For years I've been hearing how wonderful Barcelona is but it wasn't until this year that I visited the capital of Catalan Spain for myself. I had three days in the city and was determined to make the most of my time there. These are my recommendations of the essential things to see and do in Barcelona.
Waterfront / Barceloneta
Barcelona’s beachside suburb of Barceloneta is a bustling strip of cafes and restaurants and home to one of the city’s most popular beaches. Once a seedy part of town, the area was revamped for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as this area housed the athletes village and it’s now one of the most modern.
Barceloneta is popular with families and caters to them well, with the numerous cafes offering dining experiences to suit all budgets with seafood a popular choice. The wide, sandy beach offers the perfect excuse to dip your toe in the Mediterranean.
Gothic Quarter / Barcelona Cathedral
A jumble of narrow streets with the shadow of Barcelona Cathedral above them, the Gothic Quarter is one of Barcelona’s liveliest areas. The Cathedral itself, although not as famous as Sagrada Familia, is well worth a visit. Take the lift to the rooftop for great views over the city.
A busy shopping precinct just a few blocks from La Rambla, the Gothic Quarter is a good place to enjoy a plate of paella. You’ll be dining with the locals if you choose to eat late.
La Rambla / La Boqueria Market
No visit to Barcelona is complete without a walk along La Rambla, a wide walkway in the middle of one of the city’s busiest streets. Day and night you’ll find street vendors selling their wares and buskers entertaining the crowds.
It’s shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists and locals and it pays to keep your wits about you as La Rambla is also popular with beggars and pick-pockets.
Like to take a day trip out of the city? A tour from Barcelona to Montserrat is highly recommended.
One of La Rambla’s star attractions is La Boqueria Market. An undercover market that’s been operating since 1840, the market is the city’s main food market. Here you’ll find the freshest of produce displayed like works of art. The freshly squeezed juices were to-die for and the strawberries amongst the tastiest I’ve ever eaten.
As well as fruit and vegetables you can buy meat, fish, bread, cheese, nuts, lollies and much more.
TIP: Don’t buy from the stalls at the entrance to the market until you’ve checked out their competitors. Prices at the front stalls are almost always higher - in some cases, double - than those of similar stalls within the market.
If you don’t know who Antoni Gaudi is before you get to Barcelona you’ll definitely know who he is by the time you leave. References and legacies of the architect’s work are all over the city and I’d guess the fair majority of visitors would visit at least one of the buildings Gaudi designed. Two such buildings are La Pedrera and Casa Batllo and both are easily recognised by their unusual facades.
We visited La Pedrera, only because it was slightly closer to our hotel than Casa Battlo, and enjoyed our visit (with audio-guide) to this whimsical house. Built as an apartment block, the wavy facade and rooftop sculptures are typical of Gaudi's designs. He loved nature and movement and tried to make his buildings look as natural as possible.
Another of Gaudi’s designs, the park was commissioned as a stylish housing site for Barcelona’s aristocracy but when it didn’t take off, it was later made into a municipal garden. Gaudi himself lived in the park for twenty years and his house is now a museum.
A large green space, the park consists of gardens with many different buildings and structures throughout. Most famous are the dragon and the curved seat, both made of brightly coloured mosaics and both located in what is known as the Monumental area.
TIP: Entry to the main park is free but tickets to enter the Monumental area are sold (€7 per adult) for particular time slots as only a certain number of guests are allowed to enter each 30 minutes.
Buy your ticket as soon as you arrive at Parc Güell as your allocated time for the Monuments area may not be for another hour or two, giving you time to explore the rest of the park whilst waiting for your designated entrance time.
Without a doubt the most famous of Gaudi’s buildings, the amazing Sagrada Familia church is still under construction today, 130 years after work commenced. Crowds flock to the church every day making the queues to get inside very long but if the outside takes your breath away, just wait until you go inside. You can read more about my visit to the Sagrada Familia and see photos of both the interior and exterior here.
TIP: I highly recommend you pre-book a skip the line ticket to the Sagrada Familia* to save long waiting times. Our tickets included a 1.5 hour guided tour which was very informative and I’d definitely choose this option again.
Avinguda de Gaudi
Running past the Sagrada Familia towards the Hospital Sant Pau (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is Avinguda de Gaudi. Another wide street with a tree-lined pedestrian walkway down the centre, Avenue Gaudi is lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. Its relaxed feel, despite being just a few hundred metres from Barcelona’s busiest tourist attraction, made it the perfect place to enjoy lunch before our visit to the church.
Barcelona Hop On Hop Off Bus
A great way to get around Barcelona is by the Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) bus operated by Barcelona Tour*. There are two different routes - East/West and North/South - which cover most of Barcelona's attractions and your ticket is valid on both routes. We used the HOHO bus to get to Parc Guell (East/West route) which is some distance from the Las Ramblas/Placa de Catalunya area.
On the day we were due to leave Barcelona a train strike meant our departure was to be delayed until mid afternoon so we bought another ticket for the North/South HOHO bus route and saw some new sights.
If you're unlikely to visit Barcelona again .....
Just in case this was to be my only visit to Barcelona (I hope not!), I decided to buy tickets for a traditional Spanish Flamenco Show and dinner*. The ticket price included a buffet dinner with a huge selection of dishes, and unlimited drinks including beer, wine and sangria. This was followed by a Flamenco performance that lasted about 90 minutes. Whilst I enjoyed the show and am glad that I saw it, I probably wouldn’t go again.
Day trips from Barcelona
Have more time but would like to get out of the city for a day? One of the most popular excurions is the Montserrat, day trip from Barcelona.
Where to Eat in Barcelona:
Cafe De La Pedrera, Passeig de Gracia 92, 08008 Barcelona. After our visit to La Pedrera we enjoyed a delicious brunch at Cafe De La Pedrera at street level below the museum. Consisting of home made muesli and home made yoghurt with jam, a croissant, freshly squeezed orange juice and a cappuccino, it really hit the spot. The cafe is open every day until late.
Where to stay in Barcelona:
We stayed at Hotel Condes, Passeig de Gracia 73, 08008 Barcelona. The modern 4-star hotel was perfect for our stay. Although located on a busy main street the rooms were quiet. Room facilities included tea/coffee making provisions, fridge, free WiFi, TV and safe. Our room had a small balcony overlooking the backyard of an apartment block next door.
The hotel has a rooftop pool (small) and spa and bar with great views of Barcelona including the Sagrada Familia. Staff were very friendly and helpful. Breakfast was buffet style with plenty of options but was pricey at €20 per person. Barcelona Sants station was a €10 taxi ride away.
Have I missed any essential things to see and do in Barcelona ? Tell me what else should be included in this list in the comments below.