By Regina Winkle-Bryan
The good news is that Barcelona is a popular tourist destination, with thousands of sightseers arriving by cruise ship, plane and train every year. This means business for a struggling economy and work for people like, well, me! The bad news is also that Barcelona is a popular tourist destination…..if you catch my drift.
It can be downright overwhelming to go the center of the city and the Gothic Quarter at times. If you do end up in the Gothic Quarter, or near La Rambla, then it’s a headache to try and find a reasonable place to have a coffee or lunch. Since so much is geared towards tourists, who will not know that they are paying twice as much as they would on the other side of town, rip-offs abound downtown.
From a local point of view, here are the biggest scams in the city:
L’Aquàrium de Barcelona/The Aquarium:
I went to the aquarium one Sunday not long ago. I had to wait in a long line, mostly made up of screeching kids, tourists, and curious locals. Once I got to the ticket counter they told me the entrance was half a year’s pay and my dog, (so, €19 for adults, €14 for kids). Fine, €19 is not too much to pay for an excellent experience with Mediterranean marine life. Bring on the octopi!
Once inside, I realized I’d been scammed. The aquarium was ragged and somehow reminded me of my elementary school. Tanks held few fish and were missing their informational plaques. When I did try to admire a squid or some unnamed fish, parents and children pushed in front of me. The one highlight was the ‘shark tube’, but that experience alone is not worth €19. It’s a mystery to me why the aquarium in Barcelona is not much, much better. It’s right on the port and has a lot of potential. But, I guess if people are willing to cough up €19 for a mediocre spin through half-empty tanks then the aquarium management has little motivation to improve things.
***The scoop is to stay clear of this waste of time and waste of money.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Don’t eat or shop on Las Ramblas. Please. Or do, but then don’t go home and tell people that you don’t like Spanish food, because what you’ll have tried was a frozen microwaved paella and some cheapo sangria, not real Mediterranean eats. Also, buying a Mexican style sombrero on Las Ramblas and wearing it around the city is frowned upon.
***The scoop is to make your purchases away from La Rambla. There are many boutiques and Spanish chain clothing stores just off La Rambla around Portal de l’Angel, where you’ll pay a normal price. The same goes for eating lunch. Find a side-street and tuck into more authentic meals at a local price.
Restaurants Without a Menu:
This one is tricky, but I want to mention it because it just happened to me the other day. I went to a worn but welcoming seeming bar that serves tapas near the beach. I had never tried it before, but had wanted to because its sunny terrace is almost always full, and I had seen people eating tapas there. It’s always a good idea to go to the places with lots of customers, especially if those customers are Spanish.
I was with my main-squeeze, who is Spanish, and we got the last table on the terrace. The Waiter, who is also the owner, asked us what we wanted. I didn’t ask for the menu and ordered a pretty standard tapa snack: a mineral water, a Coca-cola, and a plate of ‘patatas bravas’ or spicy potatoes.
Usually, ‘bravas’ will cost no more than €3.50. If ‘bravas’ cost €4.00 or more, I usually skip the restaurant labeling it as ‘expensive’ or ‘for tourists’; a lot can be understood from the price of ‘bravas’, which are, after all, just freakin’ potatoes. Our ‘bravas’ came and admittedly the portion was big. I noted that something was off with the ‘bravas’ when I bit into a piece of ham.
“Why is there bacon in these ‘bravas’?” I asked
“These are our special ‘bravas’, with ham!”
“But I don’t eat bacon.”
This was followed by a long pause. Why would I not want bacon? The Waiter didn’t seem to understand. To be fair, ‘bravas’ never come with bacon. Finally he did take them away, and brought us new ‘bravas’, swine-free.
When we asked for the check, The Waiter didn’t bring it to us. Instead he simply told us what we owed: €10.00
Befuddled, I paid the man. €1.50 for a Coke, €1.50 for a water, €3.50 for bravas, or maybe €4.00 does not €10.00 make… When he returned with my change I asked him about the price.
“How much were the ‘bravas’?”
“€6.00,” he said, a smug smile on his face.
“Is that because they had bacon? We sent those back.”
“Hahah! No, if you had kept the ones with bacon, I would have charged you MUCH more! Ha!”
I just looked at him, unsure of what to say. Then he leaned over and whispered, “You shouldn’t carry so much cash around with you, you might get robbed.”
Was this because I had paid with a €50? I should have said, The only person robbing me here is YOU, but I didn’t have my wits about me. Instead, I told him not to worry about it. He didn’t like this answer and so turned to my main-squeeze saying, “She doesn’t understand me, you explain it to her.” I told him I understood him just fine, and then we left.
It really irritates me when people think that because I don’t agree with them, it must be because my Spanish is not good enough to understand them. While The Waiter was clearly a jerk, and there are jerks everywhere, it’s not the first time this has happened. But I digress…
The point of this story is that if you don’t see a menu, then you don’t know the price. Some places don’t have menus, but they will charge you the same as any other customer because they are fair, ethical people. Others, like The Waiter, will take advantage of the situation and charge you more because you: 1)look like a tourist 2)didn’t see the menu 3) didn’t see the bill. While this treatment is not the norm, it does happen, and though it had been a while since I’d been ripped off in this way, it is not the first time that it’s occurred in Spain.
***The scoop is to ask for a menu and your check if possible. Then there will be no questions as to what the price is, or surprise bacon in your ‘bravas’.
Barcelona can be an expensive city if you allow it to be. Avoid the rip-offs above and save money by coming in off season, shopping where the locals do at markets and supermarkets, taking public transportation, and renting an apartment instead of a hotel. At an apartment you’ll be able to cook, which saves big euro bucks. We recommend ApartmentsRamblas.com which has short-term vacation apartments all over the city.
Have you been ripped off in Barcelona? What scams do you think visitors should avoid?