The Best Itinerary for Barcelona

See recent posts by Kyle Valenta

To say that Barcelona, a city that boasts gorgeous beaches, abundant sunshine, vibrant local culture, a delectable foodie scene, and a relaxed pace, has it all might be one of travel's biggest cliches and one of its biggest understatements. From Antoni Gaudi's mind-blowing modernist buildings to the atmosphere of the Barri Gotic and the lively beach, there's so much to see here that it can be hard to figure out what to do with a visit. With that in mind, we're breaking down your time in Barcelona, from a quick three-day weekend getaway to a more relaxed week-long trip. With our mix of secret finds and bucket-list sights, we're sure that you'll come home with unforgettable memories (and be ready to go back almost immediately).

Day 1: Atmosphere and Authentic Eats On and Off Las Ramblas

Fresh produce in Barcelona’s buzzing La Boqueria Market.

Is it packed with tourists? Yes. Are there crowds around almost every corner? For sure. But within the narrow alleyways of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic and the old town, local life is still going strong, whether in the traditional pastry shops where Catalan is spoken instead of Spanish, or in El Raval’s spice shops run by recent arrivals from the Middle East. This part of town cannot help but impress even the most jaded traveler, and getting lost amid the atmospheric lanes is a bucket-list item in its own right.

Start your morning in any of the neighborhood cafes, like Els 4 Gats, which served as a meeting point for some of Barcelona’s most famous artists in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a bit touristy these days, so for something a little more authentic, opt for Fleca Els Angels, near MACBA in El Raval. Once you’re fortified by sugar and coffee, stroll from the top of Las Ramblas and work your way south. Along the way, you’ll see tons of street performers, while major retailers and hotels line both sides.

At some point, you’ll need to dip into Barri Gotic proper. All of the streets running east from Las Ramblas eventually end in a tangle of narrow, mostly pedestrianized alleyways underneath buildings sometimes dating back to the Middle Ages. This part of town is also home to major sights like the Barcelona Cathedral and the Picasso Museum. The latter is packed with the Cubist master’s works, including multiple versions of “Las Meninas,” one of his most well-known paintings.

You won’t be hurting for food and drink options in this part of town, though we highly suggest keeping it casual on this first day. Hit up one of two markets: La Boqueria (which sits right on Las Ramblas) and Mercat de Santa Caterina (embedded within the Barri Gotic). The former sees the lion’s share of visitors — and for good reason. It’s a riot of colors and sounds, and vendors sell everything from wildly shaped gummy candy to fresh juices, meats, and produce. Stalls toward the back of the market are the best bet for meals, serving local delights like chistorras and pan con tomate/pan amb tomaquet (bread rubbed with tomato, sea salt, and olive oil). You can also snag a caña (small beer) or a glass of vermouth.

Day 2: Modernism With a Side of Shopping, Sun, and Sea

Barcelona’s magical Mediterranean light as seen from the Ohla Hotel in the Eixample.

After spending the day in the city’s oldest quarters, it’s time to explore what may arguably be its bigger claim to fame: modernism. While this art movement found expression in everything from Surrealism to Cubism, in Barcelona, it’s most readily associated with Antoni Gaudi, perhaps the city’s most famous citizen. This Catalan architect erected buildings across the city that challenged long-held beliefs about form and structure, and many of his most famous buildings are alone worth the trip to Barcelona.

After grabbing a light breakfast, head to the Eixample. This sprawling district is one of the more upscale parts of town, and feels both urban and antique at the same time. The long square blocks are lined with 19th- and 20th-century buildings that range from ornate to Art Deco to contemporary (we’re looking at you, Olivia Balmes Hotel), and nearly every one of those blocks is lined with restaurants, shops, bars, and cafes. High-end boutiques and international stores can be found along Passeig de Gracia — considered by many to be Barcelona’s main drag.

Passeig de Gracia also happens to be home to two of Gaudi’s more famous creations: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera). Start with Casa Batlló, which is a finely preserved specimen of Gaudi’s organic style, and where interiors are tricked out in colorful and ornate details. Afterward, it’s a five-minute walk north to La Pedrera. While it’s a bit less elegant than Casa Battló from the outside, the real treat is up on the roof. Here, chimneys look like howling ghosts, while whimsical minarets twirl skyward in their mosaic-clad glory. The most coveted time to visit is at night, when the rooftop is scenically lit for dramatic effect. As with all things Gaudi-related in Barcelona, advanced tickets are recommended for both houses, especially if you want to see La Pedrera’s roof at night.

It’s up to you exactly how to budget your day, and if you don’t care about La Pedrera’s nighttime look, then head back toward the sea. If you have time, El Born — the southernmost part of the Barri Gotic — is packed with high-end boutiques and patio cafes and worth a stroll. From there, make your way along the city’s seaside promenade to the W Barcelona, which has a privileged perch just over the beach. Bravo24, the hotel’s restaurant, is the perfect spot for a sundowner cocktail or a fine meal. If you have energy for a night out, Plaza Real is an epicenter of dance clubs and high-energy bars, while the low-key watering holes of El Raval host live music and are packed with locals. There are also a number of LGBT venues in the Eixample.

Day 3: Welcome to Gaudilandia

Sagrada Familia

In our opinion, three days is too few for taking in this fascinating city, but if that’s all you have to spare, then we recommend going big on your final day in town. And that means Gaudi (again). Park Guell and Sagrada Familia are masterpieces. You’ll need to budget most of the day for visiting these sights, as they aren’t exactly central, and the crowds at both can mean it takes a bit of time and patience to get exactly the right souvenir snapshot.

