For your first visit you need no less than 4 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in some cases, but using metro or the bus network will be required for a number of destinations. Funicular and cable cars are another mode of transportation for getting to higher points.
Love its wide boulevards, Modernist edifices, the Catalan spirit.
Don’t miss: partaking in a musical show of Font Màgica; catching Catalan folk dancing on the Cathedral square on a Saturday; exploring La Boqueria.
Worthy attractions: Sagrada Familia, which looks like no other church in the world; Barcelona Cathedral; Las Ramblas with its round-the-clock buzz from Font de Canaletes to Monument a Colom, and a number of imposing palaces, including nearby Gaudí’s Palau Güell; Quadrat d’Or, which encompasses several of Gaudí’s masterpieces (foremost of them Casa Milà) and buildings by his contemporaries, especially Illa de la Discòrdia, a block of wildly different Modernist buildings, including Gaudí’s Casa Battlò; Palau de la Musica Catalana, an explosion of Modernist exuberance; Parc de la Ciutadella, not far from one entrance to which stands the unusual Arc del Triomf; Castell de Montjuïc, with its great views over the port and the city; Parc Güell, another one of Gaudí’s creations; Poble Espanyol; Aquarium; Tibidabo.
Recommended day trip: Montserrat.
Left for another visit: Hospital de Sant-Pau; Palau Reial de Pedralbes; Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat; Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar; Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
Last visit: August 2016.
Barcelona is one of those cities that enchant a visitor both with the variety of attractions and a measure of spirit not found anywhere else. Its major sights may get touristy and the overall ambience may suffer for that a bit, but there is so much to take in in this great city that a lasting image of it cannot be obscured even by the biggest tourist hordes. That lasting image would be of beauty, architectural imagination and sparkle.
Things to See
The center of the city can be largely divided into three major sightseeing areas. The Old Town is the historic city center; Eixample is where most of the Modernist delights are; and Montjuïc is a high hill with several attractions of its own.
The landing point for many a visit to Barcelona will be lively boulevard Las Ramblas ♥. Our most recent stop there disappointed us: We did not see a single live statue (nor we were able to locate the pet market that used to reside on the boulevard). It could be that we chanced into some sort of “statue strike” or that there is a more fundamental reason in play, but Ramblas lost a lot of its veneer in our eyes. It retains cafes, flower stalls, and above all crowds, but it is no longer a place to linger on.
Among the points of interest along Las Ramblas is Font de Canaletes, a small fountain that is one of the Barcelona symbols; Mercat de Sant Josep ♥, popularly known as “La Boqueria”; the opera house, Gran Teatre del Liceu; Museu de Sera, a reputedly delightful waxwork museum.
One of the liveliest and prettiest squares in the city, Plaça Reial ♥, is located just off Las Ramblas.
In the same vicinity is Palau Güell ♥♥, an early important work of Gaudí. The dark-wood paneling throughout the building makes it look less exuberant than other Gaudí creations, but it is nonetheless an impressive piece of architecture and design, capped by a delightful roof. The audio-guide is well-paced and not too overwhelming.
The Old Town of Barcelona is one of the largest in Europe, but on balance leaves lesser impression than similar districts elsewhere. Its core part, Barri Gòtic ♥♥, is a maze of streets and squares that contains the relatively compact Gothic Cathedral ♥ and a couple of impressive medieval palaces used for governmental purposes nowadays.
A major point of interest in Barri Gòtic, located on medievally narrow Carrer Montcada ♥, is Museu Picasso. Having endured a long wait to get in, I was disappointed by the collection exhibited therein. Your mileage may vary. Next to Picasso, there are a couple of lesser museums, which I never considered as possible stops on the itinerary, but you may find interesting.
There are several loosely-defined neighborhoods within the limits of the Old Town that warrant exploration. El Raval ♥, anchored by the wide Rambla de Raval, is multi-ethnic and some may even say best avoided late in the evenings. El Born ♥ is hip and happening.
The waterfront areas of Barceloneta ♥ and Port Vell ♥ are full of interesting sites, the former more quaint and historic, the latter more modern, with an IMAX and the Aquarium ♥ that surely will be of interest to kids. Monument a Colom ♥ marks the spot where Columbus stepped ashore upon his return to Spain in 1493 after having had discovered America. One can get to the viewing platform on its top, although one local warned me that the platform is really tiny and not overly enjoyable.
