Planning a trip to Barcelona; what to see and do

Sculpture by Joan Miro

If you are planning a trip to Barcelona, you are about to visit one of the most culturally enriching cities we have been privileged to stay in. Find out what to see and do in this amazing City.

Our 5 days exploring Barcelona

We arrived in Barcelona at 8.30 pm on Saturday October 2nd, 2017 by train from Granada. It was a significant date, being the day after the Catalan Independence Referendum, with a general strike planned for the day after our arrival. This was in response to the violence around polling booths and the intervention by the Spanish Police and Guardia Civil. We were a little apprehensive and very glad we had not made any particular plans for the day of the strike.

Fortunately for us, we had little disruption to our plans and we greatly enjoyed exploring this amazing City. 

The Raval District of Barcelona

Arriving after dark in a new City after dark is never my favourite thing to do, and also taking into account the sense of unrest, we caught a taxi from Barcelona-Sants railway station to our hotel. We had booked ourselves into The Hotel Barbara in the Raval district – a great location but ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’; the tracks being the famous Las Ramblas. We are typically a mix of ‘save and splurge’ travellers and this was definitely on the save side of our ledger. 

We were not unhappy with what was quite a basic hotel, nor with the slightly grungy local area, but it may not be your choice; the more touristy areas of Barcelona are on the other side of Las Ramblas. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Raval district is fast developing.

A great example of the changes in the area was the excellent Tropico cafe and bar, just a few doors down from the Hotel. As is our usual pattern, Tropico quickly became our local favourite for breakfast and we may have stopped in for a nightcap as well. 

Acai Bowl at Tropico, Barcelona
Breakfast at Tropico, Carrer del Marquès de Barberà.

We also really enjoyed sitting out on Rambla del Raval, just around the corner from our hotel, and sharing a jug of cava sangria and a meal. This small Rambla is surrounded by cafes and restaurants and medium density apartment blocks, and in the evenings the local residents walk their dogs along the Rambla or sit on the park benches and shoot the breeze. The area has a lovely local feel and we experienced none of the negativity towards tourists that others report in parts of Barcelona.

As well as the facility of our immediate local area, our hotel was also a short walk down to the famous Las Ramblas area. 

Things to do in Barcelona

Barcelona offers such a variety of cultural experiences, we were almost overwhelmed with things to see and do. We are not inclined to be ‘tick box tourists’, but we arrived in Barcelona with a quite long list of things to see, and had pre-booked tickets for several cultural experiences. I strongly recommend that you do so too;  we waited in a long line at the Musee Picasso because we had not pre-booked.  If you are a Picasso fan definitely pre-book this one and also make time explore the delightful areas around the Musee.

Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

Of course Barcelona is famous for the extraordinary architecture of Antonio Gaudi, and with good reason.  His uncompleted great work, La Sagrada Familia was high on our list of places to explore in Barcelona. We pre-booked our tickets, including a 50 minute guided tour, and we are so glad we did. 

It is fair to say that the Gaudi architecture is not to everyone’s taste, and friends of ours had described it as ugly. In truth parts of it could be judged as just that, but in its entirety it is just extraordinary, with so many beautiful parts that we were overwhelmed. At the end of the tour I sat in one of the pews with tears in my eyes. Despite the crowds, it is possible to just sit quietly and enjoy the atmosphere of the Basilica. What really isn’t possible, is to capture the magnificence in photos – the details, the light and the beauty.  I can only say put this high on your list of things to do, do the guided tour and enjoy ‘the vibe’ whilst contemplating the extraordinary mind and vision of Gaudi, and the will of the Spanish people to see that vision to completion. I challenge you to not be inspired.

Light through the windows at La Sagrada Familia
The light at La Sagrada Familia is extraordinary

Park Guell

On the same day that we visited La Sagrada Familia we had also been to Park Guell, another of Gaudi’s incredible projects. 

I don’t think we had very clear expectations of what to expect here other than it was a Gaudi design, but we were so glad we visited and loved every minute of our time at the Park. 

We had again pre-booked our official guided tour and we visited in the morning before it got too hot. Do keep this in mind; wear a hat and take water, as the tour lasts an hour and you will be outside for all of that time. The tour we took did not include the Museum which was Gaudi’s home, but it did cover all other parts of this amazing place. 

The Gaudi House Museum at Park Guell, Barcelona
The Gaudi House Museum at Park Guell

The Park does get very crowded, so it is essential that you also bring your patience, but you will be well rewarded for putting Park Guell on your list of places to visit in Barcelona. Do leave time to wander on your own after the tour as there is a lot to take in, and it is lovely to sit on the beautiful Serpentine Bench and look out over the City and to the ocean beyond. 

