The best things to do in Barcelona range from the ancient to the modern. The Barri Gòtic and its maze of narrow streets harken back to its Roman beginnings while the dramatic glass high-rises near the water scream contemporary architecture. And Gaudì? You cannot escape the city without visiting several of his iconic modernist buildings.
Most iconic sight: the almost-finished Sagrada Familia
Best Itinerary Theme: Visiting everything Gaudì
Best tapas: Ciutat Comtal
Wildest dining experience: El Nacional tapas
Most worthwhile day tour: Mount Serrat
Most disappointing: Not everything is within walking distance
Each time I’ve visited, the Sagrada Familia is closer to completion. The goal is for the “temple” to be finished in 2026 to mark the 100 years since Gaudì’s death. Yes, it has taken this long to build the Sagrada Familia.
Urban legend says that the word “gaudy” comes from Gaudì’s name. Not true. Still, people like to believe it because of the perceived excess of the Sagrada Familia façade that he oversaw. Upon closer inspection, however, the façade reveals instead his attention to detail. He studied nature to inform his architecture, and it shows in his Art Nouveau or Modernista style.
Even though other architects have contributed to the Sagrada Familia since Gaudì’s death, they have embraced his original concept. The stained glass windows illuminate the interior with intense color — yellow and orange on one side to represent sun, and blue and green on the other for water. The “forest” or tree-like supports that rise from floor to ceiling are both inventive and majestic.
Recommended: buy timed online tickets in advance to ensure you can get in when you want. I highly recommend purchasing the audio self-guided tour.
More Things Gaudì . . .
If the Sagrada Familia stands as Gaudì’s most ambitious work, his unique architectural vision appears in several sites across the city.
Gaudì and his patron Guell intended to build a retreat for the city’s wealthy residents on a hill above the city; however, a lack of public transportation for servants made it ultimately undesirable. The project failed, and eventually the city took it over. Park Guell has two areas: one restricted to ticket holders only, and one public. Don’t pass up the restricted area since that’s the jewel. The distinct aquaducts, landscaping, and public spaces, such as the market and the square above it, distinguish Park Guell from an ordinary park.
Inside, you’ll find the famous Gaudì mosaic salamander and a fantastic view of the city while you sit on benches designed to fit the human body. Gaudì’s recycling of discarded materials into colorful mosaics and his use of nature for form demonstrates his forward-thinking vision as nowhere else.
In recent years, Park Guell has limited the number of visitors to the inner restricted area to only 400 at a time. Buy your tickets well enough in advance to guarantee your preferred time. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself waiting outside the gate until, or if, there’s room. I recommend adding the guided tour to enhance your visit.
Tip: The advance purchase of a ticket entitles you to a free shuttle bus from the metro station Alfons X. If you don’t take the shuttle, you’ll face a long and strenuous hike up to the entrance.
I love Casa Batllò. The most completely Gaudì of the Gaudì buildings, it offers surprises at every corner and at the end of every staircase. The curved glass picture windows looking out on the Passeig de Gracia are stunning, and the rooftop patio looks like something out of a dream.
You have several ticket options when planning your visit. We bought the Blue tickets in advance, which include an audio guide with augmented reality, but Silver and Gold include access to a private hall that we thought not worth the visit. The Gold does offer FastPass entry and seemed well worth the extra two Euros form the Silver. (Silver and Blue wait in the same line for entry.)
You can show up at the box office to buy tickets on the spur of the moment; however, you might be denied entry if too many have already booked.
Casa Milà (La Pedrera)
If Casa Batllò’s beauty is mostly on the inside, Casa Milà awes on the rooftop. Also known as La Pedrera, Casa Milà was built originally as an apartment building, with the owners living on the main floor. Eventually shops and other businesses began to lease space. Now, as a UN World Heritage Site, it operates as a tourist attraction, cultural center, events space, and home to the ground floor shops.
On the way to the top, the Essential ticket gives you access to some rooms on the way up. The Whale Bones attic is spectacular in its innovation construction, and the displays there give much context to the construction and vision of the building.
Because we weren’t sure whether we’d have time between our tickets for Casa Batllò and Sagrada Familia, we bought 0ur tickets for Casa Milà on site after visiting Casa Batllò diagonally across the street. We waited for about ten minutes. When buying in advance, you can opt for Essential (what we bought), Premium, or Night Experience.
Wandering Barri Gòtic
The Gothic Quarter marks the Roman beginnings of Barcelona although the majority of buildings aren’t that 0ld. Some ruins do exist, though. You can easily get lost in the maze of narrow streets. Don’t leave Barcelona without experiencing the Medieval flavor of the stone buildings and alleys.
Make sure you check out two churches while you’re in the area: Santa Maria del Mar (Ribera district, but nearby) and the Barcelona Cathedral. Some people swear that the older Santa Maria del Mar out-impresses the larger Barcelona Cathedral, while others claim the opposite. For this reason, you should visit both to make up your own mind.
After you’re done with Gaudì, delve into the local scene for a break. The Mercado de La Boqueria, located a block off the Rambla, is a foodie’s heaven, with stall after stall of tempting treats. Whether you want to grab lunch (as we did), buy some snacks for later (as we also did), or shop for ingredients for a homecooked meal, this market offers it all.
