Intro to Barcelona
Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city after Madrid. It’s also the capital of the region of Catalonia. You’ll see the Catalan flag flying all over the city (also on the famous soccer team’s jerseys) and you’re just as likely to hear the locals speaking Catalan as you are Spanish. Many residents of Catalan believe the region plays an over-sized role in the Spanish economy and often debate the merits of independence.
The city’s roots go back to Roman times, part of its layout can still be seen around the cathedral. After the fall of Rome it was fought over many times and had many rulers, including the Moors during their invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. Today’s Barcelona is a mix of Gothic buildings from the middle ages, Roman ruins, and more modern design from the 19th and 20th centuries. Antoni Gaudi was a modernist architect who helped remake the city skyline with the fantasy like buildings you’ll see today, including the famous Sagrada Familia church which was started in the 1880s and is still under construction today.
The Olympics in 1992 also helped develop the current city. The actual urban area of Barcelona is huge but most of what you’ll be interested in is centered around the old city on the Mediterranean.
Barcelona’s international airport has direct flights from many cities in the United States and a travel time of ~8.5hrs from the east coast. This makes it well situated for a four day weekend; fly over on a Friday night and return Tuesday morning or afternoon if available. That gives you three full days in the city, including a day trip to Montserrat.
Spain has an extensive train system that makes Barcelona an easy stop as part of a larger Spain itinerary as well.
Once in the city there is a convenient metro system and taxis are plentiful and easy to come by.
When we went
February (Presidents Day) 2013
What we did
Our favorite thing about Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) culture are the tapas style meals. Every traveler in Spain should spend at least one night of their trip eating dinner one restaurant (and one or two small plates) at a time. The Spanish also like to eat late so a three hour tapas crawl for dinner can easily take you into the next day. To be able to fully enjoy Barcelona you need a relaxed itinerary. There is no reason to stress over sightseeing here. Sleep until 11am every morning and don’t make any plans unless they include food.
In Barcelona we found an abundance of cheap, well situated, beautiful apartments on Airbnb. We chose one just a couple blocks off the city’s famous main street Las Ramblas. While it’s nice to stroll down here, particularly in the evenings, most of the restaurants are overpriced and touristy. You have a better chance of being pick pocketed here than just about any other place in world.
The neighborhood of our apartment was the Bari Gothic Quarter. This is the birthplace of Barcelona. There are twisting medieval lanes, Roman ruins, and Barcelona’s grand Gothic Cathedral.
On the other side of Las Ramblas from our apartment was Barcelona’s famous La Boqueria food market. If you do stay in an apartment, stock the pantry here. When we came Iranian pistachios were in season. Each night they, along with bread, meat, and Rioja wine, were part of our pre-dinner ritual. The market has a number of sit-down food options, highly recommended.
Pablo Picasso once called Barcelona home and there is a great Picasso museum you should visit. But the most important artist in this city is Antoni Gaudi, who was actually an architect. His style was Modernista and you’ll see it in the Eixample neighborhood.
Perhaps the most famous example of modernist style is the stunning Sagrada Familia church. Gaudi started working on this building in 1883 knowing he would not live to see it completed. There are few buildings in the world whose spender matches this one.
Just about an hour away by train is the monastery of Montserrat. Built impressively high up in the mountains it requires a cable car to get there.
Museums and Sights
Cal Pep is one of the city’s finest restaurants. They don’t take reservations for under 4 people but there is a huge tapas bar. This is high end tapas, as in foie gras sausage…or clams with bacon. Treat yo’self!