Is Barcelona one of the best travel destinations on the planet? What makes it so attractive to people all over the world? Has it got any secrets? And how surreal are the works of Antoni Gaudí in reality, compared to what’s presented in TV documentaries or on the web?
These were just a few questions that I had in mind, before I traveled to Barcelona for the first time, more than a month ago. The capital of Catalonia has been on my travel bucket list for years, and despite repeatedly postponing the trip, I had always kept an eye open for a cheap flight. And that perfect moment finally came, at the end of the cold season. February is still a good month to visit this city, even though you cannot take full advantage of its beaches. The weather is pleasant, as temperatures can reach up to 20 degrees Celsius, the prices are at their lowest, and you won’t have to wait in long lines or fight for space.
Update (September 2022) – after my second trip: The start of autumn is also a pretty good time period to visit Barcelona. There are way less tourists than in July or August, and the sun is shining all day long, so you will surely get a nice tan. And the sea temperature is perfect, too.
The history of Barcelona starts over two millenniums ago, but much of its classy, revolutionary architecture, so famous in all corners of the world, has been shaped between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. That’s the period of the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, when the city became the playground for tens of architects. Out of all, there’s a trio that has truly left a mark, and their legacy will live forever: Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. While strolling the streets of Eixample, it’s impossible not to be amazed by their creations.
Before starting to discover Barcelona, let me share some interesting facts:
- it is the second largest city in Spain – after Madrid, the largest on the Mediterranean Sea, and the forth most visited city in Europe – after London, Paris and Istanbul;
- it has a total of 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all developed during the Modernisme era, by Antoni Gaudí (7) and Lluís Domènech i Montaner (2);
- it had no beaches till the 1992 Olympic Games – currently, it has seven beaches, a 4.5 km coastline, and it’s the number one city on the list of best beach cities in the world;
- it is home to the largest football stadium in Europe and forth largest in the world, Camp Nou, with a capacity of almost 100,000 seats;
- smoking cannabis is tolerated and somehow legal – I am not going into details, but if you’re really interested, you’ll find a lot of online articles on this topic.
Getting around the city
Barcelona is served by the El Prat Airport, situated at roughly 15 kilometers south of the city center. The local public transport is very well developed, so there is no need to grab a cab or use any car-sharing apps. The T10 multi-person ticket for zone 1 is just perfect; it costs €10.20, can be bought from the vending machines inside the airport train/metro station, and offers 10 journeys on the metro, tram and buses. So that’s just €1 per journey, insanely cheap for such a popular destination. And you can use it to move around the city as well.
Update (September 2022): Unfortunately, the T10 ticket is not available anymore, which means that you either have to purchase a single or a day ticket – I actually recommend buying a multi-day ticket (can be 2, 3 or 4), depending on how many days you plan to stay.
There are two options to reach the center from the airport: the first one is to take the train (R2 line, leaving every 30 minutes) and get off at Passeig de Gràcia station, while the second one is to take the metro (line 9), change to line 1 at Torrassa station, and get off at Plaça de Catalunya station. I took option 1, mainly because it looked faster and easier. There is also a special bus line (Aerobus) that connects the airport to the city, which costs €5.90 one way and €10.2 for a round trip.
Finding the right price and the right place can be tricky, especially during peak season. But since we’re talking about one of the hottest tourist spots in the world, it’s no surprise. Luckily for me, February is a low season month, so prices were decent and I was able to find a lot of available options. I chose a hotel situated right in the middle of the action, on the famous La Rambla street: Hostal Mare Nostrum (Carrer de Sant Pau, 2). Nothing fancy in the end, but the room was clean and comfy, with multi-coloured tiles – following the spirit of the city, and the fact that it was not very big made it practical. I liked the breakfast nook, which was modern and had a huge window wall, overlooking La Rambla. Having breakfast and coffee, while watching the morning buzz from above, offered me a great start to the day.
Guide to Barcelona
Three days for such an iconic city weren’t enough. I missed a few key areas, such as Tibidabo mountain (from where you can have a breathtaking panoramic view, too bad that the funicular was not working, while I was there) and Montjuïc, home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Castell de Montjuïc and Anella Olímpica (the site of the 1992 Olympics).
Update (September 2022): After my second visit, I ticked off Montjuïc from the bucket list.
Also, it’s highly unlikely to be able to see the inside of all the major works of the three great Catalan architects. Therefore, you have to prioritize and decide for which to go – my selection was La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló and Park Güell. It’s best to buy your tickets in advance, because the lines are big. And always use the official websites when making the purchase (and not other third party sites), to avoid paying extra fees.
That being said, here are the highlights of my trip:
→ Let’s start with La Rambla, the city’s main promenade. Stretching for 1.2 kilometers, it connects Plaça de Catalunya with Mirador de Colom, in Port Vell. You’ll find along it beautiful buildings, various shops and kiosks, and many restaurants and bars. During the evenings, the street becomes insanely crowded, hosting locals, tourists, street performers and (unfortunately) a lot of suspicious people, from pimps and hookers to small drug dealers. In the end, I guess that this mixture contributes to the flavor of the place, so just take a stroll and enjoy the vibes. But beware of thieves, because pickpocketing on La Rambla happens extremely often.
→ Food is a significant part of the Catalan culture, and Barcelona is the perfect example. There are tens of food markets spread throughout the city, but the crown jewel is Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. Besides offering a wide range of fresh food, its popularity is boosted by the fact that it can be accessed directly from La Rambla.
