The Ultimate Guide to Barcelona: A City that Inspires
Paella, tapas, sangria, and parties that continue until the morning light… Barcelona is known worldwide as one of the most beautiful, culturally rich cities in Europe, with flocks of tourists coming to visit every year. In fact, almost 18 million people visited Catalonia (the region where Barcelona is located) in 2016 alone. That’s more than any other region in Spain during that same time frame!
So what is so special about Barcelona? Why do people keep coming back?
My 1st Time in Barcelona
I first came to Barcelona in the autumn of 2013 as the last stop on a cruise, and we could only spend 2 and a half days there before returning home. Out of all of the European cities we visited that trip, Barcelona left a lasting impact on me. I remember walking through the Gothic Quarter, admiring the gorgeous architecture and feeling struck by just how charming and eclectic of a city it was.
I’m normally the type of person to always have a plan, to know exactly where I’m going and follow my map carefully, but this city inspired me to get lost and go with the flow, knowing that there’d be another surprise around the corner. There was a sense of freedom and sheer happiness that came from exploring the maze of small streets and plazas. Of course, being able to rest a moment and enjoy a glass of cheap sangria helped, too!
We took a walking tour of Barcelona (which I highly recommend) through our hotel, and we learned about the culture and history of Barcelona. Many people don’t know, for example, that Barcelona is part of the region of Catalonia, which is fighting for its independence from Spain. They have their own language, Catalan, and their own unique (and sometimes hysterical) traditions, such as the Tió (a log with a drawn on face that children beat with sticks until it ‘poops’ presents).
I had been toying with the idea of moving abroad before taking this trip, but once I had set foot in Barcelona, that idea became a plan, and I was determined to return long-term. I did months and months of research until I finally found a program where I could spend 10 months there, and I jumped at the chance. I returned to Barcelona in September of 2014, living with host families and working in a local school. I had only intended to stay for the school year and then return home to California, but I just couldn’t stay away. I am now going on my 3rd year living in this beautiful city, and I have no regrets.
In the spring of my first year, I was wandering around the city with some fellow expats in my program, discussing our experiences. We were walking through Plaça Sant Jaume, and we stopped a moment to admire the beautiful square and government buildings surrounding us. I remember saying: “Walking through this city reminds me just how lucky I am to be here. It is easy to get caught up in everyday life, but if you take a moment to appreciate where you are, it’s hard not to smile. Imagine how many people would absolutely love to be here right now.” I still feel this as I walk around the old streets.
Why do I love Barcelona?
- There’s something for everyone. Whether you’re into music, art, museums, sports, food, nature, etc, there are tons and tons of activities just waiting to be discovered.
- It’s beautiful and unique at any time of year. In summer, you can enjoy the beautiful beaches and plazas while sipping on sangria. In winter, you can admire the gorgeous lights and festivals held throughout the city (and still enjoy some sangria or cerveza while sheltering yourself from the cold in the nearest bar).
- The city and people remind you to savor life. Catalan people live a slow yet full life. They work hard but also remember to relax and socialize just as much. You can find the locals at bars and cafeterias at all times of day, having a coffee or a beer and talking animatedly with friends and family. A lunch or dinner can last hours. I’ve left a Catalan lunch at 8pm before, no joke.
- There’s a neighborhood for every style and mood. The Gothic Quarter, Gràcia, El Born, Eixample. and countless others make up the many neighborhoods of Barcelona, each one showcasing a different atmosphere. Getting sick of wandering around La Rambla? Head on over to another area and you’ll fall in love all over again!
- There’s always a reason to party. Do your research, and you will find countless concerts and festivals spread throughout Barcelona at all times of year. Every neighborhood of Barcelona celebrates a Festa Major (literally translates to ‘Big Party’) once, or sometimes even twice, a year. These parties generally last up to an entire week, with something different to enjoy each day.
- Transportation is fantastic, cheap and fast throughout the city – there’s the bus, metro and train system to get you wherever you need to go. At every station there are easy-to-read maps with timetables, although during normal hours they all come quite frequently in the city center.
- Incredible Dining Experiences. If you do your research, you can find delicious and unique restaurants of all styles. Being a top tourist location, it is easy to get distracted and enticed by all of the tourist traps – don’t let that happen to you! See my restaurant recommendations below.
