Barcelona is much more than just the inspiration for an Ed Sheeran song. The food, culture, and general vibe of the city was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The week that I spent in Barcelona, Spain was actually life-changing for me. Now, I’m sharing that experience (and my tips for visiting) with you!
When we visited Barcelona, we stayed in an AirBnb. Barcelona is currently cracking down on AirBnb, only allowing renters with an approved license to list on the platform (which you can read more about here). If you choose to stay in an AirBnb, please follow these steps to make sure you’re not adding to the AirBnb gentrification problem!
That being said, we stayed in the El Born area of Barcelona, which was amazing! El Born was safe, full of tons of stuff to do, and a quick walk from the other areas of the city. It was seriously a perfect home-base for us during our trip.
You will not run out of things to do in Barcelona. We somehow managed to jam many of the sites of the city into just 7 days. Was it exhausting? A little bit. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
We started our trip exploring El Born, since it’s where we were staying. El Born has a medieval feel and a super artsy vibe, which makes for a delightful and interesting balance. My archaeology radar must have been tingling, as the very first place we explored was the El Born Cultural Center – which sits above an active excavation site! Bonus: it’s free to visit.
Keep moving through El Born and you’ll find the Pablo Picasso Museum. Confession time: I had no idea Picasso grew up in Barcelona (or even that he died in 1973. WHAT!) before I visited the museum. I absolutely loved the Picasso Museum because it perfectly mingled his mock up ideas with the final pieces of art. General tickets are €12 and reduced tickets are €7.
Before leaving El Born, be sure to visit the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar. It’s a beautiful gothic basilica in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s worth going inside just to see the intricate stonework of the church. Our AirBnb overlooked the stained glass windows of this church, so I might be a bit biased in my love of it.
Montjuïc is a big ole hill in the southwest part of Barcelona that has quite a bit of cultural and political significance. For one, it’s where the Montjuïc Castle is. This castle has served as a military fortress, prison, execution site, and many, many more things since it was built in the 1600s. The castle even served as a major base during the Seize of Barcelona during the Spanish War of Succession (when Catalonia lost its independence). There is a small ticket fee (€5 General, €3 Reduced) that gets you in to Montjuïc Castle. You’ll see fabulous gardens, some small museum exhibits, and killer city views. There are a few major ways to get there. We walked – it’s a bit of a hike, but we enjoyed it.
Walking down Montjuïc
As you climb back down Montjuïc you’ll pass the National Art Museum of Catalonia. This museum displays over 1000 years of art and, oh yeah, it’s an actual palace, specifically the Palau Nacional. It was built for the International Exposition of 1929 and has a dome modeled after St. Peter’s in Vatican City. It’s absolutely breathtaking. The museum costs €12 to visit, but is free if you go after 3pm on Saturday (which is what we did!). I recommend going toward the end of the day on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday so you can hang around and see the Magic Fountains of Montjuïc, a fun music, light, and fountain show that happens at the fountains of the hill.
My favorite thing about Montjuïc, though, was at the base of the hill: the 1992 Olympics Site. Y’all. I love watching some sports and even though I wasn’t alive back in ’92, I really love the Dream Team. Walking through the Olympic site was basically a religious experience, mainly because so many great athletes had walked the same path we were. You’re able to explore almost all of the buildings around the site, but the coolest (in my opinion) was the Stadium. It’s a free, quick, fun activity that I can’t recommend enough! While you’re exploring the Olympic sites, be sure to head over to Barceloneta, a beach that was built for the ’92 Summer Games.
I obviously can’t talk about Barcelona sites without talking about Antoni Gaudi: a groundbreaking Catalan architect whose buildings are scattered around the city. Gaudi’s works are so important that they’ve collectively been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We saw our first Gaudi masterpiece by accident as we were wandering through the Parc de la Ciutadella on our first day in the city. The Parc is home to a magnificent water monument called the Cascada. It features a golden chariot, stone sculptures, lush greenery, and Gaudi’s quirky charm. It’s the only Gaudi site on this list that is totally free to visit!
Gaudi’s most famous work is probably the Sagrada Familia. The Sagrada Familia has been under construction for 137 years and still has a few more to go! The life of Christ, nature, and all things divine inspired the basilica. Tickets start at €17 and go up based on what you’re wanting to see. Definitely buy tickets in advance because they tend to sell out!
