WHAT TO DO
Barcelona is first and foremost the capital of Catalonia, a proudly autonomous region that periodically attempts to break away from Spain. You'll hear the locals speaking Catalan as you walk the lanes of its magnificent Gothic quarter and experience an energy like no other. Marvel at the stunning architecture and dive into the delicious seafood that this city has to offer. From the mountains to the beaches, the historic to the contemporary, sunny Barcelona has it all.
Begin your journey with a stroll along Barcelona's most famous street, La Rambla. It is both a tourist magnet and a window into Catalan culture. The middle section of La Rambla is a broad pedestrian boulevard, crowded every day with hawkers, artists, mimes and living statues. It takes its name from a seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran here. Unofficially, La Rambla is divided into five sections which explains why many know it as Las Ramblas (or Les Rambles in Catalan). The initial stretch from Placa de Catalunya is La Rambla de Canaletes, named after the 20th century drinking fountain. It is said that anyone who drinks from the fountain will return to Barcelona. This spot is the traditional meeting point for supporters of the beloved FC Barcelona football (soccer) club after they are victorious. There are several points of interest along La Rambla that are not to be missed. Placa Reial is one of the most photogenic squares in Barcelona, and certainly its liveliest. Numerous cafes and bars lie beneath the arcades of 19th century neoclassical buildings with a buzz of activity at all hours. Note: the lamp posts by the central fountain are Antoni Gaudi's (much more on this Catalan architect shortly) first known works in the city. Found at La Rambla 51-59, Gran Teatre del Liceu is one of Europe's greatest opera houses, known to locals as the Liceu. Built in 1847 and restored after a fire in 1994, the Liceu can seat up to 2300 people in its grand auditorium. If you can't catch a night at the opera, you can still have a look around. Guided tours show you the main public areas of the theater, the grand foyer and then up the marble staircase to the Salo dels Miralls (Hall of Mirrors). You are then led up to the 4th floor stalls to admire the theater itself. Mercat de la Boqueria is possibly La Rambla's most interesting building, not for its Modernista influenced design, but for the action of the food market within. Barcelona's most central produce market is one of the greatest sight, sound, smell and color sensations in all of Europe. Located at La Rambla 91, it spills over with all the varied bounty of fruit and vegetable stands, and limitless varieties of sea creatures, meats, cheeses and sweets. Be sure to wander the many stalls and sample some of Catalonia's gastronomical specialties such as bacalla salat (dried salted cod), cargols (baked snails) and percebes (goose necked barnacles).
Antoni Gaudi was born on 25 June 1852 and is the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism. His works have a highly individualized style that were influenced by his passions in life: architecture, nature and religion. Gaudi rarely drew detailed plans of his works, instead preferring to create them as three dimensional scale models and shaping the details as he conceived them. Most of his fascinating creations are located in Barcelona and you must see them all. Start at the most visited monument in Spain, La Sagrada Familia. Located at Carrer de Mallorca 401, this medieval cathedral was Gaudi's all consuming obsession. Work began in 1882 and it's still under construction - it is scheduled for completion in 2026, to coincide with the centennial of the architect's death. With his dislike for straight lines (they did not exist in nature, he said), Gaudi gave his Gothic towers swelling outlines inspired by the peaks of the holy mountain Montserrat outside Barcelona, and encrusted them with a tangle of sculpture that seems an outgrowth of the stone. The entire structure looks like it melted then froze in time. At the time of his death (Gaudi was tragically struck by a passing tram on his way to church), only the crypt, apse walls, one portal and one tower had been finished. Inside, the roof is held up by a forest of extraordinary angled pillars. As the pillars soar towards the ceiling, they sprout a web of supporting branches, creating the effect of a forest canopy. The Nativity Facade is the artistic pinnacle of the building, mostly created under Gaudi's personal supervision. Directly above the amazing blue stained glass window is the Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary. The mosaic work at the top of the towers is made from Murano glass. The Glory Facade will be crowned by four towers - the total of 12 representing the Twelve