One of the most iconic cities in Peninsula Spain, Barcelona draws millions of people each year who flock to experience its charming narrow lanes, Catalan culture and jaw-dropping art. And art is the focus for this article: For creatives looking for inspiration, I present my top ten art highlights of Barcelona, with places to find exuberant street art, architecture both Gothic and Gaudi-designed, traditional Catalan music and performance, and the works of renowned Spanish artists like Picasso and Miró.
When to go
Barcelona has recently suffered from its popularity as a must-visit city. You’ll be guaranteed a stressful, hot and tiring experience of standing in line to see its landmark locations (like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia) if you visit in the sweltering summer months between May and September. It’s also wise to avoid any holidays that involve Jesus too, as the city swarms with natives who gather for Christmas and Easter celebrations. My advice: Head to Barcelona in the cooler months of March or April, or even October and November, when the streets aren’t so choked with tourists and the weather isn’t too stifling hot.
Where to eat (if you’re avoiding meat)
Ok, so I wasn’t vegan-inclined back in 2012, but I’m keeping my travel stories up-to-date and now like to help folks in need of dairy-free, plant-based food to enjoy while they’re travelling (particularly because Nate and I find it a challenge in most places we visit). Thankfully, Barcelona is a wonderfully progressive city that has a steadily growing veggie-friendly culture, despite being famous for huge slabs of curing pig-flesh. And equally thankfully, there are plenty of websites dedicated to helping veggies find places to eat. I’m serving up one of my favourites by a Barcelona-based blogger named Caitlin. She’s written an ultimate guide to vegan Barcelona at The Vegan World, which certainly saves me the hassle of trawling the internet for places to recommend my readers!
Setting the scene
I visited Barcelona in 2012 with an American gal I’d met while living in Sydney. Kim and I had had such fun hanging out in Australia, I leapt at the chance of a reunion with her in the Catalonian capital. It turned out she (and a plus-1) had been invited by one of her ex-students, Jaume, to crash over in nearby Girona, so our accommodation was sorted too!
Though we were based in Girona at Jaume’s apartment, we were able to get to and from Barcelona’s centre very easily via the high-speed links. The well-connected rail network in this area means you can explore further afield: Girona is 100 kilometres away and the Costa Brava only another 40 kilometres north of that. I was lucky enough to also have the time to explore Girona, the Dali Museum at Figueres and the beach town of Tossa de Mar during my Barcelona trip.
But enough of these places – you’re here to read about Barcelona and the must-see, must-do places there. In no particular order of importance, I present my top ten places to find inspiring art, culture and design in this city:
1. Barcelona Cathedral and the Gothic Quarter
It’s not somewhere everyone thinks of heading to in Barcelona, but this monumental cathedral (properly known as Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St Eulalia or “La Seu” by the locals) was first on our itinerary. Don’t confuse it with the more famous religious centrepiece, La Sagrada Familia, however. "La Seu" is older and is Barcelona’s largest example to be built in the Gothic Revival Style. It beats La Sagrada by being an official seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona (La Sagrada is only a minor basilica without any bishops sitting on it). Entry is free before midday and if you want to take in the views from the top, it’s only EUR3.00 to get to the roof. Curiously, there are also 13 geese living in a shady, palm filled courtyard inside the cathedral: They are kept there to represent the age of Saint Eulalia when she passed away. Drop in and feed the geese in the heart of Barcelona. Random.
2. Montjuïc and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
My second recommended sight to see in Barcelona is a bit of a cheat here, as it’s two places in one. Firstly, there’s the hugely uplifting sound and light show that takes place in the Plaza Carles Buigas of the Montjuïc area (pronounced something like “mont-joo-eek” and not “mont-juice”). Named the Font Màgica (Magic Fountain), towering jets of water dance in time to a soundtrack of eighties classics (think Freddie Mercury’s “Barcelona”) and Spanish classical pieces, in a free spectacle that lasts 20 minutes. We watched it from Montjuïc hill in front of my second recommendation: the palatial-looking Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (National Art Museum of Catalonia, or MNAC). This huge art gallery showcases Catalonian art and is an absolute must for any art history lovers. Permanent and temporary exhibitions are dedicated to a rich history, from medieval Romanesque works to masters of the Modernist Movement.
