Barcelona is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. And that’s not just figurative: With nearly 9 million tourists passing through each year (and growing), its popularity is something to take into account when planning your first visit. The city is faced with long lines and tightening regulations, as well as extreme summer heat (it’s best to avoid from mid-July to early September), so how you tackle Barcelona will play a big factor in how much you enjoy the city.
You’ll want an itinerary that covers the bases and efficiently circumnavigates the crowds—even if you’ve got to check off La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell. This leaves more time to devour tapas, see world-class flamenco, and marvel at 2,000-year-old neighboring towns (which were grand enough to be a part of the Game of Thrones set).
So, if you’re planning a visit, here’s our suggested to-do list, filled with relaxing hotels, efficient train transportation, coastal overnight trips, and skip-the-line tours.
Getting to Barcelona: Consider the Train
There are a million ways to fly to Barcelona, but one thing to keep in mind is that you can also easily access the city by train from other major hubs like Madrid and Paris (or do those trips in reverse if you land in Barcelona first). Renfe has lots of great high-speed “AVE” options within Spain—like 3 hours to Madrid, and 3 more to Seville—or even a 6.5-hour option to Paris on the France-Spain high speed train. To book any route, go to RailEurope, an EU train ticketing site built for U.S. travelers.
Where to Stay in Barcelona
Two of my favorites—Alma Barcelona and Almanac Barcelona—are easy to confuse by name. Here’s what each offers:
Like the rest of the Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s Barcelona collection, 5-star Alma is an urban oasis—like an actual oasis—with a massive inner garden where guests enjoy drinks, Tuesday DJ sets, and/or just some peace and quiet. The garden is also part of the onsite eatery Jardín del Alma, where you’ll enjoy breakfast or fine Catalan fare during lunch and dinner. ‘Alma’ means ‘soul’, and the hotel is infused with it. The sumptuous rooms and suites are composed of clean materials like steel, leather, and wood. You’ll forget the central property is just steps from the pedestrian-heavy Passeig de Gràcia, a convenient location that doubles as a perk. You’ve got access to the gym, pool, sauna, and steam room, and you can also book a spa treatment. This summer, the hotel is launching its experiential program, Alma Alive. In tandem with its Pamplona property in north central Spain, Alma Alive pairs your stay with immersive activities like wine tours, private tasting menus, and cycling excursions.
The first of many Almanacs to come, this 5-star property opened on the corner of Gran Via in 2018. That puts you conveniently at the center of the city’s commercial district, though Almanac succeeds at removing you from the chaos and foot traffic. Its 91 rooms and suites are jaw-dropping: oak and walnut contrast gold details, creating a relaxing reprieve. The intent here is residential sophistication, which you feel as soon as the curtains retract upon entry. They’ve got terrific touches like Japanese toilets, rain showers, and nine room types to suit your needs. You can unwind in the 24-hour gym, the onsite spa, or with poolside cocktails and snacks at Azimuth. Made-to-order Mediterranean breakfast, pica-pica, and tapas are served at Línia all day long.
H10 Port Vell
H10 currently has 15 excellent properties in Barcelona, and its 4-star Port Vell hotel might be the best of them all. It’s located on the harbor, just outside the bustling El Born district and the maze-like Gothic Quarter. You’re a minute’s walk to the Barceloneta metro stop, and just 10 to the beach. (That is, if you aren’t otherwise relaxing poolside at the rooftop bar.) What I love about all H10’s properties is that, despite the volume of their hotels, they lack any stale standardization. Each hotel feels like its own boutique-y entity. Port Vell’s public spaces are filled with art, color, and modern decor. Its Mediterranean breakfast spread is top-notch, and each room has commendable amenities like rain showers, Rituals toiletries, and smart-temp controls. It’s the perfect hotel to retire to at the end of the day. Even if you don’t stay here, spend a few hours on the rooftop if you get tired of touristing.
What to Do in Barcelona
You’ll no doubt spend plenty of time walking down the commercial Gran Via and Passeig de Gracia, and getting lost in El Born and the Gothic Quarter. Besides that meandering and window shopping, here are some other spots to hit around town.
La Sagrada Familia
A Barcelona tour is also a Gaudí tour, and Sagrada Familia is probably the city’s most iconic landmark. The basilica is only unfinished in that it’s grander in detail than anything else. It combines Gothic, Modernist, and Art Nouveau styles, and puts all other church tours to shame, with its stained glass, forest-like columns, carvings, and sculptures. Book a skip-the-line guided tour, like GetYourGuide’s for an efficient but thorough overview of the entire thing.
Barcelona’s most famous park, with a Gaudí museum and sprawling city views. You can also buy a ticket to its private monumental zone, which houses many Gaudí structures and creations, like the tiled Dragon Staircase. Just don’t miss your designated timeslot, since they strictly regulate the number of visitors each half hour.
