Jetsetter’s Guide to Barcelona

By Johanna Read,

Busy Barcelona is one of the world’s most popular tourist cities, and it’s no wonder with its architecture, art, food, seaside and mountain views, and year-round pleasant weather.

The city’s tourist hot spots are always bustling, especially so in the summer and during holidays and festivals. If you plan to visit Barcelona during these popular times, be sure to book your hotel and tickets for popular Gaudí sites well in advance. Visit Barcelona has plenty of tips.

What to Do

Strolling Barcelona’s streets is one of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere and admire the city.

To situate you: Las Ramblas and Rambla de Catalunya are two streets that almost connect at Barcelona’s main square, Plaça de Catalunya. Las Ramblas starts near the cruise ship terminal and goes north to Plaça Catalunya, where, on the north side, it becomes Rambla de Catalunya. On the western side of Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s famous public market, Mercado de la Boqueria, and on the east is an entrance to Plaça Nova (New Square) and the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic). Running parallel to Rambla de Catalunya, and also starting at Plaça de Catalunya, is the broad boulevard Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district.

The whole area is usually crowded with tourists and is full of shops and restaurants. Wandering through these walkable neighborhoods you’ll see examples of Barcelona’s stunning architecture, including top Gaudí sites like Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, both on Passeig de Gràcia. In the Gothic Quarter, visit Plaça Nova on Thursdays for an antiques market, and see the 14th-century Basílica of Santa Maria del Pi. This church’s interior is a treat for the eyes and the building has one of the largest stained-glass rose windows in the world. It’s named for a pine tree (pi, in Catalan) that once stood here.

Be aware that some of the world’s best pickpockets target tourists in Barcelona. Don’t be so distracted by the crowds and sights that you become one of their victims. Be particularly careful in the pedestrian zone of Las Ramblas with its distracting street performers and souvenir stands.

You can’t visit Barcelona without exploring the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí is said to be the master of Modernisme, the richly-detailed architecture where curves rather than straight lines predominate. Seven Gaudí sites in and around Barcelona are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites: La Sagrada Família, Casa Milà, Casa Batlló, Casa Vicens, Park Güell, Palau Güell, and, just outside the city, the church in Colònia Güell.

Barcelona’s top Gaudí draw is the magnificent La Sagrada Família basilica. Gaudí took over the church’s design in its early days and it became his life work. Construction of the building began in 1882 and to this day is not yet complete. When Gaudí died in 1926, the church was less than a quarter complete, and much of what you see today was inspired by Gaudí’s original designs. Work continues with the aim of completing construction by 2026, the one hundred year anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Completion of the basilica’s elaborate decorations is estimated to take another decade beyond that.

La Sagrada Familia stained glass. Photo by Johanna Read

La Sagrada Família has three main facades, showcasing the birth, passion, and glory of Jesus. Gaudí had the most influence over the nativity facade; it and the crypt (where Gaudí is buried) have the UNESCO designation. The basilica’s interior has spectacular stained glass, 200-foot high ceilings, an organ with 1492 pipes, and countless treasures for the eye. When completed there will be 18 towers; two of which you can visit now (they require an additional ticket beyond the main entrance ticket).

Gaudí’s works are sprinkled throughout the city. A popular one is Casa Milà, also called La Pedrera (meaning Stone Quarry, because of its rough stone facade). You can tour some of the rooms inside and see Gaudí’s detailed works — he even designed the door knobs. Don’t miss the attic with its 270 brick arches and the rooftop with its statues resembling Star Wars’ stormtroopers. An audio guide is included in the ticket price.

Where to Eat & Drink

Barcelona is a culinary city. It has several Michelin-starred restaurants, but also reasonably-priced bodegas, cafés, and outdoor terraces. There are plenty of tapas bars, though note they originated in the south of Spain, not Barcelona. You’ll find Spanish mainstays like churros and paella, but why not eat traditional Catalan foods instead? Try escudella d’olla (a two-course stew), suquet de peix (potato and seafood stew), and crema Catalana (a citrus and cinnamon custard similar to crème brûlée).

For a taste of Barcelona, wander through the Mercado de la Boqueria (mornings are best to avoid crowds) to admire the produce, seafood, meats, and variety of restaurants. Pull up to the counter at Ramblero, at stand 550, and enjoy razor clams, freshly-shucked oysters, and red prawns while chatting with the friendly staff.

For lunch or dinner, try Restaurant Casa Agusti a block west of Plaça de Catalunya. It’s a traditional Catalan eatery which opened in 1936. Sample fried squid, Iberian ham, and rice with cod and chickpeas either on the terrace or inside the black- and white-tiled main dining room.

For dessert — and for souvenirs to take home — head to Cacao Sampaka. Order a thick drinking chocolate (traditionally made with cinnamon) with a pastry, and, for later, buy a few of their grand cru bars of chocolate.

Where to Stay

Choose from of Barcelona’s most luxe hotel, or try more modest rates at:

Ayre Hotel Rosellón (Carrer del Roselló 390), in the Eixample district, is a brand new four-star property with modern soundproofed rooms. It’s just 200 meters from La Sagrada Familia and its panoramic terrace. Some of the 105 rooms have views of the iconic church.

Motel One Barcelona-Ciutadella (Passeig de Pujades 11-13) has budget prices, but features works by local artists like Lara Costafre and chairs by famous Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola (she also designed the interiors of the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona). It’s across the street from the immense Parc de la Ciutadella and within walking distance of the Gothic Quarter, La Rambla, and Passeig de Gràcia.

Author Bio

Canadian freelance writer/photographer Johanna Read specializes in travel, food, wellness, and responsible tourism. She visits three to six continents annually, sampling local foods whenever possible. See her work in outlets like Fodor’s, USA Today, Time Out, Reader’s Digest, and on her website, Instagram @TravelEaterJohanna, and Twitter @TravelEater.


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