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Barcelona Travel Guide for First-Timers

View of Barcelona from Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
View from Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Barcelona is one of Europe's most exciting cities and a perennial favorite among first-time backpackers.

In this Barcelona travel guide, I'll draw on my three trips to the capital of Catalonia to help you find a place to stay, see the sights, and get some delicious Spanish food.

But first, a word about the weather.

Barcelona can be visited at any time of year. I first visited in January during my trip around the world.

However, I much preferred subsequent fall visits in September and October. The crowds aren't as bad, and the air is cool, not cold.

While fall is my favorite season, I suggest Barcelona in spring for first-time visitors.

Both the temperatures and people are warming up, flowers are blooming, and you can take better advantage of the beach.

Traveling to Barcelona is easy. It's one of Europe's best-connected cities, with direct flights from cities throughout the United States.

If direct flights aren't available from your city, you can easily connect through other major cities like New York City, London, and Berlin.

Outside Els 4Gats restaurant in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter
Els 4Gats restaurant in Gothic Quarter

Where to Stay in Barcelona

Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city after the capital, Madrid. When looking at Barcelona apartments for rent, consider these neighborhoods.

Gothic Quarter

The centrally-located Gothic Quarter is my favorite place to stay in Barcelona.

Getting lost in narrow medieval streets will give you a sense of what life must've been like hundreds of years ago.

You'll have easy access to Las Ramblas, the marina, and the aquarium. Don't miss the impressive Barcelona Cathedral built in the gothic style.

Barceloneta

If being by the beach is your preference, book a stay in Barceloneta, where you can rent a place within a block or two of the sea.

Plus, you'll still be within walking distance of the Gothic Quarter, several museums, and the marina.

Born

The small but trendy Born neighborhood lies between the Gothic Quarter to the west and Barceloneta to the east.

It's home to the Picasso Museum, Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, and several cool cocktail bars.

Casa Milà
Casa Milà

Eixample

North of the Gothic Quarter is Eixample, a large district that runs parallel to the coast.

This area is full of bars and restaurants and Antoni Gaudí’s signature buildings, including La Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà.

Gràcia

Further inland, north of Eixample, is Gràcia, a neighborhood known for Gaudí’s art nouveau architecture, exemplified in Casa Vicens Gaudí.

Stay here if you want to get a sense of Catalan culture without the crowds.

If you're looking to rent an apartment in Barcelona long term, you'd be well-served to choose one of these five neighborhoods.

Things to Do

First-time visitors to Barcelona have their work cut out for them when it comes to places to see and things to do.

Tens of millions of tourists visit the city annually, and there's are plenty of tour guides, companies, and services competing for their attention.

Despite its size, Barcelona's central core is easily walkable, while sights and neighborhoods further away can be reached by subway or taxi.

Note: Uber is not operating in Barcelona at this time.

The ceiling of La Sagrada Familia (photo: CD_Photosaddict, Pixabay)
La Sagrada Familia's ceiling (photo: CD_Photosaddict)

Modernist Architecture by Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is a Catalan architect known for his modernist buildings, mostly in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia is Gaudí’s most famous work, and it's also where he is buried.

The cathedral is slowly nearing completion according to his original plans. It's due to be completed in 2026.

Other notable works include:

  • Casa Milà
  • Casa Vicens Gaudí
  • Park Güell

While I've taken a more haphazard DIY approach, a Gaudí-specific tour would be an efficient way to see his major works in a single day.

Barcelona Cathedral
Barcelona Cathedral

Explore the Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter is the old medieval center of the city.

Labyrinthine alleys and passageways make it a delight to walk around day or night.

Plus, the Gothic Quarter offers visitors an escape from automobiles as it's closed to all but service vehicles.

Historic landmarks include the remains of Roman walls, Barcelona Cathedral (1339), and City Hall.

Walk La Rambla

La Rambla is a street and pedestrian walkway that runs from Plaça de Catalunya at the north end of the Gothic Quarter to the port at the south end.

Line with bars, cafes, and shops, it's a must for people watching.

Just be sure to keep your wallet or purse tucked closely as Barcelona is known for pickpockets who take advantage of distracted tourists.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Museums

Museum lovers will be in paradise. Barcelona is full of them!

The Picasso Museum in the Born neighborhood is home to over 4,000 works of art by the Spanish artist. If you only visit one museum, make it this one.

The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya is built upon a hilltop, offering panoramic views of the city.

On the last day of my 2018 trip to Barcelona, I only had a few hours to spare, so I walked up to the rooftop, even though I didn't have time to see the museum's Catalan art collection.

Modern art fans will want to check out the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art near La Rambla and the Fundació Joan Miró dedicated to the works of Spanish artist Joan Miró.

Beach and boardwalk
Beach and boardwalk

Barceloneta Beach

Barceloneta Beach is easily accessible on foot from Barceloneta, Born, and the Gothic Quarter.

There's a restaurant-lined boardwalk to stroll, which is perfect for people-watching, especially in summer.

Soccer Match at Camp Nou

Soccer is Spain's national sport and Barcelona is home to one of the world's best clubs, FC Barcelona.

Getting a ticket to see FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi play Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou stadium was a highlight of my first trip to the city.

See also: Off the Beaten Track in Barcelona

Sign outside La Boqueria
Sign outside La Boqueria

Where to Eat and Drink

Spanish food fills the streets of Barcelona. Whether you're traveling to Barcelona on a budget or have some money to spare, you'll eat well.

Boqueria Market

For starters, when walking down La Rambla, be sure and stop into the historic Boqueria Market, which dates back to 1836.

Markets like these are sprinkled throughout the city, but Boqueria is the most famous. You can make a meal out of sampling what's on offer.

Food Tour

Another fun way to explore Barcelona's culinary scene is through a food tour.

During my second visit in 2012, I took a food tour, which began with the chef walking us through Boqueria and showing us how to make sangria and paella. Yum!

4Gats interior
Inside Els 4Gats

Els 4Gats

Located in the Gothic Quarter, Els 4Gats (The 4 Cats) is a cafe that dates back to June 12, 1897.

It served as a meeting point for famous artists such as Pablo Picasso during the modernist movement.

In 1989, it was fully restored and is now popular with tourists searching for coffee, drinks, and tapas.

Quimet & Quimet

In 2009, I happened to be staying at a hostel next door to Quimet & Quimet, a tapas bar. Naturally, I got dinner there one night.

Months later, I saw the same tapas bar featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain!

It was and remains one of the best tapas bars in the city. Don't miss it!

Sardines with olive oil at Bodega 1900 in Barcelona, Spain
Sardines with olive oil

Bodega 1900

Speaking of the best tapas bars in the city, I also want to give a shout out to Bodega 1900 by Albert Adria, brother to chef Ferran Adria.

The Adria brothers previously ran the world's #1 restaurant, El Bulli, in Costa Brava, Spain.

Albert now has many restaurants in Barcelona, and I managed to snag a counter seat for lunch at Bodega 1900 on my last visit to Barcelona.

The nice thing about tapas is you can control how much you spend.

While you can certainly find free tapas at bars, I recommend treating yourself to at least one high-quality experience.

Paradiso Bar

Last but not least, I want to end with a speakeasy. Paradiso Bar is hidden behind a secret door in a pastrami shop.

Inside, they serve some of the most creative cocktails in Barcelona.

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I hope this Barcelona travel guide helped orient you to this incredible Spanish city.

There's so much to do, it's not surprising travelers go back again and again.

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This story is brought to you in partnership with ShBarcelona.

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Vic

Sunday 18th of October 2020

This is great travel advice

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