More than two years have passed since my husband and I embarked on our very first international travel adventure together, when we visited our oldest child while she was studying in Italy.
So with our youngest in college and our middle child now studying abroad this semester, we took the chance to dust off our passports and visit her in the cosmopolitan, Catalonian city by the sea — Barcelona.
It was the vacation we needed from work, time to connect with our daughter, and a chance to experience something fresh and different. It also gave us a preview of the kind of remarkable art and architecture we can’t wait to see in our hometown, when Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s 60-foot sculpture is installed at San Pedro Creek plaza. Here’s why.
Barcelona is a city of hospitality, festivity and warm breezes, with an enduring national pride and a language and culture all its own. In this, it reminded us a little of home.
But Barcelona’s history and landscape spans from ancient times to Modernism, and fully embraces both traditional customs and contemporary ideas.
Just take a walk and at every turn, there’s an unexpected delight — little ones chasing giant bubbles in a charming plaza, the sounds of engaging and talented street performers, a meandering avinguda that invites you to explore. It’s a postcard come alive.
Best-known around the world for its Antoni Gaudí originals – like the grand and inspiring La Sagrada Familia or the photogenic La Pedrera – what makes Barcelona perhaps most lovely lies in these details.
From the Gaudi-designed sidewalk tiles and seaside cafés to the elegantly prepared tapas and red wines, and from fanciful facades to whimsical mosaics, Barcelona is truly a study in beautiful things.
If you’re inspired to go see for yourself, here are my personal recommendations for a day in Barcelona.
(Note: Despite its walkability and a comprehensive subway system, you simply can’t do the city in a day. We had six full days. Yet because you can throw a stone from your hotel and hit any number of things to do and see and eat, this itinerary is meant to direct the overwhelmed traveler to where you won’t be disappointed. A good guidebook is your best bet for a comprehensive list.
Also, most of my dining recommendations require a hat tip to my daughter-the-foodie and knowledgeable tour guide who made sure we sampled none of the bountiful tourist traps. So I assure you, this cuina is some the best Barcelona has to offer.)
Start your day with breakfast at the El Quim counter restaurant in La Boqueria, where you can enjoy a morning sangria or cerveza (yes, morning beer) or a limitless selection of juices and other gourmet treats. Then plan to make it a full-on “Gaudi Day,” as we did, and begin with one of his first works in the city, the lampposts in Plaça Reial, along with both the dreamy Casa Batlló and innovative Casa Milà. Plan ahead for Park Güell and his final masterpiece, La Sagrada, as these attractions get crowded but are not to be missed.
In Barcelona, there’s a patisseria on every corner and in between, but no sweets are quite like churros y chocolate at Granja La Pallaresa, situated on one of Barcelona’s oldest and narrowest pedestrian-only byways, Calle De Petritxol, also known as the hot chocolate street. This is where you’ll also find some great shops, literary hotspots, and another breathtaking cathedral, Iglesia de San Jaime.
Take in the crowds and tacky souvenirs on Las Ramblas, but avoid the area’s pesky pick-pocketers by going one block over to the quieter Rambla Del Raval and make your way to Osties Pedrin (for lunch or a post-8 p.m. supper). It’s a great place to try your skills at the tradition of porrón. But if you’re looking for a good paella, the famous Spanish seafood and rice dish, it’s worth the inevitable wait at 7 Portes. You could be rewarded with a seat at Salvador Dali’s table, as we were.
Or, if you’re seeking a delicious selection of tasty tapas or jamón and a bottle of tempranillo any time of the evening, step inside the courtyard of the imposing Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu (where Gaudi passed away in 1926) and grab a table alongside the locals at El Jardi.
From there, it’s an easy walk to the Richard Meier-designed MACBA, the museum of contemporary art, where teenage skaters doing kickflips in the plaza lend to the ultra-urban surround sound as much as the nearby Keith Haring mural. When you’ve had your fill of city vibe, I highly recommend the one-hour train ride and scenic gondola trip to the monastery in the mountains, Montserrat, or a sunset stroll along the sandy beaches of Barceloneta.
Just looking for a cold one with a side of Spanish olives? There are a limitless number of bars, but we enjoyed a small one tucked into a dark alley, Antic Teatre.
By far my favorite experience in Barcelona was the no-ticket-required Sardana — a simple Catalan dance. You can observe this tradition on Sundays in the Cathedral Square. It felt creative, spontaneous, festive, patriotic, and inclusive. It felt a little like home.
Though our daughter, the architect major at Texas A&M University, won’t return home for another month, she continues to soak in the beauty of Barcelona and study the legacy and innovations that its famous architects, and so many others, left behind.
So, someday, as Gaudi said, “Tomorrow we will do beautiful things.” I think he was right.