Everyone seems to love Barcelona. Good food, nice locals, great weather… It’s remarkable how many people have told me it’s their favourite city, not just in Spain, or Europe, but the World!
That’s a lot to live up to for any destination.
However, I can relate to having quasi-irrational favourites. I will return to Italy at the drop of a hat, and presumably, lovers of anywhere else simply didn’t meet the right pasta as a child. But what if they’re right; just maybe I’d misspent those sun-kissed, Tuscan summers.
Perhaps Barcelona would show me what good living really is.
No surprises here, but getting to Barcelona from London is a doddle. Skyscanner flagged up more possibilities than could be reasonably asked for, so we went with midday flights with BA, giving us a relaxed morning, an easy landing in mid-afternoon and a comfortable upgrade with points.
Barcelona Airport is modern, clean, efficient and slick. As someone who can guarantee that, when waiting for checked luggage, I will have to wait to the very end for the last piece to tumble out, we were spat out so quickly that I was left discombobulated. But, with the Parents in tow, we headed straight for the taxis.
The Airport is a good 20 minute drive from the city and I’m generally all for discovering the public transport options of a new city, but going for the easy option in Barcelona really did pay off, as we were to discover.
Now I am more than sensibly partial to a hotel breakfast. A cooked breakfast is one of life’s most luxurious pleasures, but getting up to cook a breakfast is a chore. We were faced with a tough choice: with such a large party and for more than week, surely an apartment was the most sensible option, but every holiday in an AirBNB is a holiday without pastries, scrambled eggs, plentiful fresh coffee and maybe a side of yoghurt and fruit. It’s a shame that AirBNB has yet to figure out how to fulfil the second ‘B’ in their bed-and-breakfast offerings. After much soul-searching, I made peace with the choice of family over pancakes.
And a good thing we did too!
I’m more than happy to shout-out to Marta & Paul, who provided us with a fantastic apartment, mid-way between the Old Town (Barrio Gothica) and the classy old suburb of Gracia.
A lovely, enormous, four bedroom flat; but this is a city very much at ease with its reputation as a tourist destination. The number of well-priced hotels and flat-renting options (especially in the off-season) is immense. There is clearly an abundance of people very experienced in making sure your stay is comfortable and smooth.
Back on the taxi thing; turns out they’re not only good for getting to and from the airport, they’re great for short hops too!
In Barcelona, the price for a ride is practically Uber prices. In fact, Uber has struggled to find a footing in the city, due to the ubiquity, reliability and cheapness of the local, official cars.
While flagging down a cab is generally easy enough in and around the centre, we were excited to discover that almost all of the official city taxis use the very Uber-like myTaxi app. Download this and you will be master of the city!
(Turns out this app works back here in London too, but almost exclusively for the city’s Black Cabs, which are still priced well-above sensible rates! Seriously, why wouldn’t you even try to compete with a market disruptor?!)
Where to Shop
As I’m starting to appreciate in Spain, you can’t spit without hitting good produce. Good quality meat, vegetables and cheeses are ubiquitous and reasonably priced.
I’ve enjoyed the upmarket mercados in Madrid (especially the Mercado de San Miguel!), but Barcelona is another level. Each of the cities Barrios (local councils) is responsible for operating their local, permanent markets and every one we went to was a cathedral to produce. Not as focussed on serving and having their produce consumed there and then as we had seen in Madrid, but nevertheless beautiful, big, clean spaces brimming with the freshest of products.
No where in the world does food shopping quite so well as Barcelona!
And aside from the local mercados, we did also discover the local Aldi/Lidl alternative. Don’t be put off by its barebones style: this is definitely a matter of savings in presentation being passed on to you!
Places to Eat
We discovered this little restaurant on a rainy afternoon and couldn’t have been less disappointed.
It’s not “special” or “exceptional”, but it is great Spanish and Catalan fare, made well and served without pretension.
Here there is some pretension, but if you want to sample some tapas worked up to perfection, this is the place.
Famous for its cellar and capable of some killer cocktails, we’d actually recommend sampling the cava here; after all, Catalunya is the home of this most sparkling of white wines. You’re going to want to try at least one bottle while you’re in Barcelona, so you may as well do it right!
This is proof that there’s (almost) no bad restaurant in Barcelona.
Situated in the heart of the Barrio Gothica, this has all the makings of a tourist restaurant, but don’t be put off. The food is good, the service is fast and the location – especially if you get a table outside – is as quintessentially Barcelonan as you could hope for.
Any automobile enthusiast will tell you that Barcelona was the cradle of two historic machs: the Pegaso and the too-beautiful to last Hispano-Suiza.
