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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.