Modernista masterpieces, medieval streets and Mediterranean sands are just three reasons why the Catalan capital is the perfect playpen for the urban explorer. Duncan Rhodes shares his tips for a fun weekend break…
If Barcelona were a woman she would be a ravishing but rebellious Miss World misfit, one who regularly neglects her beauty sleep for debauched nights out that can leave her looking distinctly worse for wear. The city’s best features, such as La Sagrada Familia, are perennially being patched up by unsightly cranes and scaffolding, graffiti (only some of which transcends to art) is splashed over shutters and walls and the household garbage of local residents and bodily excrements of fiesta people smear what might otherwise have been the picturesque streets of Barcelona’s Old Town.
Bizarre perhaps, but it’s the city’s rough edges that makes you love her even more. Barcelona is no too-good-to-be-true model tourist town, full of perfect paint jobs and picture postcard plazas. She is a real city who wears her fierce Catalan heart on her sleeve, dresses in the fading – but still beautiful – Modernista facades of yesteryear, and courts the company of dreadlocked hipsters, tattooed beatniks and other assorted counter-culture kids. Liberal, self-contented and loud-mouthed (especially after a caña or two), this is a city which never feels guilty about having a good time, and doesn’t care what she looks like in the morning.
Best of the Beaten Track
Gaudi grabs the headlines when it comes to attractions in Barcelona, and it’s interesting to note that the very works once mocked for their OTT grandiosity and ‘superbly creative bad taste’ (Dali), have now become synonymous with the city’s aesthetic.
La Sagrada Familia is of course his crowning glory and it really is worth braving the queues to get up close and personal with this towering cathedral, built along the architectural principles of Mother Nature which intrigued Gaudi as a boy (update, no need to brave queues… you can buy an advance ticket from Get Your Guide and choose an arrival time. Way better!).
Gaudi’s foray into landscape gardening, Park Guell, is also well worth the metro ride north (take the green line from the centre up to Lesseps). The views over the city are tremendous and film buffs will enjoy deconstructing scenes from both L’Auberge Espagnole and Vicki Cristina Barcelona. Sadly it’s no longer free to enter, and you’re best advised buying a ticket in advance.
Las Ramblas is the city’s iconic thoroughfare, a love it or loathe it place, bursting with flower stalls, souvenir shops, cartoon artists, street performers as well as street hawkers, pickpockets and (by night) prostitutes and constantly jam-packed with people at almost any hour of the day. This chaotic boulevard is also the gateway to the sensory overload of La Boqueria food market and palm-tree serenity of Plaça Reial, a good starting place for a jaunt deeper into the Gothic Quarter.
Those with a bit more time to play with should get over to Montjuic (Jewish Mountain) home to an oddball selection of cultural greats such as the National Museum of Catalan Art, Poble Espanyol, Joan Miro Foundation, Caixa Forum, Calatrava’s needle and, by night, the delightfully cheesy Magic Fountains light and sound show.
If at some point you feel your ‘museum legs’ coming on, then there’s always Barcelona’s many beaches to check out. They have their critics, but any qualms about dirty water and overcrowding is offset by the sheer entertainment provided by unabashed nudists, bronzed volleyball players, bongo-bashers/banjo-strummers, Asian hawkers, South American surfers and many more colourful characters. If the heat gets too much an ice-cold mojito at one of the chiringuitos (beach bars) = time well spent.
If you’re planning an intensive assault on the city’s sights then it might be worth investing in a Barcelona Card, as it has a lot of freebies and discounts (often with “skip the line” privileges), plus enables you to use public transport for free. Available in two, three or five day options.
Whereas most cities have their very own Shoreditch, Friedrichshain or Kazimierz, virtually every district in Barcelona has Bohemian aspirations.
El Born is perhaps the prettiest and home to a comfortable mix of tourists checking out the superb Picasso Museum and fitting in some boutique shopping, together with arty locals going about their business, slowly. I suggest picking up a Diana camera at the Lomography store, before heading to the Passeig del Born in the evening to capture the lively buzz of Barcelona’s barflies sticking into their cañas and conversation.
Elsewhere, a socially-excluded immigrant population, assorted waifs and strays, and the counter culture community, are normally enough to scare the average tourist away from Raval, leaving the likes of Rambla de Raval – one of the city’s prettiest streets – to be enjoyed by more adventurous city breakers. All in all the Raval area is full of surprise finds, such as the Gothic courtyard of the old Santa Creu hospital, a wonderful oasis of orange trees and birdsong where students (and drunks) recline in the sun. (Incidentally this is the same hospital where Gaudi died, three days after being struck by a tram. Always watch where you’re going kids!).
If you fancy exploring with a local expert the friendly folk at Steel Donkey Bike Tours specialise in small group alternative tours of the city, taking you around all of the barrios above, as well as the post-industrial district of Poblenou and its urban beaches.
For an in depth look at bike tourism, along with the best bicycle tours, check our article.
Other cool things to do in Barcelona, as reported on by Urban Travel Blog, include street photography tours and personal shopping tours, and – if you’re feeling brave – you can even enjoy a plate of paella with a notorious criminal.
Experience & Events
You may have heard of a little-known soccer outfit by the name of FC Barcelona, held in great affection by the locals. The atmosphere at the 99,000-seater Camp Nou is known more for its reverence than electricity so don’t expect pandemonium at the game, more polite admiration (or jeers and whistles if things aren’t going the culés way). If you’re not here on match day be sure to visit the Camp Nou Experience which grants you access to the museum, changing rooms and hallowed turf. For an in-depth look at what to expect check out this Camp Nou Tour review.