- Clubs where you can dance all night and then watch the sunrise on the beach. The Spanish and Catalan people are well-known for their party lifestyles, and it is definitely true – they know how to keep the party going until sunrise (or even later). Bars may close around 2-3am, but just transfer your party to a nightclub and you’re set to dance the night away. See my bar and club recommendations below. My favorite neighborhood to go to a club is Port Olympic. There are a few different clubs, and depending on what time you arrive and how you approach the bouncers, you can get in for free. Also, you can research club promoters and just by saying someone’s name you’ll get free entrance as well.
- Architecture that will take your breath away. If you’ve traveled around Europe, you’ve probably seen your share of cathedrals and historical buildings. After a while, some of them kind of blend together – but not in Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia, along with many of the other Gaudi buildings, are unforgettable and one of a kind.
- A good balance of nature and city. Need a break from the busy city? Go to one of Barcelona’s many gorgeous parks, or wander a little farther out to the mountains and be surrounded by trees and sunshine.
- Short drive from many other incredible destinations. Have a lot of time on your hands, and want to explore more of what Catalonia has to offer? Hop in the car (or on a bus or train) and head to one of the other fantastic cities nearby (see my recommendations below).
Tips for Travelers
- Keep an eye (or hand, rather) on your purse/wallet/phone. Unfortunately, Barcelona is infamous for pick-pocketers (as with many other European cities). However, if you take some small, extra precautions, you have nothing to worry about.
- Carry your passport or any larger bills in an under-the-shirt pouch. It can also be a good idea to keep a few extra bills in random places along your body, such as your shoes/socks, just in case.
- Wear an over-the-shoulder purse that you can have hanging in front of your body, and keep your hand over the opening/zipper. You may feel a little silly/paranoid at first, but everyone does it, and it helps give you peace of mind.
- Keep an eye out for strange behavior around public transportation. One time when I was with my husband, a man pretended to drop his phone in front of us while we were going up an escalator to leave the metro. That was enough distraction for his companion to come up behind us and take my husband’s phone (thankfully we got it back in the end).
- Don’t leave any valuables in a backpack, it is super easy to get into.
- If you’re spending at least a few days in Barcelona and are planning to use public transportation, buy a T10. A T10 is a pass that you can buy at any metro or train station, and it can be used for 10 trips on the bus, metro, or train. It currently costs 10.20 euros, which means that each trip will only cost you a little over 1 euro (compared to over 2 euros without). You can use the same T10 for multiple people (you can insert the pass twice, for example, if you are two) and it won’t charge you again for making a connection if it is done in less than an hour and 15 minutes from when you first inserted the pass. If you’re planning to leave the main part of Barcelona city, check the zones (shown in every station) to make sure you’re not changing zones, because you will need a different pass for that.
- Skip restaurants and cafes if they have a menu with pictures, especially if they’re posted out front. I’m not saying you’ll eat horribly, but generally these are the tourist traps, and you won’t find authentic food there (plus it will probably be overpriced).
- Eat the Menú del Día. Most authentic, local restaurants offer a “menu of the day,” which is a 2-4 course meal at a discounted price for lunch time (depending on the restaurant, the price can be as low as 10 euros!). This is most common to find Monday-Friday, but it is possible to find some restaurants serving it on the weekends as well. Generally. the menu gives 2 to 3 options for a starter, 2 to 3 options for the main course, and a drink (often the price is the same whether you order water or beer/wine). Sometimes they also give you dessert, or even a second starter! I’ve had some of my best meals this way, and you’ll leave feeling full and happy.
- Free museum entrance on the 1st Sunday of every month. If you’re lucky enough to plan your trip to coincide with this deal, you can enter in many of the museums in Barcelona for free! Use that saved cash for some more tapas and sangria.
- Carry your student ID with you. There are discounts almost anywhere that you need to buy a ticket to enter, but you need to have proof.
- Keep in mind that many stores are closed on Sundays. If you’re a shopaholic, be sure to plan your shopping days wisely – most stores close all day Sunday (some tourist shops in the center of Barcelona will remain open). During the week, many shops also close between 1 and 5pm.
- Be aware of typical dining times. I’ve been here 3 years and I’m still trying to adjust to their dining style! Many restaurants don’t open until 1pm for lunch, and don’t get busy until about 2pm. Don’t expect to have dinner until at least after 8pm! Locals generally don’t eat until 10pm or even later.
- Download both Spanish and Catalan dictionaries on your Google Translate app. If you go to more authentic restaurants, it’s possible you won’t find English translations on the menu. But that’s not a problem, it just means you’re in the right place! Plan ahead of time by downloading both dictionaries in the Google Translate app so that you have access to them offline, and you’re set to translate all of the menus you need!
