Barcelona is a fascinating, artistic, laid-back city filled with whimsical buildings on the Med that make you wonder why on earth you don’t live there / is this city even real?
The creative energy of Barcelona’s citizens pulses through the city, making its mark on buildings, artwork, fashion, interior design, and food. Barcelona is also Gaudi’s city, one of the city's most famous sons, who left his mark quite literally all over the city. If you're looking for a bit more inspiration, one of my favourite films is Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I think my best friend and I watched a dozen times before our trip! If you haven’t seen it, it’s a lovely ode to this city with plenty of Barcelona’s most beautiful sights on show.
Barcelona has something for everyone and there is no shortage of things to do, see, explore, and taste. You can walk for hours around its sun-drenched streets, admiring the architecture, popping into eclectic independent shops and major chains (Mango and Zara are just two Spanish brand examples), stopping for a leisurely coffee or tapas, or head to the beach for a swim.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit Barcelona twice and can’t wait to return again. This guide is by no means exhaustive, but simply a collection of my favourite things to do, see, and try in the city. I hope you enjoy!
Do / See
It’s hard to choose where to begin with this gorgeous city as there is so much to see and do, so I’ll dive right in:
• My favourite neighbourhood is the Gothic Quarter. The winding, narrow streets are filled with beautiful shops, restaurants, and historical sights to explore.
- It feels like you’re in a film at times as you wander through these streets where streaks of sunlight stream through the buildings on to the streets. If you go really early in the day, it’s quiet and the light and atmosphere are a bit magical.
- Allow yourself to wander and get lost through these winding streets as you never know what might be around the next corner.
• No trip to Barcelona is complete without visiting the famous La Boqueria Market. I’ll talk about it more in the next section (‘Eat’), suffice to say that this beautiful covered market is located right on the city’s most famous street, Las Ramblas, and is a fantastic place to people watch, try new food, and take photographs.
• Las Ramblas is a long tree-lined street cutting through the city, with a pedestrian walkway running down the centre. You will encounter people selling all sorts of trinkets, flowers, street performers, little cafes, and more.
- Save your money as chances are that you will find various magnets/keychains/postcards/t-shirts elsewhere in the city for a fraction of the prices that are being charged here.
- Be warned – this is a tourist hotspot and pickpocketing is a very real occurrence here. Don’t be paranoid, but do be more alert and take care of your belongings to avoid making yourself attractive to potential thieves.
• I found this next place by accident. Ele and I had just picked up some food from La Boqueria for a picnic and were searching for a place to enjoy it, which proved a bit harder than we thought. We walked into a small park and spotted a bench that we could sit on, only to find a black handgun sitting on it, which was a shock. Because of that, and the fact that the park was next to a primary school, we went to a local police station to let them know. A classic lost in translation situation ensued where we tried to explain in our poor Spanish that we had found this gun, which was interpreted in their poor English as we were reporting that OUR gun had been lost/stolen.
- Eventually, we were able to continue on, and found a promising leafy area. We climbed up the steps only to find an incredibly beautiful terrace filled with orange blossom trees, flowers and ivy, as well an ancient Greek amphitheatre – who knew! We had come across the Gardens of the Grec Theatre - a beautiful place to explore.
• Park Guell is a major tourist attraction, but for good reason. Gaudi’s whimsical park is one large art exhibit in itself – beautiful to explore, complete with stunning views at some points over the city.
- Try and go early in the morning or late afternoon before it gets too hot and busy (particularly in the summer months) and beat the crowds wielding selfie-sticks.
- It can be a bit of a hike to get to the park. There are outdoor escalators that help get you up the hills quicker and save you some energy (another great reason to go early in the day!).
• Check out the Palau Guell, a beautiful house designed by Gaudi. Don’t forget to go to the roof to check out the fantastic mushroom-like artwork and the view.
• Visit Placa Reial, the large, tucked away square, just off Las Ramblas filled with palm trees, boutiques and restaurants for a bit of respite from the craziness at the heart of the city.
• Near the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (or MNAC) is Las Arenas, a former bull fighting ring that has been refurbished into a unique shopping centre, preserving the look and feel of its former purpose. Head to the top of the Bull Ring to check out the 360 view and restaurants.
• The area outside of MNAC is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever visited. Its immaculately landscaped gardens leading up the museum at the top of the hill are all curves, flowers, water features, and outdoor escalators to whisk you up the hill to the top over a series of different levels.
- The view from the top when you reach the museum is wonderful!
- There is a lovely café to sit and take in the views as well.
• The Sagrada Familia is another sight that can’t be missed. It can be swarming with tourists, so again, I’d suggest going early in the day. I also highly recommend buying tickets in advance so save time (and potentially money), although the queue does move pretty quickly.
• One of my favourite things to do was take the cable car up to the Montjuic Castle. The views are spectacular over the city and a great experience.
