Wide Mediterranean beaches, leafy pedestrian promenades, unique architecture and innovative dining have turned Barcelona into one of the most alluring destinations in Europe. The word clearly has gotten out, with more than 2 million cruise passengers disembarking in the city in 2017.
The city is as safe and welcoming as ever, despite some protests against overtourism and a little political turmoil between the region of Catalonia and the Spanish government. It's the European capital of cool, with a freewheeling attitude, spectacular climate, thousands of things to do and some of the best food you'll ever eat.
It's gotten so popular that hundreds of businesses catering to tourists have flooded the city. That makes it tough to know where to start for an authentic experience, but if you plan accordingly, you can make the most of a couple of days in port.
For breakfast near Placa de Catalunya, try Granja Viader (Carrer d'en Xucla, 4-6), a pastry and cheese shop that was founded in 1870. Most Spaniards only have a cafe con leche (espresso with steamed milk) and a piece of bread for breakfast, but once in a while, they'll splurge and have churros dipped in thick, warm chocolate. The sugar-coated, fried doughnut sticks are so good here that in the afternoon there might be a line out the door. But, first thing in the morning, you should get in and out.
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For a second traditional option, check out Bar Castells (Placa del Bonsucces, 1). Ask for the tortilla espanola, which is essentially an egg frittata made with potatoes and onions. It's filling, tasty and cheap, and comes with a couple slices of pan con tomate: crusty bread that's drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with a fresh tomato.
From either restaurant, head to the breathtaking La Rambla and walk downhill under the rows of plane trees. The pedestrian promenade is the heart of the city's tourist quarter and world famous for its street performers. Each section is dedicated to a different pursuit, such as one area for souvenirs and ice cream and another for artists (avoid eating at the touristy restaurants, though they work well for a people-watching drink). Once you get to the flower stands, look to the right for La Boqueria (La Rambla, 91), the largest of a citywide network of open-air fresh markets. Besides a bounty of fresh produce and meat, the dozens of market stalls sell souvenir-worthy and shippable treats such as candies, cured meats, cheeses, wine and more. Some stalls like Bar Central are mini-restaurants, where you can sidle up for a tapa or two with a canya, or a small beer.
After the market, cross to the other side of La Rambla and head into the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), the oldest part of the city. The warren of stone streets and buildings still mirror the haphazard layout that grew out of the old Roman city, founded in the first century A.D.
Find the Via Sepulcral (Placa de la Vila de Madrid), where excavated tombs from the third century line an ancient road into the city, 20 feet below the current street level. Walk another five minutes to the ornate Barcelona Cathedral (Pla de la Seu), a marvel of late-Gothic architecture built in the 1300s. If you're lucky you'll stumble on groups of Catalans out front dancing the sardana, in which a circle of people hold hands, raise their arms and trot to a band of woodwind instruments. Walk through the Roman Towers, remnants of the original city wall built in the third century and fortified 200 years later, and up Carrer del Bisbe to hear the street musicians (opera singers, in particular, like the way their music reverberates off the granite).
Continue on to Placa de Sant Jaume, flanked by the Ayuntamiento or City Hall, and the Palau de la Generalitat, one of the main government buildings of the Catalonia region. Head out of the plaza, to the left, for another history lesson at Museu d'Historia de Barcelona (MUHBA), or the Barcelona City History Museum (Placa del Rei). The building was erected over the remains of one of the largest Roman settlements ever discovered in Europe, and ancient foundations are preserved inside.
Head further south through the tangled Gothic Quarter -- taking special care to not mind getting lost --and find your way to Placa Reial. The plaza and buildings surrounding it were built as a luxurious, porticoed space with the intention of praising the Spanish monarchy. It's filled with palm trees, street performers and a gorgeous fountain. For being one of the most touristed plazas in all of Barcelona, it also features a surprising number of quality restaurants with hundreds of seats alfresco.
Les Quinze Nits (Placa Reial, 6) offers an expansive and affordable menu of well-executed tapas, paella and Catalan dishes, as well as family-friendly options like burgers. Even the chicken tikka masala is good. Across the plaza, Ocana (Placa Reial, 13-15) is a massive, hip space with three separate concepts. One portion offers traditional Spanish dishes like mushroom croquettes and plates of nutty Iberian ham, another part is a craft cocktail bar and the third centers on upscale Mexican cuisine. The restaurant offers live music at night and turns into a swank club downstairs even later.
