of the old city rose by thousands of euros overnight. The rise of shoe stores, souvenir shops, and bike rentals continues to consume the city’s historic heart. Citizens have revolted. Catalans, adhering to a long tradition of airing their grievances as publicly as possible, organize in front of city hall in Plaça Sant Jaume to remind the politicians of the body they were elected to govern.
In 2015, Mayor Ada Colau and her band of progressive socialists swept into office on a campaign to fight the forces of Barcelona tourism. Proposals on the table include a moratorium on all new hotels, adding tourist taxes, capping cruise-ship parking. Some say this is biting the hand that feeds the city, spiting an evergreen industry that has buoyed Barcelona as the rest of the country suffers through a financial crisis. But most citizens applaud her crusade, desperate for some signal from the government that this city is still theirs.
After our wedding in 2013, my wife and I talked seriously about finding a new place to live. Laura had left her job at a bank to work with me at Roads & Kingdoms, the travel-focused website I cofounded in 2011, which meant we could conceivably live anywhere in the world. We tried to go about the process as methodically as possible, sketching out an algorithm based on a list of the qualities we valued most: culture, food, weather, location, health, price, friends, and family. We created a roster of candidates and ran each one through the algorithm: San Francisco; Saigon; Raleigh, North Carolina; New York; Bologna, Italy; Kyoto... No matter how many candidates we threw at it, no matter how we tweaked the algorithm, Barcelona trounced the competition.
It’s not just the excellent city beaches, the varied geography, the gentle cost of living, the universal healthcare system, and the world-class restaurants and nightlife: It’s also my new family, who count me as one of their own; a group of friends that mirrors a U.N. assembly; and the Catalans themselves—not as instantly accessible as Spaniards to the south, but once they let you into their lives, you won’t want to leave.
Plus, you learn tricks along the way, the little pressure points that crack the city open, minimizing its flaws, maximizing its awesomeness. We live on Via Laietana, a thoroughfare created in 1908 to shuttle traffic from the port uptown, effectively dividing the Ciutat Vella in half: the Gothic Quarter to the south of Laietana, and Born and its towering church and boutique-filled backstreets to the north. Twenty years ago, you came here for heroin; now you come for 300-euro jeans and cold-pressed juices.
Like the old couples who shuffle through the Gothic Quarter and refuse to cede their turf to tourism, we learned that the beauty of Barcelona is best taken in as the sun comes up. At 8 a.m. light splinters through the narrow streets and sets the old building façades on fire.
Our morning walks start at the base of Plaça dels Traginers, where the last pieces of a Roman defense wall mark the borders of Barcino, the ancient city center. We walk up Carrer dels Lledó, my favorite street, past the bellhops at the posh Mercer Hotel, past the Scottish woman arranging her artisanal cheeses at La Seu (Pla Seu 3; 34-93/342-8262; formatgerialaseu.com), until we hit the Plaça del Rei, one of the city’s most magnificent squares. Beneath the wall of surrounding stone, on the same steps where Isabella and Ferdinand received Columbus upon his first return from the New World, we sit and soak up the last moments of silence. As the city begins to stir, so does the appetite— you’ll need the little tricks now more than ever.
Barcelona is not a great breakfast city— breakfast in Spain being so perfunctory that many skip it entirely in favor of a midmorning bocadillo. You can go strong, like the handful of old-timers who still believe in starting their days at full speed, and eat fried blood and onions in the Mercat de la Barceloneta (Plaça de la Font 1; 34-93/221-6471; mercatsbcn.cat) or braised tripe at Pinotxo (Mercat de la Boqueria 466-470; 34-93/317-1731; pinotxobar.com), in La Boqueria market. Better to ease into the day with churros from Xurreria dels Banys Nous (Carrer dels Banys Nous 8; 34-93/318-7691)—where the oil is cleaner and the churros hotter than at places charging three times what this father-son operation does.
The menú del día rules the lunch scene, where working Catalans expect three courses, plus wine, water, coffee, and bread, for under $20. It’s a good way to eat from day to day, and a fine way to familiarize yourself with the classics of the Catalan kitchen, but your life won’t be changed. For that, you’ll need to be more exacting in your efforts: Suculent (Rambla del Raval 43; 34-93/443-6579; suculent.com), in the Raval, for classic Spanish comfort food with measured moments of flair—mackerel escabèche, braised pancetta and white beans with a poached egg, baby octopus with nuggets of foie gras. Or La Cova Fumada (Carrer del Baluard 56; 34-93/221-4061), in Barceloneta, for small oily fish a la plancha, plus a pile of grilled artichokes dipped in allioli.
As night falls, there is very serious eating to be done. Bar Brutal (Barra de Ferro 1; 34-93/295-4797; cancisa.cat) pairs the city’s funkiest list of natural wines with light, sharp, seasonal dishes. Somodó (Calle Ros de Olano 11; 34-93/415-6548; somodo.es), captained by a Japanese chef with a long history in Europe, offers six courses that represent one of the city’s best dining deals. A respectable meal could be had at any of the Michelin-anointed eateries, none better than acclaimed chef Albert Adrià’s Tickets (Avinguda del Parallel 164; ticketsbar.es). But nighttimes are best reserved for more fluid affairs—slow, determined tapas crawls that expose you to the places and faces in the city in steady doses. Barcelona isn’t a tapas town, at least not in the way that Granada or San Sebastián are—cities where establishments are expressly designed for those who want to eat one or two specific dishes, then push forward. But with a bit of effort, you can piece together a brilliant tapas crawl through Born or Poble-sec or Gràcia.
Then there are the Places That Shall Remain Nameless. The bodega in Sants with the pitch-perfect croquetas and throwback prices. The little wine bar close to Plaça Sant Jaume, a sacred refuge from the camera-clutching masses. The coffee shop with brilliant java where, for the moment, I am the only one clicking away.
At first, as you work to assimilate into a new world, your daily life overflows with intense bursts of wonder. Somewhere along the way, they fade and are replaced by little pleasures: the small design details that go into everything in Barcelona (the streetlamps, the rooftops, the tables at dive bars), the immigrant vendors selling hot samosas and cold beer for a euro on street corners at all hours of the night, the hush that falls over the city during an FC Barça soccer game. This is the secret language of your new home; somewhere along the way, you stop saying them and start saying us.
But every once in a while an intense burst of wonder still hits me. Usually, it’s late, when my wife is asleep and I’m alone on the terrace, eight stories up, looking out across Barcelona. I see the low-lit arches of the Plaça del Rei, the stone points of the old Stock Exchange where Picasso first learned to paint, the hundreds of Catalan independence flags that carpet the sides of buildings, the arch of the crumbled wall where Laura and I start our morning walks. The little signs of a life taking shape. That’s when Barcelona hits me hardest.