I was fortunate enough to visit Barcelona for a second time this past February and it really has so much to offer. I was there a full week and didn’t have a day without sights to see. Here I am pictured on the Ramblas. I am holding on to my lightly packed bag because everyone will tell you to beware of the pickpockets in Barcelona in general and on the Ramblas in particular. I held on tight for the whole trip, but everything was fine. In any big city you really should follow this advice, I wouldn’t let the pickpockets scare you away.
Our hotel, Hotel 1898 , was located right on Las Ramblas at the center of all the action in Barcelona. From here I could walk to almost every tourist destination you can name… although, I will confess, it was a bit of a hike to the Sagrada Familia. The 1898 is a luxury boutique hotel built in a beautifully restored historic building. Our room was small, no surprise in Europe, but it was elegantly decorated, very clean and comfortable. There was a rooftop pool and bar, but because it was February we never made it up. My friend from back in NJ visited this hotel in summer time, and she tells me that the rooftop was fantastic. I will have to take her word for it! We did enjoy the breakfast buffet every morning and it was very, very good. Lots and lots of great food options out on the buffet, plus made to order items. And if I had wanted to start my days off with a little bubbly, that was always available on the buffet, too.
Another top-notch hotel in this location is The Meridien and I hear from friends that is also lovely. On a previous visit we stayed at the Renaissance using Marriott points. That is a little bit removed from the center of sightseeing, but certainly walk-able for us, and more cost effective for sure. Rooms were average sized based on what we have seen in Europe, but comfortable and clean. It is a very nice, well kept business hotel. Lots of tour groups seem to like to stay there, from what we saw.
Within the week we took in all of the most highly recommended sights, and many more that were just off the beaten path. Here are some of my favorites.
Hands down, my favorite thing about Barcelona is all of the modernista architecture. Antoni Gaudi is the most famous artist and architect, and you can find his works all over the city. Every inch of every building he designed is adorned with whimsical colors and styles. Even the smokestacks and other functional parts of rooftops are decorated, as in the photo above.
His most famous and magnificent work, a cathedral still under construction, is the Sagrada Familia. It is beautiful, incredible, and inspirational. We did the audio tour and it was well worth the few Euros and the time. Every detail of this building has meaning and its own beauty. You can purchase your tickets at the Sagrada Familia website .
Gaudi also designed several residences which you can tour. I highly recommend using the audio tours. It helped me notice and understand so much of what we were seeing. Tickets can be purchased on the website for each individual location or at their ticket offices. My favorites two apartment buildings are Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, also know as La Pedrera. It is very convenient to visit both consecutively. They are located across the street from each other on the Paseig de Gracia. It is a lovely walk on this high end street. For New Yorkers, this feels like a Spanish 5th Avenue.
Farther afield, and best reached by a short taxi drive, is Park Guell. Designed also by Gaudi, this is a large outdoor park that will bring to mind Dr. Seuss. Most of Gaudi’s work reminds me of Dr. Seuss, to be honest. This park was built around 1900 and was meant to be part of a gated community for the newly rich. World War I came along and the community was never built, so it became a beautiful and whimsical public park. Most of it can be accessed for free, but there is a small zone for which you must pay to enter. Tickets can be bought at the park or in advance at the Park Guell website Visiting this park will take several hours out of your day, but it really is quite a nice diversion.
Gaudi is probably the most famous of the modernista architects, but I have a personal favorite. This is Lluis Domenech i Montaner. He designed the amazing Palace of Music, or Palau de la Musica Catalana. Incidentally, it is also located very close to the 1898. We almost overlooked this sight because we thought it was “just a concert hall”. It is not. This place is absolutely amazing. It was built for a choir back around the turn of the (last) century, and is adorned top to bottom in an absolutely incredible way. I would recommend the tour we took. They have English language tours offered several times per day and you can purchase the tickets on line before you go from the Palau Musica website. The tour takes about an hour. The tour left me very eager to see a concert in this venue on our next visit to Barcelona.
Montaner also designed the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. I plan to get there when next in Barcelona. Photos I have seen show the most beautiful hospital I could ever imagine. Every bit as adorned as the apartments. It is now open for tours as well, which you can also prebook from the Sant Pau Barcelona website.
At this point, you are probably thinking that Barcelona is all about the Modernista movement, and that is somewhat true. But there is so much more to do!
The Gothic Quarter is also very close to my hotel, and the Ramblas. It is great for a walking tour. I followed along with my handy Rick Steves guide and we did it on our own. In this part of town you will find many cute shops and restaurants , including the Els Quatre Gats, where Picasso used to dine, and where I met an old college pal for a drink. Fun spot. Aside from that, the big thing in the district is the Cathedral de Barcelona. Built in the 14th century, it is worth a walk around the inside. There is an admission charge of about 6 Euros to enter. Nearby you can also see the Jewish quarter and the Church of Santa Anna. So much history!
There are several world class Museums here. We visited the Picasso Museum, also not too long a walk from the hotel, and it was tremendous. You can follow Picasso’s progression from a young artist through Phis various phases up until his later works which are easily recognizable. I have never seen so many of his works in one place and I found it very interesting to see how his painting changed through the years. You can follow his art from fairly traditional portraits of family in his youth, then onto increasingly avant-garde works, through the blue period and the rose period into Cubism. There was also a very detailed study he did of the Velazquez painting Las Meninas.
When in Barcelona, it would be a crime to not have a little Paella! A little sangria really is a must as well. Well, and some tapas… The food is wonderful, and restaurants range from small hole in the wall spots, to big high end restaurants. But, definitely try some Paella…
Day trip to Girona and Figueres:
This day trip made two stops and didn’t return to the city until around 7pm. The first stop was the small medieval town of Girona an hour or two bus ride outside of town followed by a visit to the Salvadore Dali Museum in Figueres. Girona was very interesting and had a long history of a Jewish population which thrived there for many years but also had tremendous difficulties. Our guide was a school teacher who shared many interesting and compelling stories of the Jews in Spain through the years. Of particular interest to me were the WWII years and stories of the Franco dictatorship. It really hasn’t been very long since Franco was in power.
Later that day, we continued on to Figueres and the Dali Museum. I will say that I had NO idea what Salvadore Dali was all about. I thought he was a modern artist, so I expected paintings similar to Picasso’s later works. Well, there were some paintings, but there was so much more. Maybe “presentation pieces” would be a better description? It was interesting to learn Dali designed this museum himself, so it is set up to display his work exactly as he intended. While I wouldn’t want any of this art in my house, it is most definitely thought provoking and extremely interesting.
DAYTRIPS – Montserrat
Literally, the serrated Mountain, the mountain top is quite the setting for this dramatically perched Monastery. I was happy to take the tour bus up the winding and narrow mountain road, and not have to drive ourselves or take the “scenic” cable car (scary, in my book) up to the beautiful Basilica and Monastery. People still make pilgrimages here today, and you can see how it is inspirational. If you are there mid day, you can hear the boys choir sing in this magnificent setting.
A word of advice regarding tickets to these attractions. Tickets can be purchased on line before you go for virtually all of them. I have provided links in the article. I did this on my smartphone at the hotel, and printed out tickets the same day we visited every attraction. The concierge was happy to print for me. Simple, and that way we didn’t need to plan our days too far in advance. Lines are long almost everywhere in summer, but even in February the lines were long at the Sagrada Familia, and the Park Guell.
For the day trips, I found it easiest to go through a local tour company. No rental cars or bus schedules to worry about! We did the big bus tours, and they were great. We even had wifi on the buses, so I could get my facebook posts up right away! We used Julia Travel for the Monserrat half day tour and Turisme de Barcelona for the Figueras and Girona full day trip. Both tours departed from near the main square, Placa de Catalunya. it was less than a five minute walk from my hotel. The half day tour cost $61 per person and the full day tour cost $88 per person. If we had our children with us, I would have considered hiring a private guide. For larger groups that is often more cost effective, and it is very nice having the day go exactly as you please. For just two of us, the tour buses were more cost effective, and perfectly pleasant.
Barcelona has become one of my all time favorite cities. It is easily manageable with just a map, good walking shoes and a guide book. Beauty and history all around you! So much to do and see, great food and friendly people. What is not to love?