20 great things to do in Barcelona
Find passion in all the city has to offer: festivals, cuisine, art, culture, architecture and more!
When you're travelling, especially if you're short on time, you really want to make the most of your destination so you go home feeling like you haven't missed anything and that you've really got a feel for the place. Sure, it can be a challenge, so we've worked to pare down all there is to do in Barcelona to 20 of the musts. If you can't get to them all, you can always come back.
1. Discover the city on foot
Barcelona is a big city, but it's the perfect size to discover on foot. Spend a day away from the metro and the tourist bus, and take your time strolling around and stopping to recharge with some of the city's great gastronomic options. If you're in the mood for visiting some of the most impressive buildings and parks, you'll want to see all the Parc de la Ciutadella has to offer as well as the Parc de Joan Miró, and the Montjuïc castle, but there's also a Barcelona you won't find in guidebooks. Get off the beaten path and head up to Horta, get to know the charm of the Sant Andreu district, see a lesser-known side of the Eixample and take in breathtaking panoramic views.
If your legs are more up to the task than your feet, you can also see the city by bicycle. Of the numerous ones around town, we've weeded out 10 routes in the city and surrounding areas for you to discover Barcelona while you pedal, whether you're a lifelong cyclist or still wobbling about without those extra wheels in the back.
2. Explore Gaudí and modernism
Without a doubt, one of Barcelona's top attractions for tourists (as well as for those who live here) is admiring the city's modernist architecture, and the works of Antoni Gaudí in particular. Just walking around you'll come across various examples of Gaudí's work throughout the city, be they civil or religious buildings. The most famous are the Sagrada Família, impressive both outside and in; Park Güell, a space that's out of a fairy tale and emulates an English garden city; and La Pedrera. But don't miss the opportunity to visit other Gaudí buildings that sometimes occupy smaller space in guidebooks, such as Palau Güell, Casa Batlló, Casa Vicens and (if you have time to venture a bit outside Barcelona) the crypt of the Colònia Güell, in Santa Coloma de Cervelló.
But Gaudí wasn't the only modernist architect who left his mark on Barcelona. Also worth a visit are Casa Amatller and the Palau de la Música, works by Puig I Cadafalch; Casa Lleó Morera, designed by Domènech i Muntaner; and Casa de les Terrades. Another example is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, a World Heritage Site and whose gardens are an oasis in the bustle of the city.
3. Hit a high note in concert
Barcelona has its fair share of live music venues, such as Razzmatazz and Apolo, but the city boasts some wonderful concert halls as well. The Gran Teatre del Liceu is a survivor in splendor, decorated with gold leaf, plush red carpets and ornate carvings. Don't shy away from checking out the programme, as tickets are not always as expensive as you might think, and it's a space that's definitely worth a visit. Then there's L'Auditori, a sleek space with a capacity for 2,400 concert-goers, and not just fans of classical - they also host jazz and world music performances, among others. The Palau de la Música Catalana is celebrated for its modernist architecture and for the sheer number of concerts it hosts. Barcelona is also home to several international music festivals, including Primavera Sound, the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona, Sónar and Cruïlla, among others.
4. Picture the city of Picasso's youth
Picasso's Barcelona, where he spent his early years, was beautiful and vibrant. Follow the footsteps of the artistic genius as you visit the landmarks that shaped his youth. Walk down C/Reina Cristina and then cross over to number 3 on C/Mercè to see where his family lived, though the building was later destroyed. If you need to make a stop along the way, head to Els 4 Gats, where artists, including Picasso and Salvador Dali, gathered at the time to chat, eat dinner and have meetings about art. Finally, visit the Museu Picasso itself, a gallery that houses works from Picasso's formative years.
5. Fill up on tapas, pintxos and vermouth
Pintxos, in essence, are Basque tapas - plates of bite-sized goodies served atop a piece of bread - and they're also a 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. One of the best places to give them a try is Euskal Etxea, where you can get stuck in to ham empanadillas (a type of pie), pintxos made of chicken tempura with saffron mayonnaise, melted provolone with mango and ham, or a mini-brochette of pork. But lest you forget, there are many more pintxos places in town as well.
But if what you really want are tapas, your options multiply - traditional, elaborate, places where patatas bravas are the stars of the menu, and tapas bars to go to if a good beer to wash them down is a priority. Some of the essentials are Quimet i Quimet, La Esquinica or El Jabalí.
And of course, everything tastes better accompanied by a good vermouth. The weekends (or when you're on holiday) are ideal because there's more time to do a vermouth crawl, as is the custom, with a bite to eat as you sample the various types. But really any time is a good time to try the vermouth of the house in classic bodegas such as Bar Calders, La Pepita and Bar Electricitat.
