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Whether you are looking for an action packed city break visiting popular attractions, or want a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside or visit theme parks, Barcelona offers so many things to do and see that you will probably want a return visit!
Barcelona is only an hour’s flight from London, and many regional UK airports offer direct flights. Choose Barcelona International Airport if you’re staying in the city, Reus and Girona are around 100 km away.
Alternatively, you could use Eurostar’s direct route to Paris from London’s St. Pancras station, change stations from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon and board the TGV to Barcelona.
Due to its coastal location, Barcelona does not get unbearably hot in summer, but it can be humid in August. Best months to visit are May-July and September, and the sea temperature is usually still above 20C in October. Barcelona has mild winters, with temperatures between 10C -12C from November to March. Bring a small brolly and light waterproof jacket in September and October, and leave your jeans at home in the summer – bring lighter cotton trousers instead.
For 1st time visitors, it’s always a good idea to take a sightseeing tour to orientate yourself, doing the round trip and noting the location of the places that interest you most first, then using the hop on/off facility to visit them. The Bus Touristic has an information officer on board and you can change routes at 5 transfer points, and City Sightseeing has 3 different routes. Both have multi-lingual audio commentaries, and use open-topped double deckers.
Barcelona has many pedestrianised streets and cycle lanes, and there is a wide range of walking and bicycle tours led by local guides keen to share their insider knowledge with you. Whether you’re interested in art and architecture, history, or the seaside, you can explore areas not accessible by coach or bus, and you can eat your way around Barcelona on a gourmet tour!
Why not test drive a Go Car? These little GPS guided yellow vehicles will chat away merrily about the sights you are passing, and you can choose to make detours, take a snack break and stop wherever you like to take pictures. You may find locals taking pictures of you, though!
For the ultimate Barcelona sightseeing tour try the land, sea and air trip offered by Barcelona 360. You can see the sights on an Smart Mercedes e- bike, travel by cable car up to Montjuic, then take a 45 minute catamaran trip, with a guide and in a groups of 12 people maximum.
The 3, 4 or 5 day Barcelona Card offers visitors unlimited travel on public transport, including the airport train, free or fast track entry to attractions, and discounts in many shops, restaurants and places of entertainment. There’s no need to carry large amounts of cash around, and because it is pre-paid, you’ll know how much you have left for meals out and shopping.
Top attractions in Barcelona
The works of Gaudi
Nature, religion and (allegedly) a penchant for “magic mushrooms” were sources of inspiration for Gaudi, and the spectacular Sagrada Familia church, with its stunning stained glass windows and vertiginous steeples is a UNESCO World Heritage “building site” since it remains unfinished, due to his untimely death in 1926. He is buried in the crypt. Another favourite with visitors is Park Guell, with its dragon fountain, undulating serpent bench, the Closed Chapel and the 84 columned “marketplace” ( there were meant to be 100, but he didn’t finish that either!) It is a perfect place for a stroll or picnic, with great views over Barcelona. There are no straight lines in nature, all his works including Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (aka La Pedrera) reflect this. His attention to detail is incredible, with surprises around every corner!
Barcelona’s vibrant tree lined pedestrian mall La Rambla, popular with both tourists and locals, was once a sandy river bed, or “ramla” in arabic, and its conversion into the city’s widest street began in 1440. Wealthy residents could stroll around in their finery away from the dark, narrow streets where robbers lurked. Today the rippled design of the paving reflects its origin, and the 1.2 km long boulevard is full of activity – street traders, performance artists, cafes and several cultural venues. Ironically, these days it’s also popular with pickpockets, so take a few sensible precautions. Wear your bag across your body, bag in front, study your map while you’re at a cafe rather than on the street, and save your natty holiday shorts for the beach!
The Gothic Quarter
The Gothic Quarter lies to the east of La Rambla, with many connecting streets, its labyrinth of narrow lanes opening onto charming small squares. Many of the buildings are medieval, including the Jewish Quarter, and remnants of the original Roman wall and ruins of the temple of Augustus can be seen. Highlights include the Picasso museum, Santa Maria del Mar church, and Barcelona Cathedral. Visit on a Sunday and you may see the traditional Catalan sardana dance performed outside – feel free to join in! There are many bars and restaurants to relax in, and fans of history and architecture could easily spend a whole day there.
Barcelona Zoo and Aquarium
Set in the Ciutadella Park, Barcelona Zoo houses over 400 species of mammals, reptiles and birds, some rare and endangered, and is an ideal family day out. Children can pet the animals in the Children’s Zoo, have pony rides, and everyone will love the Dolphin Show. There are plenty of shady areas for picnics and a small train to transport you around the enclosures.
