Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in the world – and you can be spoiled for choice with things to do in Barcelona. Therefore, to avoid overwhelm, I thought I would narrow it down to only a few ‘umbrella’ things to do. Within these four top things to do, you can flex and choose the specific things you’d like to do to suit your tastes.
I have visited Barcelona a couple of times. I developed a crush on the place on my first visit – it was just so gorgeous! And on my most recent visit in September 2021, it felt like a romance: I fell deeper in love with this seductive city. I just love the warm ochre colour of Barcelona’s streets and the easy charm of its culture.
Of course, some feel like Barcelona’s popularity has become a curse – so I couldn’t write about Barcelona without also sharing some thoughts on how not to contribute to the problems of over-tourism.
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1. Wander the atmospheric streets & alleys
Yes, I put this as the top thing to do in Barcelona before any sightseeing! If you have read any of my city break articles, you’ll notice I always recommend wandering on foot a little. This is how you will really get a feel for Barcelona: by walking the laid-back streets away from the big tourist attractions.
(Briefly) Ramble along La Rambla
Now, I include La Rambla on the list because it is so famous and because anyone with any curiosity will want to at least see what this place is all about.
La Rambla (or Las Ramblas as it is sometimes called) is a wide, tree-lined boulevard running north-west/south-east, with a central walkway designed for, well, gentle rambling. I imagine it was once where the well-to-do of Barcelona came for a stroll and to socialise – or just to be seen. However, these days, it is exclusively a tourist destination, flanked by souvenir stalls.
For this reason, I don’t think you should spend much time here. In fact, I say have a little look around and then turn off into one of the side streets on the east side, and push past the over-priced tourist shops, heading east until the streets start to feel more residential. Hence my next suggestion is a higher priority…
Wander the alleys of the Ciutat Vella
Barcelona’s old town is known as Ciutat Vella (the Old City), and it contains the neighbourhoods of the Gothic Quarter, El Raval and La Ribera / El Born.
For me, these old neighbourhoods with their dense network of narrow streets are the heart of Barcelona. When I arrived in this area on my most recent trip, it was pouring down – and I still ventured out because this area is so seductive, even in the rain!
I loved wandering these streets and alleys, many of which are pedestrian-only. I don’t think you necessarily need a map here – though I normally wander with a general sense of the direction I want to end up in, and then take any streets that interest me in that general direction.
If you push past the touristy stalls near La Rambla, you will start to feel a bit more of the real old city of Barcelona, with markets and ordinary shops and quiets squares in which to sit and watch the world go by.
Saunter along the boulevards of Eixample
As well as the narrow streets of the old town, I also love the wide, handsome boulevards of Eixample, in central Barcelona.
This extensive grid of streets and avenues was designed by architect Ildefons Cerdà and built when the city expanded in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between streets, the blocks are actually octagonal, rather than square, as they have chamfered corners. These were chosen to create room for horses & carriages to turn at intersections, plus to allow better ventilation in the city.
Some of these wide, straight tree-lined streets are noisy with traffic, but some are relatively quiet and pleasant to wander along.
A good way to get a feel for this part of town is to walk in between sights. For example, you could walk the blocks between La Sagrada Família and Casa Batlló.
2. Visit a Gaudí masterpiece
It is practically illegal to visit Barcelona without paying homage to Antoni Gaudí at least once, so, of course, this is one of the top four things to do in Barcelona. Seven of his modernist architectural works in Barcelona became a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2005, so you should check out at least a couple of them.
Basílica de la Sagrada Família
Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece is an icon – possible the icon – of Barcelona! Its towers reach far beyond the height of any other buildings in the city centre, and its unique, gothic-inspired style clashes unapologetically with the relative uniformity of the grids around it.
Construction started on Gaudi’s church in 1882 and is ongoing today. It is estimated it will not be finished until 2030 or 2032!
On my first visit to Barcelona in 2007, I thought it looked amazing and didn’t realise how much more was planned. At that time, four spires facing Plaça de la Sagrada Família park were up, but little existed behind them. When I revisited in September 2021, I had a sense of the huge towers starting to rise up in the centre of the building.
You can admire the spectacle of the exterior for free, from the pavement and from Plaça de la Sagrada Família. Or if you want a cathedral interior tour, this is possible from €26.
Even though La Sagrada Família is huge and spectacular, Casa Batlló is my favourite Gaudi building. I just love the whimsical design – the iridescent colours and the organic curves of the window frames. Overall, its style is closest to pure Art Nouveau to me – and perhaps that’s why I love it so much.
It was a house already when Gaudi redesigned it in 1904 for the Batlló family. The new design was finished in 1906 and stayed in the family until 1940. Casa Batlló is now an exhibition: €35 time-limited tickets include tours of the interior, including access to the roof. They also do concerts on the roof!
