Day 1: Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Shopping & Gaudi Hunting in Dreta L’Eixample
As the saying goes ‘if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it’ so in order to really have a long weekend in Barcelona, we repeated our successful plan from our long weekend in Amsterdam and arrived on Thursday evening. We landed at El-Prat airport, Barcelona’s major airport which also serving low-cost airlines. Unless you’re really fussy for time, there are two ways to get to the city center using public transportation.
One option is to take the Renfe train which departs from Terminal 2 (T2) and drops you off Sants Station but also making stops along the way most notably at Passeig de Gracia, which is super close to Placa de Catalunya (about 6€ each way). Another option is to take the Aerobus which runs separate lines from each terminal (T1 & T2) and costs 5.90€ each way. You can either pay by card at the machine or buy a ticket directly from the driver. There’s wifi on board and the bus will make stops at Placa d’Espanya, Gran Via Urgell, Placa Universitat and finally Placa de Catalunya. The only catch is that the return leg is non-stop from Placa de Catalunya so it might be convenient to mix both train and bus for each leg, as we did.
The first of many Tapas to come
After checking into the hotel, the clock was showing 10 pm and our stomachs were sending signals of much needed urgent refills. There’s no better time for a Spanish dinner than a post 9 pm dinner. We cabbed our way to Tapeo in the Gothic Quarter, just in front of the Picasso Museum. As most tapas bars go, there’s not much room for maneuvering and most of the action happens at the bar.
Tapeo specializes in traditional dishes with a new age twist. We started off with some cava (of course) and then proceeded to sample some Iberian Ham (how can you not)? along with some local cheese, courgette in honey sauce, croquettes filled with something, patatas bravas (the Spanish version of french fries but soooo much better), one Spanish omelet and delicious bread rubbed with tomato and garlic. And if that wasn’t enough, we topped everything off with some Crema Catalana – I told you we were hungry! All that cost 56€, not too bad for two people. There are so many good places to eat in Barcelona and Tapeo is a very good option.
By the way, just across from Tapeo you won’t be able to miss El Xampanyet. This small place is loud and packed mostly with locals who might know a thing or two that I didn’t. It’s worth checking out.
Friday the 13th at the Sagrada Familia
The next morning was really the first of our 3-day long weekend in Barcelona. It was Friday the 13th but luck seemed to be on our side on this super sunny February day. We booked tickets the night before to the Sagrada Familia and grabbed a quick breakfast next to the hotel. If there’s one cathedral / Gaudi structure you should visit – it’s definitely the Sagrada Familia. This is a ‘must see’ when visiting Barcelona. Getting there is super easy on the metro from Passeig de Gracia all the way to the Sagrada Familia station – but getting inside is the tricky part. Do yourselves a favor and book tickets in advance. You’re certainly not the only ones who know about this place.
Just next to the Passeig de Gracia metro station, there are a few culinary and architectural highlights. It might be the morning but there’s no good or bad time in Barcelona to check out some of that famous Jamon Iberico (Iberian ham). At Reserva Ibèrica, they have a wide choice and it’s pretty certain you’ll get to taste one or two or three types. Just across the street, you’ll find Colmado Quilez, one of the oldest grocery shops in town. To say it’s a grocery store is quite an insult though and you can see why. You’ll find here fine food from across Spain along with a huge selection of wines in the back. They still do it old school here and the folks haven’t changed uniforms since the 1930s. If you’re not packing for a picnic lunch later today in Park Guell, you’ll certainly regret not paying extra for the checked luggage on the flight back home!
Lastly, look for a building which might seem at first to have had something terribly go bad. It’s the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, now a museum dedicated to the famous Catalan painter. Its signature top is a tangled web of glass and aluminum wires.
After a short metro ride, we arrived at the Sagrada Familia. The cathedral is open throughout the week and believe me, that’s not even enough to accommodate all the visitors. There are different tickets that you can buy, including just the cathedral (15€) or the cathedral plus a visit to one of the towers (19.50€). Entrance times are divided into different blocks and you’ll need to select when you want to enter. If you visit both the cathedral and the towers, you’ll have to coordinate two separate entrance times and on a busy day, they may not coincide all too well. This was the case when we visited as slots to visit one of the towers were too far apart from when we could enter the cathedral. That’s OK, the cathedral is nice enough and on this sunny day, being outside was just as good – especially when visiting from Dublin, Ireland. If you don’t book tickets in advance, expect long queues!