Apostles. Gaudi wanted it to be the most significant facade of the church. Note: open the same times as the church (9a-7p), the Museu Gaudi, located below ground level, has interesting material on Gaudi's life and works, as well as models and photos of La Sagrada Familia. Next, make your way to another Gaudi masterpiece at Passeig de Gracia 92. La Pedrera was built from 1905 to 1910 as a combined apartment and office block. Formally called Casa Mila, it is better known as La Pedrera (the Quarry) because of its uneven grey stone facade, which ripples around the corner of Carrer de Provenca. The top floor apartment, attic and roof - together called the Espai Gaudi (Gaudi Space) are open to the public. The roof is the most extraordinary element, with its giant chimney pots looking like multicolored medieval knights. Note: purchase a premium ticket to skip the lines. Nearby at Passeig de Gracia 43 is one of the raddest residential buildings in Europe, this is Gaudi at his hallucinatory best. Casa Batllo is totally awesome - the facade, sprinkled with bits of blue, mauve and green tiles and studded with wave shaped window frames and balconies, rises to an uneven blue tiled roof with a solitary tower. Redesigned in 1904, it shows how eclectic a style Modernisme was. Locals know Casa Batllo as the casa dels ossos (house of bones) or casa del drac (house of the dragon). The balconies look like the bony jaws of some strange beast and the roof represents Sant Jordi (Saint George) and the dragon. Inside, the light wells shimmer with tiles of deep sea blue. The doors, windows and skylights are dreamy waves of wood and colored glass. Twisting, tiled chimney pots add a surreal touch to the roof. Finish your Gaudi tour at the fascinating Park Guell. Found at Carrer d'Olot 7, this UNESCO listed site is where Gaudi turned his hand to landscape gardening. It's an enchanting place where his passion for natural forms really took flight and the artificial almost seems more natural than the natural. Park Guell originated in 1900 when Gaudi was hired to create a miniature city of houses for the wealthy in landscaped grounds. The project was abandoned in 1914, but not before Gaudi had created 2 miles of roads, paths, steps, a plaza and two gatehouses in his one of a kind style. In 1922 the city bought the estate for use as a public park. Just inside the main entrance are the two Hansel and Gretel gatehouses and mosaic lizard. Head up the stairs to the top floor for superb views of Barcelona. The Sala Hipostila (Doric Temple) is a forest of 86 stone columns, some of which lean like mighty trees bent by the weight of time. The spired house, Casa Museu Gaudi, is where he lived for most of his last 20 years (1906-1926). It contains furniture by him - including items that were once at home in La Pedrera and Casa Batllo and other memorabilia. Note: buses 24 and 92 drop you at an entrance near the top of the park.
If you still need an art fix, Barcelona has several excellent museums. Begin at the impressive Museu Picasso, located at Carrer de Montcada 15-23. The setting alone, in five adjoining medieval stone mansions, makes the museum unique and worth the long lines. The pretty courtyards, galleries and staircases throughout the buildings are as delightful as the collections inside. While many of his better known works are not present, there is enough material to give you a thorough impression of Pablo Picasso's versatility and genius. The permanent collection is housed in three of the buildings while the remaining two accommodate temporary exhibitions. The collection, which includes more than 3500 works of art, is strongest on Picasso's earliest years (up until 1904), which is appropriate considering that he spent his formative creative years in Barcelona. A visit to the museum starts with sketches from Picasso's earliest years in Malaga, Spain. At age 15, he painted the enormous Ciencia i caritat (Science and Charity) which caused the young artist to be noticed in the higher echelons of Spain's art world. Be sure to visit room 8 which is dedicated to Picasso's Blue Period. El foll (The Madman) is cold and cheerless - it shows the artist's interest in the people on the margins of society. A few cubist paintings can be found in room 11, including Glass and Tobacco Packet. Rooms 22-26 display Picasso's famous variations on Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas painting. Note: the museum is open from 9a-7p and is closed on Monday. From there, head to Parc de Montjuic and the outstanding Fundacio Joan Miro. Barcelona's most famous 20th century artistic son, Miro left this art foundation to his hometown in 1971. Its light filled buildings are full of his most important works, from his earliest sketches to paintings from his last years. This shimmering