20 great things to do in Barcelona
Find passion in fiestas, tapas, and Gaudí's magical creations
1. Ramble down colourful La Rambla
One of the most famous boulevards in the world, La Rambla is worth a stroll down even if you only have one day in Barcelona. A gateway to rural Catalonia, the mile-long road bustles with tourists, artists, human statues, fortune-tellers, dancers and musicians. Vibrant flower stalls, a cultural and exhibition centre, the superb La Boqueria market, a Joan Miró mosaic, newspaper kiosks and cafés line the street. You may pay a fortune to sip a cola at a roadside café but the people-watching opportunities will be worth the price.
2. Get up close to Gaudí's grand designs
In Barcelona, you can gaze in wonder at Gaudí's fairytale architecture. The Sagrada Familia is breathtaking and grotesque by turns. At first glance, it seems as though a careless giant has dripped melting wax over a Gothic cathedral, but a closer look reveals that the protuberances create a stone tapestry of Christ's life. Take the lift to the top for a breathtaking view. Park Güell is a magical place that emulates an English garden city. After seeing the gatehouses, based on designs for the opera Hansel and Gretel, you can walk up a splendid staircase, past a mosaic lizard to what once was a marketplace. Outside, climb to the heights of the park to gaze down at the magnificent panorama. And right in the centre of the city you can take a break from shopping and gaze at La Pedrera, a work of art in its own right, which also houses three exhibition spaces. Even the rooftop chimneys are something to marvel at.
3. Hit a high note in concert
Barcelona has its fair share of live music venues, such as Razzmatazz and Apolo. But there are also marvellous concert halls. The Gran Teatre del Liceu is a splendid place, decorated by gold leaf, plush red carpets and ornate carvings. L'Auditori is a sleek 2,400-seater venue that covers not only classical but also jazz and world music. The Palau de la Música Catalana is celebrated for its Modernista architecture, and sheer volume of musical activity. There are a cluster of music festivals, ranging from the pop-infused Primavera Sound to the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona.
4. Picture the city of Picasso's youth
Picasso remembered Barcelona as beautiful and bright, a city where he spent his early years. Follow in the footsteps of the artistic genius by visiting the landmarks that shaped his youth. Stroll along the Calle Reina Cristina and then cross over to 3 Carrer de la Mercè to see where his family lived, though the building was later destroyed. For a break, stop by the Els Quatre Gats, a café frequented by Catalonia's fin-de-siècle avant-garde. Then, head straight to the Museu Picasso, a gallery that records Picasso's formative years.
5. Pick up a platter at a pintxo bar
Picking on pintxos, platters of bite-sized food served on bread (a Basque version of tapas), is a popular culinary trend in Barcelona. Tradition calls for you to pick at the food with toothpicks, and at the end of the night you will be charged for the number of toothpicks that you have used. The Old Town Basque house Euskal Etxea invites you to savour dainty little croissants filled with jamón serrano, chicken tempura with saffron mayonnaise, melted provolone with mango and ham, or a mini-brochette of pork.
6. Climb up the magical Montjuïic
Montjuïic is perfect for a leafy stroll with great views, but hard to reach so is less populated by tourists. Scattered across the landward side are buildings from the 1992 Olympic Games, including Santiago Calatrava's Olympic needle, while facing the sea is the lighthouse and vast cemetery. Energetic visitors can climb to the top of the hill, which is just a short distance from the Olympic stadium and Jardi Botànic. The Plaça Espanya provides the most popular access to the park. Here, you can visit the Pavelló Mies van der Rohe and cultural centre CaixaForum.
7. Walk on the arty side
In Barcelona, a walk in the park is not just a relaxing experience but an artistic journey as well. Stroll round the leafy gardens of the Teatre Grec and then head to the Fundació Joan Miró, one of the greatest museums in the world. It's home to a collection of over 225 paintings, 150 sculptures and graphic pieces by the Spanish surrealist artist, along with a number of works by his contemporaries. Wander over to the Jardins Laribal, meticulously designed by the French landscape artist Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. Don't miss the Tres Pins nursery, where plants are grown for the city's municipal parks and gardens, or forget to tip your hat to the bronze statue of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the Plaça Dante Alighieri.
8. Revel in the Raval
Like Paris, Barcelona has a literary flavour. In this city, many writers have been inspired by the lower Raval, generally referred to as the Barrio Chino, a name coined by an American journalist due to its underworld feel in the 1920s. Haunted by drifters and prostitutes, the seedy ghetto forms a strangely glamorous setting for Jean Genet's existential novel The Thief's Journal (1949) and provides the backdrop for the civil war novel The Palace (1962) by Nobel prize-winner Claude Simon and The Margin by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (1967), which was made into a film. For a bite of tapas, visit Els Tres Tombs, a favourite with the Sunday book market scavengers. You can browse through books at the cosy bar of Café de les Delicies and catch a poetry reading at The Quiet Man.
9. Be a model photographer
Barcelona is a picturesque place, so even if you're new to the art of photography, the city still manages to look good. Some scenes, of course, are more photogenic than others. To spot a few, wander through Almacenes del Pilar (Boqueria, 43). Here, you'll find a glorious array of fabrics and accessories for traditional Spanish costumes on display in a Bohemian interior dating back to 1886. For mouth-watering photographs, head to the city's most central food market and gourmand's pilgrimage La Boqueria along La Rambla, where you'll discover layers of fruit and veg, olives and herbs in full colour. For a bird's eye view, ascend the Torre de Collserola, Norman Foster's galactic communications tower.
