I won’t be the first nor the last to tell you that Barcelona is the ultimate city break destination. In fact, it’s perhaps been said too many times before. Not surprising, when you consider all that the Catalan capital has to offer. Narrow medieval streets, grand avenues lined with modernist architecture, hilltop parks and a beautiful beachfront. Oh and let’s not forget the brilliant local cuisine and Mediterranean climate. Is there anything not to like about this incredible seaside city?
Barcelona was for a brief period my home, when I studied there in a distant past. Since then, the city has changed drastically. It has become a magnet for tourists, facilitated by the rise of budget airlines and online apartment-sharing platforms. Given its broad appeal, it’s not difficult to see why 30 million tourists visit this city of 1.6 million inhabitants every year. The impact of that can be felt, especially among the city’s middle and lower class residents.
Today, Barcelona hardly knows such a thing as low season. However, crowds tend to be smaller during the winter months. Go during March-April or October-November and you’ll even have a reasonable chance of nice, sunny weather. What’s more, it’s not all that difficult to escape the crowds. Barcelona still has plenty of lesser-known neighbourhoods that are worth discovering. Come here with an open mind and a respectful attitude towards locals and their history, and you’ll encounter a proudly Catalan city that will welcome you with open arms. Here are 10 unmissable experiences that make Barcelona:
- Get lost in the alleys of Barri Gòtic
- Admire Modernist marvels
- Go crazy on Catalan tapas
- Sunbathe at Barcelona’s beachfront
- Climb Montjuïc (or take a cable car)
- Visit iconic museums
- Sip vermouth in El Borne and El Raval
- Enjoy breath-taking views from Tibidabo
- Discover the squares of lesser-known Gràcia and Sàrria
- Escape the city
Get lost in the alleys of Barri Gòtic
This is where it all began some 2,000 years ago. The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic in Catalan) is one of Barcelona’s oldest neighbourhoods. Built on top of the city’s Roman foundations, it was once a thriving medieval centre. Although large parts were reconstructed centuries later, that medieval spirit can still be felt. Take any street just north of the busy Ramblas – a string of promenades – and you’ll find a web of narrow alleys.
Famous landmarks here include Barcelona’s Cathedral, the Palau de la Generalitat (seat of the Catalan government) and Bishop’s Bridge. The latter connects two buildings on opposite sides of an alleyway. It may look centuries old but was actually built in 1928. Another architectural highlight of the area is the charming Plaça Reial, a Spanish-style square lined with arches and cafes. All of these places tend to get very busy but take a few turns and you will often find yourself in a surprisingly quiet street. As so often, the best way to explore Barri Gòtic is simply by getting lost!
Admire Modernist marvels
Ask any tourist what they’re planning to see in Barcelona and 9 out of 10 times you will hear the same answer: La Sagrada Família, the out-of-this-world church that has been under construction since 1882. After all, this is the ultimate example of Modernist architecture, which has come to define the city. Modernism gained popularity in the late 1800s and is characterised by its curved shapes and highly decorative style, inspired by nature.
Many of Barcelona’s most striking Modernist buildings can be found in Eixample, a 19th century district with straight avenues lined with trees and wide pavements. Famous examples include Casa Batlló and Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera, or the Stone Quarry). Like La Sagrada Família, they were the brainchild of Catalan architect Antoní Gaudí. Another thing all three buildings have in common: the endless lines of visitors queuing to get in, any day of the year. The same goes for Park Güell (pronounced ‘Guey’), the iconic hilltop park, also designed by Gaudí.
The rooftop at La Pedrera gives you an insight into Gaudí’s creative brain
There are, however, plenty of other modernist buildings in Barcelona that attract noticeably fewer tourists. For instance, a few hundred meters from La Sagrada Família lies the beautiful Hospital de Sant Pau. Located at the end of a leafy promenade, this former hospital is now a cultural centre. It’s really worth a visit, if only to escape the crowds. Other – slightly quieter – Modernist marvels include the gorgeous Palau de la Musica Catalana (in Barri Gòtic), Casa Calvet, Casa Lleo Morera and Casa Amatller (all in Eixample) as well as Casa Vicens (in Gràcia).
