The sheer number of tourists to Barcelona on a yearly basis is enough to make the crowd-fearing traveller want to visit literally anywhere else in Spain. And while there is certainly much more to Spain than the Catalan capital, Barcelona’s architectural uniqueness, accessible beaches, and cultural vibrancy make it a must-visit European city.
If your time in Barcelona is limited, here’s how you should plan your itinerary so you don’t miss anything (in order of must-dos, in case you have fewer than 4 days).
Day One: Gaudi Delights
Barcelona is largely identifiable by its unique architecture designed by Antonio Gaudi, and is a major tourist draw. While you certainly won’t experience either of these sites alone and without crowds, it’s possible to see both Sagrada Família and Park Guëll in one day.
Purchase your tickets in advance of arriving, as they fill up quickly and you might be forced to come back later in the day, or another day entirely, if you show up to a long line with no hope of immediate entry. I would start by taking the metro to Park Guëll, and then taking the moving staircase up to the top of the hill where Park Guëll lies (unless you’re into the idea of a lot of uphill in Spanish heat). You may avoid some of the crowds by heading to Park Guëll in the morning and enjoying the different areas of the park. I didn’t go into the “gingerbread house” or the museum because exploring the park was enough, so I can’t say if it’s worth it or not. The best part of Park Guëll isn’t the sculptures in the park, however – it’s the view you get of Barcelona from that high hilltop point.
On a nice day (and with willing legs) you can walk (downhill) all the way to Sagrada Família in under 30 minutes. This allows you to stop for pastries or a snack along Carrer de Sardenya, which, once you get onto it from Park Guëll, is basically a straight line all the way to the cathedral. I’d advise against buying a snack in the immediate Park Guëll or Sagrada Família areas, as they’re high-priced and directed at tourists.
If you’re interested in going inside the Sagrada Família with thousands of others, you can buy specific entry times with optional additional fees to go into the towers. I have never been inside the cathedral in my two trips to Barcelona because the crowds seemed overwhelming/I didn’t have time, so I can’t say if it’s worth it, but it’s expensive. I’d argue that the most impressive parts are the outside of the cathedral, which you can walk around in its entirety, or you can pick a spot to watch construction continue on this never-ending project.
The neighbourhood surrounding the Sagrada Família is called “Eixample”, which houses most of the modernist Gaudi architecture. You can conclude your day by walking from Sagrada Familia to the famous Passeig de Gracia street, admiring the exteriors of Casa Mila and Casa Batlo. The roof of Casa Mila, La Pedrera, makes for an interesting glimpse at more modern artwork and sculpture, but the admission price may not be worth it for some.
Day Two: Biking, Beaches, and Barceloneta
If there’s one thing I try to do in the cities I visit, it’s rent a bike and bike around – providing there’s safe bike infrastructure of course! My favourite place to bike in Barcelona was in the Barceloneta neighbourhood. We rented a bike from Barcelona Rent a Bike for 10 euros for four hours. We biked the entire length of the Passeig Maritim to the Parc del Forum and back; it is a wide bike and walking path (with designated bike lanes that people aren’t supposed to walk in) that runs along the ocean. There’s nothing much better than biking with fresh sea breeze in your hair, especially if you’re coasting along the warm Mediterranean. As you ride, it’s easy to stop at one of the many beaches you’ll pass along the way, noting that the further out you go, the less crowded the beaches get. Barcelona is unique in Europe for having beaches right in the city, so it’s a definite must for a Barcelona trip. Just be mindful that you lock your bike up with the provided locks if you do stop for a dip!
The Barceloneta neighbourhood is beautiful with a bumping nightlife, but it’s also a tourist hotspot so expect restaurant prices to be high and, correspondingly, the quality low.
Day Three: Old Barcelona: Barri Gotic, Born, and Picasso
The oldest areas of Barcelona are in the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), which is where you should go on your third day in Barcelona. The Barcelona Cathedral was completed around the 15th century, and the corresponding narrow streets and medieval architecture are a sight to behold. In particular, the Museu Picasso is housed in five adjoining medieval palaces in La Ribrera, and in addition to housing works by Picasso, it also houses temporary exhibitions on other modern artists, such as Salvador Dali.
La Ribrera, also colloquially referred to as “el Born”, is also home to the “Mercat del Born,” which, while not an operational market anymore, is one of the most important buildings in Barcelona. Especially notable are its subterranean elements below the surface of the building, which are available for visitors to see. If you are looking for an operational market in the area for a snack, there is the Mercado de Santa Caterina, housed in a modern but architecturally unique building. We stopped for snacks at an Argentinian empanada shop – I can’t remember the name, but it was delicious.
If you’re in need of some green space to conclude your old quarter exploring, the Parc de la Ciutadella is huge and right next door, and is home to several gardens, the Catalonia Parliament, and the Barcelona Zoo.
Day Four: Las Ramblas to Montjuïc
No trip to Barcelona is complete with a stroll down Las Ramblas, though the crowds and threat of pickpocketing are off-putting to some. (My thoughts are, if you keep your wits about you and keep track of your belongings, nothing is going to happen.) Las Ramblas is lined with tourist shops, street performers, and an incredibly vibrant cast of characters.
La Boqueria is also crowded and overwhelming, but the variety is impeccable and all the sights and smells are a treat for the mind. Prices are reasonable, and there are tapas stands inside as well to ease any hunger pains. Particularly amusing are their candied imitations of fruit and other foods, which look almost too pretty to eat!
You can stroll down Las Ramblas all the way to the Mirador de Colom, which is a monument to Christopher Colombus. From here, you can either return to the Barceloneta neighbourhood, or continue onward to the Olympic area and Montjuïc. You can take a tram up to the top of Montjuïc for stunning views, as well as see the Montjuïc castle. If it’s the right night, there’s a splendid light show near the Botanical Gardens at Montjuïc – a magical way to end your time in the Catalonian capital.