As you might recall from my post last week, when we planned this trip, Spain was high up on our priority list. We knew that a big part of our time in Spain needed to be in the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, located in Catalonia. Why? Because it seems that everyone we know has been there and loved it!
One week is the longest time afforded to a city in our whole trip and we bestowed it upon Barcelona. We visited for 7 nights and it was a great choice! There was a lot to see and do and I feel that I really got the hang of the city (well, as much as any visitor can in a short time). Let's break it down...
I like to think about Barcelona as divided in the "super old" stuff and the "not as old, but still not new" stuff.
The Super Old Stuff
Barcelona has been inhabited for thousands of years and the heart of it, called the Gothic Quarter, currently sits on the ruins of a small Roman city. Plenty of ruins to see, mostly because parts of the city's Roman wall still exist within other buildings! As the city was ruled by different civilizations, it expanded and the whole area is narrow windy streets. This feels like much of the rest of Spain and turning a corner to discover another hidden alleyway is a delight.
The Not as Old, But Still Not New Stuff
In the 1870's, Barcelona outgrew its confines. A plan was drawn up to extend the city beyond the old sections in a very organized grid with square-shaped intersections and lots of wide avenues. This was called l’Eixample and it became primo real estate for wealthy Barcelonians as a new architectural movement primarily based in Catalonia called Modernism came into fashion.
As a Visitor...
Any tourist to Barcelona will hit up attractions in both sections of the city. The Barcelona Cathedral and the central government buildings are in the Gothic Quarter, along with one of the busiest walking streets in town - La Rambla. BUT, the most well-known attraction in the city is La Sagrada Familia and that, along with most other examples of modernism architecture are in l'Eixample.
This is great news because it means that visiting Barcelona is like visiting two cities in one!
Below are some of the highlights of the city, roughly in order of how important they are in a visit to Barcelona (only according to me, of course!).
La Sagrada Familia: No messing around, this imposing and dramatic basilica designed by modernist poster boy Antoni Gaudi is the number one thing to do in town for a reason. Believe the hype, this building is amazing. We got tickets a couple weeks in advance and did the audio guide, as well as a visit to the top of one of the towers. There's also a museum about the building and Gaudi in the basement.
Walking around the Gothic Quarter: The model of a "you pick the price" walking tour is extremely popular in Europe these days, and we had a great time on one learning about the history of the neighborhood. Seeing the Barcelona Cathedral and some ruins of the old Roman City brought history to life.
Walking the major pedestrian streets: I'm sort of torn about this. I hate fighting my way through hordes of people, so if you're like me, maybe just skip these. BUT, then again, I think walking La Rambla, Passeig de Gracia, and Plaza Catalunya at least once or twice is necessary in a visit to Barcelona. Here's an idea, go for a run in the morning along these streets when it's still quiet!
Find modernist architecture somewhere: Much of the city has modernism components, so once you know what you're looking for, you see it everywhere. That said, there are a few famous buildings to check out. By Gaudi - La Pedrera and Casa Battlo (we didn't go in these, just visited the outsides), and Park Guell (we did visit the monuments here, it's imperative to get tickets in advance). By Montaner - Palau de la musica Catalana (again just visited the outside), and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (took a tour here). The modernisme movement was fun and beautiful. It was about using inspiration from older styles and being creative. Many modernist buildings look extremely different from each other and I think that's part of the fun!
The Picasso museum: Picasso had a long relationship with Barcelona and the museum here bearing his name was created while he was still alive (although living in France). It focuses on his younger years and his training as he established himself as an artist. Don't visit thinking you'll understand his entire oeuvre - you won't. But you can understand his origins.
I want to stop here because while we did more than this, I don't want to bore you! And what good is a highlights list if it's too long? SO, one final thing: don't forget to eat and drink! There are places to eat everywhere and more bakeries per block than most cities I've seen. The wine is cheap and good and a majority of eateries have English menus. Although tapas aren't native to this part of Spain, when tourism picked up in the 1990s due to the olympics, tapas restaurants flourished. Now you can find food from all around the world in Barcelona ranging from extremely casual and cheap to Michelin-starred fine dining.
After an amazing 7 days, we are saying goodbye to Spain and heading east for the next couple of weeks: Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia!