Welcome to Barcelona! The vibrant Catalan capital offers travellers a taste of Spanish and Catalan cultures and cuisines, along with an astonishing array of historic sights dating back to Roman times. With just a little local knowledge you are certain to Love It There*
Here’s an insider’s guide to what to see in Barcelona, the best hotels in Barcelona, and the best places to eat in Barcelona. Enjoy!
According to the local government, Barcelona attracted around 12m overnight visitors in 2018 (let’s not talk about the COVID years), and the main attraction was the city’s cultural history.
Indeed UNESCO lists seven of Catalan modernist architect Antoni Gaudí’s works: Parque Güell; Palacio Güell; Casa Mila; Casa Vicens; Gaudí’s work on the Nativity façade and Crypt of La Sagrada Familia; Casa Batlló; and the Crypt in Colonia Güell. Two of his compatriot Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s works (Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau) are also listed as World Heritage sites.
But the listing can be a curse. From a tourist’s standpoint, queueing to see attractions can be an annoyance. While for locals the congestion and the cultural shift can seem nightmarish. It could feel as though the city is little more than a Disneyland for tourists.
Low impact, high enjoyment
To my mind, visiting the main sights is a double-edged sword. Yes, they do convey something about the history and culture of the city. But they don’t necessarily give you a taste of where that culture is today. I’d argue you’re going to experience that in a more meaningful way through the city’s amazing dining scene, and to think of the attractions as something to keep you occupied between meals.
Also, visiting the less popular attractions can reduce your impact as a tourist, as well as save on aggravation. The Picasso Museum is home to an impressive collection, but you will shuffle past the works in close company with a million other tourists, many of whom are there just to check a box. Meanwhile, you could enjoy Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work at MACBA and have the room pretty much to yourself.
And while Parque Güell is on the UNESCO list, I really can’t recommend a visit. There are just too many tourists, many of whom I’ve seen climb over ‘area under repair’ signs to get the best spot for a cliched Instagram sunset. If you must check a UNESCO World Heritage site off a list, buy tickets for a performance at the Palau de la Música Catalana and get two for one: a taste of culture in the form of a performance in a fabulous heritage setting. There might not be sunsets to make your Insta friends envious, but if that’s why you travel, then you have a problem.
After years of visiting and re-visiting the sights, here is my list of favourite Barcelona attractions.
With the ever-increasing number of tourists coming to Barcelona, there is an array of accommodation options available
Obviously Airbnb is a popular choice. Be aware that Barcelona has a licensing system for holiday rentals, so if you do book through a service like this please check whether the apartment is licensed. Barcelona has a struggle with over-tourism. If you book an illegal holiday rental you’re part of the problem.
Don’t be that tourist.
There are also numerous hotels in Barcelona, catering to all tastes, and to some pretty hefty budgets too! Some of them are Love It There* favorites. Read all about them here.
Barcelona may have its physical attractions, but for me food is the main one. Not just food on the plate, though that is important, but the whole dining experience. Even a casual meal here can be an occasion.
If you want to check out high-end dining, just Google it – there are loads of choices. Obviously you want to ignore everything that TripAdvisor spits up, but Michelin can be trusted for their Michelin-star recommendations (I’m generally not convinced by their cheaper suggestions in Barcelona, to be honest) and the likes of Condé Nast Traveler will offer their suggestions of the latest hot spots.
Quality and value
My focus is more on the mid-range. Firstly that’s because I really don’t want to fork out €100 or more every time I eat. And secondly because there’s so much good quality and value in the mid-range. Plus, there was a time when I worked in the lifestyle media, and I know the search for the trendiest can come at the expense of the genuine – I’m a bit too old and cynical to get sucked in by marketing exercises (see World’s 50 Best, above).
Obviously there are more restaurants in Barcelona than one boy can get to, but I have narrowed it down to the places I’d return to (and have done). I’ll add more as I go.
What I’m looking for is authenticity. That doesn’t mean traditional, necessarily, though I like to find places where locals dine. Quality – quality of produce, and in the preparation – is what I’m looking for. I know we’re in the home of molecular gastronomy, but unless it’s done really well I’d rather have a perfectly grilled red prawn without all the faff.
There’s altogether too many shoddy places set up to fleece tourists in Barcelona. I tend to avoid them (they’re pretty easy to spot), so there aren’t any of those here.
I’m looking for a local experience. With this many tourists in Barcelona you’re unlikely to find a good restaurant where you’re the only foreigner, however. Here’s the rub: the locals will even put up with tourists if the food is really good. Here are my favorites.