Almost at the foot of the monument, there moor las golondrinas ♥♥, double-decker boats which offer sightseeing trips around Barcelona’s harbor. The tours last only about half an hour (although longer tours are available as well), but they are very worthwhile for great perspectives of the city and close looks at ocean liners.
The popular Parc de la Ciutadella ♥♥ has a boating lake with an impressive ornamental cascade, but it is most importantly a relatively tranquil oasis in a bustling city. Parrots inhabit it in addition to pigeons and ducks and geese, making for interesting battles for crumbs. There are several museums located in various corners of the park, as well as the zoo (Parc Zoològic). The unusually Mudéhar Arc del Triomf ♥, erected in 1888 as the gateway to the Universal Exhibition, is worth a look.
One of the major Modernist masterpieces in town, Palau de la Musica Catalana ♥♥♥ also sits within the confines of Barri Gòtic. The guided tours are offered every half an hour, and nowadays alternate between Spanish and English, so you have plenty of opportunities to visit. The tickets occasionally can be obtained for the next departing tour (we evidenced that even during the peak tourist season), but it is advisable to buy in advance. The visit is entirely worth it.
Among other sights in the Old Town that remain to be explored by us in Barcelona are Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat and Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar.
Vast and fountain-adorned Plaça Catalunya ♥ connects Las Ramblas with Passeig de Gràcia ♥♥♥, the main artery of Eixample district. It is here that you will find the greatest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. In Catalonia that style, of course, is known as Modernisme.
Between Carrer d’Aragò and Carrer del Consell de Cent on Passeig de Gràcia sits the most famous group of Modernista buildings, Illa de la Discòrdia ♥♥♥. The three principal buildings on the block belong to three different architects and vary in outward appearance greatly, which explains their collective name. We only admired Casa Lleò Morera and Casa Amatller from outside, but went on a tour of Casa Battlò ♥♥, by Gaudí. The wavy designs with colourful mosaics are a visual feast. The audio-guide narration was slightly over the top with exuberance, but that was a tolerable negative.
A few blocks up the street, stands Gaudí’s greatest contribution to Barcelona’s civic architecture, Casa Milà ♥♥♥, more commonly known as “La Pedrera”. The building with no straight walls anywhere in its design, it is an architectural marvel of rare quality. The roof is one of its most fascinating features, where sculpted air ducts and chimneys look like some sort of an alien army.
Just a couple of blocks from here is the eclectic mixture of styles at Casa Terrades ♥. This apartment block is not open to the public, but is worth a look.
A 20-minute walk from here (or take the Metro, if you prefer), and you’ll find yourself in front of the church of Sagrada Família ♥♥♥, probably the most emblematic of Barcelona sights. The fantastic cathedral of the kind not seen anywhere in the Christendom was started by Gaudí in 1883 and its construction continues today. The star features of the church are the intricate Nativity Façade (the only part of the church fully completed at the time of Gaudí’s death in 1926), the Crypt where the architect is buried, the brilliant stained glass mosaics, and the nave where columns resemble palm trees and the ceiling looks like a tropical forest canopy. Interior of the church was completed quite recently, and it looks as bright and as magnificent as anything we could imagine while looking at the construction site incarnation of it all the years before. Additional tower construction remains a work in progress. There is a museum of the church history as well. Taking a lift up one of the towers (with subsequent descent on foot) is quite interesting, but in high season, the wait time can easily exceed 90 minutes.
Please note that in recent years, there is a cap on the number of visitors allowed to tour Sagrada Família on a given day. In peak tourist season, the tickets may be sold out before the day starts. Buy yours online at least a couple of days in advance.
Several blocks away from Sagrada Família stands another incredibly impressive Modernist masterpiece, Hospital de Sant Pau. We never managed to fit a proper visit there in any of our Barcelona itineraries, but it is certainly due a detailed look.
Quite at a distance from the city center (definitely go by Metro or taxi) is another famous Gaudí creation, a colourful and enchanting Parc Güell ♥♥♥. Among its delights is the Room of a Hundred Columns (actually, there are only 84 of the crooked pillars in this cavernous hall) and the Gran Plaça Circular, an open space with a balcony of coloured mosaics along its perimeter.
