At once whimsical and historic, Barcelona is a feast for the senses. It’s a cultural hotspot, offering insight into ancient European history, and yet it’s also emerging as one of the chicest cities on the continent. There are things to see and do for weeks on end, but if you’re pressed for time, here are a few ideas for crafting the best Barcelona itinerary, from the Gaudi masterpieces you can’t miss, to the city’s beautiful Mediterranean beaches:
1. Visit the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter)
You’ll be entertained for hours, strolling through the old Gothic Quarter in the Ciutat Vella area of Barcelona, full of labyrinthian alleyways and historic buildings. Walk on your own, take a tourist bus tour or consider a small-group guided tour. This is a great spot to just soak up the authentic vibe of the city and its Roman and Medieval past. The oldest part of Barcelona, today it is one of the liveliest. Pick and choose between an array of shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes, bars and clubs. People watch at Placa Reial, Placa Sant Jaume or Placa Sant Felip Neri. A few must-sees while you’re in the Gothic Quarter during your Spain itinerary:
Barcelona Cathedral: Dating back to the late 13th through early 15th centuries, when it was built, this impressive Gothic Quarter cathedral boasts huge spires, eye-catching stained glass and intricate wood carvings. The altarpiece, part of the Church of Saint Severas, is particularly noteworthy, as are the 140 statues of saints throughout the cathedral. If you pay a small fee, you can access the terraces for a great view of Barcelona city.
Barcelona History Museum: Check out ages upon ages of Spanish history at the Barcelona History Museum. Descend by elevator to the basement and walk through the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins beneath the museum.
The Grand Royal Palace: Be sure to visit the Palau Reial Major, or Grand Royal Palace, which was once home to the counts of Barcelona and the kinds of Aragon
Chapel of Santa Àgata: While you’re here, don’t miss this royal chapel from 1302. Notice the beautiful altarpiece from the 15th century, made by Jaume Huguet and known for its religious symbol, Middle Ages-era paintings.
2. Go for Gaudi
One embark on a comprehensive Barcelona itinerary without paying homage to the city’s most famous and creative architect, Antoni Gaudi. His work is simply legendary, recognizable for its trademark style and use of natural motifs. It’s actually incredibly easy to find his work while you’re in the city – it’s everywhere, from lampposts to monuments. To really dive into Gaudi’s masterpieces, however, visit these top attractions:
Park Güell: A UNESCO World Heritage Site and 45-acre garden complex, Park Guell was built between 1900 and 1914. Spend a couple hours exploring the municipal garden, the main terrace surrounded by a sea serpent bench, and notice the themes of poetry, mysticism and Catalan nationalism. Even the youngest travelers light up at Park Guell, thanks to its color and whimsy. Take a break on curvy benches adorned with kaleidoscopic mosaics, pop into visitor centers that look like they jumped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss favorite, wander through tunnels and down tiled staircases. If time permits, visit the Casa Museum Gaudi (Gaudi’s former home-turned-museum) and Turo de les Tres Creus for great views of the city.
La Sagrada Família: Known worldwide as Gaudi’s most famous work, La Sagrada Familia is in a perpetual state of creation. Its groundbreaking was in 1882 and it is not slated to be finished until 2030. For the last decade of his life, devote Catholic Gaudi worked tirelessly to create this masterpiece, a blend of man, nature and religion through architectural prowess. Gaudi sought to teach Catholicism through architecture – look for the four towers outside the La Sagrada Familia, representing the 12 apostles and carved facades that depict the life of Christ, from birth to death to resurrection.
Casa Batlló: Marvel at the undulating, wavy shape of Casa Batllo, in the Eixample district of Barcelona. The outside is adorned with a mosaic comprisd of colorful, broken ceramic tiles collected from a nearby glass shop’s trash. This is perhaps the most recognizable of the Catalan architect’s work – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Notice how the roof depicts a dragon’s back – the façade was inspired by the story of St. George, who is said to have slayed a dragon to save the princess. If you take a tour as part of your Barcelona itinerary, you can see the impressive interior, including the Noble Floor where the Batllo family once lives, and see the mosaic work up close.
Casa Mila & Palau Guell: Though not as well known as other Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona, true fans won’t want to miss Casa Mila and Palau Guell. Casa Mila, or La Pedrera as its also known, was designed to emulate the sense of a snowy mountain. Look for typical Gaudi religious symbolization, including a rosary prayer excerpt and statues of Mary, St. Michael and St. Gabriel. Visit Palau Guell, off La Rambla, where you can see a Gothic-style main party room designed for one of Gaudi’s patrons.
3. Shop at La Boqueria in El Raval
Shop (and eat) ‘til you drop at La Boqueria, a public market with food stalls and restaurants for days. Bring a hefty appetite because you’ll want to sample your way through this smorgasbord off La Rambla. Bread, jamon iberico, manchego cheese, salted cod (bacalao) fruit, fish, shrimp, nuts, candy, wine, tapas – it’s all here. The Boqueria Market is Barcelona’s first local market, dating back to 1840. It is believed, though, that the very first food peddlers sold meat here on the streets as early as the 13th century. The pressed fruit juices available at several stalls throughout the Boqueria are always a big hit.
4. Visit the Picasso Museum & MACBA
Gone ga-ga for Gaudi? Move on to preen over Picasso. Visit the Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso) to learn more about the renowned artist’s life and work. There are more than 4,000 pieces in the museum’s collection. Watch the progression of Picasso’s art from more controlled to more whimsical over the years. There are thousands of pieces from throughout his artistic career, including his famous Blue Period.
