Our local expert in Barcelona shares her favorites for Gaudí architecture, Catalan cuisine, chic fashion, hot hotels and cool modern art.
The big must-see cities of Europe today are Paris, London, Rome, Berlin and Barcelona. It wasn’t always this way, and in the last 30 years Barcelona has really morphed and put on a new cutting-edge look. After a huge clean up for the 1992 Summer Olympics, the Catalan capital has exponentially improved year after year.
Visitors come to Barcelona for three main reasons: Gaudí or modernista architecture, the Mediterranean climate, and fabulous food and wine. These were the reasons I chose Barcelona over Madrid when I moved here three years ago. I wanted to live by the sea, sip Penedès while eating Manchego cheese and peruse the city’s galleries. I got all of this upon arrival, and a whole lot more.
Barcelona has many layers, as does Spain in general. At first glance there’s so much eye candy and bustle in Barcelona that it’s impossible to take it all in. Three years later, I still walk down familiar streets and stop to marvel at some statue or gargoyle that I had somehow missed on all my previous strolls. Barcelona is a city full of intricate surprises and delicate details.
Barcelona’s must-sees are covered by most guidebooks, but if your time is limited I recommend seeing a bit of Gaudí, a bit of Ciutat Vella, one or two museums, and Gracia. Choosing which Gaudí building to see is a hard one, but I favor the famous cathedral Sagrada Familia and Parque Güell. The Gaudí cathedral is unfinished and probably always will be, but it’s such a weird structure that not seeing it would be essentially not seeing Barcelona.
Parque Güell is big and beautiful with expansive views of Barcelona and the sea, giving visitors an idea of how compact the city is.
Cuitat Vella is the old city where the streets are made of cobblestones and the Roman wall is still visible. There are tons of art museums in the city, but my faves are the stylish Fundació Joan Miró (€8/$10) and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (€8.50/$10.60), both located on the mini-mountain Montjuïc. While the lines are long at the Museu Picasso, it’s not worth the wait or even as close to as complete as the Miró and MNAC museums.
After seeing the musts, take some time to check out parts of Barcelona that most people miss. There are two worlds orbiting separate from each other in Barcelona, that of the tourist and that of the Barcelonese. If you’re ready to jump into a more local realm, get on the metro (subway) and head to Gracia. Get off at the Fontana metro stop, where you’ll step into a completely different Barcelona. In Gracia, explore Verdi Street and its crêpe stands, boutiques and theaters. This neighborhood is known for being hip and packed with joyful plazas, the most famous of which is Plaza del Sol where folks gather to drink wine and play music. Try a Spanish indie film at the Verdi Cinemas or have wine and tapas at the cozy SMS Delicies bar (Calle Asturies 33, tel. + 93-217-9547). While there are plenty of foreigners and Catalans in Gracia, there aren’t any tourists here. Do as the locals do.
When friends come to visit me in Barcelona I don’t take them sightseeing—I take them to a concert. Catalans love music of all kinds and so it’s not at all surprising that Barcelona has an overwhelmingly full music scene throughout the year. I like to take my guests to the Palau de la Música Catalana (€20/$25 and up) because it’s an intimate theater and also one of the best examples of modernista architecture in the city. There are only two ways to get into the Palau: go on the tour or go to a concert. Clearly the concert is a better option and tickets for most shows are reasonable. For an authentic Catalan experience, book a couple seats for a night out at the Palau during your Barcelona visit. Tickets can also be purchased at the Palau’s ticket counter in the morning.
The only experience that is perhaps more Barcelonese than an evening of Palau and tapas would be to go to a Barça football game at the city stadium. If you’re in town when the beloved team plays at home, don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience to shout and boo with the rest of the fans. Barça is one of the best football (soccer) teams in Europe (and many would argue in the world) and those who appreciate sports will relish in the excitement around these important matches. Because football is played year-round it’s possible to see a match during your visit with a just a bit of planning. [Read Euro Soccer Tour: Get Your Kick On for more about Barça.]
Families who visit Barcelona will not be disappointed. Spain in general is family oriented and Barcelona’s streets are filled with parents and grandparents proudly pushing strollers and taking their kids to the park. Children of all ages will enjoy L’Aquarium (€16.50/$21 for adults, €11.50/$14.50 for kids 4-12) and its many sea critters. The highlight of the aquarium is a long transparent tube that visitors walk through as sharks and manta rays swim around them. After a visit to the aquarium, it’s fun to walk along the waterfront to view the ships and take a ride on the port ferry, which takes tours down the coastline.
Another fun family outing is the CosmoCaixa Barcelona (€3/$4) science museum, which has been rated as one of the best in Europe. The installations for children are excellent and include the Bubble Planetarium, Clik and Flash (science through games) and Toca Toca! (educates children on animals and plants). The museum’s planetarium offers simultaneously translated shows for young children, older kids and adults throughout the day.
And don’t forget about Barcelona’s beaches, just 10 minutes from the city center!
Though it’s possible to walk to most places, families with small children and weary adults will want to take advantage of the city’s extensive public transportation system. The metro (€1.20/$1.50) is the fastest way to move around town and is not difficult to use (watch your wallet; lots of petty theft). The tourist bus is flashy and maybe a bit cheesy, but it is a fantastic way to see the sights without hassle. Taxis are abundant in Barcelona and not hard to flag unless it’s 3 a.m., when all the bars close. A ride most places costs about €6 ($7.50) and a taxi to or from the airport will run you €25 (about $31) and up. Renting a car is not a good idea within the city. For a green ride, try one of the man-powered bike-taxis in the city center (€6/$7.50 for 15 minutes).
As for where to stay there is no shortage of hotels, and bed and breakfasts (called hostales and pensiones). Ranging between €40 (about $50) and €90 (about $112.50) a night, hostales are becoming more popular all the time with travelers from the United States with weakened dollars. Hotels usually start at €90 a night and up, depending on quality and location.
Try to avoid staying on La Rambla and opt for something more unique and quiet in El Born like the stylish Hotel Banys Orientals (€100/$125). For a boutique hotel, try the gothic Hotel Neri (€300/$375) and for a real luxury five-star go for Hotel Omm (€215/$269 and up). Hostal Fashion House (€80/$100) is a great value bed and breakfast if you can get over the funny name.
Staying in a five-star or a no-star makes little difference because Barcelona will call you outdoors to enjoy every little nook and cranny. I didn’t realize that it was possible to continuously fall in love with a city, but that is what’s happened for me with Barcelona over time. Her mystery, complexity, fun-loving style, artsy outlook and palm-lined seafront get me every time and hold me here. As with any big city, Barcelona can be overwhelming and loud. If the rush and hustle start to get you down, get off the main drag and find yourself a little plaza where you can relax, feed the pigeons and remember that doing nothing may provide a more authentic Barcelona experience than sightseeing throughout the city.
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Viva Barcelona Barcelona is one of my favorite cities – I love the art, the culture, the food and how the whole place comes alive around 10pm! I first visited before I had a child and then again when my daughter was only 3 ½ months old. We rented an apartment right on La Rambla through Although it was quite noisy, I loved being close to the Old Town—we could go and explore but easily head back to the apartment. My favorite places: - La Rambla where you can sit and watch the world go by or be entertained by street artists, - Joan Miro Gallery with stunning paintings and sculptures, not to mention the amazing view of the city. - Placa Reial, a square off La Rambla that turns into a social hub at night with some great restaurants. I also enjoyed Gaudi’s architecture, the Picasso Museum and wandering the Old Town, with my Maclaren stroller!