Discover the Real Barcelona
The world has fallen in love with Barcelona and that has created a glorious challenge.
The capital of Catalonia is definitely a city you should experience and armed with a little inside knowledge, you can largely avoid the increasing crowds that swarm to the typical hotpots. That journey of discovery is the ‘glorious’ part.
As the visitors flood into La Rambla every day, consider instead the seaside El Poblenou neighbourhood where the ‘rambla’ there - roughly translated as ‘broad street’ - is a revitalised former industrial precinct that has become a thriving hotbed of creativity.
See once-derelict factories now re-born as galleries, restaurants and museums with the bohemian panache that characterises the Catalan region.
While this is a relatively modern take on an olde worlde, you can also immerse yourself in 2000 years of history and still escape the bulk of tourists by exploring the city’s fascinating Gothic Quarter.
This part of Barcelona is wonderful to get lost in as you wander tiny alleyways that spill into squares and courtyards each revealing a charm of their own.
It was here where the teenage Picasso formed his unique vision of the world at the outset of his career as a student of the Fine Arts school on Calle Avinyó.
But the pioneer of Cubism wasn’t the only global icon of art to pound the cobbled pavements of the Gothic Quarter honing his craft. None other than Antoni Gaudi, the man who’s profound architectural influence on the city can be found everywhere, kick-started his brilliant career designing street lamps that still light the beautiful square, Plaça Reial.
Nearby, navigate the city’s narrowest streets in El Call, the Jewish quarter using Sant Domenec del Call as your starting point. Strolling this area and soaking it all in is what the real Barcelona is all about.
Browse one of Europe’s oldest markets, La Boqueria, that borders the Gothic Quarter and you’ll enter a swirling kaleidoscope of colour that’s worth a visit to the area alone. This market can be very crowded so you might want to consider alternatives like Mercat de Sant Antoni (Carrer del Comte d'Urgell, 1), Mercat de Santa Caterina (Avinguda de Francesc Cambó, 16) or Sarria Market (Passeig de la Reina Elisenda de Montcada, 8) which are all within easy reach of Plaça de Catalunya - the city’s heart and favourite meeting place.
The five-acre square is always buzzing with people. Take note of its six sculptural clusters that each represent the four Catalan cities plus labour and wisdom.
The Catalan people are fiercely passionate about their heritage and their place and relationship with, and in, Spain which is a complex story that began in the Middle Ages and continues to simmer today in varying degrees.
Wherever you travel in the city, you will feel that local passion for their own culture and traditions. The Catalan cuisine for example is proudly celebrated drawing heavily from the bounty of the Mediterranean Coast on which it lies but in recent years, the rise of Spain's experimental gastronomic chefs such as Ferran Adria have also reinvented its global culinary status.
Long before this new wave however the staple was and remains, the trademark tapas.
In side streets, alleys, boulevards and main squares, you’ll find countless tapas bars and restaurants serving truly local food that tastes decidedly different to the mass produced fare often served around the tourist traps.
While “tapa” is generally considered a casual and relaxed dining option of small shared tasty morsels, make no mistake, hunting down the city’s best is a mission for foodies from all over the globe.
Right at the top, Bar Cañete (Carrer de la Unió, 17, 08001) is an institution and gourmands will tell you it’s hard to beat for the best of the best tapa in Barcelona. If the sound of mushroom carpaccio with wasabi vinaigrette strikes the right note, head to another locals’ favorite, Bar del Pla (Carrer de Montcada, 2, 08003). And if you’re all shopped out at the city’s main market, the El Quim de la Boqueria is located right in the middle of it all serving its own special brand of mouth-watering portions.
In this colourful city that pulls no punches, proud to share its passionate energy, the perfect canvas was laid for the daring and genius of Gaudi to challenge convention and showcase his vision for a new approach to linear urban design.
And there’s no doubt his centrepiece is his work on the amazing La Sagrada Familia - the signature place of worship and symbol of Barcelona.
Construction began in 1882 and although it’s been consecrated by the Pope as a Basilica, the Gothic and Art Nouveau-style church is still being built and current timing has it completed in 2026.
Entering the central nave of this extraordinary building immediately reels your head back as you are struck by the brilliant colours of the 45-metre-high vaulted ceiling. The semi-circular crypt features seven intricately decorated chapels.
The church’s unmistakeable landmark feature is its eight spires. Gaudi planned 18 spires to represent the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, four Evangelists and Jesus Christ.
You can enter the spires on the Nativity and Passion facades by pre-purchasing tickets. The first part of the ascent is an easy lift ride but make sure you’re ready for a steep 300-step climb up a narrow staircase to the top. The views are worth it though!
Gaudi’s incredible architecture is synonymous with the city and you can view more of his work at various locations. Your journey should start with one of the first Art Noveau designs ever created, Casa Vicens (Carreró de les Carolines, 20-26, 08012) - this residential building was Gaudi’s first commission and is now a museum.
The building known as the ‘stone quarry’ is certainly one of the most photographed in Barcelona. UNESCO declared the modernist Casa Milá (Passeig de Gràcia, 92, 08008) and its distinctive undulating stone facade to have World Heritage significance in 1984.
At the turn of the 20th century, Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi, the count of Güell, commissioned Gaudi to create a garden complex and it would also go on to become a World Heritage site. The series of buildings within Parc Güell (Carretera del Carmel, 23) carry those signature curves, mosaics and swirls that would define Art Nouveau and its grand master. Strolling the park is an absolute must.
Other Gaudi creations to note that many tourists overlook include Palau Güell (Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 3-5), Colonia Güell (Carrer Claudi Güell, 6, 08690), El Drac de Gaudí at Finca Güell (Av. de Pedralbes, 7, 08034), Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia, 43, 08007) and Cascada Fountain at Parc de la Ciutadella (Parc de la Ciutadella, Passeig de Picasso, 21).
Once you crack open this true locals’ view of Barcelona, you will need more time than you think to explore its many moods and nuances.
On our Northern Spain and Pyrenees Tour, you’ll have the perfect opportunity after a magnificent 17-days touring the Basque country and the highlights of southern France by finishing the journey in Barcelona where you can take your time to delve right into this amazing city.