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Since hosting the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona has gained increased and deserved attention as a premier vacation destination, and most major cruise lines have made it a regular port of call on their Mediterranean itineraries.
The capital of Spain's Catalonia region is one of the country's -- maybe even Europe's -- most beautiful and vibrant places. A city of contrasts, it is like no other in Spain; this is most evident in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves. (One name to keep an eye out for is Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous and unique architect.)
Barcelona is also a city of distinct neighborhoods. The old city is the heart of everything, with museums, shopping and cafes. Then, there's the port area that's interesting to visitors (Port Vell features bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe), which is not the same working port area where cruise ships dock, but it's not too far away.
In fact, one of Barcelona's best attributes is that while it seems large and spread out, its neighborhoods are surprisingly walkable and easily accessible by bus, metro or even on foot (in comfortable shoes). Don't miss a stroll along Las Ramblas, replete with produce and flower stands, a historic opera house and a thoroughly intriguing open pet market with cages of for-sale lizards, chirping birds and other exotic animals.
Just be sure to rest your feet now and then over a few plates of tapas (which are meant to be shared, but we won't tell) and an ice-cold pitcher of sangria.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Positano (Amalfi) • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Although Catalan is the local language, many people from other parts of the country live in Barcelona, so Spanish is spoken throughout. English is widely spoken at all the main tourist attractions and in hotels and restaurants.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro, and ATM's are easy to find, with many on Las Ramblas in the Gothic quarter and other popular tourist areas. For current currency conversion figures, visit oanda.com or xe.com. The currency-exchange offices on Las Ramblas are open for longer hours than the banks, but they generally offer poorer rates.
Leather bags and shoes, local ceramics and lacework are good keepsakes. Inexpensive souvenirs and FC Barcelona football memorabilia can be found at the many stalls that line Las Ramblas.
Where You're Docked
Large cruise ships dock at two main piers on the waterfront, a healthy walk to Las Ramblas. The Blue Bus shuttle runs to and from all the cruise port terminals to the Christopher Columbus monument at the foot of Las Ramblas. Single tickets cost two euros for a ride and three euros for a round-trip and have to be paid for in cash on the bus. A taxi ride from the farthest terminal costs around eight euros.
Barcelona is an eminently walkable city, particularly in the older quarters, such as Barri Gotic, with its winding streets. There's an excellent (and fairly clean) subway system, and buses operate to all the major attractions.
Renting a car for simple in-city touring is not recommended -- nor is it necessary. Taxis are plentiful. For day trips outside of city limits, Auto Europe (800-223-5555, Auto Europe, Hertz, and Avis are among those agencies that have outposts in Barcelona.
Watch Out For
Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets. Leave valuables in your hotel or cruise cabin safe, and carry credit cards and cash in a safe place.
On a more positive note, Barcelona is world-famous for its unique architecture, particularly late 19th-century Art Nouveau. A great many buildings, from modest apartment houses to churches, reflect that dynamic era.
It would be hard to miss Las Ramblas, as the city's main thoroughfare is virtually opposite the cruise terminals. The fabulous promenade, almost a mile long, leads from the port to Placa de Catalunya, the center of old Barcelona. It's lined with shops, cafes, flower stalls, street performers and a wonderful food market called Boqueria. You'll pass by the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona's circa-1848 opera house. (It was gutted by a fire in 1994 but has been rebuilt.) Las Ramblas ends at the Placa de Catalunya -- a huge plaza that's the heart of the city and is surrounded by shops and cafes.
Barcelona's funkiest church, La Sagrada Familia, was designed by Gaudi and has become a symbol of the city. The most unusual thing about it? It's not finished yet! He began working on it in 1883 and designed intriguing features such as the bell towers, covered in Venetian mosaics, and the nativity-themed facade, with doorways representing faith, hope and charity. Gaudi devoted the last 16 years of his life to working on the extraordinary church and services are held in the crypt where he is buried. The best way to experience Sagrada Familia is to take the elevator, when available, to the top of one of the towers; there's an awesome view from that height. Also, spend some time in the church museum. (Calle Mallorca 401; open daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
The Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or MACBA, is Barcelona's ode to contemporary art. (Placa dels Angels; open weekdays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays and holidays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Architect Antoni Gaudi also designed Palau Guell, a gorgeous late 19th-century palace. Once the home of a wealthy count, it was built with underground stabling for the horses and carriages of visitors. (Nou de la Rambla 3-5; open weekdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
If you're a fan of Gaudi architecture (or want to skip the crowds at La Sagrada Familia), consider a visit to La Pedrera. The building, which was used as a family dwelling in the early 20th century, is quite stunning, and the living quarters lend incomparable insight into the local lifestyle during that era. The architecturally and visually shocking rooftop chimneys that you can actually walk through and around are truly a sight to be seen (and touched) -- and the view of the city is breathtaking. (Passeig de Gracia 92; open in winter Monday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., in summer Monday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
Another Gaudi design, Parc Guell is a pleasant public park overlooking the city -- a maze of tropical flowers and colorful accents. The land was bought by a rich count in 1900 and earmarked as a miniature garden city for the wealthy. Gaudi set to work creating a park and homes, but the houses were deemed too fanciful for the day and the project was abandoned in 1914, becoming another testament to Gaudi's inimitable creativity. The entrance is guarded by a mosaic lizard and two gatehouses (one of which houses a souvenir shop). Here, you'll also find performers and craftsmen selling handmade souvenirs at bargain prices -- yes, haggling is permitted.
In Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gotic, architecture dates to the 13th century, and this area has a wonderfully "Olde Europe"-style atmosphere. Streets are winding and narrow, with numerous boutiques and antique and artisan galleries. One of the area's best known attractions is the Museu Picasso (Carrer Montcada, 15-23; open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Founded in 1963, it is Barcelona's most visited museum and can be found in a beautiful medieval stone mansion in an atmospheric narrow street. Although Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, he spent much of his life in Barcelona, and the museum contains a collection of more than 3,000 of his paintings and sketches from 1890 through to the 1950's. Parts of Barcelona Cathedral (Placa de la Seu; open daily 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.) date to 1298, but it wasn't actually completed until the late 19th century. Santa Maria del Mar (Carrer Montcada at Placa de Santa Maria; open weekdays 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.), built between 1329 and 1383, is another cathedral worth inspecting. The structure is unusually simple and quite elegant.
Sports enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Olympic Stadium (the double-decker hop-on, hop-off tourist buses head here). The stadium existed before the Olympics were held there, but it was completely remodeled in 1992 for the occasion. These days, the stadium is used for various events. Similarly, soccer fans can visit the Camp Nou Stadium, home of FC Barcelona, or Barca as the team is known locally. Open daily, the stadium tour takes visitors through the museum and culminates with a visit to the changing rooms and the tunnel, leading to a panoramic view of the vast stadium. Three miles west of the city center, the stadium is close to the Collblanc or Badal metro stops.
Barceloneta was, at one time, a fishing village. The beachfront neighborhood, filled with narrow, brightly colored houses (and a pretty nice beach) faces the Mediterranean. Following the waterfront, continue on to Port Olimpic, which has shops, cafes and bars. Port Vell, just beyond, has restaurants and Maremagnum, a big fancy shopping mall, complete with IMAX theater. Gambling aficionados should check out the Gran Casino de Barcelona (Calle de la Marina; open until 5 a.m.); beyond slots and tables, there's also a floor show and disco.
For serious time at the beaches, the best bet is to take a RENFE train (board in Placa de Catalunya) to Sant Pol or Sant Pau -- both are north of the city and are easy day trips.
The village of Montjuic rises 700 feet above the city's commercial port and is chock-a-block with cafes, boutiques, art galleries and museums. Not to be missed is Museu Arqueologic (Passeig Santa Madrona 39; open daily), which showcases artifacts from prehistoric cultures in both Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Another highlight is the Fundacio Joan Miro (Parc de Montjuic; open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.), which features tapestries, paintings and sculptures of Catalonian Joan Miro -- he's considered a surrealist. Another key art museum is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuic; open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.); it's got one of the world's premier collections of Romanesque art.
Been There, Done That
Church of Colonia Guell. While Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece in the heart of Barcelona's Eixample district is always busy, you can avoid the crowds by heading to another of his projects, also never completed. In 1898 Gaudi was commissioned to build the church of Colonia Guell by his good friend Eusebi Guell, a prominent local businessman. Guell wanted the church for the workers' village Guell had constructed around his textile factory. Testing architectural techniques later used in the La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi started work in 1908, but when Guell died in 1914, just as the crypt was finished, building work was stopped because of lack of funding. The church is a 20-minute train ride out of the city. Head to the visitor center on Carrer De Reixach.
Temple of Augustus. Hidden in the Gothic Quarter in Carrer Paradis is one of Barcelona's biggest sightseeing surprises. Inside a small medieval courtyard are four imposing Corinthian columns that have survived the passing of the centuries and are all that remain of a Roman temple dedicated to emperor Caesar Augustus. It is located inside the Centre Excursionista de Catalunya (Carrer del Paradis 10).
Horta Labyrinth Park. Although it's Barcelona's oldest park, this green gem in the northern part of the city is off the main tourist trail. To preserve its peaceful beauty, only 750 people are admitted each day. Only groups can reserve entry; however, the entry limit is unlikely to cause any problems during the week because mostly locals visit the park. If the entry limit is reached, visitors are politely asked to not linger more than an hour to allow others inside. The 18th-century park offers a maze, pretty gardens, statues and water features. The easiest way to get there is to take the green line metro L3 to Mundet; the park is a five-minute walk from the subway. Free on Sundays. (Open daily from 10 a.m.)
