When you live in a city like Barcelona, you are not unaccustomed to visitors. Though I sometimes serve as an unlicensed tour guide to my friends from the US, when I can’t take people around (because I’m playing tourist somewhere else), I provide them with a list of my most important places to visit…Someday I will offer my very thorough guide (to be released in the coming weeks) to my subscribers… But for now, here is the Cliff’s note version…
If you only have a few days
You should do the Vicky Cristina Barcelona tour (and while you’re at it, watch the movie, it will get you in the mood). While the movie has been criticized for painting Barcelona as a Spanish city akin to Madrid or Seville (when it is very much Catalan), if you only see the sights from the movie, you will see some of the most beautiful and important. This tour will take 3-4 days depending on your energy levels and how long you want to stay at each place. Here they are, in a somewhat suggested order:
Museo Nacional Arte de Cataluña (MNAC) and Plaza España
In the movie, you see Cristina and Vicky walking down the stairs leaving the huge National Museum of Catalan Art, but this museum is only one thing you’ll see on this mountain of Monjuic. It’s true, you could spend all day only exploring Monjuic. There’s a castle on one side, numerous gardens, former sites of Olympic events, Poble Espanyol (a touristic representation of all of Spain in one small man-made, albeit cheesy village), and tons more. If you only have 3 days, I would instead focus on the part in front of the Museum itself.
To get there, you need to arrive at Plaza España, which is the biggest roundabout in Barcelona with an epic fountain and statue in the center. It’s also a stop on 2 metro lines, L3 and L1, and home to a train station for venturing to Montserrat.
Once you are in Plaza Espana, go through the 2 towers and take the escalators, or stairs, up to the top. From there you’ll see panoramic views of the whole city and perhaps hear some music from several buskers who like to entertain the crowds seated on the steps in front of the museum.
The museum itself has 2 main sections of art: Medieval Romanesque to Renaissance and then the section for Modern art. The museum takes several hours to really observe so if you’re not more than a casual art lover you may not be as interested in dedicating a full day. It does have a nice collection of Modernist art, with pieces from Gaudi and Picasso, as well as pieces from Surrealist painter Dali. The hill and the views are worth seeing on their own even if you don’t venture inside the museum.
On certain nights of the week, and at certain hours, there are also magic fountain shows at the bottom of the hill in front of the museum. It’s music synched with fountain action and lights to match. Check the schedule here.
For those who want to see a full itinerary to explore Monjuic for a full day, I’ll write a post for that soon.
I have been lucky enough to live near the Sagrada Familia and admire it in passing every day. Many others feel the same way. For this reason you will need to buy tickets for this in advance.
It’s Gaudi’s famed jewel and has been in progress since construction started in 1882. Though its beauty brings many to tears, George Orwell was quoted as calling it, “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” He thought it one of the peculiar atrocities of the Spanish Civil War that it didn’t get destroyed. It will finally be finished in 2026 and will be completed with a huge statue of the Christ.
While you’re in the area, be sure to walk up Avenida de Gaudi and explore some of the local shops. When you finally end your tour you will arrive at the top of the avenue at another important Modernist structure shown in the movie…
Hospital de Sant Pau
Though this hospital wasn’t designed by Gaudi, it was created by another important Catalan architect, the very Modernist Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Spend a few hours looking around the former hospital and rambling through the gardens. There’s also a restaurant connected, 1902 Cafe Modernista, which I would recommend for tapas.
Touring the Sagrada Familia and Hospital de Sant Pau will take 4-5 hours. If your schedule allows, I would then head back to Passeig de Gracia and tour the Gaudi houses of Casa Batllo and Casa Mila.
La Pedrera (Casa Mila)
In the movie, you see the two main characters walking along the roof terrace of this important Gaudi structure. Though the rooftop has the best views of Passeig de Gracia (a very historic and ritzy paseo in Barcelona), it’s also a modernist example of Gaudi’s genius. As you wander through the uneven levels of the roof-top terrace you will also witness how Gaudi was able to combine function with aesthetic.
On another floor, you will be able to tour an apartment recreated to look like a typical apartment home during the time of its creation. The rest of the building is still rented out to businesses and tenants and inaccessable.
Though the girls never toured it in the movie, the other house, Casa Batllo, is more favored among my friends. It apparently has more to tour. However, Casa Mila is a UNESCO site. If you have to choose between the two houses, perhaps look at Casa Batllo instead, but since the houses are mere meters apart on the same street, try to combine them and see them both if you have the time.
Once you are done touring the houses on Passeig de Gracia, you should walk the few blocks to the Ramblas de Catalunya. In the past, the Ramblas were filled with only flower vendors and pets for sell. Now it’s filled with illegal vendors hocking their counterfeit Nike shoes and Louis Vuitton handbags. *I have recently heard that if you are caught buying something from these illegal vendors, you will be the one who has to pay the fine of 500euros.* It’s worth a walk down to get a sense of the excitement. It is extremely crowded with tourists (and thieves). There are teems of them working in tandem on the Ramblas. See my other post about avoiding pick pockets here.
Once you’ve figured out how to pronounce this place (Tibby Dah Bow), make a trip to the highest spot in Barcelona. This hilltop amusement park is hard to access, but worth the trip. Take the L7 train (from Plaza Catalunya, Gracia, or Provenca) or an old-fashioned tram (tram blau from Avenida de Tibidabo).
Once you arrive you’ll see a cathedral, old fair rides, and various cafes and restaurants. There’s also a movie showing the history of the amusement park if you walk to the end of the trail.
BONUS: Els Quatre Gats
This restaurant/bar appeared in the movie where Vicki is meeting up with Juan Antonio’s friends. It’s historic looking and complete with all the decoration of a Modernist place where Picasso, Hemmingway, George Orwell, Dali, and Gaudi all drank absynthe and planned their newest artistic creations in its dark booths, or did they?
Actually, the true story of this place is that it opened in 1897 and closed in 1903, only to be reopened in the 1970s. During this time, Picasso and Gaudi both spent time here. It was created by architect Josep Puig i Caldafach and designed after the Parisienne cabaret Le Chat Noir. I think it’s a great place to get a coffee or a glass of wine, but I wouldn’t spend more time or money there than that. Unfortunately this place suffers the same fate as many tourist attractions; the staff is rude, the service slow, and the food is overpriced and subpar.
The neighborhood of Gracia
This neighborhood wasn’t shown in the movie, but if you’d like to explore a really charming, not as touristy neighborhood, this is great. You can find some of the best local restaurants, clothing boutiques, indie music concerts, etc. It’s a neighborhood inhabited by the local artists and musicians.
Super touristy things to do that are just fun:
1- Go on a bike tour with a really cool local company. I visit these guys often for all bike repair and accessories, but they are also great tour guides. The best way to see the city is by bike. Barcelona is a pretty small bikeable city and meant to be enjoyed from the seat of a bicycle.
2-Go on a food tour of Gracia with Devour Barcelona.
*Let them know I sent you 🙂
Recommended day trips outside of Barcelona
1- Montserrat is very easy to get to from Barcelona. There are hiking trails, majestic views, and an important monastery.
2- Girona is like a Catalan Venice. Complete with colorful houses, a river, beautiful cathedrals, and ancient Roman walls.
There are truly so many things to recommend. Stay tuned for more posts about things to do and see in Barcelona. Anything I’m missing? What would you change about my list of most important things to see if you only have 3-4 days in town?
P.S. Thanks to Annoesjka Brohm at Annoesjka.co.uk for the above photo. To see some more of her photography and information about Barcelona and Europe, visit her site.