Although Barcelona is known for its architecture, both modern and not, visual artists have also called the city home. Both Picasso and Mirò have museums dedicated to their art.
Located in a medieval palace in at the edge of the Barri Gòtic, Museu Picasso houses some of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works, including the Las Meninas series (after Velasquez), The Wait (Margot), and the early Science and Charity. The collection is hardly comprehensive since at the time of the artist’s death, private collectors had already snapped up many of his paintings; however, his close friend Jaume Sabartés, who oversaw the creation of the museum, donated his personal collection to start it off.
Tickets are sold only in advance for specified times. You cannot purchase at the door. The guards can be strict about admission times, as the couple in front of us was chided for being late and we evoked a raised eyebrow for being five minutes early. Allow 90 minutes or so to go through the collection.
Fundació Joan Miró (Miro Museum)
In many ways, the Miro Museum is more comprehensive than its Picasso counterpart because it has fewer gaps in the artist’s life; however, Miró’s more contemporary, nihilistic approach poses more challenges for the casual museum-goer.
The museum houses 217 painting, 178 sculptures, 4 ceramics, 8,000 drawings, and “almost all his prints.” In addition, a gallery of works by other artists donated in tribute to Miró provides additional interest.
Getting to the Fundació Miró from the Placa Catalyuna central area can seem daunting, but we found it easier than expected. Because it sits atop Montjuic, you can take the metro, then the funicular, on a single ticket. Make sure you don’t leave the metro station and instead follow the signs to the funicular. You will exit not far from the museum.
Tickets can be purchased in advance for faster entry; however, they are not timed, merely assigned to a date. In any case, arrive early to avoid crowds.
Palau de la Música Catalana
Seeing a concert at the modernista Palau de la Música Catalana feels like sitting inside a wedding cake during the reception. We heard a flamenco guitarist and ensemble. That said, as with many famous concert halls, you don’t have to purchase tickets to a concert to get inside. You may instead book a tour. Regardless of how you do it, you should find a way to experience this unique hall.
When it hosted the Olympics, Barcelona cleaned up its shoreline by locating shipping and cruise ports farther from the central area. In their place, the city constructed a beach along the Mediterrean. Although I’ve never gone in the water, I’ve walked up and down the stretch.
At the base of La Rambla, near the water’s edge, you’ll find a towering monument to Christoper Columbus (Monument a Colom, in Catalan.)
Day Trip to Montserrat and Winery
The last time I visited Barcelona, I kept my tourism to the city, but I later regretted not going to Montserrat. I vowed this time not to make the same mistake, so I booked a “half day” tour to Montserrat with a wine tasting. The tour company, Castlexperience, accepts direct bookings, although you can also go through TripAdvisor, as I did.
I loved Montserrat and its gorgeous surroundings. Our tour guide, Ana, was exceptional. She knew both her history and her wines, the last of which surprised me. I had been on tours before where the wine component ended up as a throwaway portion. Not so in this case.
Tip: If you go to Montserrat to touch the Black Madonna, go on your own when you won’t have time constraints. The wait can be hours long.
Dining on Tapas
Usually when we travel, we try to choose some upper end restaurants, but this time, we settled on casual tapas. Every night. Our favorite tapas restaurant was Cuitat Comtal (also known as Cuidad Comtal), located a block from our hotel. They don’t take reservations, so expect to wait. Tourists eat early, starting at 7 pm, while locals eat late, around 10 pm. This means that whenever you go, you’ll have to wait. The worst times are between 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm, when tables are taken but not moving. Cuitat Comtal has both indoor and outdoor seating, with different waitlists for each.
Ordering tapas became a competitive sport at El Nacional. The building houses several different kinds of restaurants and bars. For the tapas restaurant, you don’t make reservations and instead stand in line until a table opens.
Waiters burst out of the kitchen with trays of tapas, shouting out what they have, and patrons raise their hands if they want it. Certain dishes, such as paella, cause an uproar when they emerge. If you aren’t in the area where the server announces it, you probably won’t get it. Although they do announce some dishes in English, I advise that you figure out the Catalan words for the dishes you want. You can always refuse a dish by shaking your head if you discover that you misunderstood.
Where to Stay
Most tourists stay in the Plaça Cataluna area. We adored the H10 Metropolitan (not to be confused with the other H10 hotels in the city) for its modern comfort and proximity to many sights. We paid extra for a terrace balcony so that we could enjoy cava (champagne-style wine) and snacks while looking over the city.
What to Know Before You Go
Locals speak Catalan, although most know Spanish and English as well. Although most of the time you’ll see names in Catalan, their variations in Spanish may also be used.
Many of the sights, particularly Montjuic and Park Guell, are far apart, necessitating the use of public transportation at times. The metro is easy to figure out, even if it doesn’t go everywhere in the city. Buses always seem more complicated, so we either walked or took the metro closer to where we wanted to go.
From the airport, you can either take a taxi (we did, both ways) or the Aerobus. If you return via Aerobus, make sure you take the correct bus for your departure terminal.
Barcelona remains one of my favorite European cities. I love the food, wine (especially the sparkling cava), and the sheer number of sights that keep me busy. That said, I talked to an American couple who found it bewildering. Do your research in advance to get maximum enjoyment out of this unique city.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann