I was 22 and backpacking the first time I arrived in Barcelona, groggily pulling into the bus station after an 8(ish) hour overnight ride from Paris. I was flying solo at the the time as my travel partner and I had decided to split ways between the two Spanish cities we had our hearts set on (she Madrid, I Barcelona). It was still dark and the city was sleeping when I stepped off the bus at around 5am. And I had food poisoning.
I puked at the bus station. I puked on the metro landing. I puked on the street.
When I arrived at my accommodation, I was informed that check in wasn’t until noon. So then I puked and waited in a nearby park.
And thus began my long term love affair with Spain.
There are not a lot of places in the world where one can start off with their face in a bin and end up deciding to live there for the greater part of the next decade. Spain is one of those places. And Barcelona was the start of my love affair with e-sweet España.
So without further ado (or any more puke stories), my top ten must see, must do, must get lost in spots in bewitching Barcelona:
The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca once famously said that Las Ramblas of Barcelona was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end”. Though it’s undoubtedly changed since his last visit in the early 20th century, it remains true that no trip to Barcelona is complete without a slow and meandering stroll down the world famous pedestrian road which runs from Plaça de Cataluña at the north to Port Vell and the Columbus Monument at the south.
Las Ramblas is a complete sensory overload. Vibrant reds, blues and golds spill out of artwork and flower stalls, aromas of café con leche and churros con chocolate overflow from café terraces, and street musicians pluck and pound their instruments with the chorus of caged birds for sale singing along. Crowds gather to watch performers juggle on unicycles or laugh along with the mimes. You’ll find locals and tourists alike, and ¡OJO!, pickpockets as well. Always mind your bags and pockets as you ramble along the Ramblas.
2. La Boqueria Market
One of the more charming parts of Las Ramblas is La Boqueria marketplace. Here you can find fresh fruits and veggies, fish that were swimming that very morning, patas de jamón (whole pork legs), and restaurants who cook all the fresh goodness up for you.
My favourite time to visit the market is midmorning, when the crowds are smaller and the fruit vendors are blending their sweet wares into fresh juices to appease your appetite until the 2pm Spanish lunchtime. When I’m in town, I always grab a juice and a few pieces of fruit to take along for breakfast in one of the many nearby plazas.
3. Barri Gòtic
To the east end of Las Ramblas (that’s to your right if you’re back is toward the Columbus monument at Las Ramblas) is the Gothic Quarter – a charming, bohemian, antique labyrinth rich with history, artsy cafés, eclectic shops, hidden book stalls and hip restaurants. It also happens to be my personal favourite neighborhood of the city (by far).
The Gothic Quarter is the center of the old city of Barcelona, and an ideal place to get lost, stopping to admire the street art, window shop in the boutiques or for a café con leche (or let’s be honest here, sangria) in any number or tree shaded plazas. Besides being a charming place to stroll, Barri Gòtic is also home to the enormous gothic Catedral de Barcelona, an excellent collection at the Museu Picasso (including Las Meninas), and Gaudí’s sunny, palm-lined Plaça Reial. In short, this is not an area to explore in a time crunch. Do as the Spanish do – take it slow and soak it up.
4. El Raval
Located just opposite Barri Gòtic on the other side of Las Ramblas, El Raval has a somewhat seedy reputation but has always ranked highly in my appeal. It’s a multicultural and constantly buzzing with energy. During daylight hours, Raval boasts plenty of art galleries, independent boutique shopping and lots of tasty, inexpensive cafés. When the sun goes down, however, you can catch a glimpse of the shadier side. Drug dealing, prostitution and pickpocketing aren’t uncommon in the area, so using your street smarts is your safest bet. Simply be mindful of your belongings, where you are and who’s around.
5. The Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Familia ranks among the top of must-see, best-known works of architecture worldwide. In fact, it’s the most visited monument in all of Spain. The cathedral is a stunning mixture of modern and gothic architecture, and has been under construction for over 100 years. It’s as unique as it is impressive, and for those travelling on a budget, this is absolutely a place where it’s worth it to pay the entrance fee, and even to spring for the audio guide.
It’s not just the structure. It’s the way the light falls through the crevices, the way it highlights the stained glass windows. It’s poetry in architecture. Though I’ll let your guide book provide the elongated history, know that this is the most important work of Barcelona’s beloved Anton Gaudí, modernist architect extraordinaire.
6. Gaudí Architecture
Speaking of Gaudí, he’s pretty much a big deal. Gaudí is a treasure of Cataluña, and an architectural treasure of the world. Even if you’ve never heard of him, and if you know nothing about architecture, you’ll still likely be able to pick out many of his modernist and art nouveau buildings intuitively – they’re that unique. There are multiple Gaudí works throughout the center and all are worth a peak. Even if you don’t have the time or funds to enter, you definitely want to have a look at the exteriors (by day or night, and preferably both). Do yourself a favor and make it a point to pass by – and even go inside – as many of these as you can:
- Casa Vicens
- Casa Battló (entry €23.50),
- Casa Mila (also referred to as La Pedrera, entry €20,50)
- Palau Güell (€12.00)
- Colonia Güell (entry €9.00)
7. Parc De La Ciutadella and the Arc de Triomf
A gorgeous oasis near the center of the city. The grounds are lush green, dotted with marble statues, orange blossomed trees and violet flowered bushes. On any given afternoon, you’ll find older gentlemen sitting on benches, watching the sun cross the sky. Couples leaf through books around the pond or on the lawn in the shade of trees. The park is dotted with cafes, a few lovely buildings and a beautiful fountain designed by (you guessed it) Gaudí. It’s a perfect spot to bring your bocadillo and escape from the crowds near the main tourist hotspots of the city.
As you exit, make it a point to pass through the palm lined promenade beneath the Arc de Triomf. You’ll likely find groups of skaters and cyclers using the long pedestrian area to practice jumps and tricks.
8. Parc Güell
Parc Güell (or Gaudí Park) is without a doubt my favourite part of Barcelona. Designed (of course) by Gaudí with all the whimsy and wonder one can expect of him, the atmosphere gives you the sensation that you’re visiting the setting of a Dr. Seuss book. Archways twist and turn above pathways and benches of brightly colored mosaic tiles add splashes of colors.
If at all possible, visit on a weekend afternoon, when you’ll be able to soak up the atmosphere at its finest – families picnicking, buskers busking, free spirits playing music and young people dancing and flirting. The main terrace (with the large mosaic lizard) will provide you with enough people watching to keep you entertained all afternoon. It’s a bit far to walk from the center if your time is limited, but you can easily hop on the green line of the metro and take the Parc Güell exit (€7 entrance).
It’s true that the best beaches are outside of the city, but let’s face it… you’re on the Mediterranean coast… you can and you will go to the beach. Barcoleneta is the nearest to the touristic part of town, located just behind Port Vell and the Columbus Monument. Gold sand and impressively clean for a city beach, it’s a great place to siesta your way through the little buzz you got off all those lunch time sangrias.
10. FC Barcelona museum & Camp Nou
I mean, it’s the best football (e.g.: soccer) team in the world. The only reason it places down at numero 10 is because, let’s be honest, if you love football it’s already on your list, and if you don’t love it you’d never go anyway. Catch a game if possible, but if you visit off season you can check out the stadium on a guided tour. Arriba FCB!
For those preparing for your first Barcelona getaway – enjoy!
For those who’ve already been – what are your favorite sights and barrios? Have I left any off the list? Comment your suggestions below!
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