Barcelona is an intriguing city with a rich cultural heritage spanning many centuries. This is reflected by the diverse range of architectural influences, as well as the way in which it has made a name for itself as a world leader in the fields of art, science, fashion, commerce, education, entertainment and media, to name just a few. Today, it’s a fantastic place to explore and, armed with a tourist map, it’s very easy to find your way around. To see Barcelona on a budget, at the same time as taking in the smaller details, it’s best to see what you can on foot.
If you don’t hang about for too long in each place, you should be able to fit all of the following attractions into one fascinating day of sightseeing.
A great way to start is by learning more about the city’s history with a guide. Stoke Travel organise free walking tours of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, which leave the Travel Bar on Carrer de la Boqueria at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm every day. The focus is on interesting anecdotes, traditional practices and hidden treasures, so you’ll probably want to leave time to revisit some of the main attractions, like the Cathedral, in more detail afterwards.
You should also check out their awesome Barcelona City Break package, which includes accommodation in a castle and adventure activities along the Costa Brava.
Receiving almost 3 million visitors a year, Barcelona Cathedral is one of the grandest buildings in the city. Built in the Gothic style between the 13th and 15th centuries, it is dedicated to Eulalia of Barcelona – a young virgin who suffered martyrdom during Roman times. Because she refused to recant her Christianity, she was subjected to 13 tortures, including being rolled down a street inside a barrel of knives. Finally, she was decapitated and her body now lies in the cathedral’s crypt. Thirteen white geese reside in a secluded cloister of the cathedral, said to represent Eulalia’s age when she was martyred.
The main façade and bell tower were completed in the 19th century, following the original plans, in the neo-Gothic style.
Outside of the hours of 1 to 5:30 pm, entrance is usually free, with a €3 charge to visit the choir or roof. In the afternoons, they request a donation of €7, which includes an information brochure, as well as access to the cathedral floor and cloister, the roof, the choir, the Chapter Hall Museum and Saint Christ of Lepanto’s Chapel.
Squares (or plaças) have been a focal point of civic life since Roman times. They’re a place to congregate, admire sculptures or catch a bite to eat with friends. There’s one around virtually every corner in the Gothic Quarter, and some have a very interesting story behind them.
Google Trippy Square and you’re likely to see a collection of cube-shaped optical illusions that make your head spin. Ask a local, though, and they’ll explain that the colourful Plaça George Orwell acquired such a nickname thanks to the high numbers of questionable characters who grace its shady corners after dark.
Located in the heart of the Gothic district, the Plaça del Pi hosts regular busking performances ranging from Spanish guitar to flamenco dancing and capoeira. Artisan stalls sell preserves, cheese and cakes, and local artists showcase their work. Check out the church of Santa María del Pí, which features the third largest rose window in Europe.
A firm favourite is the Plaça Sant Felip Neri – a tiny square with a charming fountain often featured in film and music videos. It was also the location of a bombing raid by fascist planes in 1938, which killed 42 people. The battered wall of Sant Felip Neri church is a potent reminder of this tragic event.
La Rambla is a hugely popular pedestrianised street leading just over 1 km from the old port of Barcelona in the south to the Plaça de Catalunya in the north. The maze of narrow streets that form the Gothic Quarter lies to the east, but, providing you don’t get lost, it’s only a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral.
Unofficially formed of five sections, the street is often referred to by the plural ‘Las Ramblas’. There’s a common misconception that the name stems from the verb ‘to ramble’. While this would be apt for such a street, it actually stems from the Arabic for stream ‘raml’. This route wasn’t always such a pleasant part of the city. In fact, it used to be a sewage-filled stream bed and, from the Middle Ages, it was commonly referred to as Cagalell, meaning ‘stream of shit’. Only following construction of city walls in the 14th century was the stream diverted, paving the way for the promenade we see today.
La Rambla can be somewhat of a sensory overload, with its hawkers, street performers and crowds of tourists, but the lack of traffic and patches of shade provided by a constant line of plane trees make it something of an urban haven. Grab a miniature table at one of the pavement cafes and watch the world go by over tapas and a regional beer.
As you make your way along La Rambla, you’d be crazy to miss Boqueria Market – one of the finest markets in the world. Packed with tantalising stalls stocked with fresh fruit, meats, fish, deserts and local dishes, it’s a beautifully presented explosion of delicious colours and smells.
The ‘Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria’ – to give it it’s official name – has been present in some form since the early 13th century. It began as a set of tables from which to sell meat. In 1840, an official structure was erected to house fishmongers, butchers, cheesemongers, greengrocers and small charcuterie shops selling traditional cured meats and Spanish jamón.
If you have time, you can book yourself onto a cooking class. Sometimes taught by professional chefs, they cover the variety and origin of products, cooking techniques, culinary tradition and innovation, and – of course – the preparation of local dishes.
PLAÇA DE CATALUNYA
The Plaça de Catalunya is the nerve centre of Barcelona where the old city meets the modern district, and where some of the best-known roads converge. It’s also one of the city’s main transport hubs.
Metro, train and bus stations surround the square, which is a central terminal for airport transfer services as well as connections to most parts of the city and beyond. There are large shopping centres, department stores and restaurants aplenty, as well as tourist information points. It’s a common meeting place for tour groups as well as locals, and it’s constantly bustling with activity.
You can’t cross the open plaza without encountering huge flocks of pigeons, but it’s worth the onslaught to see the fountains and a collection of interesting sculptures, such as the inverse steps of the Francesc Macià monument.
GAUDÍ’S BEST CREATIONS
You can hardly visit Barcelona without becoming acquainted with the distinctive architectural style of Antoni Gaudí. His intricate creations are scattered throughout the city and, while you might have to queue for a long time to see the interiors, it costs nothing to stroll past the embellished facades.
Some of the most notable creations are the Casa Batlló – a mismatch of colourful mosaics and skull-like balconies; La Pedrera – a residential building formed of undulating stone and forged iron; and Parc Güell. The latter is quite far out of town and might require the use of public transport, but its collection of unique sculptures, terraces, benches, columns and colonnaded pathways make it well worth the effort.
If you only have time for one Gaudí masterpiece, it has to be the world-famous Sagrada Familia. Work began on the cathedral in 1882. When Gaudí died in 1926, it was only between 15 and 25 percent complete, and the current projected date of completion is 2030. The annual construction budget of €25 million is funded by visitor entrance fees of between €15 and €20. If you want to see the inside, you should book a ticket in advance via the official website. Otherwise you might be in for a wait of five hours or more.
ARC DE TRIOMF
Who knew Paris wasn’t the only major European city to have an Arc de Triomphe, albeit spelt differently…
Built in 1888 as the gateway to a Universal Exhibition, it is now one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. It presides over a wide promenade lined with palm trees, which leads to Parc de la Ciutadella, where Barcelona Zoo and the Museum of Natural Science are located.
Emerging on the other side of the park, it’s only a short walk to reach another of the city’s main draws – Barceloneta Beach.
It’s hard to believe that one of Barcelona’s top attractions has only existed for the past 25 years. The sea front in Barcelona used to be a bit of a tip, but in 1992, when the city hosted the Olympic Games, it was completely transformed into a pristine sandy beach over 2 km in length.
There are plenty of things to do besides swimming and sunbathing. Windsurfing and kite surfing are hugely popular, as are boat parties on board two-storey catamarans.
Behind the beach sits a promenade of prestigious bars and clubs, so there will be no shortage of places to unwind with a beer or sangria after a busy day of sightseeing.
STAYING IN BARCELONA ON A BUDGET
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