There is so much to do in Barcelona; it’s one of the most fascinating and complex destinations in Europe. But enjoying the city means that you have to understand its customs and think like a local.
I. This city has become more crowded with tourists than ever, and neighborhood associations have even managed to prohibit the opening of new hotels and limit the number of tourist apartments. This means that you absolutely have to book your lodgings in advance.
II. Just as you need to book your lodgings in advance, you should also think about a way to get around the city that doesn’t involve a traffic jam. Barcelona has a marvelous fix for the traffic problem: pleasant temperatures, scarce rains all year long, and very flat land all throughout the tourist centers (except for Cerro de Montjuic). This makes it very easy to get around on foot or even on a bike. For this, we recommend doing it like the locals and rent a bike or motorcycle. You could also take advantage of Segway tours.
III. Barcelona offers many bars and restaurants, but the difference lies in the quality. In other cities, the quality of the food is more or less the same, but in Barcelona, there are a lot of tourist ‘trap’ restaurants that we recommend avoiding. Many Americans go straight for the international fast food chains and Italian restaurants, but the locals choose to eat tapas and raciones (small quantities of food on a plate, which are meant to share) in local bars. This manner of eating allows for the opportunity to make the most of your time (the service is fast), eating several cheap, different, small things and repeating those you like best. And, if you don’t like a tapa or ración, then you haven’t wasted much time or money on it at all. Besides, you can always hop on over to the bar next door.
IV. Because one of the worst neighborhoods in Barcelona (El Raval) happens to be in the middle of the tourist center, it is important to avoid that area at night. It is also smart to be wary of the surrounding areas (las Ramblas, el Barrio Gótico, la Barceloneta, and Montjuic). We recommend carrying your bags and purses close and in front of you.
There is so much to do in Barcelona that many of its visitors leave without checking off half their list. To help you out, we have made a list of the main attractions for travelers: 1) priority visits; 2) areas of the city where you can stay and eat; 3) the best luxury products to purchase (and where to find them); 4) the best day trips from Barcelona.
Things to see in Barcelona
Given that the architecture is the main attraction in this city, it is best to plan on walking around the different neighborhoods to admire the buildings. In addition to the great works of Gaudí and his Modernist contemporaries, there are magnificent medieval (mostly Gothic), Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, eclectic, and Avant Gard buildings.
To continue, we offer a comprehensive view of every area in the city with a hyperlink to the webpage that specializes in its history and its monuments; to learn all about them, take a look at these articles. The two fundamental places that you have to see in Barcelona are the two great works of art by Gaudí: La Sagrada Familia and the Parque Güell. The popular neighborhood Gracia is very close to the park, and, to the south of this, lies the celebrated bourgeoisie neighborhood Eixample; this is a great path to take if you want to see building facades that make the city come to life. If you begin with the Sagrada Familia, you can then walk to the coast, passing through the Plaza de Toros Monumental (which no longer holds any bulls), visiting the Born and the Parque de la Ciudadela and follow with the tourist districts that you can’t miss in Barcelona: Barceloneta, Barrio Gótico, Ramblas and Raval. Crossing Paralelo Avenue, you’ll come to the area of monuments, museums, and parks of Montjuic. Other places that are very popular with visitors of the city are in what is called the “zona alta” (the high area). The Camp Nou stadium, (Museo del Fútbol Club Barcelona) and the Monasterio de Pedralbes (Colecció de Arte Thyssen).
It is important to book specific times for visiting the Sagrada Familia and the Parque Güell because they are far apart from each other, and they both take up at least half a day. To really get to know the works of Gaudí and his contemporaries, you should pay a visit to the Museo del Modernismo Catalán. If you want to visit the Modernist buildings in the center of the city, you can take a short, guided tour. You can also reserve one of these directly with the two principal buildings: the Casa Batlló and La Pedrera.
Where to stay in Barcelona
Choosing where to stay in Barcelona depends on how long you’ll be there and what you want to see. The price of hotels does not mean much since Barcelona since there are many well-priced ones in the touristy area, but this low price could very well mean that it gets noisy at night, and it might not be in the best neighborhood. The location in key, because you can find excellent hotels only a block away from the less than ideal ones.
