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Visiting Barcelona for the first time

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If you are planning to visit Barcelona for the first time you are in the right place. We have been a few times now and really love it. Below we have pulled together all the things we think you should know when you start planning so you can make sure you have the best time possible in this capital of Catalonia.

What to Know Before Visiting Barcelona

Barcelona is one of the world’s most popular cities for good reason. Knowing what to expect before you visit can make your time here much more enjoyable.

  • Barcelona is often affected by over-tourism, choose carefully the time you decide to visit the city to make your stay more enjoyable.
  • Many of the main attractions like Las Ramblas can be very touristy and overcrowded, so it’s recommended to go early and avoid the crowds.
  • The official language in Barcelona is Catalan, not Spanish although it is widely used.
  • Barcelona has some interesting politics – the locals have wanted their region Catalonia to become independent from Spain. They are fiercely proud of their region. Don’t get into political discussions without being aware of some of the background.
  • Buy your tickets for tourist attractions online to avoid long queues, mainly to see Gaudi’s many architectural places such as La Sagrada Familia.
  • Buy a 10T (ten trips) metro card when you arrive at the airport to use on all public transport services city-wide.
  • Barcelona has a reputation for professional pickpocketing. Keep your personal items on you at all times and leave valuables like your passport and large sums of money in your hotel safe.
  • Know when to eat! Generally, in Spain, lunch is usually between 1.30 and 3.30pm for the biggest meal of the day. Then, after a siesta break at home, find yourself out for a dinner of tapas around 9.30 pm.

When is the best time to visit Barcelona?

Barcelona in recent years has experienced the adverse effects of tourism just from the sheer volume of visitors each year. To help reduce the impact of over-tourism, consider the below season’s when planning your visit.

High Season: June-August provides sunny and warm weather; however, you can expect high prices and overcrowded sites with many tourists.

Shoulder Season: April-May & September-November means warm weather in the day with cooler evenings. You can expect fewer tourists at this time of year with comfortable temperatures.

Low Season: December-March means lower prices city-wide with fewer tourists. However, this time of year brings cold and potentially rainy weather.

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Choosing where to stay in Barcelona

On your first visit to Barcelona, you probably have a bunch of questions. If you are travelling to Spain solo, you probably want to find somewhere safe to stay. If you are trying to decide the best places to stay in Barcelona with kids, this may be even more important to you.

Or perhaps you want to find which neighbourhoods are the best to enjoy the local lifestyle or just the best area to stay to experience nightlife. Don’t worry, we have been a few times, so we have some ideas to share.

Gracia

Traveller’s looking to escape the hustle and bustle will enjoy this trendy district of Barcelona. Gràcia is considered one of the most modern neighbourhoods with quaint cafes and bars that won’t keep you awake late in the night.

Gràcia charm lies in its history because up until the late 19th Century it was its own independent barrio (district). Even though it’s now well and truly under the wing of Barcelona’s city centre, it’s still a great place to avoid the more touristy areas of downtown. Plus the barrio is flanked by Park Güell and Tibidabo and thus nicely situated for your inevitable visit. Gràcia is our pick of places to stay if you want to live like a local.

Eixample

If you’re after a bit of luxury, Eixample is an upscale barrio where you’ll find Barcelona’s best shopping. The perks of staying in Eixample involve more than just retail therapy, here you’re also centrally located near some of the city’s main Gaudi attractions such as Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. The streets of Eixample are in a handy grid system, which will make navigating a whole lot easier.

Eixample Barcelona Spain
Eixample is walking distance to many of the main sites

Eixample is much less crowded than areas near Las Ramblas, so if your budget permits, you will definitely enjoy the upmarket hotels, restaurants and bars.

An apartment or hotel in Eixample is an excellent choice for families, it’s close to so many of the sites you can walk to them, and it’s relatively quiet at night.

On our last visit, we spent a week at Hostal el Ninot, a two-star property just a few minutes walk from a couple of different subway stops and 10 minutes walk from Passeig de Gràcia. We loved the staff and found the room really comfortable. There was a great local restaurant across the road and we felt like locals in no time. Hostal in Spain does not mean hostel instead it is about halfway between a hotel and a hostel. They are usually small family-run properties with private rooms and bathrooms and possibly a shared kitchen or laundry.

Plaza Catalunya

Centrally located, Plaza Catalunya is situated between the Gothic Quarter and Eixample. This is a busy area with plenty of tourists and commuters going about their way.

Plaza Catalunya Barcelona Spain
Plaza Catalunya is great for shopping and transport

You can expect this barrio to be lively at all hours of the day, making it great for people watching on the streets. While there are plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops, they are likely to be a little more touristy than other districts. However, what it lacks in charm, it certainly makes up for with convenience. From here you have easy walking access to attractions such as the gothic quarter and La Rambla.