Start your day at Park Guell — and get there when it opens. This puts you inside the park well before the busloads of tourists begin pouring in, though you still won’t have the park’s Monumental Zone to yourself. It’s also worth keeping in mind that getting to the park may require a bit of footwork if you’re relying on public transportation. The closest metro stations are a 15- to 20-minute hilly walk from the main entrances. Alternatively, bus 24 departs from Passeig de Gracia (near Plaza de Catalunya) for a trip that involves far less walking.

We suggest starting at the park’s northeast entrance, making your way along the tranquil pathways where you’re likely to encounter impromptu flamenco performances and musicians strumming guitars. Once inside of the Monumental Zone, scope the vistas across the city from the main esplanade, which is called both Placa de la Natura and the Greek Theater. Here, the undulating tilework bench seating that winds around the perimeter makes for fantastic snapshots. Down below are famous mosaic-clad monuments like the Dragon Stairway, the Porter’s Lodge, and the Laundry Room Portico. Once you’ve had your fill of the great outdoors, it’s worth recharging at one of the casual cafes that line Ronda del Guinardo. This is an old-school part of town that’s geared toward locals, and provides a nice counterpoint to the tourist crush in the park.

After fueling up for the afternoon, hop in a taxi and head to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s still-unfinished stunner. Its spires tower over the city, and the drip castle-like forms look like nothing else on earth. Just keep in mind that everyone wants to see the basilica, and you absolutely need to buy tickets in advance to avoid being stuck in long lines.

The cornerstone of the basilica was laid in 1882, and Gaudi worked on it from 1883 until he was killed in a tram accident in 1926 (he is buried in Sagrada Familia’s crypt). Construction is approximately 70 percent complete, according to the foundation in charge of the basilica. Even so, the interiors are nothing short of stunning. Stained-glass windows flood the basilica with light that changes from red to blue to green to yellow, while starburst shapes are peppered amid the soaring pillars. Outside, each of the facades tells a different story, with ornate carvings blending in with the skyward thrust of the architecture.

For dinner, stick to what Barcelona does best: tapas. Hit up Bar Centric (sometimes called Centric Canalla on search engines). It’s a lively spot that’s figured largely in the city’s creative life, and some scenes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives” take place here. The tapas served are a mix of creative new wave plates and time-tested favorites like patatas bravas. There’s also plenty of beer, wine, and vermouth on offer, and the people watching alone is worth the meal.

If You Have Two More Days

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Montjuic.

Five days is a sweet spot for travelers to Barcelona, as it offers more flexibility to explore other parts of the city. Give yourself a break and hit Barcelona’s gorgeous beach for a day. The sand stretches almost the entire length of the city, and you’ll find a healthy LGBT contingent (plus plenty of nudists) around Playa Marbella. Alternatively, the most popular beach is at Barceloneta, which is a 10-minute walk from the metro station of the same name. At night, check in advance to see what’s on at the Palau de la Música Catalana. Choral and instrumental works are regularly performed here, though the venue itself is the star of the show. It was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and is a masterpiece of Catalan modernism.

On your fifth day, head to the buzzing (and still slightly scruffy) El Raval. There’s plenty of street life on display, and spotting street art in this neighborhood could take the entire day alone. Make space in your schedule to hit up the cutting-edge exhibitions at MACBA, one of Europe’s coolest contemporary art museums. Outside, skaters and BMX kids will be showing off tricks in the wide plaza, while everything from performance to film installations are on display in the galleries. If you really want to pack your afternoon with art, take a trip out to Poble Sec and Montjuic. There, museums like the CaixaForum also mount great exhibits — the setting (in a repurposed factory) is also quite striking. Afterward, stop for a bite in Poble Sec, one of the city’s current trendy neighborhoods (Samurai Ramen is a perpetually bustling Japanese spot). Then, make the trek up the outdoor escalators to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, crowning one of Montjuic’s hills, for fantastic city views.

If You Have a Week to Spare

The stunning Sitges coastline as seen from the Sunway Plaza Golf Hotel & Spa.

Travelers who have a full seven days to spend in Barcelona don’t need to tackle the city with such a furious pace, and can add in-the-know neighborhoods like Gracia and Poblenou to their lists. The latter is the new home of the Design Museum of Barcelona and the surrounding area is packed with start-ups that have in turn drawn plenty of hipster-friendly development. You could also consider adding a day trip. Sitges is one of the most popular easy excursions from Barcelona. The historic town-turned-LGBT-friendly beach destination packs in a lot of nightlife, a cool bar scene, and a lively beach. It’s about a 90-minute train trip from the center of town (hard partiers may want to consider spending the night in Sitges, given that nightlife doesn’t start until late here, as is the case with all of Spain).

Hotel Picks

Room Mate Anna

While Barcelona is by no means as expensive as high-profile destinations like London and Paris, your money won’t go nearly as far here as it does in Madrid or Lisbon. In fact, high-season hotel rates in the central neighborhoods like the Eixample, Barri Gotic, and along Las Ramblas can be expensive. Travelers with tighter budgets should consider the Primavera Hostel, a shabby-chic little property in the Eixample that’s within walking distance of the Barri Gotic and Sagrada Familia. It has a mix of private rooms and dorms, though amenities like air-conditioning are missing. If your budget is a little larger, we like Room Mate Anna, with its brash throwback decor, plunge pool, and prime setting just off Passeig de Gracia. For peak pampering, check out Hotel 1898, which has vintage Spanish charm, an amazing rooftop pool with panoramic city views, and a hot tub. Its central location right on Las Ramblas is also hard to beat.

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