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The best of Barcelona awaits

Barcelona clings to the Balearic Sea on Spain’s northeastern coast. It’s an international metropolis with good transportation, diverse neighborhoods, savory cuisine, and eccentric inhabitants.

Although considered a Mediterranean city, Barcelona clings to the Balearic Sea on Spain’s northeastern coast. It’s a sprawling international metropolis with a well organized transportation system, diverse neighborhoods, savory cuisine, and eccentric inhabitants. But most visit Barcelona for its unique architecture.

As the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is also Spain’s second most populous city behind Madrid. And although an integral part of Spain–it is the country’s fourth largest economy–Barcelonians are Catalonian first and Spanish second. That is, of course, when they consider themselves to be Spaniards at all. This is most obvious when buying souvenirs because you won’t find any knick knacks in shops that say Espanya (España). 

Catalonians not Spaniards

Showcasing Barcelona's unique architecture, this Catalan banner says, “We fight and win independence”
Catalan banner says, “We fight and win independence”

In fact, Spanish language translations on menus and official street signs are usually listed second or sometimes third—if at all. Here, Catalan is the official language. Catalonians have an intensely independent spirit. However, they’ve yet to gather enough support to break away from Spain completely to become their own country. 

I like to think of Barcelona as Madrid’s artsy, sassy, goth little sister, who’s just dying to move out on her own—but can’t for economic reasons. In the end, Barcelona can’t survive without Spain and Spain surely wouldn’t be complete without Barcelona.

This is where people come to get their creative juices flowing, to recharge their design batteries, and to get a fresh perspective. Because Barcelona is electric.

Although the pandemic isn’t over, instead of empty rambla cafes and shuttered stores, the city is bustling once again with visitors, students, and locals. The following is an invitation to discover the Barcelona I’ve been privileged to explore through the years.

Barcelona must-see list

Because public transportation in Barcelona is so efficient, it’s easy to get around this sprawling metropolis and visit Barcelona’s unique architecture, indulge in its tantalizing treats, and experience the best this city has to offer. Google Maps is a great tool to use when deciding the type of transportation you’re going to need. Traffic may not be light, but it’s not as congested here as in London or Madrid. 

Trust me, there’s so much here to discover that you’ll definitely return.

Barcelona’s Architectural Splendor

Modernista architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Antoni Gaudí, Lluis Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch are synonymous with Barcelona for their quirky style of architecture. This peculiar style is also what makes Barcelona stand out from many other Spanish cities. Alongside the terracotta roof tops and colorful Moorish mosaics that are popular building materials throughout Spain, you’ll come to discover that Barcelona’s incredibly intricate and ornate architectural style is also inspired by Italian, French, and North African architecture. This unique Catalan style can be seen all over the city.

First on the must-visit list is experiencing in person the very unique architecture that makes Barcelona such a special destination.

Architectural wonders on Illa de la Discòrdia

The fruit of Barcelona’s architectural revolution can be seen along Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample [A-Cham-plé] neighborhood. A stroll along this boulevard will eventually lead to five of the most renowned buildings. Together, these buildings are cleverly called Illa de la Discòrdia (Discord Row) for their architects’ influence in the Modernisme català, an Art Nouveau style of architecture that breathes life into Barcelona’s abstract skyline. The architects thumbed their noses at standard architectural design. These buildings stand almost cartoon-like, side by side between Carrer del Consell de Cent and Carrer d’Aragó. It’s a sight well worth seeing.

The corner building, Casa Lleó Morera, was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Casa Mulleras by Enric Sagnier; Casa Bonet by Marceliano Coquillat; Josep Puig I Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller; and Casa Batlló by Gaudí. Most of these buildings have their own museums dedicated to their architects’ legacy. You can tour their eccentric interiors, but the best view is from across the street.

Casa Mila (La Pedrera)

Showcasing Barcelona's unique architecture, visit La Pedrera, Antoni Gaudí’s last civic architectural project.
La Pedrera, Antoni Gaudí’s last civic architectural project.

Get lost in Gaudí’s last civic architectural project. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is nicknamed the rock quarry because it looks as if the whole façad was carved out of the side of a curvy cliff. The balconies are wrapped with embellished wrought iron railings and the windows look as haphazardly placed as every other element. It’s something out of the Flintstones. You can visit this unique historic landmark a few blocks north of lla de la Discòrdia on Passeig de Gràcia any time, but if you want a peek inside this remarkable structure, be sure to check their website for available tours.

The Church of all churches

Quite possibly the most recognizable of Gaudí’s works—and his final resting place—is Basilica de La Sagrada Familia. This gigantic modern marvel broke ground more than one hundred years ago but is still unfinished. It boasts two façades. One side depicts the Stations of the Cross and the other, the Nativity. The interiors sparkle with a kaleidoscope of colors when the sun shines through the stained glass windows. And you can climb the steps of the eight giant spires to get a birds-eye-view of the city from the observation ledge between the spires. But don’t look down—you might get vertigo.

