Yellow and red vertically striped flags hang in good company off of balconies and high above government buildings. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia and like the hues of these flags, the city is rich with contrasts. On a maiden trip to the largest city in the northeast region of Spain, it became quickly evident that Catalonia is distinct from the rest of Spain (as it currently stands). Currently Catalans (the people in the four provinces of Catalonia) are politically pushing for independence from Spain, ultimately to have their own nation-state.
There is a fierce pride apparent throughout the Catalan culture that makes Barcelona ripe for immersion. Hear the unique Catalan language, not a dialect of Spanish, but a Latin derivative that shares similarities with other western romance languages. Taste the geographic diversity of the region that produces a wide variety of produce, seafood, wine, and meats.
This is a guide to Barcelona from the eyes of a first-timer in the middle of winter. Now, Barcelona’s winter is much milder, much calmer, and sunnier than that of my erratically snowy, constantly rainy homebase in Bavaria, Germany (and prior to that, in the U.S. midwest). So, Barcelona in the summer opens up to a whole itinerary of activities, parties, and restaurants sidling the sun-soaked sand. If visiting in the summer add a day by the beach. But, no matter the time of year travel for these must sees, dos and eats.
Things to See:
Grandeur of Sagrada Familia
This church, officially christened with the mouthful, Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, is an ever-evolving testament to Barcelona’s love affair with the famed architect Antoni Gaudí. There are lasting markers of Gaudí’s influence all across the city but the Sagrada Familia demands to be noticed, regardless of religious adherence.
After over a century of construction (it began in 1882) the end is near for the construction that has led lead architects over the years to carve their own aesthetic on the church. Completion is set for 2026 in part as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s accidental, unfortunate death. Some of the last parts to be built are the six tallest towers, of the 18 total spires on the building. These towers will represent the four evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ; the tallest of will raise the height of the facade to 172.5 meters (566 feet) earning Sagrada Familia the title of “tallest church in the world.”
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI deemed Sagrada Familia a minor basilica, which for tourism basically just meant a price hike for admission. If traveling on a budget, skip the entrance fee and take a walk around the building a few times to soak in all the detail.
Side note: the church cannot be a cathedral which denotes the seat of a bishop, but it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Architecture of Arc de Triomf
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris hogs all the attention, but the grand arch in Barcelona stands in similar imposing fashion over the extensive promenade, Passeig de Lluís Companys. Built in a signature red brick and Mudéjar style, the architect Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas constructed it as the main gate for the 1888 Barcelona World’s Fair. Stop by the Arc en route to the neighboring Parc de la Ciutadella.
Works at Museu Picasso
See the most works by Pablo Picasso that you could ever hope to see in a lifetime…in one museum. Take a journey through time starting with his early, classical works and see the progression to shapes broken down, recolored, objects dissolved only to define his style and etch his name in gold within the encyclopedia of art history. Picasso first moved to Barcelona with his family in 1895. It’s where he attended the Llotja School of Fine Arts and set up his first studio. Locales where he ate, drank, met with friends, and painted can be found throughout the Ciutat Vella (old city) neighborhood. A global artist, Picasso lived intermittently in Barcelona throughout his life and the museum was established by request of the artist himself.
Things to Do:
Take a Fat Tire Bike Tour
Barcelona is incredibly pedestrian friendly, but major attractions on the hit list are spread out which is where the Fat Tire Bike Tour cycles to the rescue. Guides take small groups around the city on comfy seats and (fat) wheels, stopping at points of interest to share facts, figures, and open up the city in a way only a local can. The tour lasts about four hours, including a cafe stop for drinks and Catalan cuisine. Take the city tour to start in the Barri Gotic, traverse to various stops like Palau de la Mùsica Catalana, Plaça del Rei, a few important churches, and then ride along the Barceloneta Beach to see the Olympic Village and Port Vell.
Stroll Through Parc de la Ciutadella
In the heart of bustling Barcelona is an oasis of space to stroll, stride, and cycle. Step through the statue-flanked main gates of Parc de la Ciutadella into Barcelona’s main public park. The space’s history stretches back to its star-shaped citadel beginnings in the early 1700s only later to be largely demolished (for political reasons), and then converted into an urban park in the late 1800s. From that time still stands the modernisme venue that resembles a traditional medieval castle, Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castle of the Three Dragons) which was used as a cafe and restaurant for the 1888 Universal Exhibition (otherwise know as the World’s Fair).
Must-sees in the park are:
- Font de la Cascada– A Baroque waterfall and fountain under a captivating arch built by Josep Fontsere i Mestres. Fun fact: Gaudí was an apprentice on the project that took about six years to complete.
- Parc Zoologic — Monkey around at the zoo while watching and learning about 400 different species of animals.
