Barcelona, a Neighbourhood Guide

Some cities have looks, others have personality. With grunge architecture and grey-stone walls covered in graffiti, Barcelona isn't the prettiest city on earth. The gothic and medieval influence of the dark ages made it a little… well… dark.

But looks aren’t everything, and with a personality this big and beautiful, I fell in love with Barcelona’s cramped streets and monochromatic facades. Because the colour of this city – it comes alive in its people, in the markets brimming with perfectly stacked fruit, in musicians dancing and singing on street corners and plazas, in pitchers of red sangria filled with fresh fruit, in the trees that canopy and shade pedestrian-only promenades. 

With only 3 days in the city, Mom and I made the most of it by walking a combined 40 km. We were exhausted by the end of each day, but we managed to get a taste of so many unique and wonderful neighbourhoods. Here are (in my very inexperienced and humble opinion), the not to be missed sights and experiences in Barcelona, sorted by neighbourhood.

Get Lost in the Gothic Quarter

This is where most tourists are headquartered when they come to Barcelona. Even if their accommodation isn’t in the neighbourhood, all visitors end up here at one point or another. La Rambla, the infamous street which borders the neighbourhood to the west, is filled to the brim with tourist trap restaurants and tourist trap souvenir shops. But once we ventured into the maze of streets just to the west, we found more than a few gems, like the Craft Barcelona bar stocked full with craft beers. 

There's a reason the top sights in a city are the top, so Mom and I headed to the Cathedral, a massive building that's somehow been squeezed into the Gothic Quarter. From La Rambla, we took streets that curved left and right and left, until we finally turned one corner and were faced with this impressive architecture.

As beautiful as it is inside and out, the best part of the cathedral is the top. Heading out onto the roof, we sat back and soaked in the views, looking at the dazzling rooftops and maze-like streets below and getting up close and personal with the intricate architecture on the bell tower.

After the Cathedral, we wove through the tiny streets and travelled back in time to the Temple d'August, a Roman temple built in 1 AD. It's in a very tight and small space, so it was crowded with tourists and visitors. Despite that, there was a very reverent and serene mood, perhaps influenced by the gentle green paint and soaring ages-old columns. 

Thought it's mostly a maze of streets and alleys, there's still a few open-air spaces in the Gothic Quarter. And where there's a patio, there's a me (and my mom). We took little breaks both at Placa Rei and Placa Reial, which is one of the most beautiful squares I've ever sat in. Since open air drinking isn't really allowed in Canada (unless you're in a small fenced in area that's part of a restaurant), it felt so exciting and free to be able to buy a can of cider and sit down – legally!

Spend a Laid-Back Evening in Raval

On the other side of La Rambla is the Gothic Quarter's dingier, down-to-earth, less polished sister. In recent times, it's been cleaned up a bit, but I still saw a marked difference. Less sunlight streaming in. Narrower and dirtier streets. A multi-cultural population. Second-rate tourist stores. And of course, one of the most famous markets in the world – La Boqueria

Pushing past hordes of crowds in the market's alleys felt like the Hunger Games, partly because we ourselves were hungry and desperate for food. Overwhelmed by the amount of choice and having absolutely no idea where to go, we ended up at a seafood joint that was either mediocre or just me not liking paella. Mom seemed pretty happy with it though, and we did have wonderful ambient music our entire meal. 

El Raval is a popular place for locals to go out at night. There's tons of bars and restaurants squeezed in side by side, and the hordes of tourists that we walked through earlier in the day are comfortably left behind on the other side of La Rambla. 

Walking by this plaza, a group of young people on the right invited me to join them for a beer. Haha. The locals really are friendly! 

The best way to end the night is to tuck into a bar and order a glass of sangria (or two). The way I usually pick places to go (when I have no prior idea) is to see how many locals are there. If it's busy and loud and well priced, we have a winner, and I'm headed that way!

Enjoy Nature and Architecture in El Born

Just east of the Gothic Quarter is the stunning, artistic, and tree-filled neighbourhood of El Born. Its known for its museums, art galleries, theatres, and a few surprises along the way – like this insanely narrow building! It was barely six feet across! 

