I’ll admit that as a schoolkid you’d have had to drag me kicking and screaming to something like the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia. These days I go “oooh, I’m learning something!”
Do you know what a pontil is? I didn’t until today.
What you get here is a collection that spans Catalan history from pre-history up until around the 19thCentury. There are some highlights depending on your interests. Phoenecian and Greek ceramics do it for me. But whatever floats your boat about Mediterranean antiquity, you’re likely to find it here.
Some of it is also what sinks your boat. A beautifully-curated exhibition, “Shipwrecks: Submerged History” was a highlight when I visited in May 2023. It’s supposed to be a temporary exhibition, but I can’t find an end-date advertised.
The collection is housed in a building erected for the 1929 International Exposition. It is in a slightly out-of-the-way location near the foot of Montjuïc. But this makes it an excellent place to stop if you’re heading to any of the other attractions in the area.
Some exhibits are very close to home. Some Roman artifacts were carved from Montjuïc sandstone, quarried from what is now the Historic Botanic gardens.
This is a great museum for anyone interested in the human history of Catalonia. If you like having a museum to yourself this is a good option, though I can’t guarantee you won’t encounter a school group. Potentially kicking and screaming. Still, the staff seemed pretty excited to see us.
Ticket prices include entry to a range of archaeological sites around Catalonia, if you’re planning any trips to the countryside and want to see more.
The top 5 attractions in Barcelona are popular for a reason – there’s really nothing else like them. Or is there? For visitors wanting a unique and memorable Barcelona experience, here are its top 5 attractions, and alternatives for what to see in Barcelona for those who would prefer to avoid the crowds.
The top 5 attraction: La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona’s most popular tourist attraction saw approximately 4.5 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and you can bet that nearing La Sagrada Familia’s (supposed) completion in 2026 that is only set to increase.
Whether you think Antoni Gaudí’s cathedral is a masterpiece or not (George Orwell was famously in the latter camp) it is an impressive sight, which is why it tops so many visitors’ lists of what to see in Barcelona. Just get set for crowds.
Pros: Nothing else like it in the world
Cons: crowds; basic tickets are €26; it’s a church
The alternative: Hospital de Sant Pau
Properly known as the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, this historic hospital was designed by one of Gaudí’s contemporaries, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and built only a few blocks away from La Sagrada Familia
It may as well be another world.
This utterly spectacular piece of architecture is not only beautiful, but functional too, with innovations such as a central operating theatre with glass roof, tunnels connecting the operating theatre to the wards, and spectacular Modernista details.
Absolutely one of the best – and underrated – things to see in Barcelona.
Pros: Fewer visitors; functional architecture; you can stroll past the exterior of Sagrada Familia for your compulsory Insta snaps
Cons: Nothing, really
The top 5 attraction: Park Güell
As an attraction, Park Güell has been popular for a long time – local friends tell me they used to visit regularly as kids – but the curse of a World Heritage listing in 1984 was probably what finished that off. These days you purchase a €10 ticket for a particular time, and if you’re half an hour late, you’ve missed out.
The timing is obviously intended to smooth-out the crowds. And there are crowds.
With green space, views over the city, and some iconic Gaudí architecture like the dragon stairway, it is an Instagrammer’s dream. It started as a residential development – and failed – but now it’s a top 5 Barcelona attraction. Is it a must-see? I’m not convinced.
Pros: Views; architecture
Cons: Crowds; away from the centre of town; overrun with Instagrammers
The alternative: Parc de la Ciudad
Sure, the Parc de la Ciudad is a public park. But if you want your Gaudí fix, you can get it here for free. The monumental fountain in the park was designed by Gaudí as a university student. There are also a number of buildings dating back to the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition in various states of repair – some are being restored now – while the Arc de Triumf, which served as the entrance, is an easy stroll away.
More importantly, it’s a place that is full of locals, particularly on a sunny spring day.
So what you get is a nice park with some interesting architecture, and a slice of local life, as opposed to an attraction full of tourists.
I know which I prefer.
Pros: Free; interesting architecture; full of locals; easy stroll from El Born
Cons: No views to speak of
The top 5 attraction: Casa Battló
Another of Antoni Gaudí’s iconic designs on the lovely Passieg de Gracia, Casa Battló always attracts the crowds. You only have to see the beautiful façade to see why it is one of Barcelona’s top 5 attractions.
