Barcelona is one of those mythic cities people never forget visiting when on their Spain vacation. Like Paris or Venice, its name takes on a certain level of whimsy, perhaps fitting for the city of artists including Picasso, Dali, and of course architect Antoni Gaudi. Barcelona is both Spanish and a world apart from Spain, the capital of fiercely independent Catalonia, yet also an urbane crossroads for the world. It can also be a little overwhelming if you’re not sure what to see first. Here are four top days designed to help you get the most out of Barcelona in limited time.
Rambling the Rambla – Essential Barcelona
There’s simply no way to take in all that’s great about Barcelona in one day, on your Spain vacation, but this itinerary will let you sample the highlights. Dive head-first into the city’s signature Modernisme at either Palau de la Musica Catalana, or Palau Guell, depending on how much Gaudi you want to see. Guell is many locals’ favourite Gaudi creation, and offers an insight into the master’s early work, while Lluis Domennech I Montaner’s incredible concert hall captures the beauty of Modernisme in a completely different setting. Either one puts you within striking distance of the Gothic Quarter, where you can wander the excellent Museum of the History of Barcelona.
Weave your way to La Rambla and Mercado de la Boqueria, where you can graze to your heart’s content. Skip the restaurants right on La Rambla, however. There are two good reasons you won’t see locals eating there, and both of them will leave you with much lighter pockets. After lunch, hop the metro to Barcelona’s greatest architectural treasure, La Sagrada Familia. We cannot stress this enough: Have your pre-booked ticket in hand. Tickets are strictly timed and limited, and too many visitors to Barcelona go home disappointed because they turned up unprepared. Afterwards, wander down stately Passeig de Gracia back to the Gothic Quarter, admiring some of Barcelona’s most famous facades as you go.
Take a nap before dinner (nobody in Barcelona sits down before 9 or 10pm), then hit the city’s legendary tapas bars, favouring unique Basque or Catalonian flavours. The Gothic Quarter is also wonderfully atmospheric after dark.
Gawking at Gaudi and His Contemporaries
One of the easiest ways to see the gems of Modernisme on your Spain vacation is to embark on a walking tour. It’s a great way to put them into context if you’re pressed for time, but most tours won’t take you inside the buildings, each of which requires a good hour, not counting queue time. If you want to go in for a closer look, start early with pre-booked tickets to Casa Batllo, Gaudi’s ornately decorated apartment building overlooking Passeig de Gracia. Then stop to admire Casa Lleo-Morera and Casa Amatller, at least from the outside. Wildly clashing architectural styles have seen the three collectively dubbed “The Block of Discord.” Your final destination before lunch is Casa Mila/La Pedrera, again with your pre-booked ticket in hand. You’ll see the building’s famous “helmet” rooftop, a small museum dedicated to Gaudi’s techniques, and of course the top level apartment where those techniques are put into action.
Good lunch options abound in L’Eixample before you hop the metro (and ‘enjoy’ a short uphill walk) to Parc Guell. This is perhaps Gaudi at his most whimsical, as giant tiled lizards gaze out over gingerbread houses. Again, you’ll need a timed ticket, but these are a little easier to obtain at Parc Guell than they are at other Gaudi creations. You’ll want a good couple of hours to explore properly, plus time to visit the architect’s former house if you’re particularly keen.
L’Eixample continues to offer great dining options for dinner, with a distinctly less “touristy” flavour than the Gothic Quarter. Be sure to double back to Passeig de Gracia for an otherworldly night-time view of Casa Batllo.
Journey Through Gaudi’s Barcelona in Spain
Artsy Barcelona – Picasso to Contemporary Masters
Barcelona is a city in love with art, both from its past, and heading into its future. Your day begins in the Gothic Quarter, beating the crowds for entry to the Picasso Museum. You won’t find too many of the master’s contorted creations here. This museum is devoted to Picasso’s early work, all set within a gorgeous mansion. Use the rest of your morning to browse the beautiful medieval sculptures of the Museu Frederic Mares, or if you need a break from the galleries, step inside the inspiring Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar or the Gothic Quarter’s Catedral de Barcelona.
Find a table in the Bohemian El Raval district for lunch, located just the other side of La Rambla. Then give your afternoon a double dose of cutting edge artwork at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and/or Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona. El Raval is a great place to spend the balance of your day, but if you’re keen to fit some more art in, stop by the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in L’Eixample.
Return to El Raval for dinner, and for a dose of Barcelona’s famous nightlife if you feel so inclined.
From Beach to Mountain… in One Day
Common wisdom has Barcelona pegged as a beach city. In reality, the beach is a fairly recent addition that reshaped the Barceloneta fishing district forever. Start today at the History Museum of Catalonia on the district’s edge for your Catalonia 101. Then explore the neighbourhood, dipping your toes in the Mediterranean and enjoying a fresh seafood lunch.
Full of Barcelona’s freshest fish, more land-based tapas, or both (Barcelona’s chefs practically invented the concept of surf-and-turf), head to the Port Cable Car for a bird’s eye view that takes you to Montjuic, one of the city’s most beautiful parks. If you’re a fan of Miro, devote an hour or two to the Joan Miro Foundation. If not, press on to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya for a broader perspective. Stay to watch The Magic Fountain come alive with light after dark.
In the evening, head to the Sant Antoni district, one of Barcelona’s most up and coming neighbourhoods, or return to L’Eixample or El Raval for plentiful options.
Just for Sports Fans
All right, this isn’t a suggestion for a fifth day. But for soccer fans visiting Barcelona on their Spain vacation, there’s no greater pilgrimage than Camp Nou, and we’d be remiss not to mention it. If you’re feeling football fever – or just want something totally different from all that architecture, tapas, and art – swap out the afternoon from either the Artsy Barcelona or From Beach to Mountain itineraries and pay your respects to the home team.