The Sagrada Familia is probably Gaudi’s greatest work and certainly, the most famous but construction is still underway, even after well over 100 years in the making. The cathedral is a daring symbol of the Modernista movement (Art Nouveau) and is scheduled to be completed in the next few decades… Gaudi himself took over the failing project in its early days and was only 31 at the time. After his sudden and tragic death in 1926, progress slowed down and the Spanish Civil War didn’t help either. Work picked up again in the 1950’s and has gone on ever since as you can see.
Words cannot describe the beauty and level of detail in this massive gothic structure so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. Admire it from the outside and take the time to enjoy the interior as there’s no other cathedral like this.
Whether you venture up to one of the towers or not, be sure to make your way down to the museum. Here, you’ll uncover the story behind the making of the cathedral along with actual scaled down models that were used for planning. Have a peek through the glass window into Gaudi’s workshop, where engineers are still designing molds and parts, only that 3D printers have replaced the old school tools that Gaudi used. It’s amazing how a human being could conceive such a structure.
A visit to the hospital
When you’ve had enough of the Sagrada Familia, head towards Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau along Av. de Gaudi. It’s a short walk to the hospital, another beautiful relic of the Modernista days and there’s no need to be sick to have an excuse to visit. The pleasant walk along Av. de Gaudi will take you via plenty of cafes and tapas bars. The views back towards the cathedral are worth all the fuss. It’s a popular place for locals to catch some sun and a perfect stop for a quick caffeine break.
A short pit stop for chocolate lovers will be at Chocofiro, at the top of the avenue just before the hospital. Grab a box and start filling up! They even have a glass covered floor with chocolates underneath, just like you would find in some excavated building with ancient artifacts below. Since our next stop is the park, grabbing some chocolates ain’t a bad idea.
A walk in the (Gaudi) park
From the hospital, it’s wise to catch a taxi and save yourself the long hike up the hill to our next stop, Park Guell. I’ll admit it – we did have a few chocolates on the way but we really just couldn’t resist!
Park Guell is another ‘must see’ attraction in Barcelona, not only for the psychedelic work of Gaudi but also for the fine views of the city below and the Mediterranean Sea. The park was the idea one wealthy Eusebi Guell, who aspired to build a private housing estate for wealthy families in the back-then isolated hills overlooking an expanding Barcelona. Lucky for us, it didn’t work out and the park was opened to the public in 1922.
Entrance to the park is technically free of charge but the real highlight is what’s known as the Monumental Zone and you’ll have to pay 7€ to get inside. The zone includes the famous Grand Terrace, Hall of Columns and the Dragon Stairway. You can also buy a separate ticket to visit the Gaudi house, where the famous architect spent his time before moving down to the Sagrada Familia. Once again, this place is super popular so to control the crowds, entrance to the Monumental Zone is by designated blocks of time. It’s wise to book online to avoid the disappointment of either not getting in or having to wait. In our case, we had to wait an hour but that was actually a good thing on this sunny day.
Park Guell has some lovely walking paths and on a sunny day, it’s an ideal spot for a picnic. Take the time to explore the park and you’ll surely stumble upon a Spanish guitar player or any other relaxing musical act.
After catching a few rays of light, it was our time to enter the Monumental Zone. You’ll start off by descending onto the Grand Terrace, with its spiraling ceramic bench and iconic views of Barcelona and the Casa del Guarda. If you can negotiate your way amongst the crowd, this is the ultimate Barcelona photo spot.
When you’ve had enough of the views (or the crowds), head down via the Dragon Stairway and into the Hall of Columns that actually supports the terrace above you. The amount of thought that was put into this place can certainly be appreciated from down here.
We speak poor English but we cook very well!
From Park Guell, it makes perfect sense to walk back into town via the Gracia neighborhood. It’s about an hour’s walk to Passeig de Gracia and there’s lots to see (and buy) along the way. Gracia used to be a village on the outskirts of town and it still has a relaxed feel to it. It’s fun to stroll along its streets, taking a coffee break in one of its squares or even exploring it by night. It’s not a must do in Barcelona but if you’re already in Park Guell, it’s worth the visit.
We meant to walk down the hill along a major street but lucky for us, we made a small mistake and wound up in front of an odd sign at Bar Casi. The sign reminded us that it was time for lunch so we took a chance and headed inside what would otherwise look like a very dull place.
