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 spent here. Here are a few of the highlights and recommendations (including some of the sights we didn’t have time to get to ourselves!)
First off, 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 Coles Notes exposure you need. Barcelona has a lot to see, and while they have an excellent public transportation system, you might feel more at ease just taking a Hop On Hop Off bus.
Start your first day in Barcelona with churros and chocolate. This sweet delicacy will give you that boost of energy you’ll need to explore the city. It’s basically like dipping a crispy doughnut into warm chocolate pudding. My favourite churros lean slightly towards the salty side rather than sweet, which complement the sweet rich chocolate.
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).
Antoni Gaudi designed the Sagrada Familia, and it is a jewel in the crown of Barcelona. It’s a wonderful combination of architecture, art, whimsy, fantasy, and faith:
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!
Better yet, purchase your tickets online in advance to avoid long queues. Admission tickets for the cathedral can be purchased in advance here. Entries are “timed” but you can stay as long as you want.
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 original 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 looking for something a little more leisurely, head south-east-ish from the Sagrada Familia 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!
Spain has amazing food, and for your first night here I would 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 second 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 Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (or just ask for La Boqueria – the locals will know what you’re talking about!), 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.
It’s always tough for me to restrain myself here, as I want to try a little bit of everything!
La Boqueria is conveniently 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’ve 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!)
A couple of museums line La Rambla as well. For something different, check out:
If you continue heading south, you’ll hit the end of La Rambla and reach the marina, punctuated by the Christopher Colombus monument, also called Mirador de Colom.
Despite being a rather slender-looking column, you can actually go inside and go up to its observation deck. Unfortunately, you won’t get a great view as you’re stuck behind small windows, not out in the open. There are many better places to get a great view of the city, such as the Sagrada Familia’s tower.
If you continue towards the port, you’ll come across a cool boardwalk/bridge leading to the Maremagnum shopping mall, and beside that, the Aquarium Barcelona. We found it a bit pricey for what it has, but I did love watching the octopus and cuttlefish. There’s also a moving sidewalk that takes you through a clear tunnel so you can view the sharks, sunfish and other amazing creatures with that “under the sea” perspective.
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:
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 is right up your alley. 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.
Today, head over to Montjuic Park, in the southwest part of the city. Montjuic mountain has so much to offer, you could spend the entire day here and still not see everything.
Along with great views of Barcelona from the summit, you’ll find numerous museums, and the beautiful “Magic Fountain,” which offers an amazing light and water show set to music in the evenings. The National Palace, home to the MNAC Museum (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya), is in the background:
Montjuic also boasts the Montjuic Olympic Park and Stadium, a botanical garden, Montjuic Castle, Plaça d’Espanya (Spain Square), the CaixaForum, several museums, a funicular, a cable car, and more.
If you’re more of 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:
If you fancy a boat ride on your last day in Barcelona, there are several to choose from here. Tours vary in length and price, but typically last between 40 minutes to an hour and a half. Just be aware that many of them take you around the industrial side of the marina, so it’s not the most picturesque view. But it is a great way to beat the heat and see a bit of the city from a different perspective. (That’s the Maremagnum shopping mall in the background, with the Aquarium Barcelona behind it).
When the sun goes down, go for a stroll around the Port Vell harbour area. The Port of Barcelona building looks beautiful at night.
For supper, try a hearty dish of paella and a nice cava; a Spanish sparkling wine:
To sum up, three days obviously isn’t enough time 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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