City Spotlight: Barcelona

I love cities. I love living in a city, I love traveling to cities and possibly most of all, I love discovering a city to which I have never been, especially one that surprises me (in a positive way, of course). I have wanted to visit Spain, and especially Barcelona, for a long time. I had heard nothing but glowing reviews of this Spanish city but no real specific reasons as to why everyone enjoyed it so much, and therefore had no particular expectations. This year when my family decided to head to Spain, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see what everyone was talking about, so Barcelona was first on the itinerary.

There are a few facts and observations that I think are important to know before heading to Barcelona. First, because of the region?s history, the predominant language is Catalan. It sounds more of a cross between French and Spanish (or at least slightly closer to French that traditional Spanish). So if you speak school-taught Spanish, or if your Spanish phrase book is your best friend, it may be harder to communicate here than in other cities. Second, Barcelona is a very young, vibrant city and it seems to be the cultural melting pot of Spain. Given that it?s closer to its northern neighbors, or perhaps because it seems to have more ?transplants? from other countries who have moved here for work or school, Barcelona offers what feels like a cross-section of Europe.

Pedestrian street in Barcelona on a Friday afternoon

Also perhaps attributed to it?s youthful nature, it is tough not to be on the move in Barcelona – even at 11 PM on a Sunday, when the streets fill locals heading to restaurants or visiting with friends and family. This fast pace by no means that one can?t relax in Barcelona. It would be easy to sit at an outdoor cafe with a coffee – which, by the way, is espresso for us Americans, even if you order and American coffee – and read, write, people watch or just enjoy lounging in the sun. But it does mean that if you’re looking for a quiet city where you can slowly wander the streets and go back to your quiet hotel room at night to catch up on your sleep, Barcelona is probably not for you.

A personal favorite feature of mine are the city?s enchanting side streets. I was constantly amazed as I peaked around each corner to more often than not find a side street filled with cafes, restaurants and local shops, which usually lead to a square with a church or fountain where locals gathered. One could literally spend their visit exploring these side streets and rarely revisit the same spots.

For those not as thrilled to get ?lost? in the city?s side streets (virtually, not literally – I don?t enjoy that either), there is plenty more to do and see in Barcelona. While this certainly is not a complete list, here are a few of my top suggestions, in no specific order.

1. Walk along Las Ramblas both during the day and at night. Without wanting to be completely cliche and say it?s as different as night and day, it truly is. During the day, especially on the weekends, it?s like an open air market. Various vendors set up their stands, selling everything from books to pets (yes, there were guinea pigs, gerbils, turtles and more for sale on the street) with street performers in between stalls. At night, it?s a center of nightlife and dining, though places can be a bit pricey as it?s a known tourist hot spot.

2. The Mercat de Sant Josep on Las Ramblas is a must. Selling everything from candies to fresh fruits to fresh meat and fish, this is clearly a spot where locals come for their weekly ingredients. Unlike many markets, it is incredibly clean and well-kept.

Mercat de Sant Josep

3. Stroll along the waterfront. It?s a wonderful place to take a break from your sightseeing and just relax and people watch. There are both traditional and local restaurants that look out over the water, or in cases of the boats turned restaurant, sit on the water.

4. La Sagrada Famiglia – the Gaudi Cathedral. While this is worth a visit, I would not suggest waiting for hours in line to go inside unless you are fascinated with modern architecture and the building process. The cathedral is still being built inside and basically looks like a giant construction site with a few stained glass windows. Perhaps I?m spoiled from seeing churches around the world, but while it was quite intriguing to look at, I can?t say it was one of my favorite churches. Still, given it?s uniqueness and history (it?s been unfinished for over 150 years), it?s kind of a must-see.

5. The Barcelona Cathedral – This cathedral, on the other hand, was magnificent. From a side entrance, you can enter into a courtyard where sunlight streams in on trees, water and even swans. The cathedral has the original chapel off the side of the main cathedral worth a look. Inside, the cathedral itself is so large people in the back of the church can watch the mass on a tv while it?s being held. It?s size is equalled by it?s ornate architecture which is traditional yet amazing.

The Barcelona Cathedral at dusk

6. The Olympic Village – The stadium was originally built for an Olympics in 1936, but when civil war broke out, the Olympics were moved to Berlin. The stadium was refurbished for the 1992 games and the village expanded. Some guide books may say not to visit, but I do suggest it. The village is on a hill overlooking the rest of the city and can be reached by a funicular, which is part of the city?s metro system (there are also cable cars that go up to the top of the hill). In addition to the village, there are botanical gardens, and old fortress and other sites that could easily fill a half day.

7. Ciudadala Park is a wonderful green space where local families picnic, couples stroll and dogs play. Complete with a small man-made pond with opportunities for canoeing, a visit to the park is the quintessential way to blend in with the locals. It’s especially active on a weekend afternoon, where you may stumble upon a festival or event.

Ciudadala Park

I recommend at least three days in Barcelona. It is an easy nonstop flight from several cities in the U.S. (about 7 hours from the East Coast) and under a 4 hour train ride from Madrid, which is even more accessible by plane. If you venture into the outer lying regions of the city, or plan to do day trips to nearby cities (Toledo, for instance) one could easily spend close to a week in Barcelona.


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