Barcelona had been on my list of top 5 cities to visit (along with Istanbul, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Rio) since high school. Reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind after college only deepened my interest in the city. It was therefore somewhat natural that we made Barcelona our first destination after moving to London and made a quick 3-day trip to the north of Spain in late February.
Due to work I had no chance to look up much about the city before our visit. So ended up booking a hotel right off La Rambla, figuring it would be central to most stuff we’d like to see or do. La Rambla is one the most popular and well-known streets in Barcelona (and even Europe). Unfortunately, I have to admit it left me a bit underwhelmed. While I did love the wide tree-lined pedestrian area down the middle, the fact that it is packed with shops selling tourist souvenirs and global brand name stores, detracted from its charm for me. With Starbucks, Gap, and other brand names, alongside stores selling postcards and football scarves, it could have been Anytown, Europe.
La Rambla ended in the south at the Mediterranean, with many new and modern shops, restaurants, and entertainment options on the water. The wide open spaces were a contrast to the narrow alleys of the city.
At the northern end of La Rambla is Placa Catalunya, a wide-open plaza with fountains, greenery, and lots of pigeons. A great place for kids to run around chasing the birds and burn off some energy.
The area northeast of La Rambla is Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s famous Gothic Quarter. It is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, going every which way, and sometimes opening up onto small piazzas. It took me several hours of randomly exploring Barri Gotic to get a better sense of Barcelona. It seemed to me to be a large city made up small neighbourhoods, where people know each other. Life seemed unhurried. Art seems to be part of life, from the ornate gothic designs, to the formal sculptures here and there, to the beautiful graffiti/street art.
One thing quite evident after spending some time walking around is that Barcelona is in Catalonia first and Spain second. You can obviously tell the difference from the language, Catalan being slightly different than Spanish, but the one of the biggest clues is the fact that Catalan flags outnumber Spanish flags by a large margin, especially the pro-independence version with the single star. It’s hard not to feel for the dirtier, bohemian, rough-around-the-edges younger brother looking to get out from under the thumb of the more conservative, buttoned-down older brother that is Madrid…or at least that’s the perception.
The most powerful place to feel the Catalan influence for me was at Camp Nou, the one place I definitely had on my place to visit. The intermingling throughout history of the city, the football, the stadium all build up to the moment you are in the stands and see the famous Mes que un club slogan — it really does ring true.
Besides the Camp Nou, another place that I did want to visit was Parc Guell, designed by Antoni Gaudi atop the hill of El Carmel. It is a surreal place, with tunnels, columns, and sculptures out of some feverish naturalistic dream. One tip: don’t spend all your time at the entrance with all the tourists — get away and explore the rest of the park.
The third and last item that I definitely wanted to see in Barcelona was of course, La Sagrada Familia. The church is an imposing view when coming out of the Metro station, towering above everything. If Parc Guell was the result of a dream, Sagrada Familia must have come out of Gaudi’s nightmare, at least on the outside. You could spend hours studying the various details on the various facades, some grotesque and frightening. The cranes do mar the view somewhat, but not much can be done — it was started in 1882 and is not projected to finish until 2026.
The interior then does an about-face — completely different from the exterior. All white, bright, and well-lit with natural light. Quite a departure from the traditional European cathedrals. Lots of bright colours streaming in from the windows.
We spent the rest of our days randomly exploring the city and spending time wherever looked interesting. We spent time around the Arc de Triomf, Castells dels Tres Dragons, and the Parc de la Ciutadella.
We ducked into a chocolate shop for some of the absolutely heavenly thick Spanish hot chocolate. We walked up and down Passeig de Gracia, the fashionable street — quite different from the more bohemian parts of the city.
We visited Casa Battlo, which sits on Passeig de Gracia. If Sagrada Familia was dark, Casa Battlo was Gaudi at his most playful. Whimsical designs throughout the house made is very interesting. Definitely worth visiting.
Honestly, 3 days was too short for such a layered city. It took me at least a day and a half to really “get” Barcelona. There are many things and places we did not see, visit, or experience. The one downside was that it is hard to experience Barcelona fully with a toddler. The city does come alive late at night, with most of the better restaurants not even opening until 9 or 10pm, which was a bit too late for our 6-year old. Oh well, just leaves that much more to explore on our next trip!