Life in Barcelona is lived outside year-round, and no other European city is so closely connected to the water. It's imperative to enjoy the city's spectacular climate and at least see the beach, even if you don't have time for a full-fledged beach day. The easiest way to go about it is to rent a bicycle -- or a moped, electric scooter, tandem bike, Segway or any number of wheeled contraptions at Rent Electric (Carrer del Dr. Aiguader, 9). Zip along Passeig de Joan Borbo past all the mega-yachts -- don't be surprised if you confuse some of them for small cruise ships -- and down to the beach.
The city's street grid extends right down to the sand, and the waterfront maintains a carnival atmosphere with street performers, vendors, restaurants and water sports no matter the month or time of day. Go south, down the pedestrian promenade toward the sail-shaped W Hotel and then backtrack until you get to the lacy copper fish sculpture designed by architect Frank Gehry. The sculpture is at the base of the only two skyscrapers along the 3-mile stretch of sand, which were used as the Olympic Village in 1992.
Return the rental and head around the corner to Carrer Ample, which has a string of restaurants and cool shops with souvenirs actually worth buying, like Papabubble (Carrer Ample, 28), a distinctive candy shop, or Truffles and Wine Barcelona (Carrer Ample, 14), which sells truffle-infused cheese, sausage and olive oil, as well as wines by small local producers. At the base of the nearby La Rambla, you'll usually find craft markets surrounding the Christopher Columbus Monument. The tower, which marks the spot where the explorer departed from Spain when he "discovered" the New World, has a tourist information shop, a unique wine boutique and an observation deck.
If you pass on the observation deck, you'll want to grab a drink at 1881, a rooftop bar at the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya (Palau de Mar, Placa de Pau Vila, 3). The museum explains the centuries of motivation behind the Catalan independence movement, but the restaurant has the best views of the sea and the castle atop Montjuic. In fact, a diagram on the terrace's railing points out more than a dozen points along the low-rise skyline. The later it gets, the louder the DJ becomes, but it's worth sticking around for a spectacular sunset.
The view is nearly as good at the street-level restaurants along the harbor. Stop into Lolita Barceloneta (Passeig de Joan de Borbo, 38) for a pitcher of cava sangria. Cava is the Spanish sparkling wine that's made according to the Champagne method, and most of it is produced in Catalonia. In a sangria, it comes with all the typical fruits but with a lighter flavor and fun fizz.
You could also head into the adjacent La Barceloneta, historically a fisherman's neighborhood, for classic cocktails at Rebelot (Carrer del Baluard, 58), a funky corner bar. It fronts a large square that will be filled with neighborhood kids kicking around a soccer ball and tourists playing table tennis.
One of Barcelona's unparalleled charms is a dining scene that ranges from quick but tasty tapas to multicourse feasts at world-class restaurants. You could continue back to the beach for a classic paella in a family-friendly atmosphere at Ca la Nuri Platja (Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta, 55), but for a more local take on the rice and seafood dish, try fideua. It's a Catalan specialty that substitutes thin vermicelli noodles for the rice. At some places, cooks make fideua in the style of "mar y muntanya," or surf and turf, combining ingredients like rabbit and lobster.
For a more gastronomically unique experience, make reservations in advance for any of the restaurants owned by the Adria brothers. Ferran Adria became one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy with El Bulli, a restaurant up the Costa Brava that for decades was considered one of the best in the world thanks to its 30-plus course tasting menus. It closed in 2011, but he and his brother recreate some of that magic at their six restaurants in Barcelona. At Tickets (Avinguda del Paral·lel, 164), the tapas restaurant is like no other, where dinner is played out at several different counters and the dessert is served in an area with giant berries hanging from the ceiling.
Across town, former chefs at El Bulli opened Disfrutar (Carrer de Villarroel, 163), which means "enjoy" in English, in 2014, and it's one of the best in the city for its inventive tasting menu based on Mediterranean flavors.
The Adria restaurants are clustered in an area where some of the city's trendiest bars have opened in recent years. Across Avinguda del Paral·lel, from Tickets, more than a dozen bars line Carrer de Blai, a pedestrian-only street off the tourist track that runs through the El Poble-sec neighborhood. If you haven't filled up on dinner, you can pop in for a drink and a snack in one place, then another, then another -- a nightly progression that locals call the movido.