Move on to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) to spend some time admiring more than 5,000 works of art. You’ll find pieces by Spanish artist, such as Miro and Picasso, but also American artists Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder.
5. Attend a Flamenco Show
Even if you’re not a dancer, an authentic flamenco show is a Barcelona “must.” Try Los Tarantos, the city’s oldest flamenco venue. With a short half-hour show, it’s a great intro to the art. Or, head to the Palau Dalmases, as admired for its décor and architecture as it is for its dancing. Finally, consider the Tablao de Carmen, which emulates a typical Spanish village. The performers in this venue’s show are particularly excellent.
6. Wander on La Rambla
This touristy boulevard is crowded, yes, but worth at least one short stroll so you can see the many beautiful buildings that line it. Notice the Gran Teatre del Liceu (the opera house), the Joan Miro mosaic and the always entertainment street buskers.
7. Zip Over the Harbor by Cable Car, Then Explore Montjuic Hill
If you don’t mind heights, take a ride on the harbor cable car that connects Barceloneta and Montjuic. In the span of 10 minutes, you’ll get the best views you’ll have during your entire trip – the port, the sea and the city. Once you’re to the other side, take time to explore Montjuic Hill, including the 18th-century Castell de Montjuic, the colorful water show at the Magic Fountain, the glorious gardens, the Spanish village and the Olympic Stadium. Let’s take a closer look at the attractions of Montjuic Hill:
Castell de Montjuïc: In stark contrast to Gaudi’s whimsy, this stone castle delights history buffs with its military displays. Learn about the castle’s origins in the 11th century, when it was built as a watchtower for a single sailor keeping watch for enemy ships. The castle was enlarged in the mid-1600s, during the Revolt of Catalonia, has been a prison during the War of the Pyrenees and was occupied by Napoleon’s troops in the early 1800s.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya: More art! Check out this impressive art museum on Montjuic Hill, known for its Catalonian art with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque works largely represented. You’ll find the colorful Magic Fountain out front.
Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village): Built to resemble a traditional village, with 117 buildings from different Spanish regions, the Poble Espanyol is a great place to introduce the family to live in the Spain of yesteryear. Explore the Andalusian quarter, a section of the Camino, a monastery and more.
The Olympic Ring: Check out the Olympic Ring, the Olympic Stadium, Palau Saint Jordi and the Olympic Esplanade at no charge.
8. Spend a Day at Barceloneta Beach
Take a break from your cultural and artistic sightseeing itinerary to lounge on the beautiful Mediterranean Barceloneta beach. There are actually two official beaches, separated by the Port Olimpic harbor. La Barceloneta Beach is the most popular, with a lively beach ambience, strolling vendors and a beachfront promenade with a selection of cafes and bars. Beach amenities include lounge chairs, umbrellas, volleyball and beach tennis courts, bathrooms, showers and changing rooms. Platja de la Nova Icaria is more peaceful and family friendly.
9. Cheer at Camp Nou
Soccer fan or not, Camp Nou is a great place to visit to get a feel for Catalonian futbol frenzy. This is the home of the FC Barcelona team and holds up to 100,000 passionate fans during game time. Visit on a quiet day and check out the museum, full of the team’s trophies and awards. There’s quite a bit to learn about how the soccer culture impacted the city.
10. Take a Day Trip Outside the City for a Barcelona Weekend
If you have an extra day during your Barcelona weekend vacation, consider a day trip to one of the many intriguing destination nearby.
Girona: You won’t find crowds during your day trip to medieval Girona – but you may recognize scenes from Game of Thrones! Talk on the city walls, wander through the Jewish Quarter and sit awhile at one of the many friendly cafes. You can get there from Barcelona via the Renfe train in about 80 minutes; about 40 minutes on the high-speed train.
Photo Credit : Shutterstock
Montserrat: Head into the mountains for a day trip, a great fresh-air break from the grit of the city. It’s about a one-hour train ride to reach the Montserrat mountain range, where you’ll find the Benedictine Montserrat monastery with a famous shrine of the Black Madonna, a cool-looking valley full of striking, rocky pillars and a funicular train up the peak.
11. Sightsee with the Locals
Have fun how the Catalans do with these authentic, local activities:
Tibidabo Barcelona: This old-school amusement park will thrill everyone in your group. It was built in 1899, making it one of the world’s oldest amusement parks. Plus, with the high location of Tibidabo, on Serra de Collserola, it boasts fantastic Barcelona and ocean views.
Watch an Outdoor Movie: Another fun activity if you’re headed up Montjuic Hill – in July and August, you can catch an outdoor film on the lawn of the castle’s moat.
Barcelona Aquarium: Raining? Meet more than 11,000 marine animals as you walk through the tunnel of the Barcelona Aquarium.
Explore Public Art: Haven’t had enough art education in Barcelona? Traipse about the city enjoying its multitudes of public art, including the massive Cascada Fountain in the Parc de la Ciutadella in the city center. Check out the lampposts in Placa Reial and Pla de Palau, the Miralles gate and the Passeig de Manuel Girona – all showcasing Gaudi’s work. Look for Barcelona native Joan Miro’s work, including the “Woman and Bird” sculpture at Parc de Joan Miro, mosaics on La Rambla and even some at the airport.
Take a Bike Tour: Move about the city on a guided bike tour. You’ll get a fresh, new perspective and tour the most amazing sights. Take a classic tour to all the top sightseeing destinations. Pedal along the beaches and through parks on a more peaceful nature-centric tour. Glide on two wheels past Gaudi’s masterpieces. There’s a theme for every interest, from Guell to Gothic.