Our 19-year-old daughter chose this spot as her base on her week-long solo visit to Barcelona, and she said she felt safe late at night and comfortable eating alone here. She booked a guest house called APTBCN Super Balmes that had private rooms but shared communal areas and was not much more expensive than a hostel. It was clean, well organised and very close to everything. I plan to book it next time.

How to get from the airport to the city

Most flights to Barcelona land at El Prat Airport which is just under 20km from the centre of town. Depending on the type of transfer you choose, this will take between 30-60 minutes.

On our last visit, we took the metro. We were staying in Eixample and quite close to one of the metro stops, Zona Universitaria, so it was a good choice for us, but if you are staying in the Gothic Quarter or La Ramba, this would not be at all convenient. In this case, you would be better off catching the train. It stops at Barcelona Sants, Passeig de Gràcia or Clot and is a little cheaper than the bus. If you have a Barcelona Card, it is included on that.

Our daughter recently caught the AeroBus express bus back to the airport from Plaza Catalunya. The trip is quite affordable (under €6), but you do need to know which terminal you are flying from before you board. There are two different buses, one to each terminal and getting the wrong one will cost you at least half an hour to transfer between terminals.

A taxi will cost you about €35, but if you have a late or early arrival or lots of bags, this seems like money well spent. Barcelona now also a couple of rideshare services one is called Free Now, which will save you about 20% on regular fares and has some good discounts for first-time users. There is a designated pick up area for rideshare so follow the signs.

How to get around Barcelona

During your stay in Barcelona, at one point or another, you will definitely want to use public transport for its ease and convenience. We found it really easy to navigate and used buses and trains several times with no fuss.

Barcelona Metro Spain
Public transport is included on the Barcelona Card or buy a T10 ticket

Simply purchase a T10 ticket, which allows you ten trips throughout the city on the metro, tram, bus and train. The cost is approximately € 11.00. If you don’t think you’ll use all ten rides, you can also buy a 1-day ticket which can be purchased at any metro station.

Like all big cities around the world, Barcelona has the iconic hop-on-hop-off double-decker buses that cruise past all of the hit list places.

Are you heading to Seville? Check out our guide for three days of food and fun.

Things to see in Barcelona – how to fill your itinerary

We did all of these things in our five days in Barcelona and still had plenty of time for people watching and drinking vermouth cocktails!

La Rambla

A visit to Barcelona is not complete without a visit to the famous 1.2km long boulevard, La Rambla. This broad walkway is free of traffic but full of action, most of it not worth your time or money. Expect to see street performers galore, souvenir shops and restaurants and bars aplenty.

La Rambla is the most touristy part of Barcelona, but it can be charming at dawn.

I was not a huge fan of this part of town although we did find ourselves there a few times to collect tickets and make our way to the Gothic Quarter, churches and museums.

My biggest bit of advice when exploring Barcelona with your camera is to look up, and La Ramba is no exception. So many of the buildings have stunning feature pieces like this one on the House of Umbrellas not far from the market.

Casa Bruno Cuadros) building on La Rambla. Catalonia, Spain.
A Chinese dragon on House of Umbrellas aka Casa Bruno Cuadros

La Boquería

Just off La Rambla, you will find this huge public food market, the perfect place for a snack of Spanish jamón ibérico (cured ham), bread and cheese, a typical type of tapas.

Meat in La Boqueria Market Barcelona
For us this market was all about the meat – they sell it in handy cones great for snacking

Even if you’re not hungry, enjoy wandering the stalls of one of the oldest markets in Barcelona. Types of stalls include meats, seafood, cheese, fruit, wine and bread. They sell paper cones of shaved meats for a few euro that are perfect to snack on while you explore the rest of the market.

Where: La Rambla, 91, 08001 Barcelona
When: 8am-8:30pm Closed Sundays
Getting there: The nearest metro is Liceu or its an 8-minute walk from Plaza Catalunya. Cafe con Hielo – Coffee with ice

Fancy a coffee order a Cafe con leche – Flat white or a Cafe con Hielo – Coffee with ice.

Gothic Quarter

Barcelona’s old gothic quarter is filled with narrow, winding streets and beautiful historic buildings. It dates back to the Romans, but you’ll see mostly medieval and 19th-20th-century buildings.

Sandalmans europe walking tour barcelona

The area also has numerous attractions worth seeing such as the Barcelona history museum, the grand royal palace and the Barcelona cathedral. Given the gothic quarter is closed for traffic, the best way to explore this part of the city is without a doubt on foot.

We decided to join the Sandelman’s tour for a crash course in the history of the city. It was our first day in Spain and a great way to start.

Passeig de Gràcia

This major 1.5km thoroughfare in downtown connects the hustle and bustle of the city centre with the trendy barrio of Gràcia. You will no doubt find yourself here to explore the stunning Gaudi architecture and shoppers will also love the well-known luxury fashion brands.

