From music fests to religious holidays, there’s always something to celebrate!
By Duncan Rhodes
Processions, parades, parties… they’re all part of everyday life in the Catalan capital. We reveal some of the best festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
At times life in Barcelona can seem like one long fiesta, especially during summer when every barrio in the city celebrates its own patron saint days and a Bacchanalic carnival vibe takes over the entire town one district at a time. In addition to these traditional street parties, a plethora of famous rock and dance festivals invade BCN every year, such as the long-running experimental music showcase that is Sonar Festival, indie rock giant Primavera Sound, and the more eclectic music fest that is Cruilla.
And whereas modern Spain, and Catalonia in particular, has distanced itself from religion in recent decades that hasn’t stopped anyone from celebrating Catholic festivals with great pomp and ceremony and plenty of time-honoured traditions, such as the castellers (human castles), correfocs (fire runs) and sardana dance.
The biggest night of the year is undoubtedly Sant Joan, when thousands of firecrackers, rockets and other pyrotechnics salute the shortest night of the year and sangria, calimocho and cerveza flows in abundance.
And of course the city’s very own patron saint day, Festes de la Merce, is marked by one of Europe’s biggest street parties and not to be missed if you’re in town during early autumn.
Read about all these festivals and many more fiestas below…
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Festivals in Barcelona
Epiphany (5th/6th January)
Largely ignored in most countries, the arrival of the three kings (wisemen, magi, geezers…) to the Messiah’s manger is keenly awaited in Spain as this is when Spaniards and Catalans exchange gifts, Christmas style. The eve of the Epiphany (the 5th January) is marked by the arrival of the wise men by boat at Port Vell (usually around 4:30pm). After that, these extravagantly dressed gentlemen set off on the “Calvacada del Reis” – a grand parade of floats replete with acrobats, clowns and elves, from which the kings dish out sweets to local kids. The route normally starts at the lower entrance of Parc de la Ciutadella, running up Carrer de Marques de l’Argentera and Via Laietana.
Move over Rio, Barcelona’s carnival is back and growing in popularity year by year. As in most Catholic countries carnival in Spain is the last chance to go wild before Lent, when forty days of abstinence kick in. Banned by Franco from 1936 to 1980 this vibrant festival is experiencing a healthy revival of interest in the new millennium. The culmination of the party is La Gran Rua de Carneval, when visitors can expect to see plenty of fancy dress, floats and fireworks form a grand parade down one of the city’s main streets (normally Av. Paral.lel). However, if we’re being brutally honest, the real action takes place down the road in Sitges, a picturesque coastal resort famous for its gay nightlife. It’s debauchery of the first order, with half of Barcelona’s student population heading down on the train in fancy dress. Join in at your peril! We normally highlight the Sitges Carnival in our events calendar.
Dia de Sant Jordi (23rd April)
St. George (Sant Jordi) was a busy man, and not only did he gallivant about the English countryside slaying dragons, but occasionally he would be called upon in these warmer climes to dispatch a nasty lizard or two. Such heroic behaviour saw him dubbed patron saint of Catalonia and his festival is certainly one of the most colourful in the city as the entire length of Las Ramblas turns into a flower stall – the idea being that men should purchase a rose for the dainty damsels in their life. Women meanwhile are supposed to buy men a book as the country’s legendary bard, Miguel Cervantes, died on this day.
Formula One Spanish Grand Prix (May)
The F1 set-up roars into the region in May each year for the Spanish Grand Prix, which takes place at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo (20kms outside Barcelona). What with qualifiers, engine checks and pretty paddock girls roaming around this becomes a three day event of fuel, flags and Ferraris. Read our article for tickets and travel info on the Spanish Grand Prixfor all the practical info you need to know to attend.
