Major routes in Spain carry heavy traffic, particularly during peak holiday times, so be extremely careful; Spain has one of the highest accident rates in Europe, and the roads are shared by a mixture of local drivers, immigrants en route from Eastern Europe and North Africa, and non-Spanish vacationers, some of whom are more used to driving on the left. Look out for heavy truck traffic on national highways. Expect the near-impossibility of on-street parking in the major cities. Parking garages are popular and accessible, offering added protection to your car and belongings.
The major cities of the country are well linked by a network of four-lane motorways. The letter N is a national route (carretera nacional), either a four-or two-lane highway. The motorway (AP) is a toll road. At the toll booth squares (the word in Castilian is peaje; in Catalan, peatge), there are three systems to choose from — automatic, with credit card or coin machines; manual, with attendant; or telepago, an electronic chip-driven device often used by Spanish drivers.
Getting around and out of Barcelona
Arriving in Barcelona by car from the north along the AP7 autopista or from the west along the AP2, follow the signs for Ronda Litoral (the coastal ring road — but beware: it’s most prominently marked "Aeroport,” which can be misleading) to the lower and central part of Barcelona along the waterfront, or Ronda de Dalt (the upper ring road) along the edge of the upper part of Barcelona to Horta, Bonanova, Sarrià, and To get to the center of the city, take the Ronda Litoral and exit 21 ("Paral.lel – Les Ramblas") or 22 ("Barceloneta – Via Laietana – Hospital de Mar").
If you arrive from the Pyrenees on the C1411 / E9 via the Tunel del Cadí, the Tunels de Vallvidrera will take you to the top of Via Augusta with the off-ramps to Sarrià, Pedralbes and La Bonanova. The Eixample and Ciutat Vella are 10–15 minutes apart if the traffic is fluid. Look out for new variable speed limits on the road to Barcelona. Although 80 km/h (48 mph) is the maximum speed on the loops, blinking over the motorway often lowers the speed limit to 40 km/h (24 mph) during peak hours.
Barcelona's major traffic centers are Diagonal (running diagonally around the city) and Midtown Avenues, Carrer d'Aragó and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, all of which stretch north-southwest through the center of the city. Passeig de Gràcia, which is Gran de Gràcia above Diagonal, runs all the way from Plaça de Catalunya to Plaça Lesseps, but the main up-and - down streets for motorists are Balmes, Muntaner, Aribau and Comtes d'Urgell. The overall urban speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph).
Driving around Barcelona by car is usually more complicated than worth it. It’s easier to walk or to ride by subway, taxi or bus.
It’s not difficult to exit Barcelona. Follow the signs for the rondas, make some advance planning, and you’re done. Watch the signs for Girona and França on the Costa Brava, Girona, Figueres and France. Follow Via Augusta and signpost for Tunels de Vallvidrera or E9 and Manresa for Tunel del Cadí and the Pyrenean valley of Cerdanya. Take Diagonal West and then take the AP7 motorway to Lleida, Zaragoza, Tarragona and Valencia, leaving the city to the west. Look for the airport, Castelldefells, and Sitges signs for these beach points on the Costa Daurada to head southwest along the coast. The C32 motorway to Sitges connects the AP7 to Tarragona and Valencia.
To travel outside Barcelona, the freeways to Girona, Figueres, Sitges, Tarragona and Lleida are surprisingly easy. The distance from Girona, 97 km (58 miles), is a 45-minute shot. The French border is about an hour drive. Perpignan, 188 km (113 miles ) away, is one hour and 20 minutes away.
There are some 60 gas stations in and around Barcelona, often open 24 hours a day, particularly around the Barcelona rounds. Nearly all stations are self-service, but rates are the same as those at full-service stations. At the tank, hit the amount of gas you want (in euros, not in liters), unhook the nozzle, pump the gas, and pay for it. At night, however, you must pay before you fill up. Some stations require credit cards to be used at the pump. Most of the pumps sell unleaded gas and diesel fuel, so be careful to choose the right one for your vehicle. Unleaded gas (gasolina sin plomo) is sold in two types, 95 and 98 octanes.
Prices per liter differ slightly between stations.
Barcelona underground parking lots (posted “Parking” and symbolized by a white P on a blue background) are generally safe and convenient. Garage rates vary; expect to be close to €4 an hour and €25–€40 an 24-hour day. Airport parking is from €5.48 per day for up to two hours to €18.75 per day for up to four days and €15 per day afterwards. Long-term parking between Terminal 1 (T1) and Terminal 2 ( T2) costs EUR 87 up to 20 days and EUR 3 per day thereafter.
Barcelona’s street parking system runs from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (with on-call attendants) on weekdays and all day Saturday. Park in specially marked blue areas (about €2.60 per hour in the most expensive areas) and look for a nearby ticket vending machine. Tickets are valid for one, two or three hours, but are available in half-hour increments. The ticket must be displayed on the front dashboard. Do not park on the streets where the edge of the pavement is yellow or where there is a private entrance (gual or vado).
Parking signs labelled “1–15” or “15–30” show that you can park on the side of the street where indicated on certain dates of the month. Whenever you feel that you have found an open space, be alert to the triangular yellow stickers on the pavement that indicate a tow-away zone — the spot may not be so lucky after all. If your car is towed to Barcelona, you’ll find one of these yellow triangles, with the phone number and address of the municipal car’s depot where your vehicle now resides, on the pavement where you left your car. The taxi is going to know where to take you to get it back.