Casa Batlló is located on ‘Illa de la Discòrdia’, or Block of Discord’, a row of unique houses on Passeig de Gràcia, which is a wide, tree-lined boulevard in Eixample – so do check out the other houses in this row. Whilst not as bold and visionary as Casa Batlló, they are still interesting in their own right.
Casa Mila (or La Pedrera)
Just up the road from Casa Batlló (literally, 5 minutes walk up Passeig de Gràcia) is Casa Mila.
Occupying a corner of one of the blocks, Casa Mila has a fluid structural style with a rough-hewn finish. It is this finish that gave rise to its nickname, La Pedrera, which means ‘stone quarry’. It was built between 1906 and 1912 and was the last private house designed by Gaudí.
Whilst the building itself isn’t as ostentatious and enchanting as Casa Batlló, a big draw is the rooftop terrace with a collection of charismatic chimneys. Tickets include an audio guide and a Gaudí exhibition.
Other Gaudí landmarks
I’ve listed the top three Gaudí buildings, but there are others, four of which are included with the above in the UNESCO listing as ‘works of Antoni Gaudí’:
- Parc Güell, which has views over the City
- Palau Güell, a mansion in the El Raval neighbourhood
- Casa Vicens, an ornate mansion in the neighbourhood of Gràcia
- Church of Colònia Güell, unfinished church in the suburb of Santa Coloma de Cervelló
It really is fascinating to see the impact of Gaudí’s legacy in Barcelona.
3. Other architectural highlights
Whilst Gaudi rightly takes most of the architectural attention in Barcelona, there is a lot of other interesting architecture – from the modernist period and earlier. So if you’re interested in a non-Gaudi thing to do in Barcelona, check out these ideas.
Palau de la Música Catalana
I really fell in love with this place. The Palau de la Música Catalana is a music hall, designed in the Catalan modernist style by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and built in 1908.
It is nestled in narrow streets of the old town – so narrow that it is hard to take in the full glory of it!
The hall hosts concerts of classical music and dance. And if you’re not in the market for a musical performance, you can still enjoy the gorgeous building by getting a coffee in their stunning, decorative cafe.
You will be forgiven for thinking that Gaudi’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família is the Cathedral of Barcelona. It gets so much attention, and it is so big, it is easy to make that mistake.
However, Barcelona already has a cathedral called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, located in the heart of the Gothic quarter. This cathedral dates from the 14th Century and is an example of Gothic architectural style.
Wandering around the cathedral and the nearby streets, you get a real sense of how Barcelona was before the 19th century expansion.
Arc De Triomf
No, you didn’t read that wrong: there is an Arc De Triomf in Barcelona, as well as an Arc De Triomphe in Paris.
The Barcelona arch was built by Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas as the main gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair which was held in the Parc de la Ciutadella. It sits proudly at the northern end of the palm tree-lined Passeig de Lluís Companys promenade, near the Old town.
It is an attractive reddish colour, with a series of ornate friezes. The frieze overlooking the Passeig de Sant Joan depicts Barcelona welcoming the nations and the frieze facing the park shows the city presenting medals to the exhibition participants.
4. Taste some Spanish food
If you’re like me, when you’re in a place, you want to try the food of that place – even if there are plenty of international options available. So when in Spain, eating Spanish food will always be on my list of things to do.
I definitely haven’t tried enough of Barcelona’s food to know which is the best overall (you probably have to live there for a long time to reach that conclusion). However, I have tried a lot of good food all over the world, so I have picked up a sense of what is good or not. I will share a few things that I really enjoyed during my most recent visit to Barcelona.
Small plates of tapas is quintessentially Spanish, and great if you like to try lots of different dishes!
I tried a couple of tapas places in the El Born area and the best I had was from Elsa Y Fred. I loved all three of the dishes I had, which were:
- Melon & cucumber gazpacho with coconut and pistachio
- Kimchee croquette – an interesting take on the classic deep-fried dish.
- Zucchini carpaccio – really amazing: not too much ham, really punchy cheese and the zucchini kept it feeling fresh
It was busy when I dropped in without a reservation, so my only option was to sit at the bar (which is actually my favourite seat when I’m travelling solo and dining alone). Therefore, I’d suggest booking ahead.
Browse La Boqueria
Just off La Rambla is a market, which has been there for more than 800 years – although the current covered structure was not built until 1853. Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (often called simply La Boqueria) is home to a range of food stalls, including meats, fishes and also snack and tapas counters where you can buy fresh food & drink to eat on the spot.
I had some fried calamari and patatas bravas at Kiosk Universal, where the food is so fresh the razor clams in the counter in front of me were wriggling around!
