Lots of people ask for advice on what to do in Barcelona, which is a difficult question to answer when the city offers so much. After living here (especially with a baby), I tend to gravitate toward non-tourist attractions, which might be disappointing to a visitor coming from overseas with limited time on their hands.
I’ve decided to break this visitor’s guide down into the better known tourist attractions, then recommend interesting things to do around those attractions. I’ll offer the pros, cons, and highlights of each item (in my opinion) to help people make the most of their time here.
I start with two of the most popular attractions: Gaudi, Catalonia’s famous architect, & Montjuic, a hill overlooking the city on one side and the sea on the other.
1) The work of Antonio Gaudi
One of the main attractions in Barcelona is the work of Gaudi, a Catalan architect best known for his flowy, drippy, mosaic work accented with twisted ornamental flourishes. Although his architecture can be found all over town, the most popular destinations for viewing it are Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia.
If you came here to see Gaudi, then you really need to go see Gaudi in those two locations. But if architecture isn’t your biggest interest, I’d say you’re okay skipping the visit. I took one friend to Parc Guell who was way more interested in visiting the beach and having tapas than trekking around a crowded park looking at weird columns. That being said, the stuff in Parc Guell is really pretty cool, even to non-architecture buffs. If you’ve got an extra day, go take a look, especially since admission to the park is free. You’ll also have great views of Barcelona out to the Mediterranean from the park, which is located up a steep hill. Be sure to wear your walking shoes. If you go to the Sagrada Familia, splurge and do the audio tour with commentary – it’s worth it, according to those I’ve talked to. To avoid lines (and the line is long), tickets can be purchased online beforehand.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found much of interest near either Parc Guell or the Sagrada Familia. For something closer to the main tourist areas, or if you just want to view Gaudi’s work in passing, stroll down the Passeig de Gracia (note that this is a different road from the Travessera de Gracia). Here you’ll find Gaudi’s famed building, the Casa Mila, as well as expensive shops, other interesting buildings, and museums. I like to wander down this street for people watching, and there are often fun, free exhibitions. The last one I visited was on El Bulli through the years.
There are so many things to see and do on Montjuic, a cliff jutting into the sea on the non-beachy end of Barcelona. The cool thing is, you can fit quite a few of them into one day because there is a bus line that conveniently loops up and down the mountain. The 193 will take you right from Plaza Espanya to the Castell de Montjuic and back down. You can also choose to take the cable car up or down, though the bus is the more inexpensive option (and the views from the cable car not worth the ticket price in my opinion).
One of the first stops on the way up is at Poble Espanyol, a recreation of a small Spanish village, with traditional architecture and arts. Here you’ll find an open air museum showcasing traditional ceramics, jewelry, engraving and weaving. A few times a year there are traditional Catalan food festivals, such as calcots (roasted spring onions) in the spring, and a pork festival after Lent. Be aware that admission will run you E9.50, so this attraction may not be quite so attractive to you.
After looping around a few times, the bus will stop by the Olympic Stadium, site of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. What’s pretty amazing is that the stadium was actually built in 1929 but stood unused for decades because of the Spanish Civil War. I really love the area around the stadium, which has some beautiful fountains and parks, from which you can see great views over Barcelona. You can pretty much stop at any point and take a lovely walk through a garden which could have anything from cultivated cacti to sculptures in it.
On the summit side of Montjuic, the bus will stop at the Castell de Montjuic, which was built in the 1600s. It’s an honest to goodness castle, with a moat and everything. It’s pretty amazing to stroll around the fortress, checking out the turrets and old cannons. There’s a small café on the top, with drinks, snacks and souvenirs. On the ocean side, you can see the bustling port of Barcelona, teeming with cruise ships and cargo ships.
At the bottom of the mountain, there is a gorgeous palace – the Palau Nacional, home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. I’ve never been inside, but the outside is just stunning and I hear it’s a nice exhibition. In front of the Palau is the famous Magic Fountain of Montjuic, which performs with lights, music, and water in summer evenings. During the day, it won’t be on, and it isn’t very exciting when it isn’t on.
Another thing I like to do in this area is visit Caixa Forum, a free art exhibition housed in a beautiful building. It isn’t out of the way, and it isn’t very large, so it’s easy to just pop in for a quick visit.
Also in this area is the Arenas, a mall which just opened in 2011. You might wonder what’s so exciting about a mall. Well, I’ll tell ya. This mall was built over/in an old bullfighting arena. You can still see the façade, and from the inside, some of the brickwork. The roof of the arena is a large, circular promenade, from which you have gorgeous, panoramic views of the city. It also has an assortment of really nice looking restaurants, with open air bars. It’s a lovely place to have a pre-dinner cocktail or afternoon snack.
Stay tuned for the next chapter, where I’ll talk about the beach, La Rambla, and general tips for getting around!