1 Week in Barcelona | A First Timer’s Guide
In June 2017, my family and I made our first trip to Barcelona. We had never traveled to Europe before and what attracted us to the Catalan capital was the delicious food, abundance of sights to see, and the proximity to the ocean. Reflecting back, I’ll admit that Barcelona is the perfect city to visit if you’re traveling in Europe for the first time because the city is easy to navigate, the people are friendly, and there is always something to do.
What To Expect
Before I travel to a new place, I like to read everything I can about the place I’m visiting. This usually takes place on Pinterest, which has a ton of infographics about many cities! I believe that it is important to be aware of the culture, language, and general social behavior before traveling to that city because it makes you more conscious, which determines how you carry yourself during your stay.
Some things to expect when traveling in Barcelona are:
1. Expect to walk a lot. Bring comfortable walking shoes! This generally goes for all cities in Europe. Nothing is worse than being brought down by a bloody blister on the back of your ankle. So just save yourself the pain and bring shoes you can walk all day in.
2. Learn basic phrases in Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school and college and it was super helpful during my visit. I found that the locals truly appreciate it when tourists can speak Spanish. Now, I’m not saying that you should be fluent in Spanish, but knowing basic phrases will come in handy when you visit. A side note, the locals speak with a lisp, so they’re “s’s” become “th’s”.
3. Summer time is the busiest time to visit Barcelona because everyone is on vacation. It’s tourists galore, so expect big crowds in the popular attractions such as La Sagrada Familia and the Gothic Quarter. If you’re that person that cares about getting the perfect Instagram picture, I’d highly suggest getting up early in the morning for picture taking, there will be less people out and you’ll have the best lighting.
4. In addition to walking, the best ways to get around Barcelona is to buy a bus pass from a sightseeing tour bus and/or buy a metro pass. These methods are way cheaper and more efficient than taking a taxi. I’ll go into more detail about what my family did to get around Barcelona below.
5. The concept of body shame doesn’t exist in Barcelona, so body positivity is abundant! I noticed this when I went to the beach and it was liberating to not have to worry about what other people would think of me in my swimsuit. People of all ages and genders were flaunting their beautiful selves, swimsuit optional. Everyone was just enjoying the gorgeous sunny day the afternoon I was at the beach and it was perfect.
Where to Stay
My family and I didn’t have a lot of time to plan for this trip; between the day we changed destinations and the day we took off for Barcelona, we had 12 days to plan. By the time we looked for a place to stay, every Airbnb within our budget was already booked. Luckily, we were able to find an apartment rental available within the week we were visiting.
We used Hotel.com and ended up staying in the Feelathome Apartments located in the Hostafrancs neighborhood of Barcelona. The location of the complex is ideal because it is in a relatively quiet neighborhood and is a close walk to the metro and Plaza Espana. The apartment itself is quite spacious, with two bedrooms furnished with a full-sized bed in each room. In addition to the bathroom, there is also a living room area with a pullout couch and a kitchen. One good thing to note is that this apartment is self-catering, they’ll give you a welcoming pack but if you are going to stay for more than a week or are traveling with a group, expect to buy your toiletries in the nearby shops. There also isn’t an in-house cleaning staff, so expect to dispose of your own trash.
One of the first things I noticed about the apartment is that to turn on the lights and control the heating/cooling systems, you must leave one of the key cards in the slot located right next to the front door. I’m assuming this is part of energy conservation and it was a new experience for me because I’ve never seen it in America. On our first night, we didn’t realize this and thought the lights weren’t working in the room. We must sound like total travel rookies, but I swear my family and I have traveled before! We figured it out the next day, thanks to the friendly staff at the front office!
We did have a unique situation on our second night of the stay: we got locked out of our apartment. Both our key cards weren’t working and the man that was sent by the apartment agency admitted that this had never happened before, especially since his set of keys couldn’t open the door. By sheer luck, our apartment happened to be on the top floor and right next to the roof patio entrance. The man was able to climb over the ledge and on to our balcony to open the sliding door, which we didn’t lock. This whole event happened for 2 hours well into the night. We are all so happy to get into the apartment, you would have thought it was someone’s birthday!
Overall, I would recommend staying at the Feelathome Apartments because the staff are incredibly kind and resourceful, just keep an open mind and be ready for an adventure you’ll never forget!
How to Get Around | Transportation
I’ve already mentioned it but walking really is the best way to get around in Barcelona. There are many places to see and so much to do, walking is perfect for those that want an authentic experience and live the ‘let’s get lost and explore’ vibe. Now I know that just walking isn’t practical or efficient if you want to tackle a list of sights to see in a day, so here are two surefire ways to help you navigate Barcelona:
1. Hop-on, Hop-Off Bus
As cliché as it seems, you really do get the best bang for your buck when you purchase a bus pass because you’ll see most (if not all) the places you were planning on visiting within 2 hours. Although a bus tour takes you, you aren’t required to stick with the bus the whole time. Welcome to the world of hop-on, hop-off buses my friends! Yes, with the purchase of a bus pass, you can explore as much of Barcelona as you want, at your own pace!
