Barcelona's Summer Street Parties
As the summer inches closer every year, you'll hear locals talking excitedly about something called a festa major. This Catalan expression translates to "big party"... and that's exactly what these events are.
Ok well maybe not quite exactly, because what constitutes a party here in Catalonia is probably a bit different to what you think. Perhaps, to give you a better idea, it would be best to think of these events as one part street party, one part neighbourhood get-together, one part rock concert, and one part arts and craft fair. Add a generous helping of crazy Catalan traditions (more on those in a bit!), and you've got the perfect mix for a great time, Barcelona-style.
Throughout the year, the city's different neighbourhoods take turn hosting their own version of the festa major. And whilst the vast majority of these street festivals take place during summer (and certainly the most famous ones, such as the Festa Major de Gracia and La Merce), you will still find a few going in winter. For example the Sant Antoni neighbourhood kicks off the year with its festa major held in mid to late January.
These festive phenomena are not restricted to Barcelona, and many nearby towns and villages also have their very own "big party"; so even if there's not one going on in town when you're visiting, you may be able to find one in the area. Sant Cugat, Rubi and Palamos all celebrate theirs in June, for instance.
Above: Street decorations in the Gracia neighbourhood
Catalan Festive Traditions
Many visitors come to Barcelona hoping to experience the unique customs of Catalonia, the autonomous north-eastern corner of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital. They're pretty proud of their traditions around these parts, and you won't see most of them in any other part of Spain.
Originally religious ceremonies that have come to embody Catalan identity, the festes majors probably represent your best chance to catching a glimpse of many of these regional traditions, like the sardana dance and the gegants (giants), to the famous castells (human towers) and the correfocs, or fire runs.
Another common sight at a district festivity is a neighbourhood dinner eaten outside. The residents pull out their chairs and tables out into the street and share a long midday meal together. You'll probably spot them eating some local specialties, too.
Visit any of the street parties below and you're likely to see some or all of the above, and certainly these celebrations play an enormous part in the cultural and social life of the city...
Barcelona's District Festivals
Festa Major de Sant Antoni (mid January)
The very first festa major of the year kicks off in the middle of January in Sant Antoni, around the 17th, which is the feast day for their saint. They've got all the common Catalan traditions, and also some unique to this neighbourhood, like the Tres Tombs (Three Turns) parade where residents bring their pets out to be blessed by a priest. The celebrations go on for a week and a half here. Unfortunately up to date information on this one is hard to find (a theme for several of these events!), so you may have to ask at the tourist office.
Festa Major del Casc Antic (late June)
Some of the oldest neighbourhoods in Barcelona - Sant Pere, Santa Caterina and La Ribera - celebrate their annual festival together in late June. This "festival of the Old Town" features a lot of community activities that include all ages, and there are lots and lots of huge communal meals to be had here, whether it's a botifarra sausage barbecue or an afternoon vermouth session. There are also traditional dances and street theatre performances. Look out for the balls de bastons - the Catalan stick dance which is a bit like Morris dancing.
Festa Major del Raval (mid-late July)
The Raval neighbourhood celebrates its grand fiesta for three days in mid-July. While it's neither the biggest nor the most traditional of Barcelona's street parties, the celebration manages to reflect the district's own diversity with plenty of world music and reggae concerts, and it attracts a young alternative crowd who revel in enjoying a few too many cervezas sold by illegal street vendors. Thanks to the neighbourhood's multicultural residents, the festival has music and food from around the world, whilst its many cultural centres host special activities and exhibitions. The festival doesn't have its own website but you can usually find information (in Catalan) below:
Festa Major de Poble Sec (mid-late July)
Another lively one, popular with hipsters and barflies, is the fiesta de Poble Sec when the throngs gather around El Molino (think Barcelona's very own Moulin Rouge) on Paral-lel street as well as the entire length of the legendary Carrer Blai to sip cervezas and mojitos and listen to local bands and DJs do their thing. That's not to say there are the usual Catalan traditions and children's activities so check the programme if you're keen to get cultural. In previous years they have also organised a craft beer festival to coincide with the party... let's hope that becomes a mainstay!
