One of the most vibrant destinations in Europe, Barcelona pulses with the rhythm of its rich and textured history, deep artistic heritage, and Catalan spirit. Both a part of Spain and yet unique, Barcelona (aka Barça) has its own language, cuisine, and point of view – plus amazing beaches to boot. If you are interested in days exploring architecture and the sunny coastline, and evenings indulging in the world’s best paella and maybe a little chilled cava, visiting Barcelona is a must.
A brief history
Barcelona is the main city in Catalonia, an autonomous region within northeast Spain. Like many regions on the European continent, the area was contested by various colonial powers and invaders throughout its history and it has retained cultural nuggets from each along the way.
Initially an outpost of the Roman empire, “Barcino” included a city wall to defend against the marauding Moors; this can, in part, still be seen today. Eventually, the northern Visigoths took hold as Rome collapsed, but they soon succumbed to the Moors, who ruled for 100 years in the 8th century.
The Catalans reflect fondly upon the next period, during which the region, under then feudal Count Wilfred the Hairy, first asserted its independence from the Carolingian empire (rooted in Central Europe). Legend has it that Wilfred was rewarded for his bravery in battle with a coat of arms by Carolingian King Charles the Bald. The king took the injured Wilfred’s blood-stained fingers and slid them down the Count’s copper shield, thus creating the emblematic yellow and red striped pattern seen on the Catalan flag today. Upon his death in 897 CE, and in defiance of Carolingian rule, Wilfred transferred his titles to his sons by inheritance — thus establishing an independent Catalonia.
Since then, Catalonia’s independence movement has ebbed and flowed thanks to ongoing conflicts with the Iberian Crown of Aragon (mostly) and France (briefly). The region saw significant growth during the industrial revolution, thus adding economic strength to the struggle for political freedom. Difficult periods followed, however, largely during the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Today, the Catalans continue to support a political separation from direct Spanish rule, though their efforts are checked at every turn.
Visiting Barcelona: How to get there
Most major airlines, including U.S. titans Delta, United, and American, have direct flights to Barcelona. The city center sits 10 miles northeast of the international airport and is easily accessed by a 20-30-minute express bus, train, or taxi ride. The express bus will get you there for about €15 ($17). The train will be about €6 ($7). A taxi will cost about €30-35 ($33-40). Additional information can be found here. Renting a car when visiting Barcelona is an option but we don’t recommend it; rush hour traffic is heavy and parking is always challenging.
City layout and getting around
Barcelona includes five or six main neighborhoods with surrounding suburban villages. Most areas of interest are within three to four miles of the coast, with the more historic sections closer to the sea. Barri Gòtic (the Gothic or medieval quarter) is Barcelona’s oldest neighborhood and worth a visit to see the still-intact 14th-century architecture. El Born and El Raval neighborhoods, also older, are happy mazes of narrow, Old World streets and newer restaurants and shops wedged in between. Eixample, another neighborhood, is slightly farther west in a newer part of town marked by wide avenues, beautiful buildings, tony shops, and exclusive restaurants. Barceloneta is the beach district to the northeast.
Getting around Barcelona is fairly easy, subject to the traffic concerns mentioned above. The city benefits from a strong public transport system including bus and metro systems, and the city center is walkable. Taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Pro tip: If you’re up for it, we recommend renting Vespa scooters. They’re efficient, easy to handle, relatively cheap (€20/$21 for 2 hours or 3 days for €89/$97), and fun. Learn more about that option here.
Where to stay
While hotels can be found throughout the city, we recommend staying closer to city center – especially if this is your first visit. There is a lot to see within walking distance and accessing more remote points can be done easily by taxi or metro.
Hotel Catalonia Born is a fully-restored, 19th century textile manufacturing property in El Born. The hotel sports contemporary interiors in comfortable quarters for the perfect siesta before a night out. Free WiFi, a tree-lined interior courtyard, and a rooftop pool are among the multitude of amenities here. Expect to pay around €179 ($195) per night. The onsite Gourmet Corner Bar (see hotel website for details) serves light meals (including breakfast) and tapas. For those wanting something more expansive, there are several restaurants within a 5-minute walk.
