Barcelona Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Barcelona is one of the largest cities in Spain and one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Combining the experience of a large metropolis with gorgeous beaches, Barcelona truly has it all. In fact, with about 5 million people living in this city, Barcelona is the largest one on the Mediterranean Sea.
Barcelona Travel Guide
Table of Contents

As capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia, Barcelona is an important economic and cultural center with a vast history. There are many legends surrounding the beginnings of this great city, many of them entailing powerful gods. Historically speaking, Barcelona was founded in the Middle Ages under the Roman Empire’s influence and quickly became one of the most important cities in Western Europe.

Despite its large area, Barcelona can easily be discovered by foot or hiring a bike. However, the city has a very efficient public transportation system that connects all the major touristic attractions.

Since it has such a large variety of highlights, tourists have the opportunity to see and experience many different facets of the Catalonian culture. Barcelona’s architecture has been completely reinterpreted in the late 19th century and early 20th century under the close supervision of famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. His impressive collection of buildings speeded throughout the city are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one of the most sought after highlight of this city.

Barcelona is also one of the largest ports at the Mediterranean Sea, offering its visitors the opportunity to relax at beach, in the city’s district La Barcelonetta. The capital of Catalonia has also been a very important source of inspiration for some of the most famous artists of the last two centuries. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro spent most of their time here finding their muse on the city’s eclectic streets.

All in all, Barcelona is a traveler’s dream destination. There are so many treasures to be discovered in this great city, the only problem will be picking your favorite – from astonishing architecture and delicious cuisine, to breathtaking cityscapes and welcoming locals that will make you stay even more enjoyable.

1. Las Ramblas

Las Ramblas Avenue is the perfect place to discover what Barcelona is all about. The shops, the buildings and the locals swarming the famous boulevard are the perfect first impression for any tourist. Starting from Plaça Catalunya, the pedestrian boulevard ends up in Port Vell, by the seafront, separating Barri Gotic and El Raval neighborhoods. For more than 1 kilometer tourists get to experience some of Barcelona’s best traits, from fancy restaurants and art galleries to farmer’s markets and colorful architecture.

Originally, this street was a river lined with dozens of beautiful buildings. Throughout the time, the river dried up and most of the buildings were demolished and in their place other edifices, much larger and impressive, were erected. The name Las Ramblas is a plural since the boulevard is comprised of 5 shorter streets, each named La Rambla. Therefore, as tourists make their way towards the sea they pass through Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla dels Caputxins and finally Rambla de Santa Mònica.

Since this avenue is such a popular touristic spot, many street performers spend their entire day putting on different performances and showcasing their talents. By far the most popular are the living statues, which line Las Ramblas from the early hours of the morning until late into the night. On this avenue there are also several museums, like the Wax Museum or Erotica Museum. In addition, some of the most sophisticated and famous restaurants open their doors here for foodies in search for the best seafood or tapas.

Las Ramblas is also a very popular shopping avenue with luxury boutiques and one of the largest shopping center in Spain, right next to the avenue. However, the most beloved spot is Mercat de la Boqueria in Rambla de Sant Josep. A large food market decorated in an Art Deco style, the building can be easily spotted by the large dragon at the entrance. Here, tourists and locals alike are delighted to find fresh produce and many delicatessens from all over the world. Don’t be afraid by the crowds, there is no better place to enjoy a little snack or simply buy food for a delicious picnic by the beach.

The famous painter Joan Miro, who was born and lived most of his life in Barcelona, left its mark on this boulevard. In fact, thousands of people literally walk all over his work, most of them without even knowing. Near the colorful buildings of Liceu Theatre and Mercat de la Boqueria, those who pay close enough attention will discover Miro’s circular tile mosaic right in the middle of the street. The mosaic is even signed by the artist; the trick is to find the tile with the signature.

2. Barcelona’s Architectural Treasures

Barcelona has one of the most eclectic and colorful architecture, mostly thanks to Antoni Gaudi, the architect who initiated the Modernist architectural style, after transitioning from his Art Nouveau period. His work can be spotted throughout the city from famous cathedrals to apartment buildings. For tourists with a penchant for architecture Barcelona is basically an open air museum with many treasures just waiting to be discovered.

However, Gaudi is not the only architect that left his fingerprint over this city’s landscape. Several Modernist artists have designed awe inspiring buildings that attract millions of curious tourists every year.

