There is a first time for everything in life. Even if Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe (after London and Paris), one of you might be a Barcelona-virgin. In that case, continue reading. This article is for you.
The capital of Catalonia is a vibrant city nestled between Mount Tibidabo and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s mega international, cosmopolitan and vibrant. The city is not only attracting many tourists but it also has a huge expat community. It inspires… It’s friendly and everyone can find here something for himself. To love the city however, you have to love the crowds. Barcelona is like a colourful extravagant bird… And it can be very loud. Barcelona is like the opera… either you love it or you hate it. You can’t be indifferent towards this city. Barcelona is so many things… One thing it is for sure: NOT boring!
No matter if summer or winter, Barcelona has always things to offer. Today I would like to ‘go mainstream’ and list the places that you should see when visiting the city for the first time.
What a first-timer should visit in Barcelona
Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) – stroll around the cute, little streets of the historic center, visit churches, cathedrals, monuments… Discover Gaudi, architecture and history. Buy souvenirs and try local specialities.
Go on the paths of Antoni Gaudi – Barcelona’s famous XX century architect – and visit Sagrada Familia, Casa Milá, Casa Batllò, Park Güell… Barcelona has 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Seven of them were created by Gaudi!
Walk down (or up) La Rambla (or rather Las Ramblas to be precise) just as the sailors did when arriving for the first time to the harbor of Barcelona. The famous boulevard connects the Old Harbour (Port Vell) with Plaça Catalunya and is a vibrant, buzzy place. Shop, have a coffee and visit the colourful Mercado de la Boqueria.
Plaça Catalunya is a good starting point for your shopping tour. Have a drink at the Hard Rock Café and continue moving down the Avinguda del Portal de l’Àngel, a pedestrian shopping street… (and apparently also the most crowded street in Spain), towards the Cathedral and the Barri Gòthic.
On the other end of La Rambla you will find the Columbus Monument with Christopher indicating the direction of America. That’s the entrance to the Harbour. Rambla del Mar – a walkway with a swing bridge – connects La Rambla and Port Vell. The Port is a lovely place for a walk or just to sit in one of the bars and restaurants and contemplate the maritime scenery. In the Maremàgnum you can see a movie at the multiplex cinema or shop at the mall. For fish (and shark!) fans – there is also the IMAX, Europe’s largest aquarium.
Should you fancy ‘an excursion’: Port Vell is also the leading cruiser port for the Mediterranean destinations. There are frequent ferry connections from the port of Barcelona to the Balearic Islands (Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca) as well as direct connections to Italy (Genoa, Civitavecchia, Savona and Livorno), Morocco (Tangier), France (Sète) and Algeria (Algiers).
One of my prefered activities is a long stroll along the seafront promenade, passing the city beaches: Barceloneta, Port Olympic and Poble Nou, all the way until Marbella. It’s a lovely walk with many possibilities to have a break and chill in one of the numerous bars and chiringuitos.
My recommendation: Climb up the iconic Montjuïc…
Barcelona’s Montjuïc is a 185 high hill in the city center, overlooking Port Vell. The eastern side of the hill is almost a sheer cliff, giving it a commanding view over the city’s harbour immediately below. On the top of the hill you find the Castle of Montjuïc. The fortress dates from the 17th and 18th century and has a dark history. It used to serve as a prison, often holding political prisoners, until the time of General Franco. The castle was also the site of numerous executions. Today this historic place serves as Barcelona’s municipal facility and is open for visits (there are even ghost tours you can book…).
You can also enjoy a walking tour around this magnificent viewpoint over the city and have a drink at the bar on the top. You can reach the top of the hill via a nice and airy walking track, the Camí del Mar. On your way you pass through the parks Jardins del Mirador and Jardins de Joan Brossa. Beautiful.
If you prefer you can take the Montjuïc Cable Car. Hop on the cable railway at the Paral·lel metro station and take the ‘Telefèric de Montjuïc’ for a 750-meter-long trip to the top of Montjuïc, high above the city. You can hop on and off at any of the three stations: Parc de Montjuïc, Miramar and Castell de Montjuïc.
The area of Montjuïc also offers various museums like Fundaciò Miro, Poble Espanyol, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), The Archaeology Museum of Catalonia… You also find several theaters around there. You enjoy many green areas and parks, the famous Montjuïc Cemetery, and last but not least the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc with the evening light shows.