white temple is considered one of the world's most magnificent museum buildings and holds the greatest single collection of Miro's work - comprising around 220 paintings, 180 sculptures and more than 8000 drawings spanning his entire life. Outside the museum is the Jardi de les Escultures, a small garden with various pieces of modern sculpture. The green areas surrounding the museum, together with the garden, are perfect for a tranquil stroll post art viewing. A short distance away is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. Built on the slopes of Montjuic hill for the 1929 World Exhibition and restored in 2005, it houses a vast collection of mostly Catalan art spanning the early Middle Ages to the early 20th century. The highlight of the museum is the collection of extraordinary Romanesque frescoes, rescued from neglected churches across northern Catalonia in the early 20th century. The two most striking fresco sets follow one after the other. The first, in room 5, is a glorious image of Christ in Majesty done around 1123. Close by in room 9 are frescoes done around the same time in the nearby Esglesia de Santa Maria de Taull. The central image taken from the apse is of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Opposite the Romanesque collection is the museum's Gothic art section. In these halls you can see Catalan Gothic paintings and works from other Spanish regions. Check out the great domed central hall before you leave the museum which is closed on Monday. Conclude your museum tour at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), located at Placa dels Angels 1. Opened in 1995, MACBA has become the city's foremost contemporary art center with captivating exhibitions for the serious art lover. The permanent collection is on the ground floor and dedicates itself to Catalan and Spanish art from the second half of the 20th century. The gallery is committed to temporary visiting exhibitions that are always intriguing. The extensive bookshop is fantastic for both stocking up on art books and quirky gifts. Note: the museum is open from 11a-7p and is closed on Tuesday.
Barcelona has 2 spectacular churches that are not to be missed. The first is the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar (Our Lady of the Sea), the city's finest Catalan Gothic church. Built in the 14th century, it is remarkable for its architectural harmony and simplicity. In 1936 it was set on fire by anarchists and burned for 11 straight days - you can still see the black scorch marks on the ceiling. The central nave and two flanking aisles separated by slender octagonal pillars give an enormous sense of lateral space. Combine that airiness with vast stretches of stained glass and it almost feels like someone's pulling you up to the heavens. The second is Barcelona's central place of worship, Catedral de Barcelona. The richly decorated main facade of La Catedral, dotted with gargoyles and stone intricacies sets it apart from other churches in the city. The facade was added in 1870 although the rest of the building was built between 1298 and 1460. The interior is a broad, soaring space divided into a central nave and two aisles by lines of elegant, slim pillars. The cathedral was one of the few churches in Barcelona spared by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. In the middle of the central nave is the late 14th century, exquisitely sculpted timber coro (choir stalls). Be sure to seek out the Virgin Mary and Child depicted on the pulpit. A broad staircase before the main altar leads you down to the crypt which contains the tomb of Santa Eulalia - a local girl who refused to accept Roman Emperor Diocletian's demand to recant her Christian faith. Note: for a commanding view of medieval Barcelona, visit the cathedral's roof by taking the elevator from the Capella de les Animes del Purgatori near the northeast transept. For a different sort of religious experience, make a pilgrimage to Camp Nou - the home of FC Barcelona. There are two indicators of the importance the football club has in the city. One is the number of Lionel Messi shirts, the club's god like striker, that you see everywhere you look. The other is the capacity of its home stadium, Camp Nou. Holding nearly 100000 people, it's the biggest in Europe. If you are unable to attend a match at this concrete monument then be sure to take a self guided tour. You'll get an in depth look at the club, starting with a museum filled with multimedia exhibits, trophies and historical displays - followed by a tour of the stadium. It takes in the dressing rooms then heads out through the tunnel on to the edge of the pitch (field). The club's slogan is 'mes que un club' (more than a club) which is indeed true as FC Barcelona is a symbol of Catalan culture.