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century the number of rich upper class families begun to grow. During this period, as a result of the industrial boom, Barcelona went through a large reconstruction program, the perfect excuse for architects to play and experiment with different styles and solutions. In just a few years more and more buildings were being erected in the northern side of the city center, creating a brand new district called the Eixample.

One of the most recognizable buildings in this neighborhood is Gaudi’s Casa Mila, known locally as La Pedrera. The edifice was built for a wealthy businessman and his wife, and it was named after them. At the time, La Pedrera was considered a truly innovative building. It was one of the first edifices with an underground garage, but what is so special about the design is the undulated façade with the cast iron balconies. De decorations are very unique as well and the entire building can easily be spotted among the rest of the lesser inventive architecture. Casa Mila was intended as a residential building and even to this day parts of it are still private apartments, while some spaces are being used as exhibition areas.

Another noteworthy building, which happens to be very close to La Pedrera, is Casa Batllo. A very colorful building crammed between others, right on Passeig de Gràcia. However, this edifice was not built from the ground up, it was an old house redesigned by Gaudi at the beginning of the 20th century. This is one of the few buildings that Gaudi actually finished and even redesigned all the interiors. The windows and the balconies have a fluid oval shape while the roof is arched and very colorful. Most passers-by will notice the roof looks more like the back of a dragon.

Modernist architecture was not just for residential buildings. Hospital de Sant Pau, a former 15th century hospice, was one of the most beautiful hospitals in Europe until 2009. That is when the entire building went through a major reconstruction process that is still ongoing and, at the end, it will become a museum. The building was redesigned at the beginning of the 1900’s by another famous Catalan architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The entire building looks more like a cathedral than an actual hospital, especially because of the large dome roof over the entrance. However, for decades, Hospital de Sant Pau was a functional hospital with spacious grounds and tunnels that linked all the pavilions for easy access for patients and medical staff.

Gaudi’s building are scattered throughout the entire city of Barcelona, some more famous than the others. Among them, the Bellesguard building is a true manor located on the Collserola Mountain. The building offers visitors not just a remarkable architectural example but also a great view of the city. One of the first important works of Gaudi is Casa Vicens, a sizeable house with a strong Moorish influence. The façade is decorated with ceramic tiles with floral patterns made by the first owner of Casa Vicens.

Another Modernist building that has to be on any tourist’s must see list is the Castle of the Three Dragons. Now part of the Zoological Museum, the building made entirely out of red brick and sheet iron was constructed as part of a major exhibition that took place in Parc de la Ciutadella in 1888. The edifice was built as an actual medieval castle by Domènech i Montaner and is decorated with thousands of ceramic tiles.

3. Barcelona’s Beaches

Barcelona attracts millions of tourists not just because of its eclectic architecture and culture, but also for its beaches. Despite being such a large metropolis, Barcelona also has several great beaches, perfect for a relaxing vacation, just a few minutes away from the city center. For more than 4 kilometers, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea splash the golden sand for the pleasure of tourists and locals alike.

The swimming season starts in mid-March and ends in mid-November, but a few moments at the beach are enjoyable no matter the weather. All beaches in the city were awarded the EU blue flag of excellence for water quality and services, and Barcelona has even received the title of best beach city in the world.

There are nine beaches in Barcelona, but three of them are the most popular. La Barceloneta is an actual neighborhood bordered by the Mediterranean and it’s mostly famous for its fabulous beach and seafood restaurants. Locals and tourists practice many different watersports here, but most of them simply prefer to lie in the sun or swim. When night falls, La Barceloneta becomes alive with music and people in search for a good time. Here you’ll find some of the most popular night clubs and bars in the entire city. La Barceloneta is basically the hotspot of Barcelona’s nightlife.

In the Ciutat Vella district, those in search for a more secluded place choose Sant Sebastià beach. This is the place where mostly locals come to the seaside and it’s the longest beach in Barcelona. Nova Icária is more popular for younger crowds, especially since it is very close to Icária shopping center.

Every single beach has something different to offer, whether it’s the perfect spot for windsurfing, or for a picnic by the sea. During different holidays, locals put on shows and parades by the seafront for the enjoyment of tourists.

4. Columbus Monument

Just a few meters from La Barceloneta, the monument of famous explorer Christopher Columbus shows the right way towards the sea to confused tourists. The monument is located at the end of the Las Ramblas Avenue, right in the middle of Plaça de la Porta de Pau and it can’t be missed. Every tourist with a penchant for traveling must pay his respects to the ultimate traveler.

The statue of Columbus sits on a 60 meter tall column overlooking the sea and pointing towards it. Though Columbus most famous voyage was the one during which he discovered America, he’s not pointing towards the new continent, but towards the place where he was born, the city of Genoa.

