For many people, Barcelona is a destination with two main draws: the sun and the sand. But in wintertime, when the brilliance of those two attractions dims, the city’s cultural activities take centre stage. Around the holidays especially, Barcelona comes alive with Christmas markets and seasonal celebrations for you to enjoy, accompanied by a thick, steaming cup of hot chocolate.
Barcelona loves markets. Public markets. Food markets. Secondhand markets. Vintage markets. And in the winter, Christmas markets, where you can indulge in seasonal fare and maybe even snag the perfect gift for your hardest-to-please relative back home.
From November 24th until December 23rd, Fira de Santa Llúcia, the city’s oldest and largest Christmas market, takes over the wide pedestrian avenue in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. The annual installment presents close to 300 stalls, decked out in twinkling fairy lights, where locals sell typical, seasonal goods. The colourful stands are grouped by craft, including a whole section dedicated to handmade wooden nativity scenes (pessebres). You’d be surprised just how popular these are here. Local families spend years collecting the right mixture of figurines, are meticulous about constructing the perfect scene at home, and physically move the three Kings (los Reyes) closer and closer to the manger and baby Jesus as the days count down to Christmas.
One figure sold across countless stalls, which is bound to incite curiosity in visitors, is the caganer, a man in traditional Catalan dress, squatting with his trousers down around his ankles and going to the bathroom. Utterly unique and completely normal in Catalan culture, the caganer is also sold in the guises of famous personalities, politicians, movie stars and athletes, and can make for a fun, tongue-in-cheek Christmas gift for loved ones with a sense of humour. Similarly, many stalls offer another odd but endearing souvenir of local tradition: squat pieces of wood wearing a red hat, with a smiling face painted on one end—El tió de Nadal or Caga tió. The anthropomorphic log takes Santa Claus’s place in Catalunya and delivers presents to children on the night of December 24th.
A smaller market that is well worth the visit for the spectacular backdrop alone, the Fira de Nadal de la Sagrada Família was born out of the need to expand the Santa Llúcia market in 1962, but has earned a reputation as its equal over the years. Held in the condensed park directly in front of Antoni Gaudí’s world-famous architectural achievement, the market offers its own selection of traditional handmade Christmas gifts, decorations and Catalan delicacies across 120 stalls. It runs from November 29th to December 23rd.
A Christmas-time market that starts surprisingly late, and in fact isn’t a Christmas market at all, the Fira de Reis de la Gran Via is open from December 21st to January 6th. January 6th marks Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes Magos) in Barcelona—a celebration that, in many ways, is more important to residents than Christmas day itself, as most gift-giving takes place on this date. Stretched along the city’s central thoroughfare, Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, the market boasts more than 300 stalls selling toys, local confectionary and handcrafted goods.
Sightseeing, shopping, snuggling, it’s all made better with a steaming cup of hot chocolate in hand.
We can’t mention hot chocolate in Barcelona without highlighting Granja Viader. Located on the charming, three-metres-wide street of Petritxol, it’s the perfect place to warm up and rest your feet. Of course the xocolata calenta is recommended—preferably served with a round or two of crunchy churros—but the crema catalana, made from a family recipe that’s more than 100 years old, is also tempting. A member of the Viader family created Catalunya’s famous version of chocolate milk, Cacaolat, too—can you feel your decision on what to order getting more and more difficult?
Another xocolateria on Carrer de Petritxol with an inviting old-world feel is Granja Dulcinea. Formerly operating as a dairy, the space is now furnished with varnished, dark wood and decorative floor tiles that date back to its opening in 1939, and photographs of the owners and famous customers line the walls. It’s known amongst patrons that Salvador Dalí and Catalan writer Àngel Guimerà used to frequent the place. The hot chocolate is made with a mixture of African and Spanish cocoa, hot water and a drop of milk to cut the bitterness, and served with fluffy whipped cream and your choice of Catalan melindros, churros or Mallorcan ensaïmada.
In Barcelona, everyone has his or her favourite hot chocolate spot. Which will be yours?
Like all major cities, Barcelona celebrates New Year’s Eve with fireworks and bubbly (plus 12 grapes and red underwear, but we won’t get into that). The biggest year-end celebration takes place at the Font Màgica de Montjuïc, and combines the fountain’s renowned light and water show with live music and an incredible pyrotechnic display. The official countdown ceremony starts at 11.30pm on December 31st and lasts around 45 minutes. There are also a number of memorable after-parties in the city to choose from. One of the biggest and most well-known, la Nochevieja, takes place at Poble Espanyol, within walking distance of the Magic Fountain.
Next on the calendar is the Three Kings Parade on Friday, January 5th. The fun begins when the guests of honour arrive in Barcelona by boat, docking at Moll de la Fusta in the afternoon, before they begin a 3-hour pilgrimage through the city. The lavish parade is made up of an impressive collection of floats, actors and dancers decked out in seasonal decoration and costume, and as the procession comes to an end, an estimated 1.6 million sweets are shot out of powerful air cannons into the crowd. Consider taking an umbrella—used in the regular manner to shield yourself from projectile candy, or turned upside down to catch it.
Although January 6th marks the end of the holiday season in Catalunya, locals continue to find excuses to party throughout the winter, and the biggest celebration before spring is Carnival. From February 8th to the 14th, one of the most epic Carnivals in the world takes place in Sitges, a small seaside town, easily accessible from Barcelona by train. As a gay-friendly community, the town knows how to embrace the extravagant costumes, quirky activities and overall flair that Carnival is known for.
Whatever your excuse is for escaping to the Mediterranean coast this winter, you’ll have plenty to do once you arrive. You might even like us to plan a few activities outside of Barcelona’s standard winter offerings for your trip.