Having been to Barcelona before, I was interested to see how I would feel coming back into the city for a third visit. We had a friend to stay, so it offered a great chance to explore and see things with fresh eyes perhaps. What I learnt is that there is always something new to see, especially when you are prepared to reach out beyond the city walls.
There are of course plenty of Guide Books that offer the detail for your city tour and we would certainly recommend doing your homework beforehand. This blog is more a reflection on our day’s experience, our insights and how to get a flavour of the place, without getting grumpy and blistered feet, both of which can be side-effects of a city’s potion.
Barcelona stands proudly amongst her Spanish rivals, offering the visitor a journey through time, culture and art. Although the one thing that stands out most is her fierce Catalan heritage. The locals do not consider themselves Spanish, they are Catalan and the draped flags from every balcony serve as a reminder of their nationality.
There are plenty of accommodation opportunities in Barcelona and for this trip, with our motorhome, we stayed at Camping Tres Estrellas on the C31, just south of the airport. ( Co-ordinates N41° 16.343′ E2° 2.582’ )
On first sight, this campsite doesn’t seem to be a very salubrious option, being just off the main road and on the flight path, although it is surprisingly suitable for the city, being only 40 minutes away by bus. You’re right on a gorgeous sandy beach, the planes stop after 23hr and, if you stay close to the beach you don’t hear the road at all. Running twice an hour, the L94/L95 bus is only ten minutes walk outside of the campsite and for €2.15 takes you right into the centre of Barcelona – Catalunya Plaza. From here you can then explore La Rambla by foot or pick up one of the many Tour Buses for a ‘Hop on – Hop off’ experience, which we would recommend.
Touring the City
Once in the city, getting around really needs a mixture of Buses, Metro and walking. Armed with flat shoes and bare minimum possessions, to protect you from the pickpockets, you are ready for a tour extraordinaire as you glide from one Gaudi architectural extravaganza to another. You will experience ports and parkland, shopping and Olympic Stadiums with the odd Cathedral and Football arena thrown in for good measure.
There are two main Tour Buses, which offer essentially the same style of trip with two or three routes that you can inter-change throughout the day. It’s a perfect way to get to see the whole city and which highlight favourite spots to return to.
In March 2017, both Tour Buses were €29 per adult for a one-day ticket or €39 for a two-day ticket, which is pretty good value. There are plenty of stopping points where you can hop off and explore a little, before then hitching a ride with the next bus, which never leaves you waiting for long. It’s a good idea, before you go, to do a bit of research about what you want to see and explore some more. That way you can choose the right coloured route and work out how to get to see everything in the time you have available. This way you don’t miss anything.
Sights not to miss
Barcelona is home to Antoni Gaudi, who is held in deep respect. You will be astounded by examples of his work, integrated into the fabric of so many buildings. Park Güell, west of the city, is definitely a place to explore to really experience Gaudi’s brilliance. There is a public park you can visit free and the Gaudi exhibition, which costs €8 per person. If, like us, you can’t get in to see Gaudi’s work because of crowds, the public park surrounding it, has such a lovely vibe and is worth a wonder. When we visited in spring, the wisteria blossom clung to the walls protectively, providing a stunning flash of purple against the orange brickwork. Buskers strike up a tune and the tacky-tacky men entice you to by their wares.
A word of caution for Park Güel. The bus drops you off a good mile from the entrance and the walk is up hill. And we were really disappointed to find, that on arrival at mid-day, we couldn’t get into the main exhibition area until 1900hr. So booking ahead may be appropriate, or be prepared to visit early or late.
Back on the bus, you are treated to plenty of highlights en route; Gaudi’s House of Bones, Casa Milà, La Sagrada Familla where the traffic lights allows you time for a few photographs, if you don’t fancy mixing with the crowds. Even from the bus’s roof-top, you will be in awe of its detail and evolving artwork. As Gaudi said at the beginning of its construction,”My client has no expectation of completion, as He has all the time in the world.” If you enjoy Cathedrals, then this is definitely worth a hop-off.
Whether you like football or not, the Nou Camp stadium offers a different perspective of the city’s more recent legacy. Imagine the echoes of fans’ cheers for their sporting heroes, as you walk outside of the stadium’s walls and, if you dare, enter the shop for a highly-priced replica of this season’s shirts. You can tour the stadium’s inner sanctum for €26, depending on whether this is ‘your thing’. It wasn’t really ours, so after an obligatory selfie and a beer we moved on.
At the back end of the day, we changed our Bus route to explore the south of the city, with the plan of stopping off at La Rambla for an evening vibe. We were treated to Montjuïc, the majestic hilltop that houses a stunning parkland, museums, magic fountains and olympiad centrepieces. In readiness for the 1992 Olympics, this area got a complete face-lift and now you can wander by foot, bus or chairlift. The most grand of spectacles here though is the blend of architectural brilliance in the National Art Museum and her fountains and waterfalls, which tumble down to the avenue below. The road ends regally in the Font Màgica which from 1900-2100 every Friday and Saturday in October to April and 2130 to 2300 Thursday to Sunday from May to September, light up in a magical display of watery orchestral symphony. Sadly we missed this spectacle as we visited the city on a Thursday and going back into town on the Friday night was just too exhausting a proposition. In hindsight, we should have chosen our day more carefully and stayed in town for longer, tying it into our city tour. If you’re staying in the city itself, then this would become less of an issue than for us being 40 minutes outside the city’s perimeter. Shame, although you can’t do it all.
Our finale was to hop back on the Bus to Colon, down on the waterfront. This allowed us to take in the smells, sights and intensity of the infamous La Rambla. Blessed with stunning buildings that close in above you like an umbrella, intricate squares opening up behind the main street and a maze of alleyways that hide a secret beauty that most tourists miss, La Rambla just has to be experienced. Outdoor restaurants invite you to taste their humungous jugs of Sangria and street entertainers appeal to your playful side as you watch their antics to earn a crust. Yet it’s strange how La Rambla doesn’t really encourage you to browse. It’s a bit like a raging river, you get carried away with the tide of people surging through, and to turn off to explore is futile. Although it is worth experiencing, if nothing more than for the buzz that people gathering together creates.
At the end of La Rambla, you find yourself back at Catalunya Plaza, where you began all those hours ago and despite the Bus tour, you will still have walked a fair few miles and been treated to a magical mix of modern, historical and architectural brilliance that will stay in your memory forever.
Barcelona has so much to offer and does not disappoint in her diversity. Whether you chose cablecar, Metro, bus, walking or a mixture of them all, make a plan and have a little bit of a strategy to see all that appeals to you. One day will certainly give you a good flavour of the city; two will enable you to really feel it. We’re not great with cities, so the one day option, was just perfect for us, as there is so much more to see beyond the city walls, which you can read about in the follow up blogs on Monserrat Monastery and Sitges – Road Less Travelled, coming soon.