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Since hosting the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona has received the attention it deserves as a premier vacation destination, and cruise lines like Costa, Crystal and Princess 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 Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous and unique architect).
Barcelona is also a city of neighborhoods, all distinct. The easiest way for cruise passengers to get their bearings is to know that the city is basically divided into two parts. First, there's the old city, which is where the heart of everything -- from museums to shopping to cafes -- is based. Then there's the port area; alas, the "port area" that's interesting to visitors (Port Vell, featuring bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe), 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 • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Sardinia • Sete • Seville • Sorrento • St. Tropez • Taormina • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Spanish; locals also speak Catalan. English is very widely spoken in the city.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Euro. Get cash from an ATM machine that's compatible with your local bank.
Leather goods. El Corte Ingles, Spain's largest department store chain in the heart of the city, offers an immense variety and is a real Spanish experience. The old quarter is packed with offbeat little shops, and Eixample is where you'll find chic-chic designer boutiques.
Where You're Docked
Large cruise ships dock at the largely industrial area of the waterfront, a doable (albeit healthy) walk to Las Ramblas, Barcelona's most famous and vibrant street. Cruise ships typically offer shuttles to the base of Las Ramblas as well.
Barcelona is an eminently walkable city, particularly in the older quarters, such as Barrio Gothic, 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 daytrips outside of city limits, Auto Europe (800-223-5555, www.autoeurope.com), 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 very, very 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.
La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona's funkiest church was designed by Gaudi. 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. Services are held in the crypt where Gaudi is buried. The best way to experience Sagrada Familia is to take the elevator to the top of one of the towers (though on my visit the elevator was out of order and we hiked up the stairs instead); there's an awesome view from that height. Also spend some time in the church museum. Sagrada Familia (Calle Mallorca 401, daily 9 a.m. - 8 p.m.)
The Museu d'art Contemporani de Barcelona. (Placa dels Angels, weekdays 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. and Sundays/holidays 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.) is Barcelona's ode to contemporary art. Architect Antoni Gaudi designed Palau Guell (Nou de la Rambla 3 - 5, weekdays 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. and 4 - 7:30 p.m.); it's a gorgeous late 19th century palace.
La Pedrera. As magnificent as Sagrada Familia is, you'll often find crowds (lines) as massive as the structure itself, so if you want to save some time and avoid the masses, consider a visit to La Pedrera. In fact, the building which was used as a family dwelling in the early 20th century, is quite stunning in its own right, and the living quarters lend an 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 needless to say, breathtaking. (Passeig de Gracia 92, Winter: Monday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Summer: Monday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 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 entrance is guarded by a mosaic lizard and two fanciful gatehouses (one of which houses a souvenir shop). Here you'll also find local performers and craftsmen selling handmade souvenirs at bargain prices -- yes, haggling is permitted.
Eixample. For a look at Barcelona at its most gracious, follow "Eixample" north of Placa de Catalunya; this is where the city's toniest boutiques, galleries, antique shops and restaurants are clustered.
Barri Gotic. In Barcelona's gothic quarter, architecture dates back to the 13th century, and this area has wonderfully olde Europe-style atmosphere. Streets are winding and narrow; there are numerous boutiques and antique and artisan galleries. Its best known attractions include the Museu Picasso (Carrer Montcada, 15 - 19, Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.); founded in 1963, the museum naturally, specializes in the works of Pablo Picasso (he donated works himself). Parts of Barcelona Cathedral (Placa de la Seu, 8 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. and 5 - 7:30 p.m. daily) date back to 1298 but it wasn't actually completed until the late 19th century. Santa Maria del Mar (Carrer Montcada at Placa de Santa Maria, weekdays from 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 5 - 8 p.m.) is another cathedral worth inspecting; it is, for this ornate city, unusually simple and quite elegant; it was built between 1329 - 1383.
Sports enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Olympic Stadium (the double-decker tourist bus heads there). The stadium existed before the Olympic games were held there, but it was completely remodeled in 1992 just for the occasion. These days, the stadium is used for various events, and home to baseball team Barcelona Dragons as well as a Barcelona soccer club.
Beyond the outskirts, here are some great ways to spend a day:
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 beach time, 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 ft. above the city's commercial port and 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, Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. - 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, Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.); it's got one of the world's premier collections of Romanesque art.
Been There, Done That
Las Ramblas. A fabulous promenade leading 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.
Pilgrimage to Montserrat. "The Serrated Mountain" -- over 4,000 ft. high -- is an exquisite setting for a monastery. The original church opened in 1592 though Montserrat is an ongoing work in progress. While the complex includes shops and cafes, the real points of interest are the Basilica 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 along with 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; it runs hourly from Barcelona's Placa Espanya.
Or, locally, visit Las Ramblas' Museu de l'Erotica (Ramblas 96). 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.
Contemporary and centrally located: Le Meridien Barcelona (Ramblas 111), and Ambassador Hotel (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).
Ooh-la-la -- 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.
Casual Dining: If you're near Las Ramblas, try grabbing a bite at Bar Pinotxo, located in La Boqueria. The chef -- who has been touted as one of the best worldwide -- whips up regional specialties and amazing coffee drinks. They do get pretty busy, so be patient.
For lunch with the locals, try Taverna Mediterranea (Enrique Granados 58) 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.
Elegant Dining: Located in L'Eixample, Cinc Sentits (Aribau 58) offers the highest quality local foods, personal and attentive service, and most important of all, cuisine that you will likely never forget. This family establishment was recently awarded a highly prized Michelin star, and continues to provide itself on innovative dishes,that maintain the essence of Catalonia. The price tag isn't slim, and you should probably make reservations a few week in advance, but each bite is worth every penny and the extra effort.
Merendero de la Mari (Placa Pau Vila, 1 Port Vell) is an indoor- and outdoor-dining seafood restaurant on the waterfront, fairly close to where the ship docks. Go for the excellent catalana-style paella, or the fresh mussels. Open for lunch 12:30 p.m until 4 p.m., dinner 8:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m.
Best Choice for Art Lovers: Book a Picasso Museum & Gothic Quarter tour. You'll walk through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, and see St. James' Square (Plaza San Jaume) and Santa Maria dei Mar Church before heading to the Picasso Museum. The museum contains many of Picasso's works, particularly from his early period. A large part of the collection was donated by Picasso himself.
Best Choice for Active-Minded Travelers: See the city on a Barcelona bike tour. This fairly new tour takes cyclers on a guided ride through the streets, passing highlights such as Arc de Triomf and Parc de Ciutedell.
Best Choice for History Buffs: Take a motorcoach past the Montserrat Mountain Ridge to the Benedictine Montserrat Monastery, which was founded in the 11th century.
Highly recommended: Antiques & Boutiques Private Tailor Made Tours
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 easyInternet Cafe on Las Ramblas. If you're toting your own laptop or PDI, Hard Rock Cafe and Starbucks outlets (throughout the city) offer access. A good source of information and other choices can be found at barcelonaconnect.com.
For More Information
On the Web: www.barcelonaturisme.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Barcelona Exchange
--updated by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor and Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Web Content Producer
--Photos appear courtesy of Daniel E. Thompson