Visited by many, though explored by few, Barcelona is a city of contrasts. A city with a rich history and lively, perhaps even turbulent present. The capital of Catalunya is much more than the home of Sagrada Familia, La Rambla, and Parc Güell. If you want to go past the obvious, be in the know when visiting the city, then this post is a good place to start.
Having recently returned to Barcelona after roughly a decade, I was surprised by many aspects of the town. Sometimes pleasantly, in other instances not so much. While exploring the long streets mostly on foot, I was met by the renowned local architecture, countless restaurants, bars, and cafés.
In this post, I share some of my experiences and practical information to help you plan your stay and make the most out of it.
Parts of Barcelona
Staying near the border of the Old Town and the surrounding residential areas provides a great base for exploration with easy access to transportation when coming from the airport, as well as the possibility to easily start your wanderings on foot. The proximity of Parc de la Ciutadella, which houses the Parliament of Catalunya among other landmarks, is something I appreciated. What I particularly enjoyed were my evening walks around the park accompanied by spring sunsets.
From Parc de la Ciutadella, it is only a stone’s throw to the Arc de Triomf which stunned me by its style that is so distinct from all other triumphal arches I had seen before. I warmly recommend passing by on your way to the Gothic Quarter.
As the Gothic Quarter is essentially the only part of Barcelona with an unorganised medieval street layout, you should have no troubles telling once you are there.
The medieval areas of Barcelona are very distinct from the rest of the city. The best thing you can do there, in my opinion, is to spend some time strolling the narrow streets in a random order, enjoying the historic sites all around you.
I have come across certain safety concerns in parts of the Old Town, especially the neighbourhood known as El Raval, where the use and trafficking of narcotics are allegedly commonplace. I have not experienced or seen any troubles myself, and not even for a moment did I feel unsafe during my visit. I still thought a fair warning would not hurt, though, so keep your eyes wide open but do not let this ruin your stay.
As a seaside historic city, Barcelona also has its port located right on the edge of the Gothic Quarter. Today, the port is a combination of old and new with the impressive Maritime Museum residing in a medieval facility and modern yachts anchored just a few dozen metres from there. During my last stay, I got to see a large number of rather remarkable boats surrounded by lovely architecture in and around the port.
Architecure & Environment
When in Barcelona, you will likely want to explore works by one of the world’s most famous architects, Antoni Gaudí. You can find many of these in the Eixample district where incredible, unique architecture from the nineteenth and twentieth century is abundant.
On the other hand, I must say that all the residential houses have not left too much space for greenery in this part of the city. This not only means that finding someplace nice, other than a café, to rest outdoors is a challenge, but also that the traffic noise can become overwhelming at times. Especially after hours of uninterrupted wandering around the streets.
Avoid Tourist Traps
Before I forget, let me say a few words about one of the famous places in Barcelona located on the border of the Gothic Quarter and the Eixample district. Plaça de Catalunya (‘Square of Catalunya’) might be surrounded by some exquisite architecture and sit in a location which is as good as any. However, its own popularity also seems to be its worst enemy. Visiting the square overrun by selfie-taking tourists, countless pigeons and (almost certainly illegal) sellers of everything from souvenirs to sunglasses was not an enjoyable experience for me.
Many of the beautiful historical buildings surrounding Plaça de Catalunya house well-known fast food and coffee chains these days. As things go in Barcelona, that is never a good sign. Unless you feel very strongly about visiting all the famous landmarks on your bucket list, my tip is to see the presence of fast food chains in certain parts of Barcelona as a reliable sign of places to avoid.
Coming back to Eixample, I still believe this district is worth exploring but it is good to be aware of what to expect from its busy streets.
An area that I really did enjoy was Gràcia stretching north of Eixample. I would particularly recommend the neighbourhood known as Vila de Gràcia as a place for eating and hanging out. It has a special, perhaps it is fair to say small-town or hip, feel to it with low buildings and countless restaurants, bars, and chic boutiques lining the streets.
Try some tapas and ice cream in one of the tiny local venues and your experience will hopefully be as pleasant as mine.
Relax & Greenery
North of Vila de Gràcia is where you would finally find some more extensive greenery. On top of that, these hilltop parks offer stunning landscape views of Barcelona from above. Parc del Turó del Putxet was the first place I came across from which I would get these views and the higher I walked the more I enjoyed the place.
