Enchanted by Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s bestselling novel Shadow Of The Wind, Barcelona has been high up on my list of cities to visit for a long time. Mixing historic architecture with a hub of modern art and a sprinkling of fabulous local cuisine, this vibrant city ticks so many boxes, and after many years of waiting, I finally made it there this January to explore.
Though January may not seem the obvious month to visit Barcelona, it worked well for us. Friends and family who had visited in the warmer months warned of long queues, excessive heat and large crowds, but we avoided all of this by visiting in winter. Though it wasn’t quiet, it was certainly less chaotic than it perhaps would be later in the year. Plus, the flights are incredibly reasonable at this time of year, which was a big selling point!
We stayed at a lovely little boutique hotel, Ca La Maria, which really was a home away from home. Set in the Eixample district of Barcelona, it was a bit further inland than the main tourist hub but a great central location for exploring all aspects of the city.
Our host Maria and her staff were incredibly helpful and always on hand to offer advice or assistance, helping us book tours, give restaurant recommendations and plan our days out. Though it wasn’t quite warm enough for us to enjoy it, there was a beautiful rooftop terrace which our room stepped out onto where they served drinks and the delicious breakfast which consisted of breads, homemade jams, croissants, eggs and fruit every morning.
What really made this place special though, were all the above-and-beyond touches - an honesty bar in the lounge area, freshly baked cakes every day and speciality teas to enjoy when you returned from a long day of walking! I’d thoroughly recommend Ca La Maria as a great base for a trip to Barcelona.
If you’re keen to get your steps up and earn those tapas, Barcelona is a great city to explore by foot. There are some steep hills to combat, but with an architectural marvel or historic cobbled street around almost every corner, there are so many benefits to taking the time to leisurely walk around and see the sights.
The only time we used the public transport was travelling to and from the airport, as well as our visit to Montserrat which is located outside of the city but accessible by train. From where we were staying in Eixample, the furthest point of interest was the seaside area of Barceloneta which was about 50 minutes away by foot, but took us right through the city centre via La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter. The iconic Sagrada Família was just 25 minutes walk from our hotel and Parc Güell approximate 30 minutes but again, there was plenty to see along the way. Try to plan your days geographically to maximise time in each area (see our itinerary below for suggestions) and you’ll get to make the most of this spectacular city.
However, if you are looking for a slower pace, the metro system in Barcelona is brilliant and a great way of getting around. For anyone wishing to travel by public transport (bus, metro, tram and/or train) throughout your time in Barcelona, I’d recommend the T10 card which covers 10 journeys and is very economic at only €10.20.
Day One - La Rambla, Plaça Reial & Palau de la Música
Our first day was predominantly spent getting our bearings and taking in the feel of the city. Though the weather was slightly overcast, we headed out and straight onto the lively La Rambla - the tree-lined boulevard that runs straight down the middle of the city from Placa de Catalunya to Pont Vell on the coast.
Despite being low season, La Rambla was still full of market stalls, street performers and restaurants (think Covent Garden stretched right through the city) and just ambling down this road can provide numerous iconic sights including the Liceu Theatre and Christopher Columbus monument. Try to look up whilst walking down here too as the architecture is beautiful.
From there, we wandered into the Gothic Quarter and through one of the most famous squares in the city - Plaça Reial. It is undoubtedly a tourist trap but there are some great restaurants and bars to visit and the beautiful ‘Fountain Of Three Graces’ in the centre of the square is a must-see.
As the weather was slightly overcast on our first day, we made the decision to capitalise on this and visit one of the more ‘indoor’ attractions in the city - the Palau de la Música Catalana. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, this awe-inspiring Music Hall was designed by Modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner in the early 20th century and is as impressive today as the day it was built.
From the outside alone, it’s clear that this building is special. Designed in the modernist style, it doesn't fail to wow passers-by with its bold red facade and gold adornments, despite being tucked away on a side street. Inside is even more spectacular, with the concert hall itself not only acoustically mesmerising but also aesthetically. The stained glass central skylight representing the sun in the roof of the hall is particularly beautiful, filling the auditorium with natural light. If you’re lucky, there’ll also be rehearsals taking place during your visit, so you can truly appreciate the music that the hall was built for.
Tours in English go every hour or your can opt for a self-guided tour for a slightly cheaper price. Personally, though, I found the tour fascinating and it really brought the venue to life, informing us of the history of the building and the architects that designed it.
Day Two - Casa Batlló, Sagrada Família & Parc Güell
The second day of our city break in Barcelona was all about Gaudí!
Architect Antoni Gaudí is completely synonymous with Barcelona and his modernist style (most notably ceramic mosaics, stained glass and curving windows) is so deeply ingrained in it’s decor, giving the Spanish city a very unique identity. I have to admit, I had very little knowledge of Gaudí and his work until visiting Barcelona but absolutely fell in love with it during our trip. His designs are so full of colour, with fascinating textures and shapes - they’re truly inspiring and I’m now desperate to learn more!
Our first stop was one of the most photographed spots in Barcelona - Gaudí’s Casa Batlló. Casa Batlló was a property owned by the Batlló family, which Gaudi was hired to renovate in 1906. The house was opened to the public in 1995 and 10 years later in 2005, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though we didn’t go inside, the facade is a true surrealist masterpiece, like a warped fairytale castle in amongst the bustling streets of Barcelona. It’s open every day from 9am - 9pm to explore and if, like us, you don’t have time for a tour, make sure you at least take the time to stop for a photo.
