Barcelona was a very early stop on our RTW trip, but it made a big impression on me. It is still one of my favorite cities in Europe. You cannot go wrong with the combination of great weather, delicious food, beautiful art, and the laid back culture.
The Romans founded the military camp Barcino around 15 B.C. However, other legends attribute the cities foundation to Hannibal and even the great Hercules centuries before the Romans’ existence. Located between to rivers on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the city flourished under Roman rule. The harbor, view, weather, fish, wine, and olive oil made it the place to be.
The Visigoths took over the city in the 5th century, then the Moors had their run of things in the eighth. In 801, Charlemagne’s son Louis won the city back and made Barcelona the seat of the Carolingian “Spanish Marches”. Barcelona was now under the rule of the Counts. The Catalan culture began to develop during the Middle Ages in some of the petty kingdoms organized in the northern regions of the city.
In 987, the counts denounced the French rule and soon after a dynastic union called the Crown of Aragon was formed. By 1137 all of Catalonia was under the control of the Count of Barcelona.
The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 shifted the power to Madrid. The colonization of the Americas also made trade on the Mediterranean less lucrative. Barcelona’s power began to decline. However, Barcelona remained the center for Catalan culture and the heart of it’s separatism.
The great plague of 1650-1654 as well as the Napoleonic Wars (1808-1814) drastically reduced the cities population. The defeat of Napoleon led to the Spanish Constitution of 1812. The city then began to industrialize and grow in the post-war period.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) saw the end of a Republican government and the founding of an authoritarian state led by General Francisco Franco. These Nationalists received the support of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
The dictator promoted a national identity, forcing all of Spain to adhere to cultural censorship. The Catalan, Galician, and Basque languages were outlawed as well as any traditions that were not deemed purely “Spanish”. Francoism also had a very traditional view of the role of women. A woman should be a loving child to her parents, wife to her husband, and mother to her children. She was not equal to man.
Barcelona was a center for resistance of Franco’s coup d’éta. Franco surrendered the title of Prime Minister in 1973 and died two years later. Barcelona remained the second largest city in Spain, at the heart of a region which was relatively industrialized and prosperous, despite the devastation of the civil war. The city prevailed and is now alive with the art and culture that were long oppressed.
You can’t go very far in Barcelona without running across Antoni Gaudí. His art and architecture are everywhere and his influence can be seen all around. There are days and days worth of Gaudí sights to see that will cost you a pretty penny. I suggest picking a few and seeing the rest as a passerby, saving yourself money and the hassle of long lines.
Also known as Casa Milà, this house is one of the most well-known that Gaudí constructed at the beginning of the 20th century. It was built for the flamboyant Rosario Segimon and his wife Pere Milà. Segimon’s rich and opulent style was well-known and ridiculed throughout Barcelona. Gaudí’s plans were actually changed throughout construction because of building code and the concerns of neighbors. The houses façade is flowing and organic. The rooftop is full of tiled sculptures typical of Gaudí’s style. You can visit the house with an audio guide for 15€ or 11€ for students. The lines however are very long. On a bright summer day, you will wait for hours.
In my opinion, Casa Batllo represents Gaudi’s best work. It is locally referred to as Casa dels ossos, or House of Bones, and it is a masterpieces. The house is restored and consists of empty rooms on the inside. You can view the architecture with no furniture, plaques, or paintings impeding your view. The audio guide is a little overly dramatic but very good nonetheless. The house is lovely and filled with flowing lines, beautifully colored tile work and stained glass windows, balconies, and rooftop patios. You can imagine the wealthy Batllo’s hosting dinner parties, standing in front of their parlor windows looking out on the streets below hoping to be seen by each passerby. I would suggest visiting this house instead of La Pedrera to avoid lines and be able to see Gaudí’s work in a more low-key venue. Entry is 17.80€ or about 16€ for students. The audio guide is included.
TIP: Choose one of the two houses to visit. We chose Casa Batllo after hearing that it is more visitor-friendly (allowing pictures) and less crowded.