Primavera Sound Festival (May/June)
This popular alternative rock and dance festival takes place in late spring/early summer each year in the epic Parc del Forum, easily accessible on the Northern edge of the city. Extensive line ups mix big names such as Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Air, Orbital, The Pixies, The Cure, Pulp, Blur and Bloc Party with swathes of fashionable indie and dance acts such as Warpaint, Chromeo, Tame Impala, Bat For Lashes, British Sea Power and Yo La Tengo. A real music lovers’ event that attracts a glamorous international crowd, there’s also a side programme of ticketed (and sometimes free) additional concerts in nightclubs and public spaces around the city. Check our guide to the fest by clicking the link above, or head to the official website by clicking the link below:
Sonar Festival (June)
Here comes the big one! Sonar Festival has garnered an impressive reputation as one of the world’s leading experimental electronic music festivals (which is another way of saying it’s a fantastic rave up). Obscure acts that only shoe-gazing musos have heard of rock different urban arenas (it recently moved from the ice-white MACBA museum to La Fira Montjuic due to popular demand), with the odd festival headliner, such as Chemical Brothers, Pet Shop Boys or Skrillex, thrown in for good measure. Tickets are a fraction pricey, but even if you’re penniless it’s still worth coming to Barcelona during Sonar as the entire week is marked by parties galore with a huge ‘Off programme’ of unofficial mash ups and mad happenings in bars, clubs and beaches around the city.
Cruilla Festival (July)
The music never stops in the Catalan capital, especially over summer! Cruilla is the music fest with the broadest appeal in the city, showcasing great artists from every nation, genre and era without prejudice. There’s no pretentious criteria for who comes, just great sounds, meaning even Mystic Meg can’t predict who’s coming next. For example atists who have played over the years include Asian Dub Foundation, Robert Plant, Suede, Iggy & The Stooges, Damon Albarn, Cat Power, Gogol Bordello and M.I.A. As with Primavera Sound, the action takes place at the Parc del Forum, in easy reach from the city centre.
Grec Festival (Mid-June to early August)
Arguably the most highbrow of Barcelona’s big festivals, Grec invites scores of acts every summer to perform theatre, dance, music and more in sensational venues around the city such as the eponymous Grec Teatre. ‘The Greek Theatre’ was built in 1929 as a replica of the Ancient Greek amphitheatre in Epidauros and is a magical place to take in some contemporary drama under the stars. An increasing number of performances are rendered in English.
Sant Joan (23rd/24th June)
The eve of Sant Joan (aka Sant Juan/St. John, depending where you come from) is undoubtedly the biggest party night of the year in Spain’s fiesta-filled diary. This midsummer celebration is famed for it’s endless fireworks and total disregard to EU safety regulations. As the 24th is a public holiday all and sundry take the opportunity to overindulge in cerveza and everyone except granny will still be partying come sunrise. The beach is the place to be for this one.
Montjuic de Nit (one night in July)
A free culture festival on the idyllic mountain of Montjuic, this summer night event is full of inventive entertainment. One minute film festivals, concerts in an ancient Greek-style amphitheatre, free entrance to Montjuic’s museums and even DJs by the Olympic swimming pool. Definitely a night to remember! (Nb: this awesome event has sadly been on hiatus for the last couple of years, due we expect to a lack of funding available. We hope to update this page with good news in the not too distant future).
Sala Montjuic (July/August)
Throughout the balmy summer nights, Barcelonins are invited up to the grassy ramparts of the formidable Montjuic fortress for a romantic picnic and jazz concert, before a night of openair cinema. Films are shown every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 22:00, although we would advise you to buy a ticket beforehand and get there early (doors open at 20:30) to grab a great spot and enjoy the music before the screening begins. There is a bar and food stalls if you fancy refreshments, although guests are welcome to bring their own hampers full of Cava and jamon.
Gandules (throughout August)
Another popular open-air film festival, this one takes place in the courtyard of the CCCB every August, bringing some worthy world cinema to the good people of BCN. ‘Deckchairs’ are the mode of seating, hence the name. Most films are screened in their original language with either Spanish or Catalan subtitles.