If you are a person who prefers to rent tourist apartments, you also must be careful. These are usually in areas with a thriving night life, and these apartments are usually rented by foreign students and younger travelers who like to throw parties at night. The thousands of apartments for rent in the tourist area of Barcelona have generated some bad blood with their neighbors. Here are the different accommodation options for each of the areas of the city that we have discussed in the previous sections.
The areas of Born and the Parque de la Ciudadela include various hotels located around the tourist area, and they are comfortable and less noisy than others. The Gothic Quarter is the most touristy area in the city. There is a lot to do in this area. You can go to bars and restaurants as well as places known for their nightlife. In our specialized page, we also offer less noisy options. Las Ramblas and El Raval boast the liveliest bars in the city. Here, you can find some good places to stay at reasonable prices. La Barceloneta is another area of restaurants and leisure, and some of the best tourist hotels just happen to be here, which we have compiled here. Whoever chooses to stay in the Montjuic district will encounter lots of hotels for businesspeople, and they are located very close to areas with lots of things to do in Barcelona. Staying in El Eixample offers the chance to really feel the rhythm of the city and live among businesspeople who came to Barcelona for the nearby Feria. Here, you’ll find a list of our favorite places to stay in the area. One option with similar features, but at a further distance form the touristy area, is the classic Gracia district.
One of the things that you always have to do in Barcelona is to eat tapas in the old district of the city. There are four areas that offer hundreds of bars with diverse menus, great food, and great prices. If you go by yourself, you might want to look for the pa de pages catalá, the local bread of the region, on the menus. This is a good indication of a true local bar. You can also choose to eat at one of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan terraces in the city, although these are more for the views than for the food.
There are places to go shopping in every part of the Barcelona, which is one of the cities with the most luxurious shopping experiences. The most important brands are on the Paseo de Gracia and its immediate surroundings; you can find a list of all the jewelry stores at our specialized page. A little closer to the sea, next to the Plaza de Catalunya, lies the Avenida del Portal de L’Angel, where the international brands of all prices are located. Around the Born district, in the traditional streets of the Princesa and of L’Argenteria, there are many unique and boho stores. The stores on the Calle dels Tallers (in the Raval district) have a slightly more artisanal feel. If you like leather and bags, then you can’t miss visiting the artisans and designers of the city.
There are also many options for buying food and eating tapas. In El Raval, you’ll find the Mercado de la Boquería, which is essential in your visit in Barcelona and a true sensory treat. Although it is often crowded, the prices can be more like those of a boutique restaurant than a grocery market. It’s best to shop around a little before committing to anything because the prices do vary. The Mercado de Santa Caterina, however, is more authentic and less crowded. And it’s in the Gothic district and very close to the cathedral. In the Eixample district, the Mercado de la Concepció is a “normal” market with fewer tourists than the others. Finally, the Mercado de Sant Antoni (in the district with the same name) is housed in a beautiful Modernist building of iron that offers, in addition to its fresh products, is known for housing many book stores and collectibles. Barcelona is a paradise for collectors. There are numerous opportunities to buy old books, stamps, coins, and all kinds of other antiques. There are also a ton of art galleries in Barcelona. These display the art of local artists from Barcelona, and they even sell their works of art online.
You can buy the best food and wine in the world in the Barcelona markets. The Catalan wines with D.O.’s (a mark of quality) are world famous. In first place, we have the celebrated cava, but there are also others that are also recognized, which you can find in any store and local bar. As for the other foods of the region, whoever wants to buy some local products should consider the Catalan olive oil, which comes from Tarragona (the Baix Ebre-Montsià), Terra Alta, Siurana, and Lleida (Les Garrigues). The unique Catalan cheeses with D.O.’s are the Alto Urgell and the Cerdanya. This same D.O. also produces a phenomenal butter. There are also incredible cold cuts, like the Vic Salchichón, and for those of you who love legumes, Barcelona offers an exquisite bean called Mongeta del Ganxet.
There are many nearby destinations that you can get to by the highway in an hour or so. You can find a list of these in the page about the 26 main destinations in the province of Barcelona. However, there is no doubt that the most popular day trip among tourists visiting Barcelona is a Cava tasting tour through the nearby Catalan wineries. Another popular day trip destination is Girona. The third destination is the Santuario de Montserrat, a spectacle of natural beauty.