Along the sapphire shores of the Mediterranean lies one of Europe’s most captivating cities. Gothic and modernist, lively and romantic, by the sea and yet fully cosmopolitan, Barcelona is an ever-changing city that embraces its paradoxes.
Such diversity means there is something for everyone. Whether you want to meander through the medieval Gothic Quarter in the heart of the city, marvel at architectural feats such as the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló or the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, shop-til-you-drop along the city’s grand Passeig de Gràcia, sip on sangria in one of the countless ‘Placas’ (squares) or eat paella along the seafront, nothing is stopping you.
Barcelona has been on my travel bucket list for years and when my mum suggested we whizz away on a girls trip, I couldn’t resist. The tempranillo was calling.
Our journey didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts with a flat tyre on the M25 followed by a two hour jaunt on Gatwick’s runway while the plane underwent two tyre changes. Not a strong day in the tyre world. At last we were flying amongst candyfloss clouds, prosecco in hand and good to go. Before long, Barcelona could be seen shimmering in the distance. With its lush distant hills, inviting seafront and assortment of rusty red walls, warm ochre buildings and crisp modern structures in-between, the city comes before you like a mirage. Shimmering and elusive.
Once on Spanish soil, we jumped on a ‘Renfe’ train before navigating the metro and finally arriving at our AirBnB apartment. Tucked away behind the small square of Plaça del Pedro (only a ten minute walk from La Rambla), the apartment had an eclectic mix of Spanish, Egyptian and American décor, all topped off with a spacious outdoor terrace. The owner, Sergio, quickly greeted us with some of his Grandma’s gooey chocolate cake and passed on various tips before saying adiós and leaving the rest to us.
The first evening was spent lounging outside, planning our adventures and eating at a fantastic restaurant/cocktail bar just down the road called Cera. We tucked into melt-in-the-mouth honey beef cheek and the black rice seafood ‘volcano’ with parmesan. After carrying our stomachs home, we headed to bed, eager to get in a full first day.
Top of any Barcelona trip list is a visit to the Sagrada Familia, a local landmark and the artistic and spiritual symbol of Catalonia. Initiated by Francisco de Paula del Villar in 1882 and taken over by Antoni Gaudi 18 months later, the grand project is still being worked on today, with an end date of 2026. When completed, the highest tower will be more than half as high again as those that stand today. If you only have time for one sightseeing ‘outing’ – this should be it. From afar it looks somewhat like an elaborately iced cake. Awe-inspiring and neck-crane inducing, La Sagrada Familia is bold, gothic, and well worth a nosey. We booked our tickets through Trip Advisor.
If you want to have your ‘iced cake’ and eat it too, head back into the centre of the city afterwards to escape the queues and sip on a mojito in the sunshine. We meandered towards Plaça Reial, my favourite ‘square’ in the city. Indeed, its beauty led to its title, with reial being the Catalan word for royal. We delved into saffron-rich paella in the middle of the square before exploring the antique markets opposite Barcelona Cathedral.
It was time to explore the narrow, winding streets of the Gothic Quarter. The centre of the old city of Barcelona, some buildings date as far back as the Roman settlement. Quite the labyrinth, it may take a while to get your bearings. Getting lost is part of the fun though. Make sure you keep looking up and around you or you may miss some of the best bits. There are many peaceful squares where you can sit and relax during the day and a myriad of Spanish eateries and bars to enjoy once the sun goes down.
Next up the following morning was Casa Battlo, another Gaudi masterpiece. Its design represents the Sant Jordi story, with the roof as the dragon’s back and the balconies, in the form of carnival masks, as skulls of the dragon’s victims. Its colourful tiles arranged in mosaic patterns with a dark fairy-tale vibe is not to be missed. If you want to do some shopping while in Barcelona peruse Rambla La Catalunya on the way to Casa Battlo before circling back along the Passeig de Gracia.
The seaside beckoned, if only for a brief call. It wasn’t quite warm enough to bask on the beach, but we walked along Moll de Fusta where you can spot old sailing boats, super yachts and the giant Monument a Colom – a 60m monument of Christopher Columbus which was put up for the universal exposition of 1888 in homage to the famous explorer.
We rose early on our final day and headed out to Gaudi’s Park Güell. We arrived to find there weren’t any tickets available for another six hours! Make sure you also book these online a few days before. You can see most of the park from wandering along the outer paths (no ticket required), but if you want to get a closer glimpse of the mosaic work on the main terrace, book in advance. Access the park from Vallarca metro stop where you can ride outdoor escalators up to stunning panoramic views of the city before walking down through the park. Head back into the city from Lesseps metro stop.
We didn’t have time to see the Magic Fountain at night or the city’s castle, but Sergio said these are well worth a visit.
Our last evening was spent hopping (and eventually skipping…) between various wine bars (head for Bar Stoke, Chulapio Bar or La Bellvitja Brindisa) in the Gothic Quarter before eating at My Way jazz lounge. We sat at the bar, learnt Spanish from the mixologist and treated ourselves to far too many tapas. It was all over far too soon –both the endless tapas and our trip.
Barcelona is a one stop shop for those of you seeking a real mini-break. It has everything you need, being full of culture, bursting with charm and brimming with energy. After only a few days in the bustling capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, you’ll be seduced by its eclectic magnetism, imaginative food and vibrant street life. I know I was.
- Don’t eat on La Rambla – it’s overpriced. Dine around the gothic quarter and lesser known streets for delicious, affordable meals.
- Take comfy shoes as you will want to walk everywhere in the centre of the city.
- Look after your bags. While we never experienced any hassle, Barcelona is well known to be a hotspot for pick-pockets. Don’t wear expensive jewellery as a tourist and wear an over the shoulder bag with a zip.
- Take time to just ‘be’ in Barcelona. Half the fun is people watching, eating, drinking and soaking up the buzzy atmosphere. If you’re running around on the tourist trail the whole time you might miss the real deal.
- If you use the metro (from the airport, to reach Sagrada Familia, Park Guell or Montjuic) buy the ten journey ticket on the metro machine. You’ll save quite a bit.
This article (PDF) appeared in the July/August edition of Aurigny’s Envoyage in-flight magazine.