Speaking about Art…
Besides of the MNAC, art lovers can visit the famous Museum Picasso and the CCCB – The Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona offering many interesting contemporary exhibitions. Thanks to the sponsorship of Moritz (the local beer brewery) you can enjoy free admission to the exhibitions Sunday from 3pm to 8pm. In fact all three museums offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month all year round. Many other museums actually do the same every Sunday afternoon. Just check their websites before planning your visit, you might be able to save a few Euros.
Something different you might find interesting (I did) is the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum, located in the beautiful Palau Mornau. Lovely visit even for non-Marihuana fans and the architecture is stunning.
Visit also the Arc de Triomf, built as the main access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. It resemble the famous Arc de Triomphe de L’Étoile in Paris. Just behind the Arc you find a lovely park – the Parc de la Ciutadella, the city’s green oasis.
Other interesting places in Barcelona…
If you are a football fan you should visit the FC Barcelona stadium – Camp Nou!
El Paral·lel as the Avinguda del Paral·lel is commonly called, used to be the core of Barcelona’s nightlife, with music halls and other venues and is still known for its theaters and cabarets (Sala Apolo, El Molino, etc.). The name of the avenue originates from the fact that the street runs parallel to the Equator. It is one of Barcelona’s main streets and connects Plaça d’Espanya with the seafront.
Maritime Museum, located in the historic Barcelona Royal Shipyard (a former military building from the 13th century), near Port Vell.
Plaça d’Espanya is one of Barcelona’s main squares where the city’s exhibition halls (Fira Barcelona) are located. Plaça Espanya is also a major transport hub that serves most parts of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona. There is a direct Bus from Airport to the Plaça (Aerobus).
The melodically sounding name of Tibidabo belongs to the mountain overlooking Barcelona. Offering spectacular views over the city and the coastline, this mountain seems to embrace the capital. On the summit (in 510 m height) there is a church sitting like a queen on the throne looking down on the city with ‘her protective eye’. Strangely enough (if you ask me), right next to the Sagrat Cor church there is a an Amusement Park… Ok…!?! So if you are not into churches, now you know where to bring your kids for fun ‘high up’.
Other tips and hints for Barca…
For chocolate fans: You should try Granja Viader. Especially in the winter season is the traditional café and home of Cacaolat a ‘must’ for some Churros con Chocolate.
For the more romantic ones among you: Have long strolls along the seafront and around the jardins and parks of Montjuïc. Did you know that in Barcelona the sun rises over the sea and sets over the mountains? A lovely spectacle.
For Flamenco fans: On the top of Montjuïc there is an open air bar with a lovely view over the harbour, La Caseta del Migdia. In summer there is a free Flamenco performance every Sunday (you can even have a BBQ while watching).
Fancy a funky haircut or a cool new hair colour while in town? Try Outcast, a hip French hairdresser salon of a different kind. Hair salon meets art gallery. You listen to amazing hits from Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra to contemporary songs (at times louder, giving the place a pub-like ambience), sometimes you get a drink offered and you feel like among friends while the mega cool Leslie works on your hair and her dog takes a nap at your feet. Good prices, amazing hair styles. Awesome head massage, no rush, just fun! Free-spirited place with even a bit of rebellion in the air. Perfect place for me!
Pinchos lovers will be in heaven on ‘Blai’. The pedestrian street in Poble Sec is full of little bars, bodegas and pinchos restaurants. Walk in, grab a few pinchos and a drink, keep the ‘palitos’ (toothpicks) for your bill (you pay by the amount of them, one pincho is usually 1-2 EUR and the color of the pallito indicates the price), have fun, change the bar and grab more pichos and drinks… Perfect bar hopping for a group of friends who just want to ‘grab a bite’ instead of sitting in a restaurant. Can get pretty crowded in summer.
I hope I gave you a little first insight about my new home city. Now come and discover if for yourself.
As for me, I have to admit, Barcelona and I… Wasn’t love at first sight. I came 4 times as a tourist or visiting friends before I moved here and I didn’t like the city at first. The classic case: You get a job offered in a city you didn’t consider for a living, you move and… You start loving the city (happened to me also with London). As I said, Barcelona is cosmopolitan and vibrant… On the top there are many French people and many gay people. What’s not to like!?
…and of course there is the beach…
PS: Check here what you can do in Barcelona during the winter season.