Barcelona: Catalonia, Spain
You might say I am biased, because I obviously live here for a reason, but it’s doubtless; Barcelona is the perfect city break location. The city is alive with tourists at all times of the year, keen to experience the buzzing city ambience. A unique place enriched with culture, with its fantastic mountainous backdrop and beautiful coastal location, it’s glaringly obvious to see why tourists litter the streets, even throughout the winter months. The noticeable allure of the city all year round was the inspiration of this post, as I got to thinking, how does someone on a short break in a city with so many wonderful things to explore choose how to spend their time? With seven months experience living here and indulging in what Barcelona has to offer, I am here to help! Below are some of my favourite places and things to do;
How best to explore Barcelona’s Coast
Even if you are visiting the city in the winter months you should still take a few hours to take in some sea air, beginning with an exploration of Barceloneta. The neighbourhood of Barceloneta, reached by the metro stop,´Barceloneta,´via the yellow line, sits on the area of land that cuts into the sea of Barcelona. Covered with sandy beaches along one side and the impressive Barcelona Port Vell along the other, this area is abundant with atmosphere and there are always plenty of things to see and do. Walk, cycle, Segway, Rollerblade (etc.. the possibilities are diverse) along the promenade and discover a community alive with activity. On your journey along the coast you will discover it scattered with outdoor gyms, skate parks, runners, fitness classes on the beach, volleyball games, and so on. A fantastic environment to be in even if you are simply strolling and relaxing and an inspiring one to those of you who want to get stuck in. As you make headway along the promenade from Barceloneta beach you will reach Icaria beach, worth aiming for during the busy summer months if you are planning a beach day and want to avoid the crowds.
Along the promenade also reside numerous restaurants and bars, and if you delve deeper into the narrow yet equilateral streets of Barceloneta you will discover even more fantastic little eateries, plentiful of culture and appeal. A must visit Tapas restaurant in this area is, “Can Ramonet,” with fantastic food and service and for those of you who are red meat lovers I really insist you try out the Argentinean restaurant, “La Malandrina” for their massive yet inexpensive and delicious steaks and delightful creamed potatoes. I should also mention that if you find yourself hankering for something sweet you won’t need to search far. Barcelona is prevalent with bakeries selling the most irresistible, eye catching pastries and cakes.
The best streets to lose yourself in
In the first day or so of my new life in Barcelona I got hopelessly lost in the winding, medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) and the neighbouring El Born, and I highly recommend you do the same. The Gothic Quarter used to be a Roman village and there are still many remnants of its past, creating some wonderful surroundings to lose yourself in.
Just a pleasant ten minute walk away from the beach, close by the neighbourhood of Barceloneta you will find the authentic district of El Born, also served by the Barcelona metro stop as well as Jaume 1 (yellow line). Wander the vibrant little streets of this district and you will discover a wealth of cafés and bars, not to mention more delightful little bakeries, and amongst them numerous little boutiques and unique shops. Head to Passeig de Born for a taste of nightlife or soak up some culture during the day with a visit to the Picasso Museum or the Textile Museum, which also hosts a wonderful little cafe and terrace area.
In the Gothic Quarter you will also find the oldest shop in Barcelona, La Cereria Subirà, a quaint little specialist candle shop, ideal if you’re looking to buy someone a gift or just to experience the distinctive décor and to browse the colourful creations. While you lose yourself in these streets you will come across a number of peaceful squares, ideal for relaxing in while you enjoy a drink and simply soak in the atmosphere and surroundings. On your travels through these winding streets you should definitely aim to stumble across the small square that sits below the stunning Barcelona Cathedral. While you appreciate the charm of the Cathedral you will discover street performers in the square and unique cafes and shops to explore as well as a wonderful Christmas market if you visit in the months of November/December. All year round, this part of the city is perfect for shopping, as you will find a number of commercial shops in addition to many little boutiques.
The Gothic Quarter is also accessible from the metro stops located on the famous La Rambla (Las Ramblas), on the green line; Catalunya, Liceu and Drassanes. Checking out La Rambla is also a must while in Barcelona, a central Boulevard, well known for its plethora of street performers, restaurants, and shops, and the perfect place to head to post your Barri Gòtic encounter. Although I wouldn’t recommend any of the restaurants on La Rambla based on service and quality of food, they still serve as ideal places to grab a beer or share a jug of sangria while you sit and watch the world go by. Please, do not walk along La Rambla without visiting the La boqueria food market. Said to be one of Europe’s most famous, it’s easy to see why. Heading in through the imposing entrance I was immediately blown away by the stunning food displays, vibrant colours and wonderful smells. Rife with a mixture of locals and tourists the market sells a huge variety of food and is home to a number of authentic bars where you can satisfy your tastebuds with a snack or meal while you indulge in the atmosphere of the market. I would recommend you grab a very reasonably priced fresh fruit juice from one of the many stalls while you explore. Delicious and healthy!
