When I first left for Barcelona in January 2017, I didn’t know much about the city besides the beach and Gaudí. I didn’t even know what tapas were. But, after a wary initial encounter with tortilla española and patatas bravas (both are great, you should try them), I was hooked.
For nearly five months I walked around the city giddy, feeling like I was living in a fairytale. Barcelona has a rich and complex history, and there are a million things to do—spend a day on Montjuïc or at the Parc de la Ciutadella, watch the sunset from the Carmel bunkers, or go on a day trip to Girona and explore some of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.
But if you’ve never been at all, these are 48 hours well spent in the city.
First, a few pointers:
- Most street signs are written in Catalan and all the metro announcements will be in Catalan first, but almost everyone speaks Spanish as well as English in the touristy areas.
- Servers don’t tend to stop at your table a lot, so when you’re ready to leave, you have to ask for the check (la cuenta, por favor). Also, people don’t tip, unless it’s more than 100 euros, and even then, it’s only around 8 percent.
- Barcelona rebelled against the standard cardinal directions and made their own. Their north is the Tibidabo mountain, which is really the east, and the new south is the Mediterranean Sea.
- The city has only has one airport, El Prat, easily navigated with just two terminals. A taxi ride to the city is generally about 30€, but you can also take the metro (the orange L9 El Sud line), Aero Bus (will drop you at Plaça Catalunya), or the train.
- Also, Barcelona happens to be a great walking city.
F.C. Barcelona is the heartbeat of Catalonia. Anywhere you watch the game will be crazy — I once had a bar owner offer my entire group of friends free shots when Barça beat PSG —but if you want the real experience buy a ticket for Camp Nou, the largest stadium in Europe. Tickets can get pricey, but it’s worth the money. Besides, who doesn’t want the chance to see Lionel Messi score? Palau Reial is on the green L3 metro line.
Pay tribute to Antoni Gaudí, the city’s most famous Catalan modernist architect. This itenerary is totally doable in a day (and you might even have a little time left over to hit up nearby popular beach La Barceloneta as well).
Built in 1914, the park, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, is known for its mosaic benches and the view of the Mediterranean, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 as part of the seven-building “Works of Gaudí.” Most of the park is free, with the exception of the part designed by Gaudí — you'll need a ticket (7.50€ for adults) and only a certain amount of people are allowed in at one time, so book in advance.
This historic street stretches three-quarters of a mile from Plaça de Catalunya to the sea, with kiosks and vendors along the way—check out the knock-off Barça gear, Sagrada Familia magnets and flamenco postcards (fun fact: flamenco originated in Andalusia to the south). Take a peek into the narrow, cobblestoned streets branching off of this shady promenade, but do be wary of pickpockets, and make sure to visit:
- Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria: An ancient market with stalls for anything you can imagine—mazes of marzipan, fruit, cheeses, whole fish (head and all) and more. La Rambla, 91.
- Monument a Colom: The massive 197-foot Christopher Columbus Monument built as part of the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1888. Columbus is proudly pointing to the New World, but fun fact, he’s pointing in the wrong direction. It's located the bottom of La Rambla, marking the beginning of Port Vell (ie. close to the beach). Plaça Portal de la pau.
After your La Rambla adventures, do make sure to see La Sagrada Família, crowning glory of “The Works of Gaudí.” Construction began in 1882 and is expected to be complete a decade from now. The outside of the church will eventually have three facades and 18 towers. But head inside to witness Sagrada Família’s true majesty—the radiant stained glass, which you won’t see in any other church in Europe. Visit in the late afternoon, when the sun is shining through the windows. Tickets begin at 15€. Carrer de Mallorca, 401.
Where to eat and drink:
- Brunch and Cake by the Sea: Retro, beachy dining at Passeig de Joan de Borbó, 5
- El Bosc de les Fades: A bar with good drinks and grotesque whimsy straight out of a Grimm’s fairytale. It's next to a wax museum at Passatge de la Banca 5 Barcelona, Spain
- L’Ovella Negra: An El Raval watering hole with an 18th century tavern feel, and stein of beer or sangria for less than 5€. Carrer de les Sitges 5
- Eclipse: A swanky hotel club with views of the Mediterranean, classy cocktails, and a dress code —make sure your shoulders are covered and men are in pants. W Barcelona, Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 1, 26th Floor
Journey to the past and present (and the beach, if you didn't hit it up on Saturday):
The Gothic Quarter
About 2,000 years ago in 15 B.C.E., the Romans built a military town called Barcino. Strolling through the Gothic Quarter (the area between La Rambla and Via Laietana), you can still see the remains of the Roman walls.
Wander through Picasso’s childhood home, and marvel at the evolution of his art through some 4,000-plus works. Entry is free on the first Sunday of the month and on Thursday evenings. Carrer Montcada, 15-23.
The nearly 800-year-old gothic Barcelona Cathedral, with its vaulted ceilings and 500-year-old organ, is sure to take your breath away. Come for a service, or just tour the cathedral for 7€. There are also plenty of gelato places nearby. Pla Seu, 3.
La Barceloneta is by far the most famous beach, where vendors walk along the sand, peddling booze, tapestries and massages. But it's so crowded. For a quieter experience, head up to the beach to the Plaja de la Nova Icària.
You need to see the Magic Fountain Show at the Plaça d’Espanya. Nearly 800,000 gallons of H2O is pumped into a spectacular light and water show. It’s free, but arrive early to beat the crowds and get a good spot (not too close to the fountain or you’ll get hosed). Plaça de Carles Buïgas, 1.
Where to eat and drink:
- The Benedict: A cozy brunch spot in Gothic Quarter with eggs Benedict in the 10 to 12€ range. Carrer d'en Gignàs, 23.
- DelaCrem: Fresh, homemade gelato near the famous Passeig de Gràcia, one of Barcelona's most famous streets that you should definitely also visit (a short metro ride from the Gothic Quarter). Carrer d’Enric Granados, 15.