Year-round Barcelona is full of events and experiences that will linger long in the memory, such as the firework-laden all-nighter that is Sant Joan (Sant Juan in the rest of Spain) and the enthusiastically celebrated festes majores: week-long street parties held in each district throughout summer, culminating in La Merce, the city-wide celebration that comes with carnival-style processions and free concerts in every plaça and park. Make sure you catch highlights like the Catalan traditions of correfoc (fire-running) and castellers (human castles).
If you really want to experience Barcelona-style hedonism however come for the world-renowned Sonar electronic music festival. Even if you can’t afford a ticket to the main event, scores if not hundreds of parties and concerts make up a formidable Off programme. For less beats per minute, but even more hipsterdom, then time your visit for Primavera Music Festival in late May / early June.
For a much wider range of experiences, tours and day trips in and around Barcelona, check out the gurus at BCN.travel. Like-wise Get Your Guide have a tonne of worthy options, and make it easy to book tickets and tours online.
Travellers who plan on staying in town for a few weeks might consider a language learning holiday. There are several respected academies in Barcelona, such as Expanish language school, which offer Spanish courses together with cultural activities.
Ipod docks, pink neon lights and panoramic views make the pillows at Barcelo Raval some of the most progressive in the city. This sleek circular tower is a sign of the gentrification of Raval district, but a word of warning – it hasn’t happened yet!
If you’re keen to go green Casa Camper’s total recycling policy and solar panels make for a eco-friendly stay.
Casa Bonay is perhaps the hottest address in town for hip travellers, with a bit of cash to splash. There’s an awesome rooftop terrace, bar and coffee house on site, and a yoga matt in every room. Perhaps that’s why Les Boutique Hotels rate it as the best boutique accommodation in Barcelona.
For old school charm the family-run Hotel Grau is hard to beat. Overlooking a narrow street just off Las Ramblas, visitors are recommended to check out the accompanying bar next door for homemade Vermouth served since 1862.
Budget travellers should check out the three best hostels in the city, as chosen by Hostelgeeks.com no less!
Gastronomes are spoilt for choice in Barcelona, and whilst your chances of landing a table at Ferran and Albert Adria’s Tickets Bar are minuscule, even the crappiest neighbourhood gaff will serve up a decent bocadillo (sandwich) and – as long as you avoid dining right on Las Ramblas – it’s hard to eat badly in this city.
If you are up for braving Raval’s back alleys Cera23 serves up innovative Catalan cuisine and really delicious blackberry mojitos (although the Tripadvisor effect means you’ll be dining with as many tourists as locals), whilst also in Raval you’ll find Elisabets, one of my “go to” tapas bars when I’m showing similarly financially-challenged friends around the city.
Otherwise sidle over to local favourite Cafe de L’Academia, which with characteristic Catalan obstinacy doesn’t bother to open at weekends.
Alternatively why not go straight to the source at La Boqueria market, and either do some shopping or grab a snack at kiosk restaurants like El Quim.
To really understand the local culinary scene sign up for Food Tours Barcelona‘s Catalan Gastronomy Tour, which takes you to the more local Sant Antoni market and introduces you to everything from Iberian ham to avant-garde Adria-inspired tapas.
The key areas for Barcelona nightlife are Plaça Reial, favourite with the backpacker crowd and home to several bars and clubs of dubious quality, and Port Olimpic where a string of plush lounge bars serve up cocktails by day turning into clubs at night.
For some more authentic action, and if you can stand the crush, hit some of the city’s traditional xampanyerias for cheap Cava and tapas.
Alternatively bar crawl your way around Raval, via the numerous shabby-chic drinking dens on Carrer Joaquin Costa before ending at Apolo for some indie/electro dirty beats.
Getting There & Around
Cheap airlines Easyjet, Vueling, Wizzair, and Ryanair are probably your best bets if you’re jetting in from the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Whilst BA, Iberia, BMI, Continental, Delta are the old school carriers if you’re flying from the US or Canada.
Once at Barcelona’s El Prat airport you’ll find the efficient Aerobus service will get you into the centre of town for around €6, or if you prefer door to door service to your hotel you can opt for an affordable private transfer with Book Taxi Barcelona.
If you’re continuing your travels elsewhere in Spain you’ll find trains to Madrid, Seville and Valencia annoyingly expensive, and you may want to even check flights instead or look for a car share option, like Bla Bla Car.
Barcelona Life is a handy resource (I would say that though, as I’m the editor!), with great cultural and nightlife info, whilst the hopelessly unstylish Barcelona Tourist Guide does at least have every bit of practical info you could possibly need. For a wide range of local tips by local people check out the aptly named Spotted by Locals – Barcelona section.
Time Out, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are all decent guidebooks worth packing. For some more insight Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia paints a fascinating picture of Spain during the civil war, including the Barcelona street fighting. If you only have space for one book in your backpack though make it The Shadow of the Wind, a wild and romantic flight of fancy that takes place in the 1950s with plenty of evocative descriptions of the city.
Movies-wise best to rent out Vicki Cristina Barcelona, even if the film bears little resemblance to the realities of life in the city. For that you should watch the highly entertaining L’Auberge Espagnole, the story of a Frenchman’s Erasmus year in the Catalan capital – and no doubt the reason why the city is now probably the most popular Erasmus destination on the planet. An absolute classic.
Soundtrack to the City
View City Break in Barcelona in a larger map
Looking for even more Barcelona tips? Then find out what happened when a credit card company gave me €500 to spend in my own city. Hold onto your sombreros! Finally you probably won’t be surprised to hear that this liberal and cosmopolitan city made our list of best gay city breaks… now see where else made the list!
This article was first published in October 2009, and last updated on 17th February 2022.