Go crazy on Catalan tapas
Say Spain, say tapas. Barcelona is no different. The city is full of bars that offer an array of mouth-watering small dishes to order with your drink. Of course, you could go for the Spanish classics, such as tortilla de patatas and jamón. But now that you’re here, why not try some Catalan tapas? The most famous regional tapas include patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a spicy garlic sauce), bunyols (cod fritters) and botifarra (Catalan sausage). Other local dishes are esqueixada (cod salad), mandonguilles amb sípia (meatballs with cuttlefish) and escalivada (grilled vegetables). Ah, and do try La Bomba, a giant meat and potato croquette served with brava sauce. And when you’re ready for dessert, order crema catalana. It’s basically crème brûlée but better (well, according to Catalans, that is).
The foodie epicentre of Barcelona is La Boqueria. Sadly, though, this large market hall is now attracting such vast crowds that it has lost some of its authentic charm.
Luckily, great tapas can be found across town. I remember frequenting El Xampanyet, a tiny traditional bar serving cava (Catalan sparkling wine) with cured meat and other tapas. Back in the day it could get very busy and I suspect things are no different now. But the atmosphere is one of a kind. Leave the tourist trail behind, though, and you’ll find countless quieter bars and restaurants with great tapas.
For a contemporary, high-end take on Catalan tapas, book a table at restaurant Tickets or Bodega 1900. Both are owned by Albert Adrià, who rose to culinary fame when running elBulli with his brother Ferran. At Tickets and Bodega 1900 he’s showcasing a similarly innovative approach to Catalan food. Eating here is a real experience (check out the Chef’s Table episode about Albert Adrià on Netflix for a taster!).
Sunbathe at Barcelona’s beachfront
There’s no denying that part of Barcelona’s appeal is the fact that it’s a seaside city. No surprise, then, that the beachfront neighbourhood of Barceloneta has become such a popular spot to visit. Once inhabited by poor fishermen and their families, Barceloneta is still very much a working class district. But times are changing. Ever since the nearby beach was cleaned up for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Barceloneta has seen increasing numbers of visitors. Now, it’s home to many bars and restaurants, although it hasn’t yet completely lost its working class charm.
Barcelona’s Old Harbour, near Barceloneta
That the 1992 Olympics completely transformed parts of the city can be seen a bit further north of Barceloneta. The seaside area around Port Olímpic was once a rundown industrial neighbourhood. Now it’s a modern district with reclaimed beaches and high-end buildings. It’s the ideal spot to soak up some sun and contemporary architecture.
Climb Montjuïc (or take the cable car)
You could easily spend an entire day on Montjuïc, the hill on the southern edge of Barcelona’s city centre. In the Middle Ages, there used to be a Jewish cemetery here. Hence the name – Montjuïc means Jewish Mountain. These days, there’s a range of top-notch attractions that make this place more than worth a visit.
The main gateway to Monjuïc is the busy Plaça de Espanya roundabout. There, an avenue flanked by two Venetian-style towers leads up to the foot of the hill. This site formed the backdrop of the 1929 International Exposition and many of the buildings here date back to that event. Such as the imposing Palau Nacional, which now houses the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Or the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, which formed part of the German section of the Exposition.
On the other side of the Palau Nacional are a number of Olympic structures, including the Olympic Stadium and swimming and diving pools. If you’re looking to cool down on a hot summer day, take a plunge in one of these amazing pools!
Continue your hike up and Montjuïc becomes greener and quieter. On the other side of the hill you’ll find Castell de Montjuïc. This 17th century fortress offers great views of the city and the sea. Too tired to walk all the way back? A cable car and funicular take you back to downtown Barcelona in no time!
