Barcelona is the architecture enthusiast’s paradise, but it’s also a spectacular city for everything from music festivals and cultural celebrations to history lessons. Here's your comprehensive guide to the best sights, neighborhoods, eateries, and hotels in this dynamic city.
Stay: 4–5 days
Fast Fact: Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city
Nearby Destinations: Costa Brava beaches, Girona, Figueres, Sitges, Tarragona
In fact, the Catalonia region has passed a number of laws to ensure the preservation and propagation of this language, which like Spain's other minority languages was suppressed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975. Catalán, for instance, is the primary language of instruction in public schools in the region. Today, some 9 million people (17 percent of the country's population) speak Catalán.
The earliest dwellings in the Barcelona area date to before 5000 BCE. At least according to legend, the city was either founded by the Roman demigod Hercules or by Hamilcar Barca, the father of Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal. It is because of the latter that the city was reportedly named Barcino in the third century BCE.
The historical record on Barcelona begins around 15 BCE, when the Romans built a military encampment here. Some remnants of the Roman period remain in the city: the Barri Gótic (Gothic Quarter) is partly enclosed by ancient Roman walls, and the same area retains some of the layout of that older city. The Museu d’Historia de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum) beneath the Plaça del Rei offers a look at a 4,000-square-meter subterranean archaeological site. A visit here is highly recommended for anyone looking to dive deeper into the history of this city.
In more recent history, Barcelona boasts one of the proudest and most successful professional football (soccer) teams on the planet. It hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics and has since become an essential city to visit for any traveler, known for its architecture, city planning, gorgeous beaches, and vivid cultural life.
When traveling in Barcelona, you should remain distinctly aware that you are in the region of Catalonia. For any traveler in Spain, perhaps the most essential thing to learn is that there is no single “Spanish culture.” Regions such as Catalonia have markedly distinct languages and cultural practices from what a first-time traveler might expect when they visit Spain. Being a conscientious traveler in Spain means remaining alert and attentive to regional and cultural difference.
On any given day in Barcelona, millions of locals and tourists alike are trying to get around, and it can feel pretty hectic. Walking around the Gothic Quarter, the Born neighborhood, La Rambla, and the downtown waterfront is highly recommended—one of the joys of Barcelona is just how much you can discover around the next narrow twist of street. But if you’re staying in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) and headed to the fortress of Montjuïc, to the Sagrada Familia, to the Park Güell, or to neighborhoods that are a little further out such as Gràcia and Eixample, walking for most travelers is just not going to cut it. Here are a few ways to get around while you’re in this stunning city.
The Metro is also great for getting into the city from the airport. The trip is just 4.50€ either way.
Barcelona Bus Turístic
The open-top buses stop every 5 minutes at peak times and reach 45 different stops, including Montjuïc, which is on top of a small mountain that in the Spanish heat you probably don’t want to climb. Included in the price, you get free wifi, a mobile app, a city map, audioguides in 16 languages, and a bunch of discount for museums, restaurants, and other attractions around the city. All the while, you stand to save money on Metro fares. Buses are outfitted for people with mobility and hearing difficulties.
Tickets are 30€ for an adult for one day and 40€ for two days. However, you get a 10 percent discount on your ticket when you buy online. I’d recommend the bus for your first day to get the lay of the land and gain a little foundational knowledge with the help of the audioguide.
Free admission and skip the line at such sites as:
- Picasso Museum (book first)
- Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (National Art Museum of Catalonia)
- Fundació Joan Miró
- Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum)
- Museu del Modernisme Català (Catalan Modernism Museum)
- Casa Batlló (Gaudí-designed house)
- La Pedrera (Gaudí-designed multiresidency building)
- Museu d’Història de Catalunya (Catalonia History Museum)
- Palau Güell
- Full List
A 72-hour Card is 45€ for adults and 21€ for children; passes that work for longer periods are available. Buy the card online for a 5 percent discount.
Top Things to Do
Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter)
Among the most essential sites is the Barcelona Cathedral (located near the tourist office), and behind it, the Plaça del Rey, where Christopher Columbus was reportedly received upon his return from the Americas. Below the Plaça is the Barcelona History Museum, where you can explore 4,000 square meters of archaeological ruins dating from the Roman era.
You'll find it hard to miss the Joan Rubió-constructed bridge, built in Flamboyant style, that crosses over Carrer (Street) Bisbe. It's just one of the many architectural marvels that this part of the city has to offer, including segments of ancient Roman wall and temple. The Church of Santa Maria del Pi is a gorgeous little spot next to a delicious gelateria.
Every tourist is probably obligated to visit La Rambla, the broad street with a promenade down the middle that cuts through the Gothic Quarter and the heart of Barcelona. It’s bustling and tumultuous, packed with street vendors and (so we hear) pickpockets. It’s absolutely worth it to visit La Boquería Market, which is almost hidden directly off La Rambla. Just don’t stay on the street too long—there are lower prices and better food elsewhere. It’s highly recommended to keep walking north along La Rambla until it turns into the Passeig de Gràcia. Along this stretch you’ll find some of the best that Barcelona architecture has to offer, including Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, both designed by Antoni Gaudí. You’ll eventually arrive at the charming Gràcia neighborhood, which is an experience all its own.
