Spain is wonderful, but Catalunya is fabulous. Barcelona remains my number two ranked destination city in the world (outranked, just barely, by Istanbul). I’m no Barcelona expert but technically I’ve been there four times: once in 2005 and three times this March and April. I invite you to comment with your favorite recommendations so I can make this a more comprehensive post! Word to the wise: except for major tourist areas (like Barri Gotic), most churches, public sites and retailers are shuttered from about 1:30-4:30 in the afternoon. Plan accordingly. For dinner, restaurants don’t usually open until 8 p.m. or after.
Barcelona has great food. It’s a foodie destination – with two restaurants earning Michelin 3 star ratings, one earning 2 stars, and 25 securing a single star. In 2005, we made the 2 1/2 hour trip north to food Mecca, El Bulli, at the time the world’s most sought after restaurant reservation. Alas, Ferran Adria closed it in 2011.
But you can eat really well, for very little money, by taking advantage of the city’s tapas’ culture. We didn’t eat in any top end restaurants (we saved our pennies for Azurmendi in Bilbao/Basque country).
- Ciudad Condal, on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes (“Gran Via” pronounced Be-ya), a couple of blocks north from Placa Catalunya and one block west of Passeig de Gracia, in l’Eixample. Belly up to the long tapas bar and point at the delicious options you want to try… or put your name in for a table… or both, as we did. The first night, we were told it would be 50 minutes to get a table, but it only took 30. Meanwhile we shared a bar stool, opened a bottle of Juve y Camps Brut Reserve cava and started ordering. The bar area is like a cross between Seattle’s Pike Place Market (“flying fish!”) and the counter at a sushi restaurant; orders are shouted out and repeated. Recommended: calamar frito (but not on Tuesday or Wednesday, oddly, because their supply goes from tender little guys to giant squid that look like onion rings – we sent the latter back), bruschetta llangostino (prawn skewer), mixto esparragus/champignons (grilled asparagus/mushrooms), timbale of esclavado (eggplant) with goat cheese (queso de cabra). Always say yes to the local “pan tomat” (bread grilled with olive oil and rubbed with tomato) and be sure to have the creme catalan. On my former trip we enjoyed the pescadito frito but one night it was prepared with small, delicious fish and the other time it looked like fish n’chips from Ivar’s. So go by the bar and see what people are getting.
- Lonja de Tapas, Placeta Montcada 5, near Santa Maria de la Mar in Barri Gotic. We stumbled across this for lunch and had delicious octopus spiced up with cayenne and served with potato as well as grilled squid and fried padron peppers (which you have to try – not hot like they would be in California or the Southwest). Reviews on Trip Advisor are a bit mixed but it was worth the visit if you visit “the Cathedral of the Sea.”
Fine dining recommendation:
- La Dama, Avenida Diagonal, 423 (near the intersection of Rambla Catalunya): My college friend, Steve, who until recently lived in Europe, describes this as “great old Barcelona house with freshly shot game birds (and fish of course).” Clearly fine dining in a very special historic building. Reservations required I imagine.
Pastry and chocolate:
- Catalunya is famous for cava (see below) and chocolate. In other words, a dream come true. Great pastry and chocolate shops are everywhere. Just walk around. The one pictured below, Epicerie, Calle Pau Claris 145, is French inspired and delicious.
Three words for what to drink in Barcelona: cava, cava, cava. It is – in my opinion (gasps from the French) as good as champagne and worlds better than Prosecco (gasps from the Italians). Most tapas restaurants offer sangria year round, but I don’t get the attraction. Sangia’s fine, but, really, it’s cava I crave. Penedès is a restricted D.O., a designation of origin, and in Barcelona, you’re right in the middle of the region that produces the best cava. There’s even a cava tourist route that takes you to area bubbly makers. The topography of Catalunya makes it a very special place for the creation of sparkling wine. You’ll find cava on every menu, and it is astoundingly affordable.
Barcelona is a feast of experiences. I’d suggest picking either the few districts you want to explore (for example, l’Eixample, Barri Gotic and the port/beach area) or prioritize by sights. This was tough, but here is my Top Three list of sights:
- Sagrada Familia – Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece is like nothing in the world. Buy tickets in advance online but prepare to be frustrated. You can tour it with a guide (which we did in 2005) but I actually prefer the audioguide because you can really take your time – but be aware that the first three listening stations are outside the basilica, before you enter. I tried for a month – every day – to purchase entry to the basilica with the option to take the elevator up one of the towers, and was never able to get the tower option working. Possible reason: the Passion tower hasn’t been open although it may open soon… or it’s just plain persnickety. Based on Trip Advisor comments, I’d say it’s the latter. You can get tower tickets on the day of your admission, if you go first thing (9 a.m.) but there will be at least a 5 hour gap/delay before you can go up the tower. Good luck.
