Things to Do in Barcelona
Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona aren’t limited to popular spots Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. In fact, Gaudi’s first big commission, Casa Vicens, is yet another of his creations that should be on any Gaudi-lover’s list of must-sees. Completed in 1888, the home was commissioned by a wealthy tile manufacturer, hence the building’s dazzling, tile-decorated exterior.
Casa Vicens is located in the Gracia neighborhood, a former town that spreads out at the foot of Parc Güell. Gaudi, fresh out of school, and just developing his style, started his career with a bang by designing Casa Vicens, a wildly eclectic structure, most prominently featuring Oriental and Moorish influences. The exterior is a party of color and texture, including flower-embellished tiles, exposed brickwork, fancily designed chimney pots, and extravagant iron balconies.
Framed by its wave-shaped walkway leading from the city out onto the water, Maremagnum is recognizable from many sections of the Barcelona beaches. The shopping center is home to many big name brands, as well as local restaurants and a cinema. Two floors of shops range from home goods and electronics to clothing and jewelry. You’ll also find Spanish brands such as Desigual, and other European retailers.
Many of the cafes and restaurants are open-air, making them especially nice on a sunny day. People come to leisurely watch boats pull in and out of the nearby port and absorb a bit of the Barcelona waterfront. The structure itself, like many of the buildings in Barcelona, is unique and well-designed. Its curved, mirrored walls reflect the light off of the nearby water and make an interesting contrast to the natural wooden pier. Walking down the central boulevard, Las Ramblas, toward the ocean will lead you straight there.
With its signature red and white brickwork, the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona stands tall in the center of a wide boulevard as a unique piece of architecture in a creative city. Designed by Catalan architect Josep Vilaseca, it was originally meant for an exhibition entrance to the 1888 Universal Exposition, which took place at the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella. It was created with Islamic style influences in the Neo-Mudéjar style, which originated in 12th-century Iberia, and now stands in tribute as a memorial.
Various friezes in stone and tile along the sides of the arch represent advancements in technology, the arts, and agriculture. At the top of the arch are the coats of arms for 49 provinces of Spain, overseen by the coat of arms for Barcelona. Another relief is a symbol meaning "Barcelona welcomes the nations." It now marks the passage of a promenade which is pleasant for long walks. Classical in shape, it now stands as a landmark for the city of Barcelona.
The Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso), located in El Raval district, is Barcelona's most visited museum and occupies a medieval mansion that's worth a look for the architecture alone. But inside lay the greatest treasures - the works of Pablo Picasso. The artist had a strong connection to Barcelona, living in and studying mostly in the Ciutat Vella neighborhood from 1895-1904.
The Picasso Museum - or Museu Picasso - is divided into various periods of the artist's career, starting chronologically with his earliest sketches and self-portraits then progressing on to his moody Blue period and ending with his study of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez.
Pieces are displayed to give each one adequate attention but with over 3,800 paintings the exhibit is by no means sparse.
Las Ramblas, a series of 5 stretches of road that run through central Barcelona, is known collectively just as La Rambla. It's name comes from a stream (raml in Arabic) that used to run along the same path before the land was developed in the 14th century. Now in place of the stream is a 3/4 mi (1.2 km) street with a wide, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard down the middle. Along the path are numerous shops, cafes and bars as well as some interesting attractions.
Both the Wax - Cera and Erotica museums are situated on La Rambla as are the Grand Opera House - Gran Teatre de Liceu - and the city's most colorful market, Mercat de la Boqueria. A large mosaic by Joan Miro is another iconic piece that warrants at least a second look, if not a photo opportunity. La Rambla is filled day and night with snap-happy tourists as well as locals so there is never a dull moment to be had. No Barcelona experience is complete without a stroll down this boulevard.
Barcelona’s oldest and most popular central park, the Parc de la Ciutadella is a picturesque expanse of greenery located just northeast of the city center, not far from the Barceloneta beach. The 74-acre park was designed in 1872 by architect Josep Fontsère, who also created the impressive Baroque Cascada inside the park - a 19th-century triumphal arch and fountain – and was famously assisted by a young Gaudí. At the northern entrance, the landmark Arc de Triomf designed by Josep Vilaseca, serves as the monumental gateway to the park, perched at the head of a wide pedestrian walkway.
