In most European cities, when you want to see great art you go to a museum…..in Barcelona you just take a walk.
By Jim Ferri
Spain’s northern Mediterranean city is full of surprises and rife with artistic and architectural treasures. But what I find most incredible about Barcelona is its trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, unmatched by nearly any other city in the world.
To provide some perspective, consider that the city of Paris (approximately 40 square miles in size) has one World Heritage Site, and the entire greater London area (600+ square miles) has four.
Barcelona, on the other hand, a city of 39 square miles, has nine.
It’s the beauty of these sites, along with the city’s many museums, galleries, and musical history (the Palau de la Musica is incredible) that draws you in. Even beyond all this beauty, Barcelona enchants you almost everywhere you go, even in its many restaurants and tapas bars.
It’s a colorful city filled with energy, fascinating architecture, Catalan culture and wonderful food. In fact, just Barcelona’s wealth of good places to eat make it an exceptional travel experience.
Skipping the Hotel
While there are flights, some non-stop, to Barcelona from U.S. cities, my wife and I reached it from Madrid, on a very comfortable 3-hour train ride. Since we were going to spend five days in Barcelona, we decided to stay in an apartment, not a hotel.
Our rationale was that non-hotel lodgings would provide a more personal, and genuine, view of the city since we wouldn’t be surrounded by tourists 24 hours a day. It turned out to be one of the best things we did.
There are many organizations through which you can rent apartments overseas. We selected the British company HouseTrip, which is now part of TripAdvisor.
The apartment we selected was near the Plaza España and the city’s old bull ring, converted to a rather unique shopping center after bull fighting was banned in 2012. And it was just a few minutes away by metro from the historic district, including many of the Antoni Gaudi buildings we wanted to see, and the tourist magnet of La Rambla.
La Rambla, the Gothic Quarter and A Magnificent Cathedral
La Rambla is the most most popular street in Barcelona, visited by more than 150,000 people every day. It links Placa de Catalunya in the center with the Christopher Columbus Monument down at the port.
You need to experience this beautiful pedestrian avenue if you are to experience the city itself. In fact, you really can’t avoid it since it runs along the city’s historical Gothic Quarter.
Off La Rambla in the Gothic Quarter you’ll find many narrow, ancient streets, lined with medieval buildings – some actually from Roman times – that meander through the old city center. The entire area is peppered with boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
In the Quarter be sure to visit the Cathedral of Barcelona, the construction of which began in the 13th century and took 600 years to complete. One of its highlights is its cloister, which not only has several small altars but also palms and fruit trees, and a small pool with a flock of geese.
In the street in front of the Cathedral you can look down the block and see the whimsical curving roof of 19th-century Santa Caterina market, painted to reproduce the colors of the fruit and vegetables sold inside it.
Caterina is the smaller of the two major old markets in the city. The larger is the Boqueria food market which you can enter from La Ramblas.
Two Don’t Miss Cultural Gems: The Picasso Museum and Palau de la Musica
Most importantly, Barcelona is a city of art. It was home not only to the celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi, but also to a trio of world-renowned artists: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Salvator Dali.
Picasso’s namesake museum is less than a 10-minute walk from the Cathedral. One of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, it’s tucked away in five medieval buildings and contains more than 4,200 works by the artist.
If you need an addition fix to satiate your art cravings, head to the Fundació Joan Miró, a modern art museum honoring the painter. It’s on a hillside above the city and harbor, about 3km from the Picasso.
You can also take a day trip to the Dali Museum in Figueres, in the province of Girona, about 143 km from Barcelona. It’s the second most-visited museum in Spain, after Madrid’s Prado.
From the Picasso Museum, another 10-minute walk will bring you to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a lavish jewel of a concert hall designed by Antoni Gaudi, that rivals any in the world. It is so stunning a glass building has been built around it to ensure its preservation.
It hosts more than 300 concerts every year. Its guided tour, which takes about an hour and a half, is well worth taking to view the beautiful interior.
Don’t Miss the Sagrada Família
Barcelona owes much of its fame to Antoni Gaudi. The father of Barcelona’s Modernist architecture, Gaudi’s distinctive architectural style was greatly influenced by nature. You’ll find several of his masterpieces in the L’Eixample – Gràcia area, the most popular area of the city.