The area is also one of the city's theater and nightlife hubs. For a bit of a thrill (though not too risque), check out the iconic El Molino (Carrer de Vila i ViIla, 99). The theater is modeled after the Moulin Rouge, and two tickets for a burlesque show called the Cabaret Experience and a complementary bottle of cava go for 50 euros. Besides the cabaret show, the venue offers many other concerts and cutting-edge performances.
Pop your eyes open after a typically late Barcelona night and find your way to Caravelle (Carrer del Pintor Fortuny, 31) in the edgy El Raval neighborhood. Here's where you'll find inventive brunch dishes, such as coconut French toast with strawberries and ice cream, every day, not just on the weekends. Those looking for some hair of the dog will love the in-house craft beer and overstuffed Bloody Marys.
For a bit of people-watching with your mimosa, search out the airy corner of Federal Cafe (Carrer del Parlament, 39) in the Sant Antoni neighborhood. Expect unpretentious but fresh breakfast dishes and sandwiches and a nice staff. Find their other location in the Gothic Quarter (Passatge de la Pau, 11).
Turn back toward La Rambla, walk through Placa de Catalunya past the marble fountains and head up the Passeig de Gracia. The avenue was designed to be the grandest boulevard in the Eixample, the street grid that was laid out in the 1800s to expand beyond the medieval city walls; it's stop number one on a day of architecturally inspiring sightseeing.
The architect's name you will hear spoken most during your time in Barcelona is Antoni Gaudi, who designed some of the world's most fanciful buildings during the Art Nouveau period straddling the turn of the 20th century. Gaudi is known for incorporating natural shapes and themes into his work, and the avenue itself is one of his masterpieces. The filigree street lamps, stamped hexagonal paving stones and curved stone benches were all designed in that style, which goes by the term modernisme.
About halfway up the avenue, you'll find the exuberant Casa Batllo (Passeig de Gracia, 43), a private house with a rainbow cotton candy facade that's open to tours. The undulating roof was designed to mimic a scaly dragon's back, and the intricate balconies were fashioned to resemble the masks at a Venetian masquerade ball. Another few blocks up, you'll find Casa Mila (Provenca, 261-265), an apartment building also known as La Pedrera (the quarry), where Gaudi designed everything from the structure to the chimneys to the door knobs.
Bonus: Passeig de Gracia is also Barcelona's version of Rodeo Drive, with designer shops like Chanel, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and many more mixed in with shops offering more accessible fashions.
After you see La Pedrera (timed tickets are required to go inside, but it's worth it for the surprisingly funky roof), catch the subway to the Sagrada Familia. The basilica is Gaudi's masterpiece, a church like no other in the world, both in ambition and artistry. But, before going inside, grab a bite to eat. If you're in Barcelona midweek, ask about the menu del dia, a three-course prix-fixe tasting menu that's usually at least half the price as dinner would be. Try the homey L'encis, which means "the charm" in Catalan, for a fantastic wine list and simple classics like grilled veal with charred green peppers. Or, the classy La Cupula (Carrer de Sicília, 255), a Mediterranean option known for its dome skylight and collection of classic cars.
For something more low-key, La Piazzenza (Avinguda de Gaudi, 27) has some of the city's best pizza. Or, if you're in the mood for a picnic, grab sandwiches at Paprika Gourmet (Carrer de los Castillejos, 248), which serves some of the best pastrami this side of the Atlantic (try the spicy diablo). Parks on two sides of Sagrada Familia are peaceful spots to relax with your lunch before making your way inside.
Gaudi worked on the Sagrada Familia (Carrer de Mallorca, 401) for 43 years before he died, most of the time living at the construction site and overseeing each meticulous detail. The basilica won't be finished until 2026, but it's simply magnificent already. Each side of the church is different, with a naturalist facade depicting Jesus' birth and a cubist facade depicting his death. Inside, the columns that support the soaring ceiling are designed the look like the trunks and branches of trees, giving the visitor the impression of walking into a sacred forest. The best time to go is late afternoon or early morning, when the angle of the sun filters through stunning stained glass and bathes the hall in a rainbow of spectacular light.
Make sure to buy your timed entry tickets online at least a day in advance. It's worth reserving the comprehensive audio tour (you can't add it once you're there) that points out details you'd otherwise miss, without being too dense. But, it's not necessary to spring for the tower ticket because construction is still obstructing some of the views, and you can get better views elsewhere.
Head back south and into the artsy El Born neighborhood for a little early evening shopping and a pre-dinner cocktail. Some of the city's hippest designers have ateliers among the tiny alleyways just north of the Passeig del Born. For a one-stop look into the neighborhood aesthetic, find the chic concept store Bon Vent (Carrer de l'Argenteria, 41), which sells handmade soaps, garments, shoes, silverware and more from artisans with workshops in the area.
