the urban explorer’s travel guide to Barcelona
Barcelona is a beautiful, lively city with so much to explore. I spent 5 days here and wish I could’ve spent weeks! Here are my top recommendations for things to do in my favorite European city (so far):
for the art & architecture geek (or anyone who likes pretty buildings):
For anyone who’s been inside this Gaudí masterpiece, it’s obvious why this is at the top of my list. This is the famous, unfinished basilica that towers over Barcelona. With its sheer height and intricate facades on its exterior, it’s already a sight to behold, but stepping inside is a whole other experience. It’s worth every euro to see for yourself the colored light filter through the stained glass windows and the columns stretching up into the detailed ceiling like trees in a forest. This picture doesn’t do it justice at all!
I did the audio tour, which I enjoyed and would recommend because it gives you great context for the unique architectural choices. There’s also a small museum underneath the basilica, where I learned about Gaudí’s design process and the ongoing construction (the 3D model isn’t even finished yet!). It’s projected to be finished in 2024. I found it amazing that Gaudí designed the basilica knowing it wouldn’t be completed in his lifetime, but confident that architectural technology would eventually catch up to his vision. I really don’t think there’s anything in the world like the Sagrada Familia.
Tips: Buy online ahead of time to skip the lines and ensure entry at your preferred time. Do the audio tour for helpful context and check out the museum afterwards.
Sant Pau Recinte Modernista
Although not as well-known as the Gaudí buildings, this hospital-turned-art site is a really beautiful place to appreciate some architecture and get away from the large tourist crowds. The interiors are stunningly detailed and the outside gardens are peaceful. You can also go in the underground tunnel system that was used to quickly transport patients between buildings. I had the most relaxing and lowkey morning here.
Tips: There’s a 30% discount if you’re under the age of 29!
for the politically and socially curious:
Free Walking Tours are exactly what they sound like, and they’re a great way to learn about Barcelona’s culture and history. Although they seem very touristy, Free Walking Tours actually does the least touristy tours I’ve seen because they focus on respecting communities and sustainability. This means small groups, no loud or disruptive behavior, and going paper-free. The free tour takes you around the Gothic Quarter, rich in history and cool architecture. At the end, you’re free to tip (or not tip) the tour guide however much you feel the tour was worth.
Tips: Do this on your first day! Sign up online to ensure your spot. Bring ca$h for tips.
A paid tour run by the same company as Free Walking Tours, this tour focuses on Barcelona’s political and social justice history. We decided to take this tour because we were sold by our Free Walking Tour guide Luke, who was super nice, helpful, and entertaining. Hands down one of my favorite experiences in Barcelona! The tour takes you through Barcelona’s least touristy neighborhood, the Raval, a diverse immigrant community (this was actually where we stayed thanks to a tip from a friend). We learned about Barcelona’s rich history of anarchy, weed cafes, sex work, street art, and police brutality. If you want to delve beyond the tourist traps and get a sense of what Barcelona is really all about, definitely take this tour.
A fair warning: there are many sensitive topics that come up and I’m not familiar with European social justice spaces, so sometimes our guide said things that would be offensive in the U.S. but may or may not be interpreted the same way in Spain. That being said, our tour guide was very open to criticism and it’s also a great opportunity for some cultural exchange.
Tips: Book online to ensure your spot. If you take a tour with Luke, tell him “Team USA” sent you.
for the quintessential Barcelona #travelgram:
Another one of Gaudí’s creations, this park sprawls atop a hill overlooking the city. It’s a large park so there’s a lot to explore, but the main attraction is the monumental zone for which you need to purchase a ticket. There’s a great view of Barcelona from the top of the monumental zone, which is where everyone takes photos with the trippy tiles and backdrop of the city. For an even better view of Barcelona, you can trek along a path that takes you to the very top of the hill (this part is free).
Tips: Buy timed tickets online beforehand to skip any lines. Enter from the bottom of the hill for a more impressive first view of the monumental zone.
Read next: Check out my guide to food in Barcelona (including delicious vegan/vegetarian options)!