Today the park is home to a boating lake, several museums and a much-celebrated series of sculptures, including the modern 'Monument to the World Fair' by Antoni Clavé, a giant stone mammoth, and pieces by Frederic Marès, Eusebi Arnau, Josep Llimona, Pau Gargallo and Manuel Fuxà, among others.
A large and significant square lined with trees and fountains, Placa Espanya is one of the busiest, most central hubs of activity in Barcelona. Many main roads intersect here, including Para•llel and Gran Via. As it is both a main metro and train stop, it is a common meeting point for travelers and locals alike. It is known for its beautiful architecture, statues, and nearby shopping as well.
The Placa Espanya ends on one side with the Font Magica, or Magic Fountain, a large fountain that becomes a light and sound show in the evenings. On the opposite end lies the Palau Nacional (National Palace,) with excellent city views from its steps. It is scenically set against the tall mountain Montjuic, with the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC) located just inside. Two towers on the Avinguda Maria Cristina, reminiscent of those in Venice, stand tall over the square.
The elegant Mercat de Born in La Ribera was a complex iron-and-glass structure built by Josep Fontserè in 1876 on top of the 18th-century ruins of Barcelona’s former district of Vilanova de Mar. Closed nearly 45 years ago, the market has now been granted new life as the El Born Centre Cultural, a center curating exhibitions on Barcelona’s history and celebrating three centuries of Catalan identity.
Inside the former market hall are excavations dating from the War of Spanish Succession between King Philip V of Spain and Archduke Charles of Austria. This took place in the early years of the 18th century and culminated in the year-long siege of Barcelona, which was won on Aug. 30, 1714, by Philip V and his Bourbon allies. The date is still celebrated today as the National Day of Catalonia.
Barcelona's Aquarium is one of the largest in Europe and boasts one of the most impressive collections of Mediterranean sealife in the world. You will marvel at the sharks and other creatures swimming above their heads as they walk through the glass tunnels that give a unique view of the animals. You will also have the opportunity to pet a stingray at the touch pool and get an upclose look at nearly 8,000 fish through the floor-to-ceiling glass displays.
A highlight of the aquarium is the Planeta Aqua (Water Planet) exhibit, which features animals, such as the crowd-favorite penguins, that have adapted to changing climates over time. There are also mini aquariums set up throughout the building to allow visitors to appreciate the amazing small details of the ocean's flora and fauna that tend to get lost in the bigger tanks.
More Things to Do in Barcelona
It might seem next to impossible to find a quiet getaway in the big Barcelona city, but Plaça Sant Felip Neri offers you just the perfect escape from all the hustle and bustle. This seemingly hidden square, with its trickling fountain and shade-offering trees, is located in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and is enclosed by old-world buildings.
It’s more than just a tranquil respite, though, but also an important, albeit tragic part of Barcelona history. Indeed, this is where you’ll find the square’s namesake church, which was bombed during the Spanish Civil War in 1938, killing many people, most of whom were children. The church’s heavily bomb-pocked walls serve as a still-visible reminder of this sad event. Come here to contemplate the square’s somber past while you savor a moment of quiet and calm.
Before La Pedrera, before Parc Güell, and certainly before the still-under-construction La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi conjured up a mansion called Palau Güell. This palatial home was built in the 1880s for one of Gaudi’s main benefactors, Eusebi Güell. The goal was to accommodate the wealthy industrialist’s private and social life, and, after you explore the home, it’s not hard to imagine that Gaudi must have lived up to the task.
Acclaimed for the innovative use of space and light, the Modernist palace is especially loved for its main hall, formed by a parabolic arch design, and which comes complete with a star-pricked ceiling (an illusion created by holes in the roof) and sneak-peek windows from which residents above spied on newly arrived guests below. Given its lower entrance fee (with included audio tour) — as compared to other Gaudi sights — and convenient old town location in El Raval, it makes a worthy addition to any Barcelona sightseeing itinerary.