To experience the Montjuïc area, head to the metro station Espanya using the green line L3 or the red line L1 and aim for the striking Venetian Towers on the square. The city council website shows fountain times; bear in mind that the earlier fountain displays are less crowded. The MNAC is open Tuesdays to Saturdays and the general admission is EUR12.50 for adults.
3. La Sagrada Familia
It would be outrageous not to feature this eye-popping edifice in this article. For many, Barcelona is represented by the artist Antoni Gaudi and failing to so much as show up and gawp at the exterior of his artistic wonder would be like entering the Louvre with intentions of seeing the Mona Lisa but only getting as far as the gift shop. Whether or not you like Gaudi’s style, you cannot deny that this iconic basilica is unlike anything else on the planet. Despite being unfinished (current estimates are that it will be completed in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death) this epic structure draws millions of visitors each year. For that reason, I’d recommend visiting early in the morning or early evening, booking your tickets in advance at the official website of La Sagrada Familia. Not only will you find marginally smaller crowds at this time, you’ll also experience the spellbinding sight of sunlight pouring through the emerald and amber stained glass inside. Though I’m not a man of faith, the interior of La Sagrada Familia moved me to tears. Here is a temple to nature (as much as to the holy family of Christ), crafted from the designs of an artist who truly appreciated and understood the miracles of the natural world.
4. Casa Milà/La Pedrera
If you desire more of Gaudi’s divine designs, you need to pay a visit to Casa Milà on Passeig de Gràcia. Otherwise known as La Pedrera (“stone quarry”) for its imposing stonework, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is an architectural marvel; the engineering behind its self-supporting façade is enough to make architects go wobbly at the knees. Commissioned as a private residence for wealthy Catalan aristocrat Pere Milà, the building of the apartments was an expensive, controversial affair, with Gaudi making changes to the design as it was being completed! As a huge fan of Modernist design, I adored the interiors of this building. Think Art Nouveau, Elven halls of Rivendell and Mucha-boudoir elegance. Trying to get any photos that would do these decorative features justice was almost impossible – it’s definitely a place to be experienced in the flesh. To make up for our lack of post-worthy pics, Kim and I cavorted on the rooftop taking ridiculous selfies around the eerie-looking chimney-sculptures. Top tip: Buy your tickets at the official website for La Pedrera, as there’s an added EUR3.00 charge at the door. And be sure to go early to avoid the crowds!
5. Casa Batlló
We never made it inside this masterpiece by Gaudi but were told the interiors are as mesmerizingly organic and beautiful as Casa Milà. I’ve included it in my list of unmissable Barcelona sights because I was so enamoured with its bizarre façade (and I’m pretty biased towards anything designed by Gaudi). Unlike Casa Milà which was designed and built from scratch, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was a remodel within an existing building that belonged to textile businessman Josep Batlló y Casanovas. Rather than follow orders to demolish the apartment, Gaudi set to work altering the interior and façade, producing an apartment that was way ahead of its time when it was finished. As with most attractions in Barcelona, I’d advise booking online at the Casa Batlló website (it’s cheaper, starting at EUR24.50) to avoid a disappointing, crowd-filled experience.
6. Park Güell
Another Gaudi attraction? Surely not? Well, why else would you come to Barcelona? And even if you’re an absolute Philistine, it’s worth coming here for the serene, green space. The park was designed by Gaudi for entrepreneur Eusebi Güell and features his signature organic structures that appear to grow out of the surrounding earth, as well as his famous mosaic designs, including the famous salamander statue. We ambled around the scented, landscaped gardens as the sun set after a full day of taking in Gaudi’s creations elsewhere in the city. Sitting atop the hill looking out over the city was an unforgettable experience for me. If you get here by metro, take the Green Line (L3) and get off at Lesseps or Vallcarca; expect a 20-minute walk from either station. Last entry into this park is at 19.30 during high season, while tickets are cheapest at the official online site for Park Güell, with a general admission of EUR7.50 for adults.
