Barcelona travel guide: 8 things for first time visitors to do, see and eat
It's a Friday night in Barcelona, and everyone is sitting on the floor. I'm in the Placa del Sol, a public square fringed with gorgeous old buildings with the occasional Catalonian flag draped over their balconies. It's way after 21:00, but the summer sun still hasn't set and the residents of Gràcia have converged on the square to grab a spot on the ground for themselves.
They're chatting and laughing, sipping their drinks, as two diners at the street side café in front of me order dessert. One bends down to pet their Frenchie, who is sleeping under the table. The evening light and the atmosphere created by the buildings and the crowd is simply magical.
The relaxed, happy vibe which permeated the square that night is a perfect example of how it feels to be in Barcelona. Yes, there are mega tourist areas and top sights, but just a few streets away, you can also slip into one of the suburbs and blend in with the locals. Put on some cool and comfy sneakers, hop on the metro, and find your own path.
The city is a mosaic of interesting, contrasting neighbourhoods, each with their own feel, attractions, and architectural style. From Gothic cathedrals to hipster cafés and seaside promenades, Barcelona invites you to navigate the city streets and embrace its creative soul.
What to expect in Barcelona
The capital of Catalonia is a busy nest of stacked old world apartment blocks and snaking streets with an interesting history and a distinctly artistic air. And, of course, there is Gaudí everything.
The architect's legacy is embedded in the city as his buildings have become some of Barcelona's most visited landmarks and inspired modern-day designers in turn. Today, the city's creative heart is visible in everything from the graffiti on the streets to the expertly prepared food, carefully branded artisan cafes and numerous handmade markets.
Locals speak Catalan and Spanish, but getting around most areas as an English speaker isn't too difficult and you pick up basic vocabulary very quickly. Most hotels, restaurants and tourist sites have English websites, signage and menus, although places further from the main tourist areas may require a little more reliance on your Google Translate app.
Transport is easy thanks to a reliable metro and bus network, and while renting a car to drive around the city is possible, it is not worth the struggle and cost of finding parking and navigating the narrow roads.
Every single person I spoke to before my trip warned me about the city's pick pockets, so I was extra cautious and fortunately didn't experience any issues. This is a common issue though, so make sure you keep an eye out for distraction techniques and bring along a cross-body bag or lockable backpack to keep your valuables safe and less snatchable.
So, if it's your first time in Barcelona, what can you get up to?
Wander around Gràcia
Closest metro stop: Lesseps / Fontana.
Despite its proximity to Park Güell, Gràcia is a suburb without a massive tourist presence and a plethora of cute shops, delicious restaurants and cafés to explore. Start your wanderings in Carrer de Verdi, which is home to boutiques, speciality food and home decor shops, and tiny but amazing tapas bars. Shop around or stop for a drink and some small eats at Gasterea, which has a number of affordable (and freaking fantastic) vegetarian-friendly tapas.
From there, you can head onwards to pretty squares like the previously mentioned Placa del Sol (which really comes alive in the evenings), or stop off at the shops and restaurants along Carrer d'Astúries (there's even an organic food market!).
The main road, Carrer Gran de Gràcia, is more of a traditional high street with a number of bigger shops, designer stores and international chains. If you're up for a walk, you can venture all the way down until it connects up with Passeig de Gràcia, home to two Gaudi buildings (Casa Batlló and Casa Milà/ La Pedrera) which are about 500 metres apart on the same road.
Take a walk down La Rambla
Closest metro stop: Liceu.
A bustling mix of flower sellers, souvenir shops and portrait artists, La Rambla is Barcelona's popular pedestrian walkway and is a central artery connecting neighbourhoods like El Raval and the Gothic quarter. It continues all the way down to the harbourfront, where its end is marked by a tall column that is a monument to Christopher Columbus.
Busy day and night, La Rambla is a central nexus allowing you to veer off into side streets, cafés and nearby squares. If you're not staying in central Barcelona, the Liceu metro stop pops you out near the middle of the street, making it a good entry point if you don't know where to start.
Eat all the things at La Boqueria
Closest metro stop: Liceu.
Housed in a huge glass building, La Boqueria is a food and fresh produce market that will overwhelm your senses with vibrant colours and the smells of local delicacies. Located just off La Rambla, it is home to stalls selling everything from fresh fruit juices to traditional pastries and handmade sweets.
It's a great spot to wander around and sample small portions from whichever stall takes your fancy. Vegetarians will have an easy time with a range of fruit, local favourites and empandas on sale, while Falafel Vegano is a delicious vegan sandwich option.
Navigate the narrow streets of Barri Gòtic
Closest metro stop: Liceu.
Barcelona's Gothic quarter (Barri Gòtic) is home to churches, art and antiques markets, cobbled streets and impressive architecture. One of the main attractions in this old town area is the Catedral de Barcelona, a towering Gothic structure located on a square which often serves as a stage for performers and locals joining together for traditional dances.
In addition to a huge array of shops selling clothes, gifts, food and handmade products, there are numerous public squares which are home to restaurants and markets. For example, Placa Reial (a famous square just off La Rambla) has a coin and antiques market on Sundays, while Placa de Sant Josep Oriol hosts an art market next to the Església de Santa Maria del Pi.
Explore fantastical Park Güell
Closest metro stop: Vallcarca or Lesseps.
This serendipitous park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Antoni Gaudí's most famous works. A great spot for a picnic or afternoon walk, the park is set high on a hill above the neighborhood of Gràcia, offering amazing views of the city all the way down to the sea.
