Tapas. Parks. Beaches. Gaudí. Sangria. And rich, red wine with a kick! Barcelona is truly one of a kind. It’s crowded — roughly 32 million people visited in 2017. Of that, only 8 million stayed in hotels. If you’ve traveled to Dubrovnik (or Amsterdam, Venice, etc.), you understand the effects of mass-tourism through cruise traffic. So if you decide to brave the crowds and visit the bustling Catalan capital, be mindful of the locals who call Barcelona home. This travel guide helps you plan a few days in Barcelona, ensuring you support the local economy, learn a bit about the culture and experience the magic Barcelona has to offer.
Don’t miss it
Even if you tried, you couldn’t miss the work of Antoni Gaudí. There are the popular and obvious spots — La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell and Casa Batlló. But look down at the sidewalks and you’ll discover that Gaudí is the architect behind the tiled design. Yes, even the sidewalks in Barcelona are beautiful!
Back to La Sagrada Familia. There is a reason this unfinished church is the most visited attraction in Barcelona. The exterior is medieval and gothic. Like most of his work, the intricate pieces work together to tell a bigger story. Wander around the entire exterior of the church before going inside for a tour.
The interior is colorful, open and bright, with high ceilings, dozens of tall columns and shiny stained-glass windows. He was inspired by the rainforest. The inside is a complete contrast to the gothic exterior.
Purchase an admission ticket online a few days in advance. That way, you’re guaranteed to tour at the day and time of your choosing. Plan at least an hour (maybe two) here.
Spend an afternoon on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Barcelona’s beaches were man-made in anticipation of the 1992 Olympics. Barceloneta is one of the easiest beaches to reach. It was fairly crowded when I visited, so venture farther north if you would prefer quiet and relaxation. Every 10 minutes or so, I turned down a vendor asking if I wanted a beverage, food or even massage. Similar to traveling in Paris (near the Eiffel Tower), the vendors on Barcelona’s beaches can be a bit aggressive. The first massage I was offered wasn’t actually offered. I was tanning on my stomach and, without warning, a woman began massaging my calf. I didn’t even see her walk up! I nearly kicked her (my self-defense instincts kicked in). I think you would miss all this by heading a bit farther down the beach!
A fantastic way to stay active on your trip is to rent bikes and ride along the boardwalk. There are plenty of restaurants and shops you can pop into along the way.
Must try food/drink
La Boqueria Market
Barcelona’s food market is one of the best I experienced in Europe. If your day is packed with sightseeing, then La Boqueria Market is the perfect place to pop in for a quick and tasty lunch. Meander through the walkways of vendors who offer a variety of foods — fruit, smoothes, kebabs, tapas, etc. There are plenty of souvenir-style vendors, where you can purchase sangria, chocolate and other tchotchkes.
I also recommend participating in a food tour. There are plenty of companies to choose from, but I’ve always had great experiences with Sandeman’s Tours. The Tapas Experience was a great way to interact with other travelers, learn more about Barcelona’s history/culture and sample authentic tapas and wine at local restaurants.
Lastly, my favorite dish in Barcelona is the seafood paella from Paco Alcalde. It’s a family-owned, no-frills restaurant with spicy wine (and sangria), huge portions and friendly/quick service.
Wish I had more time for
I wish I had visited the Picasso Museum during my visit, as Pablo Picasso spent his early teens in Barcelona. A tour guide from the Sandeman free walking tour recommended an evening at the well-known concert hall, Palau de la Música Catalana. I’ll plan to check out both on my next visit to Barcelona!
St Christopher’s Inn, a well-known and reputable international hostel chain. Just like London and Berlin, St Christopher’s Inn exceeded expectations. It’s located at the northern point of the famous La Rambla, a pedestrian-friendly shopping district.
There are several hotels in the La Rambla area, along with ample airbnbs. It is convenient for travelers because there are many metro stops in and around the area. I’d also recommend the artsy El Born neighborhood. There are local boutiques, fantastic cafés and trendy restaurants.
Here’s a hint
- Pop into the colorful café, Faborit Fresh Bar, right beside Casa Batlló. The menu offers coffee, tea, smoothies, salads and sandwiches. They also sell beautifully-wrapped chocolates that make perfect souvenirs. Unfortunately for my family, the chocolate is too delish — I couldn’t resist eating it before making it home.
- If you’re craving a hearty breakfast, check out Milk for its “recovery brunch.”
- Take some time to learn Gaudí’s life story whether that be through a tour (like Sandeman) or researching on your own. You will have a stronger appreciation for his work.
- And most importantly, be mindful that Barcelona is part of Catalonia, a region of Spain. There is a pro-independence movement in Catalonia that has sparked political debate throughout the country and Europe. When visiting the city, be respectful that the locals speak Catalan, which is similar to Spanish, but not Spanish.
After a bit of confusion with a train attendant, we settled into our cabin on an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal.
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