Comparing Barcelona & Vancouver for travel
I’ve had many travelers tell me that Barcelona and Vancouver have many similarities. But never having been in Canada, I was curious to see how they compare. People had told me both had see and mountains. But there must be more to that.
So today I decided to dig in and learn more about the differences and similarities of both cities. Let’s see the results!
Barcelona or Vancouver?
Vancouver (British Collumbia, Canada) and Barcelona (Catalonia Spain) have a pretty similar size. Just Vancouver is slightly larger: 114.97 km2 (44.39 sq mi) vs 101.4 km2 (39.2 sq mi). Both are very walkeable cities: in Barcelona most sites located along the Passeig de Gràcia and Les Rambles axe, and in Vancouver in its downtown area. However, Barcelona is a much more densely populated place, with roughly 1 million more people than Vancouver: 1,6 million vs 600,000.
Vancouver is located in the shore of the Pacific ocean and the city is protected from the ocean intensity by Vancouver Island that acts as a shield. Instead, Barcelona is openly located by the Mediterranean sea. Barcelona is limited in the other side by the Collserola range. It’s not very tall mountains: it’s highest peak, the Tibidabo hill, reaches 512m (1,680 ft). But it constitutes a sharp limit of the city, with its streets climbing it and thinning into woods.
Instead, the mountain background of Vancouver are the North Shore Mountains. They look far in the pictures but they are closer than they seem. The reason is that they are located across the Vancouver Harbor, a sort of canal separating Downtown Vancouver from North Vancouver. The highest peak is the Brunswick Mountain 1,788 m (5,866 ft), 3 times taller than Tibidabo. To find similar highs in Barcelona you’d have to ride some 45 minutes to the Montseny range, where its highest peak, the Turo de l’Home is 1.705,8 m (5,593 feet). Further away, in the Pyrenees you’ll find peaks over 3,000 m (around 10,000 ft).
Vancouver is definitely a cooler city than Barcelona, as it’s located further North. It’s a similar latitude to Paris, but its shore location creates different than in the inland French capital. In the Summertime, the average daytime temperature is around 22 °C (72 °F), whereas in Barcelona is 29.0 (84.2) and often higher.
Although Vancouver winters are considered mild for Canada, it’s still colder than Barcelona and snow isn’t rare: the average is 9 days per year. Not enough for the snow to stay around, but in Barcelona it’s even less. Snow is so unfrequent that even the sighting of a couple of snowflakes falling makes us say “look, it’s snowing!” and grin happily. We do go skiing in the Pyrenees, though.
As for the rain, I chuckled to read that Summers in Vancouver are dry because they only get “rain 1 out of 5 days”. Barcelona is way drier, with only 78 rainy days… per year! You’ll find more about the Barcelona weather here.
But even if snow melts quickly in Vancouver, up in the North Shore Mountains snow sticks enough for sky resorts to make good business. And that’s how Vancouver got to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Games were a mediatic success. Plus the Olympic facilities were built to be durable and reused after the competitions would be over. But there were challenges: the death of an athlete during a training session, the protest of activists and Canadian inuit aborigines, some weather issues…
Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992, and it meant a before and an after for the city. New infrastructures were built: a road ring, two telecommunications antennas, an extension of the airport terminal… An intensive plan of restoration was put in place to make the local buildings look more beautiful than ever. And the entire waterfront was recovered. The last slums by the sea were eliminated. The shore was recovered for beach usage and renovated. The Old Port was renovated too, and a new marina was created.
Despite the possibility of an attack of the ETA terrorist group, security was spotless. Thousands of locals volunteered to work for free in the organization, to make it the most successful Olympics until then. Barcelona had already hosted international sport competitions. That meant there were already some facilities that could be reused for the Games only with the upgrades necessary for the Olympics. The rest of the facilities were also build with the idea of reusing them afterwards, and that worked too.
There was little opposition, because the Games were seen as an opportunity to be put on the map. Hey, even Freddie Mercurie composed a song to be sang with the soprano Montserrat Caballe on the opening! Unfortunately, AIDS took him away before he could fulfill this dream… And everyone was mesmerized at the arrow that an archer used to lit the torch!