What does that have to with restaurants?
Well, there’s a remarkable lack of H-S memorabilia in this home of Spanish auto-manufacturing. Even the local car museums lack even one example of the city’s storied output.
In fact, the only place you can find a Hispano-Suiza is in the La Cúpula… and they have three!
The food here is great too. A high-class take on traditional Catalan dishes and a great cellar. It’s not cheap, but if you’re going to treat yourself to a nice meal while you’re in town, you could do a lot worse.
And if you are an auto-enthusiast, be sure to ask very nicely… because in the basement, there are four more cars in impeccable condition, including the limousine used by the Spanish Royal Family prior to the Spanish Civil War.
History, beautiful cars and a good meal!
Below you’ll see we were less than thrilled with the musuem itself, but it’s chocolate? That’s another matter altogether. A visit to Barcelona would be incomplete with sampling this most traditional of hot chocolates: a full mug of the richest, border-line solid, dark chocolate.
Tourist bus services can be a bit hit-and-miss, but in Barcelona it’s definitely a hit!
Stretched across three lines, each with interesting commentaries, free WiFi and hop-on-hop-off flexibility, this is a great way of orienting yourself and covering a lot of ground easily.
Not only that, but your 1, 2 or 3 day ticket also comes with a booklet of genuinely handy freebies and discounts that last a full year, not just the duration of your bus ticket, so be sure to take advantage of this service early in your stay so you can take advantage of the coupons for the rest of the time!
The Museum of the History of Barcelona is spread across a number of locations, each centred around some key archaeological features; whether it’s the ruins of the ancient wall and early Christian church, or the local Temple of Augustus.
They’re all well laid out and spectacularly informative.
If you’re after a bird’s eye view of the city there’s no better place to head to than the peak of Mount Tibidabo, where you’ll find one of Europe’s longest operating amusement parks.
Another great viewing spot! The defensive Castell built overlooking the ancient port is reached via the Telefèric – a two step suspended gondola ride that carries you up and away from the city, laying the whole town at your feet.
There are exhibition spaces up here too, used for a range of art and photography exhibitions, but you’re really here for the view, and if you head here on a Sunday afternoon, entry is free!
Another great museum based around a Roman ruin, this time it’s the shipyard of the Roman port of Barcino.
I’m a sucker for a good ruin, and an ancient building that is still in use (though maybe not for its original purpose) blows me away.
The collection of boats is also nice…
There’s something in this name that made me think this was going to be a “rambling” series of quaint, exotic streets. Turns out that’s the Gothic Quarter, and ‘Las Ramblas’ actually translates better to the “the ramps”: this is broad, gentle promenade that leads down to the harbour.
Crowded with tourists and tourist traps, I didn’t quite feel the love for this strip of tapas bars and souvenir stands that so many visitors have. The ubiquitous warnings against pickpockets keep you rightfully on guard.
But all of those qualms aside, there is an exciting vibe to this area which is undeniable, and on a warm evening it is a better than average way to soak up the atmosphere and watch the life of the city drift by.
Antoni Gaudí’s Greatest Hits
We’re hardly the first tourists to come to Barcelona and discover our very own adoration for the incredible creativity and designs of the city’s signature architect: Antoni Gaudí.
If you have any appreciation for design, you too will likely be inspired by the man’s great works. If you’ve not studied up on him before, look him up before you go. A basic, Wikipedia knowledge of his history will likely enhance your appreciation for all the buildings you see – and you will see them! And in all likelihood, you too will take copious pictures of them.
To take them in in something like the order that I wish we’d seen them:
A trip to the north of the city, half way to Tibidabo, is Park Güell; the abandoned development project that was to be a whole Gaudí-designed neighbourhood.
Considering its fame, there’s surprisingly little to see here, and yet, the shapes, lines, colours and designs keep the crowds thronging to the landmark of design. And understandably so. There’s such fun and frivolity in what was build here that it can only leave visitors wondering how remarkable this enclave could have been if there’d been greater public interest in the project.
Also here is Gaudí’s own home, in which he lived for 20 years. It’s the show home for the failed development project and now houses the Antoni Gaudí museum. A must visit for any budding Gaudí enthusiasts.
La Pedrera/Casa Milà & Casa Batlló
Then you start to get into the meatier entries in Gaudí’s residential buidlings.
Casas Batlló and Milà stand just a few blocks apart on the Passeig de Gràcia and respectively almost book-end Gaudí’s career and both of them have to be experienced.
The Batlló is a fanciful undersea monster of a building, all blues and sea greens, tactile ceramics and undulating carpentry. An architectural playground and grown up fantasy. The Augmented Reality tour is also good fun, all done in the spirit of such a whimsical building.
Further up the street, Casa Milà (colloquially known as La Pedrera, which roughly translates as The Cairn or Stone-pile) is Gaudí’s last residential commission. No less thought-out, but more reserved apartment interiors are enhanced by organically shaped light-wells, and on the roof, Gaudí’s awesome imagination transforms mundane chimney stacks into imposing sentinels.
The sense of personality in these buildings is surprisingly invigorating. And it’s not just Gaudí’s personality; each of the buildings really does feel like a completely different character.
This is the first solo Gaudí design to be built, and as such it’s a fascinating building to see, but it’s likely to be more polarising than his more famous buildings.
It’s in turns baroque, naturalistic and obsessively geometric. More a literal compilation of influences than a cohesive interpretation of them, but no less an exciting place to visit for that.
This one is further off the beaten track, but all the more rewarding for it.
The Crypta is all that was completed of a monumental church, designed by Gaudí along similar lines as his most famous building (coming up..). A visit here is more than just another exciting exercise in what might have been, it’s an education in how Gaudí thought and how remarkable the engineering undergirding his confections really is.
This you have to save ’til last!
Gaudí’s biggest, brassiest, least missable, and longest running construction project (expected to top out in 2026…in time for the centenary of Gaudí’s death!), the Sagrada Familia is phenomenal.
Be sure to visit the exterior more than once. See it sparkling in the sunlight and shining in the artificial lighting at night. Soak up the details of the northern, Nativity Facade and the brutal skeleton of the southern, Passion Facade.
Both are incredible.
Then go inside.
For a non-churchgoer, I’ve seen the inside of a lot of churches. Religions and denominations aside, they can be some of the most incredible and beautiful manmade spaces on earth.
This is an awe-inspiring, transcendent space on any earth. Truly, utterly and completely unique (in the proper, there-is-literally-nowhere-like-it sense).
And don’t wuss out on going up one of the towers. It’s a lift up and some stairs down. The view is less vertiginous than most terrifying old towers in Europe, and getting that up-close perspective on such an incredible building will only make you wonder at the whole thing that much more.
Madrid has some of the world’s greatest art galleries. Barcelona, not so much.
There’s the Picasso Gallery, but that’s more about the pride that he studied there in his youth; the collection ain’t all that.
And there’s the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya: or MNAC.
Based in the Palau Nacional – which is a spectacular building with a gorgeous view across the city – the MNAC does have an impressive collection of Medieval church interiors, which are remarkable to see all in one place, even if only taken as an act of preservation.
But beyond that? A couple of El Grecos and some early Goyas and Caravaggios. Of course, art galleries are more than just a collection of famous names, but at the end of the day, if your time in Barcelona is limited, maybe just visit the outside of this one.
Do not be seduced by the TripAdvisor ratings or the promise of chocolate.
What this is is a hodgepodge collection of sculptures made from structural chocolate (i.e. inedible), which are clearly ill-cared for, due to how many of them are falling apart.
And there’s a preponderance of scenes inspired by Asterix and Obelisk, who I have a fondness for as much as the next appreciator of esoteric comic books, but there’s no indication why any of any of it is here or why it’s worth the price of admission.
Come for the hot chocolate and don’t stay for the exhibit.
Mies van der Rohe Pavillion (El Pabellón de Barcelona)
This is a landmark in architectural design. A masterpiece of minimalism, and among the first examples of the style.
It’s also so far ahead of its time that it looks quite current, almost a full century after it was built for the World’s Fair of 1929!
But you can appreciate just about all of that from the outside. You’d don’t get much more than that for your €5 entry fee, other than access to the gift shop.
Barcelona: Best City in the World?
Well no. In fact, it’s not even my favourite city in Spain. But come on! What city is without a downside or two? Barcelona is far from bad!
For the architecture of Gaudí alone (and those he inspired), it’s a gem of a city that should be on everyone’s list.
As with so much of Spain: the food is consistently great, the people are welcoming and the vibe is relaxed without being boring. But for me, I know I’m in love with a city when I’m in full-on fantasy mode, trying to figure out just how feasible it might be to upsticks and relocate my entire life there; and in Barcelona, I never even looked into a realtor’s window…
Wherever we do relocate to, we’ll definitely be building a Gaudí-inspired, deluxe pad, but for the hunt for the dream location continues.
Allow me to state here how much I love Barcelona… a city full of life, intense, a port open to the past and future.Le Corbusier
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