No visit to Barcelona is complete without a trip to the beach. Since the late 20th century, Barcelona's formerly industrial waterfront has experienced a dramatic transformation - with sparkling beaches, seaside bars and restaurants, elegant sculptures, a 3 mile long boardwalk and ultramodern high rises. The gateway to the Mediterranean Sea is the neighborhood of Barceloneta, an old fashioned fishing quarter full of traditional seafood joints and one giant gold sculpture of a fish by Frank Gehry. The series of mostly artificial, sandy beaches (El Poblenou Platjes) and promenade (Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta) stretch from Port Olimpic to Barceloneta beach. The southernmost beach, Platja de la Nova Icaria tends to be the busiest. A few more options to conclude your expedition of Barcelona include a city bus tour, a visit to a groovy market or a siesta in a lovely park. Bus Turistic is a hop on, hop off service that covers all the major tourist sights. The full circle takes approximately 2 hours and day tickets entitle you to discounts at some museums. Palo Alto Market is housed in an abandoned factory and is open the first weekend of every month (except August) from 11a-9p. It has food trucks, local designers and live music. The cool vibe and tasty drinks make it an ideal spot to enjoy a weekend afternoon. Note: be sure to purchase tickets in advance on the Palo Alto Market website. Parc de la Ciutadella offers plenty of settings for some serious lounging. Cascada Monumental, built with input from a young Antoni Gaudi, is a stunning golden waterfall that both wows and relaxes you. Seek out the structures Castell dels Tres Dragons, the Umbracle (palm house) and Hivernacle (green house) as you enjoy an authentic slice of city park life.
WHERE TO EAT
Barcelona has a number of great places to eat and countless spots to drink. Start your day at Baluard Barceloneta. Located at Carrer del Baluard 38, this organic bakery near the beach is always busy. It champions the slow fermentation process - selling delicious pastries, sandwiches and artisan bread from a natural yeast. The bread is baked fresh throughout the day in wood fired ovens, but get there early for the best selection. There is no seating so you must take your bread and pastries to go. Take them to Nomad Coffee at Passatge Sert 12 for an excellent cup of fresh roasted espresso. Nomad is a coffee roaster and shop, and is only open during the week. Another solid option is Horchateria Sirvent, found at Carrer del Parlament 56. This place has been serving tasty horchata de chufa since 1920. A chilled, slightly thick blend of leche de chufa (tiger nut milk), water and sugar - horchata is a refreshing beverage and Sirvent is the place to sample it. For more delectable treats visit Pastisseria Bubo Born at Carrer de les Caputxes 10. This shop is full of immaculate mini cakes, macaroons and more. Both Cava and coffee are also available. If you fancy the perfect croissant then make your way to Carrer dels Flassaders 44 and Pastisseria Hofmann. I enjoyed of course a chocolate croissant and another stuffed with mascarpone.
For lunch, head to Conesa Entrepans for a dynamite sandwich. Located across from City Hall at Carrer de la Llibreteria 1, this busy sandwich shop has been serving locals since 1951. Many sandwiches contain some variety of botifarra (sausages) and the bread is pressed similarly to an Italian panini. Conesa serves a simple but consistent product on demand for those looking for an easy hunger fix in the city center. Pintxos are the famous toothpick spiked bar snack of the Basque region in Spain and Maitea Taberna (Carrer de Casanova 157) is widely considered one of the best Basque pintxo bars in the city for its authentic ambiance and extensive menu of pintxos and plates. Your author very much enjoys Gildas - the classic Gilda is a simple assembly of a guindilla (Spanish chile pepper), an anchovy and an olive on a cocktail stick. Next, venture to the previously mentioned La Boqueria on La Rambla. Among the vendors’ stalls inside the market you can find numerous lunch counters, but El Quim de la Boqueria and Bar Pinotxo are considered the best. At either bar, stake out a stool whose occupant appears to be wrapping up their meal and wait patiently behind them. Everything available is great so go with seasonal recommendations.