I suggest you want the full length from Plaza Catalunya, the buildings are just beautiful. Pop into El Nacional, a bar and restaurant just near Uniqlo, the inside is stunning, it made my camera very happy.

Casa Lleó Morera Barcelona Spain
I can imagine sitting with my coffee by this window watching the street life!

Also check out Casa Lleó Morera (above) on the corner of Carrer del Consell de Cent. This was a private home built for Domènech Montaner in the early 1900s. I think it is every bit as stunning as the Gaudi work.

Park Güell

Park Güell, one of Spain’s World Heritage sites, was initially designed to be a housing estate. Two of 60 planned houses were completed and when sales did not ensue the project halted and eventually Gaudi worked on the garden complex we have today.

The tiling at Park Güell is amazing!

Park Guell is enormous, and you can visit much of the park for free; however, the part you are here to see, the monumental zone, which takes about 5% of the area is ticketed.

Features that you will be impressed by include the giant sea serpent and gingerbread looking architecture surrounding the front entrance.

Continue along to see the colourful structures unfold with plenty of mosaic tiles adorning most benches and pillars. The park also offers excellent views of the city and its surrounds.

Tips for visiting Park Guell

  • Book your tickets in advance, only 400 visitors are allowed to enter every hour. Your tickets will allow you to enter during a 30-minute window and if you are late you miss out!
  • Tickets sold online are $1 cheaper
  • If you can manage a sunrise or sunset visit, you will be rewarded with beautiful light
  • Avoid visiting after lunch when crowds peak.
  • There are three entry points into the monumental zone. We recommend Plaça de la Natura as its much quieter, and you are walking downhill.
  • If you have trouble walking the entry called Sant Josep de la Muntanya has escalators which will save your legs.
  • Food is not great here, so hit up the local markets after your visit.

If you think the two buildings at the entry look a bit Hansel and Gretel it’s because that is what Gaudi modelled them on.

Where: Carmel Hill, Gracia, Barcelona
When: Between 7:30am-8:30am and 5:30pm-7:30pm depending on season
How: Prebook your ticket for the time you want to enter.
Getting there: Bus 24 or 32 from Plaza Catalunya will drop you at the gate. There is also a free shuttle from Alfons X (L4) metro station for ticket holders. Bus 92 travels from Sagrada Familia to the park.

Book your Park Guell Tickets in advance to secure the best times

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is Gaudi’s most impressive piece of work. Famous the world over for being the church that after 100 years (and then some) has still not been completed.

Sagrada Familia is still under construction

The church merges inspiration from man, nature, and religion in its detailed architecture. La Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and is projected to be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

You can choose to just check out the church from the outside, but honestly, I think that is a mistake. This is not just another church, this is something you can’t really describe.

Gaudi was killed in a road accident in 1926 and is buried inside his masterpiece.

If you decide to go inside your next decision is whether or not to go up the towers. We didn’t, the tower ticket is twice as expensive, and we were on a very long trip so watching our money.

Tips for visiting La Sagrada Familia

  • If you can visit first thing on a Monday, you will find the church at its quietest.
  • If you don’t mind crowds then visit at sunset, we did, and it was amazing. Gaudi designed the windows to take advantage of the beautiful light.
  • Don’t risk not booking in advance – unless its the dead of the low season you may miss out. Our friends missed out twice!
  • If you do miss out, then there is still a chance you can get in by booking one of the longer tours.
  • Book a guided tour and arrive at least 15 minutes early. This is one place you will not regret taking a tour. If your budget won’t stretch then at least get the audio guide.
  • Make sure you dress appropriately. This means covering your shoulders, back and midriff. Avoid plunging necklines, and anything see-through.
  • You can try to visit for free by attending mass, if you choose to do this you need to be at the church by 8am and queue to get in. Please be respectful of those who are here to pray if you are not catholic. While you do get inside, it is not full access, and you may be disappointed.
Sunset in the sagrada familia
Our visit in early October at sunset

Where: Carrer de Mallorca, 401, 08013 Barcelona
When: 9am – 6pm / Sunday 10:30am-6pm
How: Prebook your ticket
Getting there:

Choose one of these Sagrada Familia Tickets

Casa Mila (also called Casa La Pedrera)

With a façade of limestone, the Casa Mila, also known as “La Pedrera” (the stone quarry) was completed by Gaudi in 1910. The Casa Mila is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, said to be a masterpiece of nature as the building represents features drawn from the natural world.

La Pedera Gaudi
With so many Gaudi buildings it can be hard to choose which ones to visit

The rooftop is a beautiful place to enjoy the view with a drink and a bite to eat. I really enjoyed the Pedrera Apartments, which allow you to see the design and furnishings of the 1920s. There are many people still living in these apartments, imagine living in a Gaudi building, I am so jealous!

