Barcelona, that timeless Spanish city by the sea, is undisputedly one of the world’s most wonderful cities. No matter what barometer you use to judge a place, Barcelona comes up aces every time. Love architecture? Check. Relish fantastic food? Check. Fancy fashionable shops? Check. Like feeling the sand between your toes? Check. Enjoy history and museums? Check. Adore the arts? Check. Delight in finding friendly locals? Check. Seriously, Barcelona has it all.
ALL ABOUT ARCHITECTURE — AND GAUDI
From the moment you arrive in Barcelona, you’ll realize the city is an architectural wonderland. Before even setting eyes on Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces, witness countless beautiful buildings, from Roman walls and towers to the medieval Santa Maria del Mar to the modernist Palau de la Musica Catalana, by architect Luis Domenech, to the floating triangle that is the Museum of Natural Sciences. Find yet more architectural wonder at Richard Meier’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Jean Nouvel’s geyser-like Torre Glòries, with a facade lit up by 4,500 multi-colored LED lights.
But it is the work of Antoni Gaudi (1852–1926) that truly defines the city. His eccentric fantasies of architecture made him the father of “Catalan Modernism,” and he’s never truly been matched. Each masterpiece — from the soaring La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, still under construction after more than 100 years; to the surreal, fantastical Casa Batllo; Venetian Palau Güell; and the wildly weird Casa Mila — is an experience in itself. Be sure to take the trip out to Parc Güell, too, Gaudi’s outdoor fantasyland, where kids can frolic and adults get their gobs smacked by the tiled mosaics, serpentine benches, colonnaded pathways, and fantastical fountains.
STEEPED IN HISTORY
While Barcelona’s bustling streets feel very modern, with its urban traffic and glowing neon, history steeps in the Gothic Quarter. It’s where Barcelona began and is threaded with narrow, winding, cobblestone streets that reveal ages past, when the Romans, Moors, and Habsburgs held sway.
Among the centuries-polished stone are historical highlights like Barcelona’s oldest restaurant, Can Culleretes, which wears its 233 years on the walls with hundreds of photographs of famous people who have dined at the restaurant. Els Quatre Gats is another institution of the quarter. It dates back to the 1890s and was the site of Pablo Picasso’s first exhibition. The City History Museum tells the story of Barcelona with centuries-old artifacts and treasures. The Gothic Quarter is also home to El Call, Barcelona’s old Jewish Quarter, where you can find the Ancient Synagogue, one of the oldest in Europe.
TAPAS, TAPAS, EVERYWHERE
The beauty of the Barcelona’s food culture is the ease of eating. Everywhere you go, there’s a place that serves quick bites — aka tapas. Taste almost everything you can, from the city’s beloved anchovies to grilled octopus, thinly sliced Iberian ham, stuffed peppers, and more. Often tapas come at a standing bar, with energetic and convivial crowds who want to hang loose with friends and tourists from all over the world. Other eateries provide tapas as a free perk with the purchase of a drink.
Start at the homespun El Xampanyet, a favorite local haunt since 1929, or indulge at the deli-esque Can Paixano, where sparkling cava flows near the water’s edge of the Barceloneta neighborhood. Paco Meralgo adds a minimalist elegance, while classic white table cloths spread beneath a huge menu at Can Sole, in business since 1903.
Be careful not to fill up entirely on tapas, as Barcelona has some of the world’s best restaurants. For evidence, simply open your Michelin Guide. The three-star wonder ABaC is worth every euro, elevating cooking to high art in a sun-splashed gallery. Two-star Cocina Hermanos Torres, a transformed industrial warehouse, is the latest from the talented Torres twins. And find another two stars, plus a fully Catalan menu, at Moments. Not full yet? There are only 21 more Michelin-starred restaurants to go!
THE BEACH, SHOPPING, & THE ARTS
A comprehensive, modern, and cheap metro, tram and bus system makes seeing the sights in Barcelona a cinch, as does a Barcelona BusTuristic pass, which brings riders on an endless hop on, hop off around the city on three separate lines. Just be sure to make one of your tram rides to La Barceloneta, where the city’s long sandy beach awaits, but be careful, the Mediterranean Sea here is often cold, even in the summer. After a dip in the water, stretch out on a beach chair or towel and soak up the sun, or rent an umbrella to find shade. For more sweat than tan, join a game of beach volleyball.
Later, hop off the bus at Barcelona Shopping Line, one of Europe’s largest retail areas. The miles of boulevard completely devoted to retail therapy are made more elegant by the buildings themselves, many of which are architectural gems. Other good shopping areas are in Old Town and El Born Barrio, wonderful places to wander and window shop. To up the hip in your wardrobe game, aim for shops like Pinza’t, Lydia Delgado, Boo, Trait Store, and Coquette.
The art extends from the boutique display windows to the art galleries, too. Barcelona is home to many world-class museums. Among the city’s best are the Picasso Museum, Joan Miró Foundation, and European Museum of Modern Art. To explore the city’s sea-bound history, head for the Maritime Museum.
No matter which of Barcelona’s diverse and exciting elements strike your fancy, by the time you depart this incredible city, you’re likely to be plotting a way to return — and perhaps never leave.
Fly to Barcelona-El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport (BCN) from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) nonstop on American Airlines and Norwegian Air.