6. Climb up the magical Montjuïic
© Greg Gladman / Time Out
Montjuïc mountain is the perfect place for a leafy stroll with great views, but it does take a bit of legwork to get up there, so it's less populated by tourists. But don't let that deter you. Aside from the natural surroundings and spectacular vistas, you'll find buildings from the 1992 Olympic Games, including the Palau Sant Jordi and the telecommunications tower designed by Santiago Calatrava. If you're feeling full of beans and you get to the top of the hill, you can check out the Olympic stadium and the Jardi Botànic. Plaça Espanya, at the foot of Montjuïc, is the most common access point to the mountain, and where you can also visit the Pavelló Mies van der Rohe and the CaixaForum cultural centre.
Walk through the Laribal gardens, designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier; visit the Tres Pins nursery, where plants are grown for gardens and municipal parks in the city; and tip your hat to the bronze statue of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the square of the same name.
7. Walk on the arty side
In Barcelona, taking a walk in the park is not only a way to relax, it can also lead you to discover some great art. Get up and get out for a walk around the lush gardens of the Teatre Grec and then head over to the Fundació Joan Miró, one of the largest museums in the world and home to a collection of over 225 paintings, 150 sculptures and graphic pieces by the Spanish surrealist painter, along with a number of works by his contemporaries.
Listing all the museums and art galleries in the city would take quite a bit of time, but one of the jewels is the MNAC (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya), with pieces that represent Catalan art from the Romanesque period to the mid-20th century.
If smaller rooms are more your speed, stop in to the Palau Robert - it's free in, has some great exhibitions and the building itself is worth a gander. Also pay a visit to some of the smaller but influental galleries throughout the city, some of the most prestigious of which are ADN, Joan Prats, Galeria 3 Punts and Toni Tàpies.
8. Revel in the Raval
Like Paris, Barcelona also has a literary flavour. Many a writer has been inspired by the lower Raval, which was once called the 'Barrio Chino', a name coined by an American journalist due to its underworld feel in the 1920s. Haunted by drifters and prostitutes (and, more recently, hipsters and their ilk), the seedy ghetto forms a strangely glamorous setting for Jean Genet's existential novel The Thief's Journal (1949) and provides the backdrop of 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.
But the Raval is so much more. It's a place where local businesses thrive, including shops like Les Topettes, Chandal and Fusta'm; it's also about urban culture, music and good food, the likes of which you'll find in Bar Kasparo, Lo de Flor and Dos Palillos.
The Raval is also where you need to go to get some of the city's essential culture nourishment, including the CCCB (Barcelona's contemporary culture centre, which hosts exhibitions, conferences and more), the MACBA (the city's contemporary art museum), the Biblioteca de Catalunya (library) and the refurbished Filmoteca arthouse cinema.
9. Get to know the city's history
When visiting a new city, it's always good to learn a bit about its history in order to understand its architecture, its art, what makes it tick, and something of the character of its people. As an international city, Barcelona is full of diverse cultures and heritages, and with every step you take through its streets, you'll stumble upon some of its history.
You can get an idea of this historical wealth at the Museu d'Historia de Barcelona (MUHBA) where the historical heritage of the city is preserved and put on display in the MUHBA's various locations (most importantly those of the Plaça del Rei, the Call, the Temple d'August, and Refugi 307), the brand-new Born Centre Cultural, the Columnas de Adrian (Pillars of Hadrian), the royal shipyards of the Museu Maritím, the various shelters that were built to survive the Civil War, the modernist Illa de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord, noted for its four modernist buildings on Passeig de Gràcia), and the Fossar de les Moreres, which was once one of the historical cemeteries near the Santa Maria del Mar church and is a war memorial for those who lost their lives during the siege of Barcelona (1713-1714).
10. Chow down fresh seafood
No one leaves Barcelona without sampling the seafood. 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
© Karl Blackwell / Time Out
Even if you're not the religious sort, you should visit the magnificent churches of Barcelona purely to appreciate the art and architecture. 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. But the quintessential gothic religious building is the Cathedral, dedicated to the city's patron saint Santa Eulalia. It's Gothic and majestic, with a cloister known for its 13 white geese - one for every year of Eulalia's life before she died a martyr.
And don't miss Sant Pere de les Puel·les, Santa Maria del Pi (declared a Heritage of National Heritage Site in 1931 and also host to classical music concerts) and Sant Felip Neri in the square of the same name, which many consider one of the most beautiful squares in town.
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 passion fruit 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.
Barcelona's creative cuisine offering is extensive, and though it can mean making more room on your credit card as well as in your stomach, if you dine in Dos Cielos, Moments or Tickets, it'll be an experience well worth it.
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; for cooked candy visit Papabubble, where you can see the sweets being rolled in front of your eyes; and Bubó is where every bonbon is a work of art. If you're in town during winter and fancy a hot chocolate, stop by the milk bar La Granja or any of those along C/Petritxol.
Whenever you're in Barcelona, you'll see that window displays of bakeries and bread shops are full of special delights that change with the seasons and holidays. At All Saints (1 November) in Catalonia they eat panellets (small cakes with a marzipan base that are covered with pine nuts, almonds, coconut, or what suits the baker's fancy); Lent is the time for buñuelos (similar to an airy fritter or profiterole); at Sant Joan (24 June) you'll see cocas topped or filled with fruit, cream or nuts; and Easter brings with it monas - child-pleasing, eye-popping displays of chocolate in any form you can imagine.
