Top Things To Do In the Enchanting City of Barcelona

Things to do in Barcelona - Casa Batllo

Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in the world – and you can be spoiled for choice with things to do in Barcelona. With so much on offer, you might need help deciding how to spend your time there. In this Barcelona travel guide, I’ve grouped my ideas into ‘umbrella’ things to do.  Within these groupings, you can flex and choose the specific things you’d like to do to best suit your tastes.

I have visited Barcelona several times. I developed a crush on the place on my first visit – it was just so gorgeous!  And on my second visit, it felt like a romance: I fell deeper in love with this seductive city. I just loved the warm ochre colour of Barcelona’s streets and the easy charm of its culture. On my third visit, I really got to know the city much better – so let me share my love and appreciation for this city with you.

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.

Ornate skylight framing clouds and blue sky in Barcelona
Look up: Just a cool spot I found wandering Barcelona on foot

(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. 

walkway in the middle of La Rambla in Barcelona
La Rambla: have a quick look, then move on

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 Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i 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 second trip, it was pouring down – and I still ventured out because this area is so seductive, even in the rain!

wet alleyway in the El Born neighbourhood in Barcelona
El Born 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 and toward Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, you will start to feel a bit more of the real old city of Barcelona, with markets and ordinary shops and quiet 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.

Tree-lined street in Eixample
Tree-lined street in Eixample

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

Basílica de la Sagrada Família - one of the top things to do in Barcelona
Basílica de la Sagrada Família

Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece is an icon – possible the icon – of Barcelona!  In fact, visiting La Sagrada Família is one of the best things to do in Spain and one of the most unique places to visit in Europe. 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 Gaudí’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. And on my most recent visit, the north tower has been completed (the one with the blue star on top).

You can admire the spectacle of the exterior for free, from the pavement and from both Plaça de la Sagrada Família and Plaça de Gaudí. Or if you want a cathedral interior tour, this is possible from €26.

Casa Batlló

windows in Casa Batlló in Barcelona
Casa Batlló detail

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 (but be warned, it does get very crowded inside, so expect queues throughout the exhibition). 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.

Gaudi's Casa Batlló on the Block of Discord in Barcelona
Casa Batlló on the Block of Discord

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.

Gaudi's Casa Mila building in Barcelona
Casa Mila

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

Detail from the Gaudi-designed Parc Güell in Barcelona
Detail from Parc Güell

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 and is a particularly great place to visit if you’re exploring Barcelona with kids
  • 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.

Other Architectural Highlights

Whilst Gaudí 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-Gaudí 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.

Palau de la Música Catalana in the old town of Barcelona
Palau de la Música Catalana

It is nestled in narrow streets of Barcelona’s Old City – 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.

Barcelona Cathedral

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.

Barcelona's gothic cathedral with three spires and an ornate arched entrance
Barcelona Cathedral

Wandering around the cathedral and the nearby streets of the Gothic Quarter, you get a real sense of how Barcelona was before the 19th century expansion.

Arc De Triomf

red-bricked Arc De Triomf at the end of a palm-tree lined pedestrian walkway
Arc De Triomf and the Passeig de Lluís Companys promenade

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.

Appreciate Barcelona’s Artistic Heritage

Picasso Museum

Gaudí is not the only creative genius associated with Barcelona. Did you know Picasso spent several years living and working in Barcelona as a teen and in his early 20s? He was a key figure in the artistic and avant-garde Bohemian set in Barcelona around the turn of the 20th century – and the city inspired his famous Blue Period. The Picasso Museum is a tribute to his work and legacy. You can find the museum in a narrow alley in El Born. They have a permanent collection of Picasso works, and also varying temporary exhibitions.

Other Art Galleries

MACBA is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, which aims to encourage enjoyment and interest in art and contemporary culture. This iconic gallery is also a famous skateboarding spots in El Raval in the Ciutat Vella.

large white building with green windows at MACBA in Barcelona
MACBA in El Raval

Other art galleries in Barcelona include the National Art Museum of Catalonia, the Museum of Modern Art and the Joan Miro Foundation.

Enjoy Being By The Sea

Visit One of Barcelona’s Many Beaches

Barcelona is nestled between the Montserrat mountains and the Mediterranean Sea and the city has a string of beaches along the shore, which get packed on hot days.  There are plenty of sunbathers, swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders on the beach – and even more people strolling or rolling along the beach front promenade or cooling off in one of the many café terraces.  Possibly the most famous beach is Barceloneta Beach which you can read about on this guide by a fellow travel blogger.

Barcelona beach and the recognisable sail-shaped W hotel
Barcelona beach and the recognisable W hotel

For me personally, though, the beaches are the least interesting thing about Barcelona and I didn’t even go to the beach on my first two visits to the city.  I have been to other beaches in the Costa Brava area near Barcelona, and they are wonderful. But when visiting Barcelona, I am always more drawn to the city itself rather than the city’s beaches.

