Ranked one of the most popular cities in Europe to visit, unlike its rivals London, Paris and Rome, Barcelona is also one of the most affordable cities on the continent, according to Forbes magazine.
Walking through Barcelona is like walking around in a semi-dream state. The architecture encompasses everything from surreal Gaudi, to ancient Gothic, to uber-modern skyscrapers and everything in-between. There’s intriguing 2,000 year history, luscious gastronomy and of course, chic Mediterranean beaches. There’s no bad time to visit – the temperature is always conducive to tourists, ranging from a low of 49° F in January to a high of 84 F° in August.
One could spend weeks drifting around this second largest city in Spain and not run out of things to do and see. However, for first-time visitors especially, there are a dozen sights that are simply not to be missed.
1. Gothic Quarter
The Gothic Quarter, also known as Barri Gòtic, is Barcelona’s Old Town. It’s a veritable maze of narrow streets and secluded squares with a rich history dating to Roman and medieval times. In the center of the old city stands the Gothic Catedral de la Seu which predates the more famous La Sagrada Família by six centuries. The ornate exterior is styled with gargoyles and flying buttresses, and best viewed from the rooftop of the surrounding buildings.
This ancient rabbit’s warren of cobblestone streets flanked by towering old stone buildings is my favorite part to wander in Barcelona. The area is awash in cafés, boutiques, and museums. But do take care for it’s very easy to get turned around and lost in the alleys. Click here for an organized walking tour.
2. La Sagrada Família
This massive Roman Catholic Church, designed by renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, is the iconic symbol of Barcelona and part of the city’s Gaudi UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aside from the incredibly stunning design of the building is the fact that the church has never been completed and has been in a perpetual state of construction, renovation and repair. The church is said to be 70% complete with a tentative completion date of 2026 – the centennial of Gaudí’s death.
The exterior design calls for a total of eighteen unusually shaped spires representing in ascending order of height the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and loftiest for Jesus Christ which upon completion will make La Sagrada Família the tallest church building in the world.
The interior is breathtaking, with an ornate display of stained glass and geometric and colorful details in the ceiling and nave, and visitors must reserve tickets in advance and wait in a long queue before setting eyes on the splendor.
The church is one of the most unique buildings in the world, although not everyone is a fan… George Orwell called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”
3. Paella, tapas, and cava
Naturally, you can’t go to Barcelona and not indulge in the paella, which is widely considered to be Spain’s national dish. The ingredients vary from chef to chef, but usually include bomba rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, muscles, shrimp, chorizo sausage, chicken garlic, paprika and other spices.
For the most festive dining venue, go to Plaça del Rei in the heart of of Barri Gòtic. This square was once the center of all activity in Barcelona. Tapas (appetizer or snack) of all sorts are everywhere, and cava – Spain’s answer to France’s champagne and Italy’s prosecco – is flowing. It’s a lively affair with voices and music, but if you’d prefer quality over entertainment, the best meals are without a doubt outside of the tourist areas.
4. Park Güell
This masterpiece by Antoni Gaudi is arguably the most photo-worthy location in the city. Gaudi took over an unfinished housing project and turned it into an cacophony of building, sculptures, and undulating walls, covered with brightly colored mosaics. Some of the buildings look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, while others look like gingerbread complete with roofs that appear to be made out of cake icing. Park Güell is wildly popular with tourists, so to get unobstructed photos along the colorful iconic wall with panoramic views of Barcelona, I suggest getting there when the park opens.
5. Las Ramblas
Las Ramblas is a wide tree-lined pedestrian promenade almost a mile long, lined with shops, florists, restaurants, bars, and historic buildings housing operas, theatres and museums. It’s almost always crowded here, bustling with activity, vendors and street performers. Unfortunately, it’s also a hot spot for pickpockets so keep your wits around you.
6. La Boqueria
Pass through La Boqueria’s grand iron entrance and you’ll be entering one of Europe’s largest and most famous food markets. Riots of colors are everywhere. It’s loud and the ground beneath your feet can get slippery, but lots of fun. Among the wide variety of offerings you’ll see fresh fruit, vibrant candy, animal carcasses, and fresh seafood.
Montserrat is a great day trip from Barcelona. Approaching the heights by train, visitors enter an area of odd, otherworldly peaks piercing the periwinkle horizon. The bizarre-looking rounded rock pillars were formed by thousands of years of wind, rain and frost. At a height of 4055 feet, Montserrat is the highest point of the Catalan lowlands. The grounds are lovely and worthy of an afternoon stroll. But the main attraction is the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat founded in 1025. Its basilica hosts a glistening gold palatial hall where the sweet vocals of choir boys echo their Gregorian chants over the crowd. Catholic pilgrims come from far and wide to see the 12th century wooden statue of La Moreneta (The Black Virgin), also located in the abbey. There’s a museum on site with works of major artists such as Dali, El Greco, Monet and Giordano
8. Picasso Museum
The Picasso Museum, located in the La Ribera district, houses one of the most extensive collections of artworks by the 20th-century Spanish artist. The exhibits are spread across a series of five adjoining medieval buildings, all built around a shared courtyard. The collection includes exquisite examples of his works in painting, drawing, ceramics, and engraving.
9. Modern Architecture
Two of my favorite structures are Torre Agbar – a dazzling bullet-shaped skyscraper that dominates the landscape around it. The structure has 4500 windows each with different colors that can be lit up into different patterns.
The other exceptional building is Hotel Porta Fira. You can’t miss it. The whimsical red skyscraper is eye-catching. The spacious rooms are well-appointed in upscale contemporary décor which does not detract from the gorgeous city view from the wall-to-ceiling windows.
10. Barceloneta Beach
Tourists generally do not flock to Barcelona specifically for the beaches, but the location on the Mediterranean makes at least a day in the sun hard to resist. Barceloneta is by far the most popular. It’s a high-energy spot with vendors, music, kite flying, and lots of umbrellas.
Montjuïc is a small mountain overlooking Barcelona. Most people choose to arrive by cable car so they can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The area surrounding Montjuïc area offers a lot to do as well. The Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, located within the lavish Palau Nacional, is a showcase of an extensive collection of Catalan art, sculpture and paintings.
Just get out and stroll around downtown Barcelona. The vibe is crowded but pleasant, and you’ll be rubbing elbows with everyone from tourist families, approachable elderly locals to friendly (read: fresh) young Barcelonan men. Everywhere you look up you’ll see splendid buildings like Gaudi’s Casa Milà and Casa Batlló as well as other architects’ works. Stop at an outdoor café to savor a steaming mug of coffee and a slice of flan – custard dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top, while absorbing the fun, frenetic energy of this wonderful city.