→ On the other side of La Rambla, to the North, is the old city: Barri Gòtic, a neighbourhood with narrow, cobbled streets and several medieval landmarks – the most imposing one is definitely Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. I got to witness the start of the Feast of Saint Eulàlia (a festival dedicated to the co-patron saint of Barcelona), which takes part each year in the Gothic Quarter. It combines Catalan traditions, folklore and art, spanning over several days (5 to 7). Not far from La Rambla and part of Barri Gòtic, the vibrant Plaça Reial is the center for nightlife.
→ A stone’s throw away from the Gothic Quarter, Palau de la Música Catalana, the concert hall designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, is an explosion of colours.
→ If you’re searching for a green spot, to escape the crowds and the concrete jungle, then try Parc de la Ciutadella, which also has a few museums and a beautiful large fountain. From the park, you can easily reach the Arco de Triunfo, by following Passeig de Lluís Companys. The Arch was built as the main access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair.
→ And since we’re in this area, let’s not forget about Platja de la Barceloneta, very popular with locals and tourists alike. The mid-February weather was pleasant enough for having snacks and drinks on the beach.
→ The Eixample neighbourhood is emblematic for Barcelona. Why? Thanks to the genius of Antoni Gaudí. Many of the city’s most celebrated pieces of architecture are located along Passeig de Gràcia boulevard, which can be considered at any time an open-air museum. Walking its full length (1.5 km) is something that you should definitely do.
→ Illa de la Discordia is a block on Passeig de Gràcia, named like this due to the fact that, in less than 100 meters, there is one building designed by each of the three architects: Casa Lleó Morera (Domènech), Casa Amatller (Puig) and Casa Batlló (Gaudí). I opted for visiting the last one, but the bad news for me was that it was undergoing renovation works. That meant that its magnificent facade, along with several rooms on the main floor, were covered and partially visible. But the building has many other interesting parts, like the atrium or the rooftop, with the chimney stacks and dragon back design. So, in spite of the high entrance fee, of €25 (online tickets can be purchased from here), and of the ongoing renovation process, Casa Batlló is a must, when in Barcelona.
→ 500 meters away from Casa Batlló, on the same boulevard, you will find another famous private residence designed by Gaudí, Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera. I said pass to visiting this one, mostly because I found many similarities to Casa Batlló, and I did not have enough time to cover them both. Still, I spent some time admiring the outside design.
→ Gràcia is a lovely neighbourhood to walk around. Not as crowded as other parts of the city, this former village is also the place where you will find the first house designed by Gaudí: Casa Vicens.
→ La Sagrada Família needs no introduction. It’s an outstanding piece of art, and what Gaudí managed to create is beyond the bounds of my imagination. I mean, it’s gorgeous from every angle, both from the inside and the outside. The plans are to be finished in 2026, to mark the centennial of Gaudí’s death. Don’t forget to buy your tickets in advance, to avoid the long queue; the cheapest ticket, without considering any special discounts, is €17.
→ Park Güell, located on El Carmel Hill, offers a great city overview. And you can enjoy this stunning view while sitting next to Gaudí’s mosaic works.
Update (September 2022): In addition to all the activities and places I’ve done and seen during my first trip, I will add a few more from my second trip, just to make your selection a bit more complicated:
→ Montjuïc hill, great for chilling in late afternoons and seeing the city from above. As already mentioned, this area is also home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and Anella Olímpica.
→ Mies van der Rohe Pavilion was the German pavilion designed for the 1929 Barcelona Universal Exposition. The site (which was taken apart after the expo and reconstructed in the 1980s) played a key role in the history of modern architecture, and it’s known for its simple form and its striking use of extravagant materials, like marble, travertine and red onyx.
→ Avinguda Diagonal, especially the area between Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes and Parc del Fòrum, where you’ll find many skyscrapers (Torre Glòries or Habitat Sky) and several other fine examples of the contemporary architecture.
Food and drink
In the end, here are a few places where you can grab some food and/or have a drink:
1. Tabarlot (Carrer de Sant Pau, 4) – for the Catalan cuisine and authentic atmosphere;
2. Gats () – for desserts (Crema Catalana) and cocktails;
3. La Plaça Cafeteria () – for good, decent priced Spanish cuisine and a great panoramic view;
4. Bicioci Bike Cafè () – for healthy food and good coffee;
5. Xurreria Manuel San Román () – for tasty churros, of course.
Update (September 2022):
6. Honest Greens Rambla (Rambla de Catalunya, 3) and Honest Greens Born (Pla de Palau, 11) – for healthy, amazing-looking food, with many vegetarian options, at more than reasonable prices;
7. Savta (Carrer dels Tallers, 76) – for sandwiches in a hipsterish location;
8. Oggi Gelato (C. Comtal, 15) – for the best ice-cream I’ve had in Barcelona.
After three days (and four more, in my second trip three years and a half later) of sightseeing, exploring and wandering, only one question remained: did I get answers to all the questions I had before the trip? Well, it’s easy: no, I did not. And I don’t have a problem with it, because that’s how a city should be: mysterious and full of wonders. Even after my second visit, there are still areas that I haven’t discovered.
Nonetheless, the conclusion is clear: I’ve waited too much to see Barcelona, for the first time. The city is a gem, and thanks to its diversity, to its cultural treasures and architectural landscapes, to its sunny beaches and lively nightlife, it is surely one of the best destinations in Europe, perfect for a city break.
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.