Barcelona: 12 tips for visiting this extraordinary Catalonian capital city
Note from the author: This article was written before the devastating terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, August 17, 2017 when a van plowed into pedestrians on the crowded Las Ramblas promenade. The author and his partner were in Barcelona the summer of 2015 and they had walked along this popular promenade many times.
Now published, this article is dedicated to those travelers who lost their lives and injured in the attack. And to the brave and loving people of Barcelona.
Barcelona is like an onion: you peel it one layer at a time, only to reveal more layers underneath to be peeled!
Chock full of history, art, architecture, fashion, and world-class cuisine – Barcelona is a city that has it all.
There’s an endless list of things to do, places to see, restaurants to try, and best-kept secrets to be discovered in Barcelona!
It can be overwhelming, especially for first time visitors.
Here are 12 tips for you to make the most of Barcelona, whether you are there for just a few days or on an extended vacation.
1. Pack good, really good walking shoes!
The best way to see Barcelona is by foot. The city has a sleek metro system, but for the most part, you will find yourself walking. A lot of walking! Wear a good pair of comfortable, light weight sneakers or sandals – your feet will love you! Barcelona is an absolutely walkable city, with many beautiful tree-lined pedestrian promenades that connect neighborhoods, parks, and plazas. Stay on the sidewalks and always use the pedestrian crossings. Traffic is hectic (lots of motorbikes!) but drivers do generally respect traffic lights and yield to pedestrians.
2. Peel it one layer at a time
Let’s face it, Barcelona is a huge metropolis and you cannot see everything all at once! So, at your leisure, pick one part of the city and spend a half-day or even a whole day there to soak it all in! Use a tourist map to navigate your way. Some of the must-see neighborhoods include: Barri Gòtic (charming Gothic Quarter, it’s the oldest part of Barcelona); La Ribera (art galleries and museums district including the famed Museu Picasso); Montjuïc (visit the 1992 Olympic Stadium and historic Palau Nacional palace, then take the gondola ride to the hilltop for a sweeping view of the harbor).
3. Go for the UNESCO marvels
Where else in world can you see so many wonders in one place? There are 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Barcelona! And 7 of which are the works of the brilliant Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Here are some of Gaudí masterpieces you should visit: Parc Güell (enchanted urban park with colorful serpentine benches, whimsical mosaic sculptures); Casa Batlló (fantastic showcase of Art Nouveau style architecture, do not miss the dragon on the rooftop!); Sagrada Família basilica (the crown jewel of Barcelona – still under construction since 1882, due to finish in 2026).
4. Buy tickets online (and skip the long line at ticket booths!)
Because of their popularity, some of the major attractions (like Parc Güell or Sagrada Família) sell entrance tickets based on certain time-slots to control the number of visitors. You’re only allowed to enter the site at a specific time, which depends on how many visitors are already inside. To avoid the long waiting line outside ticket offices, buy your tickets online several days ahead! You may even get to choose your own time to visit. Arrive to the site at your assigned time, show a printed copy of your paid online ticket or the QR code on your smartphone – and you’re in!
5. Hop on/off the tourist bus like a pro
If you’re in a time crunch (or your feet need a break from walking!), consider taking the double-decker Barcelona Bus Turístic for a tour of the city. There are 3 different bus routes (Blue, Red, Green) to choose from. Grab a seat on the open deck, let the breezes cool you down while you gawk at buildings and monuments. Pros: With one ticket, you can hop on and off whenever/wherever you like, or even catch another bus on a different route at some stops. Cons: You may slip into a deep siesta on your seat and miss all the main attractions! Audio guide in 16 languages with individual headphones. Each route takes about 2 hours. Buy tickets online.
6. Tapas, pinchos, and oh yea, sangria!
Tapas: Traditional Spanish appetizers, served hot or cold. Pinchos: Bite-size snacks made with various toppings (seafood, meat, cheese, or vegetable) skewed on a piece of bread with toothpicks. You will find tapas bars and pinchos restaurants everywhere in Barcelona! Devour these delicacies as snacks (to keep your hunger under control before dinner time!) or make a full meal out of them by ordering many different plates. Whatever you do, enjoy them with your favorite beer or better yet, a glass of sangria!
