Barcelona is the most popular destination in Spain for American tourists, and one of the most popular in all of Europe. After only a day or two there, it will be easy to see why. The city offers great weather, incredible food, access to beaches and mountains, fascinating architecture and cultural gems, and some of the nicest and most laid-back people anywhere.
Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia, and Spain’s second largest city. It has something for everyone, and makes an easy introduction to Spanish culture for those looking to dip a toe in. It’s also a city that can be experienced in just a few days, though more is better, and you may not want to leave. In this guide, we will attempt to give you the information you need to know in order to plan a trip to this gem of the Mediterranean.
Click on the links throughout this guide for other Barcelona content here at The Royal Tour.
The city has a gorgeous waterfront.
Barcelona is a fairly easy city to fly into from the US, with direct flights from nearly all East Coast hubs, and even some on the West Coast (like a direct flight from Los Angeles on LEVEL, Iberia’s low cost affiliate). From the airport, it is about a 30-45 minute direct bus in to either Plaza d’Espana or another ten minutes to Plaza Catalunya, both of which connect to several metro lines that can take you anywhere you need to go in the city.
If you are arriving by train (likely from Madrid), you’ll most likely come into Sants Station. To access the metro from there, you’ll have to exit the station and cross the street. Just follow the people, since signage isn’t great.
Plaza Catalunya, one of the main squares and the probable end of your bus from the airport
Barcelona has a pretty extensive metro system, one of the largest in the world. However, for the most part, if you are in decent shape to walk a few miles, you won’t need it. The city is mainly flat, and features wide boulevards that cut through the main areas, making pedestrian navigation a fairly easy process.
You’ll also want to walk, as one of the highlights of Barcelona is the architecture, which is not visible from the subway. If you do take the metro, it is €2.40 and includes a basic transfer.
Also, remember that Lyft and Uber don’t exist in Spain, so you’ll need a local app.
Why take the metro when you can walk streets like this?
Where to Stay
Barcelona is set up largely as a grid, though it’s a grid a bit off-kilter as it runs from northwest to southeast. Running down roughly the center of this axis is the Passeig de Gracia, which connects the Gracia neighborhood to Plaza Catalunya, there becoming the famous La Rambla and continuing to the sea. You’ll want to stay as close to the Passeig de Gracia as you can, between Gracia and the Plaza Catalunya, in order to be able to easily walk to nearly every sight you’ll want to visit.
There are ample properties by US hotel chains in Barcelona, both in the area mentioned, and a bit further, off of Ave Diagonal, an easy metro ride away. Alternatively, consider an Airbnb. I stayed in an Airbnb in Gracia itself, and while it was about a half hour walk to the old parts of the city, it was an easy and lovely walk, so I didn’t mind. Plus Gracia is a pretty hipster neighborhood, with a lot going on.
What a beautiful city!
What to Do
Barcelona is not a cultural capital in Spain. For palaces, monuments, museums, and the like, go to Madrid or Seville. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to do and to see.
For me, the best part of the city is the architecture. Most of it can be seen for free, just walking down the Passeig de Gracia. However, there are some sights that are worth paying to tour. Most of these are the buildings of Antoni Gaudi, some of which I love and some of which I truly can’t stand. Most, however, are pretty ridiculously overpriced to see. If you choose one, I know it sounds cliche, but choose the Sagrada Familia. From the outside it is overwhelming, but the inside is just amazing and worth the entrance fee. Plus the audio tour is exceptional. (While you are looking at cool buildings from the outside, make sure to swing by the Palau de la Musica Catalana, and if you can see a show there, do it.)
Make sure to go to another of Gaudi’s designs, the Parc Guell. Paying for the “interesting part” of the park is not worth it. Rather, climb up the hill for the best view of the city in a cool green space.
Whether or not you like Picasso, the Picasso Museum is worth a visit. It shows the amazing range of the artist, from his classical training to his cubist stuff. In particular, check out his series depicting his own version of Velazquez’ Las Meninas. Truly amazing!
Visit Plaza Catalunya and then walk all the way down La Rambla to the waterfront. It is crowded and overly touristy, but a cool experience. Just keep your belongings safe as it is a pickpocket’s paradise.
Beyond this, just enjoy the laid back attitude, nice weather, the multitude of beautiful parks and squares, and friendly people. Barcelona is truly about quality of life over anything else. Live it up!
Sagrada Familia is probably the one “must-visit”
What to Eat
Like all of Spain, Barcelona has amazing tapas, small plates that are meant to be ordered in bulk. Sometimes they are free with the purchase of drinks, sometimes not.
Paella. Eat paella. Eat a lot of paella. Rice with saffron, seafood, meat, veggies, it comes in many varieties. Try them all. Seriously. With sangria.
If you are in Barcelona in the late winter or early spring, there is a Catalan delight called calçot. It consists of charred spring onions and romesco sauce. You peel away the charred layer of the onions, revealing the soft sweet part below, dip them into the romesco, and eat, trying not to make a larger mess than needed.
Other Useful Information
When arriving in Barcelona, you might not recognize the weird form of Spanish being spoken. Well, that’s because it isn’t Spanish. The official language is Catalan, and speakers here are mixed. It is understandable for those fluent in Spanish (mostly) but a different language. Spanish is acceptable, though, and English is widely spoken.
You might find yourself in a protest here. That’s because there is an independence movement in the region. Learn about it here.
Barcelona leads the world in petty crime, like pickpocketing. It’s an issue, although it shouldn’t stop you from visiting. But be careful.
Want to know how NOT to plan a trip to Barcelona? Read this how-to by Madeleine Klingler.
The Catalan independence flags fly all over
Barcelona is one of the most amazing cities I’ve visited, though it has a very different vibe from most of Spain. Laid back, fairly modern (in comparison), and with a stunning mix of coastal casual and hip, it is a place that should be on everyone’s travel wish-list. I hope this guide helps give you a bit of help in planning your Barcelona getaway.
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