The U232 Hotel (Eixample) is housed in a smart-looking, 10-story building with minimalist interiors punctuated with classic furnishings like Chesterfield sofas and traditional glass shade lamps. Amenities include a minibar and free WiFi, as well as a rooftop gym and furnished terrace. All rooms include a welcome bottle of cava. Prices run about €127 ($139) per night. Several restaurants are within a brief walk, including cafés for breakfast. There is a bar area in the lobby for an evening tipple and room service for small bites.
Our favorite budget-conscious option is La Casa Gran B&B, also in Eixample. A cozy room with beautifully restored detailing, free WiFi, private bathroom, balcony, and city views runs about €80 ($88 per night). A gorgeous buffet breakfast with warm pastries, locally sourced cheese and cold meats, fresh fruit, and strong Spanish coffee is included.
What to see/do
If visiting Barcelona, there’s no question you’ll find something to do that fits your interests. And while we can’t cover the vast majority of attractions here, we’ve highlighted a few we think are particularly worthwhile. A more complete list can be found here.
Antoni Gaudí’s architecture
If you love architecture (or whimsical looking buildings in general), a tour of works by 19th century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí is a must. Perhaps the one figure who best encapsulates the spirit and culture of Barcelona, Gaudi left a handful of extraordinary properties scattered throughout the city before his death in 1926. And while there are elements of Catalan Modernism, Art Nouveau, and Spanish Late-Gothic styles in his work, his buildings are often more reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland than a particular European architectural tradition.
Top destinations include Casa Batlló, Park Güell, and his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. Though designed to be a minor basilica (it was not completed at his death), the colossal La Sagrada Familia looks more like a sand drip castle. Information on guided tours can be found here, or you can choose to explore his works on your own.
The fantastical La Sagrada Familia (Source: Shutterstock / Valery Egorov)
Art is everywhere in Barcelona – from the 10-meter-high stacked cube industrial installation, L’Estel Ferit (the Wounded Shooting Star), smack in the middle of the Barceloneta beach to Joan Miró’s colorful ceramic tile mural at the airport. Be sure and make your way to the museums of two of Barça’s favorite sons, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso.
The Fundació Joan Miró was established by the artist in the 1960s in collaboration with architect Josep Lluís Sert. Unlike many other curations, the museum structure and its contents (sculpture, drawings, and paintings) work together to create a single artistic vision. And while Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, he spent much of his youth in Barcelona – even starting his artistic career here. If you’re a fan, check out the Museu Picasso, which holds one of the most extensive collections of Picasso’s artworks anywhere.
Within the historic Barri Gòtic resides the Cathedral de Barcelona, the city’s principal cathedral, known for its exquisite Gothic architectural design and ornate artisanship – including exterior detailing and gold furnishings within.
Another of our favorites is San Pau del Camp (El Raval), a Romanesque monastery with one of the oldest churches in the city dating to the 9th century CE. The cloister is considered one of the most unique examples of Romanesque art.
Shopping in Barcelona
Las Ramblas, the well-known pedestrian mall in center of the city, is something to avoid in our view. It’s generally packed to the gills with tourists (and those that prey on them) and expensive shops selling touristy knick-knacks. Having said that, we do recommend trudging through to get to the historic Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (aka the Boqueria market).
Though the market officially opened in 1840, food sellers have been hawking their wares here since the 13th century. The vast iron portal, built later in 1914, is decorated Gaudí style with blue and yellow glass and is a foodie heaven with fresh produce, pressed juices, meats, fish, wine, and pastries on display. Try a few Spanish specialties like jamón Ibérico (Spanish cured ham), Manchego cheese, or the bacalao (salted cod).
For a chic and unique shopping experience, head to Rambla De Catalunya and the adjacent Passeig de Gràcia in Eixample. Here you will find designer shops, boutiques, and niche offerings, along with a few chain stores, higher-end restaurants, and miles of lime trees. There are also unique shops scattered across the city, especially in Raval, Barri Gòtic, and Born. We like Fantasik Bazaar in Raval for unusual kitchen wares, toys, and décor from around the world.