There are many dinner options in the city and I would like to share some of my favorites. Located at Carrer del Comte Borrell 81, Bar Ramon has been a local go to since 1939. Famous for signature dishes like seared foie gras with beef filet on toast, as well as classic tapas like croquettes and gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), Bar Ramon is a place where you can eat very well on the cheap. Note: reservations are recommended, but can only be made by phone or in person. Cal Pep has been serving authentic Mediterranean cuisine for over 30 years. Found at Placa de les Olles 8, this fantastic seafood tapas joint is always crowded so arrive early and be prepared to wait in line for a seat at the counter. I recommend the cloisses amb pernil (clams and ham) and the trifasic (calamari and prawns). Casa de Tapes Canota is a friendly, unfussy option that serves satisfying tapas. Located at Carrer de Lleida 7, its specialty is seafood with rich razor clams, garlic fried prawns and tender octopus. Wash it all down with a refreshing bottle of white wine. Chef Carles Abellan runs Tapas 24 (Carrer de la Diputacio 269), a haven known for its gourmet versions of old favorites. Highlights include the bikini (toasted cured ham and truffle cheese sandwich) and zesty boquerones al limon (lemon marinated anchovies). Found at Carrer de Tamarit 91, Bodega 1900 mimics an old school tapas and vermouth bar. This project from the world famous Adria brothers (Albert and Ferran Adria have several of the best restaurants in Barcelona) creates gastronomic tapas such as its mollete de calamars, probably the best squid sandwich on the planet - hot from the pan and served with chipotle mayonnaise, kimchi and lemon zest. Be sure to sample the vermouth, served with a slice of orange and an olive. You can't go wrong at any of the Adria brothers masterpieces which include Pakta (a mixture of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine) and the recently opened Enigma (a conceptual offering that is a whopping 40 course tour de force of cutting edge gastronomy). Note: reservations for Enigma must be made months in advance and a deposit is required upon booking. My favorite restaurant from the Adria brothers has to be Tickets, located at Avinguda del Parallel 164. Tickets is the crown jewel. With a menu of classic tapas remixed with modern, often molecular techniques, the theme of Tickets is Barcelona’s golden era of theater, glamour and cabaret. Every day at midnight, online booking opens for the date exactly two months in the future - if you are able to secure a reservation be prepared for an unforgettable experience.
Another great place is the Michelin starred Disfrutar, found at Carrer de Villarroel 163. It is among the city's finest restaurants, run by alumni of Ferran Adria's now closed El Bulli restaurant. Disfrutar is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and you can choose between several multi course tasting menus. The Classic menu is the way to go and highlights include foie gras and corn, ceviche and razor clams, tuna with yaki sauce and langoustines with gnocchi. The modern Mediterranean cuisine, elegant service and fabulous decor make for an unmissable experience. Located at Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes 25 is Quimet & Quimet. This tiny antique bar from 1914 is off the beaten path yet also usually packed. It's famous for its montaditos - two bite tapas on round, crispy bread. Most are made from conservas (canned seafood), cheese, cured meats or fish. The large selection of local wines, vermouth and house made beer pairs especially nicely with the stinky Torta del Casar cheese with candied chestnut, the velvety salt cod with olive tapenade and tomato, and the creamy foie gras with volcanic salt. Do not miss El Xampanyet at Carrer de Montcada 22. Dating back to the 1920s and brimming with character, from the tiled walls and vintage wine bottle collection to the boisterous crowds and reserved barmen, El Xampanyet is well known with both locals and tourists as an excellent place for an authentic aperitivo. It's ideal for a glass of cava (wine), some house cured salted anchovies in vinegar and a sample of whatever hot dishes are on the day’s menu. You must squeeze in the door and prepare for standing room only, but it's totally worth it. For some serious seafood head to Can Sole in the Barceloneta neighborhood. Located at Carrer de Sant Carles 4, it has been satisfying lovers of local seafood and rice since 1903. Enjoy a classic seafood paella or the Catalan favorite, Arros Caldos (Brothy Rice), with your choice of shrimp, sea urchin, mussels, lobster or more.