The main focus of our second day, however, was another UNESCO World Heritage Site - the iconic and stunningly beautiful Sagrada Família. This amazing basilica in the centre of Barcelona is like no cathedral or temple you’ve ever set foot in before and will completely take your breath away. For me, this incredible feat of architecture was the highlight of our time in Barcelona (perhaps only rivalled by the food!) so I 100% recommend it being top of your list when you visit.
Widely considered Gaudí’s masterpiece and the jewel in Barcelona’s crown, construction began on Sagrada Família (meaning ‘Church Of The Holy Family’) in 1882 and, unbelievably, is still ongoing to this day. It’s currently predicted that the basilica will be completed in 2026, marking the centenary of Gaudí’s death, but don’t let the permanent scaffolding around the building put you off, as there is so much to see. At the time of our visit (January 2019), two of the three facades were completed (the Nativity facade to the East and Passion facade to the West) and work on the third (the Glory facade to the South) is set to resume in 2020. The detail of the ornate sculptures on these facades is so complex, you could look at it for hours and still not see it all - it’s incredible.
There is something extremely calming, inspiring and mesmerising about the design of Sagrada Família. From the moment you step inside, you completely forget that you’re in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world. You are transported to a place of tranquility with it’s vast ceilings, sun-capturing stained-glass windows and the intricate carvings that surround you. I won’t give too much more detail about the temple itself as it needs to be experienced, but needless to say, it lives up to its reputation as one of the most uniquely spectacular Gothic and Art Nouveau designs in the world.
Booking in advance is essential as the site gets very busy. If you can, book your tickets and slot before you arrive in Barcelona, even if this means the rest of your days are centred around it. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it! We opted for the €32 ticket which included entry, an audio guide and a visit to the top of one of the towers. A ticket for just entry and an audio guide is €25 and personally, I didn’t feel that the visit to the tower was worth an additional €7, but I would definitely recommend getting the audio guide or opting for one of the guided tours.
From there, we walked inland and uphill towards Gaudí’s outdoor spectacle, Parc Güell. From the distinctive chequered cone spire and Hansel & Gretel style buildings at the entrance, right through to the colourful mosaic lizard that guards the steps, this sculpture park is, like all of Gaudí’s work, entirely enchanting, playful and a visual feast.
Commissioned by Eusebi Güell, who wanted to create a stylish park for Barcelona aristocracy, Parc Güell is made up of stone structures, tiled sculptures and quirky building overlooked by a hill-top terrace from which the city can be viewed on a clear day. The vista is particularly special at sunset when the park is bathed in an orange glow and there’s likely to be (slightly) less tourists around.
This is the only part of the part of the park for which you have to pay for, but by no means the only part to see. The rest is a lovely tiered garden with some fascinating features such as arched walkways. It has a great atmosphere, with musicians often providing a gentle soundtrack and plenty of spots to explore. We spent the majority of the afternoon here and it was very easy to while away the hours.
Day Three - Barceloneta, Barcelona Cathedral and Montjuic
On our third day, we walked all the way down to La Barceloneta and the seafront, exploring the hub of the Gothic Quarter on the way, before heading up towards Montjuic.
The historic Barcelona Cathedral takes centre stage in the Gothic Quarter. Much more traditional than the Modernist Sagrada Família, the basilica was built over 500 years ago and is a great representation of gothic design with an imposing and ornate facade, vaulted stone arches and a beautiful 14th-century cloister courtyard inside. The best time to visit is in the morning or early evening as there is free entry between 08.30am - 12.30pm and 5.45pm - 7.30pm on weekdays and Saturdays. For a €3 fee, you can also visit the cathedral’s roof for great views across the city.
From here, we walked through the Gothic Quarter (full of stunning architecture, restaurants, shops and hidden gems) towards the fishing area of La Barceloneta. To me, this area felt so different to the rest of the city and a little like going back in time. It’s quaint narrow streets are made up of boutique shops and seafood restaurants which have an old-fashioned, village feel. Whilst there aren’t many particular attractions in this area, it’s a really nice spot to mooch around before opening up onto the beach promenade.
As we were there during the Winter months, the seafront was fairly quiet when we visited, despite it being sunny and warm (in comparison to the UK!). However, I imagine in the Summer, this area really comes alive and the sandy beach is no doubt full.
After a walk along the beach and some lunch (there are some lovely restaurants along the harbour), we headed up towards the mountain district of Montjuïc. There is a cable car that runs from the harbour to Montjuïc but personally being not overly keen on heights, we decided to walk up. We were planning on using the funicular part of the way but sadly it was closed for maintenance whilst we were in Barcelona. However, though the walk is steep, it is very satisfying and there is lots to see when you (finally!) make your way up.
We spent most of our time in Montjuïc exploring the many beautiful gardens (Botanical Gardens, the Teatre Grec and Mossèn Costa i Llobera garden) and the hugely impressive Italian-style Palau Nacional, home to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC). The MNAC houses a huge array of pieces from some of the world’s most influential artists, ranging from an outstanding collection of restored Romanesque church murals to Modernist work from the likes of Fortuny, Gaudí and Picasso, as well as a photography exhibition and Gothic stone sculptures. We only had an hour and a half in the museum itself (after all that hiking!), but still managed to see a lot - and to top it off, straight in front of the main entrance is the famous Magic Fountain which offers a sensational light and music show on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the warmer months.
When we got back to the UK, I re-read Shadow Of The Wind and it was wonderful to enjoy it again and imagine all the places in Barcelona in which it's set. I realised that my copy even has a handy map at the back to use as a reference!
My favourite spot, without doubt, was Sagrada Família. It was just epically beautiful and I love how much of a passion project it has become for the city. I'm also now keen to read up on Gaudí and learn more about his amazing life.
Have you visited Barcelona? Is there anywhere else you loved that I haven't included? Please comment in the section below!