Conquering Barcelona: Travel Planning Guide

 Some cities have amazing architecture.  Other’s are cultural powerhouses.  Still other places primary draw is their beachside location with great year around weather.  Barcelona is one of only a handful of cities that can claim all of those and much more.  This makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.     

 

Get To Know Barcelona

Barcelona sits along the Mediterranean Sea in the northeast of Spain.  With the sea on one side and mountains on the other, it’s geographic location makes it one of the most desirable places to live thanks to a great year around climate.

It also has a fascinating history.  While part of Spain, the city is also the capital of the fiercely independent Catalonia region.  Catalonia resisted Francisco Franco and he punished them by abolishing many Catalan institutions and banned the Catalan language.  Clashes with the Spanish government in Madrid continue with frequent calls for independence from Spain that sometimes have become violent.    

Perhaps no city has ever benefited more from hosting an Olympic Games than Barcelona in 1992.  Before the games the city was largely known for being an industrial town.  The city was transformed, including the construction of its now famous beaches.  Tourism soared to the point where now over tourism has become a huge problem and the city is taking measures to curb the number of tourists coming in, which includes limiting hotel construction.    

When To Go

Barcelona enjoys one of the worlds best year around climates.   Summers are warm and dry and winter’s are mild, making it a popular place to escape the cold of Northern Europe.

Summer is the busiest time and attractions will be very crowded.  Combined with the heat, it is advisable to avoid summer if possible.  For the best combination of weather and crowds, the spring or fall is the time to visit.  However, Barcelona is one of those places than can be enjoyed at any time of the year thanks to year around good weather.

How Long To Stay

Barcelona is so popular because it has a lot to see and do. With proper planning, you can see  the most popular attractions in 3-4 days.  Staying longer will allow you to venture away from the tourist traps and see the more authentic side of the city and the country.  There are many worthwhile day trips to places such as Monserrat.  Barcelona can also be part of a longer trip to take in everything that Spain and neighboring Portugal has to offer. 

Language Barrier

The official languages in Barcelona are Catalan and Spanish.  English is widely spoken in tourist areas, but learning a few words in Spanish will go a long way to make your trip easier.  If you want to really impress the locals, learn a little Catalan.   

Getting To Barcelona

Barcelona is a major transportation hub, making it easy to access from nearly anywhere.  It’s main airport is well connected to other parts of Europe as well as other locations around the globe.  High speed trains make access from other parts of Spain as well as France quick and easy. 

By Plane

Barcelona-El Prat International Airport (BCN) is located a few miles outside the city.  Many low cost European carriers fly into El Prat.  You can often find great values if you shop around.  Be careful as some Ryanair flights land in Girona instead of Barcelona which is over 60 miles away. 

You may take a train or bus from the airport into the city.  The RENFE train runs from outside Terminal 2 into Barcelona Sants station in 25 minutes.  From there you can take the metro to where you need to go.  A good value is to purchase a T10 ticket (explained in getting around Barcelona) which is valid on the airport to city route.

The Aerobus offers express service between either Terminal 1 or 2 and the city with stops at many popular locales.  Travel time is 25-35 minutes depending on your stop and traffic.    

By Train    

High speed trains connect Barcelona with other cities in Spain and throughout Europe.   You can arrive from Madrid in 2.5 hours, Valencia in 3 hours, and Seville and 5.5 hours.  Barcelona to Paris is a little over 6 hours by train. 

Getting Around Barcelona

Travel by public transportation is easy and cheap.  The Metro is efficient and provides the best combination of speed and cost.  Be sure to purchase a T10 ticket to save money.  The T10 is a ticket that allows 10 journey’s for one low price. The ticket pays for itself in only 3 journeys over buying individual tickets.   You may also purchase a Barcelona Tourist Travel Pass or Barcelona Card.  The Tourist Travel Pass includes unlimited journey’s for 3, 4, or 5 days, while the Barcelona Card includes unlimited transport in addition to discounts on tourist attractions, restaurant’s, shows, and souvenir’s.  If you plan on using the metro a lot, consider getting one of these cards. 

A T10 or Barcelona Tourist Cards may also be used for busses.  The bus system will fill in any gaps in the metro system you may encounter. 

Taxi’s are plentiful.  As is the case with most cities, they are the fastest way to get around but more expensive than using the metro or bus.  Even in larger groups the Metro is usually cheaper than sharing a taxi.

Barcelona is a very walkable city.  You may want to use the Metro to cover long distances or during the warm summer months.  Otherwise walking is the best way to get around.  Distances between many attractions are short and the architecture you encounter make walking more than worthwhile. 

  

What To See

Barcelona has so much to see and do. One of the strengths is its diversity of offerings.  Whether your list includes amazing architecture, world renowned art, sampling fine food, taking in the nightlife, or simply relaxing on the beach, Barcelona has something for you.  Here are some of the top sights to not miss.

