Barcelona, Spain Review And Report
A jewel of Catalonia - Barcelona remains one of the world's great cities. We wandered here for a short 3 day trip - find out what we did, and get some ideas for how you could enjoy it, too.
Barcelona. Where to begin? I wasn't sure how I wanted to start this one. I've been coming to Barcelona a lot over the last five years or so. I was lucky enough to manage a client there when I worked in London. With that, I'd say I made about 10 or so work trips there over 3 years. And more, I've been there as a tourist/for fun around 5 times or so. Two of those, as a tour guide to family and my girlfriend. Do I know everything there is to know about it? Of course not. But do I know it fairly well in terms of getting around the main attractions? I do. And I love it there. I started calling it my Second City when living in Europe.
The city has so much going for it. It's got that "old" and historical factor to it, that us North Americans love. It's got that well priced, easy going nature that European travelers love it for. It's a WORLD CLASS food city. And I mean world class, one of my favorites for that. But it's also a young city, full of nightlife, young travelers, and students. To top it all off, it's got a fiercely independent, Catalan culture that makes it different from the rest of Spain. Artists and famous architects have called it home.
Founded by the Romans originally, you'll still find evidence of them in the city if you go looking for it. You'll also find newer (but still wicked old) ruins from Barcelona's post Roman past. Today, you'll find modern design and architecture all blending within it as the people also mix this old/new vibe. A vibe that allows you to do as much - or as little - as you want. Sounds perfect right?
All is not completely perfect under the exterior. A perfect combination of well priced lodgings and food, cheap flights from Easy Jet and Vueling, and let's be honest, the real-life amazingness of this city - has lead to a massive influx of tourists in the last 15 years. With the last 5 seeing an even heavier increase in these numbers. The city is a dream to visit, but every destination can only handle so many tourists. And that goes for both the infrastructure, and the local inhabitants. I'll touch on this later.
This is my Barcelona, Spain review and trip report.
What To Do in Barcelona
There is just no way I will be able to tell you everything under the sun that there is to do in Barcelona - but I will certainly do my best to highlight what I do, and a few other choices along the way. Some of these could be their own articles!
For me, Barcelona is about walking. Lots of it, but at your own pace. There are tons of great neighborhoods, all with varying levels of tourist influx. El Born and Barrio Gotico are of course the most well known, and most jam packed. But really, you need to check those out. El Born itself is interesting in that just a few streets over from the main internal jumble, it's perfectly quiet and filled with cafes just made for a cortado stop. The El Born Cultural center is a wonderful location to see some of old Barcelona within an active archaeological dig. And, it's free! Blows my mind how empty this place is every time I go, especially considering the amount of tourists in town. I guess some people just aren't that independent and don't seek things out. Gracia and L'Eixample are fantastic places to walk around. Both a bit less touristy, more Spanish/Catalan and local. Not completely, but more so than the tourist centers of the old town. Both also are a bit trendy, so there's cool things to do like shopping or what not.
There are no shortage of walking tours here. In fact, the city seems to be jam packed with them. With that in mind, I'd actually once again like to point you in the direction of our friend, Rick Steves. His book on Spain is fantastic, and he's got a Barrio Gotico Walking Tour you can do yourself, all at your own speed. It's a great walk and have taken myself, my parents, and my girlfriend on it. Takes about 2-3 hour, and dumps you out right near the Born Cultural Center and the Park, so you can finish up there. You can pick this up for your Kindle App on your phone right from Amazon. Rick Steves Spain 2020.
The big park, Parc De La Ciutadella, is a great place to walk around with the locals. Port Olimpic and Barceloneta offer great walks along the water (though I'd avoid eating in the marinas - kind of tourist trappy). I would make sure you take a stop in Placa Catalunya and Placa Espana as well. Central arteries of the city, both offer awesome photo opps or good starting points for walking.
What's next? Museums! There are a huge amount of museums in Barcelona, and even a choice or two a short ride out of the city by train. When you come to Spain, you start to realize how much into art they have been over their history, and architecture. It's quite impressive. Barcelona is no exception - you'll find world famous artist and architects in tribute here, but also a lot of local and historically Catalan artists. The Museo Picasso is a MUST. I mean really. This museum is nice to see more about his style and that he wasn't just about cubism, which is what most people think. He was a very talented portrait artist as well. But be smart about it - buy your tickets online first (official site here: Picasso Tickets) and try to pick one of your off day weekdays. Don't try and go here on a Saturday in the summer. You won't enjoy that experience getting in. Further, I think the National Art Museum of Catalonia would be worth it. This way you can really understand what it means to be a Catalan artist throughout history. There's lots more - from contemporary to a dedicated Dali museum (2 hours by train, but if he's your bag, definitely make the trip - who doesn't love a European train ride??). A pretty good list can be found at Timeout for other ideas, depending on your tastes.