Inside is a real local gem and if you’re looking for a good place to eat in Barcelona, just after visiting Park Guell – this is the one. There’s nothing fancy about Bar Casi except good simple local Catalan food. It’s probably more of a lunch place than dinner and certainly busy with the local crowd. A team of mother and son work the room so don’t be surprised to hear “mom – 2 beers over here please!” For 10€, you can get a starter, a main, a drink and dessert. We had an excellent Russian salad and cauliflower & potato to start things off. For mains, we had a tuna steak with parsley and aioli sauce along with Catalan meatballs. The sauce was delicious but a stick of gum could come in handy afterward. We washed everything down with a couple of cervezas and for dessert had some very simple stuff. Overall, the food is pretty good but extra points are awarded for the authentic atmosphere.
Exploring the Gracia
We continued our journey back to the center of town via the charming Plaça de la Virreina, a small square lined with cafes and bars. We were quite full and so continued our journey but couldn’t help but notice the countless Catalan flags hanging proudly from the windows. They are certainly uber patriotic here and if you’re wondering why the flags in most photos resemble the Cuban flag – it’s because this is the Catalan separatists’ version of the flag which is otherwise simply just yellow and red stripes.
The hunt for Modernista
Now approaching Av. Diagonal, the city center’s main artery, we took a slight detour to catch a glimpse of Casa de les Punxes. We are now pretty much re-entering the Dreta de L’eixample district where most of the worthwhile Modernista buildings can be found. This district was the first major expansion outward from the old town and with this expansion, came a huge appetite to do something really special. Aside from the efficient grid system of streets and dissecting diagonal avenues, Modernista architectures among them Gaudi, created magnificent modern gothic style structures that are the envy of other cities to this day. The first item on our list of top buildings to see in Barcelona was Casa de les Punxes, built in 1903 and known as the ‘House of Spikes’.
The next stop was at Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, super popular with tourists thanks to its rooftop terrace with its strange chimneys and city views. It’s actually an apartment building that was completed in 1911 by Gaudi. Aside from the queues, you’ll have to pay 20€ to get in with supplementary items you can add. Since we already paid the ‘Gaudi tax’ at Sagrada Familia and Park Guell, we decided to admire the rest of the Modernista buildings from the outside, which is just fine, and invest the saved cash in good meals.
Our last two stops were just a few meters down the road at Casa Batllo and Casa Amatller. These two buildings, right next to each other, are the most beautiful ones and you can see why. Casa Amatller was built for a wealthy chocolate maker by Joseph Cadafalch and Casa Batllo for a wealthy industrialist by Antoni Gaudi in 1907. The facades, especially of Casa Batllo are simply out of this world.
This officially concluded our sightseeing for the first day of our long weekend in Barcelona. Before taking a quick nap, we did some shopping along the main arteries of the district, Passeig de Gracia, and Rambla de Catalunya.
The best Paella & Crema Catalana!
With so many food options, it’s really hard to choose the best places to eat in Barcelona. Lucky for you, I did some research and have a few local friends. In the morning, we booked online a dinner for two at Restaurant 7 Portes. Conveniently enough, the V15 bus stops just a few meters away so no need to cab here if you don’t want to. This classic restaurant has little changed over the years and serves excellent Catalan food. You’re very well taken care of by the staff and if the decor won’t take you back in time, the live piano tunes will.
The food is not cheap but definitely worth it if you want to have a romantic dinner in Barcelona (as long as you book in advance). We started with some grilled vegetables and shared a seafood paella, which was simply amazing. For dessert, we were treated to best crema Catalana around and washed everything down with local wine.
Everyone who is anyone has eaten here and their experience is shared along the walls, right behind you. Even the King of Spain has wined and dined here – so should you! (Click on the image to enlarge)
Barcelona by night
With the little energy that we had left, we walked back to the hotel via the Gothic Quarter and La Ramblas. This 30-minute walk took us through beautiful narrow lanes, elegantly lit cathedrals, and the Passeig del Born, where you’ll find the best bars in town. Barcelonians love to eat out and the city is full of life, even at night.
- Had we booked more in advance, we would have been able to venture up one of the towers of the Sagrada Familia to see it up close and catch great views of town.
- Not that we didn’t enjoy lunch but on such a sunny day, a picnic in Park Guell sounds like a good idea. You can stock up on some of your local favorites at Colmado Quilez before heading out.
- I’m not gonna lie, it would have been nice to check out one of the Gaudi buildings from the inside, just for the sake of it. However, it’s so damn expensive so decide for yourself.