I hadn’t been to Barcelona since 2005 when I was on a family vacation. I had some vague memories of visiting the Sagrada Familia and the beach but not much else stuck. So, I was excited to rediscover the city though I’m still in disbelief that it has been over ten years since I was here.
Unfortunately, our luck with wonderful weather seems to have run out. After our first day, it rained every single day for a good portion of the day. We broke down and bought an umbrella but then still managed to leave it at home and get completely drenched once.
It is decidedly less fun to explore the pretty tree-lined avenues and cobblestone alleyways when you are dodging puddles and snuggled up under a small umbrella. Still, we criss-crossed the city trying out different neighborhoods and stopping by the top tourist attractions. Rain or shine the trip must go on.
Barcelona is also at an interesting point in its history right now. Back in October there was a referendum for Catalonia to become independent from Spain that turned violent when the central government sent national police to disrupt the voting. Still all around the city there is graffiti of yellow ribbons that were used by the Catalan independence movement as a symbol of solidarity and in protest against the imprisonment of the parties leaders. People still wear yellow ribbons when you pass them on the street. They are on backpacks, store fronts, and even government buildings.
When we were in Myanmar in December we enjoyed dinner to celebrate New Years with a couple from Barcelona who shared their views about the ongoing struggle for independence and clued us in on some of the news we’d missed while traveling. Even as months pass, it is clear the city has not moved on but there was nothing more than a few demonstrations on Labor Day to indicate that tensions were still present. Beyond that, the city functioned as usual playing host to many tourists like us each day.
Barcelona for me is all about two things: Gaudí and the beach. That definitely isn’t everything the city has to offer but it covers a lot.
The pièce de résistance of Barcelona is without a doubt the Sagrada Familia. We got our tickets a couple of weeks in advance to enjoy a special deal they were running where people under age 30 could enter for half price after 6:00pm. Luckily the sun doesn’t set until close to 9:00pm and so there was still plenty of daylight left to show off the amazing stained glass windows inside the cathedral.
It is mind-blowing how long the Sagrada Familia has been a work in progress. Construction began in 1866 (over 150 years ago!) and isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2026. The time taken to design and build it are clearly paying off though because I’ve never seen anything else like it. It also really makes me wish that stained glass was used more in places other than churches…
We also visited less momentous works by Gaudí, including Park Güell and Casa Milá. We only explored the potions of the park that didn’t require tickets because when we arrived the only tickets still available were for 8:00pm. It was 11:00am when we arrived. So we took in the view from the top of the hill, wandered through the gardens, and peaked across to the most famous areas to see the throngs of tourists lining the colorfully tiled benches overlooking the city.
Similarly, we enjoyed Casa Milá and the Block of Discord from the sidewalk, unwilling to wait in the crazy long lines to pay the entrance fee to peruse the rooms inside. I really couldn’t believe that one tour package for Casa Milá was 40 Euro per person. To be fair, the inside may be that spectacular but at those prices I will never know.
Then there was the beach. We only visited the nearby and often-overcrowded Barceloneta because there wasn’t a single beach-worthy day during our stay. The one day we ventured down to enjoy the sound of the waves, it started raining about the same time we got settled down to enjoy the chocolate croisant we picked up on the way, driving us back to shelter. There were plenty of people toughing it out to work out and play volleyball along the beach though. I remember how nice the beach was the last time I was in Barcelona (it’s one of the few things that still stands out in my memory) but it wasn’t meant to be this time around.
Other major tourist attractions we visited included La Rambla, the packed tree lined avenue full of tourist shops and overpriced restaurants but right by the heart of Old Town and leading to the coast, and La Boqueria, the famous market just off La Rambla. We knew going in that La Rambla was a place to see and then quickly escape because the slow-walking tourist, human statues, and vendors selling everything you could imagine with “Barcelona” on it, are just a little too much. We were surprised how disappointed we were in La Boqueria though. We were apparently spoiled with the rich chaos of markets in Asia to where La Boqueria felt very sanitized (which can be a good thing!) and not nearly as exciting.
We enjoyed very pleasant strolls through the parks of Barcelona though, including a trip to Montjuïc Castle and a long walk through Parc de la Ciutadella. The visit to Montjuïc Castle took us on a wondering path through several other parks until we reached the top of the hill where then castle sits. The views of the harbor are lovely and the sun was shining on us that day to make the walk around the outside of the castle even more enjoyable. We decided not to go in though in favor of seeking out lunch. Parc de la Ciutadella doesn’t have a castle but it does have a huge fountain at the heart of it where we watched small children feeding ducks while we enjoyed some chocolate croissants (I cannot stress enough how many baked goods we consumed).