Barcelona Aquarium, at the Port Vell harbour, holds the world’s largest collection of mediterranean species, as well as cold water and tropical creatures, and has an interactive exhibition for children – Explora. In the Oceanarium, a travelator takes you through an 80 metre glass tunnel to view the sharks, and Minicuaria is dedicated to the smallest residents. There are also some entertaining Humboldt penguins at Planet Aqua.
Poble Espanyol and Tablao de Carmen
Poble Espanyol, a walled village on the slopes of Montjuic, created in 1929 for the Barcelona Exhibition to display various styles of Spanish architecture and traditional arts and crafts, now contains over 40 artisan workshops, plus a sculpture garden, galleries, restaurants and bars. An ideal picnic spot by day, with lovely views over the city, and in the evening you can see the traditional Tablao de Carmen flamenco show with dancing, singing and guitar playing, and enjoy a 3 course dinner or tapas, with wine, sangria and coffee.
Live out your footie fantasies on a tour of Nou Camp, the home ground of Barca Football Club, and follow the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest players past and present, like Maradona and Iniesta. See the visitors’ changing rooms, the VIP lounge, presidential box, pressroom and the chapel (where players pray for “the hand of God” – or do penance for missed penalties!) then walk through the tunnel onto the pitch. Learn about the history of the club in the high tech multimedia museum, see the three gleaming trophies in the Treble Space, and the four Ballons D’or and three golden boots gained by the legendary Argentinian Lionel Messi.
This quirky amusement park high above the city, known locally as “The Magic Mountain”, has a retro feel and is a great place to take younger children, who can feel left out in some of the larger theme parks. There are a lot of traditional funfair attractions, a few thrill rides for older kids, and a spooky but fascinating Automaton Museum. The signature ride is L’Avion, aka The Plane on a Stick – a replica 1928 aircraft that makes you feel like a pioneer aviator! At the summit stands the neo-gothic Sagrat Cor church, topped by a statue of Jesus, welcoming visitors with open arms! You can get there by bus or car, but the fun way to go is on the vintage tram and funicular railway, quite an adventure in itself! Take a picnic and enjoy the cool mountain breezes and outstanding views over Barcelona, all the way down to the coast.
Beaches and Boat Trips
Barcelona has a 3 mile beachfront with plenty of restaurants and shacks serving freshly caught seafood, and there is even an ice bar on the beach – Icebarcelona – at El Somorrostro, east of Barceloneta. Barceloneta beach is the busiest, being the closest to the city centre. Next along is the quieter Icaria beach, beginning at Frank Gehry’s spectacular Golden Fish sculpture at Port Olimpic, and there is also an unofficial nudist beach, Mar Bella, though nakedness is not compulsory! Boat trips from the harbour range between the family friendly Las Golondrinas, starting from near the Columbus monument, which operate every month (weather permitting) except December, to the catamaran boat parties from May to September, which offer beer and sangria, barbeque meals, live music or a DJ.
Barcelona is one of the top destinations for hen and stag weekends, whatever the season. In summer, nights on the town tend to kick off with a “booze cruise” followed by more partying at a nightclub or two. You can buy Barcelona NightCard, which gives you free entry into 19 popular clubs over 7 days. The Barcelona Wicked Weekend package offers 2 nights at a central hostel plus free entry into 2 great clubs. Add on activities include boat trips, crazy cooking lessons, cycle tours, waterpark visits, or totally balmy bici-bar tours (supping calmly up top, pedalling madly below!)
If a Flamenco show with lots of foot stamping, frenetic guitar playing and passionate singing is on your bucket list, try Palacio del Flamenco – you can eat there too, or just enjoy a drink. Barcelona y Flamenco do two alternating shows at two venues – the stunning modernist Palau de Musica de Catalunya and the prestigious Poliorama Theatre on La Rambla.
Fans of the naughty but nice genre of entertainment will love the El Molino Burlesque Fever show in the red mill fronted theatre on Parallel Avenue, including a free drink of beer, wine or cava before the show in the sumptuous Golden Bar upstairs.
From Barcelona you can visit popular theme parks, like PortAventura, Marineland, Illa Fantasia and Costa Caribe by bus, or take an coach tour to the Costa Brava, Sitges, vineyards and cellars, Montserrat, the Pyrenees, Dali’s home town of Girona and many more out of town sites. So much to see, so little time – a return trip sounds very likely!