• One of the coolest things about Barcelona is that it sits right on the Mediterranean with many beaches to pick from. Barceloneta Beach is the most popular – and the busiest. However, if you head further down the coast, approximately 20 – 30 minutes away (easy by train), you can find much quieter and more pristine stretches of sand to enjoy.
• You will find no shortage of fantastic shopping throughout the city, especially if you’re looking to add to your wardrobe. Spain is home to huge global brands such as Zara and Mango, as well as many great independent shops.
• You can wander through the Olympic Park and see the sights from the Games. The swimming pool(and diving board in particular) has one of the most spectacular views imaginable!
• If you’re there during the summer, check out the late night beach bars where you can enjoy cocktails with your feet in the sand and great music under the stars.
• Keep your eyes out for some of Gaudi’s other architecture around the city as you wander around, such as the beautiful façade of Casa Batllo where the balconies look like skulls and bones surrounded by colourful mosaics, or La Pedrera, one of his main residential buildings, which looks more like a sculpted work of art than an apartment block! This building was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
• Barcelona is also surrounded by mountains, which are beautiful to explore if you’ve visited Barcelona before, or you are going to be there for longer than a city break (or just generally like nature and the idea of visiting these mountains appeal to you). Montseny is about an hour away from Barcelona and beautiful to enjoy.
• Check out the Gracia neighbourhood, which is leafy, artsy, and cool to explore. This bohemian area offers fantastic, diverse restaurants, outdoor terraces, and has a cool vibe. It also a colourful festival each August which I just missed the last time I visited but got to see the fantastic prep happening in the streets (the photograph with the blue streamers at left stretched across the street is one example).
Food is a central feature in Barcelona life. The high quality, inventive menus and places to linger over a (very) late dinner with friends. Here are a few of my favourites:
• La Boqueria: So good that it comes up twice in this guide. It is perfect for grabbing fresh fruit, cheese, meats and more to take along and enjoy picnic style or grab a perch at a bar stool at one of the small restaurants in the market and watch the world go by (great for people watching). It’s a fresh, tasty, and cost effective option – and with something for everyone, it's a perfect option if you’re there with a group.
• La Pepita: I absolutely adore this delicious restaurant. This restaurant was a recommendation from a friend of a friend, for which now needs to continue to be passed along because it’s so good! So many inventive, tasty items to try. The refreshing watermelon gazpacho in particular stands out in my mind.
• Tapas 24: Try this small but busy tapas restaurant serving tasty food. Order a range of different dishes between you (or by yourself) to try as much as possible. Loved it!
• If you’re a fan of Woody Allen's love letter to Barcelona through his 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you’ll want to check out Els Quatre Gats. Tucked in a stunning, historic courtyard deep in the Gothic quarter, it’s the place where Vicky and Cristina first meet Antonio, who invites them to go to Oviedo with him. It’s also got a fascinating history. First opened as a café in 1897, it has also been a hostel, cabaret, pub, and restaurant. Picasso also visited this restaurant, so you'll be in good company.
• The Spanish love their chocolate and sweets. Start your day right with warm churros dipped in thick, delicious hot chocolate, a popular thing to have for breakfast. It can be found at many bakeries, cafes, and food trucks so you've got lots of options. You’ll also come across many bakeries so be sure to try out a pastry or five, as well as numerous artisan chocolate shops!
You can stay anywhere in Barcelona from a flat through Airbnb to a luxury hotel. Whatever your preference and budget, you'll be spoilt for choice.
• Hostal Goya – This small boutique hotel is well-located with beautifully designed rooms. The rooms are tiny but do the trick because let’s be honest – you’re in Barcelona and will be out exploring the majority of the time! A spa-like bathroom tops off the comfort and cool factor. There’s also a lovely main room to lounge in that overlooks the street below, just off Catalunya Square. A great location tucked off the street through an unassuming door and a few flights of stairs.
• W Barcelona: This chic hotel is an iconic figure on the Barcelona beachfront. Its rooms offer incredible views, beautifully designed, and a fab bar and night club on the rooftop add to the cool factor. One of my dream places to stay!
• Hotel Arts Barcelona: This stunning hotel features a chic rooftop pool with views over Barcelona.
Getting There / Getting Around
• Barcelona International Airport (El Prat) is well-served by many major airlines from all over the world.
• Take the Aerobus from the airport to the city centre. It's the easiest and most cost effective way to get into the city, particularly if you are staying somewhere central. It stop right at Catalunya Square, for example, a major hub in the city
• Metro: A clean, quick, easy, air-conditioned option to move quickly around the city - and has wifi! Tip: buy a pass as it is cheaper. Also, you can split this between friends by swiping to go through and passing it back one after the other.
• Tram: Another good option to get around as it gives you a street level view to admire as you travel around the city.