With its pedestrianised thoroughfares, leafy parks and quirky Gaudí monuments, the capital of Catalonia offers a unique experience. This city, home to one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports, is vastly different from other cities in Spain; from the Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s eccentric masterpiece, to the eerie magnificence of the Gothic Quarter with its cathedral, each landmark will surprise you. This article provides tips on how to make the most of Barcelona in two days, including a guide to the best places to eat in each area.
Start your holiday in Barcelona’s Eixample district which is renowned for its cluster of modernist buildings, and which is northeast of the Old Town. The most notable landmark is Sagrada Família (or, to give it its full name, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família), with its soaring bell towers. Construction of the cathedral began in 1882 under the architect Francesc del Villar, but he soon resigned and was replaced a year later by Antoni Gaudí.
Sagrada was still incomplete at the time of Gaudí’s death in 1926 (he was knocked over by a tram while crossing a street), but the World Heritage Site can be seen from almost anywhere in Eixample, and its towers offer spectacular views of the city below.
Although it opens at 9am, arrive earlier to see Sagrada at its best as the dawn sun turns the church’s exterior a rich gold. This is an ideal time to examine the Nativity façade and the rather grim Passion façade. An early morning arrival means you’ll beat the crowds, which can be off-putting in summer. Once inside, look for the altar canopy (still awaiting its altar), the apse, which was the first part of the church completed by Gaudí, and the crypt, where Gaudí is buried.
Work on Sagrada’s completion – scheduled for between 2026 and 2030 – explains the forest of construction cranes that compete with the bell towers for the skyline. Once it’s complete, Gaudí’s last project will be the tallest church in the world.
Enjoy a Catalan salad with mixed cold meats at nearby Bar Restaurante La Llesca (12 Avinguda de Gaudí) before heading west to 92 Passeig de Gràcia and another Gaudí masterpiece, Casa Milà. This eight-floor apartment block is, with its wavy façade and otherworldly rooftop, even more bizarre than Sagrada Família.
Casa Milà – or La Pedrera (the ‘Stone Quarry’ to locals) – was built between 1906 and 1910 and is notable for its lack of straight walls. Its spidery wrought iron balconies and underground car park were further innovations at the time it was built, but the rooftop with its sculptured chimneys is the most fascinating.
Another showcase for Gaudí’s eccentric architectural genius is Casa Batlló (43 Passeig de Gràcia). Built in 1877 and restored between 1904 and 1906, it symbolises the story of Sant Jordi, Catalonia’s dragon-slaying patron saint. In keeping with that legend, Casa Batlló’s roof resembles a dragon’s scaly back. Casa Batlló is particularly magical at night.
Finish the day with a typical Catalan meal at Tenorio (37 Passeig de Gràcia).
At the heart of Barcelona is its Old Town which is home to Barri Gòtic (or the Gothic Quarter), a rambling neighbourhood of dark alleys and small, medieval squares dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. At the heart of Barri Gòtic is La Seu, Barcelona’s imposing cathedral, and a particularly evocative example of gothic architecture. Start your morning here.
Inside the cathedral, look for the tomb of Santa Eulalia, which rests in a crypt below the high altar, and which gives La Seu its other name – the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. The saint’s fame comes from the fact that she was killed by the Romans for daringly devoting herself to Christianity.
Another highlight worth looking for in Barri Gòtic is the impossibly picturesque Placa del Rei, a tiny square that once served as the courtyard of the palace (Palau Reial) of the Counts of Barcelona. The Torre del Rei Marti, which dominates the square, looks as if it part of a film set. The lighting is best in the morning.
After soaking up the medieval atmosphere in the Old Town, walk southwest to Placa Reial, an arcaded gem that was built in the 1850s. Here, among the palm trees and elegant buildings, is an ideal spot to stop for lunch and a jug of sangria. Be careful of pickpockets and other scam artists, a legacy of Placa Reial’s drug-addled past.
Pickpockets are also an unfortunate feature of Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, but don’t let this put you off enjoying what is a quintessentially Spanish ritual. La Rambla, which was once a dry riverbed, is lined with plane trees, painted human statues and every kind of stall imaginable. It starts in Placa de Catalunya and leads south to the harbour and Monument a Colom, a column on top of which stands a Christopher Columbus statue.
Now head northwest (roughly along the Avinguda del Paral-lel) to Palau Nacional (National Palace) to check out the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (Museum of National Catalan Art). Note that the museum is closed on Mondays except public holidays, and closes early on Sundays. Highlights include the Madonna of Humility, a panel depicting the Virgin with the Child on her lap, and the Crucifix of Batlló Majesty, a 12th century wooden carving showing Christ with his eyes open and dressed in royal robes.
If you’re visiting between October and April, time your exit from the museum on a Friday or Saturday at 7pm so you can experience the Font Magica (Magic Fountain). This illuminated fountain designed for the 1929 International Exhibition features cascades flowing down from the Palau Nacional, creating an extravaganza of light and water. If you’re visiting between May and September, note that Font Magica starts at 9.30pm on Thursday through Sunday.
Complete your holiday with dinner at Casa de Tapas Canota (7 Lleida) which specialises, as its name suggests, in various tapas dishes.