Daydream About Superyachts In Port Vell

Tucked behind the sandbar so Barceloneta beach is Port Vell, Barcelona’s Marina and home to many spectacular superyachts. I couldn’t believe the size of some of these boats!  It’s a good place to stroll around dreaming of a more glamourous life.

yachts and their masts in the harbour at port vell in barcelona
Yachts in Port Vell

Enjoy Some Green Space

Parc de la Ciutadella

Barcelona is dotted with small squares and city parks, but the biggest and most impressive is Parc de la Ciutadella, which is located close to the harbour and the old city. It contains a zoo, a boating lake, the Catalan Parliament, the Museum of Modern Art and a very ornate fountain.

Green pond and ornate fountain structure with gold figures on top at Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona

 

Parc de la Ciutadella

There’s also plenty of shade, so can be a good spot to get some fresh air on a hot day in the city.

Find a Viewpoint over Barcelona

Barcelona doesn’t have a huge number of skyscrapers, so it doesn’t have a ‘skyline’ in the way some other cities do – but it is still a great city to look over due to the geometric grid system in Eixample, and due to the unapologetic dominance of La Sagrada Familia smack bang in the middle of it.

Turó de la Rovira

Other than Park Güell, one of the best viewpoints is at Turó de la Rovira, an old bunker on a hilltop in the north of Barcelona. It is quite exposed here, though: I got drenched on my last visit, as the skies opened up when I was at the top of the hill (I managed to get this short in just before the rain got really heavy).

View of Barcelona, showing a wide avenue through the city, the sea in the background and la sagrada familia in the centre

 

View from Turó de la Rovira

Rooftop Terrace Bars

There are also many rooftop terrace bars which offer views of Barcelona.  One of the best-known is the terrace bar at the Ayre Hotel Rosellón, which has views over La Sagrada Familia.  However, it is hard to get into and you need to reserve a table weeks in advance (hence I didn’t manage to get in on my last trip!).

Cable Car

There’s also a cable car that can give you a scenic right from the Marina to Montjuic mountain, called Teleferic de Port.

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.

Eat Tapas

Small plates of tapas are quintessentially Spanish, and great if you like to try lots of different dishes! I have tried quite a lot of tapas places around Barcelona and some of my favourites have been:

  • Elsa Y Fred in Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, which has a nice modern and inventive menu.
  • Cal Pep, in El Born – a very popular place that serves classic dishes cooked to perfection (right in front of you, if you manage to get a seat at the bar – though you may have to queue for that).
  • Vinitus, in Eixample. A big, breezy place where I had some seriously delicious comfort food.

Zucchini carpaccio at Elsa Y Fred in Barcelona

 

Tapas at Elsa Y Fred

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 meat, fish 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!

Seafood at Kiosk Universal at La Boqueria

 

Seafood at La Boqueria

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 one of the places off the beaten path in Barcelona. Mercat de Santa Caterina 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.

Mercat de Santa Caterina in El Born, Barcelona

 

Mercat de Santa Caterina

Have a World-Class Cocktail

Barcelona is known for its vibrant nightlife and there are some amazing cocktail bars in Barcelona. In fact, three of the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2021 are in Barcelona:

  • Paradiso (#3), in El Born
  • Two Schmucks (#11), in El Raval
  • Sips (#37) in Eixample

cocktail lit in bue light by a plastic base on a bar at Paradiso in Barcelona

 

Paradiso – #3 best bar in the world

I didn’t make it to Two Schmucks nor Sips, but Paradiso was fun: plenty of flair bartending, a party vibe and some showy presentation, eg dry ice, lit-up glass stands etc. They don’t take reservations, but it is understandably popular, so expect queues to emerge before it opens at 5:30pm.

Take  day Trip From Barcelona

There are lots of great day trips from Barcelona, including to the historic towns of Girona or Tarragona. I took a day trip from Barcelona to a whole other country: Andorra, a mountainous micro-country which sits in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. 

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:

  1. 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), Kraków or even Madrid.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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 any of my visits – 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 its 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. 

a narrow alleyway in Barcelona, with washing hanging, balconies and Catalan flags displayed

 

The ochre streets of Barcelona with Catalan flags displayed

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 think the shoulder seasons are good times to visit Barcelona.

I’ve been to Barcelona in September twice – this is a great time to visit. By this time, the 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.

wet streets in Barcelona in September

 

Barcelona in the shoulder season: there may be rain, but it will still be charming

I’ve also been to Barcelona in April, which had a mixture of rain showers and really bright sunshine.

How To Get To Barcelona

Many visitors fly into Barcelona, whose Josep Tarradellas Barcelona–El Prat Airport is west of the city – approx. a 25-minute drive from the city centre. I use Skyscanner to find flight deals.

However, it’s pretty easy to get to Barcelona by train from other cities in Spain or even from France and elsewhere in Europe. For my second visit, I took a train from Paris to Barcelona, which took approximately 6.5 hours and was very comfortable.  Check out the train travel guru site Seat 61 for more info.

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 Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera neighbourhood of the old town, with plenty of tapas and coffee places within walking distance. It was the perfect base for two days in Barcelona.  

Enjoy your trip to Barcelona!

Let me know what you think of it! And do check out my guide to the barrios of Barcelona’s Old City

And if you want more inspiration for Spain, check out my guide to the best things to do in Madrid, the grand capital of Spain.

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