Is It a Bar, Cafe, Pub, or Club?
In Barcelona, it's not unusual for places to have several personalities. During the day, that peaceful cafe is the perfect place to sit and read a book or enjoy a fresh croissant. Then, as night falls, the staff changes, the music is turned up, and suddenly you might look up from your book and find yourself in a cool bar surrounded by a loud group of trendy young things. If you wait longer, you might find yourself moved from your table as the furniture is stored away so that the DJ can turn the music up loud and people can dance.
Barcelona & Music
Most famous international names, from the Rolling Stones to Mika and Jamie Cullum, include Barcelona in their tours. The biggest concerts take place at the Palau Sant Jordi on Montjuïc, a flexible and cavernous space that's also used to host the city's basketball games. In a city where the cult of the DJ reigns, Barcelona is short of small and midsize live-music venues (although some clubs do both, with a concert taking place before the club kids roll in).
One of the best places to see people playing instruments (as opposed to spinning records) is the street. In the summer you'll see plenty of free entertainment—everything from opera to Romanian gypsy music—by walking around the Barri Gòtic. Festivals such as El Grec (July-Aug) and La Mercè (late Sept) are when the biggest musical offering tends to take place.
To find out what's going on in the city, the best source of local information is a little magazine called Guía del Ocio, which previews "La Semana de Barcelona" (This Week in Barcelona). It's in Spanish, but most of its listings will be comprehensible. Every news kiosk along La Rambla carries it. If you have Internet access, Le Cool magazine (www.lecool.com) carries an English summary of some of the more alternative options each week.
If you've been scared off by press reports about La Rambla between the Plaça de Catalunya and the Columbus Monument, the area's been cleaned up in the past decade. Still, you will feel safer along the Rambla de Catalunya, north of the Plaça de Catalunya in L'Eixample. This street and its offshoots are lively at night, with many cafes and bars.
The main area where things feel a little uneasy is in El Raval, or the Barrio Chino—that is, the lower half of the right-hand side of La Rambla as you walk toward the port. But despite (or because of?) this, a lot of the new trendy bars are appearing there (such as Bar Pastis). There are some great bars and venues down there, but do use caution, especially when withdrawing money from a cash machine (although more and more of these are locked at night anyway).
I Could Have Danced All Weekend — Although the city caters to music lovers of most tastes, the really big thing in Barcelona is electronic dance music. DJs are the new rock heroes, and the Woodstock of this generation is called Sónar (www.sonar.es). The festival began in 1996 in a small, outside venue, as a way of showcasing some of the more unusual experimental music coming out of Europe. Now it takes over a significant part of the city for a long weekend in mid-June, drawing people from far and wide. It's now really two festivals, held in two separate locations. During the day, it's held at a number of stages around the MACBA and CCCB in El Raval. At night, it moves to a huge congress and trade-fair hall outside the center, with a special bus shuttling punters between the two areas. Tickets are sold separately for the day and night gigs, although you can buy a pass to the whole thing. Recent Sónar nighttime headliners have included Dizzee Rascal and the Chemical Brothers, but the daytime music is much more open and eclectic, often accompanied by strange visuals. Of course, this being Barcelona, there's also a string of unofficial festivals running at the same time, all of which are much cheaper (or sometimes free); find out about them from posters and fliers in bars. This, claim the purists, is where you find the true experimental music, Sónar having sold out to the big sponsors years ago. The best thing is probably to enjoy both—but if you want to go to the official Sónar festival, buy your tickets (and book your room) well beforehand.
Old-Time Dancing — Plenty of nightclubs claim to be "classics," but none can beat La Paloma, Tigre 27 (tel. 93-301-68-97 and 93-317-79-14; admission 10€; Metro: Universitat)—more than 105 years young and still going strong. The name means "The Pigeon" and it opened as a ballroom in 1903, with its famous murals and chandelier added in 1919. It's a part of Barcelona's history—Pablo Picasso met one of his long-term girlfriends here, and Dalí used to sit in a box by the long balcony and sketch the people who came in. During Franco's draconian regime, someone called "El Moral" was employed to make sure that couples didn't get too close to each other. But there's none of that now. During the early evening, the venue opens as a ballroom for lovers of foxtrot, tango, and bolero, accompanied by a live orchestra. But, late at night from Thursday to Sunday, the place undergoes a transformation and becomes a hip and happening nightclub from 2:30 to 5am. From its incredible decor to the mime artists that stand outside trying to keep punters quiet, this place is an original.
Gay & Lesbian Bars
The city has a vibrant, active gay nightlife, with bars and clubs to suit all tastes. The best thing to do is to walk around the area known locally as "Gayxample"—a part of the left side of L'Eixample, more or less between Carrer Sepulveda and Carrer Aragón, and Carrer Casanova and Plaça Urquinaona. By no means is every bar there a gay bar, but many are—and all of the trendy-looking ones almost certainly will be. Most bars welcome people of any persuasion—but hetero couples should be prepared to be discreet.
Piaf, Drag Queens, and a Walk on the Wild Side
Do you long to check out the seedy part of Barcelona that writer Jean Genet brought so vividly to life in his books? Much of it is gone forever, but la Vida nostalgically lives on in pockets like the Bar Pastis, Carrer Santa Mónica 4 (tel. 93-318-79-80; Mon-Fri noon-2:30am, weekends 7pm-3am; 7€; Metro: Drassanes). Valencianos Carme Pericás and Quime Ballester opened this tiny bar just off the southern end of La Rambla in 1947, making it a shrine to Edith Piaf, and her songs still play on an old phonograph behind the bar. The decor consists mostly of paintings by Ballester, who had a dark, rather morbid vision of the world. The house special, naturally, is the French aniseed-flavored drink pastis (to be drunk straight or with a mixer), and you can order four kinds of pastis in this dimly lit "corner of Montmartre."
Outside the window, check out the view—often a parade of transvestite hookers. The bar crowd can include anyone, especially ageing bohemians. The bar features live music of the French, tango, and folk variety, squeezed into one corner.
A while ago, some people rallied to shut down Pastis due to its noisiness, but the management toned down the din, objections dwindled, and the bar lived to fight on. Today, more low-key or not, its popularity continues unabated.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.