Our final full day in the city, I convinced Nate to visit the National Museum of Catalunya Art because it was one of the weekly free entrance days. I had wanted to go to the Picasso Museum for it’s free day of the month but had not gotten my act together in time to get tickets in advance (they become available 4 days ahead of time and they do run out!). Plaça d’Espanya with its monuments and The Magic Fountain is a nice place to visit on its own. We unfortunately were at dinner at Hola Santa the night of the light show they do with the fountain but even without fancy effects is a relaxing place to sit and enjoy some people watching.
The museum itself was also a very pleasant treat with a huge assortment of medieval and modern art of all different types. The thematic grouping and explanations were often a little thin but in the end I guess they didn’t want to say that they just had a large collection of works and not all of them make sense together. The special exhibit was swamped with people so we only made a quick circuit of it but the permanent collections were much more spacious and the crowds coming to enjoy free entry didn’t overwhelm them.
Left: A Picasso at the National Museum of Catalunya Art to make up for missing out on the Picasso Museum. Center: One of the many domes in the museum. Sometimes the building is just as much art as the pieces within it. Right: A piece called "The Tourist". Hopefully not representative of our existence as tourists these last 8 months...
My favorite part of the exhibits we visited was of paintings done on the walls of churches that had been removed and recreated on walls that matched the shape of the space where they were originally painted. In set of large, high ceilinged rooms, small segments of wall were built in different shapes to accomodate the paintings.
The paints were moved by first applying a natural adhesive to cloth that then covered the art but could easily be removed later, then the piece of wall was shaved off the front of the rest of the wall to separate the artwork so it could be moved.
As our first stop in Europe approached, I was dreaming of the bakeries that seem to be on every block. Not to be disappointed, I think we stopped at a bakery for a snack every single day. When restaurants don’t open for lunch until 1:00-2:00pm, you need to have something to keep you going. Sometimes it’s a doughnut, sometimes it’s a croissant, and sometimes it’s a little baguette sandwich. Whatever it is, the bakery on the corner has you covered.
As an extra special treat my parents treated us to a 21-course feast at Hola Santa, our first ever Michelin-starred restaurant (!), as a belated birthday present for me. I’ve never had such a good meal in my life and it really makes me wonder what food at a three star restaurant could possibly be like if this is just one star. They blew me away from our first course, which included a tequila cloud (eaten quickly off a leaf) and mezcal balls that pop in a rush of wonderful. Then there were the mole courses with an Oaxaca mole over avocado that apparently had seventeen spices in it and tasted like heaven. Oh and the fried artichoke heart that had a perfectly runny egg yolk inside, I don’t know how the yolk ended up in there but it was amazing. I won’t get into all the courses but you get the idea.
On the less fine dining spectrum, we also had a great brunch at Milk Bar where we were entertained by a very drunk (hopefully Bachelor party) of British men. We also had amazing sandwiches at Bo De B. The first day we walked past the line was way too long for us but we passed by a second time to find we were the third people in line and waited just a few minutes for our sandwiches before taking them down to the boardwalk area to enjoy them. We also had sandwiches at Chivou’s a couple of times and they are good but no match for Bo De B. They do have the advantage of no wait time though.
Oh and to further prove the theory I developed during our time in Japan that ramen is Nate’s favorite food, we ate ramen at a restaurant we found on our way to Hola Santa for dinner. The ramen didn’t hold a candle to what we ate in Japan but it was a nice comfort food on a rainy day and came as part as a great Menu del Dia with an appetizer, dessert, and beer all for only 9 Euro.
For our time in Barcelona, we had budgeted as much as 100 USD a night for accommodations. We had a lot of trouble finding a well-located place for our dates that had a kitchen, but eventually snagged in Airbnb in the El Raval neighborhood, very close to most tourist sights, for 117 USD per night, our mest expensive Airbnb of the whole trip.
We had also budgeted 15 USD per day per person for food and 15 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 60 USD total, we ended up spending 59 USD per day on average, including our
T-10 cards for 10 trips on public transit (12 USD each), our very-nice brunch at Milk Bar (40 USD including drinks) and lots of groceries (118 USD total to cover all our breakfasts and most of our dinners).
As our entry point for our time in Europe, Barcelona felt both very easy but still distinctly foreign. The grocery store was stocked with foods we recognized and the packaging had words we can make out if we don’t. We knew how the public transportation works. We were back in an apartment and cooking for ourselves. The late night dinners, where restaurants don’t even open until 8:00pm, almost everything being closed on Sundays, and the general lackadaisical approach to time still made us feel like tourists. We definitely took a big step closer to home but we’re not there yet.