Warning - Barcelona is amazing and out of control!
Barcelona is an urban jungle bursting at the seams. The mayor, Ada Colau, "the world's most powerful mayor" has declared war on tourists because of the negative impact on the local's quality of life. Looks like the tourists are winning. 30 million visitors annually descend upon the 1.6 million inhabitants. Plan ahead, buy tickets online, have a guide (except at La Sagrada Familia*), wear your best walking shoes and keep your belongings safe especially when you are out and about. The city hosts 50 museums as well as temporary exhibitions. We generally like to do our homework and travel on our own but not in Barcelona!
Think about what you want to do and where you plan to rest your bones come sundown. Barcelona proper is divided into 10 districts. We stayed in the Gracia district because it is "generally more quiet" in the evenings and close to La Sagrada Familia. Even with pre-planning and a tour guide, we walked over 16 miles in 2 days! By the 3rd day, we decided to splurge on a couple cab rides so our total that day was only 4 miles. Fortunately, the city is relatively flat. When walking you must be aware of traffic as car, motorbike and bicycle traffic is heavy and hectic. Roads end and begin randomly. There is a metro but we preferred to stay above ground because of Barcelona's architecture. You walk down a modest street and suddenly a crazy, squiggly, marvelous building appears.
Around 1880 to 1910, Barcelona embraced modernism in an effort to promote Catalan national pride. This was the beginning of the Renaixança or Catalan Renaissance. Builders and architects were free thinkers and appeared to have held straight lines in disdain unless structurally necessary. Of course, the master of out of the box, curvy buildings was the creative genius, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), who designed 19 buildings in the city. Today, some of these buildings are privately owned and can only be admired from the exterior.
Below is our itinerary which is not meant as a "to do" list. Think of it as suggestions especially if you stay in the Gracia district.
Day 1 District Barrio Gottica
Visiting the imposing Catalan masterpiece of Gothic style, Barcelona Cathedral is a good place to begin since the roots of Catholicism in Spain sprouted in the 1st century. The religion is still a presence as over 65% of Spaniards identify as Catholic today. Within the cathedral grounds are gardens, towers, and museums so a visit can easily take 4 hours. The available printed materials are primarily in Spanish so prepare ahead of time and you will have a richer experience. Barcelona Cathedral is dedicated to Santa Eulàlia, a 13 year old Christian virgin, who was born in 290 AD and Roman Emperor Diocletian's Christian purge ended her short life in 303 AD. With an understanding of early Barcelona, you begin to get a glimpse that the city has a long memory and deeply religious roots.
Included in the Barcelona Cathedral is an exhibition dedicated to The Kingdom of Aragón. In 1137 a power house marriage created the dynastic union of the Queen of Aragon and the Count of Barcelona. Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536) was Queen of England from 1509 until 1533 as the first wife of King Henry VIII.
A couple hours into our Cathedral visit, we took a break and escaped the crowds. Tip - A restaurant or cafe located on the 2nd floor (US) or 1st floor (European) which overlooks a busy street or square can be a pleasant way to recharge and refuel. Yes, they are usually more pricey and yes, we believe they are worth it for a few reasons. 1. You are above the crowds. 2. You get a different view. 3. You are less of a pick pocket target if you are not at street level. There are usually barriers to entry like stairs, multiple doors and often a host/hostess at the lobby. Overlooking a quaint square and located in Barrio Gottica is the museum, Art i Cultura. Inside you will find LeCercle Restaurant and you don't need to buy a ticket to the museum to get into the restaurant. Go for the outdoor seating. Huge umbrellas are rolled out if it rains.
Finally, on our walk back to Gracia we splurged at Be Chocolat by Michel Clement. Indulge in their "gastronomic madness" like Xocolata Negra and Llet. Hot chocolate is a Barcelona specialty!
Day 2 La Sagrada Familia and La Perdrera
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) is considered to be one of the great geniuses of architecture. He viewed buildings as artwork, which is evident in the attention he gave to the details of his work. He was fascinated by nature and geometry. Columns are trees and arches are spine like.
Entering La Sagrada Familia is like walking into a dream. Outside of the cathedral are masses of people. You may approach the building with a little anxiety and feel out of your comfort zone. However, as you get closer, your gaze shifts upwards as you inspect the complex and intricate art covering every inch of the cathedral's exterior. It is interesting and inspiring, but you still feel the crowds. Once you walk into the cathedral your breath might stop for a second as you contemplate this magnificent superstructure. Your eyes take in beautiful light and artful shapes. Time stops. The crowd leaves your consciousness. You have an intimate experience of light and beauty. From Gaudi's mind to yours. You do not think...............you feel. It is simply you, and beauty in an intimate embrace. Thank you Antonio Gaudi!