7. Make dinner reservations (and pray that you get seated by 10:30PM!)
Speaking about hunger, in Barcelona (and the rest of Spain), people usually eat dinner very, very late! Many restaurants don’t open until 9:00PM! Except for the ones in touristy areas (like Passeig de Gràcia or La Rambla shopping avenues) which will open earlier to feed the hungry tourist crowd, most other restaurants – especially fine dining – are open much later in the evening and you will need to make reservations. There are at least 23 Michelin-starred restaurants in Barcelona! But also try the more casual ones in Eixample, Gràcia or El Raval neighborhoods. Those “off the beaten path” eateries are often the best – in both the gastronomic and economic sense.
8. Bye bye Picasso, hello Hemp Museum
Tired of Picasso’s peculiar cubism abstract? Head over to the Gothic Quarter and visit the groovy Hash Marihuana Cáñamo & Hemp Museum. Housed in an ornate 16th century building, this museum is dedicated entirely to the humble cannabis plant! You will be mesmerized with the room-after-room displays of cannabis-related objet d’art like paintings, pipes, posters, sculptures, literatures, and more. It’s a unique opportunity to learn about the social and cultural aspects of cannabis, as well as its many different uses, from ancient to modern time. Did you know that hemp is being cultivated around the world to produce environmental-friendly biofuel or to make soaps, fabrics, and insulation materials for cars and airplanes?
9. Is THAT a giant eel looking at me?
Port Vell (Old Port) is a breathtaking boat harbor in Barcelona. Renovated for the 1992 Summer Olympic, this waterfront neighborhood is famous for its marinas (squadron of million-dollar yachts!) and alfresco seafood restaurants. Go for a stroll on the picturesque Rambla del Mar (pedestrian walkway over the water) and check out Centre Maremàgnum (ultra-modern shopping mall and multiplex cinema) and L’Aquàrium de Barcelona where you can scuba dive in an enormous fish tank and come face-to-face with sharks, rays, turtles, and other fascinating marine creatures!
10. People watching on the beach
The beaches are where the bold and the beautiful of Barcelona go to flaunt their perfect bodies and tan lines! Grab your beach towel and head to the popular Barceloneta Beach (near city’s center, family friendly, handicap access) or the lively Mar Bella Beach (college students, beach volleyball, nudist area). During warm season (May-September) Barcelona beaches can get very crowded, with locals and tourists pack like sardines on every square inch of the sand! Optionally, you can also take a 30-minute train ride south to the seaside resort town of Sitges and bask in the tranquil Mediterranean sun and surf. Trains depart hourly from Estacio de Franca station, a round-trip ticket costs only 7.60€.
11. Join the conga line at La Boquería Market (but watch out for pickpockets!)
This centuries-old market is jam packed with vendors selling heaps of produce, seafood, meats, spices, and sweet treats of all sizes and shapes. It’s also a foodie’s paradise! At the food kiosks in the back of the market, try the fresh fruit smoothies, tender grilled squids, succulent steamed Spanish clams, or delicious sandwiches stuffed with velvety Manchego cheese and slices of the legendary Jamón ibérico cured ham. Shoppers line up chest-to-back, slowly making their way through the narrow paths between the stalls. It’s like dancing in a conga line, except if you feel someone’s hand on your hips, it might belong to a professional pickpocket who is searching for your wallet!
12. Have a magical night at the Magic Fountain
Seriously, you do not want to miss is this spectacular light, music and water acrobatic extravaganza at the Magic Fountain! It has become one of Barcelona’s top tourist attractions. The star of the show is, of course, the majestic Font Màgica fountain which was built for the 1929 World Fair in Barcelona. Colorful jets of water twirl, twist, spin, and spiral in sync to a splendid repertoire of music – from Hollywood movie soundtracks to classic rock, from Mozart to Madonna. It’s a free nightly event! Check the internet for show time which varies by the season.
About this article
The most exciting (and scariest!) thing that the author did in Barcelona was getting up to the top of the tall towers at Sagrada Família basilica. He didn’t venture out to the open catwalk (more than 200 feet above the ground) that connects the towers!
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone 6.
© 2017 Viet Doan