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 architect.)
Barcelona is also a city of distinct neighborhoods. The old city -- Ciutat Vella -- is the heart of everything, with museums, shopping and cafes. Then there's the port area, Port Vell, which features bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe. (Port Vell is different to the working port area where cruise ships dock, but it's not too far away.) Enchanting and ancient, the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is the center of the old city and brings together the best of Barcelona in a series of narrow streets, shops, cafes and magical corridors.
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 maybe even a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe calling to you from the balcony of the Erotica Museum.
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 if you don't) and an ice-cold pitcher of sangria or a bottle of cava, the region's sparkling wine.
Large cruise ships dock at two main piers on the waterfront, which is a healthy walk to Las Ramblas. The Blue Bus shuttle runs to and from all of the cruise port terminals to the Christopher Columbus monument at the foot of Las Ramblas. Single tickets cost three euros for a ride and four 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. It's worth noting if you have an evening flight and you wish to explore the city without lugging your bags around with you, there is a port to airport luggage delivery service at the baggage claim area called Bags&Go that will deliver your suitcases for EUR10. You then pick them up at the airport, before you check in.
Smaller cruise ships may dock adjacent to the World Trade Center, which is an easier walk to Las Ramblas.
Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets. Leave valuables and passports in your hotel or cruise cabin safe, and carry credit cards and cash in a safe place. Carry only a copy of your passport, which should be sufficient for identification.
On Foot: Barcelona is an eminently walkable city, but it's easy to get turned around within its circular plazas, particularly in the older quarters such as Barri Gotic, which is also home to winding streets. Wear sturdy shoes for the cobblestones and bring a map, even if it feels touristy to do so.
By Public Transportation: There's an excellent (and fairly clean) subway system -- the TMB -- and buses operate to all the major attractions. If you're in town for more than a day, consider a T 10 pass, which offers metro or bus fare at a discounted price when you purchase 10 trips (a savings of about 11.50 euro).
Hop-on, Hop-off Bus: Forget blending in; the easiest way to see most of Barcelona's highlights in a single day is the city's Bus Turistic, or hop-on, hop-off bus. A single ticket valid for 24 hours is about 30 euro, but runs three lines (the green line is only available in the summer season) and offers language-specific commentary via headphone jacks along with free Wi-Fi onboard. Ride the entire line to familiarize yourself with the city's limits, or get off and spend time at the sites. Every ticket comes with a handy map and discount coupon booklet.
By Taxi: Renting a car for simple in-city touring is not recommended -- nor is it necessary. Taxis are plentiful, but be advised that many only take cash and not credit cards. Check to be sure your fare is metered before departing.
To Montserrat: Catch one of the many trains running daily at Espanya rail station, located underground. Your fare -- roughly 20 euro -- will include the hour-long train ride along with either a ticket for the rack railway (funicular) or cable car to the top, which is required to reach the monastery and town.
The currency is the euro, and ATMs are easy to find, with many on Las Ramblas, in the Gothic quarter and in 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.
Although Catalan is the local language, many people from other parts of the country live in Barcelona, so Spanish is spoken throughout and is one of the two official languages. English is widely spoken at all the main tourist attractions and in hotels and restaurants.
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 world's best-- whips up regional specialties and amazing coffee drinks. It gets pretty busy, so be patient, especially if you want to get one of the coveted seats at the counter. (Open all day from breakfast, 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; no reservations)
Elegant: Located in the posh L'Eixample neighborhood, 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 100 to 120 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 from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.)
Casa Pascual: This no-frills restaurant in the fishing village of Barceloneta, a few minutes from where you're docked, offers authentic tapas and drinks at polite prices with friendly service. Order a pitcher of sangria with your calamari, patatas bravas (potato wedges in a delicious sauce) or pa amb tomaquet (literally, tomato rubbed on fresh bread). Sit inside or out -- alfresco dining offers people-watching views within eyesight of the water. (Pas de Sota Muralla, 7; open every day from 9 a.m. to midnight, and to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)
Merendero de la Mari: This indoor/outdoor seafood restaurant on the waterfront is located 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 from 12:30 p.m to 4 p.m., and dinner from 8 to 11:30 p.m.)
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. Meats and cheeses in vacuum-sealed bags -- think Parma, Iberian or Serrano hams, and Manchego or goat cheese -- are a tasty souvenir to bring home, but are subject to the customs restrictions of your home country. Even with declaring these items, we made it back to the U.S. without a problem and with our Spanish delicacies to share with family and friends.