Barcelona is a popular tourist destination and for good reason, it’s a great place to visit! There is a host of things to do in Barcelona and you can fill your time there with ease. From museums to walking tours to relaxing, this post looks at 12 things to do in the city.
Barcelona has a reputation for its popularity with tourists and whilst that can be controversial it certainly is a fantastic city to visit. The fact is the reason it’s so visited is that it’s just so diverse, there is loads to see and enjoy. And it’s a good place to relax as well! So whether you have a long weekend, a few days or more, you can find plenty of things to do in Barcelona.
Before we explore the top 12 things to do in Barcelona here is a quick overview of the city’s history. Hopefully it will give you some context and help you understand Barcelona, so you can better enjoy your visit!
A long history
The Romans settled the area around 100 BCE and named the city ‘Barcino’. Throughout the years it saw many different rulers, including a period under the Muslim Moors. This ended when the Franks captured the city and restored Christian rule. The Catalan region which Barcelona is at the heart of joined with the Kingdom Of Aragon in 1162. In turn this union then joined with Castile by royal marriage in 1469, and as a result became part of the Spain when it united into one country. Under the Spanish Monarchy Barcelona’s growth was restricted, and their was often rebellion in Catalonia. It is often argued that the Spanish Monarchy prevented Catalonia from benefiting from the wealth that the conquest of the New World brought.
19th and 20th century’s
It was the industrial age that saw Barcelona become economically powerful. The city embraced industrialisation as the rest of Spain lagged behind. The city began to expand beyond its previous limits. Many architects were hired to design and construct new buildings in this era. Antoni Gaudi is the most famous of these and has left a big impression on the city. Several of the things to do in Barcelona listed here are related to his work.
During the Spanish Civil war the city was strongly Republican. However it saw fighting in the streets between different factions of the Republican side. After the nationalists won victory and Franco was installed as ruler, Catalan culture was suppressed and Catalan autonomy abolished. This didn’t return until 1977, two years after Franc’s death.
After Spain joined the European Union in 1986 Barcelona received EU funds to revitalise the city. The 1992 Olympics were also huge boost for Barcelona and helped rejuvenate the city. In the 1980’s it had a bad reputation and the Olympics are seen as vital in the role of transformation of this. They are often mentioned for how important they were for turning Barcelona into the city it is today.
The Modern City
Barcelona has grown into a huge modern city of over 1,620,800 people. It’s the second largest city in Spain and the largest in its region, Catalonia. Language wise both Spanish and Catalan are the official ones spoken here. There is an ongoing struggle within Catalonia for independence from Spain, and Barcelona had often been a flash point for this. As you walk around the city expect to see many political slogans and flags, both pro-Catalan independence and pro-Spain. Asides from politics the city itself is full of restaurants and bars,museums and galleries. The tourist infrastructure is very well-developed. But this hasn’t been without backlash, so it’s important to be responsible when you visit. And of course for many people the first thing that comes to mind when they hear ‘Barcelona’ is the football team! FC Barcelona are huge and you will see their merchandise sold all over the city.
12 things to do in Barcelona
Built in the early 1900’s this public park was designed by Antoni Gaudi, who was commissioned by Eusebi Güell. Whilst original it was supposed be a housing area for the wealthy it eventually became a park, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its full of interesting buildings, mosaics and monuments, as well as containing pleasant gardens and a great viewpoint over the city.
Whilst the majority of the park area is free the ‘Monumental Core’ containing Gauid’s works are paid entrance. There can be long lines to get into the park so it’s good to get your tickets in advance. They give you a half hour time-slot to enter, after which you can spend however long you like inside. You can buy Park Güell tickets here.
Work began on the Sagarada Familia in 1882 and it is still not finished. When construction began it was under the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, though he left a year later. Antoni Gaudi then took over and dramatically changed the designs. It was a grand ambitious plan hence why it is taking so long to build! Gaudi died in 1926 and is buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Família. Technological advances have helped speed up construction in recent years and it has passed the midway point, which was reached in 2010.
Personally, I have only admired the outside of this building. Its covered in intricate designs and well worth a wander around. If you want to go inside you will need to buy a ticket, which can be quite pricey. As with Park Güell there can be long lines so it’s best to buy in advance. You can buy Sagrada Família tickets here. Construction of this Catholic Church is financed by private donors and tourist ticket sales.
This is the centre of the oldest part of Barcelona. Also knows as Barri Gòtic, its streets and squares are interesting to have a walk around. Check out the architecture as well as looking at how the locals live. You can find remains of Roman and Medieval walls here too. The Barcelona Cathedral can also be found in this area. It is of the Gothic architectural style and was constructed for over 150 years between the between the 13th and 15th centuries. You can also find the Roman Temple of Augustus in this part of the city, which is free to enter. Its 2000 years old and was constructed in honour of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
One of the best ways to see the Gothic Quarter and learn about its history is a guided tour. I did a free tour with ‘Free Walking Tours Barcelona‘ and highly recommend them. It’s good to book in advance to secure your spot, you can find the form on their website. As with all ‘free’ walking tours a donation/tip for the guide is much appreciated.