Visit iconic museums
A rainy day in Barcelona? Trust me, those do exist. But not to worry, there’s plenty to do even when it’s pouring down. Check out one of the city’s world class museums, for instance. If you’re into modern art, make sure to visit the Museu Picasso. This small museum in old town Barcelona showcases many earlier works of the Spain’s most famous cubist painter.
One of the most famous Catalan artists of the 20th century was Joan Miró. A Barcelona native, his paintings and sculptures in Surrealist style received global acclaim. Some of his most iconic works are on display in the Fundació Miró on Montjuīc.
If contemporary art is more your thing, then head to MACBA. Based in a striking white building in the heart of working class neighbourhood El Raval, it exhibits works from Catalan, Spanish and international artists.
Off-the-beaten-track but worth a detour for those with a curious mind is CosmoCaixa. This science museum is great fun for people of all ages. CosmoCaixa lies in the neighbourhood of Sant Gervasi, but can easily be combined with a visit to nearby Tibidabo (see below).
Sip vermouth in El Born and El Raval
Vermouth has been making a comeback across Spain. Once regarded as old fashioned, Mediterranean millennials have put this drink back on the menu. I for one, couldn’t get enough of it during my most recent trip to Barcelona.
Vermouth is a fortified white wine infused with herbs and spices, which give the drink its dark colour. Ever since the Italians introduced it in Catalonia, locals have been making their own vermút. It’s usually served on the rocks with a slice of orange or an olive, but you can also add lightly sparkling water. It’s the perfect aperitivo drink before dinner. Or as the Spanish say: ‘La Hora del Vermút’ (‘the vermouth hour’).
Vermouth has never really gone out of fashion in traditional bars across Barcelona. But many new bars in neighbourhoods such as El Born and El Raval have been breathing new life into the tradition. The cobblestone street of Passeig del Born – in de shadow of the impressive Basílica de Santa María del Mar – is filled with small bars and cafes that liven up at night. Cozy Bar el Born, for instance, serves great vermouth and so does nearby Bormuth.
In El Raval there are dozens of great, unassuming bars that have been serving vermouth for ages. Such as Casa Almirall or Bodega d’en Rubén. Rustic L’Ovella Negra is popular (and legendary) among a younger, local crowd although it’s perhaps more famous for its jars of sangria than its vermouth. One of my favourite new discoveries on my last trip to Barcelona was El Jardí. This small outdoor bar and restaurant is located in an old garden (Jardins de Rubió i Lluch) in the heart of El Raval. Perfect for al fresco vermouth-sippin’!
Enjoy breath-taking views from Tibidabo
As far as panoramic city views go, it doesn’t get much better than Tibidabo, This mountain peak in the north of the city is Barcelona’s highest point. It may be a bit offroute for some, but a trip to the summit will be rewarded with the most spectacular views of Barcelona.
To get there, take the L7 underground line to Avinguda de Tibidabo. From there it’s a 15-minute walk (or a 5-minute tourist tram ride) to Plaça de del Funicular. The privately-run cable car that departs from here will bring you to the top of the mountain within a couple of minutes. Although they’re currently renovating the funicular, it’s supposed to be back in service in March 2020.
The best views from Tibidabo are to be had from the terrace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus church (Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor). The church is situated next to a somewhat outdated theme park. If you don’t fancy a ride in the ferry wheel, you could opt to go for a hike in the surrounding hills. Amazing views guaranteed either way.
Discover the squares of lesser-known Gràcia and Sàrria
Barcelona still has plenty of lesser-known areas. Take Gràcia, for example. Although it’s not far from Park Güell, it can feel surprisingly quiet here compared to the rest of the city. Yes, increasing numbers of tourists are discovering this neighbourhood, but it has managed to retain its relaxed village vibes until now. One of the loveliest corners is Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia. Dominated by a 19th century clocktower, this beautiful square is lined with cafes and terraces. There’s still a very strong local community feel here. Nearby Plaça de la Revolució is equally appealing.
