I have to admit that I always find it stupefying when people ask me what to see in Barcelona. Not in the "we've seen all the major tourist attractions and are now looking for something off the beaten track" sense, but in the "we've heard that there's some famous architecture around here, what and where is it?" sense.
The latter happens more often than you'd imagine. The other day, for example, an American tourist, who started chatting to us on the beach (and who'd already spent two days in Barcelona), asked me about "the Guadi": "We haven't been to the Guadi yet. Where is the Gaudi?" This was pronounced as if Gaudi were some giant monument, cruise ship or highway overpass. Despite my misanthropic inclination to point the fellow to a basic guidebook, I explained that Gaudi is not a thing, but a person (now deceased) and that his architecture is found throughout Barcelona. I then showed him how to get to the Sagrada Familia on the map.
A slightly different manifestation of the same problem is the Philadelphia mother who wrote to me lamenting her visiting 18 year old daughter's inability to purchase meat other than ham in Barcelona. If only the poor girl (undoubtedly protein deprived to the point of near collapse) could just find a can of tuna somewhere, she moaned. I pointed her to a grocery store--any grocery store. But I'm getting off track.
This entry is for my American friend and others like him who need a little primer about what to see in Barcelona. Forgive me if I hit only the highlights.
It's barely debatable that the best way to experience Barcelona is through its architecture (a.k.a. "the Gaudi"). While the city boasts everything from gothic churches to phallic glass towers, it is best known for its art nouveau aesthetic--dubbed "modernista" around these parts,--which is best exemplified by the works of Antoni Gaudi...genius, architect, eccentric.
Gaudi's fairytale buildings capture the inimitable spirit of Barcelona. Dragon scaled Casa Batlló and stone faced Casa Milá (also known as La Pedrera, pictured above at right) vie for attention on the fashionable Passeig de Gracia. The caleidoscope tiles of Parc Guell, Gaudi’s failed garden city come urban playground, beckon from further north. And, after years under renovation, one of Gaudi's first projects, the Palau Guell, is finally open to visitors again (currently, only the basement and main floor can be seen; to compensate, the visit is free).
Gaudi's masterpiece, however, is the Sagrada Familia (pictured at top). The unfinished cathedral is likely to be another century in the making as construction plods along at a snail’s pace—official projections for completion range between 20 and 50 years. Even so, walking inside the spectacular church, with its soaring columns of sunflowers and dappled pools of light, is a revelation, somewhere between entering a living forest and boarding an alien spaceship.
While Gaudi’s contemporaries may never have overtaken him in sheer brilliance of design, Barcelona is richer for their attempts to do so. Domenech i Montaner’s Hospital de Sant Pau (pictured at left), for example, whose tiled maternity and gastroenterology pavilions--topped with patron saints and flowers--continue to function, and his Palau de la Musica Catalana, a music hall lit by an inverse pyramid of multicoloured glass, are brilliant examples of other iconic efforts. The best way to see the latter is to purchase tickets for a concert; if you can't manage that, the one hour tour is worthwhile, but book ahead because popular times, especially for the English language tour, sell out quickly.
Picasso, who lived in Barcelona between 1895 and 1904--his formative years—also left his stamp on the city. A walking tour available through the Barcelona tourist office takes you on a tour of Picasso’s Barcelona, finishing at the Picasso Museum, which is built mainly around works from the artist’s early years. After visiting the museum, take yourself back in time by having lunch at Els Quatre Gats, Picasso’s favourite restaurant. Perhaps the food isn't quite what it used to be, but the lunch menu is reasonably priced and the elaborate high ceilinged interior and stained glass windows (by another of Barcelona's great architects, Puig i Caldefach) remain much as they were in Picasso's time.
If Picasso makes you crave more modern art, Joan Miró and Frederic Tàpies are two Catalan artists with entire museums devoted to them. And, if diversity is what you're seeking, the MACBA, Barcelona's modern art museum, has it in spades, along with a spectacular modern building by Richard Meier, now the city's best loved skateboarding ramp.
More into ancient times? Barcelona's cathedral, a mishmash of architectural styles, is worth a look. Its cloisters, where pretty white geese roam free, are particularly charming. If you're there on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon, you may see Catalans dancing the sardana; please don't join in, they take the dance very seriously and, because the steps are highly complicated, you'll only throw them off in your friendly attempts to be part of the fun. Just behind the cathedral, off the Plaça del Rei where heretics were once burned at the stake, is the History Museum; the museum's below ground display of excavated Roman ruins is awe inspiring. On the other side of Via Laietana, the more somber Santa Maria del Mar gets the most votes for best gothic church.
You shouldn't miss the markets, of course: the Boquería is a favourite with tourists and a must see for the sheer spectacle. But, if you want something more representative of what it's actually like to go shopping as a local, try the Mercat de Santa Caterina, with its distinctive multi-coloured roof and modern interior.
Break up your days by relaxing on Barcelona's man-made beaches (as an alternative to touristy Barceloneta, try Bogatell or Mar Bella, the latter if you want to go fully nude) or forget the beach and lounge in the shade of Ciutadella Park.
And, with one hand on your wallet, don't forget to walk down Las Ramblas to the Old Port where Columbus points to the New World (pictured above at right). Las Ramblas, with its human statutes and stalls selling everything from flowers to roosters, is dirty, garish and packed, but it's also emblematic of Barcelona. You shouldn't leave without seeing it at least once. Just promise me that you will never ever eat in any of its dodgy cafes.
(* Note that the links in this post will take you to the official sites of the tourist attractions mentioned. There you can find the most up to date information about hours, prices and location. Most sites allow you to change the language of the text, usually at the top right hand side of any given page.)