La Boqueria has become a real tourist destination so it gets very busy and in peak season, there are limits on how many people can come in, so it might be best to come early if you want to grab lunch – say 12:30/1 pm.
Shop in Mercat de Santa Caterina
A far less busy alternative to La Boqueria is a food market in El Born, Mercat de Santa Caterina. This is more of an actual, functional market, where people buy fresh meats, fish and bread etc. If you’re self-catering, this could be a good option to get ingredients. And if you don’t need to buy food, there are cafes near the entrance where you can get fresh sandwiches, salads etc.
The obvious missing item…
There’s a glaring gap in this list of things to do in Barcelona…
Not it’s not the Camp Nou football stadium! I am highly unlikely to ever visit a football stadium when travelling, so I am highly unlikely to recommend one.
No, the missing item from this list of things to do in Barcelona is the beach: Barcelona is nestled between the Montserrat mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. The only reason I haven’t recommend the beach is that in two visits to Barcelona, I still haven’t been to any of the city beaches… I have been to other beaches in the Costa Brava area near Barcelona, and they are wonderful. But when visiting Barcelona, I have always sought out the city itself rather than the city beaches.
So if you go to Barceloneta or any of the other city beaches, please report back and let me know how it is!
Map of the Best things to do in Barcelona
Aren’t there reasons NOT to visit Barcelona?
I felt like I couldn’t publish this post without acknowledging some of the reasons people might NOT want to visit Barcelona, like over-tourism, crime and political unrest.
What about over-tourism?
Barcelona is often a case study used to discuss the damaging impacts of over-tourism, with images of cruise ships offloading thousands of tourists every day, and stories of locals priced out of living in their neighbourhoods by sky-high rental prices.
I’m not an expert on this topic, but I’ve read about over-tourism in Barcelona and it seems like there are a few things would-be visitors can do to avoid making the problem worse:
- The first solution is that you could, of course, choose another destination, once less impacted by tourism. There are plenty of charming European cities with less of a tourism problem, including Ljubljana, Riga (like Barcelona, a big destination for Art Nouveau architecture) or Kraków.
- Another is that you could go to Barcelona, but choose to spend money responsibly. One of the issues highlighted as a problem in Barcelona is little money being spent outside the big tourist sites – so consider getting off the tourist track and spending your money with some local business. Hopefully this article has given some ideas of how to do that.
- And a really key solution is to visit outside of the peak season, to avoid being part of the overwhelming tidal wave of visitors in summer.
- Finally, stay in registered accommodation to avoid the demand for unregulated home lets, which is driving up rents and forcing locals out.
What about Crime?
There’s no avoiding the fact that Barcelona has a reputation for pick-pocketing. Despite the news announced recently that Barcelona is the fourth safest city in Europe, according to The Economist, this reputation for street crime persists. Spanish people I know warned me to be extra careful in Barcelona, as the pickpockets are thought to be amongst the best in the world!
This didn’t put me off visiting, but I did take extra care with my belongings in the street:
- I didn’t wear anything flashy that might attract attention
- I didn’t have anything in pockets that could be reached into – everything was behind a zip
- I wore a cross-body bag, that couldn’t be easily pulled off my shoulder
- I kept myself very aware of who was around me at all times
- I was careful when I had my camera in a backpack with me – and if I had gone anywhere crowded, I may have worn it on my front, rather than my back
- I didn’t have more than two drinks out before I had to walk back to my hotel
I haven’t experienced any crime in Barcelona myself – on either visit – and I hope you won’t too.
What about political unrest?
Barcelona is the capital and largest city of Catalonia, a region of Spain that has a distinct identity, culture and own language. The history between Spain and Catalonia goes back a thousand years or more – and recently, there’s been a growing push for Catalonia to separate from Spain.
This came to head during a referendum in 2017, after which there were demonstrations, a police crackdown and eventually arrests of Catalan political leaders.
This issue has been quieter in recent years, and while you will doubtless see the yellow, red, blue and white Catalan flag displayed around the city, there haven’t been any protests for a few years.
However, if you are worried about any unrest, keep an eye on the news – and if any protests start when you’re there, definitely avoid getting involved!
When is best to visit Barcelona?
I’ve been to Barcelona in September both times – this is a great time to go. By this time, the intense heat has dissipated a little; prices can be lower AND you avoid the crowds that contribute to Barcelona’s over-tourism challenge, as mentioned earlier.
I did have a little rain there on my second visit, but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the place.
Where to stay in Barcelona?
I can recommend Musik Boutique Hotel. My room was really big and spacious, with a lovely bathroom. The staff were really helpful, too.
It is centrally located in the El Born neighbourhood of the old town, with plenty of tapas and coffee places within walking distance.
Enjoy your trip to Barcelona!
And let me know what you think of it!