That it was a renovation of an existing building by Gaudí does not distract from the impressiveness of this as an attraction, but the sheer number of visitors may – there are times when it is difficult to make your way through the crowds of tourists on the wide footpath out the front.
The façade itself is worth admiring, especially if you baulk at the €35 entrance fee.
An earlier Gaudí commission than Casa Battlo, Palau Güell still manages to showcase the architect’s unique vision. Being built from scratch also imparts a wonderful insight into the lives of Barcelona’s wealthiest at the time.
It may be slightly less avant-garde than Casa Battlo, but some of the architect’s unique flourishes point in the direction his future work would take. Not only that, but with furniture in place, you get a real sense of how the building was lived in. Really it is one of the best of Barcelona’s many attractions.
The best bit? You can generally just front-up to purchase a €12 ticket without having to queue.
Pros: A genuine insight into the lives of Barcelona’s wealthiest at the time; seldom crowded
Cons: Slightly dodgy neighbourhood
The top 5 attraction: La Rambla
Who doesn’t like a tree-lined boulevard through the centre of a beautiful city? Certainly not tourists in Barcelona – La Rambla is easily one of Barcelona’s top 5 attractions, and is heaving with tourists most of the time.
Unfortunately, catering to those tourists are tacky souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants serving sickly yellow paella and sangria in beer mugs, and pickpockets looking for easy prey.
Locals tend to avoid La Rambla on all but a few days of the year, and it’s easy to understand why.
Pros: There are a few nice attractions off La Rambla
Cons: Crowds; pickpockets
The alternative: Superblocks
A project to pedestrianize some areas of Barcelona has resulted in so-called superblocks, where the roads in the space of nine city blocks carry limited traffic. One of my favourites is in Sant Antoni, particularly as much of the tree-lined Carrer del Parlament – and its lovely stretch of restaurants and bars – is inside one such area.
The advantages include quieter streets, less pollution and more life on the streets in general. Want to sit on the street and have a drink or a bite? Doing so without choking on fumes (or awful yellow paella) is something you can do here.
If you’re visiting Barcelona to get a feel for how people live, rather than checking-off tourist attractions, this is a great way to do so.
Pros: A slice of real Barcelona life; setting standards for other cities to follow
The top 5 attraction: La Boqueria Market
Having been the site of a market since the middle-ages, and with its pretty structure dating back to the mid 1800s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria in the heart of the old city is a top 5 Barcelona attraction.
There are restaurants in the market that date back years, and even some stalls that carry produce that can be difficult to find elsewhere. It is a genuine working market.
Unfortunately, it is also largely overrun with tourists. Many of the stalls at the La Rambla main entrance cater solely to tourists, and Instagrammers block the narrow passages for their compulsory ‘look at me’ snaps.
Pros: Proper working market
Cons: Absurdly crowded at times
The alternative: Mercat de Sant Antoni
The recently refurbished Mercat de Sant Antoni has almost everything that La Boqueria offers, minus the tourist crowds. Even recommending it here makes me feel guilty. But here’s a thought: wherever you are in Barcelona, there’s certain to be a market nearby.
Santa Caterina in El Born is an excellent example, but there is also a range of neighborhood markets where you’re unlikely to even see another tourist: Mercat de l’Estrella, in Gràcia, and Mercat del Ninot in Eixample are just a couple of examples.
Go there, and do yourself a favor: buy some local produce. You can support the stallholders and take home a tasty memory.
Pros: All the local produce you could want; local flavour
Cons: Opening hours can be limited
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This lovely formal garden on Montjuïc contains the official residence of the Spanish royal family, which explains why it is seldom open – you can only visit between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm on weekends or public holidays.
The royal pavilion, or Palauet Albéniz, was built for the 1929 International Exposition, and the gardens surrounding it were designed at the same time by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier.
The gardens were extended in 1970 and named after the Catalan poet Joan Maragall. They are now home to 32 sculptures dating from the 1950s to 1970, along with the original neoclassical details.
The fountains, sculptures, and tree-lined pathways are a big draw, but for me it is the serenity. You seldom have to share the park with more than a handful of other people.
Open: Saturdays, Sundays, Public Holidays 10am – 3pm
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