Full of charisma and character, Barcelona is an ever-changing, colourful masterpiece. A popular tourist haven, the capital of Catalonia is brimming with Gaudi’s architectural quirkiness, bustling streets and sandy beaches. It truly has something for everyone!
The Spanish city of Barcelona is situated on the southern coast with beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea. It is famed for its sport; with football and the 1992 Olympics as two of its key claims, there is so much more than you might think. Architecturally it is full of surprises and buildings that break conventional mould, with mixtures of the modern and historic at every turn.
The Gothic Quarter, Barri Gòtic, is the original heart of Barcelona. It forms part of the old town district and contains many of the religious and administrative buildings in the city. The central part of the district is the Plaça de Sant Jaume. The typically Roman grid plan of roads and streets is still visible today in the layout of the historical centre.
As the capital of Catalonia, there is a mix of Spanish and Catalan everywhere in terms of both cultural influences and language. There are also French and Italian elements to the region due to the history of the city and its location along the Mediterranean coastline.
Barcelona’s history is a long and eventful one. Evidence of prehistoric settlements have been found in the area but traditional records state that Barcelona was founded as a Roman City in 15BC and was the capital of the Country of Barcelona. This merged with other regions over time and continued to be an important city throughout.
We arrived in port during a summer Mediterranean cruise, with Barcelona being the second stop of a fortnight’s holiday. Whilst we were only meant to be staying in the city for 8 hours a storm looming further up the coast prevented us from sailing onto our next port of call, Monaco, and so we managed to get a bonus overnight stay in the city for further exploration!
The weather was hot and sunny and we even had time to head back to the ship for a change of clothes to help us cool down. We also needed a short break and a rest of our feet. As Barcelona is such a big city spread over 39 square miles (101km square), we used the hop-on hop-off buses to navigate around the place and to get as much out of our time as possible. Despite this, it was still hard going on the trotters!
Our priority for the day was to visit the Sagrada Familia, probably the most famous and recognisable landmark in Barcelona. We had pre-booked tickets so that we wouldn’t have to waste too much time queuing and could get as much out of our day as possible. But once you’ve seen this stunning Cathedral, seeing the other Gaudi creations is an absolute must! If you’re not sure what you want to see or you don’t like making too many plans then fear not! Heading down any of the main streets from the centre of the city, you will find something to interest you.
The stand-out tourist destination of Barcelona, The Sagrada Familia is a sight to behold both inside and out. The building is probably one of the most famous construction sites to see - but look beyond the scaffolding and cranes and you can see why such a feat has taken so long to create.The Sagrada Familia is a World Hertitage Site and with ongoing building work it is almost constantly changing, offering a different perspective every time you visit. If visiting more than once it is great to be able to see the changes that have occurred in the time that you have been away - use your social media to share your photos side by side and get your friends to play spot the difference! There are 18 spires on the roof - an image that is becoming more and more iconic as more of them are revealed to the Barcelona skyline. The 18 spires represent the 12 Apostles, The Virgin Mary, the 4 Evangelists and the tallest of them all represents Jesus. There are 4 spires reaching to a Godly height of 100 metres!
As with many attractions in Barcelona, buying your tickets online beforehand is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to gain entry. We stood outside the Basilica and booked our tickets using our smartphone, selecting the time of entry we wished to have and then queue jumped. We were was able to get in at the time we wanted without having to wait (or waste time) with those who were waiting for tickets, meaning we could explore more of the city!
Its history, whilst relatively young for a cathedral, is fascinating and continues to develop on an almost daily basis. The initial idea was devised by architect Francesco del Villar when work began in 1882 but only a year later was taken over by Gaudi who is now synonymous with the building. He devoted the rest of his life to the project and even lived onsite. Unfortunately, he was killed by a tram in 1926 during his daily walk to confession. He is buried within the cathedral, so although he was never able to see his passion through to its end, he will also be at one with the building. It is believed that the planned completion date for the build is to be 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death, but many people believe that this is a pipe dream!