The hop-on, hop-off bus my family and I used was the Barcelona Bus Turistic. We purchased a two day bus pass and had access to all three lines that the tour agency offered. This worked out perfectly because we used the bus as our main transportation to see the must see attractions on our list: Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Gothic Quarter, and Casa Batllo. We visited them all on the first day of the pass and used the second day to see the places we wanted to see and to go to the beach. The bus also has a narrated guide that tourists can listen to during the ride. I’d highly recommend trying a hop-on, hop-off bus if you want to see the popular attractions, it’s too good of a bargain to pass up.
When our bus pass expired, my family and I used the T10 metro card. For 10.20 euros, the T10 card gets you to all of the tourist attractions in the city centre, also known as Zone 1. The T10 is a multi-person ticket, meaning it can be shared. It was ideal for my family since there were four of us and it was a cheaper alternative to the hop-on, hop-off bus. We used the metro to see the Arc de Triomf, walk around the Gothic Quarter and go to the beach again. If you want the authentic experience of exploring Barcelona on a budget, go with the T10 metro card.
Places to Eat
I have never experienced as unique a food culture as I have in Barcelona compared to other places I have traveled. From street food to dining at restaurants, I didn’t have one bad food experience in Barcelona. I am not a picky eater and am adventurous in my gastronomic exploration so for the picky eater’s here, you may want to take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt.
Let’s start with the bakeries in Barcelona; they are on every street corner and you will get lured in with the tantalizing aroma and view of the freshly made pastries, cakes, and breads. It’s a carb lovers heaven and rightfully so, all of the five senses are stimulated the moment you step into a bakery. The bakery my family often frequented to get our breakfast was the Granier Panes Artesanos. The location was steps away from our home base and it was perfect. The elderly woman that helped the first time remembered our eager, blissful faces and our orders in the following days of our stay. Everything in that bakery is delicious, so I can’t really choose favorites! I miss that bakery every single day.
The food culture in Barcelona is very diverse, with influences from different cultures. This much variety allows the possibility to find amazing places to eat at every budget. With that said, I don’t have any restaurant recommendations because I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Barcelona to have a list. Coming from an American that visited Barcelona the first time, just the novelty of experiencing something different, like eating freshly made churros con chocolate and trying jamón ibérico at a local shop, was more than enough to satisfy my taste buds. At that point, I didn’t really care if we ate at a highly rated restaurant. The food is amazing all around, so don’t be afraid to explore the endless options!
Sights To See
Now on to the highly anticipated part: sites to visit in Barcelona that are worth your time and money to see. Here is my top five favorite places to see in Barcelona:
1. Sagrada Familia
Perhaps the most popular attraction in Barcelona and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antoni Gaudí’s grand vision is the world’s largest unfinished Roman Catholic church. Gaudí took over the construction as chief architect in 1883 and devoted the rest of his life to build his gothic vision to life. Work on Sagrada Familia continues, with millions of people visiting each year. It is predicted that Sagrada Familia will be completed in 2026, which is the centennial anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
How to get there: Depending on your base in Barcelona, walking to the basilica is an option. My family and I took the hop on, hop off bus to Sagrada Familia.
What to expect: If you want to enter Sagrada Familia, you must purchase tickets prior to visiting, as they have scheduled times to go inside. Various ticket options are offered, such as guided tours, audio tours, etc. The basic ticket option (no tour, just ticket) is 15 euros per person. The best time to go is early in the morning, ideally when the basilica is open to the public. If you are looking to shoot amazing pictures, go before the sun rises because the lighting will be perfect and there will be less people.
Why is it worth seeing? I truly believe Sagrada Familia is worth seeing because being inside the basilica is a unique experience. I did admire the architecture, but what honestly took my breath away was how the stained glass lit the interior. I enjoyed capturing the light at many different angles and just taking it all in. What I regret is visiting around 1pm, which is has the largest crowds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing Sagrada Familia in all its wonder and hope to visit again!
2. Park Güell
This is the most beautiful public park I ever been to. The park is home to stunning gardens and Catalan modernist architecture designed by Gaudí; it sits on top of Barcelona’s Carmen Hill. Park Güell was built from 1900-1914 and opened in 1926; in 1984, UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site.
How to get there: My family and I took the hop on, hop off bus and walked about 10 minutes to the entrance of the park. It is important to note that it is a hilly walk, so if you or the people you are traveling with are older and/or injured in some way, a better option is to take a public bus that will drop you off at the entrance.
What to expect: My family and I visited on a Sunday, so the park entrance fee was not enforced. However, to go down to the lower levels to see the miniature city of houses built, you must purchase tickets in advance. The tickets are 8 euros for adults and 5.60 euros for children and access is sectioned in half hour increments. Expect large crowds as the park sees 4 million visitors each year. My family and I didn’t get to explore the interior of the mini houses, so we walked throughout the rest of the park instead. My favorite part was walking through the hallway that is lined by 86 stone columns. We were pleasantly surprised by the street musicians performing in the hallway. Expect to have your camera and phones ready to take pictures because every aspect of the park is Instagram/Snapchat worthy!
