I’ll be honest with you: when I visited Barcelona for the first time, I was a little worried it wouldn’t be able to live up to all the hype. From what I had heard, the city offered all the best things from Europe combined (cathedrals! plazas! world-class restaurants! a beach!) and with such lofty promises, I didn’t think it could deliver. Well, my friends, I am happy to report that Barcelona does not disappoint.
You can easily spend days strolling down the grand, leafy avenues, visiting museums and churches in the charming old city, and enjoying its bohemian bars, trendy boutiques, and — if you’re younger and hipper than I am — nightlife that truly lasts all night. Even for those of us less inclined to hit the clubs, there’s plenty of opportunities to indulge in my all-time favorite vacation pastimes: kicking back at a street café with a cocktail (and tapas!) before taking yourself out for a fancy-pants dinner. Yes and please.
But what really gives Barcelona its magical, quirky charm are the otherworldly architectural creations by Gaudí sprinkled throughout each neighborhood. Wildly imaginative and endearingly over-the-top, Gaudí is something of an unofficial patron saint of the city, with a style more like Tim Burton than Frank Lloyd Wright. Tucked in between the most traditional and stately of mansions, you’ll find his (ghoulish, animal-like) buildings that swirl, twist, and ooze in the most incredible ways. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Here’s where to see Gaudí’s work:
Casa Milà: Affectionately known as La Pedrera, this wavy building was once used as an apartment complex. Don’t miss the rooftop: its “sculptures” may look surreal, but they’re all fully functional components of the building!
Casa Batlló: Another private residence-turned-museum with a quirky and bizarre rooftop. Enjoy the audio-visual tour with appropriately trippy special effects, like turtles floating up the staircase.
Park Güell: This large park was originally commissioned as a luxury housing development, but after the first home was built, there were no takers – Gaudí himself ended up living there! Much of the park is open to the public, but you’ll want to pay the fee to see its mosaic-filled “monumental zone” — I recommend arriving right when the park opens, since it gets crowded quickly.
Pro tip: Head straight to the main terrace when you arrive to take photos of the panoramic views before the tour buses show up, then explore the rest of the grounds afterward at a leisurely pace.
Sagrada Familia: This cathedral is unlike any you’ve visited before. Construction started in 1882 and is still ongoing, with an anticipated completion date in 2026! (Gaudí, a devout Catholic, is said to have remarked: “My client [God] is not in a hurry.”)
The cathedral is supported by columns which look organic and tree-like on the interior, and oozing and bone-like on the exterior, and features some extraordinarily colorful stained glass windows. Spend some time checking out the outside façades – each side tells a different story.
Plan ahead: Not surprisingly, these sites are among Barcelona’s top attractions, so be sure to buy your tickets ahead of time (you can do this online here, here, here, and here) or else be prepared to wait in some long lines…
You can visit Casa Batlló and La Pedrera in 1-2 hours each, but plan on spending extra time in Park Güell; in addition to Gaudí’s work, the gardens are spectacular in their own right and you’ll want ample time to take it all in. Sagrada Familia also merits a half-day visit, particularly if you opt to go up one of the towers!
[Barcelona, May 2016]