If you manage to come to Parc Güell before 7:30am, you’ll be able to share in a great sunrise spectacle with only a fraction of people that come to the park during the normal hours.
The hill of Montjuïc can be reached by a funicular from near Metro Paral-lel (the 50-second ride is quite disappointing if you expect something cool), after which various points of interest are connected by a cable car system with fantastic views over the city. Castell de Montjuïc ♥ occupies the highest point of the hill. The main attraction here are the finest views over the port, but an interesting military museum can be visited as well.
There are several other museums in the area, such as Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, located in the magnificent Palau Nacional, Fundacio Joan Miró, devoted to the famous Catalan painter, and CaixaForum, an exhibition center, none of which figured in our visits to town. Poble Espanyol ♥♥, however, provided a fascinating look into Spanish vernacular architecture styles. Many of its buildings house interesting artisan shops, so quick visit this was not.
Plaça d’Espanya ♥ is very busy with traffic, but is a grand square, with a splendid fountain, and two towers modelled after the Venetian campanile. The view between the towers towards the Palau Nacional is majestic. The square is also home to the city’s bullring, but Catalans have never taken to bullfighting much, and the arena is primarily used as a music venue. You can, however, get to the top tier of the arena for a rooftop view of the city.
Halfway between the square and the palace sits illuminated Font Màgica. This attractive fountain is only turned on in the afternoons, and it changes its shape at short intervals throughout the time it is on. It then truly comes to life in an incredible mix of colour and music for several performances after dark (Thursdays through Sundays during summertime, only weekends otherwise) ♥♥♥. It is one of the can’t-miss sights in Barcelona, although the crush of people during peak season diminishes the experience somewhat.
The highest point of Barcelona is Tibidabo ♥, which is some ways outside of city center. There is an amusement park at the top of the mountain and two very interesting churches, but most importantly, there are fantastic views over the city to be had from here.
An attraction slightly off beaten path, Parc del Laberint d’Horta is a quiet park with a British-style labyrinth as its main point of interest. It is located more than a dozen metro stops north of the city center. The park boasts several picture-worthy spots, but evokes a somewhat neglected feeling in places.
One of the most heart-warming sights in Barcelona is the Saturday folk dancing on the cathedral square ♥♥♥. A band plays Catalan tunes and the locals get in circles and dance sardana. It is not a performance dancing, but a spontaneous celebration of the native culture by everyone with a heart to dance. Most of the circles are made up of people of advanced age, but there are some youth clubs who participate as well. Because the dance is a group exercise, it is important to hold your own, and the determination of the teens to stay in rhythm and to execute seemingly simple moves flawlessly is remarkable.
Flamenco is not as big in Catalonia as it is in Andalusia, but there are several places to see it in Barcelona. Most of those offer a dinner-and-show or drinks-and-show combo which costs considerable amount per spectator. One time we decided to see a show, we opted for Los Tarantos, a tablao on Plaça Reial, which offers a 30-minute show for just €8 per person, in a theater seating with drinks completely optional. The show is billed as faithfully representative of Andalusian school of flamenco. There is a slight “it’s too short” feeling at the end of the show – and it is no less touristy than the more expensive versions – but if you don’t want to spend too much money, it is a reasonable option.
There are a couple of other attractions outside of the city center that may interest some people, namely, Camp Nou stadium and museum, home of FC Barcelona, and Palau Reial de Pedralbes, both located off Avinguda Diagonal several metro stops northwest.
Metro system in Barcelona is mostly convenient and the trains run frequently enough. Buses, trams, funiculars and cable cars provide useful connections for some harder-to-get-to points of interest, but most of the sights are within walking distance of a metro station.
Taxis a plentiful and not too expensive. Most of the trips between major points of interest (as far as Font Magica or Parc Güell) will run under €15.
Places to Eat
Los Belotta ♥♥♥, near Sagrada Família, is an excellent place, frequented by locals among a fair share of tourists, with good tapa-centric menu (champignones a la plancha are highly recommended). Great service, including indulging specific tastes of a 6-year-old child. Our damage: €53, including a bottle of wine, for 2 adults and one small child. Last visit: Summer 2016.