Keeping along the lines of the amazing artistic sense the city has, up next as a must do is making the rounds to the Antoni Gaudi stops. For those unaware, he's the face of what was called Catalan Modernism. He took inspiration from things like nature and the world around him to make some really incredible designs. There's a lot to choose from: a number of houses, a park, and of course Sagrada Familia. On my recent trip I did Sagrada Familia (I'd never been inside until now, if you can believe that), Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (well, my girlfriend did Mila - I was super sick in bed!). Parc Guell is the amazing park he designed. Though I've not been here, I'm sad I missed it. Pro-tip: For Sagrada Familia, you MUST buy tickets online. I learned that the hard way on one trip. Then, I'd also buy a Gaudi pass for 3 houses. You can then schedule your visit times at each. Was easy and convenient. Sagrada Familia Tickets here and Gaudi House pass can be had at Ticketbar.eu or Barcelona.com.
It doesn't stop there however. Get out and explore. The only neighborhood I'd be extra alert is in Raval. I've never felt unsafe there, but it's still "up and coming" if that makes sense. If you go on off peak times, La Boqueria is still one of the world's great markets and amazing to see your first time. It can be almost un-movable during busy times, but get up early and get in here. The cable car up Montjuic is a great way to get some top views and see Montjuic Castle. I once took a train ride out to Montseratt Monastery. It was an awesome day trip and the area is full of hiking trails too, so be sure to head there if you are into being active. And remember to eat! Don't worry, I've got a section about this (obviously)!
Pro Tip: Avoid La Rambla at all costs. I mean that. I know it's all you hear about. Even if it's on the way to where you are going, try to only CROSS it and take a different artery. There, you've now seen it. For one, there are plenty of other "ramblas", or pedestrian streets, that are more local and better to walk down. For another, it's tourist trap central at its best and at it's worst can be full of pick pockets and drug pushers (to note, they aren't dangerous, they are just looking for young party goers to sell to and aren't going to bother people that don't fit the mold). It's just not worth going to. The food is bad and over priced, and as mentioned there are other pedestrian streets worth walking down. Passeig de Gracia comes to mind as an alternative. De Poblenou is another. I really don't even think it's one of those, "Well we're here, so we HAVE to see it. It's just what you do in Barcelona!" You don't. I'd also recommend Carrer Blai for a bit of adventure. You'll see why in a bit (foreshadowing alert!). Culture Trip has a good summary of some other choices so you can find your style.
What To Eat In Barcelona
Ohhhhhhhhhh man. Here we go. My favorite thing to talk about in Barcelona. Now, Barcelona is almost overwhelming in terms of place to eat. Due to the local tapas culture, the tourist tapas culture, and the number of world class full-on restaurants, it can be daunting to just walk around blindly. Mainly because you can throw a rock and hit a place to eat in. I will let you know my favorite stops. Now, a few are in fact in the tourist areas. To me, that's OK if the food is good! Why not? You're going to be in those areas mostly anyway. But I promise you'll enjoy your meal.
I'd also like to go on the record that in Barcelona - don't eat at places with pictures on the wall. No pictures. OK? Got that? And avoid the places where people are trying to "pitch" you to come in. If it's good, they wouldn't need that. Screams tourist trap. Another thing, is that there are quite a few old, and very traditional places that I'm sure are amazing. But with the influx of tourists and the fact that these places all show up in the same guides, it's virtually impossible to get into them. And if you can, it's so rammed that you won't enjoy it.
For Breakfast - You really could pop into any little cafe or pastry shop, depending on what you like. But I'll give you two spots for breakfasts that aren't quite Traditional Spanish, but maybe what a lot of visitors are more used to. Brunch and Cake is a fantastic spot with lovely ingredients. The servings are huge, and delicious. It's a pretty Insta-friendly spot, so beware of that. I'd also be prepared to wait, or get there right at opening. Groups might be hard without a wait. But to me, it's a great spot. For a great coffee shop and cafe with a nice, small roof deck: Federal Cafe is your spot. Much more local vibe, great egg dishes, and great coffee. No one I've sent here has not enjoyed it. Great value for quality too.
