We defy anybody not to fall in love with Barcelona.
Whether it’s the breathtaking scale of the Basilica Sagrada Famílía or the dreamlike Gaudí architecture of Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. The funky Park Güell or the quirky narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter. The slick modern waterfront or the mouthwatering tapas and wine. The beautiful tree-lined broad avenues or the unbridled passion of the people of Barcelona.
Falling in love with this city requires almost no effort.
There are so many things to do in Barcelona, but before you start, maybe think about a walking tour or two to wet your appetite.
Walking tours are a great way to see some of the more familiar sights, and many not so familiar, all with a commentary that generally comes from the heart.
We jumped on two free tours organised by Free Walking Tours Barcelona. The idea is that you tip the tour guide depending what you think the tour is worth or on how generous you’re feeling.
Our first tour was all things Antoní Gaudí. Barcelona’s most famous son, designed and built some of the world’s most iconic houses and buildings.
The walk did not include admission to the houses but did provide some excellent background on this famous architect and how his more important works came to be. We wandered up the beautiful tree lined avenue of Passeig de Gracia, stopping outside Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. The tour group then jumped on the subway and headed to Sagrada Famílía.
The following morning a second tour took us into the Gothic Quarter and introduced the history of Barcelona, from Roman times, through to the Spanish Inquisition, then onto modern day life in this fabulous city. The narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter just begged to be explored again and again.
Both of these tours started in the Placa de Catalunya. The first tour was excellent, the second, the guide lacked some ummph. You get what you pay for sometimes!
I don’t think anything prepares you for the gigantic scale of La Sagrada Famílía. Like giant stalagmites reaching for the sky, Sagrada Famílía rises ever upwards dwarfing the 5 storey buildings around it.
Construction on this stunning church started over 136 years ago and is still underway today. Taking over from the original architect Francisco de Paula del Villar in 1883, Gaudí sprinkled his brilliance over the project until his death some 92 years ago.
There are a number of guided tour options available. We chose to just wander and soak up the beauty and magnificence without interruption. Yes, a guide would have provided some detail on the history and scale of this enormous building. But sometimes you just have to trust your own eyes. There’s incredible detail in every nook and cranny. No surface, door way, window or ceiling has been left untouched by the Gaudí magic.
Stepping inside the basilica towards the end of the day you are bathed in a kaleidoscope of colour. The setting sun cascading through the modern stain glass windows lightning up the central part of the church.
The basic entry ticket price is €15. One thing you do need to do though is book ahead. There are time slots for entry into the church, and these are strictly enforced.
Before he devoted the rest of his life to La Sagrada Famílía, Antoni Gaudí made his name designing dreamlike homes for the wealthy of Barcelona. We visited two of those homes, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà.
Redesigned in 1904 Casa Batlló is one of Gaudí great masterpieces, with it's sleeping (or slain) dragon roof and dragon staircase. Not one to embrace a straight line, Gaudí’s Casa Batlló is all curved walls and intricate door frames; door handles that beg to be caressed, a central air vent come light source, inspired by the brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean. No detail was considered too small for the Gaudí touch.
On the Noble floor, windows that span the width of the room may have been the inspiration for Captain Nemo’s submarine in the movie adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Throughout the home there are countless examples of nature-inspired touches, from door handles to bone like balcony facades.
Smartphone users will also get a treat from augmented reality clips that are available in many of the rooms. Pointing your phone to a spot on the floor and opening up the Casa Batlló smartguide app brings to life some the classic Gaudí masterpieces.
Casa Milà (La Pedrera)
The star attraction of La Pedrera is the rooftop. Here the air vents stand proud like an animated Egyptian army guarding the treasures below. Inside the attic, you are transported inside the skeleton of a snake. Gaudí often took inspiration from the natural world.
Only small parts of the building are open to the public as the majority of the building is used for apartments (some still used by families that have live in Casa Milá for over 70 years), administration offices, a performing arts centre and of course the gift shop on the ground floor.
