Barcelona, Spain is an incredible and vibrant city on the Mediterranean coast and one of my favorite places in Europe. It has the perfect mix of urban life and beach life with the beauty of amazing art and architecture sprinkled all throughout the city. It also has a mix of old Gothic styles with new modern and eclectic architecture, which creates this feeling that you are traveling to different cities on any given day, even within the city limits. It is truly magical.
There was so much to see, so much shopping that lured me in, and so many great memories having amazing Spanish dinners and then getting sips at night, walking around the cobblestone streets, dipping into different bars and lounges.
People-watching was great in Barcelona. I didn’t necessarily talk to a lot of the locals like I have in other cities, but I did love to observe and soak in the culture. The people I did interact with included mostly the hotel and restaurant staff and everyone was kind and accommodating. Being in the Catalonia region of Spain, the locals speak Catalan, however Spanish is also widely accepted. I took 10 years of Spanish in school, but not using it often, I still struggled my way through conversations a bit, but I did manage to get by. In the more popular/tourist areas like in the main shopping drag and in the hotel people did speak English.
In the beach area, there were plenty of sun-bathers and people enjoying leisurely time in the cafes and common areas. A number of people laying out on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea did so sans clothing, some even walking around the streets that way. It wasn’t overwhelming, but definitely something you would notice. During one lunch we were having on the sidewalk facing the beach, a man was walking around past all the diners with a robe he had completely open, white shoes, sunglasses and nothing else. We spotted him later that day also just chilling out on a bench, again robe open. When in Barcelona…
The city has some pretty distinct areas, each with a different vibe and personality. While there are many neighborhoods, the areas I frequented most were the Las Ramblas area and Bari Gotic (the Gothic Quarter or old city), La Barceloneta and Port Vell.
La Rambla is the main pedestrian promenade filled with street performers, shopping and dining. The whole of Las Ramblas is made up of several streets linked together which is fun to sort of wind around walking and checking stuff out. This area can be touristy and crowded, but I still liked spending time here and veering off into the side streets for unplanned exploring. Much of the main street-level stuff is pretty modern (you’ll for sure see H&M, etc.) but in the upper stories of the buildings, there is pretty architecture. You’ll also come across some nice plazas to take a break in. One spot I really enjoyed along this path was visiting the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria which is a bustling and beautiful market with fresh fruits, meats, flowers, sweets, nuts, and any other treats you can imagine. We were drawn to this place several times and would get things like smoothies and coffees to walk around with.
The Bari Gotic is to the southwest side of the La Rambla promenade. For me, this is why you go to Europe. It is rich in Roman and Spanish history and has the medieval architecture you just can’t find in the US. It’s dotted with cathedrals, Gothic buildings, winding cobblestone streets, but also outdoor cafes, restaurants, boutiques and bars. I seriously can’t get enough of hanging in Euro cafes sipping coffee and people-watching. It’s also something to think that Picasso lived here for some time as well. Overall, it’s a cultural neighborhood and one that is not to be missed. If you only go one neighborhood in Barcelona, go to Bari Gotic.
La Barceloneta is the beach and boardwalk area, near where I stayed at the W Hotel. During the day you can lay out, grab lunch on the boardwalk, chill out and live the Euro beach life and at night, you can have amazing seafood and wine in the many Spanish restaurants that line the beach. The buildings in this area are colorful and the streets that run off the beach are narrow and filled with balconies with colorful plants and clothes hanging to dry. It’s a cool area and the Spanish version of a beach boardwalk setting. I definitely recommend an evening dinner out in this area.
Port Vell is a newly reconstructed area that really came out of the city’s renewal efforts for the 1992 Olympics, which Barcelona hosted. It is an old harbor that has now been transformed for the Mediterranean yachting scene. This area has some stuff that I don’t necessarily need to do while in Barcelona personally, like an IMAX theatre, mall and more chain-type restaurants, but there are some good tapas places and it is very pretty being on the water. It is also literally a breezy place to hang out on a hot day and there are some cool artifacts and buildings from the historic Port of Barcelona.