Entrance to the park and the pink Gaudí House Museum is free, but you will need to buy tickets for the protected "monument zone", which is where all the main architectural elements are. This central zone is full of creative mosaic structures, curved balconies, stone archways and a guard house which looks like it was pulled straight from a child's story book.
Take in La Sagrada Família
Closest metro stop: Sagrada Família.
This awe-inspiring mega cathedral is a must-see for any traveller visiting Barcelona. La Sagrada Família is still under construction, and revenue from visitors who want to see its completed sections is used to pay for the building works - so by visiting, you help make sure it gets finished! If all goes according to schedule, it should be done by the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudí's death in 2026.
While the master architect never saw more than one facade of the building completed, those who have carried out his vision have done a masterful job. From the stained glass windows which stain the light with rainbow hues to the tree-like columns that make the central nave look like a forest canopy, the cathedral is a one-of-a-kind house of worship.
As La Sagrada Família receives 13,000-14,000 visitors a day, it's best to get there early in the morning (before 08:30) if you want good photos and a moment of peace. The pre-booked guided tours are useful and informative, and provide you with earphones so you can hear your guide clearly even in the dense crowds.
In the base of the cathedral is a museum which shares the history of the building and explains more about Gaudí's life, aims and inspirations, which is also worth a look. Make sure you schedule 2-4 hours to see everything, and book tickets online in advance so you can arrive just before your time slot.
See Gaudí's (other) masterpieces
Closest metro stop: Liceu or Drassanes for Palau Güell, Diagonal or Passeig de Gràcia for the other two.
Not enough Gaudí for you? Here are some of his other buildings which are dotted around Barcelona:
- Casa Milà/ La Pedrera: This apartment block is unlike any other, bringing together rough stone, soldiers for chimney tops, curved balconies and twisted metal.
- Casa Batlló: A building that looks like a fairytale kingdom, Casa Batlló is a masterpiece of skull-like balconies and blue and purple mosaic.
- Palau Güell: An early Gaudí commission, this dark neo-Gothic palace in El Raval was constructed for the same benefactor as the park bearing the same name, but has an entirely different feel.
Relax on Barceloneta's beach and promenade
Closest metro stop: Barceloneta.
Barceloneta is the place to go if you're looking for sea views, beaches and sailboats on the water that look like a painting. The bustling suburb is incredibly popular with tourists looking for some sun and beachfront cocktails (they will bring them straight to your spot in the sand) and can be a bit overwhelming in the summertime.
The beachfront promenade that runs along Platja de Sant Sebastià is also a great place for people watching, with locals and visitors walking, rollerblading, skating and cycling all over it. You can stop off at one of the restaurants for some tapas or cool off with a drink. While seafood takes up a chunk of most of the menus, you can also find veggie burgers and vegetarian paella.
My Favourite Finds
- El Born: This grungy but artistic neighbourhood is a treasure trove of cocktail bars, cool shops and the occasional unicorn pool float suspended from a balcony. If you're looking for handmade souvenirs, try Maxo Galleria for unique 3D snapshots of the city.
- Placa del Sol: The pink and green buildings. The atmosphere. Wow.
What to eat
- Patatas bravas: Good luck going back to standard fries after you've tasted these potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and aioli. Aaah!
- Paella: This rice dish is usually made with seafood, but I found a few spots offering vegetarian versions too.
- Croquettes: These delicious crumbled balls can include anything from eggplant to cheese, and are a staple on many menus.
- Tapas: This is more a style of food than a food item, but tapas are small portions of food served before (or instead of) dinner. It's an easy way to sample bites from multiple different restaurants in one night.
Where to eat
- Flax & Kale: A busy, beautiful flexitarian restaurant.
- Brunch & Cake: One of the many popular 'Something & Cake' restaurants in Barcelona serving incredibly colourful and well presented, delicious food.
- Rasoterra: This vegetarian restaurant in the Gothic quarter is a dream with inventive dishes and great service.
- La Boqueria: The food market that makes it easy to sample fresh local favourites.
Barcelona travel tips:
- Book tickets for major sites such as La Sagrada Família or Park Güell online (and as far in advance as possible if you're visiting during peak season). This will save you hours standing in queues or having your plans for the day ruined when you're told to come back again in six hours.
- For peace of mind in crowded places like the metro and La Rambla, bring a cross-body bag you can hold while walking or a backpack you can lock.
- Depending on how long you're staying and how much you will be using public transport, you can get a 10 journey transport card (T-10) or a Hola BCN card, which provides unlimited journeys on the metro, bus and the train to/from the airport over a specified number of days. You can book the Hola BCN card online in advance for a discounted rate and pick it up when you leave the airport.
- If you're a vegan or ovo/lacto vegetarian, double check that food doesn't have 'pescado' in it. I saw a few things marked as vegetarian even though they had 'atun' (tuna) in them.
- Siesta is a real thing! Restaurants and smaller shops close in the afternoon in summer, and dinner usually starts at 20:00 or 21:00. Some restaurants close to major attractions may be open from 19:00, but tourists are likely to be the only diners. It feels strange, but if you're too hungry to wait, there is an upside: you have the place to yourselves and can get served quickly.
- Whether you're going on recommendations or stumbling across interesting looking cafés and restaurants, there are so many great places to eat in Barcelona. To avoid wasting a meal on something okay-ish, pack snacks if you need something to get you through to a late dinner.
Don't want to stop at Barcelona? I've put together a two-part Spain road trip guide too! The first one is all about Barcelona, Montserrat, Tarragona, Peñíscola and Valencia and the second part (which can be added to part one or done as a standalone trip) takes you through Southern Spain (Granada, Ronda, Gibraltar, Cádiz, and Seville).