Planning Your Stay in Barcelona
Despite being one of the more popular tourist destinations in the world, there's a mystique to Barcelona that's irresistible. Its unique Catalan culture draws visitors in, and they, in turn, stay for the beautiful beaches, world-class cuisine, and sultry nightlife. Luckily for those who don't have much time to spend here, it's possible to glean this rich culture on a day tour of the famous sights, like those buildings and parks done in the almost otherworldly architectural style known as Catalan Modernism.
If you do have more time other than on a layover or single night in town, a few days allows you to luxuriate in the culture and even take a day trip or two beyond Barcelona. Doing so will allow you to see that Catalonia isn't a single city but rather a way of life, an identity unto itself. And this identity stretches from Barcelona north along the rugged Costa Brava, through the vineyards of northern Spain, all the way to the border with France.
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24 Hours in Barcelona
A day or less to spend in Barcelona isn't much. The good news, though, is that the metro line running from Barcelona's El Prat airport into the heart of the city takes a mere 30 minutes. And if you're arriving by train there are easy metro connections to every corner of Barcelona from the centrally located Barcelona Sants railway station. With limited time, you'll want to hit the ground running and visit only the most famous landmarks and can't-miss sights.
You could begin at Plaça Catalunya, the plaza that marks the beginning of Barcelona's most famous pedestrian street, Las Ramblas. Strolling down this tree-lined throughway towards the ocean, you'll pass the city's historic Gothic Quarter, home to many sights like the Gothic Catedral de Barcelona and the palm-dotted, café-lined Plaça Reial.
You can finish your stroll along the waterfront promenade of Barceloneta Beach. Afterward, cut through the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona's finest green space. Here you'll find an abundance of gardens and lakes, and bordering it is the famous Arc de Triomf, Barcelona's version of Paris' grand archway—although this one is impressive in its own right. If you'd prefer something a bit quicker and even more fun, you can choose an organized tour of these areas on a bicycle.
You should end the day (if you have time) at the Font màgica de Montjuïc. This "magic fountain" is located at Plaça España and lights up every evening once the sun goes down. It's a glorious display of light and water and serves as a spectacular end to the perfect day in Barcelona.
2-3 Days in Barcelona
In 2-3 days you could take more in-depth tours of Barcelona, and even make it a family outing with a combined trip to Madrid. One hallmark of the city is its unique architecture, and you and the family can and should spend an afternoon touring its most famous buildings.
For a great architecture tour of Barcelona, head north to Carmel Hill. Here you'll find Park Güell, a 42-acre park looking over the city. It was designed by the legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and is done in characteristic Catalan Modernism style, which is to say it features organic forms, curved lines, and much ornamentation.
You can see what is arguably Gaudi's (and Barcelona's) finest architectural example by walking down from Carmel Hill a few blocks to the La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Work on this UNESCO World Heritage Site began in 1882, and the result is an imaginative interpretation of Gothic architecture unlike anything else in the world. If you have time, you should take a tour, which can be done on the fast track (no lines) and with a private guide.
In the evenings you'll want to head out and indulge in Barcelona's dining scene. There are many trendy tapas restaurants in the El Born neighborhood and Gothic Quarter, as well as throughout the city. But Catalan cuisine goes beyond tapas and includes famous regional dishes like suquet de peix (fish stew), canelons (Catalonia's take on Italian cannelloni), and escalivada (roasted vegetables). On your second day in Barcelona, you can learn to prepare dishes like these in a Catalan cooking class.
If you do have a third day in the city, perhaps take a trip to the Abbey of Montserrat, an 11th-century monastery located north of the city. Situated over 2,000 feet above sea level on a mountain of the same name, Montserrat affords incredible views over the valley below. This region is also famous for wine production, so if the mood strikes feel free to enjoy a tasting tour after visiting the monastery.
4-5 Days in Barcelona
With the better part of a week in Barcelona, you can enjoy any kind of city tour you'd like. This includes self-guided walks, a bicycle ride around the Gothic Quarter, and of course architecture tours. Or, you can divide the itinerary with a few days in Barcelona followed by a jaunt to the Balearic Islands.
Also, Madrid isn't the only city in Spain with great museums—Barcelona has them too. Stop in at the Picasso Museum, which houses over 4,000 works by the cubist master, or the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, home to an impressive collection of Catalan art that spans over 1,000 years.
After indulging in the food, culture, and nightlife of the city, consider leaving on a mini-road trip north to the Costa Brava. This relaxed section of coastline stretches 132 miles (214 km) from Barcelona to the border with France. There are charming little coastal villages here like Pals, Peratallada, and Calella de Palafrugell. The area also abounds with many inlets, hidden coves, and crescent beaches you can travel between on a coastal hike.
The Empordà wine region is also located along the Costa Brava and a tasting tour of its vineyards and bodegas is a great way to pass an afternoon. You could also travel to other historic locales in northeast Catalonia, like Figueres and Girona, the latter of which is a city founded 2,000 years ago and has Greek and Roman influences. Figueres is a beautiful medieval town as well as the birthplace of Salvador Dali, and there's a museum here dedicated to the famed surrealist painter.
Upon returning to Barcelona, you could cap your vacation with a sunset sailboat tour off the coast. There's no better way to say adios to this incredible city than with a cocktail in hand as you cruise the azure waters of the Mediterranean.