La Sagrada Familia
This monstrous Church of the Holy Family is an unfinished work that began in 1862. The church is considered Gaudí’s masterwork and the artist devoted the last 15 years of his life entirely to its construction. Some of Gaudí’s plans and models were destroyed in the civil war, and the new design is derived from what remained. When the church is finished it will have 18 towers: 12 dedicated to the apostles, 4 to the evangelists, one to Jesus and another to Mary.
The church is one of the most visited attractions in Spain, seeing over 2 ½ million people each year. You can enter the church for 12€ or 10€ for students with an audio guide included. There is an extra 2.50€ lift charge to go up in the tower. The lines are extremely long and you’ll wait outside in the burning sun. Be prepared.
This grand garden built between 1900 and 1914 was a work commissioned by Count Eusebi Güell. Situated on the side of a hill in the Gracia district of Barcelona, it was originally meant to be a place were the rich and famous could hobnob in nature and grandeur (and possibly build a lavish home for the right price). This failed and the park became a public space. You can view the beautiful tile work and flowing architecture of Gaudí at every turn. And the best part? Admission is free! You can hire a tour of the park for around 30€-40€ through various private companies, if you are so inclined.
TIP: The walk from the metro is about 20 minutes and up a steep hill. Wear comfy shoes!
This long pedestrian street is lined with trees, vendors, buskers, and shops. You’ll find locals and many tourists enjoying a wine or coffee at the many cafes, purchasing flowers from a little kiosk, or watching a man sitting on an invisible chair. The area gets its name from a little stream that used to run through the area named “raml” in Arabic. It was outside the city walls until the 14th century when monasteries were built along the path. Later the wealthy built their homes here.
There are five sections of La Rambla. La Rambla de Canaletes is the first, named after a fountain. It is said that if you drink from it, you’ll return to Barcelona. The second is La Rambla dels Estudis where you’ll find vendors selling noisy birds of all sorts. The next is the flower district called La Rambla de Sant Josep. The fourth and fifth sections are La Rambla dels Caputxins (named for a monastery, long gone) and La Rambla de Santa Mònica, which leads the way to Monument a Colom in Port Vell. This monument of Christopher Columbus was built in 1888 and offers a ride up to the top in a lift for a nice view of La Rambla (€2.50 per adult).
Take your time walking through La Rambla, stop for a coffee, lunch, or drinks. Definitely pop in to the market in St. Josep region (see below) as well as Placa Reial where you can see Gaudi’s first work (the lampposts by the fountain). La Rambla is one of the most visited areas in Barcelona, so be prepared for the crowds and higher prices at the cafes and restaurants catering to tourists.
La Boqueria Market
Located inside the La Rambla Sant Josep district, the market you see today was built on and off between 1840 and 1914. However, “La Boqueria” was mentioned as early as 1217 and the history of the official market dates back to the 1700s. It’s a very lively place with all types of vendors. You can get chocolates, fresh-squeezed juices, fish, meats, cheese, produce, baked goods, as well as dine at little restaurants around the outskirts. A visit here is high on my recommendation list.
Catedral de Santa Eulalia
Barcelona’s central place of worship is a beautiful Gothic cathedral. It was built between 1298 and 1460 and has received many renovations since then. The site was originally the location of a Roman temple, then a Mosque. The spires are the icon of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter). The inside is wide, tall, and imposing. The ornamentation is original and simple. You can visit the cathedral for free. Head to the rooftop for a great view of the city for just 2€. You can also get a guided tour of the museum, choir, rooftop terraces, and towers for 4€.
When you exit you’ll pass through a courtyard with a fountain and 13 flock of geese. They represent Santa Eulàlia and have been kept in the courtyard for centuries. Don’t leave without drinking from the fountain for good luck!