We also had a reasonable lunch at Café Aitor ♥, on the corner across from Sagrada Família. It specializes in pintxos – small sandwiches with a wide variety of toppings; you pay for however many you consume – usually 4-6 are enough for an adult; each costs €2. A good way to recharge. Last visit: Summer 2016.
On the fairly long stay in the city in the summer of 2011, no detailed records regarding restaurants were kept, even though there have been some good experiences along the way. Here are several names and heart ratings nonetheless: La Fonda ♥♥ and El Gran Café ♥♥ in Barri Gòtic; L’Olive ♥♥♥, close to the university and Passeig de Gracia; Luz de Gas ♥♥, the only floating café in Barceloneta harbor (don’t let the touristy feel to turn you off – tapas there were as good as anywhere else); La Xina ♥, a contemporary Chinese restaurant off Ramblas.
Señor Parellada ♥♥ is an oft-recommended eatery in El Born. All our records from the first visit in 2004 said that it was a pretty good meal. The impression was confirmed on a return visit in 2011. There is a bit of upscale pretense to the place, and the prices are towards a higher range, but the food is good and the experience is pretty nice. Last visit: Summer 2011.
Restaurant Tenorio ♥♥ sits smack in between Modernista buildings on Passeig de Gràcia. We had both a dinner and a lunch there. Strikingly modern decor and the kitchen open to the patrons’ view were a novelty to us. Very efficient service and a large menu. Not very expensive. We did not record the particulars of what we ordered, but recall that the food was excellent. Last visit: Spring 2004.
Most of the street cafés in the tourist-heavy areas of the city will offer you a middling culinary experience – and you potentially will pay comparatively too much for your meal; drinks cost exorbitant amounts of money. We tried several of the cafés on Las Ramblas (Brasil, Via70, Awaya) and one on Rambla de Raval (Fragua), all with similar results. To us, sitting down at such a place is worth it simply for the people-watching opportunities, and we do not expect food above average quality. It is important to consider getting a single bowl of sangria with two straws, not a bowl for each person (unless, of course, both of you are extreme sangria aficionados). Our damage has never been below €40, even for the smallest of selections. Last visits: Summer 2011.
Despite low expectations, Tapa Tapa on Passeig de Gràcia pleasantly surprised us with the speed of the service and quality of the food. We ordered seven different tapas, of which only one left a lot to be desired (mini entrecot – a fast-food-type piece of meat). The rest were pretty good – better than at aforementioned cafés on Las Ramblas. Our damage for a party of four: €47. We sat at a table in the open air, but the café interior looked quite interesting and original. Last visit: Summer 2008.
We also had lunch at Lonja de Tapas on Placeta Montcada. Modern interior, interesting menu, but the size of tapas portions was on a smaller side than usual, and despite overall pleasant environment, the value for money was not there. Our damage for a party of six: €90. Last visit: Summer 2009.
At La Boqueria market, not far from the entrance, there is a small bar Pinotxo ♥♥. It is frequently mentioned in the guidebooks as a cool experience. I don’t recall seeing a menu there, although I’m sure that some sort of a card exists. The proprietor, Juan, looks you in the eye and suggests a dish. You don’t decline. I was offered gambas, Natasha some fish or other – both were delicious. With only 15 or so seats, there is often a crowd waiting to get a turn. Juan is probably over 80 now, and I do not know if the bar will survive after him, but it was buzzing – and he was there – in July 2008 when we came for a look. The stall was shuttered in August 2011, the last time we came to check, but it could be due to summer vacation. Last meal: Spring 2004.
Between our several visits to Barcelona, we have never stayed at a hotel that would merit an explicit recommendation. As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless in the central areas, but keep in mind that Barcelona is vast and no single location can be considered close to all different points of interest.
If you are driving into Barcelona for a day visit, expect the type of traffic comparable with any large European city, even though the major arteries are wider and more plentiful than elsewhere. Unlike some other places, though, there is convenient underground parking in the city center. Catalunya, located at the eponymous grand plaça that connects Las Ramblas with Passeig de Gràcia, is an ideal central location for exploration in both directions. If you want to park near Sagrada Familia, there is a convenient garage on Carrer de Provença between Carrer de Padilla and Carrer de Lepant. For sights near the waterfront, there is a large B:SM car park under Passeig de Colom.
A trip to Montserrat is normally an intraday affair, while Girona and Tarragona are also reachable in a reasonable time.