Must-See in Barcelona
- Sagrada Familia. One of the most creatively and beautifully constructed buildings I have ever seen in my life, designed by Antoni Gaudí. He used nature as his inspiration and the result is stunning, although the cathedral is technically still under construction until 2026. You can admire the Sagrada Familia from all around the city (Hint: one of the best vantage points is in the Plaça de Gaudí, on the other side of the pond), but it is definitely worth the entrance fee to take a look around inside and climb one of its towers. It is necessary to buy your tickets ahead of time and plan your visit, otherwise you might have to wait in line for many hours.
- Casa Batlló. Often looked over, Casa Batlló is actually one of my favorite places to visit. My first short trip to Barcelona, we made the mistake of not booking our tickets to the Sagrada Familia in advance, so we couldn’t go. Our hotel recommended that we visit this instead, and we were not disappointed! I was in awe by the architecture. And if anyone has seen the movie Casper the Friendly Ghost, you’ll recognize some of the rooms!
- Barcelona Cathedral. If you’ve traveled around Europe, you’ve probably seen your share of cathedrals, and this one is about the same as all the others. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, but what is special about this one to me is the atmosphere around it. Set in the Gothic Quarter, there is always something happening in the square directly in front of it. Take a seat on the bench and just watch people, or stop in a nearby cafe for a coffee. It’s such a magical area to wander around and admire.
- Park Güell. I’m listing this under architecture rather than parks because there is an entrance fee, and it was also designed by the incredibly talented Gaudi. The most interesting thing about the park is its architecture and design, and it also offers some lovely views of Barcelona. You should buy your tickets ahead of time so as to skip the lines and also save a little bit of money.
- Casa Mila / La Pedrera. In the center of Barcelona along Passeig de Gracia, you will find this large, unique apartment building (done by Gaudi as well, he was such a talented man!). You can do tours here throughout the day, or you can also go at night to see the rooftop lit up. They also do special events sometimes with concerts, so it is worth looking into.
- Palau de la Música Catalana. If you have the chance of seeing a concert here, do it – the architecture (by Lluís Domènech i Montaner) is incredibly beautiful and perfectly constructed to deliver pristine sound. If you don’t have the opportunity to see a concert, it is still worth it to visit for the beautiful architecture both inside and out, although the visit isn’t cheap.
- Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. A 14th century cathedral in the center of El Born, surrounded by lovely shops and restaurants. Free to enter, but they also offer tours to explore the rooftops and crypt.
- Palau Güell. If you’ve seen all of the other amazing works of Gaudi listed above and would like to see more, visit this palace in the center of Barcelona. It is one of Gaudi’s earlier works, so it isn’t nearly as extravagant or impressive as the others, but you can still pass a good hour or two here.
- Casa Vicens. Gaudi’s first masterpiece, this house is an eclectic array of colors and shapes.
- Casa Amatller. Right next to Casa Batlló in the center of Barcelona, Casa Amatller is often overlooked. But, if you’re a big buff of architecture, it is worth a peek. A modernist building done by Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
- Museu Picasso. If you enjoy art and culture, you must visit the Picasso museum! They have more than 4,000 pieces on display that showcase his formative years. They also have various exhibits from other artists quite often. If possible, buy tickets in advance, or expect to wait hours for entry!
- Palau Nacional. Located on the hill of Montjuïc, this museum is definitely worth a visit, even if just looking from from the outside. There are fabulous photo opportunities from both above (on the hill of Montjuïc) and below (from Plaça d’Espanya). It is also lit up at night, making it even more magical. It offers a wide variety of art for those interested, and the entrance ticket is valid for admission on two days, so that you don’t have to squeeze it all in first time around.
- Fundació Joan Miró. If you’re a fan of contemporary art and have some extra time, check this museum out. Located on the hill of Montjuïc, it is a little out of the way, but offers a large and impressive collection from this talented Catalan artist.
- Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. Another museum for contemporary art lovers, and located more centrally in Barcelona. It is absolutely giant, and offers an extensive range of styles and mediums.
- CaixaForum Barcelona. The building was designed by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, the same as Casa Amatller (discussed above). They hold many special events and exhibitions throughout the year and have a large variety of artworks from throughout history.
Streets, Plazas, Etc.