Funded entirely with donations, the expected completion date of the building is 2026, just in time to commemorate the centennial of the architect’s death. However, the Covid lockdown may have extended that date. Check their website for updates on the project.

Barcelona’s diverse neighborhoods

Cuitat Vella

Also known as the old city, Cuitat Vella encompasses Barcelona’s oldest neighborhoods, which are the Gothic Quarter, El Raval, Port Vell, and Barceloneta.

Visit Barcelona’s unique architecture on this side. Home to Parc de la Ciutadella, it was the site of the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. This park is jam packed with fun things to do for the whole family, including the Barcelona Zoo. Across the street, where Passeig de Lluis Companys meets Passeig de Vilanova, is Barcelona’s own Arc de Triomf (triumphal arch) designed by architect Josep Vilaseca i Casanova. This was the main entrance gate to the World Fair.

La Rambla

Gothic Quarter

Stretching between Plaça Catalunya to the northwest and the Columbus Monument on the southeast end, La Rambla is by far the most traversed boulevard by visitors and locals alike. It’s a 15-minute walk into the city center if you’re arriving by sea. Far from being the longest boulevard, La Rambla divides the Gothic Quarter on the east side from El Raval on its west flank. 

Barcelona is a Roman City dating back to the First Century B.C. You’ll find charming narrow medieval streets, mostly pedestrian, which undoubtedly lead to one of this neighborhood’s numerous churches and basilicas in the Gothic Quarter. This is also where you’ll find la Catedral de Barcelona hidden in plain sight. Mont Tàber, the hill on which Ancient Romans built a settlement called Barcino, is mere steps away from the cathedral. Today, you can still see the ancient ruins of Temple d’August on Carrer Paradís, as seen in the Catalan TV series Merlí (available on Prime Video & Netflix).

Boutiques, sneaker shops, and of course souvenir stores line the streets in the Gothic Quarter. The Spanish pubs here offer tapas and pintxos typical of the region. So, when you’re ready for a snack, these bars will serve pretty much the same fare. Sit back with a cañita, order croquetas de jamon, and entertain yourself with some of the best people watching in the country.

El Raval

The El Raval side of La Rambla is a bit grittier. While the architecture is still Gothic Catalan, the vibe here is definitely graffiti chic, and wafting in the air is usually the scent of reefer. In this area, you’ll find the Biblioteca de Catalunya, where university students roam; the Marcat de la Boqueria, the bustling public market; the Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. 

All of this is within walking distance from the charming Rambla de Raval where El Gat de Botero waits for a chance at a selfie. Here you’ll also find a delightful Bohemian gastro bar called Chaka Khan that is brimming with so many vegan and vegetarian options on their menu, I almost ordered them all. This restaurant gets going late, so if you want some ambiance with your enticing eats, make sure to reserve after 9 p.m.

La Barceloneta

Barceloneta Beach in Barcelona with the W Hotel in the distance showcasing its unique architecture.
Barceloneta Beach in Barcelona with the W Hotel far in the background

To the south and adjacent to Port Vell is a small peninsula that leads to Barcelona’s oldest beaches. La Barceloneta resembles Brooklyn for its streets lined with boxy apartment buildings. While walking through this neighborhood, you never get a sense that the beach is nearby.

This is a mostly residential neighborhood, with some apartments rented out for short-term vacationers. In fact, the only major hotel in this area is the W Barcelona, at the very tip of the peninsula. If you like to walk, it’s a 21-minute trek from the hotel out of La Barceloneta, but it’s charming nonetheless. Because there are no metro stations in this area, your transportation options are attached to wheels.

It’s a different world once you get to the beach, though. The vibe on Barcelona’s 13 beaches is laid back and chill. Connected by one continuous promenade, you can access all five of the beaches in La Barceloneta on foot: Platja de Sant Sebastià, Platja de Sant Miquel, Platja de Barceloneta, Playa Mar, and Platja de Somorrostro. As popular as these beaches are, tanlines are not. Here, most sunbathers go topless.

Eixample

Visit Hotel Royal Barcelona to get a good view of it's unique architecture in Eixample.
View from Hotel Royal of Barcelona

North of La Rambla is where you’ll find the trendy Eixample neighborhood, which literally means expansion. In the late 19th Century, when the good times rolled, Barcelona went through an economic expansion that gave birth to new housing development just outside Cuitat Vella. Eixample is divided into two sections: the right and left bank of this original expansion area. On the right side, Dreta de l’Eixample, is where Passeig de Gràcia leads to Barcelona’s beloved buildings I mentioned above. Have a drink with friends on the rooftop terrace at Hotel Royal near La Pedrera. I promise the drinks are as good as the breathtaking view.

Boazi Bar dumpling restaurant in the trendy Eixample neighborhood
Boazi Bar dumpling restaurant in the trendy Eixample neighborhood

Dreta de l’Eixample

Straddling Dreta de l’Eixample and Ciutat Vella on Carrer de Trafalgar and just west of Lluis Companys is a divine little dumpling restaurant called Baozi Bar. The menu is simple yet diverse, with plenty for herbivores to eat. 