Scenes from the movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona were filmed on the roof of Casa Mila.

The building attracts up to 3000 visitors a day, so this is another spot that having a ticket in advance can be a great idea. If you visit in high season, it’s a must. At other times an early morning arrival might be a good idea if you don’t have a ticket.

Tips for visiting Casa Mila

  • If your schedule is busy, you can visit Casa Mila in the evening.
  • The day tour is my preference because you can see more from the roof in the daylight
  • Book the first tour of the day if you can and head straight to the roof for the best photography opportunities of the 28 chimneys.
  • If you are really serious about photography, you might want to book the special pre-opening hour’s small group tour.

Where: Passeig de Gràcia, 92, 
When: 9am- 6:30pm & 7pm-9pm
How: Prebook your ticket
Getting there: Lines 3 and 5, estació Diagonal stop nearby.

Choose from these Casa Mila tours

Casa Batlló

Another Gaudí creation, the Casa Batlló was heavy influenced by the Art Nouveau style with gorgeous balconies on the façade, built in 1877. The facade was decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles, and the roof is shaped like the back of a dragon.

Inside, you’ll be immersed in an underwater world, with references to marine life and in colour’s similar to natural coral.  

Casa Batlló is nicknamed the House of Bones

We did the augmented reality video guide, and I highly recommend it.

Tips for visiting Casa Batlló

  • You might be sensing a theme by now, but this is another site best visited early in the day. Lots of people sleep late in Spain, so if you are up early, you get a lot more space to yourself here.
  • If you can time it with your visit check for the 8pm tour with a rooftop concert.
  • This is another site that is generally cheaper to book online.

Where: Passeig de Gràcia 43,
When: 9am – 9pm
How: Prebook your ticket
Getting there: The closest metro is Passeig de Gràcia

Montjuïc Castle

If you’re looking for the most beautiful, extensive view of Barcelona and its surrounds, the Montjuïc Castle is a great place to start. Montjuïc is one of three mountains in Barcelona and holds a lot of history given the castle was originally built to protect the port of Barcelona.

Tips for visiting Montjuïc Castle

  • Free English guided tours are offered at 11am and 3pm
  • Entrance is free every Sunday after 15:00 
  • Art lovers might want to visit the nearby Joan Miró Foundation
  • Photographers will love the 360-degree views

Where: Ctra. de Montjuïc, 66, 08038 Barcelona
When: 10am – 8pm
Getting there: We suggest you take the cable car from Barceloneta, but you could also choose to take the #150 which stops at the castle (the cheapest) or the metro to Paral·lel Station, and the funicular.

The Magic Fountains

Located within the Montjuïc barrio, the Magic Fountains are one of Barcelona’s most impressive attractions. This free show combines water, light and water jets to display a hypnotising light show of dancing fountains. The light and water elements are carefully choreographed to classical and contemporary music that last about 20 minutes every night.

Magic Fountain Barcelona
Magic Fountain light show at night next to the National Museum in Barcelona, Spain

Tips for visiting the Magic Fountains

  • If you visit between Jan and the beginning of March you will miss out. The fountain is closed for annual maintenance in winter.
  • Get there early if you want a seat on the steps. The show lasts about 20 minutes.

Where: Plaça de Carles Buïgas, 1,
When: between April and May the show is Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. From the 1st of April to the 31st of May: it moves to 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. In the summer it jumps to 10pm and 10:30pm and there is an extra show on Wed.
Getting there: Take the metro to Espanya or bus 55

Experiences not to miss in Barcelona

Watch a football game

We were lucky on our recent visit to get to watch Barcelona play Manchester City. Sitting in the crowd at Camp Nou is something I will never forget, and I am far from a sports fan. The atmosphere would be appreciated by anyone, and I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

I bought the tickets for the game for Charles, but I loved it too!

We purchased our tickets a few months in advance and picked them up on arrival. Be very careful only to buy your tickets from the authorized seller.

If you can’t get to a game football (soccer) fans will still enjoy the Camp Nou Experience. It can be hard to schedule both as the museum is closed for all or much of the day when games are on. This tour with a sports journalist would make a great gift for a die-hard sports fan

Where: C. d’Arístides Maillol, 12, 08028
When: Check the schedule for games or book a tour
Getting there: We took the metro from Zona Universitària to Palau Reial and from there it is a 500m walk.

Join a tapas tour

Whether you join a tour or do a self-guided one based on research, the earlier you learn the delights of Spanish food the better. We ended up on this Sandlemans tapas tour and really enjoyed it. It’s very affordable, and we left with a list of places to check out for the rest of the week.

Eat all the tapas you can!
Booking.com

Staying longer? Check our these 8 easy day tours from Barelona that you can do by public transport

Have a question about something here? Want advice for planning your own visit? Head to our Facebook page and we will do our best to help.

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