Shelter 307. The tunnel is one of more than 1,000 built to shelter citizens from the bombing raids during the Spanish civil war. Open to the public on weekends (weekdays by appointment only), the tunnel, which includes an infirmary, brings this dark period of history to life. (Carrer Nou de la Rambla 169; open Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Barcelona Motorcycle Museum. Barcelona has the highest rate of motorbikes per capita in Spain, and this new museum celebrates the city's love affair with two wheels. The museum can be found in the rather incongruous setting of the former Saint Felip Neri Convent in the Gothic Quarter. It charts the history of the Catalan motorcycle from 1905 to the present day and the pioneers behind the industry. While motorbike aficionados will recognize names such as Montesa, Bultaco and Ossa, the exhibits reflect the fact that the region was once home to 150 different manufacturers. (Carrer de la Palla 10; open Monday 4:30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m, Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.)
Museu de l'Erotica. For something different, visit this unique museum on Las Ramblas. More than a tawdry peep show, the museum (the only of its kind in Spain) showcases sexuality through the ages and contains a variety of artifacts from all over the world -- everything from Buddhist sculptures to modern-day photography and art. The museum is open year-round. (Ramblas 96; open October to May, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., June to September 10 a.m. to midnight)
Montserrat. "The Serrated Mountain" -- more than 4,000 feet high -- is an exquisite setting for a monastery. The original church opened in 1592, though Montserrat remains an ongoing work in progress. While the complex includes shops and cafes, the real points of interest are the basilica's facade and the Black Virgin -- the soul of the monastery. Other features include the Placa de Santa Maria with its Gothic cloisters and The Museum, which exhibits works of art from Catalania and West Asia. If you're visiting in the early afternoon (around 1 p.m.), try to catch the male choir singing Virolai, the hymn of Montserrat. Montserrat is a working monastery and is home to Benedictine monks. It's easy to get there; take the Ferrocarriles Catalanes train that runs hourly from Barcelona's Placa Espanya.
Contemporary and Centrally Located: Le Meridien Barcelona (Ramblas 111), and Silken Ramblas (Pintor Fortuny 13).
Oozing History and Atmosphere: In Eixample, the upscale neighborhood just north of Placa de Catalunya, there's Silken Gran Hotel Havana (Gran Via de las Corts Catalanes 647). In the Gothic Quarter, there's the Colon Hotel (Avenida de la Catedral 7).
The Big Splurge: Hotel Arts Barcelona (Carrer de la Marina 19-21), is a modern, arty totally upscale hotel -- part of the Ritz-Carlton chain -- right on the Mediterranean in the port district. Located in an area famous for its designer shops and modernist architecture, Hotel SixtyTwo (Passeig de Gracia 62) is a boutique property with a serene Japanese Garden and stylish rooms.
Casual: If you're near Las Ramblas, try grabbing a bite at Bar Pinotxo, located in La Boqueria market. The chef -- who has been touted as one of the best worldwide -- whips up regional specialties and amazing coffee drinks. They get pretty busy, so be patient -- especially if you want to get one of the coveted seats at the counter. (Open all day from breakfast)
Lunch with the Locals: Try Taverna Mediterranea; you can't beat this robust and lively tavern. Although a little cramped, the tight space adds to the authenticity of the experience. The tapas are great, the cava sangria is excellent, but the atmosphere is the real draw. (Enrique Granados 58)
Elegant: Located in L'Eixample, Cinc Sentits offers the highest quality local foods, personal and attentive service, and most important of all, cuisine that you probably will never forget. This family establishment has a highly prized Michelin star and serves innovative dishes that maintain the essence of Catalonia. The price tag isn't slim -- the restaurant offers three different tasting menus ranging from around 60 euros to 100 euros for a 10-course menu -- and you should probably make reservations a few weeks in advance, but each bite is worth every penny and the extra effort. (Aribau 58; open for lunch 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.)
Merendero de la Mari is an indoor- and outdoor-dining seafood restaurant on the waterfront, fairly close to where the ship docks. Go for the excellent Catalan-style paella or the fresh mussels. (Placa Pau Vila, 1 Port Vell; open for lunch 12:30 p.m to 4 p.m., dinner 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.)
Best for Art Lovers: Book a Picasso Museum and Gothic Quarter tour. You'll walk through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter and see St. James' Square (Placa Sant Jaume) and Santa Maria del Mar Church before heading to the Picasso Museum.
Best for Active Travelers: See the city on a Barcelona bike tour. This tour takes cyclers on a guided ride through the streets, passing highlights such as Arc de Triomf and Parc de Ciutedell.
Best for History Buffs: Take a motorcoach past the Montserrat Mountain Ridge to the Benedictine Montserrat Monastery, which was founded in the 11th century.
Best for Sightseeing and Shopping: Tours by Antiques and Boutiques come highly recommended.
Staying in Touch
There is no Internet cafe (or even wireless access) at the cruise terminal in Barcelona, though Internet cafes are plentiful in the city itself. A convenient option is Easy Internet Cafe on Las Ramblas. If you're toting your own electronics, the Hard Rock Cafe and Starbucks stores (throughout the city) offer access. A good source of information and other choices can be found at BarcelonaConnect.com.
For More Information
From the Web: Barcelona Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Spain Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor
--Photos appear courtesy of Daniel E. Thompson