Festa de Sant Roc (mid August)
The Gothic Quarter's festival dates all the way back to 1589, making it the oldest street party in Barcelona. A lot of the traditions are still kept up, like the 'gegants' (giants), street games, sardana dances, and 'correfoc' fire runs, whilst the celebration also has two unique traditions that are bound to amuse most travellers. They are la cucanya contest, a contest that involving walking over a grease-smeared pole, and a drinking competition: glops amb el porró llarg where wine is poured down the throats of contestants from an extra large version of the already dangerous porron drinking vessel. The centre of the festivities is Placa Nova, which is right in front of the cathedral. The last night has a correfoc and fireworks in the square. Again info is hard to come by, but you could ask the tourist office. The saint day itself is the 16th August so you'll definitely find something going on then.
Festa Major de Gracia (third week in August)
By far the most known of Barcelona's summer street parties is the Festa Major de Gracia, a neighbourhood that used to be a separate village from Barcelona before getting absorbed into the city. Today its celebrations still retain a little bit of that village feel. The event takes place for eight days in mid-August, and the entire neighbourhood spills out onto the plazas to celebrate. Lots of the streets get special decorations for the occasion, which the residents carefully craft from recycled materials in the months leading up to the celebration. Each street gets a special theme, and there's a contest for the best-decorated street. Although it is the Gracia festival, residents from all over the city descend for this one and the music stages will be chock-a-block with revellers and ad hoc street kiosks and the neighbourhood bars will be doing a brisk trade indeed.
Festa Major de Sants (last week in August)
The runner-up for the liveliest celebration is the Festa Major de Sants, which takes place right after the Gracia festival in the final week of August. While it's not quite as impressive as the Gracia one, it's still a pretty epic party. Sixteen streets around the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial get decked out for the occasion, and if you want to see castellers, they have a special "Diada Castellera" that showcases the best colles (teams) in Catalonia. There is also a bike race and a 2km run towards the end of the event.
Festa Major del Poblenou (September)
The Poble Nou neighbourhood is a former industrial zone that is a bit further from the city centre; it has maintained a sense of its own identity for years. Here they celebrate their grand festival for two weeks, and the whole district and its historical organisations participate. They have lots of music, dancing, and art on display around the zone. There are also things like community meals, sports competitions, and activities for children (although these all tend to be more for the residents, so you might want to stick to the concerts).
La Merce (late September)
Europe's biggest street festival, attracting around 2 million visitors to take part, La Merce is in fact the festa major of the entire city... so yes we're talking about celebrations on a whole new scale now! Amazing street theatre, art installations and light shows pop up in parks and squares in every district whilst artisan food and wine tasting events, crafts fairs, music workshops, historic parades (complete with giants and dragons) and much much more all take place over four to seven days (depending how much the ongoing economic crisis has eaten into the city's budget!). The festival has its own music programme called BAM that sees world famous international acts play for free in public spaces and is very popular with Barcelona's party people. The tourism bureau will publish a hefty tome of a programme near the time so drop by one of their offices to pick up a copy, or navigate online.
Festa Major de Barceloneta (late September)
Just after the La Merce festival, the beach neighbourhood of Barceloneta takes over fiesta duties. Not surprisingly given its location, a lot of the activities take place on or around the sands. Past celebrations in Barceloneta have included sea shanty performances, a treasure hunt on the beach, live music on the boardwalk, nighttime beach volleyball tournaments, and meals of freshly-caught sardines. Another one where information online seems to be conspicuous by its absence you could try the district's website and hope that whoever's in charge of it has remembered, even briefly, that we're living in the 21st century.
(Note there is another, awesome street festival here each year called Los Coros de Barceloneta, which is a carnival-esque affair with dozens of marching bands smashing their drum kits and shaking their hips throughout the last week of May. Again no reliable info online, so just take our word for it and head in the final days of May for some fun mayhem).
How Do I Join In The Celebrations?
It's easy - you just show up! There's no entry fee and everyone is welcome. That's just one of the reasons these celebrations are so popular (apart from being beautiful and incredibly fun, of course!).