The southern Façade is yet to be completed - it was only begun in 2002 - but is already being hailed as the most splendid of the facades. The towers here are higher than the others. It is the principle façade and will offer direct access to the nave inside. Gaudí wanted to show the last four events of a human on the Facade of the Bliss: the death, the last judgement, hell and bliss. Once completed, it will also depict the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. Seven entrances are on this side of the church each representing one of the sacraments. The Eucarist door is inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and the letters AG (Gaudi’s initials) from the line ‘lead us not into temptation’ are the door handles.
The eastern side was the first to be complete, facing the rising sun to symbolise the birth of Christ Himself. The façade consists of 3 doors (also known as portals) and four bell towers and is the only façade to have been overseen by Gaudi himself. The left portal is the ‘Portal of Hope’, the middle one ‘The Portal of Mercy’ and the one to the right ‘The Portal of Faith’. Nestled between each door are pillars with angelic trumpeters. But the most transfixing element to this side of the building has to be the four spires, two of which stand at 98 metres and the inner two at 107 metres. These towers represent Saint Barnabas, Saint Simon, Saint Judas Thaddeus and Saint Matthew. At the top of this façade is a cypress tree (the tree of life) spanning two of the towers. There are so many symbols to spot here, some that may seem more surprising than others; two turtles representing the land and the sea and two chameleons to represent change.
The western façade was built utilising the late Gaudi's design and meets the specification he had imagined. This façade was designed in memory of the passion and death of Christ. In appearance, it is very plain and geometric in comparison to other sides of the building - it is hard and bare as if made of bones. Depictions of the crucifixion include images of an emaciated Christ. The whole façade was designed to strike fear and dread into the onlooker, a constant reminder of sin. There are many other symbols and depictions here; the stations of the cross, the last supper, the kiss of Judas. St Bartholomew's and St Thomas' towers are also here. On this façade you can find a magic square, where all columns and rows add up to 33. The reason for this has been taken to the grave with Gaudi. Some say it represents the age Christ was when he died whilst others think it has linked to the Freemasons - many believe Gaudi was a member himself.
Barcelona has a population of 1.6 million city dwellers, increasing to 4.8 million when also counting the surrounding urban areas. This makes it the 6th highest populated urban area in the European Union after Paris, London, Madrid, the Ruhr region of Germany and Milan. With Britain soon to leave the EU and bumping London off the list, Barcelona will be gaining a promotion to 5th place very soon!
Whilst Barcelona is a key tourist spot with travellers flooding in for long weekends of sun and fun, it is not the best location for hitting the beaches. Overcrowded and notoriously unclean, if you are looking to enjoy a sandy siesta then you might consider travelling a little out of the city to one of the neighbouring towns such as Casteldefels which has beautiful beaches and is a 20 minute journey by train.
Casa Milà is a city centre apartment block like no other. Yet another inspired architectural piece from Gaudi to make the World Heritage list, it is one of the most unusual but super-cool buildings we had ever seen. Nicknamed the quarry (La Pedrera) at the time of being built (1905-1907) it was considered ugly by locals. However, now it stands proud on one of the busiest streets of the city, looking like a left-over piece of set from a Tim Burton movie! It was inspired by the rock face of Catalonia’s sacred mountain.
You can see the exterior of the building from the roadside and you can get some great photos even from here. But if time allows it then why not step inside and see the interior of this bizarre building for yourself? Tickets for a tour can be purchased online which works out cheaper than getting your tickets on the door. There is an audio guide to use whilst you wander around and take it all in! But be warned - you might feel like you are in a theme park! This building is certainly a one of a kind.
There is lots to see once you are inside the building. The attic spaces are amazingly characteristic, it feels as if you are in the belly of whale with its 270 arches. The staircases and entrance halls open up into a stunning courtyard flooded with light and nature. It is a stark contrast from the exterior of the building and the expanses of stonework to found here at Casa Milà. Finally, the Exhibition Room is where the main apartments were originally located and once again you will find the quirky touches of Gaudi who designed these rooms for the owners, the Milà family.
Another Gaudi masterpiece, Casa Batlló broke the mould and is certainly a one-of-a-kind building. You’ll struggle to find many straight lines and uniformity here. The front façade of the building consists of wobbly looking terraces, irregular oval shaped windows, an arched roof and pieces of broken, colourful mosaic tiles splashed across the stonework. From the street it looks almost as if a spaceship or object from a different time has landed alongside the houses here - think of Doctor Who’s Tardis making a sudden landing!
