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Barcelona remains one of the most popular cities in Europe. But it wasn’t always that way. Only after the end of the Franco dictatorship, and with the help of the 1992 Olympics, the spotlight turned back onto the magnificent Catalan capital.
Here you’ll find fantastic architecture, from the thirteenth century Gothic splendour of the Cathedral, to the modernisme of Antoni Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. You’ll find the splendid “manzana de discordia”, with some of the finest examples of design by Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, on Passeig de Gràcia. Further up you’ll aslo find “La Pedrera”, also by Gaudí. And don’t forget his Sagrada Familia church, still incomplete after more than a century of construction, and Parc Güell. There are many examples throughout the city.
But Barcelona is also a modern city and some neighbourhoods are unrecognisable from even a decade ago. The people have an independent streak and are fiercely proud of their culture. It is a city that is at its heart Catalan, yet as with all cities of its size, it is cosmopolitan too. Street signs are marked in Catalan, yet many inhabitants have arrived from all over Spain and from the former Spanish Empire.
And it is a city with plenty going on. There is no shortage of places to eat or drink and to suit all budgets. There is street entertainment of all kinds on the Ramblas. And many of the biggest names in music play in one of Barcelona’s live music venues. Then there is the jazz festival, lovers of electronic music flock to Sonar, and Primavera Sound features local and international bands. And lovers of opera can attend performances at the Gran Teatre del Liceu on the Ramblas.
It is often said that Barcelona is a city with its back to the sea. But today the city has embraced the Mediterranean too, with large stretches of beach stretching up from Barceloneta towards the Forum area. Here you can swim and sunbathe, or grab a beer and a bite to eat while people watching or staring out to sea.
Use the interactive map below to find the major sightseeing attractions, transport, where to eat and drink and other entertainment. You can zoom in and if you view it on your smartphone you can use it to navigate around while visiting Barcelona.
If you’re travelling To Barcelona from the United Kingdom or America it’s likely you’ll arrive by air. But flying is not the only option from within Europe. Since the advent of Spain’s high speed train, the AVE, Barcelona now has direct high speed rail links with Paris, Madrid, and the south of Spain. In fact the AVE has largely replaced the once frequent air shuttle between Barcelona and Madrid.
Barcelona is well served by the airport at El Prat, just 12 kilometres from Barcelona city centre. Capacity was dramatically increased with the opening of a new terminal in 2009, making it the fifth largest air terminal in the world.
Today the old terminal buildings are used primarily by low cost operators attracted by low landing fees, including EasyJet and Ryanair. Ryanair now uses Barcelona Airport as a hub to connect with many other European cities but still uses both Girona-Costa Brava Airport, and to a lesser extent Reus. Both these airports require a bus to transport you the final 100 kilometres into Barcelona.
To check your flight options check Kayak.com. The site compares different airlines, including the budget operators, to help you find your best option.
On landing at Barcelona Airport there are a number of options for getting into the city.
The bus is a convenient and low cost way to get into the city. There are a number of options though; the Aerobus runs every 12 minutes from both terminals direct into Barcelona and costs around €6 for a single ticket. Much cheaper is the regular TMB service, although it is not as frequent and lacks the dedicated luggage space as the Aerobus. And between 10 pm and 5 am you’ll have to use the night buses that run every 20 minutes from both terminals.
The railway station is right next to Terminal 2, but if you are flying into Terminal 1 you need to bear in mind the train is 4 kilometres away. To get there you can take the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2, which runs every 6 or 7 minutes throughout the day and takes around quarter of an hour. Every 30 minutes the bus also stops next to the station to coincide with the arrival of the train.
Taxis are readily available, but you may have to queue for some time, but check to see if there is another taxi rank with a shorter queue. There is a supplement and the minimum fee is €20. However, the cost will be more like €30 from Terminal 1 or €25 from Terminal 2.
The final two options are minibus shuttle and private transfer. You need to arrange either of these prior to travel. To really arrive in style check out the chauffeured limo service offered by AirportAndGo.
Until fairly recently the rail connection into Catalonia from France was fairly limited. That all changed with the opening of the high speed train, which stops at Figueres, Girona and Barcelona. Travelling at speeds of up to 300 kph, the AVE connects Barcelona with Madrid in as little as 2½ hours. And Paris is less than seven hours away.
Using the AVE requires pre-booking and is more similar to flying than taking the regular train. Airport style security checks are in place and so expect your baggage to be x-rayed prior to boarding. The big advantage over flying is that you travel direct from city centre to city centre. From Sants Station you can easily get a taxi to your hotel, or use the metro.