The monument was designed by Gaietà Buigas i Monravà for the exhibition of 1888 and it is set on a stone pedestal decorated with several allegorical figures. The actual statue of Columbus was sculpted by Rafael Atché and it sits at the top of a column, known as the Mirador de Colom. Visitors who are not afraid of heights can take the elevator inside the column all the way to the top and enjoy a breathtaking view over the city, from the bustling Las Ramblas to the glistening harbor and Montjuic hill.

The actual location of the monument was not randomly chosen. This is the very place where Columbus arrived in 1493 after he discovered America. The monument is also a reminder of the fact that Christopher Columbus traveled with help of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, even though it’s thought that he was born in Genoa, Italy.

Today, the monument is a magnet for curious tourists that brave the heavy traffic in Placa del Portal de la Pau to get as close as possible to the famous explorer.

5. Sagrada Familia

One of the most famous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi is actually a cathedral – La Sagrada Familia. Though it was never finished, this Roman-Catholic church is one of the most popular highlights of Barcelona.

The giant basilica has been under construction since 1882 and it’s unlikely to be completed in the near future. Gaudi took over the project a year after the construction started and added many Gothic and Art Nouveau features, inspired by several other cathedrals in Barcelona.

The difference between the three facades can easily be spotted by any visitor as each has a particular theme. Gaudi played a very active role in the designing and construction of the church until his death in 1926. He was very peculiar with every single detail of this architectural wonder and he made sure everything was exactly as he envisioned it. Though Gaudi didn’t left too many plans and sketches for the future church, a team of world renowned architects completed Gaudi’s project after a long documentation period.

It is expected that when the building will finally be completed, La Sagrada Familia will have a total of 18 towers, each representing the twelve Apostles, four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

Each of the three very different facades has a name. The first one that faces east is called the Nativity Façade. This part was actually finished by Gaudi, in a Baroque style, and features many plants and animals motifs.

The second façade, that faces west, is called the Passion Façade and the actual construction started in 1954, decades after Gaudi’s death. This side features sculptures of the crucified Christ carved with straight lines that resemble a skeleton. The exterior faces the setting sun which only dramatizes more the entire scene.

The third and main one is the Glory Façade, which is also the most striking of the three. The work on this side started in 2002 and it’s not yet finished. The façade that faces south will be decorated with idols, demons and false gods representing life, death and purgatory.

As striking as the exterior of La Sagrada Familia is, the interior is even more dramatic. Though the church is far from finished, visitors can see the inside of the building including the crypt where Gaudi is buried. The most astonishing feature of La Sagrada Familia’s interior is definitely the central nave with its many pillars and the beautiful vaulting.

The two towers that are finished, the Passion tower and the Nativity tower, can be visited using the elevator installed inside each of them. From there visitors get to enjoy another great view over the city.

6. Park Guell

Another famous landmark designed by Antoni Gaudi is Park Guell. The public park is not exactly a regular park. Apart from its several gardens, Guell features stone structures with very peculiar shapes. The area has many beautiful elements, from sculptures covered in colorful tiles to walkways with funny looking pillars and terraces that offer striking views over Barcelona.

The park took 14 years to build, from the very beginning of the 20th century, and it was initially a housing estate inspired by the English garden city movement, hence the name of the landmark that is written in English. The purpose of the initial project was to create a residential area outside the old town surrounded by nature and fresh air. In the end, only two buildings were erected here and neither one was designed by Gaudi. When the famous modernist architect took over the project, the park became a personal playground for him and he didn’t refrain from any idea he had, no matter how strange it might have been.

Also, Gaudi decided to move into one of the two building initially constructed, which now is called “la Torre Rosa”, and which contains some of the furniture designed by the architect.

The most important feature of the Guell park is the terrace which is lined by a large bench covered in multicolored tiles. The bench has many curves and snakes around the main area from where visitors usually gadder to admire gorgeous views over Barcelona. During sunny days, people can even spot La Sagrada Familia and even the Montjuic hill.

Another popular element is the dragon statue covered in more colored tiles that guards the main entrance of the Guell Park. From there visitors usually set their sights on the walkway supported by 86 strange looking pillars that resemble actual tree trunks, also known as the hypostyle hall. The ceilings of these structures are covered in colored tiles as well which form intricate patterns. That is why most visitors spend quite some time looking up admiring the ingenious designs.