The house is named after the family who commissioned Gaudi to renovate the building and has stood in this spot since 1877. Since the 1950’s the house has been owned by companies and later the Bernat family who in 1995 opened their doors to the public for tours and visits. It now welcomes a million visitors a year to explore the equally impressive interior.
You can use smartphone technology and guides to help you explore the interiors which are open from 9am to 9pm. We advise arriving earlier or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Again, buying your tickets online will also help you to avoid queuing at busier times and are easy to purchase via the Casa Batlló website. The elevator in the building is stunning but is probably better observed by taking the stairs to see the colourful tiled walls and great flood of light that fills the area. With so much to see from the indoor gardens, the roof terrace and gift shop, make sure you leave plenty of time to fully explore this mystical and magical building. It really is a one off!
Park Güell is a public park located on Carmel Hill, in the north of the city. Yet another unique creation by Antoni Gaudi, the park was built between 1900 and 1914 and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can find Hansel and Gretel inspired gatehouses which lead you into the park. Upon entering you will see mosaic dragons, a viaduct, a museum of furniture and artefacts from some of Gaudi’s other projects, fountains and unique mosaic displays that could only ever be associated with Gaudi’s famous style. From many locations in the park you can get spectacular views over the city and the park itself. From here you can see the wonderful Sagrada Familia even though it is far across the city from your location. The panoramas from here are worth the visit alone!
Gaudi designed the park to incorporate his modernistic ideas whilst celebrating nature and the natural world in all its beauty. The Sala Hipóstila is an example of this. It was originally intended to be a market and consists of 86 stone columns which become a forest of great trees to walk through. If you have already visited other Gaudi buildings you will feel a sense of familiarity with the colours and shapes that are featured here.
The park is open all year round but times vary depending on the season so plan ahead by using the website for the most up to date information. The outer park is free to roam around but consider paying to enter the ‘Gaudi Park’ within. Ticket prices alter year on year and are currently about €9 for an adult ticket with advance tickets being the best options here. As the park is such a popular tourist attraction and access to the central area is limited you will have to book a time slot. Pre-booked ticket holders need to be there in plenty of time to ensure you get in at your ticket time. The park also offers guided tours in many languages which allow you to learn about the symbolism of many of the unique works here.
You have many choices of how to get to Park Güell. The city buses have bus stops close by as well as the hop-on hop-off services. Be warned it’s a bit of a trek uphill to the park entrance from here - we climbed this route in the heat of the midday sun and it certainly felt longer than the estimated 15 minute walk! You can also get off the Metro green line at either Lesseps or Vallcarca but again you will have to brave the walk!
Las Ramblas has served as the centre of the city since the 15th century and is one of the key tourist attractions in the city. A hustling and bustling street full of street artists, performers and caricaturists, it has an artistic feel to it similar to that of Covent Garden in London. However, be careful when walking among the market stalls and performers - this area is notorious for pickpockets who take advantage of the tightly packed travellers with pockets full of local currency, the latest tech and passports. These guys are true professionals and you won’t even realise you’ve been compromised until it is too late. Be on alert from everything from runners to someone giving you a compliment!
Due to the high number of tourists in this area, most of the shops and restaurants along the street are expensive. However, if you have cash to spare and want the experience, grab an outside table, a glass of sangria and enjoy a good old people watch! In the evenings, you will find even more interesting sights to behold as some areas along Las Ramblas become a red-light district - with so many erotic shops and museums here it might not surprise you!
Make sure that whilst you are walking along the street here you look towards your feet! There is a stunning Joan Miró mosaic on the floor that many travellers walk over without even noticing its existence. The key question is can you find the mosaic tile with Miró’s signature on it? Depending on how busy the area is when you visit could depend on your success in this mission!
The Gran Teatre del Liceu, or Liceu as the locals call it, is an opera house found on Las Ramblas. Opened in 1847 by a group of shareholders, this opera house was different to most as it was not owned and maintained by the monarchy. During the 1800's the building had an interesting time - almost completely destroyed by a fire and then victim to an anarchist bomb attack which killed 20 audience members. The interior of the auditorium is famously huge - in fact one of the largest opera houses in Europe having a seating capacity of 2,292 which are placed over five tiers. With stunning and opulent interior décor, if people-watching and the red-light district aren't to your taste then why not give opera a try?
The city had four main urban locations during the Olympics, spreading out and creating four corners of Barcelona for the duration of the games. Montjuïc was the main city location featuring both opening and closing ceremonies; the athletics stadium and swimming pools for water-based sports were located here. With beautiful views out to sea and on the other side, visions of the city, there is no wonder that this was the focal point for the whole world to see. The Diagonal region of the city was used predominantly for football and equestrian events towards the north-west of the city. Vall d’Hebron was used for volleyball, tennis, track cycling and archery up in the north-east corner of the city. The coastal area of the city, Parc de Mar, was used for water sports such as sailing in the Olympic Harbour. As with all Olympic cities, there were also out-of-town venues for events such as football and cycling.
There are many locations throughout the city that you can still visit and get a taste for the size and scale of the task of hosting 169 nations participating in 25 different sports. Visiting the Montjuïc region is still the main tourist attraction. Here you will find the Juan Antonio Samaranch Olympic and Sports Museum, named after the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during the time of the games, who himself was a native of the city. It has been open since 2007 and costs €6 to enter. Its aims are to educate, share the values of the Olympics and inspire and innovate sportspeople to achieve and succeed. It’s a worthwhile visit if you have the time and as the Olympic Stadium close by is free to enter you might as well make the most of it all!
After 10 years of dictatorship reign, the 1992 Olympic Games gave the people of Barcelona something to be proud of. Holding the Games allowed the city to be transformed with modern infrastructure being installed to facilitate the influx of tourists to the city. The Montjuïc was transformed into a large urban park. The entire region of Poblenou was converted from an industrial area into a much more appealing residential area. After years of housing neglect this helped to lift the spirits of the Catalans. All of this investment and improvement has led to huge growth in tourism in the city over the past 30 years, leading to further investment and development - hotels and eateries have flocked to the area in search of their share in this now lucrative city.
Barcelona won the coverted bid to become a Summer Olympic Games host city in October 1987 beating cities such as Paris and Brisbane to the prize. These games were important due to many political changes in Europe since the previous games; the reunification of Germany, the end of the Cold War, the dissolve of the Soviet Union and the separation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This meant that for some newly formed countries (Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) this was their debut games. There were also many sporting firsts that took place here with new records being set and many exciting moments - the women’s 100m was one of the closest races in history with 5 women finishing within 0.06 seconds of each other. These games really put Barcelona on the world map and the popularity it enjoys today is in many ways due to the success of this global event.
The Hop-on, Hop-off buses are one of the key ways to travel if you want to do the touristy haunts. At just under €30 (significantly cheaper if purchased online), you can see the majority of the city in one day. Just allow plenty of time to get around the entire route as it will take some time.
There are three routes to choose from. Completion of one, two or all three can be done depending on your location, time available and planned destinations. The red and blue routes take you around the centre of the city, with a green route incorporating the coastal road. Discount vouchers for entry into other attractions are also included in the purchase price meaning that if you plan to stay for a few days, this might help the Euros stretch a bit further.
There are so many different stop-off points, that it is impossible to miss key locations. On-board audio is available in a variety of languages which give you an insight into the history and facts about the city as a whole as well as landmarks. If you haven’t had time to do a lot of research, or the sheer size of this city is too overwhelming, then give this a try and see where your adventures take you.
In most locations we would admittedly sneer upon touristy buses such as these. However, in a city as vast as Barcelona, on a limited time allowance, and with so much of the city we wanted to see, we swallowed our traveller pride and did the best we could on the budget we had. Our advice is to not let transport snobbery stop you from seeing it all!
