1. PLAN AHEAD
If you have certain things you want to see, or shops you want to visit whilst here, make sure you don’t pick a day when everything is closed. December is a festive month, and on special dates it will be impossible to visit museums, shop, or indeed go out to eat at certain restaurants. Here’s a list of public holidays in December:
6. Constitution day
8. Day of the immaculate conception
25. Christmas day
26. Boxing Day / Saint Stephen’s day
2. ENJOY DOWN SEASON
Barcelona is a busy tourist destination for most of the year, so avoiding other tourists completely is impossible. However, during the month of December, you might find that some attractions are less crowded. Many tourists come for Christmas shopping, therefore visiting certain museums or parks, walking along the beach line and taking trips out of the busiest shopping areas, may offer you some peaceful moments of joy. Of course it depends on where you want to go – the Picasso museum in Barrio Gotico, for one, is usually pretty busy all year around.
3. ENTER THE CATHEDRAL
Whether you’ve been before or not, the cathedral during this season is quite spectacular – even more so than usual. Don’t be surprised if you have to queue up alongside the locals to be able to see the betlen, which is the Catalan name for crib, also meaning Bethlehem.
The nativity scene is displayed every year in the cloister. It’s sealed off from the rest of the cathedral (the entrance is on the side of the building), and it’s usually quite popular. The cloister also has a pond with a fountain, and houses 13 geese, apparently representing the age of Saint Eulalia when she was martyred. We usually enter for the beautiful atmosphere. As Christmas is getting closer, the tranquility and all the beautifully lit candles really make for a special visit.
4. TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN
If you’re travelling with children, they might be fascinated with the spectacle taking place in the market outside of the cathedral, or indeed in other markets around Barcelona. Rather than receiving their presents from Santa Claus or finding them under the Christmas tree, Catalan children wait patiently for Tió de Nadal. Popularly called Caga tió, which translates into shitting log, it’s a creature that takes the form of a wooden log wearing a big red hat or blanket that, effectively, covers all the Christmas presents. The idea is that the children hit the log with a stick until it miraculously spills treats and candy. Again, don’t be surprised to see queues of children lining up to have their go at the log. One is usually to be found on a small stage in the plaza in front of the cathedral.
5. GET A HOLD OF A CAGANER
Many Catalans are religious and frequent church goers. However, this region also has a long tradition of what can only be described as a playful approach to the Catholic Christmas traditions. This is especially true for the nativity scene, which in addition to the traditional figures of Maria, Josef and the baby Jesus, also includes the popular Caganer. It’s origin is unknown, but this smiling character wearing the traditional Catalan hat, called barretina, is said to have excited since the 18th century. The name Caganer translates as “the shitter”, which makes perfect sense once you see one and discover that he is in fact squatting down to relieve himself. Entering a Catalan home, it’s not unusual to see a traditional betlen, some of which are very big, with the Caganer in the corner. As this rather strange tradition has caught on, different characters have been made, representing the Caganer. Many markets have their own stalls selling these figures. Keep your eyes peeled for Caganers in form of stars like Elvis or Madonna, or famous politicians like Angela Merkel, or even Barack Obama.
6. TRY ICE SKATING IN PLAZA CATALUÑA
Every year, similarly to traditions in many other cities around the world, Barcelona mounts an ice skating rink in the middle of the city. Being a place where the temperature rarely dips below zero, it’s a welcome change in this central plaza, and a sure sign that Christmas is just around the corner. It’s also fairly popular among the locals.
7. TRY THE SNACK OF THE SEASON
Another sure sign that Christmas is near are the many stalls that sell roasted chestnuts and boniatos, which is the Spanish name for sweet potatoes. The smell is heavenly, and whilst the chestnuts are probably more common, the sweet potatoes are absolutely worth a try.
8. ENJOY THE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Every year outside the cathedral, you can visit the Saint Lucia Christmas market selling Caganers, nativity figures and all sorts of Catalan Christmas decorations. It’s nice to walk through it, although you will not find hot toddies and sweets like in so many other Christmas markets in other European towns, – nor will it be that cold. However, once you’ve seen it and perhaps picked up something special for your own betlem, you can dive back into the old town’s narrow streets in search of a small tapas bar and perhaps a vermouth. Other markets include:
– Fira de Nadal, which is a similar market that can be found in one of the parks outside of la Sagrada Familia.
– Mercat Gòtic, located in Avenida Portal de l’Angel, this is a hotspot for shopping just off Plaça de Catalunya. Be aware that this market may get very crowded.
– The markets around Santa Maria del Pi, aren’t exactly Christmas markets as they are open all year around, but still, they’re worth mentioning here. The Basílica de Santa Maria del Pi is located right in the heart of the old town and does not have one large plaza in front, like the cathedral, but rather three small ones along its sides. The little squares are very charming; one hosting a kind of farmers market with delicious treats, the other, which is usually open only during the weekends, a painters market.