At one minute you can be strolling down a narrow side street surrounded by Gothic architecture, and the next you’ll find yourself turning the corner to see one of the city’s modern landmarks.
Barcelona is the most cosmopolitan city in Spain and home to a busy Mediterranean port. Restaurants, bars and museums are packed in the summer with tourists who come for the beaches and nightlife or stop off on their European cruise.
What to Eat
You can’t say you’ve had the full Barcelona experience until you’ve enjoyed some late afternoon tapas (Spanish appetizers) and sangria (a wine based punch) overlooking a plaza. Our favourite was Bo Restaurant where we enjoyed the quintessential Catalan snack pa amb tomàquet (toasted bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato pulp, served with cheese and cold cuts) while we did some people watching. You’ll find some places such as Princesa 23 Restaurant will offer sangria specials worth taking advantage of during mealtime.
Just like many other European cities, eating out is a major social activity in Barcelona and the locals gather with friends and family for late meals that can last until midnight. You don’t have to wait until 10 p.m. to have dinner, but go to Tapas 24 (above) and order a bunch of dishes and split them with your companions so you can try a full sampling of the many excellent fish, cured meats and potato-based Spanish dishes. You’ll find the food and drinks are reasonably priced at most traditional restaurants, but try to dine off the main tourist streets for a more authentic and affordable experience.
Of course you don’t have to go to a restaurant to eat well in Barcelona. La Boqueria Market is a large and colourful food market where you can explore and sample meats, cheeses, fruits, nuts and sweets from local vendor stalls. If you go early in the morning you can watch the day’s deliveries of fresh fish and meats come in that will soon be purchased by the city’s restaurants.
Where to Stay
We stayed at a charming little family-run hotel called Hostal Oliva right on Passeig de Gracia, a main street lined with Gaudi buildings, trendy shops and cafes, and within walking distance to the most popular areas of the city. A Metro station was close by to bring us to the farther attractions and also to get us to and from the Barcelona Airport, which was a cheap and convenient alternative to a taxi. Considering the central position of the hotel it was very affordable ($122 Canadian a night for a double room) and we found it very clean, comfortable and safe. There are many hotel choices if you’re looking for luxury, budget-friendly or don’t mind a hostel full of college-age travellers.
What to See: Museu Picasso: By far the most popular art museum in town, Picasso’s works are on display in a beautiful old mansion in the district of La Ribera. Keep in mind it is closed on Mondays, but there are many reduced fee and even free admission times you can take advantage of.
La Rambla aka Les Ramblas: This mile-long avenue lined with huge canopy trees is one of the most lively and famous pedestrian streets in the world (above). Day or night it will be brimming with tourists checking out the kiosks, cafes and flower stalls, as well as enjoying the jugglers, singers and other entertainers looking for attention and money.
Plaça Reial: Just off of La Rambla the lively atmosphere continues in this old square lined with pillars, archways, lampposts and palm trees (above). Here you’ll find more street vendors as well as some bars and cafes filled with partygoers from the nearby hostels.
Barri Gòtic: We could spend all day and night wandering through the narrow-alleyed medieval quarter of Barri Gotic. This is where Barcelona’s old world charm comes to life and makes you feel like you’ve been transported to a quaint European town filled with charming buildings, churches, local shops and balconies decorated with flowers and plants.
Sagrada Família: Nothing can really prepare you for your first view of this colossal cathedral (above). It is still a work in progress (there’s still more than a decade left before it will be reaching completion and it’s been going on since 1882), but the architect is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The Beach: Barcelona is home to some of the best urban beaches in the world with 4.5 kilometres of coastline to enjoy when you want a break from eating and sightseeing. We spent the day at Playa del Bogatell after a short trip on the metro and rented beach chairs for five euros. As at many European beaches bikini tops for women are optional, and the sun worshippers take full advantage of the tan line-free opportunity so be warned if you’re a little shy.
Where to Shop
Zara and Mango lovers will have a field day in the mega sized locations in Barcelona, but there are many other little shops and department stores to browse in the city. Some popular shops include Bershka (similar to H&M), Massimo Dutti (good quality shop, similar to a Club Monaco or Benetton,) Custo Barcelona (funky Spanish wear) and El Corte Ingles (Spain’s leading department store). Of course you can find all the big designer shops such as Chanel, Burberry, Armani, Lanvin, Bally and Diesel. The winter sales generally begin in the second week of January and last until the end of February and the summer sales begin on 1st July and last until the end of August. Keep in mind you can get a Value Added Tax (VAT) returned for purchases of more than €90.15.