Mosaic detail at Park Guell
Mosaic detail at Park Guell

Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Curiously our Lonely Planet guide to Barcelona described this Museum as having low appeal, but sometimes you just have to follow your gut. Having once worked at Cockatoo Dockyard in Sydney, I am always interested in ships, and add in the history and I’m there.

The Museu was an easy walk from our Hotel and a total delight to visit. It was also one of the least expensive sites we visited. Located in what was a medieval shipyard, the building itself is impressive, let alone the displays. 

I was totally captivated by the reproduction of a 16th Century slave galley. This enormous vessel juxtaposes the beautiful detailing of its design against the horrid reality for those who were forced to sit at one of the 59 oars.

Slave galley detail Maritime Museum Barcelona
Slave galley ‘Admirals of Juan de Austria’ detail Maritime Museum Barcelona

There is also a comprehensive collection of nautical instruments from as early as the 18th Century. 

Once you have finished marvelling at the building and the exhibition, you might enjoy a drink or a light meal at the lovely cafe on the courtyard. 

Also part of the Museu collection is the vessel Pailebot Santa Eulalia, which sits harbourside a very short walk away. We were not able to access the Eulalia on our visit, as at the time many museum facilities were under development. 

Mercat del Born

Mercat del Born preserved Roman ruins in Barcelona
Mercat del Born – preserved Roman ruins in Barcelona

On one of our days wandering in Barcelona we sat and enjoyed a pleasant lunch on a square in the very stylish El Born area. As we sat musing, we noticed the El Born Centre for Culture and decided to investigate what looked to be an interesting building.

There is no fee to enter the Centre which is a cultural and memorial space with event spaces, a shop and to our enormous surprise and delight, the beautifully preserved archaeological ruins of Barcelona in the 1700s, prior to the siege of 1714,

Boardwalks all around the ruins allow visitors to look at them from every angle and there are information boards in both English and Spanish to explain what you are looking at. We were totally delighted when we stumbled upon this treasure and amazed that we had not previously found any information on the ruins, and indeed that there were very few tourists in the space.

Fundacio Joan Miro

View over Barcelona from Joan Miro Foundation
View over Barcelona from Fundacio Joan Miro

Another of the cultural delights of Barcelona is the Miro Gallery, another visit that we had pre-booked including a guided tour. If you have read our post on travel woes you may recall that we had some initial difficulties finding our way up to the Gallery. As a result we missed our time slot for the guided tour, but on our late arrival the staff were very accommodating and popped us onto the next English language tour. In truth we didn’t complete the tour as it was long and rambling, but we enjoyed exploring the Gallery in our own time and then sat in the courtyard cafe soaking up the views. If you are a Miro fan this should definitely be on your list.

More things to explore in and around Barcelona

Of course Las Ramblas is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Barcelona and it is heaving with visitors at most times of day and night. You will find lots of well known names along this pedestrian mall, including a large Desigual store.

You will also find the entrance to Mercat de La Boqueria; the famous open market. Here you can buy provisions for self catering, or enjoy the food and drinks on offer at the bars and restaurants within the market complex. We didn’t explore the market but it is certainly on our list for our next visit to Barcelona.

Other than that we didn’t find Las Ramblas that inspiring, and the food on offer was generally designed for tourists and of mundane quality. Having said that, we did enjoy a delicious meal and friendly service at Taller de Tapas on Rambla de les Flors, and would certainly return to eat there again 

Also on our ‘next time’ list is to take the funicular to the top of Mountjuic, a hill which overloooks Barcelona. This is close to the Fundacio Joan Miro and is topped by the Montjuic Castle which is open to the public. We are told it is a great place to enjoy a picnic, so perhaps good to plan after being to the market.

Will we return to further explore Barcelona?

The real test for any travel location is whether or not we would return, and when it comes to Barcelona the answer is “yes, in a heartbeat’.

Some describe it as very touristy and I guess it is but only if you hang out in places like Las Ramblas. We just loved the cultural institutions, the architecture, the food and wine and most of all the people. 

We loved it so much that we have just booked to end our 2019 trip to Europe with a few nights in Barcelona, flying home from there. On this next visit we will most likely spend more time just wandering and soaking up this most energetic City. I can hardly wait to be there.

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Have you been to Barcelona? What did you do there, and did you enjoy it? Is a visit in your plans for the future?

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