A beginner’s guide to Barcelona
With a two thousand year history and a vibrant culture, it’s no wonder the Mediterranean city of Barcelona is the UK’s undisputed favourite when it comes to Spanish city break destinations. As well as having its own ample stretches of sand, the city is perfectly situated to combine some sightseeing with a beach holiday to the Costa Brava or Costa Dorada. But what should you see on a first visit? Follow my beginner’s guide to this captivating Catalan gem.
A number of airlines fly from the UK to Barcelona, from regional airports as well as London. To give you an idea of the choice available, there are almost 200 direct flights a week from London, on airlines such as British Airways, Iberia, easyJet, Monarch and Vueling. It’s not difficult to pick up a return ticket for as little as £50 (flying with easyJet from Southend at the end of February, price correct at time of writing) but book well in advance for a summer trip as demand is obviously higher.
Getting from the airport
Most flights arrive at Barcelona’s El Prat airport (some Ryanair services fly into Girona) and there is a train service direct into the city. Take the RENFE R2 Cercanias service (the local stopping train, sometimes referred to as Rodalies in Catalan) as far as Passeig de Gracia. Tickets cost 4,10 euros and there’s no need to buy a ticket in advance. Alternatively there’s an airport bus costing 5,90 euros which takes on average about a half hour to reach the city centre. You can buy tickets online in advance here http://www.aerobusbcn.com/en/buy-tickets or just pay cash to the driver. Expect to pay up to 40 euros for a taxi from the airport to the city centre.
The Barcelona metro is extensive and easy to use, though as with any busy city, take care of your belongings and ensure bags are zipped or fastened securely.
A single ride on the metro (or bus) costs 2,15 euros but if you are planning on taking five or more journeys then you could buy a T10 card costing 9,95 euros which covers you for ten journeys over a year (i.e. there’s no need to use all ten on the same day). If you make a journey and change lines without exiting the metro, then that counts as one ride, so long as your total journey time is under 75 minutes. Multi-day travel cards are available, giving you two days’ unlimited travel for 14 euros for instance. 3, 4 and 5 day cards are also offered. Check current prices here:
Alternatively, you might consider the Barcelona card. This is a tourist pass offering free transport (including the airport train but not the express airport bus), free or discounted admission to some tourist attractions and discounts in some restaurants and shops. It costs 45 euros for a three-day pass. Examples of free attractions (correct at the time of writing but check on arrival) include the Botanical Gardens and Museum of Modernism. Do your homework; work out what you might like to see and total up the cost – as with all these cards, you need to use it a lot to make it worth your while. A full list of discounts is found here:
For a first-time visitor who perhaps is less confident about using public transport, I’d recommend a hop on, hop off sightseeing bus. Barcelona is a city of over 4 million people and therefore its sights are scattered over a wide area. Although there is a lot to see in a fairly small downtown area, if you wish to see some of the more far-flung attractions it’s easier to catch the sightseeing bus. It’s more expensive than public transport, with a one day ticket costing 24,30 euros if purchased online and a two day ticket about 10 euros more. Their informative website can be found here: https://www.barcelonabusturistic.cat/en/home and provides details of routes, prices and current schedules.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Hotel Duquesa de Cardona, a luxury boutique hotel on the waterfront close to the Columbus statue at the end of La Rambla and a short walk from the aquarium. Its beautifully appointed rooms can cost as little as £75 a night for a double in low season, but the convenient location and excellent service mean that it does sell out in peak periods. The W chain are represented in Barcelona at Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents by Barceloneta beach. The hotel’s 473 rooms feature funky décor and both its pool terrace and 26th floor Eclipse bar afford stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea. On a tighter budget, try the Chic and Basic Ramblas, under £50 per night but only a stone’s throw from La Rambla, or for around £20 more, the Hotel Sant Agustí, a converted convent near to the Plaça Reial. The building dates from 1720 and has been a hotel since 1840, making it one of the city’s oldest.
What to see
Antoni Gaudi’s work
If there’s one name that is synonymous with Barcelona, it’s that of Antoni Gaudi, the architect responsible for the as yet unfinished Sagrada Familia church. This elaborately constructed church was begun in 1882, consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 but is unlikely to be complete until at least 2026. George Orwell was not a fan, branding it one of the world’s most hideous buildings, but millions of impressed visitors beg to differ. It’s definitely worth a look.
Gaudi’s architecture can be found elsewhere in the city. Slightly north of Barcelona’s city centre in the Gràcia district, it’s worth making a special effort to pay a visit to Parc Güell. Another of Antoni Gaudi’s bonkers creations, as you’d expect its planting is interspersed by wacky benches, columns and platforms featuring the architect’s trademark mosaic tiling. The extraordinary Parc Güell now charges admission, but is a must-see.
Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera, is another building bearing the hallmarks of the architect’s unique style. Its odd chimneys are classic Gaudi. I also loved Casa Batlló which Gaudi redesigned in 1904. Once a family home and now a UNESCO world heritage sight, it’s unique, quirky and delightful, both inside and out. The entrance fee is a bit steep but looking at the exterior is free.
This single street is possibly the most famous in the city. For this reason, it has to figure in your itinerary but be warned, it’s also a popular stomping ground for pickpockets and scammers. This pedestrian thoroughfare is crammed with souvenir vendors, street performers, human statues and, at night, prostitutes. It features a mosaic created by the artist Joan Miró, located near the Liceu metro station. If you look closely, you’ll be able to spot his signature on one of the tiles. A museum dedicated to his work can be found at Montjuïc. The street also has a selection of restaurants but you’d do better heading off the street and away from the crowds.
This hill overlooking the city literally translates as “the hill of the Jews”. Getting up there is half the fun. Head up by funicular and then take the Port Vell aerial tramway back down to the waterfront at Barceloneta. At the top, there’s a whole load of things to do. As well as the Fundació Miró, Montjuïc
is also home to the Museu d’Arqueologia, the Museu Etnològic and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC, housed in the impressive Palau Nacional. In addition you’ll find the Magic Fountain and the artisan village at Poble Espanyol, both built for the 1929 International Exhibition.
Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is its old town, linking La Rambla to the Mediterranean seafront. Many of the buildings of this area date from mediaeval times, though there was extensive modernisation and renovation in the 19th and early 20th century. One of the area’s most popular attractions is the Picasso Museum. Suggested by the artist himself back in 1960, Barcelona is a fitting choice for the museum; although Picasso was born in Malaga, he spent his teenage years in the city before moving to Paris in his twenties. The five buildings that house a collection of 3500 of his earlier works are as much an attraction as the art itself – Palau Aguilar, Palau del Baró de Castellet and Palau Meca date back to the 14th century.
The Barri Gòtic is a fabulous area in which to wander, with alleyways linking attractive squares, my favourite being the Plaça Reial. This palm-filled square provides respite from the heat of the summer sun; in my opinion there’s no better place in the whole of the city to sip a coffee and people-watch. As with other touristy areas, keep a close eye on your belongings.
For football fans, there’s only one unmissable attraction in the city – Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, home to Futbol Club Barcelona, or Barça to its adoring fans. It is possible to take tours of the stadium. Visit the FCB Museum, walk down the players’ tunnel and out onto the pitch, stand in the dressing room and see behind the scenes in areas such as the press room.
Something for the evening
Cava is to Spain as champagne is to France, and the most atmospheric place in town to drink the stuff is at El Xampanyet. This small bar has a take me as you find me vibe, with a mixed clientele of locals and visitors. The tiled walls and tasty tapas have barely changed since the place opened back in 1929. Its location on Carrer de Montcada in El Born district, is within an easy stroll of the cathedral and Parc de la Ciutadella, and perfect for a few glasses before dinner in the Old Town.