Our stay in Barcelona was far too short. We planned for three days, but we had to leave early for Ibiza, which left us two days to cram in as much as possible. Which is especially hard in Barcelona, because tourist attractions involve long lines and an abundance of patience. I wish we had eaten more, drank more, done more, and seen more!
I’m going to break from my usual relentless positivity and tell you what not to do:
Don’t: Book a bike tour with Original Barcelona Tours
We loved our alternative Berlin tour so much, that we thought this would be a good way to see the city and get a feel for it. Wrong. It was the worst tour I’ve ever been on, and I say that as a nerd who loves tours and is easily excited about random facts.
We had a non-native English speaker who, if I remember correctly, was Romanian. He would lead us to an obvious tourist destination, and tell us one fact. Illich would prompt him with more facts that he remembered from being in Barcelona in 1999, to which our tour guide would always say, “Yeah, exactly.” With such extremely limited time, I grew increasingly agitated, until Illich told the tour guide we were done. On top of that, the bike rental place Original Barcelona Tours contracted with overcharged us for our half-broken bikes. (Their sign said $8 for four hours, they charged us $12 for three hours.) Even if we had a good tour guide, however, biking around Barcelona is annoying and not really helpful. Perhaps the alternative Barcelona tour would be OK, I don’t know. But the overall story is that I was close to distraught that we wasted three precious hours on such a useless tour.
Also, you might wonder why I don’t have shopping recommendations in this guide for you. Well, I got a bunch of recommendations and did some research, but I just didn’t find anything that called out to me and my personal style. I noticed everything was of the quirky instead of minimal and tailored variety. But that was OK, because I had stocked up in Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin!
OK, that out of the way, let’s move on to the good stuff that I recommend:
Le Meridien Barcelona, by Starwood Hotels, was the most luxurious, American-style hotel we stayed in during our entire trip. It’s located right on Las Ramblas, which function as a sort of Times Square for Barcelona, except much more charming. When we arrived, we left Le Meridien to walk down to the Port for dinner, which took us through the most romantic, car-less maze of old-world streets and alleys. Plus, the express bus to the airport starts its journey about a five minute walk away. In that way, it was ideally situated, though the area directly around it is incredibly touristy. Even so, our room was peaceful, quiet and comfortable.
Breakfast came free with our stay, a large buffet with ingredients sourced from the local market. I really liked their “eye openers,” little shot glasses of intensely flavored, non-alcoholic, local juices. So much so that I wish I could get a full glass of it! But I wouldn’t take more than one complimentary breakfast here, as even the menu based on local specialties is a very poor approximation of what you could find outside the hotel. Barcelona is famous for its food, why order in?
The hotel does engage in many sustainability initiatives, which is why I chose it for our stay: They have recycling bins all over the hotel, plus they separate organic and inorganic waste coming from the rooms and restaurants. They keep track off their energy usage, offer electric car parking, have low/no-VOC paint and floor coverings, an energy efficient kitchen and HVA systems, and of course have low flow faucets and LED lighting.
We didn’t have time to spare, or else I would have rested my tired feet upstairs in the rooftop spa, whose terrace has a vitality pool, and an incredible view of the city.
Other Green Hotels:
Barcelona isn’t really that big – you could walk almost anywhere you want to go in a half hour. There is a bike rental system, but it’s only for residents to use, and biking around Barcelona can be sort of annoying anyway. Because of all the pedestrian walkways, as well, if you hail a cab you might find yourself going around the long way. There is public transportation, but we actually never used it except for the express bus to and from the airport. For all these reasons, walking is your first choice.
We took the cable car to the top of the hill that has the National Pavilion and the Museum of Catalan Art. It’s a nice way to see the city, but the wait to get on was over an hour. Alternatively, we could have taken the metro or bus there. I’m not sure what is better, honestly!
65 Passeig de Joan de Borbó, La Barceloneta
One of the best meals we had our entire trip was at this traditional Catalan restaurant down on the port. It features seafood caught around Barcelona and sold in the local fish market. We indulged in croquettes, fried anchovies, tomato bread, and incredible paella. The decor is kitschy traditional, and I wouldn’t call the clientele hip, but it doesn’t matter – our eyes were rolling back in our head the entire meal.
Other Places to Eat:
Organic’s, Plaza Urquinaona 14 – a casual, healthy restaurant where we stopped for a quick lunch on our last day. Imagine a Barcelona-style Chipotle in terms of quality, ambiance, and taste.
