To claim that you’ve ‘seen’ Barcelona may not be possible. As regular visitors and residents will tell you, this city offers something new on a day-by-day and street-by-street. But for those of you on a tight schedule, we’ve decided to put our heads together to attempt the nigh-on impossible task of distilling the best that Barcelona has to offer into a 3 day itinerary.
Take a quick glance at a map of Barcelona and you’ll notice how the city fans out towards the mountains from a nucleus of entangled streets. This nucleus is the Ciutat Vella, the ‘old town’, and this part of the city will be the focus of your first day. The area provides an ideal starting point for visiting Barcelona, as it not only demonstrates the origins of the city, but is also brimming with iconic sights.
09:00 – Navigate Las Ramblas
Make your way to Plaça de Catalunya, which sits on the edge of the old town and is the main transport hub. From here you can walk down Las Ramblas, the world’s best-known tree-lined avenue. This street is always awash with tourists, so it’s easy to be swept along by the crowds, past all the flower stalls and street performers. On your way down Las Ramblas keep an eye out for the pavement mosaics by surrealist master Joan Miró.
Your most important stop, though, will be the Mercat de la Boquería, Europe’s largest food market – the perfect place to pick up some local produce and a freshly made fruit juice to keep you going.
10:00 – Relax in the squares of Gótico
It’s time to take a left turn into the Gótico (the Gothic quarter). Just off Las Ramblas you’ll find the splendid Plaça Reial, a neoclassical gem that happens to contain Antoni Gaudí’s first work in the city – the lampposts by the central fountain. Take this opportunity to grab a coffee in one of the cafés that line this teeming square.
The Gótico has numerous one-off boutiques and galleries which are great for nosing around in. Carrer de Ferran is particularly good for window shopping and at the end of this street is Plaça de Sant Jaume, Barcelona´s civic square. Here you’ll find the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, with the city’s town hall opposite.
11:00 – Meet the geese in the cloister
From this square, veer left onto Carrer del Bisbe, where you’ll see a much-photographed Gothic-style arch, and come out in front of the 13th-century Cathderal. (Or, Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, to give it its full name). As the most prominent Catalan Gothic building in the city, the Cathedral is awe-inspiring on both the outside and the inside. Its numerous chapels, dedicated to individual saints, are all remarkable works of craftsmanship in their own right, and you’re likely to see devout visitors taking a moment with their favoured saint.
The cloister also houses a surprising bunch of residents – 13 geese, one for each year in the life of Saint Eulàlia, the church’s martyr namesake. Particularly in the summer this part of Barcelona can feel a bit claustrophobic – to help you get your bearings above the warren of the old town, take a lift to the cathedral’s roof. If you’re keen to find a part of the Gótico for a moment’s peace and quiet seek out the haunting tranquillity of Plaça de Sant Felip Neri.
13.30 – Enjoy lunch like a local
Hungry? Well, you’re in the right place – there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to food in the old town. To avoid the more tourist-oriented eateries in the Gótico, you could head across Via Laietana to Born – eating here will give you a better chance of mingling with the locals. For tapas try Bubó or for plentiful, good-value portions of paella in an intimate setting try Mar de la Ribera. When eating out at lunchtime it’s a good idea to look for a set menu, or ‘menu del diá’, which can easily fill you up for a reasonable price.
15:00 – Get some divine inspiration
After taking your time over lunch, begin to explore the Born district. For several decades the area has been buzzing with artistic activity and offers a quieter, more authentic alternative to the Gótico. However it’s just as steeped in history. In contrast to the cathedral you visited in the morning, the church of Santa María del Mar on Passeig del Born, is a more austere but equally inspiring piece of gothic architecture. The story of this church has inspired a prize-winning novel and the proportions of its interior are widely considered an example of medieval architecture par excellence.
16:00 – Rummage about in the Born
Emerge from the light and airy interior and look for Carrer Montcada which starts just behind the church. This street is crammed with museums and galleries. It’s also interesting in its own right, with some of the best examples of secular medieval architecture in the city. The main attraction on this street is the Museu Picasso, exhibiting the painter’s earlier works, and is a must for fans of this incredibly influential figure. Montcada is also home to the Disseny Hub, with a fine collection of design and applied arts, and the Museu Barbier-Mueller d’ art Precolombí, a well-regarded collection of pre-Colombian works. Let yourself get lost in one of these great collections.
17:00 – Gawp at Catalan craftsmanship
The Born district extends further inland, where its pedestrianised streets gradually become more residential and lined with small bars and fruit shops. Carrer Sant Pere Mes Alt has one of the best buildings in the entire city – the Palau de la Música Catalana. If you have time, a tour of this unbelievably decadent Modernista concert hall is worthwhile (although don’t forget to buy your tickets in advance). If not, just admiring the façade of this shrine to Catalan culture is an event in itself.
