In Barcelona, one of the most romantic and stylish cities in Europe, the last thing you want to do is ride an embarrassing tour bus full of camera-toting tourists. But on a BrightSide private sidecar tour, which takes in the city’s sights from the sidecar of a motorcycle, you feel more like a 1950s film star on a spontaneous day trip than a tourist clamouring for the perfect shot of Gaudi’s architectural triumphs.
On a recent visit, a scruffy, David Beckham-lookalike named Peter Kulka pulled up on a green vintage motorcycle outside my hotel. After he mapped out a four-and-a-half-hour ride based on my interests and crossing off the sites I’d already seen, I found myself winding through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter in the motorcycle’s open-air sidecar, with Kulka’s friendly voice doling out a local view of the city through my helmet’s microphone.
Brightside founder João Silva got the idea for the tours while working as a marketing executive in Hong Kong, where motorbikes are very popular. Today, the two-year-old company runs 1.5, 4.5 and nine-hour personalised tours on their four Russian Ural motorcycles, and the expedition was recently ranked the top Barcelona tour on TripAdvisor, with 99% “excellent” reviews.
With 32 potential stops, the guides do a good job of mixing well-known Barcelona sites and lesser known haunts. Our tour started in the flashy Eixample district, home to designer shops and the lion’s share of the city’s Modernista architecture, including La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s iconic, unfinished cathedral; Illa de la Discordia, “the block of discord”, named for the four vastly different houses each designed by a different architect; and Gaudi’s La Pedrera, which was a wealthy family home and is now a cultural centre. From there, we rode through the sleepy Vila de Gracia neighbourhood, where Peter said people walk markedly slower and have been going to the same local butcher and baker for decades. Throughout the tour, you can tell your guide where to make stops and where to just ride past, depending on your preference.
Buzzing through the sleepy streets, we headed to check out the exterior of the private residence Casa Vicens, one of Gaudi’s first important buildings, which is not listed in many guidebooks and is free from the crowds that plague his better known sights. Then we climbed up to Tibidabo Avenue, where Barcelona’s wealthiest residents enjoy a gorgeous view of the city, and headed south to Monjuic, the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. The stadium was originally built for the 1936 Games, when Barcelona planned to host an anti-fascist alternative to the Games taking place in Berlin that year, but it was cancelled due to the Spanish Civil War. The stadium had to wait almost 60 years to host an Olympic competition.
After winding through the narrow streets of Barcelona’s oldest neighbourhoods, Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), El Born (the trendy area) and El Raval (the quickly gentrifying neighbourhood where a new boutique hotel sits across from a shelter), we cruised down to Barceloneta Beach, a popular beach that was once a working class fisherman’s village. We ended our tour walking through the Ciutadella Park, an expansive 70-acre park in the middle of the city.
When Kulka whisked me back to the hotel he left me with a list of his favourite bars and restaurants – my only souvenir of the day’s fantastic adventure. Well that, and my fantastically messy helmet hair. The movie star fantasy had to end sometime.
Tours book up fast, so reserve early. The motorcycle can hold two passengers besides the driver -- one in the sidecar and one on the back of the bike. In Spain, you must be at least 12 to ride on a motorcycle, but kids as young as eight can go on the tour if accompanied by a parent. For a group, you can book up to three motorcycles to travel together.