The fine and towing charges, with taxes and storage charges, can set you back up to €175, depending on the make and model of the car, and where and when you have been illegally parked. Please notice that you will need to carry your passport and produce vehicle registration documents on the pound. To avoid the possibility of this frustrating and expensive accident, park in a parking lot or garage. When your car is towed to Bilbao, please contact the Ayuntamiento or the City Hall.
Currently, one of the best ways to rent a car, whether you arrange it from home or during your trip, is through the company’s website — the rates are the best and the arrangements are the easiest. Generally, if you book a car before you leave home, you’ll get a better price. Avis, Hertz, Budget and the European Agency Europcar have all counters at airports in Barcelona, Bilbao and other cities. Global corporations are operating through the Spanish organization Atesa. Smaller, local businesses are providing lower rates.
Automatic transmission cars are less common, so specify your need for one in advance. The SatNav system programmable in English is likely to be worth the cost of the option. Pick-up rates at Barcelona Airport can start as low as €13 per day and €30 per week for a low-cost car with air-conditioning, manual transmission and unlimited mileage, booked online, but usually run at least twice that amount. This does not include a car rental tax of 21%.
You will be asked to present your license and passport (or photocopy) if you are stopped.
In Spain, anyone over 18 with a valid license can drive; however, some of the rental companies will not rent a car to drivers under 21.
The cost of a child’s car seat is €3.50 per day; the cost per day for an additional driver is around €4.50 per day.
All major cities and destinations can be reached by high-speed motorways — two and three-lane motorways, where 110 km/h (63 mph) is the legal speed limit, and vehicles that can not reach at least 60 km/h are prohibited. The tolls are steep, sometimes as high as € 20 for two-to three-hour sections, but these freeways are spectacular touring routes with stunning views of the countryside (billboards are prohibited) and make the Iberian Peninsula a relatively small piece of geography.
Once you’re off these major roads, all the bets are off. Trucks can hold up long lines of traffic, and an average of 60 km/h (36 mph) can be challenging. Still, the scenery remains wonderful.
Signage on motorways may be erratic, and the lettering may be too small to decipher early enough to make a decision. Add to that the different languages (Spanish, Catalan, Basque) appearing on the road signs within a few hours of each other, and a certain amount of confusion is guaranteed. Only slower speeds can ease this problem by giving motorists more time to react.
Traffic jams (atascos) can be a problem in and around Barcelona, where round travel slows to a standstill at peak hours.
If possible, avoid rush hours, which can last from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Long weekends, known as puentes (literally bridges), especially those starting on Fridays, usually lead to delays in leaving Barcelona. Avoiding rounds in favor of the Tunels de Vallvidrera (right out Via Augusta) can save time if you’re heading north. Most of Barcelona’s holidays during August, so if you’re on the road at the beginning or the end of this month, you’re likely to encounter a lot of traffic, especially on the road up or down the coast.
The Hertz and Avis rental agencies have a 24-hour breakdown service. If you are a member of the Auto Club (AAA or CAA), you can get emergency assistance from your Catalan counterpart, the Reial Automovil Club de Catalunya (RACC) or the Real Automovil Club de España (RACE) branch of Spain. Emergency telephones are available on all motorways, every 2 km (1 mile), with service stations generally located every 40 km (25 miles).
Traveling with a European cell phone is essential for safety and convenience, bearing in mind that mountain coverage is erratic.
If your rental car breaks down, be especially wary of anyone who stops to help you on the road: the highway robbery has been known to be too literal here on occasion, as gangs of thieves puncture tires and steal belongings (almost always on toll roads and freeways, sometimes at a knife or gunpoint) while they pretend to offer assistance.
Rules of the road
Motorists are driving on the right in Spain. Horns are technically prohibited in cities, but are still often heard on the roads.
Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to ride in the front seat and seat belts are mandatory. The speed limits are 50 km/h (31 mph) in cities; 100 km/h (62 mph) on N roads; 120 km/h (72 mph) on motorways and motorways (highways); and, unless otherwise indicated, 70 km/h (44 mph) on secondary roads. The Barcelona rounds now limit motorists to 80 km/h (48 mph) and sometimes, at peak hours, reduce the speed limit to 40 km/h (24 mph).
If you are caught driving 10 km/h (6 mph) above the limit, you can expect a substantial fine.
Right turns on red are not allowed. In cities, people are more often stopped for petty rule-breaking, such as crossing a solid line or making a U-turn than for speeding. However, the Spanish Highway Police are particularly vigilant with regard to speeding and illegal transit, generally interpreted as crossing a solid line; fines start at € 100 and can be as high as €600; in the case of foreign drivers, the police are empowered to demand payment on the spot.
It is illegal to use a handheld phone, a headphone or an earphone while driving. If you are traveling with an infant or a young child, you may be fined for not having an approved design carrier seat.
On the freeway ramps, expect to make a full stop at the red stop (not yield) triangle at the end of the on-ramp and wait for a break in traffic. Don’t expect to merge to the left lane, especially from trucks that, by law, must remain on the right lane.
Drunk-driving tests are becoming increasingly prevalent. It is illegal to drive with an alcohol level that exceeds 0.5% BAC (blood-alcohol count) or 0.25 on a breath test; this is about three medium-sized glasses of wine or three beers for a man of average height and weight, but it is best to be extra careful.
Penalties vary from one region of Spain to another; in the worst case scenario, you may be fined as much as €1,000 or you may end up in jail for three to eight months.