Why is it worth seeing? Park Güell is worth the visit because you’ll experience a different perspective of Gaudí’s work. The park is an art-full and inimitable marriage between modernism and nature. It is the perfect place to destress and experience nature and gorgeous architecture simultaneously!
3. Font Màgica
Also known as the Magic Fountain of Montjüic, this grand fountain puts all other water fountain shows to shame. Disney’s World of Color water show and the Venetian water fountain show pale in comparison to Font Mágica. Built in 1929 for the International Exhibition, the largest ornamental fountain displays music, water play, and lights on a grand scale. When in full effect, Font Mágica emits 50 shades and hues that are choreographed to the music playing.
How to get there: The fountain is located just below the Palau Nacional and is within walking distance of Plaza Espanya. Taking the bus, metro, and walking are all efficient options. If you are staying in the Hostafrancs neighborhood, the fountain is a 15 minute walk away.
What to expect: Large crowds of both tourists and locals alike. The fountain is a popular site to see at night. There are street food vendors along the tree lined alley next to the fountain, so buying ice cream and/or beverages isn’t a bad idea! The music that was played the night we went to see the Magic Fountain varied in genre; from Coldplay to the Avengers theme score, seeing the water and light dance to the various tones and beats was a fun experience!
It is worth mentioning that the water fountain show is only on display Thursday-Saturday from 9pm-10pm from April 1st to May 31st and October 1st-31st. Between November 1st-March 31st, the fountain shows on Thursday-Saturday from 8pm-9pm. Currently, the fountain won’t be in show until February 16th for maintenance.
Why is it worth seeing? Because there is no other water fountain show in the world (that I’ve seen) that can even come close to the glorious wonder and awe that Font Mágica provides the people. From what I’ve read, Font Mágica is also were the Piromusical is shown during the La Mercé Festival. It takes the magic fountain to the next level by adding a fireworks display. In all, it’s something to look out for if you are planning on traveling in Barcelona!
4. Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter)
The Gothic Quarter marks the center of old city Barcelona. With its cobblestone streets and abundance of medieval landmarks and churches, it is the epitome of its namesake. The layout of the quarter is labyrinth-like, with the streets leading to squares. One can easily spend the whole day exploring the quarter!
How to get there: Metro, bus, taxi, walk.
What to expect: Large crowds near the more popular landmarks such as the Barcelona Cathedral, La Rambla, and Placa Reial. Expect to spend most of the visit walking and taking pictures. Barri Gòtic is a prime people watching spot because you’ll see all kinds of people. I’ve also been told that with Barcelona being the so-called ‘pickpocketing capital of the world’, this section of the city is popular among pickpockets due to the high volume of tourists. While I’ve fortunately been the evidence of this claim, you should always be aware of your surroundings and belongings, no matter where you are.
Why is it worth seeing? Seeing the popular medieval landmarks was nice, but what I think makes a visit to the Gothic Quarter worth it is seeing the underground Roman city. Now known as the City History Museum, the underground Roman city is located below the Barcelona Cathedral. My family and I went on a Sunday after 3pm and the entrance was free. If you like visiting museums and learning about history, I’d definitely recommend putting the City History Museum on your list!
5. Castell de Montjüic
The last place on my list and the last place I visited before returning home is the castle of Montjüic. It isn’t really a castle, but rather an old military fortress built in the 1640s. The fortress sits on top of MontjÜic hill and offers amazing views of the Barcelona. On one side you’ll see the shipping port and the Mediterranean Sea and on the other side, all of Barcelona and Mount Tibidabo.
How to get there: Metro, hill train, and/or cable car. If departing from the city centre, take the metro to station Parallel, on Green line L3. If close to Placa Espanya, you can take the scenic (longer) route and walk to the MNAC museum and keep walking up the hill. There are also buses (bus 50) along the plaza that will drop you off at the entrance of the castle.
What to expect: If going in the summer, make sure you bring a hat and sunscreen as you will be exposed to the sun when you reach the top of the fortress. Also expect to pay the entrance fee of 5 euros. There is free entrance on the first Sunday of the month and Sundays after 3pm. With the panoramic views of the city, expect to bring you cameras and wide angle lenses.
Why is it worth seeing? With the free admission and the gorgeous views, you can’t really beat that! But in all seriousness, a visit is worthwhile if you want to see Barcelona on a larger perspective. It can be helpful to visit the fortress first, that way you have visuals how you want to approach your visits to the places you want to see. A visit to the fortress at the end of your stay is also worthwhile because it’ll make you appreciate the coastal city more.
So that concludes the recap of my trip to Barcelona last summer and my guide to the beautiful, diverse, cultured city! I didn’t expect my guide to be as long as it is, so if you read through all of it, kudos to you! I truly hope you found my insight helpful in planning your trip to Barcelona. If you weren’t planning a trip prior to reading this, then I hope to have sparked an interest in the city that reawakened my love for travel!