Explore Spain’s seafaring past by visiting the Maritime Museum, or Museu Maritim, in Barcelona. Located just steps away from the waterfront, the museum takes visitors on a journey through one of the country’s richest areas of history: exploration at sea.
The museum experience begins with the Gothic building itself, which once belonged to the former Barcelona Royal Shipyard. Within the cavernous brick structure, which dates back to the 13th century, expect to find all manner of sea-related treasures, ranging from maps to weapons, paintings, and even surfboards. Then, of course, there are the boats, which include model-sized versions, and, most notably, a life-size galley warship replica.
Though Barcelona’s Sants Station gets the most train and foot traffic, the city’s França Railway Station wins when it comes to overall style. Considered by many to be the most beautiful station in town, it’s a sumptuous mix of architectural styles, featuring shiny marble floors, Art Deco detailing, and sunshine-lit, domed platforms.
The station dates back to the International Exhibition in 1929, and was later renovated for the 1992 Olympics. Once serving as the terminus for trains coming from and going to other places in Europe — namely, France — it’s now a hub for local trains (with international trains now traveling in and out of Sants).
Whether you like your animals fluffy or ferocious, they’ll be something that fits the bill at the Barcelona Zoo, one of the city’s most family friendly attractions, spread over 14 hectares within the Parc de la Ciutadella. Over 7,000 animals and 400 different species call the zoo home, with everything from dolphins to rhinoceros living in quarters that mimic their natural habitats.
Since opening its gates in 1892 to showcase the private fauna collection of Lluís Martí, the zoo has expanded its scope to include dedicated breeding programs and preservation work with species under threat of extinction. The zoo’s most famous resident, Snowflake – the world’s only known albino gorilla – sadly died in 2003, but there are plenty of other creatures large and small to entertain the crowds. Bornean organutans, a Sumatran tiger, a giant anteater, hippopotamuses, giraffes, elephants, flamingos and even miniature Shetland ponies all call the zoo home.
As the capital of Catalunya, Barcelona is the center of the region’s history; and there is no better place to take it all in than the History Museum of Catalonia. Catalonia has long struggled with preserving its culture and independence, and this museum seeks to raise awareness about the heritage and identity of the Catalan people.
In-depth interactive exhibits focus on the development of Catalonia from prehistory through the growth of various industries to present day. The exhibits focused on the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s rule are particularly well done. The museum explains the occupation of the region throughout the years by the Romans, the Moors, and others — each leaving their own mark on the culture. In addition to the permanent collection, there are consistently good temporary exhibitions as well as a library, restaurant, and open-air rooftop. The museum is housed in the Palau de Mar, which has a history and significance of its own.
A soaring, shimmering glass and concrete edifice in the Raval, Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by US architect Richard Meier and completed in 1995, spearheading the once-tatty district’s revival. Its matt-white interior is flooded with natural light and creates the perfect backdrop for the museum’s 5,000 paintings, sculptures, images and conceptual pieces, which are shown in ever-changing temporary exhibitions running for between three and six months. Featuring avant-garde artists from the latter half of the 20th century, the collection is rich in international names such as Paul Klee, Dieter Roth and Jean-Michel Basquiat – among many others – but specializes in the works of celebrated Catalan artists including Antoni Tàpies, Miquel Barcelò, Susana Solano and Pere Jaume. The museum also has a library, a well-stocked bookshop and café as well as Saturday morning workshops for families visiting with young kids.
If you haven’t heard of Barcelona’s Plaça de Sant Jaume, then its City Hall — called the Casa de la Ciutat, in Catalan — should give you reason to pay this square a visit. The headquarters for local government, the building features a grand façade, which dates back to 1847, and an open-once-weekly interior that you’ll be keen to fit into your travel schedule.
That’s because behind its commanding but relatively simple exterior, there are some pretty exquisite treasures discover, such as the building’s medieval-style 14th-century Saló de Cent, and its mural-covered Hall of Chronicles. The plaza itself is pretty noteworthy too, as this was once the site of the Roman forum, and is also home to the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya (the seat of Catalan government), whose dome-topped building sits just opposite City Hall.
