By: Paula Wallis
One of the things I have always loved about great European cities is their ability to move seamlessly into the present while still retaining that which made them great to begin with. Barcelona is no exception to this rule.
If you travel to places the Spanish have occupied, even for a brief period, you’ll see echoes of Barcelona. Cuba, Mexico, Morocco – all have retained some pleasing aspect that the Spaniards brought over with them. It’s no surprise that these countries
repeated Barcelona’s city planning over and over again. Barcelona is an extraordinarily well planned city. Having said that, it can be somewhat overwhelming upon first arriving in Barcelona. It’s a huge, busy, metropolitan city and it’s hard to decide where to start.
My husband and I arrived by train from Costa Brava, a coastal area about an hour and half from Barcelona by rail. We disembarked at Estacio de Sants (Barcelona Sants Station), and from there we hopped onto the Metro to take us to the city centre. We spent probably the first two hours wandering around with our rucksacks, enjoying the sunshine and soaking up the city vibe.
First things first. Finding some lodging to ditch your gear so you can properly begin exploring. Traffic in Barcelona can be quite heavy, and unless you have a particular reason for staying on the outskirts of the city, finding something in the city centre is optimal. Even the budget hostel prices here can run quite high (around 70 Euros and up) but, keep in mind that you’re paying for the location as well; saving yourself the hassle of public transit, taxis, and getting lost along the way.
We managed to find a clean, tidy hostel near La Rambla (great location!) that was a little on the pricey side, but served a free continental breakfast every morning. Small victories, people, small victories.
After taking a wander through La Rambla, enjoying a dish of Paella with a glass of wine, and tucking in for a good nights sleep, the first thing I recommend that you do with your first full day in Barcelona is to purchase a two day pass for the hop-on, hop-off bus tour. With stops all over the city, and another bus coming along every 15 minutes or so, this tour offers an inexpensive way to travel around this vast city, hitting all the major sites along the way. What we did was to grab a seat on the open air top deck, armed with a map, and take the first day to simply enjoy the ride and see the sights. We took note of those sights which we were most interested in, and used the next day to get off at all the stops we had noted the day before, skipping those that we didn’t think we’d have time to include. This ensured that we used the time we had there to do what we actually wanted to do, and the first day spent riding around in the city helped us to get our bearings.
In this article, I’ll touch base on some of the stops that interested us; but don’t let that stop you from checking out all the sights available while you’re exploring Barcelona, as we had limited time there and obviously couldn’t stop to see absolutely everything we wanted to.
Nou Camp Stadium
Being a rabid football (soccer, for you North Americans) fan, this was one stop my husband insisted that we make. I was prepared to indulge him in this, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself quite interested in the history of this famed football ground. Home to Barcelona FC, the Nou Camp Stadium (also called Camp Nou) is the third largest football pitch in the world after Sao Paulo, Brazil and Mexico City. With a fan seating capacity of upwards of 98,600, watching a match here can be an amazing experience and I’m sorry we didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Located between a maternity hospital and a cemetery, locals often state that their football matches are “between life and death.” If you’ve been to a game here, you might just agree. The stadium also houses a large football museum with a complete history of Barcelona FC. If you weren’t a football fan when you walked in here, you just might be when you leave.
La Sagrada Familia
By far the most visited tourist attraction in Barcelona, this cathedral, designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudi is a fascinating work in progress. The first stone was laid in 1882. Reports tend to differ on the expected completion date, but it seems to lie in the area of 2025-2030. Walking through and around the cathedral, it is interesting to note the changes of style in architecture as other architects took over the project through the years. The stained glass work is incredible, as are the views from the towers, which can be reached by climbing tiny spiral staircases with ancient stone walls surrounding you. The only thing I found disappointing about this was the amount of graffiti that caretakers have allowed to build up in the stairwells over the years. However, as a friend pointed out to me, graffiti is one of the most ancient forms of communication, and doesn’t that fit in with the age of the cathedral? I thought that was probably a good way to look at things, but I’d still prefer if more artistically talented graffiti artists had made their mark there, instead of random scribblers with Sharpies.