Although flights are cheap enough for most people to be able to fly to Barcelona, anyone who prefers to avoid flying may wish to travel by bus instead. Although options are fairly limited and it takes an entire day to get there, this remains an options for some.
There are a number of coach operators, including National Express.
By road you can reach Barcelona from France via the AP7 toll road. The city can also be reached from the south of Spain by the AP7 via Alicante and Valencia, while the city is reached from Madrid via Zaragoza and Lleida. The toll roads are pretty good but traffic can get heavy out of the city on Friday evenings and then back into the city on Sundays. Avoid these times if you can.
But while it is straightforward to drive to Barcelona, it is easier use public transport within the city. The metro, trams and buses are all relatively cheap and offer a much easier way of getting around without the cost or hassle of parking.
While just a decade ago Barcelona had no cruise industry to speak of, today some of the biggest cruise ships in the world dock in the cruise port. It is estimated that cruises bring in excess of €2 million revenue per day to Barcelona.
The cruise terminal is located at the bottom of Raval and a short distance from the Ramblas. Many people either start or end their cruises with a few days in Barcelona and need to travel from the cruise port to their hotel. The best option is to take a taxi.
Where to stay
Barcelona has a huge supply of accommodation thanks to the tourism boom of the last 15 years. While at one point there was a distinct lack of hotel rooms, the city now has more than enough accommodation. Some hotels are purpose built but former palaces have also been converted to provide luxury accommodation. The only time the city is at capacity these days is for the Mobile Phone Congress, the annual event that sees the likes of Mark Zuckerberg in the city.
Areas that had few hotels in the past have seen hotels (and that hybrid, the aparthotel) spring up in the middle of nowhere, such as near Sants station. You can search for hotels on Kayak.com.
But hotels are not the only option for accommodation. Firstly there are hostals, offering more basic accommodation. These are not to be confused with hostels. And youth hostels cater mainly to the young and to backpackers from around the world. Expect shared rooms and minimum facilities, but they are cheap and you get the chance to meet other young travellers and make new friends.
There are also many tourist apartments, but you need to be careful.
Many, if not most, are unlicensed and the city council is clamping down on them. And with good reason, as they are often in residential buildings and the neighbours don’t appreciate tourists partying until the small hours every night they are there.
And because of the ease of getting around, it may not matter too much what area you stay as long as it is close to the metro. However, if you are in Barcelona for a very particular reason, such as watching the football, you may want to book accommodation nearly (see the list of hotels near Camp Nou for example).
For general tourism, the Barri Gòtic is always a good choice, with a maze of narrow mediaeval streets to explore. The city walls date from Roman times and there is always plenty to see and do during day or night. But while the Ramblas can be a good location, make sure your hotel is located towards Plaça Catalunya. The bottom end closest the port becomes a red light district at night and uncomfortable to walk in the early hours.
Some good hotels in classic style include the Majestic and Casa Fuster, both on Passeig de Gràcia, and Hotel 1898 on the Ramblas. Modern hotels include Hotel Arts and W Barcelona (photo above), built in the shape of a sail right on reclaimed land right at the entrance to the harbour.
What to see and do
You may be in Barcelona to see the sights, to watch the football, or on business. You may be there for a conference, a trade show or something else entirely. Your reason for visiting and time in the city will dictate how much time you have available for sightseeing. The most common tourist sights in Barcelona are indicated on the map above. It can be used when you’re in Barcelona to find what is closest to you, wherever you are.
Some of the most popular sights include:
The square at the top of the Ramblas. Plaça Catalunya isn’t so interesting from an architectural point of view, as it is largely blighted by El Corte Ingles depertment store along one side and El Triangle shopping centre opposite. However, it is centrally located and convenient from that point of view.
Often known as “la Rambla”, this famous street stretches down from Plaça Catalunya to the port stretch and in fact consists of five separate ramblas each with its own identity. Although largely taken over by tourists, no visit to Barcelona is really complete without a stroll down the Ramblas.
While walking down the Ramblas you may wish to stop off in Plaça Reial for a drink. At night time it is full of bars, although they tend to cater for tourists rather than locals.
The Port area
The port was refurbished for the 1992 Olympics and it is easy to spend half an hour walking around looking at he boats and the sea.
In the gothic quarter or barri gòtic you’ll find narrow streets, the old city walls and tiny squares with bars. Get lost in the winding streets and stumble upon a restaurant you can call your own.
Bacelona’s gothic cathedral was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, although the façade was added in the late 19th century. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, one of Barcelona’s patron saints. 13 geese are kept at the cathedral, marking the age at which Eulalia was supposedly martyred by the Romans.
While sometimes referred to as a cathedral, Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia is a church in his organic style of modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau.
