After two short visits to Seville and Madrid, we booked five days in Barcelona. The city has always received rave reviews from friends and family, so we wanted to give ourselves time to explore.
We booked an Airbnb in Vila de Gracia, the main core of Old Town. More narrow, cobbled streets with tiny sidewalks and itty bitty local shops. The apartment was fifty shades of beige and full of tired Ikea furniture, but had good wifi, air conditioning, and a washing machine (our three top amenities of choice) so we were pleased.
We took a quick spin around the neighborhood to get our bearings, had some tapas at a little sidewalk cafe, did a grocery shop (I giddily picked out fresh cherries and donut peaches while Patrick laughed at the local cereals), and returned to our apartment to relax for a quiet evening in.
Around 6pm we heard a small bang, then another, and another, and another. They sounded like little explosions, like a small car backfiring. We poked our heads outside and saw a group of boys, roughly 8-10 years old, lighting off pocket-sized fireworks and throwing them at each other. Nearby, a bench was filled with uninterested, chain-smoking parents. Huh. This delightful dodge-the-fireworks game continued for the next three hours. And then again, every night we were there.
One of Barcelona’s many attractions is the famous architectural works of Antoni Gaudí. If you’re unfamiliar please spend a minute or two reading about him – his inventions, style, and body of work are incredible. As you’ll see, photos of his buildings are kind of incomprehensible. They need to be seen in person to be understood. So my first stop on my self-guided Gaudí tour was his magnum opus – the Sagrada Família. This massive, towering Gothic/Art Noveau church is one of the most incredible architectural undertakings in the history of the world. I don’t know enough about church design to describe how insane this building is, so you’ll just have to go to Barcelona and see it. And it’s not even finished! They broke ground in 1882, and 134 years later are still working on it. They hope to have it completed in 2026 – 100 years after Gaudí’s ridiculous death (he was hit by a tram, no one knew who he was so he didn’t receive immediate medical attention, and when someone finally identified him, it was too late).
I felt excited, uneasy, and anxious as I walked towards the church. It is just so massive and complex it’s very existence seems to defy reality. As I walked through the doors I felt like I needed to be quiet, like I was walking into the Cave of Wonders, and at any moment the lion’s mouth could close and trap me inside forever.
The building felt alive, like it was growing and breathing, a sleeping giant made of stone and glass. I was in love, I was in shock, I was in awe.
I circled the ground floor multiple times, trying to take in all the details. I took an elevator up the tower on the Nativity Facade and took in the sights of the city from above.
Then I began the slow climb down the endless, narrow spiraling stairs to the ground floor.
There isn’t an inside wall or handrail to keep you from falling down the center spiral of the stairs, so it’s quite a stomach-lurching experience. One of the coolest experiences of the trip by far.
After my religious experience I met up with Patrick at Restaurante Gut. A tiny lunch spot specializing in organic/vegetarian/vegan food. The place was filled with locals (which felt awesome) and our food was delicious and cheap. Win win.
After our healthy lunch we indulged in some delicious cinnamon rolls from Sil’s Cakes – an American-style bakery specializing in ridiculous American-themed cakes (ie. Oreo cheesecake), and iced coffees from Syra Coffee. The coffee at Syra was so good we went back at least once every single day.
Still riding my high from the Sagrada Familia I needed another hit of Gaudí. I visited La Pedrera, and then Casa Batlló – two of Gaudí’s famous apartment buildings. Seeing how this genius’ building style translated between the Sagrada Familia and residential buildings was incredible.
The spaces were etherial and strange, but everything just made sense. The attic of La Pedrera has been transformed into a Gaudí museum, explaining his process, showing his architectural models, and sources of inspiration. I was in heaven. I was so high I bought an architecture textbook.
I met back up with Patrick at Cal Boter, a no-nonsense traditional Catalonian restaurant down the street from our apartment. We had gazpacho, grilled corn, roasted artichokes, black Catalan sausage, and a bottle of rioja. The staff laughed along with our bad Spanish, and everything was delicious. I was even able to contribute a leftover Moroccan dirham note to their wall of foreign money. Awesome evening.
The next two days were filled by casually wandering the streets and exploring the city. A few of our highlights were:
Passeig de Gràcia – The main shopping street in Barcelona. It’s super wide with trees and fountains down the center, and every high0end retail store you could ever need. One afternoon a vandal tagged the fronts of a number of stores which caused quite a stir.
Barcelona Cathedral – Open since 1420. As Patrick pointed out, ” That’s 350 years older than your country!”. The gothic exterior is really impressive.
Waterfront – Walking along the waterfront was a nice break from the crowded streets. We saw the Ulysses, Graeme Hart’s (richest man in New Zealand) 351-ft super yacht. It made all the other yachts in the harbor look like row boats. [Just learned he put it up for sale in July for $195m to make way for his new 380-ft yacht?!]
Arc de Triomf – Hey did you guys know there’s an Arc de Triomf in Barcelona? Neither did we! We were walking through the park and saw it and had one of those all too common which-city-are-we-in moments.
Qu Qu – The Passeig de Gràcia has tons of sidewalks cafes where you can spend the afternoon munching on tapas and drinking goblets of sangria. We settled in at Qu Qu and spent a few hours people-watching. Super fun.
Picasso Museum – We went on free-admission day which was great because we saved $25 on tickets, but the place was PACKED with a rowdy crowd. Museum etiquitte went out the window as people were talking loudly, bumping into other patrons, and taking tons of selfies in front of the art. Seeing all 58 pieces of his Las Meninas series next to each other was super cool.
Toto – Totally gorgeous restaurant with totally underwhelming food. Skip dinner and just grab a drink at the bar so you can enjoy the ambiance.
Lo Pinyol -We loved this very hip, teeny tiny, restaurant. We sat on little stools around a small table, crammed in with a bunch of other people sitting around small tables, enjoying wave after wave of tapas. Patatas bravas, stuffed olives, empanadillas, salted cod with tomatoes, padrón peppers, tortilla española, and more delicious rioja. I highly recommend this place
Kibuka Sushi– Wanting a little break from tapas we went to this great, authentic Japanese restaurant. Everything was delicious, it was packed with locals, and the ambiance was super chill and relaxed. Loved this place.
We really liked Barcelona but it wasn’t one of our favorite cities. Seville and Madrid seemed to have much stronger cultural identities. Barcelona felt a little too westernized – a little too generic. Definitely fun to visit, but I’d return to Seville before Barcelona.