Barcelona is one of the to-be-visited places in the world. Famous for it’s architecture, vibrant city life and food, it should be explored to it’s fullest and it can be done even if you are a business traveler with lunch breaks and evenings at hand or are there for a weekend getaway.
Arriving in Barcelona is spectacular. The plane flies just past the coastline and you can see the whole city and the main landmarks. Just a few minutes later you land at the airport. Seems that Spanish have it all figured out, as several of Spain’s airports are considered to be among the most stylish ones, and Barcelona airport has been listed as one of the best airports in the world in 2014, serving over 37 million passengers per year. There are many taxis available outside the terminal, and it is advisable to check with the driver and that he will accept credit cards (roughly 30 € fare). Soon after you will be at your hotel.
How to choose a hotel in Barcelona? Be sure to check if it has a rooftop pool! Seems that is a thing in Barcelona, as all of my hotels have had one. I would recommend NH Collection Barcelona Gran Hotel Calderon.
As one of hotel concierges once told me, everything in Barcelona can be reached by foot unless you go to Tibidabo. And he was right, but be prepared to walk 3-6 km or roughly 20 minutes to reach some of the places and then double to places on the opposite side. There are two hop-on hop-off bus companies with similar service, but don’t expect too much from the included audio guide. You can also use the metro, but beware, as Barcelona is also considered to be a pick pockets paradise.
I knew that one of the places I would be visiting in Barcelona would be the aquarium. I have my own little obsession with fish, especially stingrays, so seeing those in Barcelona was a priority. I remember that early morning, sitting by the tank full of rays and feeling so happy in that moment. Since that time I have visited many, many aquariums and returning to Barcelona aquarium was an interesting in comparison. It did not seem as mighty as it was during my first visit, but it is still beautiful. Aquarium is home to 11 000 animals in 35 tanks, including underwater tunnel. I also enjoyed the incredibly sweet crepes with whipped cream and Nutella at the cafeteria. Nothing fancy, but gets your sugar levels back on track.
Tip: if you buy ticket online, the price is 17 € for adults, on the spot 20 € with discounts for seniors and children. However, my credit card was not accepted at their site. If you want a very calm, serene experience, be there first to avoid the crowds, come on a weekday morning and be in the line just before aquarium opens. For a general visit evenings are good as well, as it is open until 9 pm and even longer in the summer.
It’s still debated if the sand meets WHO standards and if it’s safe to swim, but you must see at least the beach and the nice restaurants in the area. Many of them are not quite visible from the street level, and the entrance reminds of metro. Plenty of seafood, from authentic looking to high end.
Tip: part of hop-on-hop-off route, so can come here to have dinner with one of the last buses and leave by taxi.
Funicular de Montjuic
If you are not afraid of heights, this is the attraction for you! The cable car offers fantastic views of the sea and the city, but can feel quite crowded and has no seating. The ride is only about 10 minutes long.
Tip: if you come in summer, be sure to have sunscreen, hat and some water as the queue to cable car can get very, very long. You can purchase return tickets for 10,35 € online or 11,50 € on the spot.
I had heard of La Rambla long before I ever went to Barcelona, and I was always wondering what it is. I am still wondering, to be honest. Officialy it is a major pedestrian street with restaurants, souvenir shops and the like on the sides, but in my mind it was a crowded area full of party people and I was constantly concerned about my pockets and purse. However, there were two places I did like near la Rambla, one was small souvenir shop just at the Museum of Vax, which has beautiful origami displays. I have purchased some of the most beautiful books there, some illustrated by French artist Benjamin Lacombe. The shop offers some fun games and similar items to bring back home as gifts. The second location coming right up!
Tip: You can walk the whole distance, but if you don’t enjoy the crowds just a block or two will be enough to grasp what La Rambla feels like.
If you continue walking on La Rambla long enough at one point you will notice that suddenly many people are drinking fresh smoothies from plastic cups or eating fresh strawberries and other tasty fruit. You must be approaching the Market! If you come from the seaside, it will be on your left, the entrance is not that big and you might even miss it! From those of us coming from the North this is a truly tasty experience, especially because of all the fresh fruit. You can also buy spices, seafood, chocolate and prosciutto. Some booths unfortunately have “no photos” sign, but majority don’t mind, especially buy something.
Tip: Have cash with you. Don’t buy everything at the first vendor you see, many places deeper inside have much better prices and good produce as well. Prices (in early spring) – box of fresh wild or large strawberries 1.50 €. There is no entrance fee.
Three places of Gaudi
You must have been wondering if I have missed Gaudi altogether, the famous Spanish Catalan architect? I have not. There are several places you can visit for having some taste of what it has to offer. Gaudi’s masterpieces are inspired by nature, are colorful, different from what you usually see and sometimes just crazy. Seven on his works have been included in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The still not finished Sagrada Familia is the most visited monument in Spain, attracting 3 million visitors a year.
I visited three locations and I think it was sufficient for my taste. On a budget two will be enough as well, Park Guell and Sagrada Familia. If you are a fan, of course, Casa Batllo should be on your list too (entrance 21.50 €).
Tip: buy tickets online to avoid queues (especially Sagrada Familia!). If you arrive at Park Guell between 8:00 and 8:30 you might get in for free. Park Guell and Sagrada Familia tickets can be purchased as a combo and then you get a discount (regular visit without extras + Park Guell would be 18.30 €). Sagrada Familia tends to get very, very crowded and unless you come completely off-season and in the afternoon, buy your ticket online. Even with a ticket it’s better to either come before crowds or later in the afternoon. The towers are not as impressive as one might think, so on a budget option surely skip those (regular adult entrance is 15 €, with towers add 4,5 €). Audioguide points out some interesting details that you might miss otherwise (then ticket is 19,5 €). Entrance, towers and audio guide is 24 €.
+2 Places to See If You Have More Time at Your Hands
If you are in Barcelona then a number of nearby cities and attractions become available. There is one place that I have not been to, it’s Montserrat. There are several tour companies offering half day tours with departures in the morning or the afternoon to be able to stroll around, also public transportation is available. This will be a must-see point when I come to Barcelona next time.
Another opportunity if you have more than just an afternoon at your hands is Valencia, which so far has become my favorite Spanish city! I absolutely loved Valencia. Although it is the third largest city in Spain with 800 000 inhabitants, it seemed significantly calmer than Barcelona, still with plenty of infrastructure for tourists and hospitable feel. The mix of mediaeval heritage and modern today offers a really spectacular feeling. Just 4 h bus ride from Barcelona with the comfortable ALSA bus and you are there! Tickets cost roughly 30 €.
Which hotel to choose in Valencia? I opted for SH Valencia Palace and was happy with my choice! It is near the park and all the main sightseeing spots, so I would stay there again!
Architecture, however, was not the reason why I went to Valencia. Did you know that the largest aquarium in Europe (!) is located here? Roughly 45 000 animals live in it, including belugas, dolphins, my favorite stingrays, walruses, penguins and it has numerous smaller aquariums with fish from all over the world! After visiting this aquarium no other ocean museum in Europe will be the same. From the places that I have visited only Georgia Aquarium is comparable. It’s not only for the kids, but for any fish enthusiast or anyone who would like to see up close the animals that normally live in seas far away and deep.