- Statues — Various statues and monuments dot the property. A mammoth of mammoth stands waiting for you to take your picture with it right off the main path in front of the Cascada fountain.
Climb Montjuïc & Tour Montjuïc Castle
Rising above the city sprawl stands the tall hill of Montjuïc. There are many attractions spread around the hill worth hiking for but it’s best to first head to the top to the fortress for exemplary views of the Mediterranean, harbour, and city center. Dating back to the 17th century, the fortress has held a number of occupiers over the years for use at times as a place of active defense, prison, execution site, military museum, and now a site for tourists to gain a sense about Barcelona’s long (the Romans were here!) and tumultuous history. (Plus you can take photos with some enormous cannons.)
Alternatively, the pinnacle of the hill can be reached by way of the Funicular de Montjuïc followed by a gondola lift.
Things to Eat and Drink:
Creps al Born
Divert your rumbling tummy away from the touristy La Rambla. Yes, it’s worth a walk down and offers postcard purchasing potential, but as far as food goes it’s better to step off the beaten path.
Creps al Born, is a small craft cocktail bar and creperie. It perfectly mixes the flavors of fun cocktail “culture” (think a throwback with modern flair) and delicious filling crepes. Their cocktails are experiential demanding the mind open itself up to chocolate bitters and fresh red bell pepper in the same shaker. A cocktail served in a bag? Sure. Pace yourself on the booze by alternating with sweet or savory crepes made right in the front window. The staff are friendly and the bar seats seemingly usually full.
Catalan cuisine is a fresh mix of seafood, regional produce, goat cheeses, and standard dishes like paella (a rice dish made to share, native to the neighboring east coast region of Valencia). Tapas venues are prevalent around the city offering bites and bits, usually in the form of canapés with a baguette as the base, topped with fish, cheese, veggies or meats. Then there are the olives, chorizo, patatas bravas, and albondiguillas (little meatballs). Tapas range in serving style from sophisticated and upscale to casual bar food. Leave your gluten-free diet at home as pa amb tomàquet, bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, garlic, and salt, is a menu mainstay served with accompaniments. Sangria is prevalent and most are made with cava (AKA the champagne of Spain). Estrella and Moritz are popular lagers and full-bodied Catalan wine is present at most, if not all, meals.
When visiting Barcelona be sure to eat like the Catalans do and welcome the leisurely pace of the day. Breakfast is kept simple and usually consists of coffee with milk or orange juice and maybe a pastry. Lunch rush is typical around 2–3 p.m. and dinner doesn’t begin until after 9 p.m with the popular time to eat clocking in around 10 p.m. A lunch in Barcelona will mean multiple courses (a starter or two, main dish, bread and wine) and dessert which is kept fairly light in the form of fruit or yogurt. Small tapas or a sandwich tides hunger over after a day of touring around 6–7 p.m. For dinner expect a slightly more expensive version of lunch.
The official name of this market is a long one, Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, and the size of this market is even larger. Right off the major tourist trail, La Rambla, sidestep down seemingly endless aisles of stands selling fresh meats and produce.
La Boqueria dates back to the 13th century and has thrived, first as a pig market, in its current location since 1470. Seafood in all shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling next to restaurants frying up the goods. Fresh fruits stack up behind plastic cups filled with juice in every crayon box color from neon pink to baby blue. Pass through for a mid-afternoon snack or steal a seat at a bar for tapas.
Things to do if you have time:
See a flamenco show
Flamenco is not from Catalonia, but if Barcelona is the only place you’re traveling it’s not the worst place in the world to see the traditional dance performed. Be forewarned that the preceding or accompanying dinner is likely not good and overpriced. There are multiple flamenco hotspots along La Rambla and the surrounding area and they are clearly touristy. But an hour or so of those famous dresses dancing, voices singing and the guitar keeping an entrancing beat with the clapping and foot tapping and snapping….it’s not so bad.
Watch the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc
At the promise of shooting water and multi-colored lights of epic proportions, I headed with great anticipation to the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc on a Friday night. The time for the show came and passed and nothing. Nada. Not even a trickle. The show was suppose to go on, as it has since 1929, but the fountain was dry for maintenance.
When planning your pilgrimage to a place where “water acrobatics” is a real thing, remember the water doesn’t flow Monday through Wednesday. The other days, performance times depend on the season, check it out here.
Take a Walking Tour
I’m always a sucker for a walking tour. Especially a free one. My go-to is SANDEMANs NEW Europe tour because of easy booking, availability and quality of guide. This tour around Barcelona orientates you quickly with the maze of small streets through the Gothic Quarter and educates on the rich history and current political climate of Catalonia. Be sure to tip the guide at the end of the tour for their time!