I’m guessing that Barcelona is on most people’s lists of city-breaks in Europe? It has everything going for it. It’s cultural. It’s cosmopolitan. It has beaches. It has wonderful history and architecture. It has great food. It has all of these things in abundance. Oh and being in Spain, it has sunshine. I knew there was something I almost forgot! I’ve visited Barcelona twice. Both times for a couple of days stopover as part of a longer trip. The first time was combined with a visit to the FIB Festival International Benicassim, a few hours down the coast and the second time was following a visit to the Port Aventura theme park, which is roughly an hour south of the city on the outskirts of Salou. That said, a couple of days is just about enough to see the Barcelona highlights.
Barcelona is quite the sprawling city. It not likely you are going to make it around on foot – especially if you are short on time, but there is an extensive metro network which is pretty efficient. You could also use the hop on, hop off Bus Turistic with three routes that cover pretty much everything you would need to see. Anyone would think I’m on commission from these tourist bus companies by the way I bang on about them in my posts, but I genuinely do find them a great way to get around a large city, when you have limited time.
So, you have a couple of days in the city. What are you going to get up to? Well here are a few of the Barcelona highlights that I would say are well worth visiting. There are a million and one other things to do of course, but this is a good start right here.
My city centre Barcelona highlights
La Rambla (also known as Las Ramblas) is a largely pedestrianised and tree lined avenue running north to south from Plaça de Catalunya, a large square known as the city centre, down to the Mirador de Colom and Port Vell. Popular with tourists, it is home to street performers, pavement cafes, restaurants and souvenir kiosks.
It’s a nice place to wander and has a great vibe, albeit very touristy. But hey, we are all tourists when we are on holiday.
The Mirador de Colom which stands at the southern end of La Rambla is a 60 metre tall monument to Christopher Columbus. There is a lift inside which takes you up to the top (for a fee of course) offering great views over the harbour and city.
Tip: La Rambla can become particularly crowded during peak periods and is notoriously known as a haven for pickpockets, so be sure to keep all of your valuables safe.
Port Vell is one of my Barcelona highlights, and located at the southern end of La Rambla. A stroll along the wooden boardwalk, Rambla del Mar, leads to a retail and leisure complex which includes L’Aquarium and numerous stores and restaurants. If you are a looking for a boat trip then this is the place to come to, and if you happen to be here at the right time, you can watch the cruise ships and fancy yachts arriving into the city.
It’s a great place to sit outdoors for an evening meal, looking out over the harbour and daydreaming about staying at the W Hotel on the next visit to the city!
Next to the Rambla del Mar sits the Old Port Authority Building, which was built in 1907 as a maritime station, adding a touch of classic architecture to contrast the sleek and modern Rambla del Mar and Port Vell buildings.
The oldest part of the city, Barri Gòtic, is located to the east of La Rambla. A maze of narrow streets featuring some of the oldest buildings, churches and palaces in town. Many of the narrow winding streets open up into squares dotted around the district, such as Plaça Reial – a popular tourist destination packed with restaurants, bars and clubs.
Barcelona Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia is a magnificent church that was constructed from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the Neo-Gothic facade added in the 19th century. Located in the centre of the Barri Gòtic, this building is beautiful inside and out. The exterior features 3 bell towers and a facade decorated with statues and gargoyles. The cavernous interior features some fantastic stained glass windows and beautiful domed ceilings and archways.
Despite the beauty of the facade and interior, my favourite part of the cathedral is the 14th century cloisters. With trees and greenery dappled in sunlight, there is no wonder it is known by some as the ‘Oasis of Barcelona’.
Ok, so Gaudi is not exactly a ‘destination’ of Barcelona, but before we go any further we need to discuss the works of Antoni Gaudi. The works of Gaudi are most definitely Barcelona highlights. Born in 1852, Gaudi became one of Spain’s most influential modernist architects in the late 1800’s. Having a particular style to his work which was unlike other architects of his time, Gaudi’s buildings had a more organic look, influenced by forms of nature.
Scattered around the city are many of his works, including some of the more famous including Casa Batlló and La Pedrera. These building facades are more like sculptures with their unusual curves, wrought iron, ceramics and stonework.
La Sagrada Família
On the subject of Antoni Gaudi, a visit to Barcelona is not complete with heading to see the largest unfinished church in the world. A permanent building site since 1882 when construction began. Gaudi became involved in 1883 and made changes to the project to feature his own unique style and vision and worked tirelessly until he died in an accident in 1926 when the project was less than 25% completed. Construction still goes on today with the church currently 70% complete, the project is due to complete in 2026 – the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
Despite the work that still goes on, visitors arrive in their hordes to admire the architectural detail on the building – I’m definitely going to be visiting this building again once it is complete. It one o my favourite Barcelona highlights, for sure.
Park Güell is another of Gaudi’s masterpieces and another of my Barcelona highlights. Situated in the Gràcia district of the city, the park was created between 1900 and 1914 and officially opened to the public in 1926. The park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 (I promise I do not plan my trips by looking at a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, although sometimes it might seems that way) and attracts many tourists to admire the work that Gaudi created.
My Barcelona highlights further afield
If you have had enough of the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets of Barri Gòtic, or you are done shopping at Passeig de Gràcia, there is no better place in Barcelona to take a break from it all than in La Barceloneta. Why? Well this is the area where the city meets the Mediterranean by way of a golden sandy beach. This is a popular destination in the summer, packed with sunbathers and people wanting to get out of the city streets from a while. There are also a good collection of bars, cafes and restaurants – it’s a great place to try some seafood or some tapas. The beaches stretch out from La Barceloneta to the east beyond the Olympic Port, so there is plenty of space to find a spot to sunbathe.
Parc de Montjuïc is a hill to the south west of the city that is home to a whole host of attractions. Perched on hillside behind the large Torres Venecianes is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, housed in the beautiful Palau National featuring displays of Catalan art. This hillside vantage point also offers great views back across the city.
Montjuic was home to the 1992 Olympic Games and the area was heavily developed for the event. Many of the venues still stand and are in use today including the Estadi Olympic, the Palau Sant Jordi and the outdoor swimming and diving pools, which if you were around and remember 1992, provided some breathtaking diving scenes with the backdrop of the city. If you don’t remember, then google it, as it was a truly amazing sight. The Olympic venues all sit under the shadow of the large communications tower which has become something of a Barcelona landmark and can be seen from across the city.
If you don’t fancy walking up to Parc Montjuïc from the city in the sweltering summer heat, the tourist buses will take you up there or alternatively, there are a network of cable cars and funicular railways that will save the walk up the steepest sections. There is also a cable car which takes you from the slopes of Montjuïc across to the port and the beaches. We didn’t actually use these cable cars on our visit, I wasn’t feeling so brave!
The best place to stay to see my Barcelona highlights
So where do you stay when in Barcelona? Well, the city has so many different districts it would really depend on what you are looking for. The first time I visited, I stayed in a lovely little hotel on a quiet side street off La Rambla near the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which was a great central location.
More recently I stayed in a lovely hotel called Andante Hotel which was located near Port Vell and La Rambla but on a fairly quiet street. A modern and functional hotel with a breakfast offering but no bar or restaurant (if you are happy with vending machine food then you are in luck), the rooms were bright, clean and stylish but the best selling point of the hotel was the rooftop infinity pool with awesome views across the city!
In writing this post, I have realised that I really want to go back to Barcelona. I want to spend more time wandering Montjuïc. I want a day on the beach. I want to wander the streets of Barri Gotic searching out cool tapas restaurants and nice bar and I definitely want to stay at the W Barcelona, so I am off to buy a lottery ticket. Wish me luck!