There is a reason that many travel experts boast Barcelona as the #1 city to visit in Europe. Equal parts cultural hub, beautiful beach city, and vibrant metropolis, Barcelona truly has something to offer each and every traveler lucky enough to explore its ramblas and relax in its placas.
Gothic Quarter/El Born
Barcelona is a city divided into sections and as such I will divide this guide into attractions based upon their location. We will begin with the oldest section of the city, the Barri Gòtic literally meaning the Gothic neighborhood. This section of the city is knows for its labyrinthian sidewalks that eventually open up into expansive plazas.
My first trip to Placa Reial happened by accident when I was wandering the narrow walkways of the Gothic district. I was taken aback by this oasis of sunlight in the midst of the dark stone walkways. Placa Reial is lined with tapas restaurants and bars. This is a great place to have an afternoon snack while taking in some great people watching and street performing. However, the real reason to come to Placa Reial is to see Barcelona’s most elegant square.The plaza is lined with old noble residences and has palm trees and a beautiful fountain in the middle. At night, Placa Reial becomes a bustling hub for Barcelona’s renowned nightlife.
Cathedral of Barcelona
Properly named La Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, this neo-gothic cathedral towers over the Gothic district. The cathedral took six centuries to build and was built in several stages that can be noticed from the exterior as well as the interior. The facade of the cathedral offers a great opportunity to take pictures as there is a large plaza, Placa Nova, adjacent to the front. Sometimes in the afternoon the church’s choir will perform and you can enter and listen for free. The soaring architecture of the interior is what really makes the cathedral worth visiting, so make sure to go at a time when entrance is permitted. After you have visited the cathedral wander out the front of the building and out into Placa Nova, where you can find the remains of the Roman wall that encircled the city of Barcino. These walls date back to as early as the first century CE, so they serve as a reminder of the ancient origins that Barcelona has.
Placa Sant Jaume
This plaza doesn’t have the grandiosity of Placa Reial, however it is worth a visit. Home to a few government buildings of Catalonia, the plaza is place where you can see two beautiful neoclassical facades that border the plaza on two of its sides. You can also wander to the northwest to see the famous “bridge” that acts as an archway over the carrer del bisbe. Heading south will take you to another plaza, Placa Sant Miquel.
Basílica de la Merced
Another beautiful church, la Merced is baroque and is a stark contrast to the highly decorative facade of the cathedral. However, la Merced saves its grandiosity for the interior where golds and silvers attract the eye and are the complete opposite of the imposing gray stone interior of the cathedral. On nice days the nearby restaurants will have tables and chairs and will wait on you while you bask in the sun at the foot of la Merced.
The Gothic Quarter is best enjoyed by wandering with no particular agenda. I spent several days meandering the narrow alleyways and I still didn’t get to see every plaza or find every hidden tapas restaurant.
The Picasso Museum is an extremely well done museum that showcases Picasso’s works that were primarily completed during the early stages of his career in Barcelona. The museum is located east of the Gothic quarter in what is technically known as El Born. Don’t expect to see a lot of Picasso’s trademark Cubist style, this museum focuses on Picasso’s gradual experimentation with varying levels of realistic and abstract elements. Even though this isn’t Picasso’s most renowned art, it is fascinating to see his stylistic changes as he got older. It really showed me that Picasso was not confined to cubism by a lack of virtuosity, he was a great photorealistic painter as well. If you are even remotely interested in art and art history this museum is worth a visit.
Palau de la Música Catalan
The Palace of Catalan Music is a gem of the modernista style so often seen in Barcelona. Although strikingly beautiful, I found this building to be one of the most bizarre buildings I saw in Barcelona as well. Look up a picture of the palau and you will see what I’m talking about. Although I never got around to it, I was highly encouraged to take a tour of the interior of the palau to behold its magnificent stained glass ceiling. At the very least, the building is worth looking at and snapping a few pictures.