Three of the popular modernist buildings sit on the same block, known as the “Illa de la Discòrdia” (“Block of Discord”).
Casa Batllo, another famous Gaudi design, is like something of a fairy tale, inside and out, and you can see how heavily Gaudi was influenced by flowing designs found in nature.
Next door to Casa Battlo sits Casa Amatler, a gothic inspired design by Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
Casa Lleó-Morera, designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, underwent restoration beginning in 1992 and is somewhat of a medieval construction, with plenty of arches, busts, and mythical fairies.
All three of these beautiful, yet contradictory buildings can be found on the same street; Passeig de Gracia. A little further up the same street you’ll find Casa Mila, another stunning creation by Antoni Gaudi.
Also known as Las Ramblas, La Rambla is my favorite tourist attraction in Barcelona. I was delighted to find a twin of this stretch of street in Havana, Cuba, if not quite the same festive atmosphere. Comprised of a collection of various different stretches of streets with different names, La Rambla is an enjoyable stroll, be it morning, afternoon or evening. It begins at Plaza Catalunya and ends up at the Monument of Columbus at the Port Vell Harbour of Barcelona. Lined with outdoor patios ranging from casual to fine-dining and colorful street performers, it has a bit of a carnival feel to it. Each stretch of street we made our way along seemed to have a different theme; for instance, one stretch would only have caged yellow birds for sale, the next stretch flowers, the next paintings and sketches by local artists, and so on. If you’re sitting down for a nice meal and don’t wish to become part of the entertainment, however, my advice is to request a table away from the street or try your best not to make eye contact with the street performers. After sitting down to our dishes of paella and a glass of wine, I somehow ended up standing on the shoulders of a street performer as he ran up and down the street (and I was wearing a skirt, not exactly acrobatic attire), as my husband laughed and clapped along with other spectators. Not exactly the dinner I had in mind. Fun though.
Museu de L’Erotica
I’m almost embarrassed to say that, while we didn’t find the time to fit in a visit to the Picasso Museum, we did manage to find the time for the “Sex Museum.”
This was just a fun stop on La Rambla for my husband and me. It’s a fairly tame collection of “porn”, sex toys, and erotic photography from the 20’s, 30’s, and in some cases, even earlier. Certainly not on the scale of the Picasso Museum, but worth a stop, if you’re in the mood for something silly, sexy, and a little romantic.
The Olympic Harbor/Village
Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992 and revitalized the waterfront area to house the athletes during their stay. It is now a lovely neighborhood that makes for a great walking tour, with various cafes, shops and sculptures throughout. It is also populated with colorful Quaker Parrots that make their presence known as they squawk from tree to tree. The Quaker Parrots, also known as the monk parakeet, are a particularly raucous breed that only “talks” while in the air, becoming silent again once perched in a tree. It’s a non-native species that has become somewhat of a pest to locals, due to their voracious appetites, but still a draw to bird-lovers visiting the city.
The Gothic Area of Barcelona has some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings and streets in Barcelona. Roman walls and ruins can still be seen throughout the area. It’s not the only place in Barcelona you can visit Roman ruins, but it’s one of the most interesting. Stop by the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat and you can explore remnants of Roman houses and streets. There are also some extraordinary cathedrals in this area of the city. You can stroll through at your own pace or organize a guided walking tour if you’re interested in hearing the history of each site as you walk through. There are several scenic plazas to stop in and have a seat to just watch the world go by, complete with local street musicians. Also on offer are plenty of popular restaurants and cafes, should you work up an appetite doing all that walking.
I wish we’d had more time to spend in Barcelona, there are still so many sights there we didn’t have the opportunity to see. I guess there’s nothing stopping us from returning there and finishing the job on our next trip to Europe, however. If Barcelona’s not on your itinerary for your next European vacation, definitely consider adding it!
About the author:
Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com