One of the most important things to know about spending the holiday season in Barcelona is the schedule of festivities, as many celebrations are unique to Catalonia or Spain. If Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are both important celebrations, the main event for many Catalan families is on January 6 – known as the Dia de Reyes or ‘Day of the Kings’ – which is when children receive gifts.
The evening of January 5 is when the Three Wise Kings arrive in the city and take part in a spectacular procession known as the cabalgata. Children are particular keen to greet the kings and make a good impression on them, as they will be giving them gifts the next day, as well as filling their pockets with the sweet treats that are thrown at the procession.
It’s also worth remembering that in Catalonia, December 26 is a bank holiday and is known as the Dia de Sant Esteve. This is typically a day for spending with family.
We all know that one of the best parts of any celebration is the getting ready for it. If Christmas shopping is notorious for being stressful, doing it in a city as compact and beautiful as Barcelona takes some of the problems away. The Portal de l’Angèl and the backstreets of the Gothic Quarter are full of festive cheer with their bright lights and Christmas decorations.
Christmas markets here may not be as developed as those in, for example, Germany, but the Fira de Santa Llúcia is nonetheless a must-see in the run up to Christmas. Located outside the Barcelona Cathedral, you’ll be able to find everything you need to decorate your home, make your own nativity scene, find a Christmas tree and buy artisanal and original gifts. Look out for the curious figure of the caganer – a ‘pooping man’ and a highly important figure in any Catalan nativity scene.
The holiday season is also a great time to visit Barcelona’s many food markets, which, although heaving at this time of year, are a great place to get to know the local delicacies. The fish stalls are replete with lobster, crab and all kinds of shellfish, while the charcuteries are filled with specialities such as jamón Iberico, cured sausages and local cheeses.
Many restaurants are shut on both the evening of December 24 and all day on December 25, although some places have started to stay open recently. The best places fill up early, so make sure you have a reservation made by early December to avoid any nasty surprises. Traditional restaurants such as the seafood restaurant Botafumeiro and meat specialists Asador de Aranda are particularly enjoyable at this time of year.
Catalans are fond of good food most of the time, but the festive season is a time for extra indulgences and extravagances. Foie gras – referred to simply as foie here – is particularly popular at this time of year and is incorporated into a number of dishes such as canelons (a local style of cannelloni) or used in a sauce with prime cuts of meat.
However, there are also some very traditional dishes such as the escudella de Nadal, a stew made with vegetables, a shell-shaped pasta and a large meatball known as the pilota. Tradition has it that the broth and pasta are eaten as a first course, while the meat and vegetables are served as the main course. This is usually prepared at home and eaten on Christmas Day with the whole family.
The festive season is also a time for merriment, and what better than a glass of Spanish sparkling wine – cava – to put you in the mood. Alternatively, try a glass of sweet wine such as moscatell with a handful of dried fruits and nuts after dinner.
New Year’s Eve is generally spent with friends and is a time for donning your best party rags and painting the town red. If you haven’t managed to get an invite to a private party, the city’s upmarket nightclubs are probably one of the best places to see in the New Year.
Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for something more down to earth, there are impromptu public celebrations across the city. The Plaça d’Espanya and the Plaça de Catalunya are two of the busiest spots to count down to midnight, and you’ll see people taking part in the somewhat clichéd custom of eating 12 grapes during the 12 last strokes of midnight.