Most people come to this area to see the Pablo Picasso Museum – which we had planned on doing as well. But as soon as I saw the "No Photos Allowed" sign, I noped on out of there (after thoroughly perusing the art store and taking photos of the inside area which thankfully was allowed). It's set across five historic mansions, beautifully restored and maintained. 

Another gem in El Born is the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. Hidden amongst squeezed-tight facades, I honestly would have missed this church if I hadn't had known to look for it. From the outside it might not seem like much, but inside, it’s a feat of gothic architecture, with a distinctly open and soaring interior.

Passeig del Born, with its towering leafy trees and locals lounging on the cobblestoned sidewalks, is as pretty a street as streets get. Had we not already eaten, we would have gladly milled about for a couple minutes with a coffee and pastry, joining all the other Barcelonans already doing the same.

Bordering El Born on the east side is the Parc de la Ciutedella, with towering trees and a central lake filled with swans, ducks, and rowboats. Water is a central feature of the park, and even the fanciest of fountains are enjoyed by dogs that are let off leash, freely splashing around.

Go to the Beach, Beach, Go Get Away in Barceloneta

Barcelona is a city that truly has everything – even a beach. It’s not the whitest sand or the clearest water, but tourists (in swimsuits) and locals (mostly topless, regardless of age) still love to come and relax by the ocean.

Mom and I didn’t have enough time to lay on the beach, so we strolled along the boardwalk instead and grabbed some food at the incredibly popular Bo de B and drinks (of course) at a beach bar. I’ve heard/read that the farther along you go on the beach, the less crowds there are and the better it is. Next time I’m in Barcelona, I’m scheduling in an entire beach day or two under the sun.

But, less time on the beach meant more time to devote to something else – in this case, standing in line for the infamous Port Vell Aerial Tramway that takes you up to Montjuic. Mom and I ended up standing in the peak midday Spanish sun for an hour, because although the line wasn’t long, the two trams can only fit 20 people at a time.

It’s important to note that since they cram so many people into each tram, not everyone gets an optimal view. We even skipped a tram and decided to take the next one so that we would be at the front of the line and could pick the best spot to stand. What’s waiting five more minutes when you’ve already been waiting an hour?

The only part of Montjuic we saw was from where the tram dropped us off to the bottom of the hill. Mom and I were exhausted after walking around the entire city and couldn’t wait to get back to our cozy guesthouse. If we had an endless storage tank of energy, I would have loved to explore more of the mountain and stay for the infamous Magic Fountain show that happens in the evening.

Treat Yourself to the Best Meal (ever) in Saint Antoni

There’s the Sagrada Familia, the beach, Park Guell, and a giant list of things to look forward to in Barcelona – but I didn’t care much for them. The one and only thing that was on my mind en route to the city was Tickets, Ferran and Albert Adria's restaurant venture since El Bulli has closed down.

Looking back on my trip now, I can point to this night as the highlight of my time in Spain. Specializing in tapas-style food that is meant to surprise as much as delight, I’ve never been happier eating than during our 3 hour dinner here.

Essentially, each plate is meant to upset your expectations. It may look like watermelon slices, but it’s sangria infused tomatoes. Every dish has not just one flavour, but literally a million –sweet and sour and bitter and warm and cold, not all at once, but each facet revealing itself one second to the next as you bite, chew, and swallow.

Reservations open up 2 months in advance exactly at midnight. I used 4 different browser windows and 2 computers, constantly refreshing the page to get a spot for Mom and I. Thankfully, it worked, and we were lucky enough to experience the best meal I’ve eaten to date. The only downside is that for the rest of the trip, I was comparing all the food to Tickets hoping for the same!

Live Like a Local in Gracia

I’ve saved the best for second last in this blog post – the family-friendly, boutique-laden, plaza-filled neighbourhood of Gracia. I highly recommend spending at least an afternoon, if not basing your entire stay, here in this picturesque place.

