Barcelona is a huge, vibrant city that still feels very walkable and friendly. You'll find some of the most renown and important architecture and history in Europe here. But, if you glimpse at what to do, you might get overwhelmed. Just passing by the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral your head might spin from all the crowds. So I cracked down to find the best highlights, tips and tricks, plus how to see Barcelona's highlights in just 3 days.
Of all the “big” cities in Europe, Barcelona was one of the last I saw. The first time was on a whirlwind trip through Spain and Belgium and I have to admit something: I didn't love it.
But my second time around I gave Barcelona another chance and found it much more loveable. From the intricate and surprising Gaudi architecture, great nightlife and beaches, and a laid-back atmosphere, it's a place everyone should visit… at least twice.
Where to stay
I admit, my first trip might have not been the best because of the location. I had to haul my stuff through crowded streets and up flights of stairs and no bus stops were nearby. But this past trip I stayed in the wonderful Hotel Jazz.
Where you stay is an integral part of creating the perfect trip. Especially if you're short on time, you need a place that's centrally located, close to trams or bus stops, making it easy for you to get up and go. Hotel Jazz checks off all those boxes, plus it's wrapped up in a lovely space with beautiful rooms and a sleek design.
Our room had perfect views of Barcelona and was elegant yet very comfortable. One of my favorite aspects was the giant bathroom!
At night you can head to the rooftop bar to see Barcelona light up in all its glory.
If you've been reading this blog for long, you know there are a few things that are really important to me in a hotel: a good night's sleep, enough outlets, clean, and… a great breakfast. The breakfast at Hotel Jazz might just be one of the best I've come across.
You might want to book this hotel just to eat.
I've never seen such a spread. Fresh fruit, smoothies, coffee, tea, sliced meat as well as Spanish delicacies, bread, spreads, croissants, cheese of all varieties, cakes, cookies! The list goes on. There are freshly baked pies… at breakfast! I'd go as far as to say this is some of the best food in Barcelona. It's that good.
After getting your fill of savory and sweet you can easily take on the day with a quick walk over to Las Ramblas. Which is convenient, since that's one of the first stops on my 3 day tour of Barcelona.
I highly recommend Hotel Jazz for your stay in Barcelona.
How to See Barcelona's Highlights in 3 Days
Here's a map of all the highlights you'll see so you can easily pull this up as you're walking around the city:
Plaza de Cataluna – A large square in the center of Barcelona where the old and new city meet. A good place to meet and start your tour. Catalonia has 8 million inhabitants with Barcelona as the capital. There's a rather ugly monument in the square that serves as a nod to Catalonia. As you walk around make sure to avoid the pigeons!
Las Ramblas – This pedestrian-only street is the perfect way to kick off your time in Barcelona. Filled with high-end shops, street vendors, restaurants, and cafes, it's always buzzing. The drinking fountain at the top of the street is ornate and a fixture for FC Barcelona fans. They have been known to topple the fountains after a win. Be aware, Las Ramblas does get pretty packed, but it's the perfect place to stroll.
La Boqueria Market – Right outside Las Ramblas is the giant indoor Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria. Which is a mouthful, so most call it La Boqueria. This is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat and check out the fresh fruits, seafood, and meats.
4 Cats – This cafe became the “it” place where artists met and started creating the Modernist works in the 1890s. It's where Pablo Picasso showed his first solo exhibition. It's worth it to peek inside or grab a coffee.
Cathedral of Barcelona – Nearby, you'll find the grand Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. Living just next door is the Archbishop of Barcelona. We were listening to a street performer here when we had to make way as the Archbishop drove by! This gothic cathedral is worth the trip since you'll also find lovely Roman architecture nearby.
Sagrada Familia – This is the main tourist attraction in Barcelona, and for good reason. Hailed as the “last cathedral,” it's Gaudi's dream come to life. The still under-renovation cathedral should hopefully be finished by 2026. This will mark 100 years after Gaudi's death. There is so much history and interest to this cathedral you'll want to spend a good amount of time here learning more. Gaudi envisioned Sagrada Familia almost as a musical instrument. The holes in the towers pipe out the music and make the bells ring throughout the city. There are very few statues inside, all are located outside. Inside, it's designed like a forest and above the columns spread out like branches.
There are 18 towers that are to be constructed with the largest tower in the middle at 172.5 meters high. This is slightly shorter than the nearby mountain. The reason? Gaudi wanted man's work to not go above God's. Light and color play important roles in showcasing the interior of the cathedral. Darker colors are closer to the ground and get lighter as you go up. You'll also see blue on the east and warmer colors to the west to denote the rising and setting of the sun. I recommend getting to Sagrada Familia before sunset so you can see how the light streams in and see it in all its glory.
If you're up for it, Barcelona has an incredible nightlife scene. Here's a good rundown of the best clubs in Barcelona.
