Travel feature: Bella Barcelona
Close enough to hop over for a weekend break and inviting for longer visits, Barcelona has always been a favourite with gay travellers. Here are the best bits of the city and nearby Sitges.
“Travel should ignite your passion,” says Hilton. That’s the hotel, not Paris or Perez. Theislogan may weigh heavy on the cheese scale, but there’s no denying its sentiment. Barcelona does just this, and without breaking into a sweat. The beating Mediterannean sun is likely to have the opposite effect on you though.
Barcelona has a long history of fighting for LGBT equality. It was here that the Spanish gay, lesbian, and trans movement’s flame was ignited in defiance to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (being gay was illegal until 1973), and its tolerant approach puts most other cities to shame.
That Barcelona has established itself as a favourite destination for gay and lesbian travellers should then not come as a surprise. What does surprise, on the other hand, is the Spanish party schedule which definitely take some getting used to.
Food is at the heart of Catalonians’ lives but restaurants are deserted at 8pm and really only pick up after 9pm. And with evening meals consisting of several courses it can take a few hours to eat and easily continue until midnight. Be sure to have a double espresso at the end of the meal – you will need it for when you hit the bars and move onto the clubs (which only get pumping at 3am, by the way, with the party continuing until dawn and beyond).
For the modern gay traveller the choice in hotels, bars, restaurants, clubs and other establishments may well be somewhat overwhelming. Fortunately most of them are situated in the Eixample district (better known as “Gayxample”). Here, within a nine-block square in Modernista Barcelona, you can find something to satisfy every taste – soft, hard, stylish, seedy or downright sexy. Other neigbourhoods, like Ciutat Vella or nearby Gràcia, offer several more hotspots to choose from, but be prepared to brush up on your Catalan before venturing much further than that.
Metro is the clubbing destination of choice in Eixample, and during the summer its two huge dance floors are open every day from 1-6am The atmosphere is very cruisy (you just need to take a look at the choice of programming on the flatscreen TVs above the urinals for proof of this) and the crowd is generally in their late twenties and older. DBOY is aimed at a younger crowd and is open Fridays and Saturday nights as well as on the eve of national holidays. Dejavú and La Rosa in the heart of Gràcia cater specifically for the ladies, but Barcelona clubs are very mixed in general and girls are not likely to ever feel out of place.
Not into clubbing? Prefer to catch some Spanish sun? The city boasts 4km of coastline and some excellent beaches as well as a stylish reclaimed Waterfront. The gayest beach in the Barcelona area is Sant Sebastià, next to the Barceloneta athletic club, and for an optional clothing stretch of sand you can go to La Marbella (this is the city’s only official nude beach, so expect a mixed crowd).
If you prefer the culture trail consider one of the varied museums – especially worthwhile are MNAC and MACBA. The Mueseu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) is situated in the Palau Naçional, a monumental sandstone building which houses the most important Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque collections of Catalan art in the country. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in the El Ravel quarter also warrants a visit, particularly if conceptual art is your thing.
In all fairness, though, Barcelona is best viewed as a living museum. Especially from an architectural perspective. There is the Gothic Quarter, right in the heart of the medieval part of the city which used to be contained by the city’s wall, where the maze of streets are dominated by 13th century architecture and Plaça del Rei at its historic centre. For modernist Barcelona, head to Eixample (the area paints a very different picture during the day than its decadent night-time persona) for a selection of Gaudi’s works. These, including his most famous and still unfinished Sagrada Familia church, now form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site which protects the architect’s creations.
Be sure to allow some time in your schedule to visit Sitges. No visit to Barcelona would be complete without a 20-minute trip to this coastal town. Cultured, historic and a revered party town in equal measures, Sitges was also the first Catalan town to erect a “Never Again” monument against homophobia.
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During the day the beaches are where most of the action is at, with plenty of topless tanning from the girls while the boys parade their gym-toned bodies. The main La Bassa Rodona beach is as good a place as any to claim your piece of sand, with the section to the right of the lifeguards unofficially marked as pink. For exclusive gay beach company head to the nude Playa del Muerto beach. It is 45 minutes walk from town, but you can get a taxi for most of that way.
If you can rouse yourself from the previous night’s party, and are after something more cultured, you’ll find Sitges eager to oblige. The village has been a major tourist destination for over 100 years and offers a proud historical legacy with magnificent architecture and museums. Make your way to the Maricel Museum for an extensive exhibit of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Catalan sculptures and art. A tour of the town’s historical buildings should definitely also include the Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla church, if only for the sweeping views of the village and coastline from the square infront of the building.
At night Sitges comes alive with bars and clubs spilling onto the sidewalks. Start with a drink at El Horno where the bartenders pour pints of gin with a hint of tonic (there is no concept of singles or doubles in Spain, you just say “when”). Otherwise go for a Mojito and plenty of people watching at Parrots Bar.
For more information on Barcelona and Sitges visit www.catalunyatourisme.com.
Where to stay: Chic gay travellers will love the “heterofriendly” Axel Hotel, in the heart of Barcelona’s gay scene. The hotel’s restaurant, bar, swimming pool and solarium, all situated on the rooftop overlooking the city, is the perfect way to spend a relaxed afternoon while watching the hunky visitors (all in the most revealing of swimwear of course). www.axelhotels.com.
In Sitges the lodging of choice is Hotel Romantic. The hotel is situated in the heart of Sitges and extends across three neighbouring 19th century villas. A highlight is breakfast, served in the outside courtyard in the shade of palm trees. www.hotelromantic.com.