For Lunch: Endless choices on this one. Both good and bad. Sometimes, you just have to pop into a place on your way, or a place that looks cool to you. And if you find one, try it! If you're absolutely looking for a rec, then it starts and ends with Bar De Pla. By far the best "Spanish/Catalan" tapas bar around and that I've had. Started by a bunch of former chefs that just wanted somewhere casual but cool to eat and hang out, there you go. Really high end ingredients and twists on classics, but still super well priced. You can reserve here for dinner I think. But just get there early for lunch (early for lunch is 1pm in Spain). Another good lunch is Petra, also in El Born. More of a full plate, sit down affair, it serves up reasonable priced (a little higher end), very well made food. Good wine, too. Another Catalan spot. I didn't make it to this next suggestion this past trip due to time constraints, but I did a TON of research to narrow this down: Paella. The bane of many tourists. Well, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy L'Arrosseria Xativa in Gracia (this was my pick if I had made it). Xiringuito Escriba also came up a lot in my search. Otherwise, be careful with this. A lot of subpar, frozen ingredients around - especially in the tourist zones and marina. For a high end lunch, hit the Cotton House Hotel and dine outside if you can.
For Dinner: The big one. Man I love eating dinner in this city. Comment here or on Instagram if you'd like me to do in depth about an eating guide according to me. I can detail the places a bit more. Sensi Tapas has the honor of being the first real tapas restaurant I'd ever tried for dinner. It did not disappoint. Five years and four restaurants later, the original is still going strong with some of its classics. Tapeo, is another favorite of mine. I love it here. The beef cheeks and cuttlefish fideua (wicked Catalan) will blow your shoes off. Both are kind of tourist haunts - but just by nature of being in the tourist zone and being widely loved on TripAdvisor. "Haunts", not traps, mind you. Meaning: tourists frequent them. The food quality is fantastic and frankly, a multi-lingual environment is pretty cool for dinner. Bar De Pla is another can't miss choice for dinner, and El 58 is a good choice to get you out of Gotico and El Born a bit. I'd say this is slanted to where English is available, I'll admit. But in a wildly popular tourist city with many visitors from all over, it's often the unifying language - this is not meant to offend the Catalan or Spanish locals. I speak some conversational Spanish and can get by with cabs and cafes, etc. But it can be a challenge if you aren't fluent to be in a local-language only spot. Try Japan - one of the countries I throw my "No restaurants with pictures" rule out the window. Anywayyyy...
Haute Cuisine: Oh you're in the mood for world class fine dining? You're in a huge amount of luck. Barcelona is FULL of high end spots, Michelin awards, and one of the current best in the world (December 2019). That would be Disfrutar. These kinds of restaurants can be interesting to research. Some people, don't really know what they're getting into. Some people, might not like this style but they go anyway. Some people lose their minds (in a good way) over them. I've dined at Hoja Santa (fantastic, top 3 pics below) and recently Cocina Hermanos Torres (bottom 3 pics; one of the best meals of my life, will do a full review article). Tickets is also one of the hottest...er...tickets...woof, sorry...in town (I've not been however). Other ideas based on my research, though I've not yet been, would be: Alkimia, Restaurant Gaig, Koy Shunka, Xerta, Enoteca Paco Perez. Check out this big list to give you some breadcrumbs to follow if these don't sound appetizing: Timeout Barcelona Michelin Restaurants. Of course, try and target the Catalan ones.
Lastly, I think I need to add something fun and adventurous (for the foreign visitor) like Carrer Blai. For those that don't know, it's a pedestrian-only street. Some call it the "street of tapas." They're only half right. It is indeed filled with places to get food - but it's mostly pintxos! These are small, usually only a couple of bites-each tapas on display at whatever bar you are in. Made famous in the Basque region (from what I know) they all have giant toothpicks in them, and after you eat them you place these picks on your plate. When finished, you bring your plate to the bartender, and they charge you per stick! Great concept. Best part, is that they are only 1-2 euros each usually. I don't have faith enough in my fellow Americans to say that this would work here, but I'm glad it works there. Makes for a fantastic pintxos crawl. On top of that, I'd suggest just walking into random bakeries and such. We found one in El Born that was just run by an older woman, and she was clearly dealing with lots of repeat customers. She didn't speak English, but with my basic Spanish and accurate, polished pastry-pointing (probably more of the latter), we made out with some delicious snacks. Very cool place. So don't be afraid of those gems. Just keep an eye out. You should be able to spot "chain/tourism vs. local". Sadly, the Instagrammy places are most definitely not local joints. Sorry kids!