L’Hortet, Carrer Pintor Fortuny 32, Cuitat – vegetarian food
Mother, Carrer de Joaquín Costa, El Raval and Gran Via 700 – cold-pressed juice
The Juice House – 12 Carrer Parlament, Sant Antoni
Café Camelia, Gracia
Restaurant Vegetarià Arc Iris – Carrer de Roger de Flor, 216
Hammock – a smoothie and avocado toast cafe with hammocks for seating. We tried to go here but it was disappointed to find it inexplicably closed, with a handwritten sign saying it would reopen at 12:30 pm. It was 1:30 pm. We didn’t wait around.
Cinc Sentits – 58 Carrer d’Aribau, L’Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample – Tasting menu of locally sourced fish, artisanal cheeses, and organic ingredients.
Sesamo Restaurant Barcelona, Raval Carrer Sant Antoni Abat 52 – Vegetarian and vegan food
Rera Palau 4, El Born
This speakeasy located behind a pastrami place is full of gimmicky but well-crafted cocktails, and we loved it. I got a drink that came in a conch shell nestled inside what looked like a mini treasure chest. Other drinks came in tea pots with tea cups, or glass pipes. The crowd skews local here, which is always a good sign.
Bar Marsella, 65 Edit Carrer de Sant Pau, Ciutat Vella – Old bar from 1820 that served Dalí, Hemingway, Gaudi and Picasso, with absinthe drinks.
Mamainé Mojitos, 59 Carrer del Rec, Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera – Best mojitos in Barcelona
Bitter Cocktail Bar – 17 Viladomat, Sant Antoni
Gaudi, Gaudi, and Gaudi. I never really appreciate Gaudi until this trip. Well, honestly, I considered his architecture ugly. But of course, once you walk around his creations and learn about his underlying philosophy, influences, and innovations, you understand what the fuss is about. And there’s plenty to explore.
Just be aware that with the explosion of tourism in Barcelona, you should buy tickets online for almost all of the tourist destinations, including all the Gaudi works of architecture and Park Guell. You’ll might still have to wait in line, so give yourself plenty of time to see each attraction. If we were to come back with more time, we might limit ourselves to one Gaudi a day.
Gracias – Illich and I were disappointed to find out that since his last visit, they blocked off the best parts of the park and instituted a ticketing system whereby you buy a ticket, then leave and come back a few hours later for entry. We still enjoyed climbing around the hillside park, but we were denied the most beautiful views and Gaudi buildings.
The famous half-completed cathedral. It will take your breath away when you walk inside. You can also visit at night, when it will be less crowded.
But absolutely buy tickets in advance with an audio tour, plus another ticket to access one of the towers. Also give yourself more time to explore the museum in the basement.
An apartment building by Gaudi that you can explore in a couple hours. It will immerse you in life at the turn of the century through the large and detailed period apartment on the top floor.
Illich kept talking about the Barcelona Pavilion, and I was pretty disinterested, thinking it was more of the over-the-top Barcelona architecture we had seen everywhere else. And then I saw it. It’s a famous modernist building by the German architect Mies van der Rohe, a refreshing minimalist piece of architecture that is like a palate cleanser for your eyes.
Perched on top of one of the hills overlooking the city, this huge, ornate building is refreshingly empty and calm after the craziness of Gaudi landmarks. We practically had the hushed place to ourselves until a group tour of businesspeople converged on us.
I got the sense, after walking around the top floor, that they just couldn’t find enough Catalan art fill up this giant monument, which was built for the 1888 Universal Exhibition. But if you’re into Art Nouveau, you’re really going to love what you see here. I certainly learned a lot. Huge recommend.
Other things to do:
Palau de la Musica Catalana, El Born – A building by Barcelona’s other great architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. It’s not open to the public to just wander through, so either see a concert there or schedule an hour tour in advance
El Born Cultural Center, 12 Plaça Comercial, El Born – A permanent exhibition explores life in the city in the early 1700s, a great way to get a read on the city’s complicated and fascinating history. Check their website for lectures, music performances, and temporary art exhibitions.
Museu Can Framis, Carrer de Roc Boronat, Poblenou, Sant Marti – Contemporary art museum
The beach – I’ve never seen such a beautiful, nice beach backed up so close to a big city, like this one is. It was too chilly for us to go when we went, but it might make a great summer visit.
*Gave me a press discount for our stay.