I can, in fact, warmly recommend Parc del Turó del Putxet as an alternative to the world-famous Parc Güell displaying some of Gaudí’s most recognised work. The two parks lie very close to one another and while Parc Güell hides some intriguing sights, a word of caution is in place. The two unique houses and a terrace that you see in the pictures online are it. There are no more houses and no more terraces of the kind in the park. Not to forget, you are not allowed to simply go and look around, you must wait in line until your timeslot in order to get into the area.
Modern Face of Barcelona
Getting closer to the beach in Barcelona, let’s talk about the Sant Martí district. This area of many faces has something to offer to travellers seeking different experiences. From modern business areas in the north-eastern part through the hip neighbourhood El Poblenou to its older parts closer to the historical city centre.
While several of the tall modern office buildings in the contemporary parts of the district caught my attention, the place that really stood out in my eyes was El Poblenou. Offering perhaps the most beautiful architecture in Barcelona and hip, charming streets lined with cafés and restaurants similar to Vila de Gràcia became close to my heart almost immediately.
Sant Martí is bordered by the long sandy beach that distinguishes Barcelona from many other European metropolises which cannot offer such luxury only a short walk from the city centre. The Barcelonans seem to love their beach and enjoy it both as a place for sunbathing and relax, and a location for all kinds of sports activities from jogging through beach volleyball to beach tennis.
My Favourite Area
I have yet to tell you about one particular area of Barcelona. Montjuïc, a hilly area overlooking the town from the south and south-west is the home to numerous parks and renowned institutions.
Hopefully, you will not mind if I do not point you to the most beautiful park at Montjuïc as I cannot decide which one that would be. Jardins del Teatre Grec, for instance, is a well-groomed, tidy park on the side of a historic open-air theatre while Jardines de Laribal offers attractively landscaped terraces, a fountain and enough places to sit down and enjoy the amazing views.
Only a very short walk from there, you would find more hilltop parks near the Funicular de Montjuïc. Jardins de Mossèn Jacinto Verdaguer and Jardins de Joan Brossa are yet another two places where you can relax surrounded by greenery, flowers, and accompanied by extraordinary panoramic views of Barcelona.
Art Venues & Culture
Modern art aficionados will appreciate the Foundation of Joan Miró presenting the life of the well-known artist, as well as the evolution of his work over the years and decades. The museum is conceptually similar to the Picasso Museum located in the Old Town, which I can also recommend. Just make sure you have the right expectations and mindset going in.
These places exist to help you understand the artists more profoundly, introduce you to their struggles and inspirations. You should not, however, look forward to seeing their best masterpieces here as those are obviously displayed at other, larger, richer, more renowned institutions.
Montjüic is also where the 1992 Olympics took place and if your heart beats for sports, you will not want to miss your chance to have at least a quick look around the Olympic Stadium. It is possible to walk around a small designated area inside the stadium as well and it does not cost anything, so make sure you do not miss out on this opportunity.
Notice how tiny and mundane the venue appears compared to those we commonly see athletes compete at in this day and age. In my eyes, there is something very appealing about the stadium’s classic, simple design which reminded me of all the heritage that makes sports so special to me.
I did not get to experience the nearby botanical garden, so I cannot speak about its appeal but I wanted you to be aware of it in case exotic plants excite you.
How to Get Around
When it comes to moving around Barcelona, I generally found the city very walkable although as I mentioned earlier, the traffic noise can get on your nerves sometimes. Walking will most likely not get you everywhere you want to go and, in these cases, the metro should be all you need. The network of metro stations is fairly dense, so the closest station should never be too far from you.
Another great think about the metro is that it can take you directly to and from the Barcelona El Prat Airport. This, to me, seems like the most convenient way to get to the city after your arrival in Barcelona by plane.
I also appreciated the option to buy a travel card online in advance, and there was even a 10% discount for those who did it this way at the time I visited. After purchasing the ticket online, you can simply pick it up from a machine at any metro station. The option to choose from a wide array of period travel cards including 48, 72, 96, 120 hours is always nice and other cities could certainly learn a thing or two from Barcelona in this area.
The so-called ‘Hola Barcelona’ travel cards also include the airport fare which you would normally have to pay extra in case you would like to take the metro to or from the airport.
Hopefully, this brief introduction will inspire your travels around Barcelona and help you make your stay more enjoyable. Stay tuned for more detailed content about different places of interest in the capital of Catalunya and posts where I share my personal experiences from this charming city.