The Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Visigoths, Napoleon’s army and Spain itself may have spent their lives fighting over, for or against Barcelona, but through it all the city has persevered and staunchly maintained its identity as the capital of region of Catalonia – even when former dictator Generalissimo Franco effectively erased all traces of its heritage and language publicly.
Fierce Catalan pride is why, even if you’re able to recall your high school Spanish, the language you hear spoken on the street sounds just a little off. The region is considered an autonomous province of Spain, but for many Catalans that’s simply not good enough; every few years, they move to secede from the country altogether.
This independent streak is one of the many reason why Barcelona has always been an interesting city, even in its darkest days. When it took its role as the world’s host of the 1992 Summer Olympics seriously, creating a venue not only for the event itself but for the city’s residents to enjoy afterward, it all but transformed into the vibrant, easy-to-navigate city that now welcomes tens of millions of visitors per year.
Here’s our insider’s guide to Barcelona.
Where to Stay
Although the city of Barcelona is large, you’ll find that the majority of your time, both night and day, will be spent in or very near Ciutat Vella, one of the districts closest to the sea. At first glance, visitors who want to be in the middle of the action might stick to Las Ramblas when looking for hotels; it divides the district roughly in half, starting from the port and heading back to Plaça de Catalunya. But it can get crazy there, especially on weekend nights when British partygoers, taking advantage of rock-bottom prices on low-cost flights from London, come over and, well, drink. A lot.
So the insider’s advice would be NOT to stay on or very near Las Ramblas. However, the good news is that even a couple blocks back from the boulevard are significantly quieter, and won’t make you feel like you’re exiting your hotel into a three-ring circus. Barri Gotic, La Ribera and El Born are all solid neighborhood choices for hotels within Ciutat Vella, and you can still walk to practically anything you want to see and do.
For a unique experience in a major European city, the Barceloneta neighborhood is the perfect choice for a hotel. Here you can feel like you’ve come home to your sleepy beach town every night after a busy day in the city – even though all you’ve done is cross the road.
What to Do
With the iconic Sagrada Família standing as the official symbol of Barcelona, architect Antoni Gaudí needs no introduction. But if you think that a tour of Gaudi’s work citywide is best left to the cruise day-trippers that pour into the port, think again. Park Güell, La Pedrera apartment building, and the still-unfinished Sagrada Família should be on every visitor’s must-see list. With their whimsical touches and clear signs of Gaudí’s personal passion, it can be argued whether these places are art or architecture – something to be discussed later over tapas, perhaps.
Although you’ll often find yourself in the Barri Gòtic on your way to eat, drink or otherwise be merry, it’s worth blocking out some time to formally explore the neighborhood. Unlike the rest of the city, the Barri Gòtic street plan is like a maze of tiny, pedestrian-only streets that yield surprising architecture, street art and scenes of local life. Make sure to turn down the almost creepy Carrer del Bisbe Irurita for a stroll, and keep an eye out for pieces of the original Roman wall. Then say hello to the 13 geese – no more, no less, to honor St. Eulalia’s age at her death – at the 15th-century cloister next to her namesake cathedral, also known simply as the Barcelona Cathedral. Inside the church itself is Christ of Lepanto, a crucifix from a 16th-century battleship.
If FC Barcelona is playing, try and score some tickets to a football match and join hometown Barça fans in the largest stadium in Europe. It is a sports fan’s ultimate pilgrimage. But even if they’re not playing, you can still take a FC Barcelona stadium tour.
Montjuïc, the hill along the sea, is a quick funicular ride from Barceloneta and has great views of the city and the sea. However, it’s not just a photo op; you can picnic during the day, check out Catalan art at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya inside the Palau Nacional, and at night catch the light show at the Magic Fountain. Leave plenty of time to explore the modern art in the Fundació Joan Miró, and keep up with the latest experimental art in its Espai 13 exhibition space. There are also many paths dedicated to cycling.
Behind the city and rising up well over 1500 feet is Tibidabo, part of the Collserola mountain range and looking out over the whole of Barcelona to the Mediterranean’s horizon. You can reach it via the first funicular railway constructed in Spain (don’t worry; they’ve updated it), and once up there you can enjoy outdoor living with an amusement park, open-air bars and restaurants, and hiking and biking paths.
Eating and drinking
The first stop on any foodie’s discovery tour of Barcelona is La Boqueria – go early in the morning, pick up a fresh-squeezed juice and take a gander at the region’s bounty on display. It’s open until 8pm, so it’s a good spot to keep in the back of your mind if you want to pick up picnic fixings at odd times of the day. And if you take a cooking class in Barcelona, chances are your instructor will be taking you shopping at La Boqueria before cooking up your purchases.
Tapas, more or less hors-d’oeuvres ranging from bite-size to a small saucer, are by far the most popular way to eat in Barcelona. Note that sometimes you may not see or hear the word “tapas,” but rather pintxos – pronounces “pinchoss” – which is the Basque word for the same type of food. Prices and quality vary widely – from little more than humble bar snacks for a euro to tiny culinary masterpieces for 10 times that – but by avoiding the most obvious tourist traps you’ll be fine. And if you order a tapa and don’t love it, that’s the beauty of tapas – just head to another place!
Honestly though, you can just head into a tapas bar, point to what you want, and start nibbling these exquisite treats, maybe washed down with cava or a gorgeous Tempranillo. To narrow that down a bit, the Barri Gòtic is jam-packed with tapas bars; Bar del Pi is an excellent choice here. If you have a hankering for seafood tapas, then El Vaso de Oro in Barceloneta (Carrer de Balboa, 6) will satisfy. If you’d like to concentrate more on the drinking aspect of a tapas crawl, then the El Raval neighborhood, on the opposite side of Las Ramblas, comes alive at night; Carmelita’s is where you’ll find people lined up to have a bite.
Speaking of drinking, cava is the “national” drink of the Catalonia region, and is a sparkling white or rosé wine similar to Champagne or Prosecco. Tempranillo is a full-bodied Spanish red wine, but in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia you may see or hear it called Ull de Llebre. Rioja is usually known as a superior Spanish red wine, but is also made in white and rosé, so make sure to sample those as well.
The best free thing to do in Barcelona is spend time on the Maremagnum bridge that connects the city center to the commercial complex of the same name. The complex itself is a bit expensive – the aquarium, IMAX movie theater and cafes tend to be overpriced – but you can join locals sitting on the bridge, or strolling along the port, for the low low price of nothing at all.
If you only have one day in Barcelona, start with La Boqueria market, have a picnic lunch on Montjuïc, check out the exterior of the Sagrada Familia, and finish up with a tapas crawl in El Raval.
The best thing to eat in Barcelona is anything made with cod or octopus – even if you think you don’t like them. Barcelona chefs have tamed these sea beasts into submission to create the most delicious dishes that will make you rethink all the other foods you don’t like.
For up-to-date info on the latest hotspots in Barcelona, check out Time Out Barcelona or pick up one of the seemingly hundreds of free weeklies that line the window sills of practically every bar and cafe in town.
Flights to Barcelona are offered from several major US cities via Iberia Airlines and their partners.
Christine Cantera is an American freelance writer and expat in Italy and France since 2002. She specializes in travel writing, web content, and Italian-English translation. Readers follow her adventures as Miss Expatria.