Where To Stay in Barcelona
Barcelona is absolutely FILLED with hotels and lodgings. This extends to the vacation apartment rentals, and of course AirBnB's. What I'd like to recommend, is that you avoid the apartments and AirBnB's here - for reasons I'll get into later. But they are not good for the city in this case. I would recommend hotels here - they are reasonable for pricing and are plentiful at every price point.
You're really not going to have any issues finding hostels, budget hotels, or luxury. In fact, if you're part of a loyalty program, just go with that. Some are a bit out of the way up Diagonal, but if that's your brand, you'll be fine. Taxis are cheap here. You'll find Hilton, Marriott, Accor, NH Hotels, H10, etc. All the major brands are represented.
I'm a member of Hilton's programs, so I always start there. This past trip, I stayed at the Alexandra Hotel, part of their Curio Collection. That's their more boutique line. It's a lovely little hotel, not luxury but not mainstream either. Just right for a small hotel and nicely finished, recently remodeled. The location is OUTSTANDING. Right in the middle of the higher end shopping district, and around the corner from Casa Mila and Casa Batllo. I loved the area - it's busy-ish but not over run, nor is it too quiet either. My other go-to in this price class is the H10 Art Gallery Hotel, which is basically in the same neighborhood. Again, I love this area, it's really nice, has lots of shops, lots of cafes to pop into, etc. It's local but not purely local, if that makes sense. You can also walk to many areas from here, with El Born being about a 30 min walk if the weather is nice. Lots of good choices for drinks around here too. I believe this is technically L'Eixample. Barcelo Raval is another funky one I've enjoyed. El Raval is still not the greatest neighborhood (though it's changing fast), but the hotel is nice, trust me. It's much closer to the action, too, with a great roof top bar.
For a luxury experience, I would recommend the Cotton House Hotel. It can be pretty expensive in the higher season, but I think you'll love it. I've not stayed here, but I've spent lots of time here at the restaurant, and sometimes the bar. I've had client lunches here, had an amazing dinner here, and chilled out in the sun on the terrace with olives, agua con gas, and a gin-tonic. If you want to splurge or this is in your normal price range, book it. This is part of the Autograph Collection, which is Marriott.
Outside of those brands, if they don't meet your needs, just check Booking.com and look for your perfect hotel. I think though, if you stick with the above mentioned you'll find something great. FYI, I have no affiliation with them. This is just based on experience and personal research.
Again though - please avoid the AirBnB's and apartment rentals now, unless you have a large group and all need to be/really want to be all in the same room/villa. They are causing so many issues in the city and they are hurting a lot of locals and their daily lives. Regarding the hotels, if you also want to go the extra mile, you can target Spanish hotels (NH) or even more, Catalan chains (H10). The city needs this kind of commitment from travelers right now.
Barcelona Tourism Concerns
Barcelona is a city that has exploded onto the tourism scene in the last 15 years. It's always been a great place to visit for all the reasons I've spoken about above, but this is something beyond that.
As I wrote this section I realized I had a lot more to say and it was making this article too long. I decided to write a separate Blog piece on this. Here's the link, I get into some of the details of our past time in general, and how it's affecting Barcelona specifically: Over-tourism and Barcelona.
Final Thoughts On Barcelona
Barcelona, we made it! Thanks for checking out my Barcelona review and city report here on Always Wander. I'm sure you can tell, it's one of my favorite cities in the world. From it's world class food scene, to the young and thriving night life scene, then off to the cultural and art-centric side of things, ending with the laid back vibe in general that means you can bring your casual clothes. Not to mention it's also on the beach!
It's really got it all going for it, and now it's been discovered. So while I think you're going to start seeing some changes in the city's tourism policies, this city needs to be on your list. You can get there easily from any major city in Europe, from the US, and from Asia. But when planning a trip here, please plan it responsibly and consider the enormous strain the recent levels of tourism has put on the locals here. It's their city, and we're all just guests there so please be sure to act like one.
Outside of those points - get there! Take photos! Eat! Walk around the many different neighborhoods new and old. You're going to remember your first time there, I promise. And I'm also pretty sure you're going to be planning a return trip, too.
For more cities, please check out my City Reviews and Reports page.
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