If you spend any amount of time reading digital travel articles you will soon stumble over the phrase “going local.” It simply stresses the importance of going off of the tourist trail from time to time and trying to understand what really makes a city ebb and flow. It’s great advice and every traveler would be well served to incorporate it into their trips. However, it ignores the fact that when any of us, no matter how well traveled, visits a new city we want to see the sights for which it is so well known. In London this means the Houses of Parliament, in Paris the Eiffel Tower and when I recently found myself in Barcelona before the start of a Viking ocean cruise around the Mediterranean, there were also key sights I knew I had to see for myself. It’s ok to be a corny tourist sometimes, we all are from time to time and there’s no shame in it. Whether you’re in Barcelona before or after a cruise as I was, or just passing through, there are a few experiences I think everyone should enjoy for a truly memorable travel experience.
Where to Stay
As one of the great cities of the world, there are a number of world-class hotels available throughout Barcelona. On my most recent visit though I had the great opportunity to stay at the city’s newest luxury boutique hotel, the Almanac Barcelona. The first in a small line of luxury hotels around Europe, the Almanac definitely isn’t your typical hotel. Enjoying a great location near Barcelona’s famous Passeig de Gràcia, it’s the ideal spot from which to launch your own explorations of the city. Service and comfort at the hotel are also beyond reproach, with a modern but elegant design style that pervades the property. Food is also one of the many stars at the Almanac whether it’s a tapas style breakfast or an evening spent in their upscale restaurant Línia, I find it hard to believe you’ll walk away disappointed. Based on my own experience, the Almanac truly is the best place to call home for a few days when visiting the city.
What to Eat
One thing I did know before visiting Barcelona is that anywhere you go in Spain, food is at the heart of the travel experience. From regional favorites to the omnipresent jamon and cheese, prepare to let your waistband out a few notches while luxuriating in this great city. To learn more about the food culture of not only Barcelona but the entire Catalonia region, I joined a Context walking tour focused on the Pica-Pica style of tapas. Today tapas are a worldwide phenomenon, but in Barcelona the local tradition of enjoying small bites either before or as the meal have been a tradition for generations. Pica-Pica can mean a variety of things, but at its base it simply includes light bites, great drinks and fun conversation with friends. Barcelona comes alive in the evenings and that’s when our tour of the up and coming Poble Sec neighborhood began, eventually visiting several different cafes and restaurants in the area all specializing in different styles of small bites. Not only was the food incredible, but learning about the local culture by living it was the ideal foodie re-introduction to Spain.
What to Do
Just as there is a seemingly endless array of places to enjoy a great meal in Barcelona, there are also too many experiences to enjoy on just one trip. No, multiple trips to Barcelona are required, but if it’s your first time then there are a number of activities no one should miss.
The architecture of Antoni Gaudi isn’t just pervasive throughout Barcelona, it’s very much at the heart of the city’s tourist experience. Gaudi’s work, so say the experts, is marked by four passions: architecture, nature, religion and love for Catalonia. Gaudi didn’t just design buildings, he took great care in creating every aspect of his creations, integrating the crafts of stained glass, ironwork and others into everything he designed. He was one of the early pioneers of what we call the arts and crafts movement in the U.S. and introduced techniques never before seen in architecture. My exploration of all things Gaudi began at one of his most famous projects, which also happened to be an easy walk from my hotel, Casa Mila otherwise known as La Pedrera. Designed for the wealthy couple Roser Segimon and Pere Milà and finished in 1912, the original design actually called for a number of religious elements. Gaudi was a fervent Catholic and this strong religious belief is a reoccurring theme throughout many of his works. The building was controversial though, as it is even today, and city codes and public outcry called for certain aesthetic changes that nearly forced Gaudi off of the project. Today though it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known around the world for its strange wavy lines and ironwork that survives to this day.
The star Gaudi attraction in town though is of course his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. The project started in 1882 and Gaudi took over its design in 1883, adding Art Nouveau sensibilities to a decidedly Gothic look. The result is a bit strange. What’s more strange though is that when Gaudi died it was only 25% completed and still today is only half way done. Authorities believe it won’t be until 2026 when the mighty church will finally be complete. I’d seen it from the outside before, but joining a guided tour I went inside and that’s when my opinions began to change. While I don’t love the cathedral’s outward appearance, inside it truly is a masterpiece. The play of light, art and architecture is so complex and mesmerizing that I could have stood there in the central nave all day, transfixed by it all. That was the moment when I finally learned to appreciate the odd eloquence through which Gaudi still speaks to us today. The narrative provided by the guide only heightened this newfound appreciation and the entire experience in the church even changed my opinion of the city itself.
There are many other Gaudi works around town worth a visit including the tranquil Park Guëll, Casa Batlló and Casa Vicens.
While my most recent visit was not my first time in the city, I was traveling with someone who had never before been. There was one to-do item on his list that he didn’t want to miss, a live Flamenco show. Bordering on the ultra-touristy, I was a little dubious at first, but the evening turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Flamenco is so much more than just a dance. This classic art form is very much based on the music traditions and folklore of Southern Spain and is all about story telling. It’s also mesmerizing and for more than an hour I sat transfixed by the dancers and musicians as they improvised one complicated set of performances after another. I had booked the evening online without a ton of research to be honest and the evening also included a meal beforehand. To be clear, the dinner was very touristy and it was obvious they welcome thousands of foreigners every year. But the flamenco itself, that was different. That was real, it was beautiful and it was a performance I know that I’ll never forget. If you want to skip the meal you can also buy tickets for the show only but, whichever option you choose, it truly is not to be missed.
While Barcelona could easily consume your entire trip, I think it’s important to get out and see more of the beautiful Catalonia region. One simple way to do that is by visiting the nearby Abbey of Montserrat. An easy drive out of Barcelona, it was great to see the scraggly Mediterranean landscapes that lead up to this ancient and important religious site. Most agree that there has been a monastery on this spot high up in the mountains since 888, and ever since that time there have also always been about 80 monks who call this remote hermitage home. Today it’s an easy day trip from Barcelona and offers insight into a different aspect of Catalonian culture and history, away from the Gaudi buildings and tapas restaurants; a destination that is naturally reflective and introspective. Plus, on a clear day the views of the valley below can’t be beat.
There’s just too much to see and do (and eat) in Barcelona is lay out in a single post but, if you’re like me, and want to spend a few days embracing your inner corny tourist, I think these experiences are amongst the best in the city.