Montjuïc and Museo Nacional D’Art de Catalunya
Take the funicular to the best mirador in the city, and tour the 17th-century military fortress by the same name. The hilltop is also home to MNAC, Catalonia’s official art museum, for which you can book ahead. Check this calendar for nightly light show times, if you’re able to time a visit to the visual spectacle. (It’s free to observe.)
Gaudí’s final home, Casa Milà is also known as La Pedera, “the stone quarry”, because of its ebbing, clifflike facade. The interior is equally unusual, as murals sprawl across curved ceilings and ornate furnishings counter the signature Gaudí design flourishes. Get a rooftop view amongst the sculpture-like chimneys, and marvel at how the whole building feels ready to sink inside of itself. Get a skip-the-line ticket to avoid long lines, especially on hot days.
Casa Batlló boasts a Gaudí-designed event space, open for public tours and performances, like a night music series. Or get an early-bird ticket if you want to photograph all of the Gaudí-isms and views without an army of tourists in your shot.
A lesser-trafficked Gaudí icon in Barcelona, this house is considered one of the first Art Nouveau designs. You know the drill by now; get a skip-the-line tour and spare yourself any long, warm queues.
Palau de la Música Catalana
This architectural marvel is the venue to see a flamenco show or to hear Catalan guitarists with divine decor and proper acoustics.
Your meanderings will inevitably take you through the key neighborhoods, such as the maze-like Gothic Quarter, bustling El Born, sometimes-seedy El Raval, and Eixample, a tourism center of sorts. But La Barceloneta is a destination all its own. The seaside neighborhood is where you can catch the cable cars to Montjuïc. It’s a former fisherman’s neighborhood, and you still get that vibe as you walk the sidestreets today. You’re crazy not to spend part of your visit relaxing on the Mediterranean shore, ogling yachts and savoring the seabreeze (though it should be noted that there are better and less-populated beaches outside of town, particularly up the coast in Costa Brava).
Mercado de La Boqueria
Snack your way through this massive produce market, making a meal of fresh fruits, seafood, mushrooms, veggies, bread, and sweets.
Parc de La Ciutadella
An attraction with numerous micro attractions, this park houses numerous sculptures, a zoological and geological museum, a lake for paddle boating, a 19th-century greenhouse, photogenic fountains, the Barcelona Zoo, the Catalanian Parliament, and the neighboring Arc de Triomf (an 1888 World Exhibition installation, not to be confused with Paris’ WWII monument).
Fundació Joan Miró and Museu Picasso
Where to Get Tapas in Barcelona
Every week, there’s going to be something new popping up in Barcelona, but your main goal should be to snack your way through the city, surviving and thriving on tapas and cava. So, put these tapas joints on your map, in case you stumble past and need to refuel.
It’s actually a restaurant, but grab a seat and a cava at the bar—maybe chased with a couple tapas. Et voila, a DIY tapas experience.
14 De la Rosa
Same drill, since it’s Spain: This is a cocktail and wine bar—and a natural wine bar at that, so order one!—plus they’ve got tapas that are almost too cute to eat.
This restaurant teems with visitors in the late afternoon, but that bustle is half the fun. Shout your order to the guys behind the counter, and revel in the ambiance of decades-old Barca.
Bar Bodega Quimet
A few minutes’ walk off the grid in Vila de Gràcia, this tiny bar-restaurant is a great respite from the chaos of the commercial center.
An Overnight Trip: Girona, Figueres, and the Beaches of Costa Brava
In my opinion, three full days in Barcelona will feel satisfying, and is enough time to could conquer most of the essentials on foot. (They’ll be busy days, but it’s doable.) That leaves room for an overnight trip up the coast—to Costa Brava, specifically, which means “wild coast.” Plan for a day or two of exploration: You’ll start inland, in medieval Girona, with its Roman fortress that was a backdrop in numerous Game of Thrones scenes. The Old Quarter in Girona took on many faces over the years, because of the change of rule between Muslims and Christians, and the evolving architecture between Roman, Gothic, and Baroque influence. That makes for lots of awe-struck moments exploring its massive cathedral, Arab baths, and fortress walls. It’s just 40 minutes away from Barcelona on the express train, for as little as $20.
Then, you’ll go farther northeast on the train, just 15 minutes to Figueres, where you’ll pop into the Dali Theatre Museum and Cali Jewel Collection, for a few hours. The former is a renovated theatre that Dali himself filled and designed with his own oddities and artistry. It’s a funhouse of sorts, with plenty of cheeky details that’ll keep you humored. (It’s also his burial site, so be sure to find his tomb underneath the main theatre). Pop over to see his self-designed jewel collection, too, which is equally fantastic and occasionally animated. (Think butterfly jewels with wings that flap.)
Lastly, you’ll depart for an afternoon by the sea, to the wild coastline itself. Consider the cliff-lined, white-sand Platja del Pals, or the crystal blue Platja de Santa Cristina and Platja de Treumal, all of which put you closer to Barcelona, where you’ll retire for your final evening.
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