In the northeastern suburbs of Barcelona, El Poblenou (‘new village’ in Catalan) is sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Avinguda Diagonal, which slices through the modern heart of the city. As one of Barcelona’s former working-class districts, Poblenou had a somewhat neglected feel prior to the 1992 Olympic Games, which saw vast swathes of the city scrubbed clean and regenerated. It was given a thorough facelift and today the chimneys of the former textile works stand side by side with warehouses converted into gentrified loft apartments. Along with the advent of the gleaming Torre Agbar – brightly illuminated at night – and other sleek modern skyscrapers, Poblenou has gained a reputation for being the home of technical innovation and sparkling creativity.
If you’re eager for views of the sea, lots of photo opportunities, and wide, open spaces, then head toward the northernmost coastline of Barcelona to the Parc del Forum. This architectural park of sorts was built in 2004 for the Universal Forum of Cultures, and continues to serve as a giant venue for events and exploration.
Though many of its attractions come and go — such as Primavera Sound, an annual music festival that takes place in June — the forum is always a worthy destination, beyond just checking out the architecture. Go there to visit the natural history-focused Museu Blau, which is situated in the park’s iconic triangular-shaped Forum Building; to take a dip in the Mediterranean from the sand-free, direct-to-the-water Forum marina and bathing area; or to let the kids burn off some energy at the seaside play area.
Tucked down a side street in Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico (Gothic District), Els Quatre Gats (meaning ‘The Four Cats’, or ‘a few people’ in Catalan slang) is one of the city’s most famous bar-restaurants and a memorable location to sample some delicious traditional Catalan cuisine. The Parisian-style tavern was the brainchild of local businessman Pere Romeu, taking its inspiration from Paris’ atmospheric cabaret bar, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), and creating a bohemian ambiance that immediately resonated with the city’s artists and writers. Opening its doors in 1897, Els Quatre Gats quickly amassed a number of legendary patrons, becoming the favorite haunt of Picasso, who held his first 2 exhibitions in the main dining room, and a popular meeting point for revered architect Gaudi.
One of the trio of striking buildings that make up the ‘Illa de la Discordia’ along Barcelona’s famous Passeig de Gràcia, Casa Lleo i Morera stands proudly beside Gaudí’s iconic Casa Batlló and Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s equally eye-catching Casa Amatller. Elaborately restored in 1902 by architect Lluis Domènech i Muntaner, whose other works include the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Casa Lleó i Morera was built in 1864 and takes its name from its original owners, the Morera family.
Finally opening its doors to the public in 2014, visitors can now explore the spectacular modernist interiors of Casa Lleó i Morera. Along with the distinctive ornamental façade, highlights of the building include exquisite stained-glass windows, a series of sculptures by Eusebi Arnau, colorful mosaics by artists like Mario Maragliano and Lluís Bru i Salelles and exquisite furnishings, handcrafted by cabinetmaker Gaspar Homar.
Though Passeig de Gràcia is most famously known for Gaudi-designed masterpieces La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, there’s another curious building to discover here: Casa Amatller. Constructed in the late 19th century, the former home was constructed for its namesake, chocolatier Antoni Amatller, and is just the place to go to see spectacular Modernisme architecture, and minus all the crowds.
Like its neighboring buildings along Passeig de Gràcia’s famous Block of Discord, or Illa de la Discordia, Casa Amatller also mixes things up architecturally, featuring both Flemish and Catalan styles. A visit to its interior is equally impressive, promising exquisitely tiled walls and floors, colorful stained-glass detailing, and rooms decorated with the original furniture.
Housed in the Palau Nacional (National Palace of Montjuic), the National Art Museum of Catalonia (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya or MNAC) boasts one of the most spectacular locations in Barcelona, fronted by the dazzling Magic Fountain and overlooked by the towering Montjuic Mountain and Castle. The impressive Neo-Baroque building was designed by Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadalfach for the legendary 1929 International Exhibition and first hosted the National Art Museum in 1934. One of the city’s most iconic structures, the palace’s majestic façade, exquisite Modernista furnishings and glittering chandeliers are as breathtaking as the art displayed within and a popular tourist attraction in itself.
Today, the MNAC is Catalonia’s largest museum with some 260,000 works and home to the world’s most important collection of Romanesque Art, alongside a wide selection of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces.
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