by Roxanne Wells
If you’re looking for a truly unique ‘best of all worlds’ city destination, Barcelona is hard to beat. A hotbed of contrasts and contradictions, the Catalan capital quickly enchants visitors with its mix of magnificent landmarks, magical architecture, gothic charm and lively urban beachfront.
The first stop on any tour of Barcelona has to be its iconic landmark cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. The masterpiece of Barcelona’s favourite architect, Antoni Gaudi, is like something from a dark fairy-tale, with a structure that looks almost skeletal thanks to bone-like columns and gnarly spires. Each of the three grand façades are themed to an incredibly detailed extent, carved with scenes and characters to tell the age-old stories of Christ in the most dramatic way. Whether you find this famous cathedral to be delightfully creative or strange and garish, it simply must be seen.
As a fan of Gaudi’s curious and undeniably eccentric style of architecture, I followed my visit to the Sagrada Familia with a stroll down the leafy Passeig de Gràcia, a smart wide avenue that boasts Gaudi’s second and third most famous buildings, La Pedrera (Casa Mila) and Casa Batlló. The curved rock-carved design of La Pedrera is the simpler of the two, having been given its name (which means open quarry) to match its almost cave-like appearance. Casa Batlló, on the opposite side of the street, is prettier, with a multicoloured façade and colourful tiled roof that reminded me of the scales of a mermaid’s tail or shimmering fish. The skull-like balconies beneath each window confirm that every Gaudi building has a dark side.
If you love to shop then you’ll want to spend more time on Passeig de Gràcia, as it’s lined with smart, airy boutiques showcasing everything from designer clothes and luxury jewellery to cool Spanish fashions and expensive sportswear. I was yet to have my fill of Gaudi architecture so I hopped on the Metro up to Parc Güell. There you’ll find Gaudi’s mosaic lizard, ‘El Drac’ (the city’s unofficial mascot!) guarding a magical village of colourful turrets, shaded caves, towering columns and Hansel and Gretel-esque houses, all at the centre of lush parklands with spectacular views across the city skyline and out to the distant blue of the Mediterranean Sea.
From hilltop Parc Güell I then took the Metro back down into the city, stopping at the bustling Mercat dels Encants (Barcelona’s largest flea market). Under its incredible mirrored ceiling, I wandered stalls selling everything from black and white photographs to second-hand shoes, stopping for a glass of Estrella (Barcelona’s local beer) and a cone of churros (long thin donuts sold with a thick chocolate sauce to dip) at a street food zone complete with musicians to entertain the crowd. A wander of this part of the city will also take you past the gleaming Torre Glóries building and Barcelona’s own Arc de Triomf, before leading you down through leafy Parc de la Ciutadella to the yacht-lined marina and sandy Barceloneta beach.
If you’re an art lover, then of course the Picasso museum should be on your must-visit list. You’ll find it ensconced deep in the Gothic Quarter of the city (probably my favourite part of Barcelona), where a maze of winding streets leads to pretty squares and beautiful gothic buildings. The vast Barcelona Cathedral is a must-see, but don’t concern yourself too much with a map – the charm of this part of the city is in wandering the backstreets and discovering the hidden museums, churches, markets and landmarks for yourself – stopping for tapas and sangria or coffee and churros along the way, naturally.
As the Gothic Quarter sits on the edge of Las Ramblas, it naturally leads into a stroll of Barcelona’s most famous street. This wide avenue is lined with pavement cafes, flower sellers, pet shops and street entertainers, making it a lively gauntlet of sights, sounds and smells. I took slight detours half way up Las Ramblas to see Plaça Reial, with its ornamental fountain, lush palms and smart portico running around all four sides, and the La Boqueria public market, with its stalls stacked high with colourful fresh produce – a great place to stop for a thirst-quenching fresh-squeezed orange juice.
At the very top of Las Ramblas (and the bottom of the earlier mentioned Passeig de Gràcia) lies the city’s central gathering point, Plaça de Catalunya – a vast marble-floored square flanked by fountains and flowerbeds. From here I rode the Metro to the impressive Plaça Espanya, which lies at the entrance to the Montjuïc hill area. There’s lots to see here, starting with Plaça Espanya, its central monumental fountain and Venetian-inspired twin towers, and leading down past the Montjuïc Magic Fountains to a collection of museums, the Olympic Stadium and Sant Jordi arena, Barcelona’s botanical gardens and the 17th century fortress, Montjuïc Castle. Whether it’s art, history, sport or nature that interests and inspires you, the Montjuïc area has it covered. I timed my visit with the evening Magic Fountains performance (at varying after-dark times depending on the month) and found the light, sound and water-acrobatics display, positioned in-front of the grand Museum of Catalan Art, to be the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing in Barcelona.
Our Barcelona & the Highlights of Catalonia Tour boasts two days in this spectacular city, including a guided city tour and visit to the Sagrada Familia, and a free day to explore Barcelona completely at your leisure. While you’ll have ample time to experience the essence of this city, you’ll want to plan carefully to ensure you get to see the attractions and areas that interest you the most. Alternatively, do as the Spanish do and take a more relaxed approach to your trip, simply wandering the city streets, soaking up the unique atmosphere and seeing where your day in Barcelona leads you!