For some culture while you're in the neighborhood, check out the celebrated Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum), which boasts one of the most extensive collections of Picasso's work anywhere at more than 4,000 pieces. You can also catch a show at the Opera Liceu in a gorgeous, ornate hall outfitted in red velvet and gilded balconies.
The Gothic Quarter can feel at times overwhelmingly swamped with tourists and difficult to escape. But if you can find your way to a different part of the Old City, to the area called El Born (perhaps with a little help from a map), you’ll be glad you did. Born packed with trendy shops and scrumptious eateries, all tucked in along narrow, windy streets. If you want to stay in a central location, I’d highly recommend staying here over anywhere in the Gothic Quarter or near La Rambla. And take your time—you’re guaranteed to discover something new. The church of Santa María del Mar is worth a visit, and if you’re looking for a place to relax with some wifi, stop at the Bar del Convent, located in—you guessed it—an old convent.
La Sagrada Familia
Whether you’re religious or not, visiting the Sagrada Familia is a transcendent experience. In my opinion (and I think I share this with many others), it may be the single most marvelous and moving building on Earth. Like so much of Gaudí’s work, it finds inspiration in the natural world, so that the columns are modeled after tree trunks and rise into a web of boughs 150 feet (45 meters) above your head. These gilded boughs collide to form star-shaped bursts reminiscent of the Cubist and Art Nouveau schools.
Outside, three façades feature elaborate sculpture work in dramatically distinct styles. The ascent of Christ winds up the Passion Façade, designed by Josep María Subirachs. This is where you enter. The sculpturework is spare and modern, the bone-like columns at a precarious tilt. The highly ornate Nativity Façade is overflowing with small details, from the tortoises at the feet of the columns to the lizards climbing down the walls. The Glory Façade was only begun in 2002.
If you could only visit one place in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia should be resolutely it. However, I strongly recommend purchasing skip-the-line tickets ahead of time, or else you may be waiting in the hot sun for an hour or more. Remember, you have to book a visit to the towers separately. Try a visit with a professional guide. Or if you’re interested in visiting another Gaudí architectural site (which I highly recommend), consider the Gaudí Pass, which also offers fast-track admission plus audioguide to La Pedrera and includes a one-day Barcelona Bus Turístic ticket and a wine tasting on top of the Columbus Monument.
Arrive early in the morning, too, to avoid some of the crowds. I’d also recommend paying a little extra for an audioguide, as the level of detail throughout can be downright overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to look at what you’re learning about rather than stopping to read every informational sign.
Hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (November to February); 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (March and October); 9 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to September); 9 a.m.–2 p.m. (December 25, 26, January 1 and 6). Ticket sales stop 30 minutes before closing time.
Admission: €15 or €22 with an audioguide. Pay €29 for a ticket that includes a visit, audioguide, and a trip to the towers. You can’t buy tower tickets inside. Discounts for students, seniors, and children.
Definitely buy tickets online to skip the long lines and save money off the box office price. Buy online from the Barcelona Tourism office to save €5.
Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year
Admission: €29.50 online, €33.50 at the ticket office. Pay €24.50 (a €5 savings), skip the line, and get an audioguide by buying from the Barcelona Tourism website.
Don’t miss the Gaudí House Museum, a charming structure (not, in fact, designed by Gaudí) where the architect lived for many years. From this vantage point, he was able to look down on the progress of construction at the Sagrada Familia. It’s a wonderful place to learn more about this brilliant architect’s life, inspiration, and work.
Arrive in the morning to ensure you can get in; often, tickets will sell out by the afternoon, as only a limited number of people are allowed inside at once.
Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year
Admission: €7.50 online. Purchase a private tour.
Narrow streets and Mediterranean architecture open into sudden, brightly lit squares with vintage clothing shops and cafés. Look for live music on the weekends. You can find a variety of international cuisines here, without the international chains and gift shops that abound in the center of the city. Stop by the Antoni Gaudí–designed Casa Vicens, or take a graffiti tour. The neighborhood has some of the most stunning and impressive graffiti in the city. If you’re here in August, check out the Festes de Gràcia, a neighborhood celebration for which whole streets are decked out. You might even witness a castell—a human tower that is a Catalan tradition dating from the eighteenth century.
Gràcia is a great neighborhood to stay in for those seeking to avoid the chaos of La Rambla while staying within a reasonable walking distance of Born and the Gothic Quarter. It’s also just a few Metro stops from the Sagrada Familia. While you’re here, make sure to pick up a jam-filled donut or other tasty delight from Boldú.