- Palau de la Musica Catalana – Besides being a spectacular building that reflects the best of Art Nouveau architecture, the tour covers the unique history of Catalunya, and how music has been critical to restoring the beautiful, independent culture of this country (Catalunya considers itself a country, not a region of Spain). A tour is required, and in March/April, the English speaking version was offered only at 1 and 2 p.m. Check the website.
- Casa Batllo OR Park Guell – Although you will have seen Gaudi’s masterpiece if you visit the Sagrada, several other projects are open to the public and offer a different and dramatic experience. Casa Battlo is the Jules Verne inspired home Gaudi renovated for a rich industrialist. You can’t miss it if you walk the “block of discord” (you’ll see why it’s called that) on Passeig de Gracia (at Arago). It is worth the price, and has some multimedia features that are fascinating in addition to the inspiration of seeing the wildly creative interior finishes. I said “or” Park Guell if you are traveling with family. The outdoor park, designed by Gaudi, is a great destination and an easy bus ride from Passeig de Gracia to the park.
More Things to See
I can’t tell you how painful it is to cut down a list of sights to three. Ugh. If you have more time, I would add these to the list:
- A historic church (or three): Visiting one of the historic Catholic buildings (14th century) will not only be interesting to history-starved Americans, but bring the brilliance of Sagrada Familia into relief. You’ll understand how Gaudi transfigured traditional columns, arches and windows. We visited Catedral de Barcelona, Santa Maria del Mar (“Cathedral of the Sea”), and the Monastery of Pedralbes (actually a former convent) in outlying Serria. Of the three, I’d pick the Catedral. As the darkest cathedral in Europe, it is the antithesis of the Sagrada, and it has the unique feature of an elevator that allows you to visit the third story roof, which offers a panoramic view of the old city, port, Montjuic and beyond.
- Montjuic Cemetery: I’m a little strange but I think historic cemeteries are cool. I didn’t make it this time but it’s on my list if I get to visit a fifth time!
- Architectural tour of Pedrables and Serria: Through Barcelona Turisme, we booked the three hour walking tour of this outlying area (itinerary 2). The tour is limited to 12, but a party cancelled that morning and we had Ariel, the tour guide and architect, to ourselves. This tour is for people who are interested in how city planning and architecture affects culture, and understanding not just historic architecture, but modernist approaches. The tour includes a spiral bound folio with images of the sites visited and some floor plans. Among sites visited is Gaudi’s first commission, a stable and gardens for the Guell family. The hop-on, hop-off “blue line” bus route operated by Barcelona Turisme does go to Serria and stops alongside the Monastery of Pedralbes.
- Barcelona Turisme also offers a walking tour of Barri Gotic. Considering how lost we got in the Gothic quarter, that might be a good way to go!
- Futbol! You can’t go to Barcelona without seeing the stripes of FC Barcelona everywhere. Barcelona Turisme has information about tickets.
- In 2005, we made a day trip to the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres and, yes, it’s worth the trip. Crazy!!! The express train takes a couple of hours.
- Poble Espanol – A taxi driver, concierge and tourist information representative recommended seeing this attraction on the red line of the tourist hop-on, hop-off bus. It’s kind of like an old Expo site where they reconstructed the facades (just the facades) of historic buildings from throughout Spain. Skip it.
We didn’t do much shopping, but you can’t beat walking the Passeig de Gracia in Eixample for high end shopping (window or otherwise). Though there are now stores in the U.S., I love Spanish designer/retailers Desigual as well as Custo. My expectant-grandmother friend loved Babu on Caller d’Arago, 377 (check out the pictures on their Facebook page, which is in Spanish).
For value, style, service and location, we were really happy with Hotel Europark, located on Caller d’Arago halfway between the Sagrada Familia and Passeig de Gracia (5 blocks either direction). I’ll write a review on Trip Advisor soon, but we found it a great value. Depending on how many nights and whether we chose the refundable rate, we paid as much as 143 Euros/night and as little as 93.50. We went from Barcelona to Bilbao/Rioja, returned for a night, bopped down to Granada for the weekend and came back for two nights, so we stayied in three different superior twin rooms. Consistently great. Not the Mandarin Oriental but we didn’t pay anything close to those rates!
There’s an App for That (Plus Social Media)
If You Go…
Tell me about your favorites when you return!