The “manzana de discordia”
Sticking with Gaudí, walk up Passeig de Gràcia from Plaça Catalunya and you’ll pass a block which has buildings by Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch next to each other.
Continue walking up Passeig de Gràcia towards Avinguda Diagonal and you’ll find Casa Mila, often known as “La Pedrera”.
For more Gaudí goodness head for Parc Güell. There is a small Gaudí museum in a house inspired by the gingerbread house in Hansel and Grettel, but you can easily spend an hour or more walking in the park and the sometimes surprising designs.
Camp Nou stadium/museum
FC Barcelona’s world famous stadium is open to the public during the day. You can visit the museum and, when not being prepared for a match, take the stadium tour. Best of all is watching the club play. You can buy tickets for FC Barcelona from Simply Barcelona Tickets.
Like any big city, Barcelona has its fair share of museums. Here you’ll find the Picaso Museum, the Nacional Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, the Maritime Museum, Barcelona History Museum and the Joan Miró Foundation among others.
See the map for more popular sights, as well as major travel hubs, restaurants and night life.
If you’re time is limited a surprisingly good option is the tour bus. You get a good overview of what the city is about and you don’t even need to get off. However, you can get off at any sights you want to explore along the way and hop back on the next tour bus once you’re done. It’s reasonably cheap too.
Barcelona has a integrated public transport network and is easily the best way to get around the city. On week days the metro runs from 5 am until midnight. The service is extended until 2 am on Friday nights and the eve of public holidays and all night on Saturday.
The timetable for buses varies, but there is also a night bus service. The tram system is more limited, but is modern and allows you to travel between Vila Olímpica and Badalona and along Avinguda Diagonal between Francesc Macià and the west of Barcelona
Multi-use tickets are available at metro stations. The T-10 travel card allows ten trips on metro, bus or tram, but any changes you make within a 75 minute time frame, for example from metro to bus, will be counted as a single trip. And one T-10 card can be shared between two or more people, you don’t each need one.
If you travel with a T-10 on the bus or tram you’ll need to validate your ticket. You do this by inserting the ticket into the machines located in various places on the buses, once for each person travelling on the ticket. If you don’t have a valid ticket you can buy one from the driver.
Taxis are fairly cheap too, but there seems to be a culture among many taxi drivers about not wanting to pro-actively find business. One enterprising taxi driver spoken to specialises in waiting outside concert venues. She has an easy client base and almost no competition.
But all too often there is no taxi anywhere in sight. But if you arrive at Sants station there are plenty of taxi drivers who queue for hours to wait until it is their turn at the front of the taxi queue. The story is the same at the airport.
Surely they realise that they could actually work fewer hours by finding other places where people are looking for taxis.
Food and drink
Barcelona is full of restaurants and just about anything you could want is on offer. Many bars serve tapas, and there are a good number of Basque tapas bars where you can eat some really tasty morsels while drinking. The price can quickly add up though and it is usually cheaper to eat at a restaurant.
There are many places offering typical Spanish or Catalan cuisine, including paella. The quality can vary enormously, but Barceloneta is renowned for its seafood. And there are several highly regarded restaurants offering a modern take on Catalan cuisine.
Catalan basics include things like pa amb tomàquet (bread smeared with tomato, salt and olive oil), botifara (a spicy pork sausage), escalivada (roasted red peppers, onion or aubergine). Other dishes include mar i muntanya (sea and mountain), combining meat with seafood, specialities like calçots, a type of spring onion that is cooked on an open fire and served with a sauce, and suquet, a seafood casserole.
Language and culture
As the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona has two official languages. These are Catalan and Castilian, the latter which is often called just “Spanish”. Many Barcelona residents are not originally from Barcelona and are not Catalan speakers. Outside the city you’ll find many more people are native Catalan speakers.
Most street signs are in Catalan, and Catalans are naturally bilingual and used to switching between the two languages. If you speak Castilian, most Catalans will switch. They want to make it easy for you. However, speaking even a few words of Catalan will earn you a lot of respect as so few people make the effort.
You’ll see many Catalan flags (one of the oldest flag designs in use today, with four red stripes on a golden background). A variant adds a blue triangle with white star at the hoist, used since 1918 to signify independence for Catalonia. This version is in widespread use and you’ll also see on on car stickers, t-shirts and other designs.
There is massive support in the city for FC Barcelona, one of the best known Catalan institutions worldwide. Other Catalan traditions you might see in Barcelona include castellers, impressive human towers (example above); a local dance called the sardana; various musical styles, including reedy woodwind and drums; and processions that include gegants. If you’re in Barcelona on a feast day you may encounter these.