Legend has it that if you drink from the fountains of Les Canaletes in Barcelona, you will fall helplessly under the city’s spell and be compelled to return time and again. Spend but a few days in the thriving Catalonian capital however, and you’ll soon realize that this most famous of all Spanish spells is not merely confined to a fountain. It is everywhere…in every nook of its cobblestoned historic centre, every corner of its amazing museums, every bite of its mouth-watering cuisine and every beat of its hypnotic music.
Some say modern-day Barcelona only came into being after it hosted the ’92 Olympics, and indeed it’s true that the stimulation this now thriving hub received, after it was propelled into the spotlight, was nothing short of miraculous. Entire suburbs, once derelict and unsightly, were completely rebuilt, old treasures repolished and new, modern marvels constructed. As a result Barcelona is now one of the newest old cities in Europe, boasting arguably the best nightlife of any city in the world together with an endless array of cultural, historic and gastronomic delights. This city is clean, safe, fun, yummy and completely addictive, and it offers such a mind-boggling plethora of activities that it rates, in our humble opinion, as the epitome European holiday destination.
One of the most beloved aspects of Barcelona is that it is incredibly pedestrian friendly; with most of the city’s highlights centred on the historic quarter. For being such a bustling metropolis it feels mighty small, intimate and totally charming. Enjoy the best of the city’s centre before heading up to Mount Tibidabo for superlative sweeping city views, soak up the sun and tackle the surf at one of the city’s premier beaches (sure they may be artificial…but who cares?), dance the night away and practice your flamenco in the best bars and nightclubs in town and spend your blissful days eating, sightseeing and getting an unequalled cultural fix.
Yes, a Barcelona vacation is as tough as it sounds.
The Ins and Outs of Barcelona’s Centre:
The old city quarter incorporates the trendiest suburbs of Barcelona, including Barrio Gotico, Las Ramblas, la Barceloneta and El Born. Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Elysees and is often considered the best shopping, dining, drinking and clubbing destination in town. In reality though, it really isn’t. What it is, is extremely beautiful and extremely popular, which actually makes it the most touristy rip-off in town. Nevertheless, it won’t take you long to meander your way through the main avenue and its side streets, the array of open-air markets and flashy shops, so do head here at least once to see what all the fuss is all about. Don’t head here hungry or thirsty and you won’t be disappointed.
The Barrio Gotico, the most historic heart of town, is a lovely maze of medieval splendour and the one place you should make an effort to get lost in! Visit the stunning Cathedral (and climb up its highest spire), the Government Palace and the City Hall, before making your way to Placa Catalunya, the absolute epicentre of the city. Renowned for its striking fountains and statues, this plaza is a popular meeting place for the city’s youth, and a great place to either start your explorations (the city’s main avenues all start from here) or to end it by enjoying a glass of icy cold sangria at one of the many bars. Grand architecture and buzzing pretty much 24/7, Placa Catalunya seems to be the source of all of Barcelona’s energy.
Nearby La Riberia is the city’s nightlife centre and home to a great choice of bars, tapas joints, bodegas and fantastic nightclubs. During the day, head here to visit the Picasso Museum, an incredible collection of five mansions showcasing some of the best works of the master painter.
The Eixample quarter, which is rather large, is in complete contrast to the Ciutat Vella and is the headquarters of Barcelona’s most modernist modern-art treasures. It’s really modern. It’s actually so modern, it’s considered post-post-modernist if you know what we mean. This is where the city’s (yet again) modern-art guru, Antoni Gaudi, began building the Sagrada Familia, the most iconic of all of Barcelona’s landmarks. The yet-to-be-finished cathedral is an absolute masterpiece and a quite a mind-boggling sight, both for its intricate external façade and its elaborate and gargantuan interior.
Eixample is also home to two other Gaudi masterpieces, namely the Casa Milà and La Casa Batlló which you really shouldn’t miss seeing. Due to the avant-gardeness of its architecture, we presume, Eixample is also the gay-friendly corner of Barcelona and boasts a quite a few hip and trendy gay bars. The lack of major tourist crowds at night also rates this as one of the best suburbs to stay in when visiting Barcelona. It’s cheaper than the Old Centre (by far) yet still within walking distance to all major attractions.
Getting into Barcelona:
Barcelona’s international airport is about 17km south of the city centre and is extensively serviced by all major airlines and some low cost carriers. For being such an important hub, the El Prat Airport is surprisingly small and compact so navigating your way through should be quite effortless.
To reach the city centre you have a few options: Aerobus is the designated airport shuttle and plies the route between both of the airport’s terminals and the city centre. A ride to Plaza Catalunya takes about 30 minutes and costs €5,90. You can buy the ticket directly from the bus driver, just make sure to have it in cash.
The local public bus (#46, run by TMB) also plies the same route (for only €2), but it does not run as frequently and makes many more stops along the way, making the journey almost a one-hour long affair. Moreover, the 46 is a normal city bus so if you’re travelling with more than just your hand luggage you’ll have a hard time finding enough room!
We dare say the Aerobus is the best and most convenient way to get into town, especially if you’re in Barcelona for the first time or if your Spanish is a little rusty. If you still want to catch the 46 keep in mind that you can’t buy a ticket from the bus driver and will have to either use the ticket vending machine at the arrivals’ lounge, or buy your ticket from the tobacconist in T2.
The N17 Nightbus takes over the city transfers the moment both Aerobus and #46 stop running just after mid-night. As the official website is only available in Spanish, check out this nifty website for detailed info.
Alternatively you can hop on a train to the city although considering the extensive amount of construction still going on at the moment, and the lack of true central stop, this option may not be a worthwhile one to consider. The RENFE trains run every half an hour in all directions including, of course, the city’s central station (Sants Estacio) which, it must be said, is not all that central. Considering the airport train station is a 10 minute walk from the airport, and the fact that a fare is about €3, you may want to stick to the bus.
NB: There are a few low-cost airlines, Ryanair in particular, that use the Girona or Reus Airport, both located about 100km out of the city. Once you’ve booked your super-duper flight to Barcelona, the first thing you should do is to ascertain which airport you’ll be landing at, before continuing to peruse your transfer options. Both of these regional airports have fast and convenient connections to the city, but it’s always bets to be prepared. Ryanair runs bus shuttles to Girona’s main station from where you can catch a connection to Barcelona, and La Hispano Igualadina buses from Reus Airport into town too.
Getting out and about in Barcelona:
Barcelona’s public transport system, together with the great touristy hop-on/hop-off bus will see you reach every corner of the city with ease. The Bus Turistic, Barcelona’s hop-on/hop-off bus, offers a great intro to the city and is the perfect way to get your bearings on your first two day’s exploration. There are three routes to choose from, with a total of 44 stops which reach all the major attractions in Barcelona. A two-day ticket costs €32pp.
Once you know which areas of the city you’d like to explore further, buy a Barcelona Card which gives you free rides on buses, trains and trams around town, a free ride on the #46 bus from the airport, free entry to 23 tourist attractions and a whole host of other savings. You can pre-purchase your card online and have it delivered by e-mail before you even arrive.
Although there are a few ways to get around town, it’s safe to say you’ll most probably be using the Metro more than anything else. Stations are numerous and far-reaching, just make sure to pop into one of the many Tourist Info Centres to pick up a handy guide to this 5-line system. The most convenient thing to do is to buy a multi-day ticket from the vending machines at any of the stops (they operate in many languages) so you’ll need not bother buying a ticket each time. With the Metro you can connect to the city’s beaches in Barceloneta as well as reach the base stations of Barcelona’s cable cars.
Magic Fountain @ Placa Catalunya
Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church
Barcelona by night