With just over two weeks in Barcelona on a housesitting assignment (more on that soon!), many miles of the city and its streets were explored. Beyond the well-known Antoni Gaudi architecture sprinkled throughout the city (Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló) below are our favorite highlights of our time wandering through the gothic quarter, strolling the beach, and hiking the hills of Barcelona!
No trip to Barcelona (especially for a chef) would be complete without many trips to the markets. The most famous, Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, is situated about two thirds of the way up Las Ramblas. La Boqueria is one of Europe’s largest and most famous markets, with stalls selling any type of food product you could possibly image. Some small restaurants are sprinkled throughout and packed with people about 3 deep, just waiting their taste of some local fare. While the prices are inflated due to the heavy tourist presence, there are still some deals to be found – 2€ for 30 eggs (if you know how many eggs a day Drew eats this was a score!) or wander through around 5:45PM when the produce stands are trying to purge of their amazing cups of fresh fruit juice combinations (we got 3 cups for 1€).
Our apartment was situated in Poble Sec, a great local neighborhood to the south west of Las Ramblas. The nearest market was Sant Antoni, filled with locals and much more authentic. The old original building is undergoing renovations so two temporary structures are in place, each spanning a whole city block. One of the structures is filled with clothing and household goods, while the other is centered around food. Some of the most obscure items could be found here.
One a nice sunny day there is nothing better than a glass of cava and walk down the beach. Barceloneta is the picture-perfect place to enjoy this combination. A triangular, mostly residential neighborhood surrounded by a sandy beach on the Mediterranean and side by side bars and restaurants along the harbor. Views of the modern gold casino structure are visible as you make your way down the boardwalk. On Sunday’s a lovely little market pops up featuring local goods and specialty food items. A go-to spot to relax and escape the city.
The most well-known neighborhood of Barcelona, the Gothic Area, is the center of the old city. The quarter was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, though several buildings date from medieval times. The Barri Gòtic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small, dark and cold streets opening out into squares. Brimming with charm and interesting architectural details at every corner, it’s near impossible to know exactly where you’re going and it is inevitable you will make a wrong turn. If you see something that you want or a store you’d like to visit, stop then as it will be hard to find it again.
Just behind La Boqueria to the south of Las Ramblas lies El Raval, the grungy, young, “hipster” area – Barcelona’s most controversial and yet interesting neighborhood. It is certainly not the safest or the cleanest area in Barcelona but it does have a special personality and character all of its own. The area is historic, authentic and full of personality with a huge variety of cafes, restaurants and bars. We never once felt unsafe walking home in the evening, however for the warry traveler, they may find this area a little intimidating and best to explore during the day.
Our apartment was situated in the neighborhood now known as Poble Sec, a residential area at the base of Montjuïc on the edge of El Raval. Everything you could possibly need could be found in this area, especially wandering towards Mercat Sant Antoni. Local, warn, neighborhood feel with plenty to see and do, this felt like one of the best neighborhoods to escape the darkness (and tourists!) of Gothic/El Raval, while still being within easy walking distance. Not to mention, and of utmost importance, there were a ton of great restaurants to choose from, with some of our favorite meals coming from right in our neighborhood.
To the western corner of the city, high up on the hill was Sarrià – an easy visit after Park Güell. This lovely little area was the last of the independent villages annexed by Barcelona in 1921, which could explain why it retains much of the original flavor and personality of its streets and community. Sarrià has always been one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods and the area where Barcelona’s affluent classes chose to live. The traditional architecture of the neighborhood paired with the typical food market and century-old shops, felt very “French-like” and as though we had stumbled upon an entirely different region. (If you do venture up to Sarrià, Wall Street Journal once named Bar Tomas as best Patatas Bravas in Barcelona. An old local bar hardly changed by times, serves up fried potatoes with intense garlic aioli and chili oil. While not our favorite we consumed, they were still enjoyable).
Barcelona is nestled in a valley between two mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. This positioning gives visitors multiple opportunities for some amazing photo opps and spanning views.
Not only just a great view of the city, Park Güell is a public park to the west composed of gardens and architectural elements of Gaudí’s artistic genius and innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style. Commissioned in the early 1900s, this design was far beyond its years and pushed every boundary of the time, taking inspiration from organic shapes, creating a series of series of new structural solutions, and adding imaginative and playful ornamental details. Tickets must now be purchased to enter the small monumental area where the majority of Gaudí’s work is on display, as tourists over the past decade began to destroy the park, taking pieces of the mosaics home as souvenirs. (Save 1€ and book your tickets online instead of buying directly at the park. The monumental area however is only a fraction of this vast park. Some of our favorite spots to explore where beyond the enclosure and provided amazing views of the city below. Bring a picnic and plan on spending a couple hours. (There are 2 Metro stops on the green line to reach the park. If you want the exercise, get off at Lesseps for a STEEP climb to the top).
On the other side of the city, to the southwest, and just behind our apartment in Poble Sec is Montjuïc, a broad shallow hill with a relatively flat top overlooking the harbor and a sheer cliff to the east. A nice more-gentle climb to the top with its various gardens along the way, offers commanding views of the city. Upon reaching the top, the large fortress stands, dating back to the 17th and 18th century. It served as a prison (and was the site of many executions), often holding political prisoners, until the time of General Franco. A wonderful walk and an interesting area to visit on a nice day.
The Arenas de Barcelona at Plaça Espanya was a bullring built in 1900 in the Moorish Revival style, which has now been converted into a shopping center. The round rooftop offers 360 degree views overlooking Montjuïc and the southern side of the city. For free entrance to the rooftop, go through the mall and use the escalators to avoid the 1E charge for the elevator.
The Picasso Museum is situated in an old estate within the gothic quarter (part of the beauty of the exhibit) and houses one of the most extensive collections of his artwork. Over 4,000 works on display, most from his early life and depicting his relationship with Barcelona, it shows a completely different side of the artist than we know today. Not only does the collection make this museum special, but it was the first museum dedicated to Picasso’s work and the only one created during the artist’s life. Entrance to the museum is free Every Sunday after 3pm and all day on the first Sunday of each month, but be sure to book tickets online to reserve your spot.
Another notable museum in Barcelona is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which displays artwork from the 10th to the 20th centuries specifically from the Catalan region (which Barcelona is a part of). The stately building, the Palau Nacional, was the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition and again is part of the beauty of the museum. There are four permanent collections Romanesque and Gothic art, Renaissance, Baroque art, and Modern art which included interesting interior pieces from Gaudí and other local artists influential in the art nouveau movement. Entrance to this museum is free on Saturday after 3pm. Don’t miss a trip to the rooftop for views of the Olympic Park and Plaça Espanya.
Due to the timing of our visit, we happened to be in Barcelona during holy week in which they too celebrate Carnaval for 1 week only. Their Mardi Gras style street party was much more in line with how we imagined Nice was going to be. Every neighborhood celebrates individually, however the kickoff of the week brings everyone together in Plaça Sant Jaume for confetti cannons and the throwing of oranges (which has now been replaced by large orange balloons). Bands and dancers wander through the street before gathering in their neighborhood Plaça for a large party. Residents mark the end of Carnaval with the celebratory burying of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. We were fortunate to stumble upon a couple celebrations, as we found the website to be really complicated and hard to determine exactly when and where the gatherings were to took place.