Gaudi’s magnum opus is the Sagrada Familia (“Sacred Family”) Basilica, construction of which began in 1882 and continues to this very day. It’s a half-hour walk from the Palau de la Musica. You may find it more convenient, however, to take a taxi.
The Sagrada Familia is the most popular attraction in Barcelona, as you’ll quickly see by the long line that snakes up to the entrance. Since the wait can be very long, and then you still may not get in, it’s best to buy your Sagrada Familia tickets online in advance. We didn’t and had a long wait in line.
Once inside, however, we found it unbelievably beautiful. You can spend hours here, walking about both inside and out. But be sure to take an elevator up into the spires (when you purchase a ticket, you’re given a time to be at the elevator) to see the ongoing construction work, and go to the museum in the basement (where there’s also a lab with engineers doing tests).
It’s a grand architectural spectacle unlike anything I have seen anywhere, a grand monument to the genius of Gaudí.
Gaudi’s Casa Battlo
Another Gaudí building, Casa Batllo, is actually a remodeling of a previous building by the architect, an apartment building to which he added two additional floors and a new façade. It’s one of the very popular Guadi buildings in Barcelona as well as an incredibly beautiful place to visit (the reason for the line out front). It’s something you shouldn’t miss.
The great draw for many though, are the whimsical (some call them mythical) chimneys that jut up from the rooftop terrace.
Beautiful La Pedrera
Although its official name is La Casa Milà, La Pedrera (meaning “stone quarry” in Catalan) was so nicknamed by the locals, and that’s how it’s referred to by just about everyone today.
La Pedrera is all undulating concrete and twisted iron balconies and is less colorful and fanciful than Casa Batllo. The chimneys on the rooftop (including one crowned with broken Champagne bottles) rightfully draws a lot of attention from visitors, but the exhibits inside are also quite interesting.
The attic, lined with arches supporting the roof and originally designed as the laundry, now contains a series of exhibits on, and scale models of, Gaudí’s work. Below it are two apartments: one contains an audiovisual presentation on Barcelona history, the second is a recreated apartment of a wealthy family in early-20th century Barcelona.
The recreation is both beautiful and fascinating since it’s made up of the actual elements of one of the original apartments right down to the door handles and moldings. Each room contains period furniture, works of art and various household accessories.
Another Thing to Do In Barcelona: Visit Magical Park Güell
On even a short tour of Barcelona leave time to see Gaudí’s Park Güell, one of the most colorful spots in the city. Originally planned to be a residential area, it’s considered one of the finest examples of Gaudi’s imagination. Clearly demonstrating his bond with nature, Güell is one of the most amazing parks in the entire world.
The most popular area in the park is the Gran Plaça Circular with its serpentine bench covered with colorful tiles. It sits atop a cavernous room of 87 crooked columns with a ceiling studded with ceramic tiles and faces two Hansel-and-Gretel-style houses at the entrance.
Wander about the park and you’ll be amazed at the sometimes-bizarre beauty of it all. It’s a fantastic fantasyland of bridges and walkways made with rock from the area, walls with gargoyles jutting out, flower beds planted to appear as if undulating like waves of the ocean. There is not a single straight line in the entire park.
A Good Foodie City
As much as it is a city of art and architecture, Barcelona is also a city of restaurants and cafes. In fact, you’ll find many good places to eat in Barcelona.
We were fortunate enough to have the owners of our apartment suggest two of their local favorites to us, which they considered good places to eat in Barcelona. Although the two Barcelona restaurants, El Pa I Trago and Els Ocellets, turned out to be quite different, both were excellent.
El Pa I Trago is a small cozy Barcelona restaurant/taverna with wood and tile walls, which serves 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 for two.
On the other hand, the restaurant Els Ocellets was more modern, with a logo of a bird looking as if it had been painted by Miro or Picasso. But here, too, we also had a great multi-course meal with wine, 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. My wife joined the other diners in Spanish…I sang along in English…off-tune, as usual.
Barcelona is also a great city for tapas and you’ll find many tapas bars just about everywhere you go. Two well-known tapas bars are Bar Pinotxo and El Quim, both located in the Boqueria market, where they make their tapas from the fresh produce in the market.
And wherever you may dine, be sure to enjoy Cava, the local sparkling wine that’s Catana’s version of Champagne.
If You Go:
Tourist Office of Spain