Barri Gotic – The Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter is Barcelona's oldest neighborhood and it's full of winding alleyways and hidden gems. You'll forget you're in a big city.
Picasso Museum – One of the best museums dedicated to the artist. The museum pays particularly close attention to his early work when he was living in Barcelona. Make sure you get tickets ahead of time to avoid long lines.
Palau de la Música Catalana – This “Palace of Catalan Music” is absolutely stunning inside and out. What I love about this project was that the people of Barcelona helped to finance it. It's a great testament to the people and what they found inspiring. Now, it's a UNESCO world heritage site. You'll see the rich design of typical Catalan modernism with curving lines, dynamic shapes and colors yet it's very functional. You can also go see a concert here in a surprisingly intimate setting. It's not cheap to take a tour (around 20 euros) but it's well worth it. The details here are absolutely stunning:
Casa Batllo – Gaudi left an indelible mark on Barcelona, and truly changed it for the good. You can see touches of his work everywhere, but his park and Casa Batllo are the best examples. Speckled in a variety of colors and shapes, the building seems to almost move when you take a look. Not only can you gawk outside, you can take a tour inside. Find details here.
Hospital de Sant Pau – Once a fully functioning hospital until 2009, this extremely ornate building is now a museum. It's a UNESCO heritage site and worth it for a visit.
Park Güell – Parc Guell is one of the best ways to see Gaudi's work with a great view of the city. This whimsical park is full of mosaics, gardens, and intricate architectural elements. Depending on when you go, it can be sold out. Yes, a park! We found that you can still see much of the park without having to pay. If you want to see the more fancy aspects of the park expect to pay €20. You can spend a good amount of time here walking the trails and taking in the views. This is the perfect place for a picnic. After you explore, take a walk around the Gracía neighborhood.
I recommend getting your ticket ahead of time to save money and skip the line.
A great way to enjoy the food in the city is to go Tapas hopping. In the Gothic District you can go from place to place trying the delicacies of each cafe or restaurant.
Flamenco Show – Though the south of Spain is known for Flamenco, you can catch a great show here. We went to a small venue and were so moved by the extreme passion that flowed from the dancing and music. It's such an incredible experience. We went to Palau Dalmases which is reasonably priced and in a great area.
Parc de la Ciutadella – Avoid the heat of the day and get up early to visit another park. I think I might like this park even more than Park Guell. Start by going through Barcelona's own Arc de Triomf and walk the large boulevard. From there you can walk the expansive grounds. You'll find a zoo, greenhouse, Catalan Parliament, and a Modern art museum. But my favorite spot is the ornate fountain.
For a long time, the Ciutadella was a place many Barcelonians hated. In 1714, after the successful war of Felip V., a citadel was placed here. The Ciutadella represents everything that the Catalans hated: the Bourbons and the central government in Madrid – everything different than the Catalans. Then, the Citadel was converted into a prison! But in 1998 the World Exhibition was placed here.
Beach – The beaches were once dirty and overrun with industry, now they are a perfect place to hang out. There are a number of beaches to check out, but Platja Barcelona at Vila Olimpica is very popular. I personally like Barceloneta beach. You can walk through the seaside neighborhood and find inexpensive restaurants nearby. It's important to note pickpocketing is worse at the beach, so make sure you have an eye on your stuff.
Catalan Art Museum – This beautiful museum looks more like a castle outside. You'll find an incredible showcase of the region's art with a great collection of Roman pieces.
Plaça d'Espanya – This is a beautiful square that sits above the city right by the Catalan art museum. Make sure to stick around to check out the “magic” fountain.
More than 3 days in Barcelona? Here's what I suggest:
If you have extra time I suggest heading to Montjuic. Here you'll find a castle, some of the old Olympic stadium, and a great view of Barcelona. You can also go to the Maritime Museum which is housed in a medieval shipyard.
If you're a soccer (football) fan or just love sports, there is no better time to see an FC Barcelona game. It's a great way to experience the culture of Barcelona.
You can also take a day trip to Montserrat. This is a short train ride away and is a beautiful mountain range with a monastery that you can get to by cable car.
Barcelona top tips:
– Not everywhere in Europe has Uber, but thankfully Barcelona does. This is a cheap and relatively easy way to get around.
– The metro system is also a great way to get around and inexpensive.
– The Picasso Museum is free on Thursdays but you MUST reserve tickets ahead of time. Many museums in the city are free on Sundays.
– Catalán is the main language spoken, but most also know Spanish.
– Most people eat very late in Spain. Most restaurants don't open until 8pm for dinner. Also many close from about 5pm until they reopen for dinner.
Before 1992, before the Olympics, Barcelona only had 200,000 tourists a year. Now it's 10 million! The Olympics brought infrastructure and a worldwide spotlight to this now essential European city.