- La Rambla. The most recognized and touristic street in Barcelona, connecting Plaça de Catalunya with the Columbus monument and port. There are hundreds of street vendors and performers, so it can be nice to take a stroll on a sunny day. I recommend watching your bags closely (there are tons of pick-pockets) and not stopping to eat/drink at any of the bars and restaurants along the way (they’re ridiculously overpriced and touristy). If you want to stop for a bite, walk for a few minutes along the side streets until you get out of the main tourist hub and you’ll find much better options. Also, don’t take pictures of any of the performers unless you’re willing and ready to pay for it!
- Gothic Quarter. One of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Barcelona, you can find yourself happily getting lost here for hours. This area made me fall in love with Barcelona on my first visit. You can visit some of the oldest parts of Barcelona, along with many medieval landmarks. This area is always buzzing with people and events, it is impossible to get bored! You can also see the Cathedral of Barcelona here (discussed above).
- Plaça de Catalunya. Located in the center of Barcelona, this is the most famous and crowded square, surrounded by large department stores and restaurants. It is nice to see, and is at the top end of La Rambla, but for a true sense of Barcelona, I recommend not staying here too long.
- La Boqueria. This is a large, open market along La Rambla. It is generally packed with people, so keep an eye on your belongings, but it’s definitely worth a visit to see all sorts of typical foods for sale, everything from candy to produce to meats and seafood.
- Plaça d’Espanya. A gorgeous square at the foot of Montjuic. On one end, there is the Arena, an old bull-fighting ring converted into a modern mall, and on the other end, the street leading to the Palau Nacional, one of the prettiest views of Barcelona.
- Arc de Triomf. A lovely archway constructed in 1888, close to the Parc de la Ciutadella. There are some nice photo opportunities, and it is always buzzing with people and performers.
- Plaça Reial. Located in the Gothic Quarter, not far from La Rambla. A picturesque square surround by many bars, restaurants, and clubs.
- Parc de la Ciutadella. Need a break from the busyness of the city? Take a breather at this park, with lovely gardens and a lake where you can take a relaxing boat ride. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the beautiful weather! There are also some fantastic photo opportunities, especially at the northernmost tip of the park, where you will find the Cascada Monumental (lovely fountains and statues).
- Parc del Laberint d’Horta. Meander along the hedge maze and try to find your way out! This is Barcelona’s oldest garden, and also displays some lovely flower beds and sculptures.
- Camp Nou / FC Barcelona Museum. Big football/soccer fan? Visit the stadium of one of the world’s best teams, FC Barcelona! Even better, make it a priority to see a game there – the atmosphere is incredible! I’m not even a big sports fan but I enjoyed watching the game among the local die-hard fans, who make it difficult not to get swept away in the heat of the moment.
- Tibidabo. This is a mountain on the northwestern side of Barcelona city, so if you don’t have a car, it can be a little tricky to make your way to the top (although not impossible). There are incredible views of Barcelona, so try to go on a clear and sunny day. There’s also a small amusement park at the top, along with the church Sagrat Cor (free to enter).
- Castle. Montjuïc Castle is an old military fortress located at the very top of the hill. It overlooks the city of Barcelona and the port below. It can be a little tricky to get to, but the entrance fee isn’t too expensive and it can be nice to wander around and admire the views.
- Magic Fountains. Built in 1929 for the International Exhbition, this fountain still displays its magic at the base of Montjuïc. The hours change depending on the time of year, but it can be fun to visit and see the fountains dance along with music and lights. Arrive early and bring a folding chair if possible, it gets packed.
My Favorite Restaurants
For a complete list of all of the best bars and restaurants in Barcelona with an interactive Google map that you can use for your trip, see my other post here.
- Grill Room. A restaurant just a few minutes walk from La Rambla, inside a modernist building. It has gorgeous decorations and offers gourmet and delicious Catalan and Mediterranean food with some great fusion dishes. We loved this place so much we had our wedding dinner here!
- Dans le Noir. A unique restaurant and experience that you will never forget! Dine in complete darkness, served by blind waiters, and experience your food in a completely different way.
- Bouquet Experience. This restaurant offers typical Catalan and Mediterranean gourmet food alongside a wide variety of local wines. They offer various wine-related events, and on their menu they recommend a specific wine for each dish so you don’t have to guess which wine to choose!
- Restaurante El Gran Cafe. We just happened upon this restaurant while wandering around Barcelona, and they had a fantastic Menu del Dia at a great price (see above). The food is incredibly delicious, and very authentic. It is a bit on the pricier side, but definitely worth it!
- Armonía. Vegetarian, and having difficulties finding veggie options? Don’t fret, head on over to Armonia! The food is delicious and they offer a nice fusion of cuisines, from Asian to Mediterranean.
