Gaudi and the Beach: a Perfect Weekend in Barcelona
With its unique architecture, sandy beaches, fantastic parks, and delicious food, Barcelona is rightly one of the most popular cities to visit in Europe. The capital of Catalonia and second-largest city in Spain is also compact enough to allow you to fit a lot in over a weekend — although you'll probably find one trip there is not enough.
Here are some of our favourite things to see and do on a city break in Barcelona.
Hit the Gaudí trail
Barcelona is the only city in the world to have received RIBA's Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, and the modernist architecture of Antoni Gaudí is undoubtedly a major factor in that. Seven of his works in the city constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's easy to find some of his most iconic buildings in the centre of Barcelona. They include the Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 — construction is expected to be completed on the epic basilica more than 100 years after Gaudí’s death in 1926.
Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera) and Casa Batlló (known locally as the House of Bones, due to its slightly skeletal appearance and a rooftop likened to a dragon's back) are two of Gaudi's quirkiest works, and feature winding stairways and unique architectural touches synonymous with the architect. Both are on Passeig de Gràcia, which runs northwest from Plaça de Catalunya. Make sure you book in advance for these sights, and go early in the morning as they can get overcrowded.
As you explore the city further, you’ll discover more of Gaudi’s work...
Stroll through Barcelona's open spaces
Barcelona is full of lovely parks — in fact, it's estimated they cover 10% of the city's land. Pedralbes Garden (in the west of the city, close to Palau Reial Metro station) is one of Barcelona's most majestic parks; it's also home to the former royal residence of the Palace of Pedralbes. Near the park you can see more Gaudí works, the Güell Pavilions, which include a stable and gatehouses.
For some great views of the city, head to La Barceloneta and jump aboard the Port Vell Aerial Tramway, a cable car that crosses Barcelona's old harbour to the 500-acre Parc de Montjuïc. There are various viewpoints on the hilltop park, plus you can visit Montjuïc Castle and the stunning Palau Nacional, now the home of the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Also close by are the Botanical Garden of Barcelona and the 1992 Olympic stadium.
You can take in amazing views of Barcelona and the coast from the edge of the city, too. Take the scenic Tibidabo Funicular, which heads up Tibidabo, a 512-metre hill in the Serra de Collserola. The summit is home to the stunning Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a restaurant, and an amusement park.
Another great viewpoint is the Bunkers of Carmel, abandoned Spanish Civil War anti-aircraft defences that are now a popular sunset-watching spot for locals. It's not far from here to Parc Güell, where you could easily spend half a day exploring the 12 hectares. The park contains many buildings and structures designed by Gaudí, and is also home to the architect's former home, now the Gaudí House Museum.
Park Güell is in the Gràcia neighbourhood, an area well worth further exploration...
Explore the Gràcia neighbourhood
The Gràcia neighbourhood used to be a separate village, before it was swallowed up by a growing Barcelona. It’s home to some lovely shops, independent boutiques, and cafés, and is also a great place to spend an evening among the bars, restaurants, music venues, and nightclubs. At the heart of the area is Plaça del Sol, a famous square surrounded by charming buildings, and it’s a favourite hangout for locals, especially at night. It’s a great place for people watching at any time.
Gràcia is home to another Gaudí masterpiece, Casa Vicens. Built between 1883 and 1885, during the architect's Orientalist period, this angular house is considered his earliest major work, and features distinctive turrets, and green and white exterior tiling.
Browse the city’s markets
Barcelona is home to many wonderful markets. One of the most interesting is the vast Mercat dels Encants flea market on Calle Castillejos. It regularly attracts more than 500 vendors, and is a great place to look for antique goods and vintage treasures. It takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9am to 8pm.
Mercat de Santa Caterina is the place to go for fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, and meat. It's worth seeing for its colourful, wavy roof alone. Probably Barcelona's most famous market is La Boqueria, on La Rambla, where you'll find fresh produce from Spain and around the world. It's a loud, busy place, but if you want to take a break for lunch or a snack, there are bars dotted around the market.
Christmas markets may be associated with more northerly European cities, but if you’d prefer festive gift shopping in warmer temperatures and under blue skies, Barcelona has several options. Fira de Santa Llúcia, the city's oldest, takes place around Barcelona Cathedral and dates back to the 18th century. The market usually hosts around 300 stalls selling arts and crafts, gifts, and Christmas decorations (it's well known for its nativity sets).
The Fira de Santa Llúcia takes place in the city’s Gothic Quarter, a great place to explore on foot...
Take a walking tour
Barcelona is a great city for walking, with many pedestrianised streets in its centre. La Rambla is the best known of these, however we'd recommend spending as little time as possible there, as there are much better places to explore.
You could head to the picturesque Plaça Reial square and join one of the many walking tours of the Gothic Quarter. Parts of the Barrio Gòtic date back to the 12th century, and stops on the tours include sights like the narrow passages of the Jewish Quarter, the beautiful Plaça del Pi, Barcelona Cathedral, the hidden, peaceful Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, the Roman city wall, the medieval Plaça del Rei, and the Santa Maria del Mar church. Many tours are free (although donations for the guide are welcomed). The Gothic Quarter is only a few minutes’ walk from the Picasso Museum Barcelona, which is free to visit on Thursday afternoons and some Sundays.
A walk around Barcelona will undoubtedly give you an appetite, and fortunately the city has a great choice of places to eat. One of our favourites is Cerveceria Catalana on Carrer de Mallorca, north of the Gothic Quarter in Eixample. Restaurants in Spain don’t start getting busy for dinner until at least 9pm, so for more of a buzz, go out to eat later. If you’re a seafood lover, stroll down to La Barceloneta, 20 minutes' walk from the Gothic Quarter, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants serving up calamari, gambas, and other delights. We love the family-run La Mar Salada for its paella.
Relax on the beach
As well as being a great place for seafood, La Barceloneta is somewhere you can make the most of Barcelona's Mediterranean climate. There's more than a kilometre of sandy beaches with facilities including sun loungers, changing rooms, beach umbrellas, and ice cream kiosks, as well as beach volleyball and bike parking.
Away from the sand, you can walk along the beachfront and peruse the outdoor artwork, which includes Homenatge a la Barceloneta by German artist Rebecca Horn, a sculpture that resembles a wonky tower block, and Frank Gehry's Peix, a giant goldfish-like structure. You can also listen to free jazz performances in nearby Parc de la Ciutadella during summer.
Take a day trip
If you have more than a weekend to spare and want to explore further afield in Catalonia, there are plenty of great day-trip options within easy reach of Barcelona. Sitges, dubbed the Catalan St Tropez, is 40 minutes away by train, and has been a destination for artists for decades. You can walk through the old town, chill out on one of the best beaches in the area, and visit the stunning Maricel Palace, which was the home of American magnate, philanthropist, and art collector Charles Deering — you can see an impressive collection of works there.
If you’re a wine lover, a perfect way to spend the day is to get a combined train/bus ticket to the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia (about an hour from the centre of Barcelona), where you can spend a day touring the cava cellars. The town is a major centre of production for this sparkling wine, with more than 80 producers based in the surrounding area.
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Giorgio Petti and Nick Elvin contributed to this post.