Walk to the top of La Rambla and you will come across Placa de Catalunya, probably the most central part of the city, an impressive square with grassy areas, sculptures and fountains, surrounded with cafes, well known shops and department stores. The elegant, Passeig de Gracia also meets here. Head along this avenue for a taste of some of the city’s most renowned architecture, including the Gaudi designed, La Casa Batllo. And if you are keen to splash some cash, this street is also home to some of the most prestigious shops in the city.
I came to realise quite early on that Gaudi has left his mark all over the city, and one of his most impressive and unusual designs, and plausibly the most famous, is the Basilica, Sagrada Familia. The construction of this huge project is actually still underway and not predicted to be completed for a number of years, despite beginning in 1882 (yes, really). This, however, in no way takes away the panache of this striking creation. For access, you can take the metro to Sagrada Familia (purple and blue line), which brings you out at the foot of this remarkable head turner. Love or hate the design, I am certain you will be amazed at its ceremonious presence.
In my opinion the outside is impressive in its own right but to explore this artistry even further you can buy a ticket to go inside, which I’ve been told by visiting friends, is as equally inspiring. A word of warning though, the queues get ridiculously long in peak season. I have to say, waiting in queues is not for me, one reason I haven’t rushed to visit the inside of Sagrada Familia yet. Afterall, I do live here so I have plenty of time to do so. At the end of the day it depends on your interests if you make this a priority or not, but the views from the outside are a must for me and you can enjoy wasting an hour or so wandering at its foot or simply sitting and admiring from one of the cafes or surrounding park areas. Grab an ice-cream or bring a picnic, relax and take gratification in the spectacular company of this creation. When I first moved to Barcelona I did a four week intensive TEFL course just down the road from Sagrada Familia, meaning I had the pleasure of walking past it at least twice a day. I can honestly say I never got bored of the view.
How to view the city from above
One of the things I adore most about Barcelona is its mountainous surroundings, which can be seen from all over, providing wonderful scenery for the city. Consequently this means you have access to some of the most unimaginable views of the city from above. The best spot I have visited so far for views is undoubtedly the “Bunkers del Carmel.” Easily accessible from metro stop Alfons X (yellow line) or from El Carmel (blue line).
I recently had a friend stay with me and we visited Sagrada Familia and then went from there to the Bunkers all in a morning. We were back home in time for a spot of lunch and a quick rest before heading back out for more exploring. It really is possible to squeeze so much in if you know how. And without rushing around and turning a relaxing break into a stressful one. If you’re hankering to see more Gaudi designs, in the same mountain range as Bunkers del Carmel, you will discover Park Guell. Avoid the queues and buy your tickets online if you want to gain access to the monumental zone. You can have an equally fantastic experience for free, appreciating the views and exploring the gardens and rustic and intriguing structures.
Additional tips and advice
If you want to buy a ticket to access something, do so online, as the queues get very big due to the high volume of tourists in the city. You will save yourself a lot of time and uncomfortable waits in the hot Spanish sun.
If you are able I suggest trying to walk as much as possible from place to place as this is the best way to really soak up the atmosphere and see the city. The cycling paths are brilliant in Barcelona so an alternative to walking would be to hire a bike for a day. Be aware that the bicing is only for Spanish residents so you will need to go to one of the many hire shops.
Keep a good eye on your belongings and valuables as Barcelona is renowned as having a high level of pick-pocketing crimes. Another word of warning, car drivers in Barcelona are very impatient and don’t seem to be too hot on obeying the traffic light signals. Even if you have a right of way as a pedestrian, it’s still a good idea to double check. Also, don’t forget about all the bikes as well. I’m stating the obvious here but a collision with a bike is going to hurt.
Many of the traditional restaurants offer a “Menu del dia,” a very affordable three course meal. You may have to ask to see this menu and it’s definitely worth it if you are on a budget.
One final restaurant recommendation; I recently had a fantastic experience at “Sensi Bistro” tapas restaurant. Located in the Gothic Quarter, this restaurant serves incredible food with a twist on the traditional tapas concept. It is a cosy little restaurant so book a table to avoid disappointment!
This article is based on a short break in Barcelona but there really is so much to see and do and I would recommend spending at least a week here if you have the chance. The things I have mentioned merely touch the surface of what the city has to offer and thats not to mention what is on offer if you venture out of the hustle and bustle of the city! Enjoy exploring!