The next area of the city we will outline is “El Raval” which is directly west of the Gothic quarter. El Raval has had a reputation for many years as a seedy area that is home to criminals and prostitutes, however, as tourism has steadily grown El Raval has become a must-see area of the city. Nowadays, El Raval is a kind of cultural melting pot; a large portion of the population in El Raval are immigrants. With this diversity brings a wonderful blend of ethnic cuisine, shops, and bars that beg to be explored.
My personal favorite of Gaudí’s houses that he designed, the Palau has an almost brooding dream-like quality to the facade. Renovations were completed in 2011 and the Palau is now reopened for public tours. The patrons for the mansion were the wealthy Güell family who also commissioned the wonderful Parc Güell that I will discuss later.
Grande Teatro del Liceu
One of the grandest opera houses in Europe, the Liceu as it is colloquially known is well worth a tour. The halls outside the auditorium itself are ornately decorated in a style that is renaissance style on steroids. The Hall of Mirrors is a particularly extravagant room that has masterful paintings surrounded by wall-length mirrors. The tour also allows you to access the social clubs where the bourgeoisie would have enjoyed food and drinks before and after the opera. The tour of the Liceu truly does a great job of allowing you to inhabit the world of a 19th century wealthy Spanish citizen.
Although La Rambla is technically the “street” that divides the Gothic quarter and El Raval, I will include it under El Raval because I think it more closely melds with this district. La Rambla is an expansive pedestrian mall that starts at Placa Catalunya and leads all the way to Port Vell. It is extremely touristy with various shops and kiosks but also is home to some of the city’s most impressive street performers. There are also numerous cafes that line the boulevard providing an opportunity to take in the hustle and bustle of La Rambla. During the hot summer months La Rambla will be crowded all day long. At the southern end of La Rambla is the Monument to Christopher Columbus which is surrounded by other impressive buildings that line the area right along the Mediterranean.
Barceloneta is the long and skinny outcropping of land that extends out into the Mediterranean from the main portion of the city. Barceloneta is primarily known for its large and popular beach but also has its share of shops and restaurants as well.
The advantage of this beach is its accessibility via public transportation from anywhere in the city. However, this ease of access also means packed beaches. On a nice sunny day, the beach will be packed to the brim with tourists and locals alike. You can always find people that are playing sand volleyball and sand soccer. If you prefer a more secluded beach experience, head north about 25 minutes to Badalona beach.
On the northern end of Barceloneta beach is Port Olimpic. The piers of Port Olimpic are another hub for Barcelona’s world-famous nightlife. From this point there are several establishments within walking distance, many of them open up onto the beach. During our time in Barcelona, the US Olympic Basketball team was staying near the area and my group ran into them walking the Port Olimpic piers.
Montjuïc is the mountain that overlooks the city of Barcelona. Not only does it give an all-encompassing view of the city, it also has several attractions that make it a necessity to visit. To access Montjuïc you can do so via cable car that is connected to the metro system or you can walk up starting at Placa Espanya.
Many of the events from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were held in the stadiums built on Montjuïc. The soccer stadium is a beautiful building with a long reflecting pool and a great view of the city. Right next to the soccer stadium is the Palau de Sant Jordi which served as the basketball arena for the Olympic games. While I was there, we were lucky enough to watch Team USA basketball play Team Spain in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Near the stadiums is the Olympic Gallery which is a museum that contains items and audiovisual elements commemorating the Barcelona games.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
The National Art Museum of Catalonia, or MNAC as it is abbreviated in Catalan, is a massive building that sits above Placa Espanya on Montjuïc and houses a large collection of art created by Catalan artists. If you are not interested in art, at the very least go to the MNAC and enjoy the beautiful view of Placa Espanya and the exterior of the building itself. After descending the many stairs down towards the Placa you will find Barcelona’s finest fountain, Font Magica. Font Magica is a massive fountain that is illuminated at night and is synchronized to music.
Perched atop the mountain is a 17th century fortress that is still intact to this day. The castle is accessible to the public and the ramparts of the fortress give a great uninhibited view of the city and the sea. Surrounding the castle, in what was formerly a dry moat, are now beautiful flower arrangements.
