Barcelona: What to See

Note: this post is mainly taken from an article I wrote for Viator in 2011. The original article can be found here.

If Barcelona does have a flaw, then it is possibly that there are too many sights. This can present a challenge for the first-time visitor.

Where to start? For the culture vulture, there’s Picasso’s art or the medieval buildings in the Barri Gotic. Like sport? Try the Camp Nou. And you can’t miss Antonio Gaudi, whose modernista creations are dotted all over the city.

Relax! Focus on a few sights and you’ll still have time to stroll about and smell the café amb llet, or kick back with a canya of beer.

The Basics

Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya (Catalonia). The first language for many Barcelonins is Catalan – a separate language to Spanish.

There has been a Catalan regional government since 1977. It sits in the Plaça St Jaume (in the Barri Gotic). The Catalan independence movement ebbs and flows, but this square remains the focal point for demonstrations.

As Spain’s second city, Barcelona’s rivalry with Madrid is most frequently manifested in El Clasico, the FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid football matches.

Getting Around

A Barcelona pass gives unlimited travel for 2-5 days, and discounted access to many attractions. Otherwise, a Targetes gives 10 rides on metro, bus, train or tram.

Barcelona is also a great walking city. Whether it’s leafy avenues or quirky side streets, there is always something to see. If you have children, the promise of a gelat at a nearby café works wonders for tired feet.

History and Culture – The Barri Gotic

Anybody who was anybody in Barcelona passed through the Barri Gotic. It has history, museums, restaurants and quirky little shops. Where better to begin your city exploration?

The Barri Gotic is a small area of winding streets and narrow alleyways. It can be easy to get lost, so consider taking a guided walking tour.

A word of warning: this area (and La Rambla) is notorious for pickpockets. Keep a careful eye on your belongings.

A Brief History of Barcelona

The Romans

Barcelona began life as the Roman city of Barcino. You may notice a few Roman leftovers in the Barri Gotic: pillars from the Temple of Augustus or an aqueduct arch near the Palau Episcopal.

The Rise of Barcelona

Barcelona’s star began to rise in 1137, when the Count of Barcelona was betrothed to the Princess of Aragon. Thus began the era of Comte-Reis (Count-Kings), and huge commercial expansion for Barcelona. Many of the Barri Gotic’s best buildings date from this period.

Saints: The Cathedral

Work began on La Seu in 1298. It was completed in 1460, although the Gothic façade is 19th Century. The Cathedral is rather more low-key inside than out, but there are a few quirky sights. 13 geese live among the orange trees in the cathedral cloister, said to represent the age of Santa Eulalia (Patron Saint of Barcelona) when she was martyred. A lift will take you to the cathedral roof for a view of the city.

The Cathedral gets crowded, so those hoping for a more spiritual experience may care to visit between 1-5pm when admission costs €5.

Sinners: The Spanish Inquisition

In Barcelona, the Inquisition operated out of the Palau Episcopal (Archbishop’s Palace). Hangings took place on the Plaça Nova, where the curious can observe the hangman’s bedroom window.

Gruesome acts apart, the Inquisition was bad for business in Barcelona. Many wealthy individuals (and their money) left the city. Barcelona’s rise was over, at least for the time being.

(Near the Placa Nova, you may some childlike drawings on a building façade. The artist was in fact Pablo Picasso!)





Revolutionaries: The Spanish Civil War

The city suffered dreadfully from 1936 onwards. It was run first by anarchists and Marxists, then by Communists. The city finally fell to Franco’s troops in 1939. A chapel in the Cathedral remembers the 930 members of religious orders who were executed during this time.

Other scars remain: the bullet holes in many walls in the Barri Gotic may be the most obviously visible. On the whole though, this is a period that Barcelona (and Spain) would rather forget.

Art and Artists

Barcelona’s two most famous artists were in fact born elsewhere: Antonio Gaudi in Tarragona in 1852, Pablo Picasso in Malaga in 1881. Both left their mark on Barcelona.

Pablo Picasso

The Picasso Museum occupies 5 Palaus (mansions) in the Barri Gotic. Prepare to be stunned by the man’s talent (particularly his earliest works), but be aware that many of his most famous works are elsewhere. (Guernica, his Civil War oeuvre, is in Madrid).

Unless you like crowds, try to pick an off-peak time to visit. Or take a guided Picasso tour, which includes entry to the museum.

Antonio Gaudi

Gaudi’s creations are all over Barcelona. He arrived here in 1873 to study architecture and soon caught the eye of Count Eusebi Güell, who became his patron. Gaudi designed several properties for the family: the Palau Güell (in the Barri Gotic), the Parc Güell and the Pavilions at the Finca Güell.

From 1914 onwards, Gaudi worked exclusively on the Sagrada Familia. He was on his way to mass in the Barri Gotic in 1926 when he was hit by a tram. He died 3 days later in hospital. The Sagrada Familia remains unfinished, with a current (estimated) completion date of 2025.

Food and Drink

The Barri Gotic has plenty of food options, or you could cross La Rambla to the market at La Boqueria. Here you’ll find mouth-watering sea food, cold meats, cheeses and tapas. Look for the Menu del Dia signs: 2 or 3 courses for a smaller price than the regular menu.

There are a few must-eats in Barcelona. Try the Catalan favourite Pa amb tomàquet (bread with garlic, tomatoes and olive oil). If you like Patatas Bravas, then Bar Tomas in Sarria serves the best in the city. It’s a no-frills place, but they do know their potatoes and garlic mayonnaise.

Beer typically comes as a canya (small glass), or try a clara – beer diluted with orange or lemon soda. Coffee (café) comes black (solo) or with milk (con llet). For dessert, try ice-cream (gelat) or Crema Catalana.


Futbol Club de Barcelona…olé, olé, olé!

Even if you haven’t heard of Barcelona FC before you arrive, you’ll know all about Señors Messi, Xavi et al by the time you leave. They play at the legendary Camp Nou and match tickets are available via the club’s website.

Or you can take a tour of the Camp Nou: 1.3 million people took the tour in 2010, making it Barcelona’s most popular attraction.


For a hit of sea air, follow La Rambla down to the Drassanes (shipyard) metro station. You’ll arrive at Port Vell and the beach of Barceloneta, where you can stroll along the promenade or kick back on the sand.


Mix architecture with exercise at the Parc Güell. This Gaudi-designed park overlooks the city and combines landscaping with exotic architecture. On Sunday afternoons, extended families (elderly grandparents to young babies) take their post-lunch stroll here.

It’s also where young Barca fans don their blau-grana shirts and practise their football skills. After all, even Lionel Messi had to start somewhere…

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