Complaints have only come decades later. Now the city has become too popular, overcrowded with tourists and cost of living sky-rocketing. And the Olympics are seen as the origin of all of that. When a local political party suggested applying for the Winter Olympics, the population disagreed. It had been great but we didn’t need more Games. Oh, the idea was to host the outdoor competitions in the Pyrenees (1.5 to 3 hours drive from Barcelona) and the indoor competitions in the city.
The other big international event that both cities have hosted is the World Exhibition: Barcelona in 1888 and 1929, Vancouver in 1986. Several landmarks are left in both cities from such events.
History and Architecture
Human presence has been documented in both the Vancouver and Barcelona areas for thousands of years. In Vancouver, between 8,000-10,000 years ago with Coast Salish indigenous. In Barcelona a bit later, 4,000 years ago during the Neanderthal times.
However, Vancouver didn’t become a city per se until 1862 with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The European had been around for already a century by then. Instead, Barcelona was officially founded by the Romans around 15-10 BC. And the Laietans, an Iberian tribe, had also been around before even if their settlement hasn’t been found yet. From then starts a rich history involving Visigoths, Muslims, Carolingians, Counts and Kings, Jewish… As the Capital of the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon, its power would reach distant places such as Greece and Italy for a while. Then comes the unity with Castilia and the creation of Spain, and turbulent war times start.
Vancouver is founded in 1886, and just two months later tragedy happens: the Great Vancouver Fire. However, it is the opportunity to rebuild everything and turn their city into a modern place. By then, Barcelona had already demolished its medieval walls and the plan of expansion of the city has started: the Eixample. We are preparing to host our first World Exhibition in 1888. The modernist style is starting to bloom and will last until the second World Fair in 1929.
But after that time we enter hard times again: Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Franco’s Dictatureship… The city won’t awake again until the Olympic Games in 1992. Instead, in Vancouver after 1950 the construction of tall buildings is encouraged. Not supertall buildings, the Living Shangri-La rises to201 m (659 ft) – just average compared to New York City. But many of them close together, and that defines the city skyline. In Barcelona tall buildings are scarce. The Mapfre towers are currently the tallest in town, with only 154 m (505 ft). Anyway, when the Sagrada Familia Church is finished, its highest tower will reach 172 m (565 ft). That’ll beat Vancouver unless something higher is built there by then.
Both Vancouver and Barcelona can be visited in 1 to 3 days. However, the sites you can expect to find in each place are very different. Vancouver is an outdoors and nature destination. You’ll want to explore the Stanley park, Kitsilano Beach, the English Bay, the VanDusen Botanical Garden, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Queen Elizabeth Park… Or take a day trip to walk the Capilano suspension bridge or take the cable car to see the bears in Grouse Mountain. Oh, and you can’t miss the spectacular Vancouver Aquarium!
Barcelona does have parks, beaches, cable cars and an aquarium, but the true city sites are all about architecture and history. Walk around the Gothic Quarter and visit its cathedral. Check out all the masterpieces of the architect Antoni Gaudi (Casa Batllo, Casa Mila, Park Guell, Sagrada Familia basilica…) and his peers of the modernist movement. Musem lovers will want to check the Picasso Museum, the Miro Foundation or take a day trip to the Dali Theater Museum.
AND ONE LAST THING... What about food?
Barcelona and Vancouver food scenes
The jewel of the Barcelona food scene is hands down the Boqueria Market. It’s one of the largest marketplaces in Spain and many count it among the best food markets in the world. You’ll find there veggies, meats, fish and street food from all over the world. What you can’t find here, no other store in town that will sell it! Vancouver has its own smaller but still very exciting counterpart: the Granville Island Public Market.
Eating in Barcelona means going for tapas (platters of veggies, seafood or meat to share). But also trying rice paella and experimenting with other Spanish and Catalan dishes. The Vancouver cuisine is highly influenced by the cold ocean waters (go for salmon candy, spot prawns and West Coast oysters). And the Asian influence is equally important. “Japadogs” are a unique example of that, but you’ll also find great Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Singaporean and Vietnamese specialties…
As for high end restaurants, Barcelona offers an exciting selection of Michelin star restaurants. But as I understand, there’s no Michelin guide covering Canada at the moment I’m writing this post. What means no Michelin restaurants in Vancouver. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many fine dining options in Vancouver… Instead, Vancouver has an informal and fun spirit. It’s a great place for street food and food trucks (there are no food trucks in Barcelona except for a handful of churros vendors!)
What's your favorite? Vancouver or Barcelona?
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