Barcelona is one of Spain’s most popular destinations. There is the fantastic architecture everywhere you look, from the genius of Antoni Gaudi to the quirky lines of the Modernistas and the Gothic details of the Barri Gotic. There’s a surplus of colour and life in Barcelona’s streets, delicious food to be sampled in the markets and picked at in the pintxos bars, and art galleries and museums galore. There’s plenty to see and do in this magical city – here are my top ten sights and sounds of Barcelona.
1. Casa Batllo
Casa Batllo was commissioned as a private residence, and Gaudi used a marine motif throughout, incorporating light, space and more dazzlingly, an innate practicality in all his designs. It is also known as the House of Bones, because from the outside, the balconies look like skulls. The colourful ridged roof also lends itself to giving the house its other name, Dragonhouse, because it looks so much like the undulating back of a dragon. The chimneys look like upturned dragon claws and the mosaic work on all surfaces, is a stunning kaleidoscope of colour. Gaudi’s work is like a fairyland, a whodunnit which leaves you guessing as to his true intentions, all the while marvelling at his whimsy, wit and genius. Pay for the audioguide and immerse yourself for a few hours in his world.
There are no straight lines – the design is inspired by nature and as every art student knows, nature knows no straight lines. Even the horizon, if you stop to think about it, is a gentle curve. In the same approach, Gaudi has swirled the gentle spine of a whale, the colour of the sea, fins and gills, skeletons and bones and delicate vein-like lines into this house. It’s a joy to be in, a joy to discover.
2. The Sagrada Familia
No list of top ten of Barcelona’s best sights would omit the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s great work – the cathedral was started in 1886 and as yet still unfinished. Eight of the twelve towers representing the Twelve Apostles are completed, with four to go and the massive central tower, representing Jesus, yet to be started. The cathedral is due to be completed by 2026 and I can just imagine the crowds flocking to this by then! It is one of the most recognisable symbols of Barcelona – Paris has the Eiffel, but this is an ongoing masterpiece.
It is huge, this cathedral, its spires soaring above Barcelona’s rather squat skyline. There are three entrances with the motifs Nativity, Passion and Glory. The first is all Gaudi; beautiful sculptures of lifelike animals – ducks and geese, squirrels and turtles holding up the corners. The second, recently completed is by another artist, with modern, clean lines and a clear tribute to Gaudi’s stormtrooper chimneys from Casa Mila. Glory, the last motif, is currently being finished.
Inside, though, is where this behemoth building takes you by the heart. Unlike medieval, Gothic, Romanesque or any other type of cathedral, this one is all brightness and lightness and space. It lifts the spirit, guides the eye up towards its flower encrusted ceiling. Gaudi used branched pillars, drawing on nature, as usual, for his inspiration. Instead of the thick, heavy pillars used to support the soaring ceiling, his ridged columns climb gracefully towards the sky and branch out into the web of flowers overhead. When completed, the Sagrada will have marvellous, bright, stained glass windows on all sides, that soaring, bone white forest of pillars, and that trademark, wondrously childlike mosaic-work, glittering in the sun. It’s due for completion in 2026, the last great cathedrals of our time.
3. Picasso Museum
The Picasso Museum holds the largest collection of works by the artist outside of Paris. Most of the paintings are from his early days, which show his progression towards Cubism, including his Blue period, dot paintings and Pink period. Although best known for his paintings, Picasso was also an accomplished all-rounder, producing engravings, sketches, prints, ceramics and graphic designer. The museum offers a rare insight to Picasso’s younger days, and some of the exhibits there have never been displayed elsewhere in the world.
4. La Boqueria
Filled to the rafters with cheeses, jamon, fresh fruit and seafood, La Boqueria is Barcelona’s most popular food market – and for good reason. Dating from the 13th century, the market is where many of Barcelona’s top restaurants source their ingredients from. La Boqueria is a foodies delight, and well worth a visit just for the impeccable, mouth watering displays of food. There’s also a food school which runs classes for both amateurs and professionals; topics include classes run for young adults, children or with a focus on Catalan cuisine.
5. Ramble down colourful La Rambla
The main artery to the heart of Barcelona, La Rambla is a mile long stretch of road that heaves with artists, buskers, human statues, fortune-tellers, and tourists. There are colourful flower stalls, noisy bird sellers, art by Joan Miró, tiny kiosks selling everything from newspapers to chewing gum, and bustling cafes lining the street. La Boqueria is also located along La Ramblas. Street performers dance the flamenco, juggle and throw fire sticks. Colourful and sometimes raucous, La Ramblas is also a favourite spot for tricksters and pickpockets looking for an easy mark, so while soaking in the scene, be wary of your belongings.
6. Pick at pintxos
The Basque version of Spanish tapas, pintxos are small plates of food served on bread, usually as a side to a wine or beer ordered at the bar. Toothpicks are provided for you to pick up and eat the food – the number of toothpicks is counted at the end of the end of the night and your bill tallied accordingly. Pintxos bars abound in Barcelona – try Irati, Txakolin or Euskal Etxea for delicious bites.
7. El Raval
Also known as Barrio Chino, El Raval used to be Barcelona’s seedy, red light ghetto. Even today, the area still has it’s rough edges, though it is rapidly gentrifying. There are bohemian cafes, literary bookshops and at night, bars aplenty at which to wet your whistle. Marsella is likely the Raval’s most famous absinthe bar – start your night here with a visit from the green fairy.
8. Views from Montjuïic
Overlooking Barcelona’s skyline is the hill of Montjuïic, which offers fantastic views over the city. Take the Montjuiic cable car to the top, or if you’re feeling energetic, climb to the top yourself. There’s the Palau Nacional, where the MNAC is located, a gallery of Catalan art. There’s also the Poble Espanol, showcasing various Spanish architecture and designs from all over the country.
9. Modernista moods in L’Eixample
The orderly, gridlocked streets of L’Eixample house more than just Gaudi’s creations, though Casa Batllo, La Pedrera and the Sagrada are deserved highlights. As you wander around, keep your eyes skyward and marvel at the quirky details of the whimsical buildings that dot the area, all the result of Modernista architects, all built around the turn of the century. The Hospital St Pau is a popular destination in the area.
10. Park Guell
Originally built as a pet project for one of Barcelona’s richest men, Park Guell is now a wonderland filled with gingerbread houses, sparkling ceramic lizards, and candy coloured roofs. Gaudi’s touch is evident everywhere here in Park Guell, and visitors flock here to see the whimsical Modernist sculptures he created. The park also gives great views of the city.