10. Chow down fresh seafood
No one leaves Barcelona without sucking on an oyster. The city toasts the fine and luxurious Galician restaurant Rias de Galicia in Poble-sec, as well as Cachitos in the Eixample, for their fantastic assortment of seafood. Cal Pep in the Born is known for its trifásico, a mélange of fried whitebait, squid rings and shrimps, and exquisite little tallarines (wedge clams). The Barceloneta restaurants La Mar Salada and Can Solé display a spectacular haul of fresh seafood every day, which is likely to tempt you if you're piscatorially inclined.
11. Perfect your path to heaven
Even if you're not the religious sort, you should visit the magnificent churches of Barcelona. The Sant Pau del Camp is a rare example of Romanesque architecture, with a fantastical façade and extraordinary cloister. The graceful basilica of the Santa Maria del Mar is perhaps the best surviving example of Catalan Gothic, and makes a great place to go for a classical concert. And the holy architecture of Sagrada Familia will lift your heart to the heavens. Take your time to explore these beautiful buildings, you might even become a believer.
12. Savour the best in new Catalan cooking
For a taste of Catalan cooking, visit the Cinc Sentits, which is creating quite a stir in Barcelona gastronomic circles. Talented Canadian-Catalan chef Jordi Artal shows respect for local classics (flat coca bread with foie gras and crispy leeks, duck magret with apple), while adding a personal touch in dishes such as a Palamós prawn in ajoblanco (garlic soup) with cherries and an ice-cream made from their stones. To finish, save room for the artisanal Catalan cheeses or the 'false egg' with white chocolate around a passionfruit yolk. Cinc Sentits has finally been acknowledged by the Michelin men with a long overdue star, but this is still one of the more affordable of the city's top-end restaurants.
13. Discover your sweet tooth
Barcelona is the perfect place to indulge in sweet treats. You'll be spoilt for choice with its selection of confectionery shops. For posh chocolates in fancy packaging, head to Escribà; and for cooked candy visit Papabubble, where you can see the sweets being rolled in front of your eyes. If you're over in Spain during the winter and fancy a hot chocolate, stop by the milk bar La Granja. Handsomely fitted with antiques, it serves thick and frothy cocoa, which will warm you up.
14. Marvel at Modernista architecture
Barcelona's love of Modernista has been a passionate affair and the evidence is scattered across the city. In the Dreta area of Eixample, there are some masterpieces. The fairest of them is Gaudí's luminous Casa Batlló, built for textile tycoon. Nearby, you can gaze at his rivals' architecture: the shiny Casa Amatller by Puig i Cadafalch, and the decadent Casa Lleó Morera (on the corner of C/Consell de Cent at No.35) by Domènech i Muntaner. Nearby, you'll find his Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, whose city gardens offer a pleasant oasis amid the bustling city. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has 20 pavilions.
15. Fill your suitcase with local threads
Style comes with all kinds of price tags in Barcelona. High street shoppers will easily recognise the Spanish labels Mango and Zara, but fashionistas should not miss a stop in Zazo&Brull, owned by a couple of designers who combine materials and textures with beautiful results and at an affordable price. If it's accessories you're hunting for, find the object of your desire at Cuervo Cobberblack Bird, where you can pick up a pair of hancrafted shoes, or pop into RooM in the Borne district where Anaid Kupuri's shoes are sold. The Box, dedicated to the fruits of the labour of local talent, as well as Syngman Cucala are among other shops and boutiques where you can get real finds, all made in Barcelona.
16. Visit the gay heart of the city
If Barcelona wanted a gay capital, it would most certainly pick the Eixample, nicknamed Gaixample for the sheer number of stores and clubs that cater to this clientele. Start the night with a drink in Museum or Plata Bar. In summer, a stop at the terrace of the Axel Hotel is a must. If dancing till dawn is your goal, Metro is always a great choice, as is the classic Arena, where both boys and girls are welcome.
17. Dance your way to a street party
How long can you party non-stop? A week? Then September is a good time to visit, because the Festes de la Mercè swings into town. It started life as a small religious parade but since then it has snowballed into a week-long party celebrating Catalan culture. Performances, dazzling firework displays along the beaches, a sea-front air show, exhibitions, children's activities and free concerts (playing everything from sea shanties to hip hop) make this a celebration of Barcelona in all its splendour.
18. Sip a cocktail on a terrace
The best place to kick back and enjoy a cold beer in Barcelona is one of the many outdoor bars and cafés. Bar Colombo is a little tapas bar with a sunny terrace overlooking the port, while the Australian-run Bar Kasparo offers outdoor seating beneath shady arcades overlooking an a playground for children. Another option is Bar Calders, a friendly hole-in-the-wall with a terrace on which to relax. There are also a number of bustling cafés with terraces along La Rambla, such as Quim de la Boqueria.
19. Bag some designer bargains
If you’re a dedicated designer bargain-hunter, make the 30-minute pilgrimage just outside the city to La Roca Village. More than 50 discount outlets will tempt you with designer apparel from popular brands such as Antonio Miró, Versace, Diesel and Camper.
20. Have a passionate flamenco fling
A trip to Barcelona calls for a fling with flamenco. Of course, many of us are not graced with dancing skills, but that doesn't stop you being a spectator of the traditional Spanish dance form. Head to El Tablao de Carmen, where established stars and new talent display a vibrant spectrum of flamenco singing, dancing and music. Los Tarantos in Plaça Reial has become a popular tourist hangout, but the acts still turn heads. For vanguard performances, see the Festival Ciutat Flamenco in May.
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