The capital of Spain’s Catalonia region is one of Europe’s most beautiful and vibrant places. Barcelona is like no other Spanish city; this is most evident in its language (locals speak Catalan, not Castilian Spanish) and in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves. Keep your eye out for the unmistakable work of Antoni Gaudi, the city’s best known architect.
Barcelona sits between the Collserola mountain range and the Mediterranean Sea. The easiest way for visitors to get their bearings is to realize that the city is basically divided into two parts. First, there’s the old city, which is where the heart of everything — from museums to shopping and cafes — is based. Then there’s the port area, known as Port Vell, featuring bars, restaurants, shops and an IMAX theater.
In fact, one of Barcelona’s best attributes is that while it seems large and spread out, its neighborhoods are surprisingly walkable and easily accessible by bus, metro or even foot (in comfortable shoes). Don’t miss a stroll along La Rambla, replete with produce and flower stands, a historic opera house and living statues (street performers).
Just be sure to rest your feet now and then over a few plates of tapas (which are meant to be shared, but we won’t tell) and an ice-cold pitcher of sangria.
Editor’s Note: Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets, particularly along La Rambla. Leave valuables in your hotel safe, and carry credit cards and cash in a secure place (ideally in a money belt under your clothes). For more information, see our Money Safety Tips.
A fabulous promenade leading from the port to Placa de Catalunya, the center of old Barcelona, La Rambla is lined with shops, cafes, flower stalls, street performers and a wonderful food market called Boqueria. You’ll pass by the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s circa-1847 opera house (it was gutted by a fire in 1994 but has been rebuilt). La Rambla ends at the Placa de Catalunya — a huge plaza that is the heart of the city and is surrounded by shops and cafes.
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s funkiest church, was designed by Gaudi. The most unusual thing about it? It’s not finished yet! He began working on it in 1883 and designed intriguing features such as the bell towers, covered in Venetian mosaics, and the nativity-themed facade, with doorways representing faith, hope and charity. Services are held in the crypt where Gaudi is buried. The best way to experience Sagrada Familia is to take the elevator to the top of one of the towers; there’s an awesome view from that height. Also be sure to spend some time in the church museum. The Nativity Facade and Crypt of the Sagrada Familia are, along with six other of the city’s Gaudi works, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church is scheduled to be finished in 2026.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) is Barcelona’s ode to the art of the past few decades, housing works by major international figures (Klee, Broodthaers) as well as the biggest up-and-coming Catalonian artists.
Architect Antoni Gaudi designed Palau Guell, a gorgeous late-19th-century palace capped with whimsical, brightly colored chimneys. It’s part of the Works of Antoni Gaudi UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another Gaudi design, Parc Guell is a pleasant public park overlooking the city — a maze of tropical flowers and colorful accents. The entrance is guarded by a mosaic lizard and two fanciful gatehouses (one of which houses a souvenir shop).
Gaudi’s brilliant colors and fantastical designs can be seen at two other must-visit sites: Casa Batllo (known by the locals as Casa dels Ossos, or “house of bones”) and Casa Mila (commonly known as La Pedrera, or “the quarry”), both located on Passeig de Gracia.
For a look at Barcelona at its most gracious, pay a visit to the Eixample neighborhood north of Placa de Catalunya; in addition to some of the Gaudi sites mentioned above, this is also the home of the city’s toniest boutiques, galleries, antique shops and restaurants. This “extension” to the city is home to an abundance of architecture from the turn of the 20th century.
Visit the atmospheric Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, where the architecture dates back to the 13th century. Streets are winding and narrow, and there are numerous boutiques and antique and artisan galleries. One of its best-known attractions is the Picasso Museum; founded in 1963, the museum specializes in the works of Pablo Picasso (he donated works himself). Also in the neighborhood is the Barcelona Cathedral, parts of which date back to 1298. Santa Maria del Mar is another church worth inspecting; it is, for this ornate city, unusually simple and quite elegant. It was built between 1329 and 1383.
Sports enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Olympic Stadium. It existed before the Olympic Games were held there, but it was completely remodeled in 1992 just for the occasion. These days, the stadium is used for various events.
The village of Montjuic rises 700 feet above the city’s commercial port and is chock-a-block with cafes, boutiques, art galleries and museums. Not to be missed is the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, which showcases artifacts from the region’s prehistoric cultures. Another highlight is the Fundacio Joan Miro, which features tapestries, paintings and sculptures by the Catalonian Surrealist. Another key art museum in this area is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya; it’s got one of the world’s premier collections of Romanesque art.
One fun attraction right in town is the Museu de L’Erotica, located on La Rambla. More than a tawdry peep show, the museum (the only one of its kind in Spain) showcases sexuality through the ages and contains a variety of artifacts from all over the world — everything from Buddhist sculptures to modern-day photography and art.
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds in Barcelona’s more popular attractions, consider a visit to the serene 14th-century Pedralbes Monastery, where the highlights include beautifully restored frescoes and a cloister with a medicinal herb garden. Learn more about Pedralbes Monastery.