La Sagrada Familia is a bucket list item. If you have time for only one sightseeing outing, this should be it. La Sagrada Família inspires awe by its sheer verticality, and in the manner of the medieval cathedrals it emulates, it’s still under construction after more than 130 years. Gaudí's masterwork has been a work-in-progress since 1883, continuing even after the architect's death in 1926. Its perpetually unfinished state is part of its appeal, with travelers snapping shots of construction cranes alongside the towers and spires. La Sagrada Familia is in its final stage of building and is slated for completion in 2026, the centennial of Gaudí's death. The final building will stand 564 feet tall, making it the tallest religious building in Europe, and have 18 towers (12 for the disciples, 4 for the apostles, 1 for the Virgin Mary, the tallest is for Jesus). *We did not go with a tour guide. We did pre-purchase tickets online with the Audioguide and Tower package. There is a separate entrance for Audioguide visitors so make sure you know where that is. In our opinion the audioguide and tower visit combo are the perfect way to experience La Sagrada Familia. Tip - Make sure to have a pre-arranged meet up time and place inside with others in your group. There is seating inside along the walls.
Another stunning Gaudi building worth a visit is La Pedrera in La Rambla District. Construction began in 1906 and was completed 6 years later. The rooftop terrace has been described as "a unique, unclassifiable work." The building also houses a gallery of Guadi's plans, models, furniture and other objects. Enjoy lunch or coffee (and escape the crowds) at elegant El Café de La Pedrera. Be sure to check out the photos on the wall for a glimpse of grand, old Barcelona. The restaurant claims to be "the perfect place to enjoy the splendor of Modernista bourgeois architecture, the unique heritage of Antoni Gaudí and the outstanding culinary culture of Barcelona."
Here is fascinating podcast (in English) about Gaudi and the building of the church.
Day 3 La Rambla and La Boqueria and Maritime Museum
Walk La Rambla. This tree-lined central promenade is less than a mile long and nearly everyone who visits Barcelona walks along it. The city is full of narrow, winding streets and La Rambla, due to its central location, has and continues to be a meeting place for all. It begins at Christopher Columbus Monument and ends at the harbor, Port Vell.
Take a right about half way down the promenade and enter La Boqueria, one of Europe's largest and most famous food markets. Spend some time at this feast for the senses. Tip - Have a pre-set meeting place (perhaps the grand iron entrance) because it is easy to get separated in the maze of stands and kiosks. The floors are slippery with melted ice and fruit skins and the stall holders are loud, but all this adds to the charm of the experience. You will find foods of all varieties and nationalities under one roof.
By the time you reach La Rambla's end, you might be craving some peace and quiet. The Maritime Museum of Barcelona (Drassanes Reials de Barcelona or the royal arsenal of Barcelona) awaits and is dedicated to shipbuilding between the 13th century and 18th century. With architecture and culture dominating the city center, it is easy to overlook the history of Spain's naval dominance and superiority which is what created the wealth funding the Spanish Renaissance. This Museum is spacious, modern, fascinating and interactive. Outdoors the schooner Santa Eulàlia, one of the oldest Mediterranean sailings ships, is available for boarding and inspection. There is also a cafe with the reputation of having the best cappuccino in the city. This cafe is relatively inexpensive and has great views so be patient. This is possibly the perfect place to stop to refuel after conquering La Rambla even if you don't experience the museum!
Here are a few other places we recommend.
The Perfumary is a not only a unique olfactory experience, it is a visual extravaganza. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop by even if essential oils and fragrance are not your thing. The shop "contracts with growers and distillers from around the world to supply bulk and wholesale quantities of essential oils, natural isolates, and natural fragrances to thousands of companies world wide." Even though we had no interest in making a purchase, the shop owner was very happy to share his knowledge and let us take a few whiffs.
Sincronia Yoga is a clean studio with many class offerings as well mats. It is located in the Gracia District. We took a gentle/level 1 class which incorporated Kundalini, Hatha and meditation. Price €10. We dropped in and they were accommodating but signing up online is encouraged.
Need a haircut or some color? Go to Anthony Llobet where "Don't let your Spanish come between you and your hair" is not only catchy but also true. The staff speaks a total of 11 languages and there are several locations.
Elephanta Gin Bar was our favorite end of the day hang out. The beer was cold, the tapas were delicious, the price was right and it was across the street from our apartment. If you stop in, please give Vicktor our best! $-$$
Sant Gula is a real gem of a restaurant with around 12 tables. Muy delicioso! Lots of sharing with plates a little larger than tapas. Duck, artichoke flowers, tuna, scallops and out of this world cheesecake.! $$
Adiós hasta la próxima! We look forward to a return visit and hope you include Barcelona in your travel plans. Muchas Gracias to A & K, friends first and wonderful Barcelona tour guides.
Images of Barcelona
Below is a small sampling of Barcelona images. Please visit the gallery section to see more images. The image gallery includes 4 separate galleries on Street Art, La Padrera, La Sagrada Familia and La Boqueria. Enjoy!