The top 5 Barcelona attractions, and 5 alternatives to avoid the crowds

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

La Sagrada Famila, with its unfinished spires against a blue sky and with tour buses in the foreground, is Barcelona's top tourist attraction
Yes, it is impressive, but those are tourist busses

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

Beautiful tiled roofs at the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau
Another spectacular Barcelona Modernista masterpiece, minus the thronging tourists

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

The top 15 Google image results when reaching for "Barcelona travel". Ten of them are Park Güell. Little wonder it is one of Barcelona's most-visited tourist attractions
Ten of the first 15 images if you Google “Barcelona travel” are of Park Güell. No wonder it’s busy.

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

The Monumental Fountain at the Parc de la Ciudad in Barcelona is another Gaudí creation
The Monumental Fountain in the Parc de la Ciudad is also a Gaudí creation

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 

Tourists queueing for entry at Casa Battlo, one of the top 5 Barcelona tourist attractions
Barcelona’s ‘House of Bones’ is a popular tourist attraction.

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.

Pros: Beautiful, iconic design, arguably Gaudí’s finest.

Cons: Crowds; cost

The alternative: Palau Güell

The chimneys on the Palau Güell rooftop are an indication of Gaudí's style
There’s plenty of Gaudí colour at Palau Güell, minus the crowds

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

La Rambla, in the heart of Barcelona, gets a lot of pedestrian traffic, and is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions
La Rambla is a typically pretty tree-lined boulevard in Barcelona, but it does get busy

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

Pedestrians rather than cars on the streets in Carrer del Parlament
People reclaim the streets in a Superblock

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

Cons: Nothing

The top 5 attraction: La Boqueria Market

The entrance to La Boqueria Market with tour groups gathered outside. La Boqueria is one of the top 5 tourist attractions in Barcelona
Tour groups gather at the entrance to La Boqueria Market, Barcelona

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 renovated facade of the Mercat de Sant Antoni is just a taste of its attraction

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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Camping Mar

Diners under umbrellas in the sun at Camping Mar, Barcelona
Al fresco is nice

We’re not really the camping types at LITBarcelona, but we would return to Camping Mar. The draw here is paella by the waterside. (No, it is not a camping ground – apparently the staff frequently turn away disappointed campers!)

I know paella isn’t a traditional Catalan meal, but what tourists demand, tourists get, and there are paellas in Barcelona of significantly variable quality.

What I can say is that the paellas at Camping Mar are at the higher end of that scale. There may be better offerings in town – and certainly cheaper ones – but Camping Mar remains on our list for a number of reasons.

Location is one factor. Set in a lovely open pavilion, with tables under cover or al fresco out the front overlooking a marina, you couldn’t ask for a nicer place to while away a sunny afternoon.

Squid ink cuttlefish paella and a wet crayfish paella. Nice!
Paellas are the main attraction

It is situated on the ‘wrong’ side of the W hotel, by which I mean not the side facing the beach, where another not-dissimilar outlet from the same group called Pez Vela sits. To be honest, we were at Camping Mar because Pez Vela didn’t have space when we tried to book, but it did give us a chance to try something new. And really, walking back to town after lunch was hardly a challenge. 

Service is another factor, with (in my experience) attentive and friendly wait staff on hand to look after you. This is not a place where you’ll sit on an empty glass for too long. Nice job.

The paellas

After a couple of starters we opted for a black rice with cuttlefish and artichoke, and a brothy crayfish rice (€24 and €26 per person, respectively) along with a crisp verdejo. 

Light-filled interior at Camping Mar, Barcelona
The ‘interior’ is quite pleasant too

Both paellas were big on flavour, though the cuttlefish was my preferred option. The chunks of cuttlefish were nice and tender, if a little unevenly mixed through the rice, and the flavour spoke of fresh seafood and a nice briny, umami hit from the squid ink. I’d definitely have it again. The crayfish was rich in the way you’d expect, but didn’t really shine like the cuttlefish.

But ultimately, it’s the sum of its parts that make Camping Mar: It’s a pretty location; the service is attentive; and the food is genuinely good. Enjoying it in good company made it that much nicer. It’s a long way from the cheapest paella experience in Barcelona, but it is one of the nicest.

Tel: +34 934 088 901

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Pez Vela

Glorious terrace in the Summer sun at Pez Vela in Barcelona
Lovely terrace overlooking the beach

This review may be coloured by the fact that I just had a 5.5-hour paella lunch with some friends at Pez Vela. So…

It didn’t start brilliantly. We were left standing at the entrance for five full minutes. The wait staff assured us the front-of-house person would look after us soon, but it was busy. On a Monday.

Our last visit was on a cool winter’s day, and there were no outside tables occupied, and it was cosy. The full terrace is big, and the staff do seem to struggle to cope. To be fair, this sort of seasonal staffing must be difficult to manage.

That said, our waiter had a sense of humour. Some unfizzy Aperol spritzs were returned and replaced no-questions-asked. And the vibe of the place was just lovely. I suspect we were lucky to have avoided the weekend, because from my seat I could see the poolside DJ at the W but thankfully could barely hear any muzak. Who the hell needs a poolside DJ? The W gets marked down a notch in my estimation.

The food

The meal consisted of a green salad with white asparagus, fried red prawns (a special), octopus leg, and a paella with squid, prawns and clams. A bottle of albariño made a nice accompaniment.

Fried Mediterranean prawns. Delicious.
The prawns were a special, buy oh, my, they were good

The salad was as expected, the prawns very nicely done and flavourful like only these Mediterranean prawns seem to manage, and the pulpo tender and packed with flavour too. So far so good.

The rice was actually one of the better ones I’ve had in a while – a nice saffron kick to start, and lovely umami seafood flavours. Win.

Paella ta Pez Vela in Barcelona. It may not photograph well, but it's tasty!
Not necessarily photogenic, but tasty

We finished with a more punchy verdello and a nougat ice cream and chocolate cake (described by our waiter friend as “not very exciting”!) and they were just fine. 

A few after-lunch drinks as the sun dipped towards the horizon, along with some people-watching and goal-keeping with the kids playing soccer right in front finished the day perfectly.

I can see why it’s popular, paella by the beachfront in Barcelona doesn’t get much better than this. It’s nice in the wintertime, but that terrace is just spectacular on a lovely sunny early summer’s day.

Tel: +34 932 216 317

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