  • La Sagrada Famila – The most famous unfinished religious site in the world.  The stunning basilica began construction in 1883 and still hasn’t been completed.  It dominates the skyline and is the worthy symbol of the city.
  • Gothic Quarter – The ancient core of the city has roots that go back to Roman times.  Barri Gòtic attractions include the Barcelona Cathedral and the Picasso Museum.  This is also a great place to wander around the narrow lanes and grab a bite to eat or drink.
  • Gaudi Architecture – Architect Antoni Gaudi has put his colorful whimsical stamp all over the city.  The style called Modernisme includes such treasured attractions such as La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, Casa Mila (La Pedrera) Casa Batllo, and many more.  Taking in these incredible works of art is worth the trip itself.
  • Las Ramblas – The main street in the city is pretty touristy, but still worth a visit.  Be sure to check out the market La Boqueria and Placa de Catalunya.     
  • Montjuïc– The neighborhood on a hill provides dynamic view of the city along with plenty to see and do.  In addition to many Olympic sites, there is the National Art Museum of Catalonia,  the old Spanish fortress Castell de Montjuïc and famous Magic Fountain’s of Montjuic. 
  • Museum’s – The Picasso Museum and the National of Art of Catalunya are a must.

What To Do

  • Go to an FC Barcelona game – If they are playing this is an absolute must even for the non sports fan.  Perhaps no other sports team is woven into the fabric of their cities identity as Barcelona is with their team.  You can’t go anywhere without seeing the Barca colors in full force. 
  • Soak up the Sun at the Beach and Parks – Typical of any place that enjoys good weather, Barcelona has great spaces to relax in the great outdoors.  The beach is a great way to relax and take a dip in the Mediterranean.  The Spanish love their parks and squares.  Among the best to visit are Parc de la Ciutadella, Place Reial and Laribal Gardens.
  • Go out Clubbing – Barcelona is famous for its nightlife.    
  • Go Neighborhood Hopping – There are many great neighborhoods in Barcelona and several are a little off the beaten path.  While you have the famous Gothic Quarter and Las Ramblas, you can also visit the Eixample, El Born, Gràcia, and El Raval.
  • See a Flamenco show – Traditional dance is with getting a local flavor.
  • Go to a festival – Among the many festivals that come into town are Dia De Los Reyes Magos (Kings Day), Barcelona Carnival, Monegros, and Fiesta de la Mercè

Money

Spain uses the Euro.  ATM’s are all over and provide the best place to exchange money.  Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere.  European credit cards use a chip and pin system as opposed to the United States which is chip and signature.  American’s should rarely have an issue, but some machines may only accept chip and pin, so you may have to to use a ticket window and buy directly from an agent. 

Budget Tips

Barcelona is about average for a European city as far as what you need to budget.  It certainly is no where near as expensive as northern Europe, but is more expensive than cities in eastern Europe.  Below are some tips on saving money.

Accommodations

  • Stay outside the high season.  Avoid the summer and holidays as prices skyrocket.
  • Don’t stay around Las Ramblas.  The most touristy part of the city has the most expensive hotels.  Instead stay in a place like around Barcelona Sants station.
  • Stay in a hostel.  Barcelona has plenty to choose from.
  • Use Airbnb.  There are a lot of options in and around the city on a variety of budgets.
  • Use hotel reward points.

Attractions and Food

  • Be sure to price out the Barcelona Card before buying.  It includes free public transportation and discounts to museums, restaurants, and more.  However, you have to see a lot in a short amount of time for it to be worth the money.
  • Time is money.  Avoid standing in long lines trying to get into popular attractions.  Purchase tickets online in advance.   It will save hours off your trip. 
  • Take a free walking tour.  There are plenty to choose from and are very informative.
  • Do not eat or shop on Las Ramblas.  Tourist hot spots equals tourist pricing.
  • Many museums such as the Picasso Museum are free on Sunday afternoons.
  • Go the the beach and parks.  Soak up the sun and they are free.
  • Tapas bars can be a great value

Transportation

  • Buy the T10 Metro ticket for cheap public transportation.
  • Hop on Hop off bus tours can be a great value if you plan on seeing a lot in a day.  They hit all the most popular tourist spots.
  • If you are traveling to or from another city, purchase train tickets well in advance.  You can save 50% or more over the day of price.  Tickets open up 90 days in advance.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to Know

  • Locals stay out late.  Many restaurants close in the late afternoon and don’t open for dinner until at least 8PM.    
  • Local food is great, but unlike many other European cities, foreign cuisine is not very good.  Stick to Spanish food.

Things to Avoid

  • Pick pockets are a problem.  Zip up and don’t be a target.
  • Check out Las Ramblas but don’t eat or shop there.  It’s a tourist trap and doesn’t represent the city.
  • Don’t bring up local politics with locals.  Barcelona and Catalonia do not get along with the Spanish government.

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy tickets to attractions online in advance.  You don’t want to be stuck in line for hours in this amazing city.
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance. 



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