Barcelona has something for everyone - families, food-lovers, culture buffs, beach babes, romantic couples, or anyone who just wants a short break somewhere exciting, vibrant and very European
Barcelona is divided into many districts, each with its own identity and personality - but whichever one you choose for your short break or holiday, you won’t fail to be mesmerised by what this city has to offer. Some of my favourites include:
Ciutat Vella (Old City): this includes El Raval (also known in Spanish as the Barrio Chino, or Chinatown), the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), La Barceloneta (where you can find the best city beach), and the Barri de la Ribera. The Old City, just off Las Ramblas (Barcelona’s most famous and colourful paseo or avenue), is made up of countless narrow cobbled streets, with endless bars and cafes. You should throw away the map, and let yourself wander through this architectural maze.
The Eixample district contains streets with the smartest address in Barcelona, and has examples of some of the widest tree-lined avenues in the city, many with smart pavement cafes and restaurants. The main shopping streets, with everything from Gap to Gucci, can also be found in this district. You will also find one of the finest and most infamous examples of architecture by Barcelona’s own son, Antoni Gaudi - the Sagrada Familia. This spectacular gothic cathedral remains unfinished many years after Gaudi’s death in 1926, but continues to attract interest from tourists and those more culturally inclined alike. Be sure to get here early during popular and busier periods.
In the Sant Martí district you can find the Diagonal Mar and the Olympic Village purpose-built for the 1992 Olympics, which now boasts some of Barcelona’s best fine dining restaurants and sophisticated bars. If you simply want to chill on the beach, head to Barceloneta for a stroll along the café-lined promenade, at the end of which you will find one of the best city beaches in Europe. End your day with a cana at one of the many beach bars as the sun goes down.
Things to do
I would highly recommend one of the tour buses. Probably the best known is the Bus Turistic, which has three main routes and over 44 stops, including all the main sights across the city. The best place to catch one of these buses is in Plaza Catalyuna; you can buy your ticket at one of the booths on the square. Both one-day and two-day tickets are available, starting at about €24, although sometimes there are seasonal special offers for reduced prices. I would recommend the red line (Northern Route), which covers the main and most popular sights. As well as the Sagrada Familia, highlights of this route include:
Passeig de Gracia/La Pedrera – where you can see an example of Gaudi’s architecture in the Casa Mila.
Gracia – an arty and cultural area, with numerous plazas with cosy, atmospheric bars and cafes.
Parc Guell – another example of Gaudi’s work can be found in this colourful and unique park, from which there are striking views across the city.
Tramvia Blau/Tibidabo – you can take the funicular up to the top of Tibidado, where there are unparalled views of Barcelona. There are one or two cafes at the top, and also a carousel that has been entertaining kids for years.
Barcelona Football Club – this giant stadium, one of the largest in Europe, plays home to Barcelona FC and is a must for football and sports fans alike.
A word of warning: don’t try to do two or three routes in just one day. There are so many sights to tempt you into getting off the bus at each stop; in order to get the most out of your trip I would suggest buying a two-day ticket. Although the buses leave every five to 25 minutes from each of the designated stops, they do not always run to schedule, and you should expect some queues at the more popular sights.
If you're departing or arriving into the port by cruise ship, and if time is at a premium, I would recommend catching one of the public buses that regularly stop at the maim port terminals. For the princely sum of €1 you can get to the bottom of Las Ramblas, central to most of the main sights, and from here you are free to explore this vibrant and exciting city at your own pace.
Last but not least, for all you foodies out there, Barcelona has no shortage of places to eat from food markets to fine dining restaurants. My top three experiences are:
1. La Boqueria. This huge food market, which can be found just off the bottom half of Las Ramblas, is an experience not to be missed. You can find everything from cured meats (serrano, chorizo) and fish stalls (sardines and more exotic seafood) to colourful fruits of all types. For a few euros you can grab a stool at one of the stalls, where you can sample some tapas washed down by a glass of local wine.
2. La Quinze Nuits (Passatge Madoz 5; +34 933 173 075). A Barcelona institution. On the eastern side of Las Ramblas, you will find the Plaza Real, a sizeable plaza surrounded by beautiful buildings and boasting numerous cafes and restaurants. We discovered this, one of our favourite restaurants, quite by accident. When sitting in one of the cafés, we noticed a queue forming from one of the restaurants. We joined the queue for fun, and when we asked the people in front of us why they were queueing, they simply replied because they also saw the queue! We in turn responded in similar fashion to people who joined the queue behind us. We soon discovered what the fuss was all about: excellent quality fine dining for a bargain price - entrees around €3-€5 and mains around €10-€12 - in beautiful surroundings, and with very reasonable house wine. We later discovered that this restaurant is a training ground for some of Spain’s most prominent chefs. Not to be missed. A tip: you may be seated outside quicker than waiting for a table inside -ideal on a balmy Barcelona evening.
3. Cerveceria Catalana (Carrer de Mallorca; +34 236 93 216 0368). An old favourite, which is always packed, and very polular with locals and visitors alike. The front is split in two: hot food prepared on the left, cold on the right, with orders shouted noisily between them. Fight for space at the bar or give your name to Bady, the hostess, who will seat you, eventually, in the back, where bottles of beer line the walls like books in a library. Try the patatas bravas, simply the best you will ever try.
Overall, there are many restaurants offering many types of foods to suit all budgets in Barcelona - it's hard to go wrong or hungry !
Where to stay
Here are two of my favourite mid-range hotels:
1. Hotel Center. A great central hotel, just a short five-minute walk from Plaza Catalunya and Las Ramblas. Also a one-minute walk from one of my favourite tapas bars, Cerveceria Catalana – reason enough to stay here. Rooms are medium in size, modern, with comfy king-size beds. I've stayed here twice, once in a room at the front of the hotel, where you can watch Barcelona go by while you sip a rioja. Alternatively, rooms at the rear of the hotel are very quiet, and overlook a garden. Standard rooms costs around €170, superior rooms around €280.
2. Hotel Expo. A smart and vibrant four-star hotel, ideal if you're arriving by train – it's located just 50 metres from the Sants Central Station. If you're here on business, the FIRA de Barcelona convention centre is within 10 minutes' walk. With comfortable rooms and a convenient central location, Expo is a wise choice. Try to get a package inclusive of breakfast – the buffet breakfast is great, with a huge choice to suit all tastebuds. Very reasonable, with standard rooms around €100, and executive rooms at around €120.