Gaudi created another masterpiece with Parc Güell, a magnificent public park featuring mosaics, incredible architecture, and gorgeous gardens. Much of the park is free to visit, but you do have to buy tickets to enter the “Monumental Zone”. I cannot recommend visiting this zone enough! The “monuments” are unlike anything I’d ever seen, with slanting walls, heavily decorated ceilings, houses that looked like gingerbread houses…it was amazing. They limit the number of people who can be in the zone at the time to keep the crowds at bay. Tickets are €8.50 for adults and there are some reduced prices. Like with the Sagrada Familia, tickets tend to sell out so buy early!
We decided to do a self-guided walking tour to several other Gaudi sites as ya girls were ballin’ on a student budget. We walked past the Casa Vicens, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, and Casa Calvet. All of these are free to view from the street but cost money to enter. I plan on eventually making my way back to Barcelona and visiting each and every one of these places!
The first thing you need to know about eating in Spain is that dinner happens late. Think 9-10 PM late. I’m used to eating dinner at 7 PM at the latest, so Spanish dinners were an adjustment for me. The next thing you need to know is that tapas, or “small plates”, reign supreme during Spanish meals. Be prepared to eat a lot.
While in Barcelona, I enjoyed two of the best meals I have ever had. The first was an Iberian ham sandwich and rosé cava (a Spanish sparkling wine) at La Xampanyeria, which cost a whopping 5€. The second was paella at Salmanca. The paella was enough to feed a small army, and my travel companion and I ate the entire thing (much to the surprise of our waiter).
The various tapas bars we visited served a range of dishes that constantly surprised us. First up was the Restaurante Santa Maria del Mar, where we fell in love with croquetas. Next, we hit Tapeo, where we continued falling in love with croquetas and black catalan cuttlefish pasta. Another delightful tapas restaurant was Taller de Tapas, where we ate more croquetas (we REALLY love croquetas) and so many delicious vegetable dishes. The last tapas bar we visited was the Bodega Biarritz, which opens early and your waiter picks your tapas for you.
Barcelona has so many clubs, bars, and even a speakeasy, making it one of the many European playgrounds. We typically started our nights by having a drink with dinner since almost every tapas bar had an actual bar, too. One exception was the sunset drinks we had at the rooftop bar of the Museum of Catalan History – an experience I highly recommend to anyone visiting Barcelona.
St. Patricks Day fell during our trip, so naturally we had to find an Irish bar to ring in the festivities with. Luckily, George Payne Irish Bar was ready to welcome us! George Payne was much larger than we had expected, with an entry room and two large levels within. The bar blasted music to cater every taste, including a mash-up of the Spice Girls greatest hits and current Top 40 songs. I even ran in to a friend from Kentucky at the bar!
Our AirBnb host told us of a speakeasy near the apartment called Paradiso, and we were itching to try it out! The front of Paradiso appears to be a deli – you tell the bouncer a password and you’re led through a fridge and into the bar. Paradiso had amazing cocktails and an awesome vibe! While it’s a speakeasy, Paradiso is pretty easy to find after 11pm because of the line leading up to the door.
Not gonna lie, we were much more interested in eating than we were clubbing on this trip. We did manage to hit 2 of Barcelona’s clubs, though. First was Jamboree, which has a jazz club and a dance club. The dance club churns out awesome hip hop and R&B. Drinks aren’t too crazy expensive and it has a cool vibe. The other club we visited was Opium. Opium was my favorite of the clubs we visited. It was a lot bigger, had better dancing, and was on the beach. They also tend to get some bigger names playing. I think anyone would have fun at either of these clubs, though.
Barcelona is truly a magical city, with inhabitants who are passionate about life and want to share that passion with everyone who visits. Barcelona is full of good vibes and you are free to express yourself without fear of judgement, repression, or danger. There is a lightness associated with Barcelona that is, so far, unmatched by anywhere I have been before. For anyone thinking about visiting Barcelona, go as soon as you can. It is affordable, safe, and a great place to visit while you’re young. It is a beautiful city with generous, kind, welcoming people. I cannot wait to visit again.
PS: Read more about one of my favorite Barcelona gems: The Sagrada Familia! Looking for more Spanish destinations? Read about my time on the Camino Frances or visiting historic sites in Pamplona and Ponferrada!