The Eixample is a chic neighborhood of Barcelona, its nicest parts contain some of the best shopping and eating in the city. However, on the outskirts the dynamic changes into one of poverty and urban decay. Generally speaking, the nicer part of Eixample is near either side of the Passeig de Gràcia. Eixample is also a hotbed for groundbreaking architecture as you will see in the attractions below.
La Sagrada Familia
The crown jewel of Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is truly an amazing sight to behold and if you only see one of Gaudí’s masterpieces this is the one to see. Purchase tickets in advance, as there are always long lines for tickets. To truly appreciate the basilica, read about its piecemeal construction. This knowledge will clarify the varying stylistic differences between the older Gaudian “Nativity” facade and the newer “Passion” facade. Once you have taken in the exterior go inside and enjoy some of the most amazing church architecture you will ever see. Of all the aspects of the design the ceiling is the most stunningly beautiful. Gaudí designed the columns and arches to resemble a forest and branches with light peeking through (see the title picture). If they are open, ascend the towers of the basilica to get a great view of the Eixample neighborhood and beyond. Explore the various mini museums throughout the church in order to fully appreciate Gaudí’s genius and the skill of the craftsmen who have worked on the basilica throughout the years.
Commonly known as La Pedrera this was a house/apartment complex designed by Gaudí for a wealthy family in Barcelona. Now it is a huge tourist attractions and you can take a guided or self-guided tour to explore not only the interior but also the roof of La Pedrera. The interior of the building was very revolutionary for its use of space and ways of incorporating natural light. Although some of the architectural wonders were over my head, one thing I could fully appreciate was the rooftop with its sculptural chimneys air ducts. For me, this is where the genius of Gaudí truly shined through. In the middle of the complex there is a courtyard that allows natural light to flow in through the small windows that permeate each apartment unit.
Another one of Gaudí’s houses is Casa Batlló. Casa Batlló is much different in style and interior layout. Casa Batlló was a single family residence and uses much more blues and greens along with tile mosaic. Tourists are also welcome to tour Casa Batlló but in my experience the lines were much longer here than Casa Mila. Although, I think these lines are for a reason as Casa Batlló, in my experience, was more elegantly designed and altogether more interesting.
Passeig de Gràcia
Passeig de Gràcia is a street that boasts some of the best, if not the best, shopping in Barcelona. The passeig is considered the most expensive and luxurious street in Barcelona and one will see many 4 and 5-Star hotels along the street. Due to this status, you will see many of Barcelona’s finest homes, including some of Gaudí’s work. There are also many desirable restaurants to be found on the Passeig de Gràcia. It is an extremely broad boulevard that is meant to be walked on foot. Overall, the Passeig is a great place to spend an afternoon exploring.
Another one of Gaudí’s works, the park is like one giant work of art. The park is the only attraction I am going to list in the Gràcia district. By taxi the park is only a ten minute drive from the heart of the city; by metro it is closer to 30 minutes. However, the trip outside the city center is well worth it. When you approach the entrance you will see the “gingerbread house” gatehouses. The two gatehouse are the only buildings that Gaudí designed for the park, the rest of the park showcases Gaudí’s skill as a landscape architect. When you walk past the gatehouses you are welcomed by the iconic mosaic salamander named “el drac”. The main attraction of the park is the terrace that is encircled by a brilliantly colored mosaic bench in the form of a sea serpent. From the terrace, you can get a great view of the city. The park contains so many bizarre but wonderfully dreamlike aspects that it is hard to enumerate them all in this post. You can continue to climb the hill the park sits on to get a bird’s eye view of the park itself and the city. All around you, you will see the genius of Antoni Gaudí.
I know this post has been long but I hope that the length has shown you the wealth of things to see and do in Barcelona. Even during my six weeks, I wasn’t able to see everything I wanted. The beauty of the city is that it has so many different facets that you can make your experience whatever you want. If you are an art-lover it has the art and architecture to keep you entranced. If you are a sports fanatic it is home to the one of the greatest soccer clubs in the world, FC Barcelona. Nowhere else in the world is there such a syncretic culture that is the product of Spanish, French, Catalan, Islamic, and Mediterranean influences that all infuse into one singular Barcelona.