This is one of Barcelona’s most important squares and is quite beautiful, especially at night. It is a sight full of history. Once used for public hangings, dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera spruced it up for the Universal Exposition in 1929. He ordered the removal of four pillars symbolizing the four bars of the Catalan flag. You can now see grand steps, columns, statues, and Venetian towers. If you pass through the gate, you will see the grand Museum of National art of Catalonia (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) at the end of a long street.
TIP: A must see are the fountains in front of this building at night. They light up and dance to music on the hour.
Another large square is the Plaza of Catalonia. This area is considered the center of “old Barcelona” and some of the cities most important streets (like La Rambla) meet here. You’ll find street vendors, people feeding pigeons, monuments, and fountains in this pretty square.
You will find the most extensive collection of Picasso’s works as well as a great little history of his life at this museum. The original museum consisted of 574 works given to Jaume Sabartés by Picasso. It was then expanded with other donations. There are also temporary exhibits from time to time featuring works by other artists as well as Picasso. You will not see some of the most famous of his works, but there are many sketches and paintings from his early life, from the blue period, the rose period, as well as rare sculptures and engravings by the artist.
Entry is 9€ plus 5.80€ for the temporary exhibit. Students under 25 can get both for 6€. The museum is free the first Sunday of each month, every Sunday after 3 pm, and for students under the age of 16 and teachers (those teaching in Spain only).
This egg-like 38 story building inspired by Mount Montserrat is beautiful day and night. Constructed by architect Jean Nouvel, it marks the entrance to the new technology district of Barcelona. It was opened in 2005 and cost around 130 million euros to build. It is worth a pass by for a great photo. It has become an icon of the Barcelona skyline.
Barcelona is located on the coast of the Mediterranean and has the perfect beach climate. National Geographic even named Barcelona the best beach city in the world!
There are seven beaches along 4.5 km of coastline. Many were rebuilt and made morebeautiful in preparation for the 1992 summer Olympics. If you have the time, spend an afternoon relaxing at one of these sandy havens.
The blend of cultures in Barcelona make it a great food city. In nearly every restaurant you’ll start your meal with a traditional Catalan toast, tomato, and olive oil (pan con tomate). Don’t slice up the tomato and put in your bread! Instead, rub the tomato slices over the toast, squeezing all of the juicy goodness on the bread. Drizzle with a little olive oil and enjoy! You may also want to order Jamón ibérico (a tasty dried ham similar to Serrano) to go along with your bread. This makes a great appetizer or lunch if you order enough!
You cannot visit Spain without eating tapas! These traditional small dishes are found in every bar in the city. The most popular are patatas brava (little fried potato chunks topped with spicy ketchup and mayo), Albóndigas (meatballs in sauce), Boquerones (sliced white anchovies in vinegar), Calamares (grilled or fried squid), and Tortilla española (Spanish omelet made with onion, potatoes, and egg, often served room temperature or cold in slices).
You’ll find many restaurants that feature Paella (traditional rice dish made on the stovetop in a special pan) although it is more Valencian than Catalan.
TIP: Usually the best food comes from the small restaurants off the main roads, not the flashy ones with big photos of the food.
My favorite activity in Spain is relaxing with a drink and appetizer or tapas. You have the chance to do this during the “siesta”. Shops and businesses close down for a few hours each afternoon for lunch and rest. You’ll find row after row of street cafes and restaurants where you can get a nice dish of olives, bread, and beer, or a fruity ice tea and piece of cake. Don’t forget to slow down from the sight seeing and enjoy this tradition.
Barcelona only gets two cones from me. There are plenty of pre-packaged treats to satisfy a craving. There are also a few little gelato places with average quality ice cream. You won’t have to go on a fast in Barcelona, but you won’t be in ice cream heaven either.
There is so much to see and do in Barcelona that I couldn’t begin to suggest an itinerary. It depends on what you want to get out of your trip. The sights that I’ve mentioned here are only a few that we either saw or were pointed toward in our travels.
There are countless other sights such as the Olympic Stadium, Casa Vincens, or Paseia Maritim that are well worth your time. I suggest spending no fewer than five days to really get to know the city. A full week would be even better.