Barcelona has many cool places to have a drink and see a show. Start at Paradiso, found at Carrer de Rera Palau 4. Not only is it a great cocktail lounge, but it's also a pastrami sandwich bar. Paradiso is hidden away behind the vintage wooden refrigerator doors of the Pastrami Bar which serves pastrami sandwiches for takeaway and to bar patrons inside. The suspender strapped bartenders stir up fun and flavorful cocktails full of smoke, liquid nitrogen, bitters, flowers and more - served in everything from a giant seashell and glass smoking pipes to Japanese teapots and bamboo tiki cups. Milano (Ronda de la Universitat 35) is a subterranean old school cocktail bar with velvet banquettes and white jacketed waiters. Live music plays nightly and a DJ takes over after 11p. My favorite drink was the Picasso (tequila, honey, absinthe and lemon) and it was as brilliant as Pablo. If you fancy gin like I do then head on over to Bobby Gin at Carrer de Francisco Giner 47. With over 60 varieties, this whitewashed stone walled bar is a haven for gin lovers. Try the infusion based concoction - rose tea infused Hendrick's with strawberries and lime. Tasty tapas choices include the G&T cured salmon. If you dig rock music like I do then make your way to Alfa at Carrer Gran de Gracia 36. Grab a stool at the bar or head for the no frills dance area and enjoy a drink or two along with hits from the 1980s and 90s. For a different vibe check out Boadas, located at Carrer dels Tallers 1. One of the city's oldest cocktail bars (opened in 1933), it is famed for its daiquiris. Bow tied waiters have been serving up unique creations for decades - in fact both Joan Miro and Ernest Hemingway drank here. If you're in the mood for an excellent martini then Dry Martini is your salvation. Located at Carrer d'Aribau 162-166, it serves the best martini in town - taken at the bar or on one of the plush green banquettes.
Perhaps you might like to conclude your evening by taking in a performance. The Palau de la Musica Catalana opened in 1908 for the Orfeo Catala musical society. This concert hall is a high point of Barcelona's Modernista architecture - a symphony in tile, brick, sculptured stone, stained glass and chandeliers. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and today it hosts musical acts that span from choral to pianists, jazz, flamenco and operas. Above a bust of Beethoven on the stage towers a wind blown sculpture of Wagner's Valkyries. This can only be appreciated by attending a performance or taking a guided tour during the day. If you want to catch a band then check out Razzmatazz, it's one of the city's classic live music venues. The main space, the Razz Club is a haven for the latest international rock and indie acts. An added bonus when you leave the club is the yummy Churreria J Argiles stand is nearby. Located at Carrer de la Marina 107, this kiosk is a Barcelona icon and the best spot to get classic churros with hot chocolate. Founded in 1958 by Jose Argiles, it is the perfect place to soak up the booze that fueled your night.
WHERE TO STAY
Barcelona has plenty of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Mercer, located in the heart of the Gothic quarter at Carrer dels Lledo 7. Set in a historic building on a narrow medieval street, Mercer is one of the city's finest boutique hotels. It is a short walk from the nearest metro station (Jaume I) and not far from the Museu Picasso. Offering free WiFi and minibars, the refined rooms also come with flat screen TVs, designer toiletries and rainfall showerheads. Some have balconies which overlook an interior garden, separate living rooms and bath tubs. There's a lovely rooftop dipping pool, stylish cocktail lounge, tapas bar and gourmet restaurant, plus peaceful common areas.
A second option is the Serras Hotel, located in the vicinity of Mercer at Passeig de Colom 9. Situated in a building dating from 1846, this fresh and funky property is walking distance from the beach and Les Rambles. The modern, wood floored rooms offer complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and Nespresso coffeemakers. They also include balconies with city or sea views and some add living areas and whirlpool tubs. Amenities include a rooftop terrace with a bar, a small dipping pool and a terrific view over the port.
Barcelona is an enchanting seaside city with boundless culture, fabled architecture and world class cuisine. I look forward to returning.