My Mum and I love going on city breaks. It all started a couple of years ago when we decided to spend a long weekend in New York for my Mum’s birthday with the rest of the family and the concept was even more of a success for the two of us when we left my brother and Dad behind last year and headed off to Paris for my eighteenth. The weather may have been terrible from start to finish during our Parisian adventure but it had been such a good laugh and a chance for us to spend such good quality time with one another we booked up to go to Barcelona at the end of May this year, with hopes for better weather but just as good experiences.
Barcelona is a vibrant, incredibly diverse and architecturally stunning city with lots to offer any tourist. From the beach and the historical buildings, to the shops and the sangria – the city really seems to be becoming the location of the moment and, due to this, I thought I would share my thoughts on HOW to get around and plan your trip to gain maximum success, WHAT to go and see while in Barcelona and WHERE to eat and drink while there. All of my recommendations are based on my own experiences over our jam-packed four days and so can’t possibly give the full extent of what Barcelona has to offer, but if there’s one thing My Mum and I do well, it is seeing as much of a city in one weekend as is humanly possible.
First things first, getting from the airport into the heart of Barcelona really has only one cheap but sensible option, the Aerobus, which stops very near to the airport exit. It only costs around $5,90 pp. as opposed to a taxi which could cost as much as $35-40! A great money saver and the bus stops in four locations throughout the city, terminating in the most popular destination of the Placa de Catalunya, between La Rambla and the main shopping street, Passeig de Grácia. Staying in and around the Plaςa de Catalunya will also make it easier when travelling to other destinations because, excluding the attraction, Park Güell, everything else you will want to do or see is pretty much within walking distance and the whole area has a great feel to it. If you do find yourself needing a taxi however, you will have no trouble getting one as Barcelona has one of the highest taxi to population ratios in the world – even more than New York!
We stayed at The Catalonia Hotel just a five minute walk from the Plaça de Catalunya and I personally couldn’t fault it – great breakfast, beautiful rooftop terrace with plunge pool, free wine and basic tapas in the afternoon – what more could you ask for?! The price tag for this particular accommodation was quite high however, and I’m not sure its always worth spending so much on a hotel on a city break because you will often find that you don’t spend much time there. So, when picking somewhere to stay this could be something to consider.
As for exploring the city itself, I am always a great believer that walking around and just getting a proper feel of the surroundings is the best way to truly experience it all. You will often find a number of things that you never would have found if you had taken a taxi or a bus or any other mode of transport and, with Barcelona, this is no different. What I will recommend however, are two particular tours my Mum and I took which really enhanced our ability to see the city in new and exciting ways.
The tours were booked through Viator, an online tour company run by TripAdvisor and the first was a bus tour on our first night which took us around the beach area and then up through Montjuic to the castle where you are able to view the Magic Fountain Show, which is put on every Saturday night only – perhaps something to consider when booking your trip! The Magic Fountain Show itself was an amazing start to our holiday because from the moment ‘Barcelona’ by Freddie Mercury began to play and the fountains began to dance, the atmosphere of the place was breath-taking, and it only became more and more magical as the sun went down and the lights came on. It really is a must-see, and that’s even before we mention the beauty of the castle itself!
Our second tour, also booked through Viator, was possibly my highlight of the entire trip which was the Segway tour that I forced my Mum to do with me on the morning of our second day. The tour was organised by the company Barcelona Segway Fun and our tour guide David made the experience even more enjoyable with his very easy-going and pleasant manner and his helpful information about the sights we saw – which included the beach and harbour area, the Arc de Triompf, the Parc de la Ciutadella among much more. Honestly, it is one of the most fun experiences I have ever had on holiday and even my Mum loved the Segway by the end! All I can say is if you don’t do this tour then you are missing out big style, because it’s a great way to see many sights you may otherwise miss out.
When it comes to attractions and must-see’s in Barcelona there is really only one truly obvious sight: the world-famous Sagrada Familia. Designed by Antoni Gaudi and still under construction even today, it is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever visited and I can completely understand why so many tourists flock here. I would really take your time while studying the two finished exteriors and the roof of the church in particular (not that you can really help yourself) because the extreme detailing is amazing and, I do think its worth booking to go up one of the two currently finished towers, because the views from the top are really something. What I will say though, is that the Sagrada Familia is just as busy as you believe it to be and, if you don’t book entry in advance then you are unlikely to make it inside – so please book online first!
And, to give you some prior warning before you book up to visit Barcelona, if you don’t like the architecture and art of Antoni Gaudi, then just don’t bother because he crops up everywhere. Luckily I’m a fan but even I was slightly fed up of hearing his name by the time I returned home as I visited three other Gaudi sights during my stay. The first was the Casa Battló, a house within walking distance of the Plaça de Catalunya, which takes on an underwater or skeletal theme, depending on which way you look at it, and I have to say I was very impressed with this building. It is incredibly beautiful both in exterior and interior qualities and I believe it is just as much a must-see as the Sagrada Familia itself, so do make some time for this.
I cannot say however, that all of Gaudi’s architectural buildings are as worth visiting because after booking a night tour quite last minute of The Pedrera, an apartment building designed by the man himself, I was left highly disappointed with the experience. Yes, it’s pretty as apartment buildings go but it is just that – an apartment building. I kind of felt they were just spinning out the Gaudi name to make some extra profit and honestly, I would probably miss out this particular site from your visit because it just didn’t give me the wow factor of the previous two.
After the disappointment of The Pedrera, we did however, still decide to travel to Park Güell, a public park area also designed by Gaudi, and the park itself was lovely for a relaxed walk however, we unfortunately fell victim to the mistake of not pre-booking so we were unable to fully enter into the ‘Monumental Zone’ where a number of Gaudi’s most impressive mosaics and colourful sculptures are placed – so once again book in advance! Still, the free part of the gardens themselves have a lovely atmosphere and would be a great stop for a picnic, if you have the time.
And, if you’ve finally had enough of Gaudi there is still a number of non-related things to fill the rest of your time with! I would recommend just having a walk down La Rambla and into the Plaça Reale, which is not only really beautiful but has a lot of restaurants and bars, which might be of interest to you. Unfortunately we didn’t explore this area until near the end of our trip so didn’t get a chance to try out any of the places around here but this was really the place where I felt most like I was in ‘Barcelona’ and La Rambla is definitely the best place to go if you want fresh fruit, churros or ice cream. I would perhaps avoid this street at night though if you don’t want hassled to go to the night clubs in Barcelona which, if you’re on holiday with your Mum like I was, you probably won’t be interested in, as there are a lot of PR’s going around.
So finally, and one of the last sights we visited during our trip, was the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, or, as it is otherwise known, Barcelona Cathedral. I sometimes think this is a place which is often overlooked simply because of the beauty and popularity of the Sagrada Familia but this is still a stunning building to see and was very much more what you would expect from a religious building in terms of atmosphere and peace and it is also free to enter, with only donations being suggested, which is good for those on a strict budget. Do remember to cover up a bit better for this sight however, as strappy tops and short skirts/shorts are prohibited here.
And so my final, but often most important, section is related to the good (and bad) places my Mum and I found to eat and drink while on our travels and the place I feel I have to mention first is the vegetarian/vegan haven just off the Plaça de Catalyuna which is Woki Organic Market. My mum, and all other meat-eaters, will not understand the euphoria which came across me when I realised I didn’t have to put up with any more cheese and tomato and had found a place where I could not only get fresh vegetables and exciting meals but I was also sure that my vegetarianism would be understood – it was brilliant! Woki serves a lot of diverse dishes but have a fully vegan menu and make a range of gluten free options and cakes too. It is open right through the day so would be good for a visit at any time and even people who are self-catering will be able to buy supplies as it doubles as an organic supermarket. Can you tell that I really, really liked this place?
The second place that I ended up really liking was a small, café that we found on the last day, just round the corner from our hotel, called the Libreria Café (or Library café) and that’s pretty much all the description you need. It’s situated in the upstairs of a bookshop and has a really peaceful and calm atmosphere and the staff are happy to make up a range of toasted rolls based on what you would like, as well as having a varied menu, fresh frittatas and pretty good looking cakes too. It’s great for a quick bite between seeing the sights and could also be an option for dinner, as I think they serve more filling meals through the back of the café too. And, you’re pretty much surrounded by books which will always earn them some brownie points with me.
As well as the Libreria Café, there does actually seem to be a lot of cute, independent bakeries in Barcelona which are really worth trying out. Another one which I had recommended to me was the Hotel Praktik Bakery which I also found and thought looked like a really lovely place for a casual lunch. The only reason I didn’t personally go here is because there was a lack of vegetarian sandwich fillings, although I’m sure they would be happy to make something up for you, on request.
This next one is going to sound like a bit of a strange recommendation since it is a supermarket but the Carrefour Market located on La Rambla is like no other supermarket I have ever visited. They have a great selection of filled rolls and wraps, fresh smoothies and they even have separate stations where they serve sushi and freshly prepared stir-fry’s and noodle dishes. It kind of left me wondering why supermarkets at home were so inferior in comparison but honestly, you have to see it to believe it.
The reason that I haven’t really mentioned a number of good restaurants for proper, sit down meals is because I wasn’t overly impressed with the two we did end up visiting. One which my mum did enjoy however, was Margharita, an Italian restaurant located off a side street from the Passeig de Grácia. They have a really good range of different pasta dishes and salads but I was left quite let down by the standard of their pizza, which, from an Italian restaurant, left me surprised. Despite this, their rosé wine was very impressive, and if your that way inclined, it’s probably worth visiting just for that.
However, if a good rosé wine isn’t enough and you are looking solely for somewhere to get a good drink, and in my Mum and I’s case this means cocktails, then you’re probably going to come up with the name Dry Martini, which seems to rank pretty highly on a number of sources as being one of the oldest and best cocktail bars in Barcelona. However, I am here to tell you that it’s probably not worth the bother of travelling there. It’s quite fancy inside and looks like an old-fashioned speak-easy but it came over even a bit snobby to me and the cocktails were quite overpriced and the one both my Mum and I tried – The Amelie – wasn’t even that great. It was highly alcoholic though, which was probably just a means to get you to forget about the price! Perhaps give this one a miss and go get yourselves some sangria instead.
So lastly, what better way to finish up my How, What and Where of Barcelona than with an excellent Gelateria recommendation in the heart of La Rambla. We came across Amorino by accident while exploring this part of the city and was enticed to go inside by the beauty of the shop and the ice cream itself, housed just inside the door. They have a great array of flavours and even have fully vegan certified sorbets which looked really good quality. They also make the most beautiful displays on the cones and make them into the shape of flowers, with the option to add a mini macaroon to the top too, if you want one. The flavours I tried were stracciatella, dolce du leche and chocolate hazelnut and honestly, for those few minutes, I was in heaven. Its a lovely, lovely shop and will definitely satisfy any sweet craving.
So there you have it, my brief but hopefully interesting look into the beautiful and exciting city of Barcelona. Whether you are there for a week or simply a few days, like my Mum and I were, you can not fail to be impressed by the beauty of each and every building and the number of great opportunities the city has. I would love to go back and spend more time at the beach area, as well as finally getting in to see some of those famous Gaudi mosaics at Park Güell, but, perhaps for now, a Gaudi break is very much what I need. Happy travelling folks!