A departure from the grey stone and claustrophobic alleys of the Gothic Quarter, Gracia’s buildings are washed in warm autumn hues, yellows and oranges and bright reds. Vintage stores and independent cafes can be found within its streets, while higher end boutiques find their home along the main street, Carrer Gran de Gracia.  

Mom and I walked from plaza to plaza, stopping to sit and admire each one. Children were riding their bicycles and tricycles. Parents were sitting nearby for an afternoon drink. Shopkeepers smiled and posed for photos and sent us off with a bag of free treats. 

We had coffee + food at two different but both wonderful places which I highly recommend – La Pasticceriadi Gracia and Onna Coffee BCN. The former is where we befriended a barista who gave us free samples, engaging conversation, and that free bag of treats. At the latter, we enjoyed iced tea and homemade pizza when hunger hit during siesta time. We were lucky to have found a place that was still serving food!

The beach, the Gothic Quarter, El Born, the park – they made me like Barcelona. But Gracia? Gracia made me fall in love with it.  

Admire Gaudi’s Art ­All Over the City  

Barcelona wouldn’t be Barcelona without the influence of one (now infamous) artist, Gaudi. His reach spans almost the entire city, and the sights that are on every traveler’s Barcelona bucket list are his creations. Born in 1852, Gaudi’s architecture was inspired by nature, which is obvious in his curved lines, colourful design, and eclectic decorations.

Cascada (which was unfortunately under repair on the day we went) is a monolithic cornerstone in Parc de la Ciutadella. I can only imagine it’s a million times more stunning with thundering water streaming down its sides. Josep Fontsere technically was the lead designer, since Gaudi was only an architecture student at the time this was built, but it’s still got his stamp on it, and it’s still worth seeing.

After his graduation, Gaudi’s first work was lampposts for Placa Reial. With six arms and an intricate design, they’re certainly some of the most interesting lights I’ve ever seen!

Walking up from La Rambla to the next major street – Passeig de Gracia – we passed two more prominent Gaudi pieces, the Casa Batllo and Casa Mila. Both were privately commissioned by the homeowners themselves. Casa Batllo is famous for its skull balconies and bone-shaped columns. It’s spectacular but also a little bit… creepy. Look real close at those balconies on the second house from the right. 

The Casa Mila’s design takes advantage of its corner lot position. It’s just as pretty as the majestic mountain with snow cascading down it that it’s supposed to be inspired by.

Although it’s a major tourist sight now, Parc Guell was considered a failure because it never lived up to what it was supposed to be – a residential estate with 60 luxury family homes, a market, a plaza, and everything its residents needed. Not a single house was sold in the community (except for the one that Gaudi bought for himself and his family) and it was converted into a park for the public to enjoy the creations that Gaudi did manage to create – a serpentine bench, a beautiful staircase centered with an iconic lizard, a large open air room decorated with playful ceiling tiles.

Upuntil a few years ago, entrance to the park and all of its buildings was free. But since 2013, it's turned into a tourist smorgasbord. It's impossible to get a photo of the famous Gaudi lizard without other people shoving (rudely) into your frame. Entrance to his houses isn't included in the general entrance ticket, either, so more money and more time spent in a line are required. 

I've purposely left this sight for last. It's the magnus opum, the swan song, the grand finale of Gaudi’s work that hasn’t even yet seen its finale. The incredibly famous, incredibly beautiful, incredibly expensive and long project – the Sagrada Familia.

It’s been in construction for 134 years now, and the plan is to complete it on the centenary of Gaudi’s death, which would be in 2026. That’s only TEN years from now, which is insane, because it looks like there’s still a lot of work to be completed, including the most difficult part, the very tall central spire.

I think the cranes and construction add visual interest/intrigue, but I do hope this mega feat of human architecture is completed within my lifetime. Because even though it was incredible to see now, when it’s in its glory all finished, I’m sure it will be even more marvelous.

2, 300 words later, we’re at the end of this meant-to-be-brief-but-turned-out-quite-extensive blog post. TLDR; Barcelona is beautiful. It has many unique and interesting neighbourhoods. All of which are worth checking out.