Eating is an extremely important social activity in Catalonia. It is a regular pastime and ranges from lunch with friends to traditional family Sunday feasts. Whilst in Barcelona you will notice that the fast-paced city life slows down between 2pm and 4pm for lunchtime, when everyone heads home or to local eateries to get their fill. However, many restaurants in the city are closed on Sundays or Mondays so do your research to avoid disappointment. Hotel restaurants and those in tourist areas will be open 7 days a week but if you want a true taste of the region these won’t be the place to find it!
Barcelona’s cuisine is strongly influenced by its location. You will find hints of neighbouring Italy and France in Catalonian menus and a real bringing together of land and sea. As it is placed on the bountiful Mediterranean coast, Barcelona’s cuisine offers a delicious selection of seafood dishes such as esqueixada - a beautiful hand-shredded salt cod dish with tomatoes, onion and olive oil - or how about suquet de peix, a fish and potato soup?
Inland Catalonia also provides stunning produce such as tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, artichokes, pork and ham which are absolute musts to sample! Up in the mountain’s pigs and sheep roam, which give the dish May Y Mantagna meaning Sea and Mountains (a dish of meat and fish) - think Mediterranean surf and turf!
And for those with a sweet tooth the number one dish to try is Crema Catalana. Essentially a Spanish take on Crème Brulee but delicious in any form or country! In Barcelona you will also find Crema Catalana flavoured muffins, ice creams, coffees and gelatos so if you are a fan you can sample it in many different forms. With all of the walking to be done in the city you will have earned the calories!
When thinking about Spain and what to drink, the first thought that comes to mind is usually sangria (by the jug). However, in Barcelona you are more likely to see the locals drinking a glass of Cava as this is the city’s most popular drink. This tasty sparkling wine is produced in Catalonia and so the price is reasonable and always available!
Another way to look like a local is to participate in ‘la hora del vermut’ (the time for vermouth), an established Catalan tradition. Head to a bar and enjoy sipping a vermouth on the rocks and sampling some tapas. It is often drank before a meal to awaken the stomach but in more recent years, as its popularity has made a resurgence, it is drank any time and anywhere!
It is illegal to drink on the streets in Barcelona. This also includes beaches so be careful if you want to avoid a fine from the police. You will find people selling beer on the streets for €1 but be warned, this is usually warm, comes from unsanitary conditions and is often tampered with or watered down. Remember, if something seems too good to be true then it usually is!
Barcelona has a slight reputation for poor quality coffee, but in recent years there are many proprietors who are changing this and working hard to make coffee in the city a thing to be enjoyed. Keep an eye out for coffee shops, look for the busy ones as it usually tells you they are good, and also ones filled with locals - another sign of a good cup! To get the right order remember; Café Americano is a longer black coffee, Café Solo is an espresso style drink and Café con Leche is coffee with milk.
A vibrant and modern city with a wonderful historic quarter, Barcelona is full of architectural marvels. Gaudi’s unique stamp can be found all over the city and a visit here will provide you with the opportunity to see buildings that can be found nowhere else in the world. It’s almost impossible to see it all in a day and careful planning to see as much as your time will allow is key if you want to get the most out of this wonderful city. Whether you are on a budget or you have the funds to enjoy a fuller itinerary, there is something for everyone to see and do. Wander the streets, soak in the atmosphere and see where your adventure will take you.
Barcelona is a great location; it is one of our favourite city ports to visit whilst cruising and we look forward to our next visit. We’d love to hear your experiences from trips to Barcelona and the surrounding areas. Do you have any extra tips for fellow travellers? Got your own stunning shots of the city to share with us? We’d love to hear your thoughts and see your photos, so please leave us a comment on social media and connect with us. If you’ve found this guide to Barcelona useful, please like and share our page using the buttons below.
Many visitors to Spain get around without speaking a word of Spanish, but just a few phrases go a long way in making friends, inviting service with a smile, and ensuring a rich and rewarding travel experience.
An unbeatable pocket-sized travel guide to Barcelona, packed with insider tips and ideas, colour maps, top ten lists and a laminated pull-out map, all designed to help you see the very best during your trip to Barcelona.
A definitive and illuminating biography of one of the most famous, and most famously unfinished, buildings in the world, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Rich in detail and vast in scope this book is a revealing study of the building.