Does this taste of more? Then you should definitely explore Sàrria. Like Gràcia, Sàrria once used to be a suburban village. Despite the fact that it’s been swallowed by the big city, it still has the quaint atmosphere of the past. Plaça de Sàrria is a peaceful little square flanked by a baroque church and a couple of restaurants. A few streets down is the intimate Plaça de Sant Vicenç. Covered by trees, this is a true oasis in the city.
Escape the city
Barcelona is located at the heart of Catalonia. And with great public transport links it’s easy to escape the city and explore some of the rest of this autonomous region. There’s something for every type of traveller. If you’re looking for sunshine and beach vibes, jump on a train to Sitges. This whitewashed (gay-friendly) seaside town is only a 45-minute train ride away from central Barcelona.
Perhaps less sexy, but all the more fascinating is a visit to the Monastery of Montserrat. Catalonia’s holiest site is situated on top of a mountain, squeezed in between the rocks. Despite its seemingly impossible location, Montserrat is actually quite easy to reach. The R5 train will bring you in one hour from Plaça d’Espanya to Aeri de Montserrat. From there, you can take the cable car to the monastery. You will (quite literally) be in high spirits in this place.
You could of course get high without having to ascend. The Catalans do some serious winemaking and there are several wineries that organise visits and wine-tastings. The most famous of them all is Freixenet. The bodegas of this producer of cava (Catalan sparkling wine) are right next to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia station. Take the direct R5 train from Plaça Catalunya and you’ll get there in 50 minutes.
Finally, for those flying to or from Girona (a Ryanair base), I can highly recommend a visit to the historic heart of this beautiful city. With stunning medieval architecture, a beautiful riverfront and great food, Girona deserves more than just a quick visit. So why not prolong your holiday and stay here for a couple of days? Life’s for exploring after all…
Barcelona’s best… (IMHO):
- Vistas: from Tibidabo
- Aperitivo: anywhere on or around Passeig del Born
- Hidden garden terrace: Bar El Jardí (El Raval)
- Avant garde tapas: Tickets and Bodega 1900
- Swimming pool: the Olympic pools on Montjuïc (there are two Olympic swimming pool complexes on the hill)
- City escape: Montserrat
Good to know:
Getting to/from: metro line L9 Sud runs from Terminal 1 and 2 of El Prat airport to Zona Universitària in central Barcelona in a bit more than 30 minutes. The L9 connects to metro lines L1, L3 and L5. A single ticket from the airport costs €4.60. From Terminal 2 there’s also a train connection to central Barcelona. Regional train line R2 stops at Barcelona Sants and Passeig de Gràcia. Alternatively, you could take the express Aerobus A1 or A2, which leaves from Terminal 1 and 2 respectively and stops at Plaça d’Espanya (in front of Creu Coberta) and Plaça Catalunya (in front of El Corte Inglés). Busses depart every 5-10 minutes and a single ticket costs €5.90. From Girona Airport it’s a 75-minute ride to Barcelona with bus line 604, which charges €16.00 one way.
Getting around: Barcelona has an extensive public transport network. There are eight metro lines (operated by TMB) and three light rail lines (operated by FGC). Most tickets are valid on the city’s entire public transport network, including busses. Some of the privately run cable cars require a separate ticket.
Currency: As an EU and Eurozone member, Spain uses the Euro
Language: Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. It not only enjoys a great degree of political autonomy, but also has its own customs and language. Alongside Spanish, Catalan is the official language. It combines French and Spanish influences and is widely spoken across Barcelona.
Water: like in any other European country, tap water is perfectly drinkable (although it might taste a tiny bit of chlorine)
Best time to travel: if you want to avoid the largest crowds, visit Barcelona during winter. March-April and October-November are not as busy as summer whilst still providing a fair chance of nice, sunny weather