- Euskal Etxea. Get a taste of Basque (region in the north of Spain) country! They offer tons of different pintxos (slices of bread topped with various meats, seafood, and cheeses) along with other typical Basque dishes.
- Can Culleretes. The oldest restaurant in Barcelona! They serve typical Catalan dishes.
- Bodega Biarritz 1881. Fantastic tapas, but generally quite busy and they only accept cash.
- Quimet & Quimet. Delicious, authentic tapas. Be aware, you will probably have to stand and it gets extremely crowded, but it’s worth it!
- La Taqueria. If you’re staying in Barcelona for awhile and miss Mexican food (It is one of the cuisines I miss most from back home!) head to this restaurant, located just a few minutes walk from Sagrada Familia. Almost every other Mexican restaurant I’ve tried was awful, this is by far the most authentic and delicious. It is super small and always busy, so either arrive early or reserve your spot!
My Favorite Bars / Clubs
- The Lime House. Strong and cheap mojitos in the center of El Born. Gets pretty busy.
- Bosc de Les Fades. Have a cocktail in the middle of a fairy-tale forest (literally translates to Forest of the Fairies). The decoration is quite pretty, but be prepared for more expensive prices and a bit more of a touristy vibe. Still cool to check out, though.
- Ginger. Great cocktail and wine selection, cozy atmosphere.
- Mikkeller Bar. One of the few bars that offer craft beers. I’ve never had the food there, but supposedly it is also pretty good!
- Negroni Cocktail Bar. Fantastic cocktails and atmosphere, where the bartenders make you drinks specially tailored to your tastes.
- Restaurant Rosa Negra. Delicious and cheap margaritas and mojitos. I’ve never tried it, but the food seems to be quite tasty as well.
- Opium. Nightclub in Port Olimpic. Great music, atmosphere and decor. Like any other club, drinks are super overpriced, so be prepared for that. My favorite part about this place is that you can go outside to the patio and you have views of the ocean. If you need a break from all the people, just get your hand-stamped and exit the beach side of the club and chill in the sand, listening to the waves. There are often people selling beers on the beach for 1 euro, which is a ton cheaper than inside the club. Party until sunrise like a Spaniard, and get rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean!
There are countless types of accommodations available to you, it all depends on your personal preferences and budget. Read more about my recommendations on how to find the best accommodations tailored to you here.
Nearby Cities/Sites Worth a Visit
- Montserrat. A unique mountain range 1 hour northwest of Barcelona by car. You can also take the train from Plaça d’Espanya. There’s a monastery at the top to visit, and also some great hikes. It’s gorgeous and well-worth it to make the trip.
- Penedes. Wine region that specializes in cavas (sparkling wine). Plan your visit ahead of time and reserve tasting visits. Located about an hour west of Barcelona by car. You can also go by train, but it’d be nearly impossible to go from one winery to another unless you book a tour.
- Girona. Gorgeous picturesque village with medieval walls surrounding it. An hour and 20 minutes to the North by car, you can also go by train. Some scenes of Game of Thrones were filmed here.
- Cadaques. An incredibly romantic and charming village along the Costa Brava, all of the buildings painted in white. Two hours and 15 minutes north-east of Barcelona by car.
- Tossa de Mar. A lovely village along the Costa Brava, with a medieval castle on a hill overlooking the beach. A bit touristy, but worth it for the views. Only worth coming in spring or summer because many things shut down in winter. An hour and 20 minutes north-east of Barcelona by car, also possible to go by bus.
- Tarragona. A lovely coastal city to the south of Barcelona with various ancient remains, including a Roman ampitheater, and fantastic cuisine. An hour and 20 minutes south of Barcelona by car, also possible by train.
- Sitges. A picturesque coastal city that is quiet for most of the year except in February when they hold one of the liveliest Carnaval parties in all of Spain. About 45 minutes south of Barcelona.
- Figueres. A charming village in the North of Catalonia, and the birthplace of Salvador Dali. Most people come just to visit the Dali museum, but it is also quite nice to explore the town. An hour and 45 minutes north of Barcelona by car.
- Costa Brava. A long stretch of coastal cities and beaches that reaches all the way up to the border with France. There are some absolutely stunning landscapes to be found here, along with some of the best seafood in all of Spain. There are too many cute little villages to list here along this stretch, but I highly recommend going to visit, especially during the spring and summer.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my overview of Barcelona, a city that has inspired me for three years now! Have you been to Barcelona? What was your favorite part? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you!
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