The culture is here is for late lunches and late dinners. Tapas is a popular dinner choice and a good way to spend your evening. Traditionally you would move between bars having a small snack and drink in each. Though a popular way for tourists to enjoy it is to order several dishes in one place to share. This makes for a great relaxed evening meal. The focus of tapas isn’t just the food itself, it’s for the social element too. The idea is to take you time and engage in conversation with your dining partners.
The Gothic Quarter is a great place for restaurants and tapas bars, have a wander around and see what you can find! And next door is the La Ribera neighbourhood, which also has many great tapas options. Though in truth you can find good places all over the city! Whilst there is a lot of meat and cheese don’t worry if you are vegetarian/vegan, you will be able find some options. Padrón peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, salad, bread and olives are all common choices!
Check out Gaudi’s Casa’s
Antoni Gaudí pops up a lot in conversations about Barcelona, his imprint on the city is huge. Hence why he features 3 times on this list of things to do in Barcelona! As well as the major sites already listed above the architect designed several buildings around the city. Casa Batlló, Casa Milá and Casa Vicens are 3 of the ones I recommend taking a look at. They all house paid museums that can be visited if you want to really delve into his work. But they are also great to view from the outside and admire their uniqueness. Aesthetically they are all different and its interesting to see the different designs. Viewing all 3 will demonstrate Gaudi’s versatility and innovation
Casa Vicens was Gaudi’s first commissioned building design. It was built between 1883-85 at the request of Manel Vicens i Montaner. As mentioned earlier Barcelona’s industrialisation saw rapid expansion and it was during this time that many new buildings were constructed. This was a great era for architects and Gaudi greatly benefited from it. Casa Batlló is was an existing house that Gaudi redesigned and renovated from 1904 to 1906. The man who commissioned him, Josep Batlló, actually wanted a whole new building constructed, but Gaudi convinced him otherwise. Casa Milá was built from 1906 to 1910, commissioned by the married couple Pere Milà and Roser Segimon. .
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC)
This museum features an amazing amount of fantastic Catalan artwork spanning a period of 1000 years. It features several sections covering different era’s/styles and you can spend hours exploring here. These era’s include Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Modern Art. There really is a lot to see here to you might want to plan your visit in advance. Or dive straight in and see what you find that you like!
Check out their website for information about opening times and what exhibits are on. As well as all the amazing artwork the museum itself is in the grand Palau Nacional building. Outside the front entrance you can see an amazing view across the city of Barcelona. On your way in and out of the museum you pass by the Font Màgica de Montjuïc. Aka the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. There is a light show here in the evening.
Camp Nou Experiance
The world-famous FC Barcelona play at the Camp Nou and open their stadium up for tours. You can have a good explore including seeing trophies, the away dressing room, press conference room and more! And of course a few of the pitch including the dugouts and a look in the commentary boxes too! You don’t need to buy tickets for this experience in advance, it should be fine just turning up and buying there.
If you want to go to a game you can check their website for available tickets. Camp Nou has a seating capacity of 99,354 though can sell out so be sure to book in advance. Especially for a big game!
Las Ramblas (and around)
Aka La Rambla, this long street is probably Bareclona’s most famous. It’s always crowded with tourists and is full of restaurants and tapas places. As well as other stores, cafes and souvenir stands. This is where to go to see Barcelona at its most touristy. Great for picking up souvenirs and finding food quickly, and if you enjoy that busy atmosphere. Personally though I would recommend eating elsewhere as I think the quality of food is better once you head down the side streets.
Las Ramblas lies between the Gothic Quater and the El Raval neighbourhood. The latter is a popular nightlife spot with many clubs and bars. At the north end of the street you can find Plaça de Catalunya. Considered the centre of the city it has some fountains and statues that are worth a look.
Barcelona City History Museum
There are actually several sites across the city that make up the Barcelona City History Museum. Take a look on their website to see all those that the museum comprises of. I’ve already mentioned the Temple of Augustus under the Gothic Quarter segment, but there are many more sites. In particular this list of things to do in Barcelona focuses on the site at Placa del Rei in the Gothic Quarter. The buildings here were previously used by the Counts of Barcelona and then later by the Kings of Aragón.
A major highlight of this museum is that can head under the city and explore the 4,000 square meters of roman ruins found there. It’s a good insight into the origins of the city and how life was back then. This doesn’t just include city defences but also a look a look at how laundry was done and what workshops produced! As well as the Roman Ruins there are some medieval buildings here. Heading back up for street level from the ruins you enter the Count’s Palace. Here you will find medieval artefacts on display, dating from the 8th to 13th centuries.. You can also look inside the Chapel of Santa Àgata. This chapel was built in 1302 and declared a national heritage site in 1866.