Barceloneta, easily reached via taxi or metro, is known for its lively beach scene, fueled by the neighborhood’s many bars and restaurants that start just off the sand. Try a walk along the coastal boardwalk from Barceloneta to Diagonal Mar, which takes about an hour not including swimming breaks along the way. For a beach day, we like Sant Sebastià; while one of the most beautiful of the Barceloneta coast, it does tend to be one of the busiest. Our advice? Get there early.
FC Barcelona Camp Nou stadium
Camp Nou is the 99,000-seat stadium that’s been home to the iconic FC Barcelona Football club (that’s soccer) since 1957. If you’re a fan, this is a must. FCB is as close to football perfection as is possible and a visit to Nou is akin to worshipping at St. Peter’s – if you’re an ardent footballer. Both guided and self-guided tours are available for touring the entire complex, which includes an onsite museum. Bear in mind that the stadium is closed to tours leading into and on match days so keep an eye on the schedule.
What to eat
While visiting Barcelona, we recommend “doing as the locals do” and adjusting to the Catalan custom of dining — eating more frequently but consuming less per meal. For one thing, restaurant tabs will be lower, and secondly, it’s just more fun to experience the host culture like the host. Here is a rundown of how to do it, and a few suggestions on where to go.
Breakfast generally consists of a café amb llet (equal parts espresso and hot milk) and a pastry. There are cafés scattered throughout the city that open at about 8am, but our favorite is Satan’s Coffee Corner with locations in the Barri Gòtic and Eixample. While you may not like the name, they serve a devilishly good brew.
Mid to late morning is snack time. Commonly, this includes a mini entrepà (a small baguette sandwich) and maybe a canyita (a small beer). Yes, beer. Again, you can find these at just about any bar starting at around 11:30am, but if you’re in the Barri Gòtic, try Bo de B. Thanks to fresh ingredients served up quickly, it’s a popular spot. Expect a line, but know the food is worth the wait.
The main eating event of the day is a long, leisurely lunch, best enjoyed between 1:30pm and 3:30pm. Expect to have drinks and up to three courses. While Spain is known for its sangría (both red and white), the preference in Barça is for tinto de verano, a satisfying combination of light-bodied red wine and lemon soda. It has less alcohol than sangría and goes farther to quench that touring-the-city thirst.
For something informal for lunch but first-in-class when it comes to seafood, try Can Sole in Barceloneta. This 100-year-old mainstay in the beach district has some of the best paella in Barcelona. In a similar (but different category), try the fideua, a paella dish in which pasta is used in place of rice.
La Paradeta is also a fun, informal option for great seafood. Select your seafood of choice from the market upfront and have it served to you in the restaurant in back. While you wait, enjoy another tinto de verano. We like the octopus grilled with garlic and parsley: fresh ingredients prepared simply, to perfection.
For fine dining (lunch or dinner) head to Disfrutar Barcelona (Eixample). Beautiful white interiors are overlaid with ornate ironwork and rich ceramics for an open, Mediterranean feel. Chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, and Mateu Casañas of El Bulli fame helm this two-Michelin star gem that revolves around two tasting menus, one often including up to 25 bite-size courses. Of course, tasting menus vary but highlights have included Transparent Pesto Ravioli, Seafood and Avocado Meringue, and Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras.
Late afternoon is snack time again. Go full-on stimulant and head for Petritxol Xocoa (Barri Gòtic) for sugar churros and chocolate. We’re talking about dipping your sugar pastry into a cup of thick chocolate dipping sauce. Yeah, it’s a thing. The chocolate is tops and worth eating with a spoon if you’re not into churros. Don’t be shy; it’s heaven in a cup.
Dinner tends to be lighter than lunch and gets started at around 9pm. Tapas and drinks are a good choice and can be found throughout the city. Carrer de Blai (aka Tapas Street) is the main drag in the Raval district and has several good tapas eateries. We also like Bodega La Tinaja (El Born) for their homemade crusty bread and Cuban sausages flambéed in rum.
Later, if you’re feeling really festive, head over to La Xampanyeria (aka Can Paixano) in Barceloneta. It’s a bar, but without tables or counters – just cava and tapas. You get the picture.
For more information about Barcelona, visit the city’s online tourism site.