When Mark and I added Barcelona to our France and England trip itinerary, it was only meant to be a way to mark Spain off our country list. We didn’t expect it to be as incredible as it was. Instantly, we realized that using Barcelona as a “map-pin stopover” was doing it a disservice. This is a city that deserves to be given due time to explore all its offerings. Still, we managed to cover a lot of ground in the three days we had, before taking the train up through the South of France. Here are a few of the highlights and recommendations (including some of the sights we didn’t have time to get to ourselves!)
Depending on your preferred style of travel, you may find a city card beneficial. Barcelona offers a tourist card for 3, 4 or 5 days called the Barcelona Card. It includes free public transportation, free admission into 25 sights, and reduced admission into 85 others.
I don’t usually recommend Hop On Hop Off bus tours, as they can be touch-and-go quality-wise. (Don’t get me started on Brussels!) But, when you have limited time in a new city, sometimes a quick and dirty bus tour gets you the exposure you need. Barcelona has a lot to see, and while they have a good transportation system, you might feel more at ease just taking a Hop On Hop Off bus.
This is probably as good a day as any to visit the Sagrada Familia, or Church of the Holy Family – one of the most famous buildings in Barcelona. (Some of the Hop On Hop Off bus tours even include a “skip the line” ticket to the Sagrada Familia). If you plan to visit the Sagrada Familia, I highly recommend getting there at least an hour before the cathedral opens. It gets extremely busy, especially once the tour buses start pulling up!
If you get here early enough, you can grab a coffee and a pastry at a nearby cafe first. This way you’ll already be close by and you won’t need to rush. Admission tickets for the cathedral can be purchased in advance here. (It might be a good idea to get them in advance, especially if you plan to visit during high season.)
The Sagrada Familia was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and is a jewel in the crown of Barcelona. It’s a wonderful combination of architecture, art, whimsy, fantasy, and faith:
Do make sure to climb to the top of the cathedral, as the views of the city are so lovely! You can read more about our visit to the Sagrada Familia here.
Getting There: The Sagrada Familia Official Website has detailed info on how to get here.
If you fall in love with Gaudi’s style (and I’m sure you will!) there are several other Gaudi-designed attractions around the city. You can make an entire day of it! Here is a quick list of his other designs in Barcelona. Many of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Casa Vicens – this residential house was Gaudi’s first major work.
- Casa Batlló – a residence built for a wealthy industrialist
- Palau Güell – this was the first project – a private residence – Gaudi completed for Count Eusebio Güell, a wealthy Spanish entrepreneur. Güell became a patron and good friend to Gaudi, and commissioned him to design and build several projects.
- Park Güell – Originally Count Güell intended this area as an estate for the rich, but the idea never got off the ground commercially. Only two houses were built on the site. After Güell had trouble selling one of the houses, originally a show home, Gaudi and his family moved into it until his death in 1926. His home is now the Gaudi House Museum. The area became a public city garden in 1926, and is full of stone sculptures and interesting designs.
- Güell Pavilions – this is a complex of several buildings including a stable, a horse training ring, and gatehouses. Despite also once being owned by Count Güell, the pavilions is about 5 km away from the park, in the Pedralbes neighborhood of Barcelona.
- Casa Calvet – a five-story house commissioned by a textile manufacturer.
- Casa Milà – this was the last private residence Gaudi designed.
If you’re a beach lover, Barcelona has a lovely stretch of sand waiting for you:
It’s especially nice to come here either first thing in the morning to watch the sun come up, or in the evening to watch the sunset:
Spain has amazing food, and for your first night here I would probably recommend finding a tapas bar to get a good sampling of the local fare. Wash it down with a nice, cold glass of fruity sangria!
Start your day off at a local market and pick up some fresh fruit or other goodies. I love going to markets in a new city, as I feel it really gives you a taste of the local culture and vibe. I would personally recommend stopping at La Boqueria, a large public market in the Ciudad Vieja district.
The market offers every kind of local food specialty you can imagine, from fresh fish to fruits and vegetables and everything in between. Market hours are Monday – Saturday: 08:00 – 20:30.
La Boqueria is located just off of La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous shopping and dining street. Exploring this area makes for an easy, yet fully-packed day, as La Rambla has a lot to offer once you’re done at the market.
La Rambla runs for approximately 1.2km, and stretches between Plaça de Catalunya (Catalonia Square) and the Christopher Columbus Monument. This is a great spot for people-watching, shopping, and grabbing some gelato:
The street gets extremely crowded, especially during the busy tourist season. This can make the area a bit of a haven for pickpockets, but we never had any issues. Take reasonable precautions and remain alert, and you’ll be totally fine wandering up and down this fun stretch of Barcelona. It’s worth checking out just for the street performers alone. Some of them are laughably bad (we saw one guy who was just folded up into a spray-painted cardboard box, and that was his whole schtick!) but others, like this fellow, can be positively mesmerizing! (Yes, he’s working with a glass orb, just like David Bowie in Labyrinth!)
If you want to explore more of the area, head over to the Gothic Quarter, which starts on the northerly side of La Rambla. This neighborhood used to be the Roman village, and still maintains it’s narrow, winding streets.
The Gothic Quarter has some great shops and restaurants, not to mention nightlife. For sights, this area has an eclectic mix, to put it mildly. Just a few of the attractions here include:
- The Barcelona Cathedral
- Museum of the History of Barcelona
- Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum
- Erotic Museum of Barcelona
- Cera Museum (a wax museum)
- Barcelona Aquarium
One cool way to see the city is by renting a bike. There are several different bike rental companies around the city, so you have plenty of options at your disposal. Some offer bike tours, or you can just rent the bikes to go exploring on your own. You can find a list of bike rental companies here.
If you like museums, Barcelona will hold your attention for a long time. Whether you prefer archaeology, contemporary art or sculpture, there’s something for everyone here. Along with the museums in the Gothic Quarter mentioned earlier, a longer list of museums in and around Barcelona can be found here.
If you’re looking for something a little more leisurely, head over to Parc de la Ciutadella (Ciutadella Park). There’s a lot to see here, including the Catalan Parliament, Museum of Modern Art, the Geological Museum, the Barcelona Zoo, and the Zoological Museum.
In 1714, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona was under siege for 13 months. After the city fell, Philip V of Spain built a citadel on this spot to maintain control of the Catalans and to prevent an uprising. In the mid-1800s, the citadel was destroyed and the land turned back over to the city. An architect named Josep Fontsére turned the space into a park in 1872.
In 1888 the World Fair opened here. The Arc de Triomf was originally the fair’s main access gate. It now marks the north entrance of the park:
La Cascada is the primary fountain in the park. Fontsére designed the fountain with assistance from a young Antoni Gaudi.
It’s design was loosely based on the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The center of the fountain is a statue of Venus in a clamshell.
While at the park, you can rent a boat in half-hour increments and row around the lake, which is a lovely way to enjoy the sunshine and get a break from the crowds.
If you look around you might even spy a turtle or two!
For supper, try a hearty dish of paella and a nice cava; a Spanish sparkling wine:
When the sun goes down, go for a stroll around the Port Vell harbour area. The Port of Barcelona building looks beautiful at night:
If you fancy a boat ride on your last night in Barcelona, there are several to choose from here.
Three days isn’t enough to fully explore Barcelona. But with a little bit of planning, you can soak up a great deal of the culture, and determine how long your second visit should be!
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