Who doesn’t like a good wander through narrow streets lined with tempting storefronts, (Julie’s sister Tracey is who, but that’s another story) The tourist promenade, La Rambla, slices through the middle of the Gothic Quarter. Either side a maze of pinched, twisting streets. Museums, cafes, food markets, unique fashion stores, workshops and a cathedral waiting for budding explorers.
The Cathedral is not quite what it seems at first sight. It had a bit of a Vera Duckworth (Coronation Street fans will know) make over in the late 1800’s when a gothic facade was built over the original dull looking exterior.
The food market Mercado de La Boqueria is a bit of destination for food-loving tourists. We found it to be very meat heavy and a little pricey. So wandering out the back of the market we stumbled across a beautiful little tapas bar, where lunch was half the price of anything on offer in the market.
On the museum front, the Gothic Quarter has something for just about everybody’s taste. Museu Eròtic titillates with erotic art from ancient times to modern day. One of Spain’s favourite artists is showcased at the Picasso Museum. For the sweet tooth, Museu de la Xocolata offers up tempting treats, including chocolate making workshops. Then there is The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum, a history of the use of hemp and cannabis. Just a small taste of the many museums in this area.
Perched on the side of Carmell Hill facing the city, the Park offers a spectacular view of Barcelona. It’s here that you get a real sense of the scale of the Sagrada Famílía as is dwarfs all its nearby neighbours. We caught a local bus to the bottom of Carmel Hill then slogged our way up a large number of steps until we reached the park entrance.
Eusebi Güell, a Spanish entrepreneur, commissioned Gaudí to design the park. Opened in 1926 the main entrance to the park is like a cross between Hansel & Gretel meets Willy Wonka. What was Gaudí smoking?
Roadways, paths and viaducts are all made from local stone. Like a giant wave about to slam into a beach, the sloping terrace walls providing support for the viaduct above.
The main terrace with its sea serpent theme bench is a perfect spot to watch the sunset over this vibrant city. Almost as captivating is watching the various poses, not of those being photographed against the dramatic backdrop, but the stance of those with the camera in their hands. Oh what fun.
Again you have to book tickets in advance for the park and are allocated a time slot for entrance. Once inside you are free to spend as much time as you like wandering the park.
We managed to time our visit to Barcelona just as major demonstrations took place over the right to have a referendum on independence for the Catalonia region.
Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the Spanish Government making the vote illegal. While we were there, the demonstrations were peaceful, with young and old wrapped in the Catalonia flag, taking to the streets together.
We walked back to our accommodation post demonstration accompanied by a cacophony of noise from car horns and bike bells to the sound of clanking pans echoing through the tree-lined avenues. Quite a surreal experience.
Sadly, several days later things weren’t entirely as peaceful as the Spanish Police raided several local Government buildings and arrested some of the region’s civic leaders.
Hasta la vista Barcelona
Since hosting the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona has dragged its self away from the gritty industrial city it once was into one of the top must visit destinations in the world.
Four days in this incredibly vibrant city meant that we only just managed to scratch the surface. There’re so many more narrow streets, museums, Gaudí houses and tapas bars to be explored. Enough to tempt visitors back again and again.
Barcelona is not cheap by any stretch, but it’s well worth the investment. We are not great fans of sprawling cities, but Barcelona certainly won our hearts. Our visit enhanced by the passion and verve of the people who love their Catalonian city.
Barcelona jumps into our top 5 all time favourtie cities. Go check it out for yourself.
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We flew from Bologna to Barcelona with Ryan Air for just NZ$76 (US$53) each.
We stayed at Eddy’s Rooms, Situated in a beautiful building, just a 10-minute walk to Placa de Catalunya, Gaudí houses and Sagrada Famílía. Double Room with shared bathroom - NZ$121 (US$84) per night, breakfast included.
We visited. Combined ticket for Sagrada Famílía, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló - NZ$102 (US$70) each. Park Güell - NZ$15 (US$10) each
We ate at Vegetalia, great location in the Gothic Quarter by Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, tasty veggie meal and a good price, NZ$42 (US$30) washed down by a jug of Sangria. Zed Tapas, just a short walk from Sagrada Famílía, very friendly, great food, good price, NZ$30 (US$20)