Take a pilgrimage to Montserrat. The “Serrated Mountain” — more than 4,000 feet high — is an exquisite setting for a monastery. The original church opened in 1592, though Montserrat is an ongoing work in progress. While the complex includes shops and cafes, the real points of interest are the basilica and the Black Virgin — the soul of the monastery. Other features include the Placa de Santa Maria with its Gothic cloisters and the Museum of Montserrat, which exhibits works of art from Catalonia along with Mesopotamia. If you’re visiting in the early afternoon (around 1 p.m.) try to catch the boy choir singing Virolai, the hymn of Montserrat. Montserrat is a working monastery and is home to Benedictine monks. It’s easy to get there; a train runs regularly from Barcelona’s Placa Espanya, a journey of about an hour. There are also tours available from Viator.
For serious beach time, your best bet is to take a RENFE train to the coastal town of Sant Pol de Mar, about a 60-minute ride away.
As in the rest of Spain, tapas — or small plates — are very popular in Barcelona. But Catalan cuisine is unique from the food you’ll find elsewhere, featuring fresh seafood and distinctive sauces. One simple Catalan favorite to try is pa amb tomaquet — sliced bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil. For casual meals, stop by a tapas bar along La Rambla or grab a chorizo sandwich from one of many local stands. If you’re going out for a big restaurant meal, keep in mind that locals eat dinner late (think 9 p.m. and beyond).
Sample Mediterranean and international flavors on the fixed-price tasting menus at intimate Con Gracia, where one option is the “Experience menu,” in which the chefs delight diners with one surprise course after another. Reservations are recommended.
Locals and visitors alike stand in line at Cal Pep to sample what many consider the best seafood in the city. Menu options might include dishes like baby squid with checkpeas or cod with spinach and aioli. The tortillas are to die for.
Since its founding in 1903, Can Sole has been serving up traditional seafood dishes in its location near the marina. Try the paella, a deliciously seasoned dish with rice, fish and shellfish.
For great food and beer at affordable prices, check out Cerveceria Catalana. The ambience is crowded and noisy, but the tapas can’t be beat.
Tucked away on a narrow street in the Gothic Quarter is Els 4 Gats, where a young Pablo Picasso once held his first art exhibition. He and other artists made this cafe/restaurant a bohemian hangout of the early 20th century, and you can still feel the vibe today as you dine on tapas and inventive dishes such as codfish au gratin with quince jelly.
In the hip El Born district, Santagustina is a perfect spot to people watch while sipping cava and enjoying a selection of tapas such as eggplant roasted red peppers with sizzling mozzarella. Or linger with a friend over cafe con leche and pastries.
Can Paixano, located in the Barceloneta area near the port, is said to offer the city’s best cava selection, along with a menu of sandwiches and tapas.
Had enough tapas? Switch it up with a visit to Bun Bo, a colorful Vietnamese restaurant in the up-and-coming Raval district. Meals are fresh and affordable.
Oval, a few blocks from Placa Catalunya, is a modern burger bar where you can create your own custom burger (then name it — the finished product will carry a tiny flag). It’s particularly popular with locals.
Restaurant La Campana, located in the Hostafrancs neighborhood, is an authentic Catalonian spot with a friendly host and inventive twists on traditional cuisine like beef carpaccio with parmesan ice cream. Prices are reasonable for the polished yet cheery sit-down ambience, but portions are not the common small plates; instead, they’re meant for sharing.
Oporto, near the Sagrada Familia, serves up cuisine from Spain’s friendly next-door neighbor. You can sample Portuguese cheeses and sausages as well as various preparations of codfish and veal, among other mouth-watering options.
Shopping in Barcelona
Barcelona is a haven for stylish travelers, offering a wealth of fine clothes, shoes and leather goods. (This is the place to buy that designer leather jacket you’ve been dying for.) The Barri Gotic is packed with offbeat little shops and antique stores, while Eixample is home to chi-chi designer boutiques. Purchases in Spain are subject to an IVA (value-added tax), which non-E.U. citizens can get refunded. Just ask for a tax-free receipt when you make the purchase and show it — along with your purchases — at customs. (A minimum purchase applies.)
El Corte Ingles, Spain’s largest department store chain, has multiple locations around Barcelona, including Placa de Catalunya. The store offers an immense variety and is a real Spanish experience.
Barcelona’s big-name designer boutiques — Chanel, Benetton, Armani — are clustered along elegant Passeig de Gracia, which runs from Placa de Catalunya to Carrer Gran de Gracia. In addition to high fashion and designer merchandise, this avenue also has some lovely examples of Art Nouveau buildings.
More big-name stores, as well as independent boutiques, can be found along Avinguda Diagonal (make a left off of Passeig de Gracia when heading north).
Barceloneta was, at one time, a fishing village. This beachfront neighborhood, filled with narrow, brightly colored houses (and a pretty nice beach), faces the Mediterranean. Following the waterfront, continue on to Port Olimpic, which has shops, cafes and bars. Port Vell, just beyond, has restaurants and Maremagnum, a big fancy shopping mall, complete with movie theater.
–updated by Melissa Paloti, Sarah Schlichter and Brittany Chrusciel
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