18:00 – Cool down by the sea
That’s almost it for day one…
For the perfect tonic after a day’s pounding the city streets, hop on the metro from the nearby Urquinaona station on line 4 to Barceloneta.This will bring you out near the city’s stylishly renovated waterfront. The laid-back atmosphere of this area makes it one of the best spots in the city to sip a drink and look back at the old town. There are loads of options for dinner, particularly when it comes to seafood. Don´t forget that that in Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, people tend to eat dinner later in the evening. If your appetite returns with a vengeance, we recommend Rangoli, an excellent Indian restaurant (its tasting menu is a real treat). Otherwise, as you might expect, seafood restaurants predominate in this part of the city. Can Maño is a truly authentic place to eat in Barcelona – book ahead to avoid disappointment in this extremely popular and slightly raucous restaurant.
More than any other city on the planet, Barcelona is famed for its architecture. Day 1 of your 3 day tour of Barcelona will have given you lots of glimpses into the origins of this reputation, and you’ve already seen centuries of Catalan craftsmanship and attention to detail in the oldest parts of the city.
But to see how these roots evolved and were channelled into the brilliant imagination of Barcelona’s most famous son, Antoni Gaudí, we need to move out of the old town and into the modern L’Eixample district. You’ll be able to see how Modernisme, the movement most associated with Gaudí, has left a unique legacy that defines Barcelona even today.
10:00 – the world’s most ornate hospital
Your day begins just to the north of L’Eixample at Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. This stunning work was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner (try saying that backwards!) who was also the architect behind the Palau de la Música Catalana which we saw on Day 1. A working hospital until 2009, the building is in the process of being converted into a museum and cultural centre, and is the first of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you will come across today. Take an English speaking tour of this remarkable building at 10:00 but remember to book in advance.
11:00 – a masterpiece in the making
Take a 10-minute stroll along to the one building in Barcelona that you literally can’t miss – Gaudí’s magnum opus, the Sagrada Famíliabasilica. With its almost inconceivable attention to detail this labour of love has come to define Barcelona more than any other building. Throughout its history it’s always attracted either adoration or loathing (George Orwell lamented the fact that it wasn’t demolished like many other churches during the Spanish Civil War).
Gaudí’s intention when he created the Sagrada Família was to redeem his troubled city with an offering of sheer artistic brilliance. He also wanted to celebrate not just the glory of his god, but all creation. As a result, the closer you get to this building the more detail you notice. Set aside at least an hour to appreciate the structure’s myriad of imagery, such as the bronze door to the church’s Passion Façade, and the sheer drama of the Nativity Façade.
12:30 – who would live in a house like this?
On the glamorous Passeig de Gràcia, the next Gaudí wonder on your hit list is La Pedrera, aka Casa Milà. It was commissioned by a wealthy Catalan couple to show off the affluence that had already made them infamous in Barcelona society. The result was a strangely undulating structure. Its bizarre chimneys, arched windows and wrought-iron balconies are mind blowing, and a sight that is likely to stay with you for years. Head up to the rooftop for some photos, view a restored apartment on the top floor and get an in-depth view of Gaudí’s life and work in the Espai Gaudí museum.
13:30 – time for tapas
Chances are by now you’re starving. But just before going lunch walk down Passeig de Gràcia and take in the façades of the Manzana de la Discordia (the block of discord) where three structures by Modernisme’s most famous exponents, Gaudí, Cadaflach, and Montaner, jostle for your attention.
Right, now food. Running parallel to Passeig de Gràcia is the tree-lined street Rambla de Catalunya. There are countless eateries on this fashionable avenue, with prices no usually more than 20 euros per person for lunch. If you have a hankering for Iberian ham, Mesón Cinco Jotas specialises in this delicacy and other tapas dishes, or if you prefer tapas in a more contemporary form try Taller de Tapas. Aim for a table under the shade of the trees that line Rambla de Catalunya and take the chance to chew over the morning’s Modernista classics.
15:00 – a walk in the park
At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that Gaudí would be all out of puff, yet one of his best-loved creations,Parc Güell, is still to come. This psychedelic city park covers over 15 hectares and is located on the edge of the city centre.
To get there after lunch just hop on the metro from Diagonal station and take line three to Lesseps. From here it takes around 10 minutes to walk to the park entrance. The park project was sponsored by the eccentric entrepreneur Eusebi Güell, and was supposed to create a miniature town for Barcelona’s richest citizens. Given the scope of this plan it`s probably not surprising that it was never completed.
Today it’s one of the most popular green spaces in the city, dotted with mosaic terraces and sculptures, including the iconic Salamander fountain. (In fact, this is so iconic that you might have to queue for a photo opportunity.) The park has fantastic views over the city and as well as countless quiet corners where you can relax for the rest of the afternoon.
17:00 – lounge about in the square
If you’re still eager to see more of the city, on your way back towards central Barcelona wander through the district of Gràcia. Today this area is a bohemian haunt, brimming with quaint boutiques and small bars and restaurants. At one time it was a separate settlement from Barcelona, before L’Eixample connected it to the oldest parts of the city, and it still feels like a bustling small town. You’ll see plenty of locals socialising in its laid-back squares – the ideal spot to wind down as evening draws in and reflect on the second day of your whistle-stop Barcelona tour.