After you build up a thirst, pop into the Born Bar (Passeig del Born, 26), a cozy space with fantastic cocktails (the Bitter Born -- made with gin, grapefruit juice, a cinnamon orange, bitters and a dash of sugar -- is oddly refreshing and potent). Another great but usually very crowded option is El Xampanyet (Carrer de Montcada, 22), one of two cava bars in the city. Most people drink and snack while standing, sipping on bottles of cava that taste about 10 times better than their 10-euro price tag.
Tired of all the ham and croquettes so common on Barcelona menus? It might be time to mix it up in El Born with Koku Kitchen Buns & Ramen Bar (Carrer del Comerc, 29). The two-level Asian-fusion restaurant has two concepts, a basement bar specializing in the Japanese noodle soup and a ground-level restaurant where bao buns are the star. You build the meal yourself, stuffing stewed meats, pickled veggies and leafy greens into fluffy steamed pocket bread (make sure to order extra buns). You could also try La Vietnamita (Carrer del Comerc, 17), which serves Vietnamese delicacies like pork meatball lettuce wraps and banh mi sandwiches in shareable tapas style.
But, if you haven't yet gotten enough Spanish food, Santagustina (Placa de Sant Agusti Vell, 9) is a fantastic choice. The gorgeous interior includes exposed brick and candlelight, paired with good music, attentive staff and authentic Spanish tapas. For something casual with a touch of history, try El 300 del Born (Mercat del Born, Placa Comercial, 12), which is housed in one corner of a former cast-iron market. When the market was being renovated years ago, workers discovered the medieval street grid buried underground, and the find was turned into the Born Cultural Centre. Now diners can see the wells, foundations and canals that were part of daily life in the city in the 1600s.
If you find yourself with extra time before 7 p.m., pop up the street and into the Picasso Museum (Carrer Montcada, 15-23), housed in a collection of five conjoined palaces built from the 13th to 15th centuries. The artist spent his formative years here, and he helped design the museum. The 4,000 items in the collection span his entire life and exhibits his full skill. As he once said, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."
For art buffs staying in town a few days more, check out the Barcelona Art Ticket, which for 30 euros gets admission to the city's top six museums, including Picasso's.
An after-dinner cocktail sometimes can be a show of its own, which is just the case at Paradiso. The bar is tucked behind a "secret" door that looks like the walk-in refrigerator of a sandwich shop called Pastrami Bar (Carrer de Rera Palau, 4). The cocktails are beyond impressive, and if you're super cool, maybe you can get into a second secret bar, the door of which is hidden behind a service sink next to the bathroom.
Barcelona is also known as one of the top nightlife destinations in Europe, so if you're ready for a party, they'll be easy to find. For a good time in high style, head to the chic Opium (Passeig Marítim, 34) on the water at the former Olympic Village. Next door, you can also find Shoko, a stellar Japanese restaurant during the day that converts into one the city's hottest clubs at night, with international DJs and a fashionable jet-set crowd. But, just as with the restaurants, things start and end quite late in this city, no matter what day of the week. So, don't be surprised if you show up at 10 p.m. and the place seems kind of quiet. It won't fill up for at least two hours.
If late nights aren't your thing, see what's on tap at the Palau de la Musica Catalana (Carrer Palau de la Música, 4-6). The former home of the Barcelona Symphony offers choral and classical ensemble concerts and other performances. But, the architecture alone is a showstopper, built in the Catalan modernista style by the architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner.
A few things to note:
- Most larger hotels are concentrated near Placa de Catalunya, which is the center of town. It's only a 20-minute ride from the cruise terminals and a good reference point for getting your bearings.
- Remember that in Spain, the average schedule is shifted back a couple of hours to much later than most Americans are used to. This means many restaurants open for lunch between 1 and 5 p.m., close for a few hours and then won't reopen for dinner until as late as 8 or 9 p.m. Consequently, many small, owner-operated stores still close for siesta, meaning you shouldn't plan on doing any shopping between 2 and 5 p.m. But, don't worry, cafes fill the gap with food options all day, and many shops in areas with more tourists stay open in the afternoon.
- Catalan is the first language, though all Catalans also speak Spanish and you won't offend anyone for trying out a few words of what you learned in high school. Most people speak at least some English.