Launch The New Year In Catalonia’s Timeless Capital, Barcelona
The city’s family-oriented and super festive traditions — get your 12 grapes ready! — are open to all.
Barcelona, the endlessly beautiful capital of Catalonia, rewards relaxed exploration perhaps more than any city I know. You can walk and walk — down the Rambla into the stone pedestrian corridors of the Gothic Quarter, and then continue on to the beach and beyond, down to the city’s ancient but still-bustling Port Vell. Pedestrian passageways climb and drop across the city’s elevations, up into the mountains, back down to the sea, and take you through the tremendous vertical hush of Sagrada Familia and back up into the forested hills of the vast Park Guell. It’s a city that can leave you hopelessly disoriented but never feeling anxiously lost. In every neighborhood is some surprise to sustain you, energize you, and keep you going — whether it’s a little bakery or a shop or a cafe. Everyone else — from the very young to the very old — is out on the streets too, going about their routines… stopping at favorite parks and markets and shops… pulling you into what feels like the lively, authentic clockwork of a city that’s been ticking along for more than 2,000 years.
Over the holidays, always-magical Barcelona turns sort of unbelievably so. Hidden plazas sparkle with holiday lights, Christmas markets are everywhere — kiosks tucked away in the Gothic Quarter and lining the grand avenues. Kids are out of school for nearly three weeks over the holidays, which run from Christmas Eve through the Epiphany, on Jan. 6, with big family feasts throughout — on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, of course, and again on Dec. 26, for Saint Stephen’s Day, where cannelloni is the essential dish. Even New Year’s Eve brings the generations together in Barcelona.
In the U.S., New Year’s Eve is rarely a family affair. It’s a night for adults — and traditionally a night of stubbornly high expectations that run aground the difficulty of making a plan everyone likes. We don’t really have a cohesive New Year’s tradition for families — or we have millions of them.
But the New Year in Barcelona is as family-oriented as the rest, with everyone together for a big, late dinner at home on New Year’s Eve, a feast of local fish and seafood. When midnight nears, the whole family gathers around the TV for the broadcast from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, whose 18th-century bell tower provides the official national countdown. The tradition across Spain is to try to eat 12 grapes in the final seconds of the year — for good luck in the next — and while the bell in Madrid tolls off those final seconds, everyone strives to eat one grape a second. It’s only after midnight that older kids and adults go out for the night with friends, usually until 6 or 7 in the morning, sustained along the way by treats like chocolate con churros. (The place to find the countdown grapes — and almost any local delicacy you can imagine — is at one of the city’s iconic open-air markets, which are destinations unto themselves.)
But the most kid-centric moments in Barcelona’s long festive season come five days into the new year, during the Día de los Reyes Magos (the Epiphany) on Jan. 6, and the Three Kings Parade, which steps off around 7:30 or 8 the night before. Every city, every village, no matter how small, has their own parade — led by the Three Wise Men — and in each place, they arrive by different means… by camel, by helicopter.…
In Barcelona, the Three Kings arrive by boat at the Old Port, and then climb onto floats that wind all through Barcelona over many hours, touching nearly every part of the city. The kings throw sweets and small toys to kids as they go, but it’s an equally fun night for adults — there’s music and dancing, and the streets are packed with festive crowds. People bring their own ladders so they can see over the crowds — parents hoist kids up on their shoulders.
And then on the morning of Jan. 6, kids wake up to living rooms full of toys. Again it’s the Three Wise Men, who sneak into houses overnight to deliver presents to kids all over Catalonia — not Santa Claus (though he often makes an appearance, too).
It’s a day for other delicacies like Tortell de Reis ("Kings' Cake"), a sweet bread, stuffed with dried fruit, a figurine of a king, and a bean — whoever gets the king can look forward to especially good luck in the coming year. And whoever gets the bean is supposed to pay the king.
A FEW FESTIVE MOMENTS TO SEEK OUT IN BARCELONA
- Barracas de Navidad: The broad pathways of Gran Vía are lined with kiosks selling toys and other treats throughout the holidays, open every afternoon and night. They sell every kind of candy imaginable, including coal — made from sugar — for the bad kids.
- Be sure to get lost in the winding, ancient corridors of the Gothic Quarter. No agenda needed, unless you get hungry, in which case, you should head straight to Bar La Plata, which has been serving the same four tapas since it opened in 1945.
- Take Tibidabo Funicular to the top of Barcelona’s biggest (but still modest) mountain and ride the Ferris wheel at Tibidabo Amusement Park, in operation since 1899.
- Over the holidays, it’s traditional to take kids to the circus — Circo Raluy — at Barcelona’s Port Vell. Who’s to break with that tradition?