Esquerra de l’Eixample

On the left side, Esquerra de l’Eixample is an upscale residential area with some major and boutique hotels. It’s home to the medical school, a botanical garden, and select restaurants serving up international cuisine. YUBI, on Carrer de Muntaner and Carrer de Paris, is a French and Japanese inspired eatery that’s great for celebrating with friends and for something completely new. Their vegan and vegetarian options more than suffice.

This area is also rich in diversity, culture, and is super gay friendly. Locally, the lower end of this neighborhood—Carrer Balmes, Gran Via, Carrer Urgell and Carrer Aragó—is often referred to as Gaixample [GAY-Cham-Plé]. I felt quite safe walking around this area while holding my wife’s hand.

Barcelona in general is an open city, ready to welcome visitors of all backgrounds, creeds, identities, and races. So, rest assured, you’ll be welcomed in Barcelona.

A city on a hill

Montjuïc Castle. Photo credit: KavalenkavaVolha. This image shows Barcelona's unique architecture people come to visit the most.
Montjuïc Castle. Photo credit: KavalenkavaVolha

Just south of the Eixample and El Raval neighborhoods, and seen from atop the Barceló Raval hotel, sits another must-see Barcelona jewel. Montjuïc is a hill with so much to take in, beginning with the sweeping sea views from Montjuïc Castle and city vistas from paths near the Olympic Stadium. This area is host to numerous attractions, amazing viewpoints, and an array of fountains. You’ll also find the museum of art, pine-filled parks, and a teleferic that connects to the city and harbor.

Start your journey at the Espanya metro stop. Take in the views through the immense Torres Venecianes—a famous pair of Venetian inspired towers—as you make your way up the Passeig de fonts d’aigua (water fountain-lined promenade) toward the Font Màgica de Montjuïc (magic fountain). Send a silent prayer for the gods to guide you on your trek up the stairs toward the Palau Nacional de Montjuïc, and take refuge inside the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Barcelona's Montjuïc's unique architecture in the distance
Montjuïc in the distance

While you’re in Montjuïc, be sure to visit the Historic Botanical Gardens, the gorgeous Jardins de Joan Maragall, and don’t miss the Figura Femenina, Venus de Milo statue. This is an area worthy of a full day to roam.

Running Las Ramblas

It is safe to run in Barcelona. With wide ramblas and sidewalks, running through Barcelona’s most coveted neighborhoods is tons of fun. A rambla is a wide promenade with one lane of traffic on either side. The city doesn’t wake up until about eight in the morning, so if you’re an early riser, I suggest you start running before 7:30 a.m. to have some alone time here.

I tend to run about three to four miles in a city I’m visiting. This gives me enough mileage to enjoy some solo sightseeing with a destination I’m discovering for the first time. And, this way, it’s easy to keep track of my route vis á vis my accommodations. However, if you use a mapping app on your phone, you can really go far.

Barcelona is no different. Because we stayed in two different areas, El Raval and the Gothic Quarter, I had the opportunity to try a few different routes. Running the Gothic Quarter, with its multitude of inclines, can give your quads a bit of a workout. So, I ran toward flatter ground to the Arc de Triomf and into the Ciutadella Park and got to see organizers set up for the travel fair, Mercat d’Escapades A Catalunya. 

Next, I ran through Plaça de Catalunya toward Eixample on Passeig de Grácia where I ran through Rambla de Catalunya and saw the amazing display of a Parc Güell Lego replica through the window at the Lego store. 

My last run in Barcelona took me to Port Vell and back. At the south end of La Rambla, I found organizers of the food and beer festival setting up their kiosks. Yum! 

I love these runs because you can explore the city sans the mob of people, when all is still and quiet.

Day-tripping from Barcelona and other tips

Barcelona’s proximity on the Catalonian coastline makes it easy to diversify your trip with day excursions to other neighboring Catalonian towns and seaside villages such as Sitges, Girona, Tarragona, Montserrat, and Mataró. On our last trip, my wife and I used Barcelona as bookends to a six-night stay in Sitges.

The month of May is a fantastic time of year to visit Barcelona. While it’s sunny, it’s not unbearably hot. The crisp mornings and warm afternoon weather allows for dressed-down attire like capris and shorts. For cooler weather, October is a great time of year as well.

Beware that petty crime is a big problem in Barcelona. But this is true for most large European cities due to the sheer number of tourists coming into the city. Be extra vigilant when strangers are approaching. Keep an eye on your valuables, especially while sitting at an outdoor cafe. And keep your passport and extra cash locked in your hotel safe.

Whenever you decide to visit Barcelona, remember this: don’t worry if you don’t speak Catalan. Everyone can communicate in Spanish or English. However, all you need to know to get you by are these few words: vino, cañita, Aperol Spritz, tapas, pintxos, and taxi. And if you’re a vegan or vegetarian say: sense carn.

Visit my travel page for more of my favorite places.

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