Pioneering urban planner Ildefons Cerdà laid out Barcelona’s Eixample district in octagonal blocks to facilitate the flow of traffic and transport. The result are broad, airy boulevards and massive, modern structures. Constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the blocks featured chamfered (beveled) corners and wide sidewalks. It is divided into five smaller neighborhoods, one of which hosts the Sagrada Familia. You’ll also spot the iconic Torre Glòries, a rounded and highly contemporary skyscraper designed by Jean Nouvel and opened in 2005. As you head back toward the old city from this area, take the scenic route past the Arc de Triomf and the broad promenade leading to the Parc de la Ciutadella and the city zoo.
Parc de Monjuïc
The best part of the park may be how you get there. Ride up or down (or both) on the Funicular de Montjuïc, which directly transfers to and from the Paral·lel Metro station and uses the same fares. The glass gondolas offer a stunning view of the city as you descend, and well worth the €2.15 fare.
Barcelona's beaches are broad and gorgeous and the water is just fine, so take your pick. The Platja del Bogatell is near the Old City and close to the Vila Olímpica, the coastal area that was revitalized for the 1992 Olympics and now features some chic hotels and sculptures. Be prepared for crowds and some powerful sun at the height of summer; luckily, vendors pass around regularly with cold water and €5 mojitos.
El Raval and Sant Antoni
These two neighborhoods west of La Rambla are still partially in the Old City but are much less explored by tourists. El Raval in particular features tightly winding streets and a high density of quirky shops minus the gift-shop tchotchkes that overrun parts of the Gothic Quarter. Check out the Rambla del Raval for restaurants featuring international cuisine and to view a massive sculpture of a plump cat by Fernando Botero. In Sant Antoni, do some practical shopping where the locals go in the massive Mercat de Sant Antoni. Read about recent renovations to the market.
La Boquería Market
Address: La Rambla, 91
Price Point: $$$$
La Boquería market right off La Rambla is just about the most delicious and most affordable place to sample food in the heart of Barcelona. Dating from 1836, the market features more than 200 vendors selling everything from fresh produce to the best gastronomic concoctions. You could easily pop in and out all day: fresh fruit smoothie for breakfast, croquetas and tapas for lunch, and plenty of treats in between. If you're staying in Barcelona a bit longer and doing some of your own cooking, stop by to pick up fresh seafood and specialty meats.
If nothing else, visiting la Boquería is a truly educational experience for those who aren't aware just how many types of fish and seafood are actually edible—and delicious at that. The joy of cuisine in Spain is a profound knowledge of the variety of foods that the natural world has to offer, and a respect for freshness and seasonality. La Boquería is a must-see.
Hours: 8 a.m.–8 p.m. (Monday to Saturday)
Address: Passeig de Gràcia, 24 Bis
Price Point: $$$$
This devastatingly stylish emporium on the Passeig de Gràcia is housed in a former factory and garage constructed 1889. This 2,600-square-meter establishment offers several dining and tasting options inside, and can house up to 700 guests. It’s the ideal place to go to sample a broad variety of Catalan and Spanish cuisine, including an impressive spread of pintxos, an oyster bar, a cured meats bar, a cocktail bar, and some incredible pastries and desserts at La Parada. It’s also the perfect escape from the heat, and ideal for a three-hour-long midday graze.
Bar del Convent
Specialties: Café fare, pastries, and wifi
Address: Plaça Academia 0, Barcelona, Spain
Price Point: $$$$
Hours: 10 a.m.–10 p.m.
For those who are working on the go, this is the perfect place to access quality wifi in a quiet environment. It’s also a real pleasure to work here: it’s located in the Gothic cloister of the Convent de Sant Agustí, which hosts cultural events year-round, and is also home to the Museum of Chocolate (to which you can get a free ticket when you buy a Barcelona Card). You can sit outside on a shady, vaulted veranda or indoors to cool off from the hot Spain summer.
Address: Carrer Gran de Gràcia, 132
For a list of other locations in Barcelona click here.
Price Point: $$
Boldú is a family-owned bakery founded in 1939 whose specialty is people-shaped donuts. It’s not just a gimmick—these donuts are incredible, even for people (like me) who don’t generally like donuts. Try anything raspberry-jam-filled, or pick up some of their savory items, as well. It’s an essential stop while you’re in Gràcia.
Featured Place to Stay: Generator Hostel
Price Point: $$$$
Generator Hostel lives at the intersection of stylish, clean, and affordable. It's located in the Gràcia neighborhood, which offers a ton of eateries and shops without the same tourist crowds as the Old City. It's also near the Eixample neighborhood and just a 16-minute walk from the Sagrada Familia and a 17-minute walk from Casa Batlló. In short, for those who are up for a little exercise, it's a great hub for seeing just about everything in Barcelona, and for those who have worn through their sandals, it's a quick Metro stop or two from just about everything, too. It's also hands-down the cleanest hostel I've ever stayed in, with locked drawers and lockers to keep your stuff safe. There's a fun bar right downstairs and plenty of comfortable, brightly lit public spaces. Book a room now.
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