La Rambla cuts through Barcelona’s old town, separating the neighborhood El Raval from the historic Gothic Quarter. It’s a place of contrasts, bustling with beauty and history, but also with pickpockets and tourist traps. Generally, I tell visitors to stay clear of La Rambla as much as they can, because of the touristy environment and mediocre restaurants that are overpriced.
However, there is no denying that La Rambla is a popular landmark in Barcelona with a central location that makes it a useful street to get you from Plaça Catalunya to the Gothic Quarter. Plus, the old city center is a maze of baffling cobblestone streets where it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get lost (at least once), and La Rambla helps many to get their bearings and stay on course.
As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about La Rambla. Here are a few honest, and hopefully useful, tips on how to survive along Barcelona’s swarming promenade.
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Truth be told, there are prettier central squares in Spain and Europe than Plaça Catalunya, a humdrum hub with more pigeons than trees. Nevertheless, let the plaza be your starting point for a wander down La Rambla.
There are a couple of reasons to begin your route here, and not down by the water. From Plaça Catalunya, it’s all downhill walking, and once you’ve tromped to the end of the road, you can keep going along the port working up an appetite for tapas in La Barceloneta by the beach. Depending on how fast you walk (and you will not be able to stroll too quickly, as La Rambla is always choked with people), you should make it from Plaça Catalunya to the very end of La Rambla in about 40 minutes to an hour.
La Boqueria is one of the highlights of La Rambla. Photo: Antonio Gil
If you love food, La Boqueria, Barcelona’s legendary market on La Rambla, is worth a look. As a local, La Boqueria presents for me the same issues as La Rambla. It teems with tourists, and many of the traditional stalls have given up whatever they did in the past, and now focus their efforts in selling sliced fruit and souvenirs to visitors.
However, there are a few places where life goes on within La Boqueria as it always has. I know the market to be a good spot for an early (and I mean early, like 10 AM) breakfast at its bars and cafes. I also love the modest stands that are set up just beside the covered market, staffed by deeply-tan farmers with vegetables layered in fresh earth. There is something wholesome about dirty, right-from-the-ground veggies.
If time allows, see La Boqueria, but also drop by another Barcelona market to compare and get a more local feel for how people eat and shop in the city. For my money, Santa Caterina Market near the cathedral is an impressive option.
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Human statues are a common sight along La Rambla. Photo: Mark Bellingham
A friend once told me that he worked for a spell as a human statue on La Rambla. He said he made up to €200 a day dressed in white and silver, pretending to be a marble Roman statue. Some are cheesy, some are brilliant and all these unique ‘actors’ want tips. The human statues speak to what a tourist trap La Rambla is, but I can’t help but smile when I see them. Throw a euro in their hat, and snap a selfie with them for a cute Instagram post.
Keep an eye on your bags and pockets while walking along La Rambla. Photo: Michael McDonough
While the human statues make me grin, there is plenty to make me furrow my brow, too. Some nine years back, upon arrival in Barcelona, my telephone was stolen on La Rambla. Pickpockets go where the tourists are, and this is the place in the city where you are most likely to get robbed. Because these guys are so good, you probably won’t even realize your wallet/passport/phone is missing until some time later.
Carry your wallet in your front pocket, keep your purse in front of you instead of to your back, and leave anything you don’t absolutely need back at the hotel in the safe. Follow these precautions, and you’ll be just fine. (More info on pickpockets in Barcelona and spotting scams here.
There are also numerous bands of ‘gamers’ who work a gambling scam along La Rambla. You’ll see a group of people trying to guess where the bean is, as a man rapidly works three cups back and forth. It looks easy enough to win at this game, but rest assured that you never will. Also, most of the people in the group are actually in on the scam. The rule of thumb is to avoid any and all gambling on La Rambla.
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Finally, after dark sex workers of all stripes appear on La Rambla. Everyone has a different opinion about how and if sex work should be legal, and that’s not the issue I have to share. Rather, my warning to late-night Rambla ramblers, especially the inebriated, is to watch your wallet and expect the unexpected. If two women approach you, one with her arm around your waist and the other with her hand down your pants (yes, down your pants!)…they are robbing you. You might be so surprised (in a good or bad way) that you miss the fact that they have just handed your wallet off to their buddy. Not all sex workers have this strategy, but I’ve seen it too many times not to mention it. Even my husband, while walking with me, was approached. Unfortunately, when he told them to get lost, the women turned aggressive. Hold your own and keep walking.
Biocenter restaurant offers a healthy alternative to the touristy tapas on La Rambla. Photo: Howard Walfish
With extremely few exceptions, La Rambla is not a good place to have a meal. Cut off La Rambla on the many side streets that stem from it and find a restaurant or bar down the cobblestone lanes. These will almost always be better than anything you find along the main strip. That giant goblet of sangria for €15? It’s not going to do much for you apart from give you a terrible sugar hangover the following morning. Also make sure to avoid the neon-yellow, frozen paella served by the boatload along La Rambla.
It can be trying to find a decent, and moderately priced, restaurant in the city center, but it’s not impossible. Biocenter is just a couple blocks off La Rambla and has healthy vegetarian food. If you’re tired of snacking on oily tapas, it’s a good choice for greens and freshly-squeezed juice. In fact, there are many darling cafes and bars in El Raval, more so even than the Gothic Quarter.
A walk down Carrer dels Tallers, which is near the top of La Rambla and Plaça Catalunya, will take you past a diverse assortment of bars and restaurants. For something a bit more high end, I like La Cucina, a locavore eatery inside Hotel DO. For what it’s worth, I also wrote a book about where to dine (inexpensively) like a local in Barcelona called Eat Guides, which offers up a few more tips on where to go in downtown, and indeed all over the city.
Despite my misgivings, I do think La Rambla is a key part of the Barcelona experience, as much so as La Sagrada Família or day at the beach. The street is a mixed-bag of grimy buildings, five-star hotels, two-star pensions, souvenir shops selling cheap plastic junk and a few old-school boutiques that have been there since the early 1900s. If you really want a real taste of Barcelona, hike it, see it, then steer clear of it as much as possible for the rest of your visit.