Relax on the beach
Barcelona has a long stretch of human made beaches. Before the 1992 Olympics the coastline here was industrialised and dirty, completely unfit for beach activities. There was a huge cleanup operation and sand was shipped in from the Sahara desert to create the beaches that now line the city. Barceloneta beach is perhaps the most well-known, situated alongside the Barceloneta neighbourhood. This is a popular spot for beach goers and is a good place to spend the day when it’s sunny. It’s also great for evening walks as there is always a lot going on! Walk further along and you can find Nova Icaria beach which is great for a day relaxing. This beach is a bit more quite and laid back. You can find many more beaches along the cities coastline and if you have time others outside the city limits that be reached by train or bus.
Take a long lunch
And of course the best way to fully enjoy a beach day is to include a long relaxed lunch. There are several restaurants located next to Nova Icària beach that are great for this. They are located on one of Port Olímpic. You can find many restaurants near to Barceloneta beach too, though personally I think the ones by Nova Icària are of a higher quality.
Even if you’re not at the beach this is a great way to relax between tourist spots. You can find good quality restaurants all over Barcelona. Paella is typical lunch choice and a good one at that.
Barcelona is full of street art. Checking it out can actually be combined with the other activities on this list of things to do in Barcelona. As you walk between the tourist sites just keep an eye out and you should be able to sport various pieces. The Gothic Quarter in particular is full of artwork, often on shop/restaurant shutters. But really anywhere in the city can include interesting work!
Plan your visit
Barcelona is served by El Prat Airport which has many international connections. Many budget airlines from across Europe fly here so hopefully you should be able to find decently priced flights.
The city is well-connected by train to France and other parts of Spain. There are also bus services from various cities in Spain and the rest of Europe.
By car Madrid can be reached in around 6 hours. Zaragoza is a nice city to stop in on the way.
The city has a well-developed metro system and you can buy a 10 journey ticket that can be used by multiple people. So for example if there are 2 of you and you will be making 5 or less journeys, you only have to buy one ticket. Be aware of pickpockets on the metro, Barcelona is infamous for them. Don’t stress about them too much though, just be vigilant. If you are travelling with a lot of bags it might be better to just take a taxi.
There is a hop-on/hop-off tourist bus that serves many of the main tourist sites, take a look at their website for more information.
In terms of walking the city is quite spread out. Check distances on a map first before you commit to any journey.
Food and Drink
As mentioned under the Tapas section Catalan and Spanish culture is for late lunches and late dinners. And taking your time is the standard here too, 2 hours or more is pretty much standard. Lunch time is around 2pm till 4pm, usually with a siesta afterwards. And dinner anytime from 8pm till midnight. When it comes to breakfast in Barcelona it’s usually it’s a light one offered, perhaps just a croissant or toast.
Drinking culture is relaxed here. It’s normal for people to take their time drinking any alcoholic beverage, a lot slower than in other parts of Europe. Sangria is a good option with lunch and usually is bought in a large jug. If your unfamiliar its red wine with fruit in, and often other ingredients too such as brandy or orange juice. Beer and wine are common with both lunch and dinner too.
The bulk of the restaurants are of course Spanish or Catalan themed. This of course means that Paella and tapas can be found aplenty. However there are other cuisines available, Italian, Mexican and various Asian are particularly popular. As with most of Europe there are plenty of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean places too. Vegetarian and Vegan restaurants are increasing in number and tend to do a mixture of Spanish and other options.
Barcelona is full of hotels, guesthouses and hostels. Expect to pay slightly higher prices than other parts of Western Europe due to the high demand, particularly during the summer. Though no more than other big cities like London or Amsterdam. Bear in mind that there has been a lot of discontent amongst locals about the likes of Airbnb due to rising rental prices. The city has in fact been cracking down on these. So make your own decision about where to stay and ensure it is abiding with city laws.
There are of course many other things to do in Barcelona! Al those that I’ve listed here are just my personal highlights. For example the Picasso museum is a good option if you are an art lover. Time is of course a constraint, it’s surprising just how long it takes to see everything in the city! So if you are limited then it’s wise to prioritise!
As mentioned Barcelona is infamous for pickpockets. Don’t get too paranoid though, just follow precautions and know the signs. For example don’t get distracted by street performers on Las Ramblas, that’s a popular trick they use. And watch out for people bumping into you on the metro, in fact if you feel like a crowd is gathering around you step back and take the next one. Barcelona is actually one of the safest cities in the world in terms of other crimes, so hopefully your trip should be problem free!
I hope you have enjoyed this list of ’12 things to do in Barcelona’. If you are interested in other European cities I have produced other guides, such as for Athens and Rome. Use the menu to find more!
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The featured image for this post is of Casa Milá.