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Barcelona — Urban Responsible Tourism Done Right

responsible urban travel in barcelona, spainI can’t quite put my finger on what makes Barcelona my favorite city. The cobblestone streets winding between architecturally stunning buildings along the Mediterranean. The looming Pyrénées forever in the background, looking over every movement. Or perhaps the extraordinary, intricate Gaudí-inspired murals covering any once-blank surface. The locals are friendly and the weather is splendid. And the wine and the tapas don’t hurt, either. All of the pieces combine to form — what is, to me — the perfect city. A hint of magic tinges everything in Barcelona.responsi

Obviously, I had to dig in further. Is Barcelona as great on paper as it is in my mind? The answer seems to be, yes. Barcelona is one of the best examples of sustainable tourism done right. Let’s take a closer look at the five reasons why you should visit Barcelona and experience its charm first-hand.

Set Up for Sustainability

Barcelona, the capital of the Spanish state of Catalonia, is one of the largest urban tourist destinations in the world. Ever since Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics, it has become one of the largest global tourism hubs. Even more, the city receives more cruise ships than any other city in the world.

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Mosaic roof artwork at Casa Batlla

As the city’s popularity grew, residents and officials from across Catalonia gathered to develop a tourism plan. They needed to deal with the tourism boom, and they decided to focus on ensuring sustainability at every level. The plans would ensure that the city’s infrastructure could handle the crowds flocking to Barcelona each year — and the plans worked.

In 2011, Barcelona became the first city in the world to receive the Biosphere World Class Destination Certification by the Institute of Responsible Tourism. Additionally, the city received accolades for maximizing their water supply and conserving water usage. The city is currently pursuing the title of “Electric Vehicle Capital of the World,” and they proudly tout their non-polluting public transport options. This type of sustainability only comes when a city and community are committed to taking the long-term approach — Barcelona clearly has its sights set on developing a city designed for the needs of the future.

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View of the city from Parc Guell

Farm to Table

One of Barcelona’s best aspects may very well be the city’s food. There are so many options. And they are all so good. Tapas. Seafood. Pastas. Cheeses. Wines. Whether you’re vegetarian, meat-lover, or if you fall somewhere between, Barcelona has something for you. As a city, the restaurants and people focus on slow food. Added to that, farm-to-table practices bring together restaurants and local suppliers; ingredients are locally sourced, fresh, and flavorful.

Here are some excellent food recommendations if you prefer sit-down restaurants or budget-friendly Menu del Dia restaurants. Personally, I’m obsessed with the tapas. My favorite place is a hole-in-the-wall place called La Cova Fumada. They don’t have a website, and it’s only open until 4pm. Get there by 1pm to get a table. It’s family run, locally sourced, and is the best seafood you’ll ever eat. A close second is Bar Bodega Quimet, which is famous for their conservas — canned seafood. Don’t think of your typical “canned tuna” here — conservas are a deeply rooted Spanish tradition. Canning and preserving local goods so they last the entire year is a common practice and they taste nothing like the cans of tuna you buy at the grocery store.

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Who doesn’t love tapas?

Art is Everywhere

Art is everywhere in the city. Literally. From Gaudí’s house to the buildings he designed throughout the city, Gaudí had a huge influence on the city. I’m generally not a huge fan of touristy activities like touring people’s’ homes, but for Gaudí I make an exception. Casa Batllo is phenomenal. Gaudí is known for saying “Originality is returning to the origin;” in his designs, he worked to imitate the perfection found in the wild. Another favorite building, and a must-visit, is La Sagrada Familia.

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A view of Casa Batllo, Gaudí’s house, from the street.

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The ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

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“Originality is returning to the origin” — Gaudí. Replicating spirals found in nature, this is the ceiling of a room in Casa Batllo.

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Artist outside of La Sagrada Familia selling his paintings.

Buildings aren’t the only art to be found in Barcelona. Street art everywhere in the city — take a street-art tour or just walk throughout the city to check out the masterpieces. There are also formal museums for a healthy dose of art history, or stroll through the city’s parks to see artists creating and selling their own masterpieces on the sidewalk. If you ask nicely, they’ll often even give you a lesson 🙂

The Great Outdoors

Everyone loves being outside in Barcelona. And why wouldn’t they? The moderate Mediterranean climate, the beaches, and the mountains all set the stage for spending free time outdoors. The city’s spacious streets cater to pedestrians and cyclists alike. Barcelona is filled with parks; the most notable are Parc Guell and Parc de la Ciutadella. Far from your typical parks, these contain art, beautiful views, museums, zoos, and plenty of open space to hang out and enjoy the sun.

Ready for some action? Team Barça keeps football fans entertained in Camp Nou Stadium (check out the game schedule here). Not into football? Check out the music festivals throughout the year. There are no shortage of activities year-round.

And consider escaping the city for the day. This is a great way to enjoy the city and have a low-impact day on the environment. Hike in the foothills of the Pyrénées for amazing views of the Mediterranean and the entire city. Or go the other direction and swim in the Mediterranean. Either way, you win!

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Parc de la Ciutadella

On the Trail

Barcelona is one of the many starting points for El Camino de Santiago — the pilgrimage trail through the Pyrénées that ends in Santiago de Compostela on the western coast of Spain. Pilgrims usually start in Spain or France, but trails weave through Italy, Germany, Switzerland and beyond. In France, it is known as Le Chemin de Saint Jacques.

El Camino has been on my to-do list for years, but I always manage to find myself booked in the summer (and not brave enough to do it in the winter); it’s pretty cool that starting in Barcelona is an option.

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Do you live in Barcelona or are you planning a trip? What are your favorites?

Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She has been traveling around the world for the past six years, and is currently living in Cordova, Alaska for the summer. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.