7. Fundació de Joan Miró
This abstract artist often plays second fiddle to Gaudi; the museum of his life’s work is noticeably quieter than other landmarks in this city. A little sad for any Miró fans out there, but a great score for the crowd-dodgers. I took the metro L3 from Barcelona Sants to Paral-lel, where I was able to connect with the Funicular that transports visitors up the steep hill of Montjuïc Park. Inside this specially-designed gallery dedicated to all things Miró are scores of paintings and sculptures by the twentieth century Surrealist/Dadaist. His work isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but personally I find Miró’s stuff joyfully irreverent, appearing to poke fun at what art is meant to be. With works titled “Man and woman in front of a pile of excrement”, you can understand how I’ve formed this opinion. If you’re fascinated by whimsical, nonsensical, seemingly simple pieces of art, you’ll appreciate this gallery of a modern master. Entry is EUR12.00 and can be purchased online at the website for the Foundation of Joan Miró.
8. Barcelona Graffiti Park: Jardins de les 3 Xemeneies
Take a look at more of our blogposts on our website and you’ll see that we are huge fans of street art. Barcelona has a designated space for graffiti artists in the Poble-sec area of the city, close to Montjuïc. Here, you’ll find ever-changing artwork on the walls scattered around this former site of a power station. Its name “Jardins de les 3 Xemeneies” (Garden of the three chimneys) refers to all that remains of the building. What was once a crumbling, abandoned place is now alive with a project that aims to give artists a space to paint. You can find this urban outdoor gallery at Avda, close to the Paral-lel metro station.
9. Picasso Museum
Arguably, one of Spain’s most famous artists, Picasso lived in Barcelona for a time and this museum presents a range of works from his formative years. The 3,800-piece collection reveals his art-school days, his Blue Period and later works of ceramic and print. If you head to just one gallery in Barcelona, this one should be it. A five minute walk from Jaume I metro station, you can take the yellow (L3) line to reach this museum. Check the official Picasso museum website for entry details: The admission is usually EUR12.00 but on Thursday evenings and the first Sunday of every month, it is free to enter!
10. Palau de la Música Catalana
My final pick for a Barcelona break filled with art is the Palau de la Música Catalana. Kim and I went here on our last night in the city and enjoyed a performance of traditional flamenco guitar, song and dance. The show was a fabulous finale to our time in Barcelona, set in a grand 1900s Art Nouveau concert hall that’s resplendent in Modernist details. If you love this style of flowing, organic art, it’s worth booking tickets for a performance at the Palau just to see the stained glass, ironwork and paintings that decorate the interior. The equally flamboyant exterior has also earned this building’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s located in the Sant Pere area of Barcelona, close to Urquinaona metro station on L1 and L3.
Responsible travel: Respect Barcelona
With the recent stories of residents in Barcelona protesting against the hordes of tourists who descend on their beloved city, I felt it was important to end with some mindfulness regarding this destination. I visited this city back in 2012 and it was crowded then. Imagine how many more holidaymakers invade Barcelona six years on, with its 1.6 million residents outnumbered by 32 million visitors a year. Without any restrictions on tourist numbers, these figures are only set to rise.
If you really must experience this marvellous city, there are still ways you can positively contribute as a tourist, even if your very presence there is adding to the hordes. Visit off-season and stay for longer than just a weekend – slow travel means you can settle in for a while longer and really get to know the place you’re staying. If you want to buy souvenirs, avoid the tacky shops (especially those lining the horrendously crowded Las Ramblas - this was a part of Barcelona I really disliked!) and opt for locally crafted goods made by resident artists. When visiting the markets (particularly the famous and gorgeous La Boqueria) it's customary to actually buy the products, rather than simply take photos of them (this practice understandably infuriates local stall-holders). Wander off the beaten track and explore smaller churches and little-known museums. You’ll find hidden gems away from the lines of people clamouring to see the trademark places of Barcelona and discover parts of this city many people overlook. Above all, remember that although you want to experience some incredible Catalan culture, this is also home for millions of people. Travel lightly, mindfully and in a way that gives something back.
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