Most visitors deem Barcelona as Spain’s most attention-grabbing city and it’s not hard to see why. Out-of-this-world designs, chic bars, a strong culinary tradition and a plethora of things to see and do all make Barcelona the usual first stop in Spain and for many, the preeminent impression of the country. A closer look however, reveals a complex heritage. For starters, majority of the signs in the city are not even in Spanish. They are in Catalan, the native language of Catalonia, the region where Barcelona is situated. In fact, whenever I made the effort of speaking to the locals in Spanish, I would be replied to in English. People here are staunchly Catalan in identity.
While Madrid is the political center of Spain, Barcelona is its commercial and financial heart. And while most European cities can be classified as renaissance, baroque or medieval, Barcelona appears to be more contemporary. Skyscrapers, which are less common in Europe than they are in America or Asia, are prevalent here in all shapes and forms. And of course, one cannot talk about Barcelona’s cityscape without mentioning Gaudi. Arguably one of the top reasons to visit the city, this architect’s unique vision means that many of Barcelona’s buildings appear like nowhere else in the world, leaving visitors in awe at how one man’s ideas can appear so intense, colorful and bursting with so much life.
This guide shows you how you can visit Barcelona for 2 or 3 days.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Eixample and Gracia
Europe has hundreds of well-known places of worship and while it can sometimes leave one with a tinge of church fatigue, a sure fire cure is the Sagrada Familia. Still a work in progress despite more than a hundred years’ of construction, the basilica is a gothic delight, with elaborate facades and interiors that look like an enchanted forest or an alien spaceship depending on one’s point of view. One can simply spend hours here marveling at motifs that appear like nowhere else.
The standard admission ticket gets you entry to the church but there’s a separate ticket to take the lift up the towers. I do recommend that – you can get a great view of Barcelona’s skyline from the top. After witnessing the view, you can take the stairs down and you can appreciate the spiral patterns of the tower. Tip: While it is possible to purchase tickets from the booth, they have a quota for the number of visitors and there’s a possibility you might not get a ticket for the same day if you just show up. It’s better to pre-purchase your ticket before going.
For more of Gaudi, head to the Casa Mila (also called La Pedrera) next which is also located in the upscale L’Eixample district. The apartments were commissioned by upscale families at the turn of the 20th century. While Gaudi designed a couple of buildings in his lifetime, Casa Mila is one of the architect’s most outrageous works, featuring a well-decorated rooftop filled with fantastical figures that don’t look out of place in Alice in Wonderland.
Another house worth checking out is the Casa Batllo a few blocks down. This is even more whimsical than Casa Mila in my view, with the myriad of colors inside as well as curves everywhere. You won’t find a single sharp corner here.
Cap off the Gaudi architour by heading to Parc Guell where one finds impressive mosaic works and structures that again look like they were lifted from a fairy tale. Located a bit far off in the Gracia district, this is where people can relive their childhood by wandering amongst multi-colored mosaic salamanders, benches that twist and turn and filled with colorful tiles as well as gingerbread houses. Parc Guell used to be free but there’s now a EUR 10 admission fee.
For dinner, you can head back to Eixample which has a lot of dining options. I was personally recommended Ciudad Condal (Rambla de Catalunya 18, daily 8:30AM to midnight, opens at 9AM on weekends) by locals. This restaurant is just off Placa de Catalunya. Astonishingly, most of the waiters were Filipinos and they recommended us some local specialties. As usual, the tapas did not disappoint and the seafood was fantastic. The place was packed during my visit on a Wednesday night.
Day 2 – Ciutat Vella
Tip: The area around Rambla is full of pickpockets so do watch your belongings while here. In particular, do not come close to strangers approaching you who want to show you a “magic trick”.
On your second day, head over to the Rambla where there is always something happening. This is also Barcelona’s version of the Champs Elysees or Fifth Avenue and is usually jampacked with people. I wouldn’t be surprised if tourists actually make up 90% of the crowd. While here, make sure to stop at the Boqueria. Located just off the Rambla, this is where visitors can try several Spanish specialties without burning a hole in the pocket. It’s also an excellent place to head to in the morning as most shopkeepers would have their fresh produce on display. You can also grab breakfast here from the many deli shops inside the market.
Afterwards, head to Barri Gotic or the oldest part of Barcelona. You can join one of the free walking tours in the area which take you to attractions within the old town such as the Barcelona Cathedral, Placa de Sant Jaume and the Temple of Augustus. The latter in particular was rather beguiling to me because I didn’t realize Barcelona had a role during the Roman Empire. Do note that the walking tours generally cover only a small part of the old quarter and there’s so much more to see here including a couple of museums (Picasso Museum, Barcelona City Museum, Erotic Museum) so it all depends on how much time you have to spare.
You can cool down in the afternoon at Barceloneta. For one that’s located in the city, Barcelona’s beach is decent and it’s also rather long – stretching up to El Poblenou. My recommended spot is the area near W Hotel. It’s a tad crowded at times but it’s close to entertainment and dining spots.
Day 3 – Parc de la Ciutadella / Day Trips from Barcelona
Continue exploring Ciutat Vella on your third day, culminating in the often overlooked Parc de la Ciutadella at the edge of the old quarter. When it comes to Barcelona parks, most visitors just go to one (that’s Parc Guell) but Parc de la Ciutadella offers quite a number of attractions as well. At the entrance to the park, you will find Barcelona’s own Arc of Triumph. The one here is made of red brick, and as such has a different feel from the one in Paris. Within the park itself you will also find a beautiful fountain as well as Catalonia’s Parliament House.
The great thing about Barcelona is that it is a destination that one can never tire. This is a city where there is truly something for everyone. I stayed for a mere 3 days and only managed to scratch the surface. If you’re planning to come, stay longer. Don’t make the same mistake I did!
Tip: While many of Barcelona’s sights are within walking distance, it is a good idea to buy a Hola Barcelona Travel Card. This is especially cost effective if you’re traveling to/from the airport by train as well as the ticket not only covers the metro but also the buses, trams as well as the suburban trains.
Day Trip Options From Barcelona
Montserrat – Owing to its proximity, this mountain monastery is the most common day trip destination from Barcelona. Many devout Catholics make their way here to pay a visit to the Virgin of Montserrat.
Girona – A mere 1.5 hour ride from Barcelona, Girona has a charming old town including a small but beautiful Jewish quarter.
Andorra – Through an easy day trip, you can tick off a new country in your “visited countries” list. The microstate of Andorra is a 3.5 hour (approximate) train ride from Barcelona Nord station. The tiny nation is located in the Pyrenees, at a higher altitude and with cooler temperatures than Barcelona. It’s also a tax haven so you can buy things tax-free there.
Where to Stay in Barcelona
Located a short walk from Placa Catalunya, H10 Cubik is located within walking distance from many of Barcelona’s tourist attractions. Casa Batllo is around 10 minutes walk away while Barcelona Cathedral is about 8 minutes walk. The hotel has a rooftop pool with views of the city. Rooms are futuristic and sleek. You can also check out other hotels and compare for best prices for Barcelona hotels here.