For those who plan on walking or taking the subway in order to get to Guell, the actual park is perched up on a hill, which will take about 20 minutes to climb by foot. Some parts of the park are free to enter, but in order to visit the best areas visitors have to pay a fee. Also, the entrance for the Gaudi’s house has a separate entrance fee, but is worth seeing the imaginative furniture Gaudi created throughout his life.

7. Palace of Catalan Music

One of the many impressive Art Nouveau buildings that are spread throughout the city is the Palace of Catalan Music known as Palau de la Musica Catalana. Designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the palace is an impressive architectural landmark. Initially it was built for a choral society, Orfeo Catalan, one of the leading cultural movements in the final decades of the 19th century, which still perform in this venue to this day.

The actual building is crammed between several other, far less interesting buildings, on the Carrer de Sant Francesc de Paula. Today, the palace is still a fully functional music hall, but it’s mostly popular because of its original design. The steel-framed structure plays with the light in a very smart way, giving the entire building a fairytale like ambience.

The most popular area in the palace is the Concert Hall, a 2,146 seat venue with ornate glass roof through which small colorful rays of light infiltrate, filling the hall with even more color. Here is where most concerts take place. The central metal structure turns this venue into a veritable music box with excellent acoustics. The almost perfect proportions, the breathtaking skylight and the luxurious décor turned this venue into the most sought after concert hall.

Another well-known space is the Little Palace (Petit Palau) a smaller venue built a few years ago, that perfectly matches the rest of the old building.

Visitors can enjoy one of the many concerts and recitals that take place in the palace almost every day, but for a closer look at the magnificent detailing of this building, visitors should definitely book a private tour. That’s how they’ll be able to take in every single beautiful detail, from the ornate façade to the colorful stained glass. Not to mention the fact that visitors have the chance to walk up on the stage and experience the entire venue form the performer’s perspective.

8. Montjuic

One of the most beautiful areas in Barcelona has to be Montjuic, an actual mountain inside the city. This area has some of the most important touristic attractions, from lush gardens to museums, a castle and the famous Magic Fountain.

Montjuic was selected to host a World Fair at the beginning of the 20th century and therefore several buildings were erected and many other refurbished. The entire side of the hill that overlooks Placa d’Espanya was completely modified with large staircases that lead to Palau Nacional. In front of this impressive building, the Magic Fountain, designed by Carles Buigas, greets thousands of curious visitors that try to discover the wonders of this neighborhood.

The fountain was completed in 1929, but only 50 years later the music was incorporated within the light show. The impressive fountain showcases its spectacle of music and lights during summertime, for the enjoyment of tourists. What is more, the Palau Nacional in the background is also illuminated to create a truly magical atmosphere.

For some of the most breathtaking views over Placa d’Espanya, tourists climb all the way to the esplanade at the Palau Nacional or the National Palace. From the entrance of this building, visitors get a truly exciting panorama over the fountain, Reina Maria Cristina Avenue and the twin Venetian Towers. These 47 meters high towers mark the entrance to Montjuic and were modeled after the campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica in Piazza San Marco, in Venice.

The palace itself took three years to be built and it had the same purpose as the Magic Fountain – the World Fair. This was the main venue for the exhibition and nowadays it hosts the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The building was the combined effort of three architects and it was designed in a Baroque style, with a central dome surrounded by several towers. Inside there are many rooms, each decorated in a unique style. The dome is features a large fresco that represents four fields that symbolize Spain’s culture: Science, the Fine Arts, Religion and Land. The Great Hall is lined by large decorated columns that support the massive vault over the entire space, while the Throne Room is covered in different colored marbles.

After the world fair was long over, in 1934, Palau Nacional received another purpose – it became The Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya also known as the MNAC. Here art lovers get to discover one of the most extensive art collections in Europe, basically almost 1.000 years of Catalan art, from the Gothic and Renaissance period to pieces from 19th and 20th century.

Near the National Palace, tourists have the opportunity to discover a collection of houses built in different Spanish architectural styles, known as the Spanish village or Poble Espanyol. This project was also designed for the World Fair and it contains a large range of architectural styles form Basque Country to Andalusia, Aragon and Galice. In this area there are also many bars and restaurants, which were built years after the fair ended, because the village became very popular. Poble Espanyol is a little universe on its own that can keep a tourist occupied for hours.

The oldest part of Motjuic is the castle with the same name, a massive 18th century military fortress. On the site of the actual castle used to be another fortification, which was erected in 1640 and demolished in the 18th century. Then another castle was built in its place. Two centuries later the building became a military museum which was opened until 2009, when it was turned into a venue for different cultural activities.

The Montjuic hill used to be largely unattended before the World Fair at the beginning of the 20th century. After the fair’s venues were erected, around them designers begun thinking about how to take advantage of the beautiful nature that covered the hill’s slopes. Since then, several botanical gardens were laid out, the most popular one being Nou Jardí Botànic, with more than 2,000 different species of plants. Another beloved sport for tourists and locals alike is the Jardins de Mossèn Costa i Llobera, mostly because of its large cacti collection.

In 1992 Barcelona hosted the Olympics Games and for that special occasion the municipality built the Anella Olímpica, the Olympic Ring, a large stadium with several sport facilities that were used during the games. Another staple of that event is the Olympic Tower also known as the Calatrava Tower, which can be seen from the majority of places in Barcelona, perched on top of Montjuic Hill.

Tourist with an excellent physical condition can visit Montjuic and all its treasures by foot. However, there are several options for those who don’t have the time or the energy to walk all the way to the top. There’s a funicular from Barcelona Metro Paral·lel station, that reaches the top of the hill and also a gondola lift. On the eastern side of the hill, the Port Vell Aerial Tramway connects Montjuic with La Barcelonetta neighborhood.

9. Camp Nou

Spaniards are huge football fans and it’s no wonder that one of the largest cities in the country can brag with one of the most successful football teams in the country and even in the world. And such a great team deserves a stadium to match. Camp Nou is the largest stadium in Europe and home of the popular FC Barcelona football team. So it’s an imperative for any football fan, no matter its allegiance, to visit this emblematic building.

The stadium was inaugurated with a friendly match in 1957, after it took three years, more than three times the original budget and three architects in order to be completed. In the early 70’s the stadium hosted its first European Cup Winners Cup and in 1982 Camp Nou hosted FIFA World Cup. In anticipation to this prestigious event, the stadium underwent massive expansions.

In fact, throughout the years, Camp Nou was expanded and refurbished several times and in consequence, from the original capacity of 93,053 seats, today Camp Nou can accommodate 99,354 fans, making it the largest stadium in Europe.

Camp Nou comes to life as soon as the referee blows the first whistle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not spectacular on its down time as well. And since the football culture has such a special place in Barcelona’s background, it’s not surprising that Camp Nou also houses a museum.

Therefore, visitors have two main options. They can explore the stadium, including the locker room, the chapel where many players spend time before matches, the press box which offers a panoramic view over the entire stadium and the players’ tunnel. Also football fans can learn more about the team’s history in the designated museum. There fans can admire all the trophies FC Barcelona won throughout its long history, but also objects with a special significance, like Maradona’s Barcelona shirt or the ball used in a 1958 game.

10. Santa Maria del Mar

Barcelona is a veritable playground for architecture buffs, whether they are more interested in the Art Nouveau style of Gaudi or in the Gothic cathedrals scattered throughout this great city. One breathtaking example of a Gothic style cathedral is Santa Maria del Mar in the La Ribera district. This church is at the top of every must see list in Barcelona, even though it’s a little further away from the city center.

The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and it took 54 years to be built by master builder Berenguer de Montagut. At that time, that was practically a record, especially since, during the Middle Ages, cathedrals of this size took more than a century to be finished. In 1383, when the very last stone of this monumental building was laid, the actual church was a lot closer to the sea, hence its name.

The massive exterior is emphasized by the narrow streets of the La Ribera district, and the actual façade was designed with rigorous lines and simple detailing. The sober exterior makes a stark contrast with the flamboyant and colorful interior. The plan of the cathedral is made out of a large nave and two parallel aisles and since it is barely decorated, the cathedral seems even larger and massive from the inside. The stained-glass windows that decorate the facades let in colorful beams of light that enhance the ribbed vault and the slender columns that support it.

Throughout its history Santa Maria del Mar was partially destroyed by fires, earthquakes and wars, that is why the interior is so sparsely decorated. However, intricate stained-glass windows have survived form several periods between 15th and 18th century. The most exquisite stained-glass window is the large rose one above the main entrance. The rose depicts the crowning of Mary and is flanked by two thin towers. Around the cathedral there are also several small chapels that form cloisters around the wide nave.

Santa Maria del Mar became even more popular when a prolific writer from Barcelona, Ildefonso Falcones, chose this location as the background for one of his best-selling novels. In his book he describes in great detail the process of erecting this great cathedral. That is why this book can give an even greater insight into the tumultuous past of this massive cathedral.