And the sweet stuff just keeps coming. In summer, when even the Mediterranean isn't cooling you off enough, head down Ronda de Sant Paul to C/Parlament, where you'll find Sirvent, one of the best places for horchata (a sweet drink made from the milk of tiger nut) in the city. Not to mention the abundance of ice cream shops. Scrumptious.
14. Take a dip in the Mediterranean
Barcelona has a little over four kilometres of beaches where you can spread out your towel, stab your umbrella into the sand, smear yourself with sun cream and find a very safe place for your rucksack. From the beach of Sant Sebastià, passing through Barceloneta, to the beaches of Nova Icària or Mar Bella - and each has its own selection of chiringuitos where you can get a refreshing respite from the sun (most also have a bit of nightlife later). And just a few minutes by train or a short drive in the car, you can take in other coastal towns with gorgeous beaches, part of the gift of the Mediterranean that just keeps giving.
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 handcrafted 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. The city offers plenty more for its gay sisters and brothers as well.
17. Celebrate with a local festival
© Pep Herrero
How long can you party non-stop? A week? Then September is a good time to visit, because the Festes de la Mercè swing into town. The celebration started life as a small religious parade but since then it has snowballed into a weeklong party celebrating Catalan culture. Performances, dazzling firework displays along the beaches, a seafront 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.
While La Mercè may be the city's biggest party, it's certainly not the only one. Nearly every neighbourhood has its own festa major celebration, and one of the biggest and most attended is in Gràcia for an entire week in mid-August. One of the main attractions, and what makes the festival special, is the street-decorating contest. Each year the neighbours outdo themselves, and we get the benefit, walking in awe through the depths of the sea made of recycled materials, a sparkling Disney fantasy world, or among giant papier-mâché dinosaurs. There are activities and events all day and night, including meals, family games and late-night outdoor concerts.
And once Gràcia's finished celebrating, it's time for the neighbourhood of Sants to take over. The setup is similar, but on a smaller scale and it's much more a local celebration by and for the residents, and doesn't bring in as many tourists or even residents of the rest of Barcelona. Nevertheless, it's another weeklong excuse to have a great time.
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 in the city's terraces. 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 a playground for children. Another option is Bar Calders, a friendly hole-in-the-wall with a terrace. There are also a number of bustling cafés with terraces along La Rambla, such as Quim de la Boqueria. And don't worry, the terraces aren't just for summer; they're open all year round.
19. Wander through the neighbourhoods
Many visitors tend to spend their days in Barcelona visiting the most central areas (the Born, the Barri Gòtic and the Eixample), but the city is so much more. Gràcia (voted best neighbourhood by the city's residents) is full of life at all hours of the day, and among its little streets you'll be able to scratch that consumer itch in its many quality shops. Sarrià, while more on the posh side, still has the charm of the small town it once was; and Montjuïc is full of parks and gardens to take a nature break away from the crowds and stroll or have a picnic. But these days, Poble-sec and Sant Antoni are definitely the places to be, especially for their top cuisine and quality entertainment.
20. Enjoy a really good party
Once you've got to know Barcelona by day, it's time to let it all hang out in the best clubs in town for an unforgettable night. You can't go wrong at Sala Apolo, with a differently themed party every day of the week (Nasty Mondays, Crappy Tuesdays, Midnight Call ...); Razzmatazz has been the temple of nightlife for years, with parties and DJ sessions in it five different rooms; Sidecar is where indie rockers have been going to get their fix for 30 years; and Magic is the quintessential Barcelona rock club. If funk and hip-hop are more your thing, your best bet is Marula.
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Barcelona by area
The city boasts seven kilometres of golden sands, running from the bustling Port Vell to the upscale Port Olímpic and beyond to the Fòrum. Inevitably, this is also where you'll find some of the city's best seafood restaurants.
A stroll through the medieval alleyways and secluded squares of the Old City is the best possible introduction to Barcelona and the starting point for most visitors upon arrival in the city.
The pedestrianised Passeig del Born, the Born's main artery, is one of Barcelona's prettiest thoroughfares, bookended by a magnificent 19th-century market building and a glorious 14th-century church.
Once a no-go area for tourists, the Raval is being transformed. Some of its gems have been around for years - Gaudí's medievalist Palau Güell was an early attempt at gentrification - but others are newer.
It's often left off visitors' itineraries, but the hill of Montjuïc merits a wander. In summer, the hill is a few degrees cooler than the city below, and its many parks and gardens are excellent places for a shady picnic.
The Eixample is a Modernista showcase: its buildings include the Sagrada Família, La Pedrera and the Hospital de Sant Pau.
Gràcia was an independent town that was swallowed up as the city spread, but it retains its own identity and is one of the most popular and vibrant districts in the city.
Sarrià was its own independent town until 1921, when it was gobbled up by Barcelona and became the city's new uptown area, not only for its geographical location but also for its more posh homes, shops and restaurants.