I stayed at the W Hotel Barcelona. It was a stunning, modern hotel right on the water overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The pool area had a definite vibe and we did take a day to chill out and drink cava in the hot Spanish sun. At night, it would transform into a loungey atmosphere with electronic music and people mingling with cocktails. It was in a good location as we were able to walk down to the Bari Gotic in about 15-20 minutes or we could hang out on the boardwalk and waterfront.
On our last night, we went out to the clubs and came home in the wee hours so we decided to hang out on the pool deck and beach and watch the sunrise over the sea. This was stunning and also so much fun. While we were tired that day getting on the plane, it was well worth it!
Food and Drink
Prior to going to Spain, I had always heard that the Spanish don’t eat dinner until 10pm and I was never sure if this was true or just something people like to say. I came to realize, that oftentimes, this is the case. The Spanish do seem to eat very late. Night after night we would notice that the restaurants would be filled until midnight with little kids running around, even at the late hour.
Being used to an earlier meal schedule, we would often try to go at 9:00 or so and have some snacks beforehand to tide us over. A few times we noticed the restaurants were closed between 4-6pm and it would be more difficult to find a bite to eat if we had been walking around and got hungry. We would opt for a fast food kebob stand or a coffee and pastry. So, pro tip: Try not to find yourself starving in the late afternoon/early evening window. And adjust to a later dinner schedule out of the gate or you’ll be sitting at emptier restaurants before they get the right buzz level.
The food and wine we had out at the restaurants was really great. Many of the dishes were seafood-focused. I had a lot of octopus (which was amazing), mussels and prawns. I honestly couldn’t stop ordering paella as it was just so good, but I tried a lot of different dishes. Some restaurants served more tapas-style and some served the main, large entrée. You can take a look at the menus beforehand, which a lot of times are posted outside, particularly with the outdoor restaurants.
For the picky eaters out there, the seafood was served whole, or in other words, you’d have a creature looking back at you on your plate. This was true for the fish, langostinos, prawns and other seafood. We would crack up as I would ask a friend to “de-head” my dinner so I didn’t get the shivers digging in my bowl and feeling like I was coming up with dead sea animals. Octopus was often served as a large, whole tentacle. But, it was delicious.
And, of course we have to talk about the sips. We had a lot of Spanish cava (sparkling white) and reds with dinner. The wine was divine. There was plenty of nightlife in Spain and we often went out pretty late at night, and we weren’t alone.
Antoni Gaudí Art and Architecture
I couldn’t possibly end a post about Barcelona without mentioning the extreme and beautiful works of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Gaudi’s organic shapes, use of color and mosaics make his masterpieces eclectic and breathtaking. The most famous works of art in Barcelona are Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia.
Park Guell is an originally commissioned project that resulted in a park that is ethereal and dream-like, filled with statues, buildings, fountains and mosaics. It is now a museum where you can visit, which millions tourists do. They strongly suggest you buy tickets in advance, which can be purchased online. If you arrive the day of your visit without a ticket, there is no guarantee you will be able to enter. It depends on capacity. There are some freely accessible zones, the map of which is on the website for Park Guell. While this attraction is worth it if you enjoy art and architecture, plan for this taking at least a half-day, if not more, as it is a ways from the city center and it will take time to experience the park museum in full. The best way to get to the park is by underground or by bus. Many lines run there, and it is best to research your best route prior to setting out.
La Sagrada Familia is an enormous basilica known to be Gaudi’s most important and greatest work of art. It was not yet completed upon Gaudi’s death in the 1926 and it is still under construction! It isn’t estimated to be completed until a century after his death. So, if you go, you will see the construction that continues on this building and art piece. You can see La Sagrada from other high points in the city where it stands out against the traditional Spanish architecture. Again, you will want to plan time in your itinerary to visit this monument and there are several bus and metro lines that will take you there from the city center. Make sure you look up the opening and closing times as these change seasonally and I would recommend you buy tickets online and check out the policies for the basilica here.
Note: Feature image is Park Guell Barcelona by Richard Jones