By Jim Ferri
In most cities, when you want to see great art you go to a museum. Incredibly, if you’re in Barcelona, you just take a walk.
Few places in the world have the wealth of architectural treasures you find in Barcelona. They include a staggering nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. By comparison, Paris has one site, the entire greater London area just four.
It’s the beauty of these sites, along with the city’s many museums, galleries, photogenic historic areas and multiplicity of good restaurants that makes Barcelona an exceptional travel experience, almost magical in some respects.
Having the opportunity to spend five days in Barcelona, my wife and I decided to stay in and apartment, not a hotel. Our thinking was it would provide a more personal view of the city.
In fact, it was one of the best things we did. Since we weren’t surrounded by tourists in a hotel, we were able to get a genuine view of the city.
Skipping the Hotel
There are many organizations through which you can rent apartments overseas. We selected the British company HouseTrip.
The apartment we selected was near the Plaza España and the city’s old bull ring, now a shopping center. It was just a few minutes away by metro from the historic district and the tourist magnet of La Rambla.
La Rambla is where the terror attack in Barcelona occurred this past August. But you need to experience this beautiful pedestrian avenue if you are to experience the city itself. In fact, you really can’t avoid it. The wide street stretches from the Mediterranean up to Plaza Cataluña, linking many of the sites in the historic center.
Barcelona owes much of its fame to the architectural genius of Antoni Gaudí. The father of Barcelona’s Modernist architecture, his distinctive architectural style was greatly influenced by nature.
As you might expect, you see his masterpieces all over the city: the unusual Casa Batlló, the magical Park Güell, his landmark Palau Güell, beautiful La Pedrera and his magnum opus, the incredible Sagrada Familia. Construction of the soaring Sagrada Familia began in 1882. It continues to this day.
But even without all of the Gaudí masterpieces, there’s enough in Barcelona to keep any traveler busy for weeks.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in the city is the Picasso Museum, which rambles through five medieval buildings. It contains a collection of paintings and drawings from the artist’s youth, as well as pieces from his later life.
And there’s the Palau de la Música Catalana, a lavish jewel of a concert hall that rivals any other in the world. It is so stunning a glass building has been constructed around it to ensure its preservation. More than 300 concerts are still held in it every year. Its guided tour, which takes about an hour and a half, is worth taking to see the interior.
Also wander over to the Cathedral of Barcelona, in the center of the city’s old, historic Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter. Amazingly, the Cathedral’s construction, begun in the 13th century, took 600 years to complete. One of its highlights is its cloister.
In addition to several altars, it also has palms and fruit trees, and a pool with a flock of geese.
From the Cathedral you can see the whimsical curving roof of 19th-century Santa Caterina market. It’s painted to reproduce the colors of fruit and vegetables in the market below.
The most popular area of the city is L’Eixample – Gràcia area. It is here where you find three of Gaudí’s most renowned works: La Pedrera, Sagrada Família and Park Güell.
The Sagrada Família is the most popular attraction in the city, as one sees by the line that snakes around it. Since the wait can be very long, and then you still may not get in, it’s best to buy your tickets online in advance. Get Your Guide is a good company for tours and discounts.
Surprisingly, inside I found the beauty of the church overwhelming. It’s a grand architectural spectacle unlike anything I have seen anywhere, a grand monument to the genius of Gaudí.
Gaudí’s Park Güell, one of the most colorful spots in all Barcelona, was originally planned to be a residential area. It’s one of the finest examples of Gaudi’s imagination and clearly demonstrates his bond with nature. In fact, it is one of the most amazing and beautiful parks in the entire world.
Great Restaurants and Cafés
As much as it is a city of art and architecture, Barcelona is also a city of restaurants and cafes. We were fortunate enough, however, to have the owners of our apartment, Mercedes and José, suggest two local favorites to us.
El Pa I Trago and Els Ocellets are quite different from one another, but both are excellent.
El Pa I Trago is a small cozy taverna with wood and tile walls. that served typical Catalan cuisine. Although we were the only non-locals there, the taverna had menus in five languages. It was a great value also — our large dinner of steak and fish, with appetizers, sides and wine was $100.
On the other hand, Els Ocellets was a little more modern. Its logo of a bird looked as if Miro or Picasso painted it. Here, too, we had a great multi-course meal, also about $100.
Surprisingly, while we were sipping after-dinner drinks following our meal, all the lights in the small restaurant went out. The kitchen door opened and the owner came out with a birthday cake for a woman at a nearby table. Everyone immediately burst into “Happy Birthday” in Spanish.
I sang along in English…off-tune, as usual.