Festa Major de Gracia (Mid-August)
The most famous of Barcelona’s district festivals (almost every barri in BCN has one during summer), is undoubtedly the Festa Major de Gracia. For just over a week in August the area’s streets are adorned with wonderful papier mache statues, woodwork ornaments and decorative lanterns and every square becomes a concert venue as the fiesta gets under full swing. Needless to say drinking is rife as bars and cafes heave with thirsty festival goers and many more swig al fresco from Don Simon cartons of sangria. A great carnival vibe.
Festa de la Merce (several days either side of 24th September)
Once upon a time (in 1687 to be precise) the city of Barcelona suffered a terrible swarm of locusts and placed all hope of deliverance in the generous bosom of Our Lady the Virgin of Mercy. When she promptly dispelled the pesky plague the council declared her patron of the city and a festival was set up in her honour. Noise and fireworks (the staple of any self-respecting Spanish festival) are the order of the day, but in addition mischievous devils need to be ambushed by the townsfolk and banished – and various other Catalan traditions are enacted. A hefty programme of concerts accompanies festivities, with many events taking place either side of the big day itself. There’s also free entrance to the Barcelona’s museums on the 24th.
L’Alternativa – Barcelona Independent Film Festival (November)
Another festival organised by the culture cats at the CCCB, L’Alternativa acts as a platform to promote new directors and original works from the world of film. To quote their website, L’Alternativa is all about exposing you to “films that shake you up, make you feel alive and make you think.” Amen.
Find Your Festival Accommodation
Once you’ve decided which festival you’re going to check out, and booked your flights to Barcelona, you may want to take the traditional precaution of booking some accommodation on the side. In which case we suggest you head over to our ‘sleep’ section for some top choices on hotels, apartments and hostels.
Major Festivals Elsewhere in Spain
La Tomatina (last Weds of August)
One of Spain’s most talked about festivals, La Tomatina is the entirely bonkers tomato fight that takes place each year in Bunol, just outside Valencia and about 4 hrs drive from Barcelona. Starting at 11am, buses leave BCN sinfully early in the morning to taxi punters to Bunol in time for kick off… and boy does it kick off. Kind of like Armageddon but with a fruity twist.
Benicassim International Festival (FIB) (July)
Spain’s most famous international music festival takes place down the road from Barcelona, in Benicassim, a port town just outside Valencia. Festival-goers typically arrive several days early to camp out before the big guns arrive in the form of Oasis, Basement Jaxx and The Arctic Monkeys etc. Needless to say there are also dance tents manned by all the usual suspects, Armand Van Helden through to Carl Craig, whilst by day armies of Brits sleep off sangria hangovers on the beach and turn a lovely shade of lobster.
Monegros Desert Festival (one night in July)
Spain’s biggest rave has been rocking a patch of desert just outside Fraga for nearly 20 years now, and takes place one very long night in July every year. Typically more than 40,000 hedonists turn up to dance to world class acts from the world of electo, techno, drum and bass and dubstep during an epic 22 hour party. The good news is that you can easily arrive at the festival from Barcelona thanks to the official festival bus. Click on the blue link above for more info, or head straight to the official site…
Sanfermines (6th-14th July)
Better known in English as “The Running of the Bulls”, this controversial fiesta takes place every summer in Pamplona. A regular feature in international news, the running of six bulls and six steers down the narrow streets of the city is watched live by around one million people each year… several thousand of which risk life and limb to run with the horned beasts. The fact that it happens every morning for 8 days in a row at 8am, after a full night of drinking, is naturally a recipe for a disaster and each year brings its casualties… and occasionally fatalities. After this bloody romp through the streets, the bulls are then put to the sword in a traditional bull fight in the Pamplona arena, angering animal activists as well. If that’s not enough to put you off, it’s all great fun, as the whole city gets dressed up in white and red and toasts to Saint Fermin night and day and you could easily enjoy the party without even seeing a bull – or the tip of its horns.