It’s easy to understand why Barcelona is a highly desirable city break destination. The lure of fabulous food, amazing architecture and the laid back trendy beach atmosphere is hard to resist! With so much to do and see in the city in only a short space of time you’d be forgiven if you were feeling a little bit overwhelmed.
With a little help from the fabulous Ornella and co at the Ayre Hotel Gran via I managed to combine sightseeing, relaxation and pampering with a little bit of shopping and a lot of eating – all in just 3 days in the city!
Here’s the basic gist:
Day 1: The Action Packed Day (10am – 4pm ish)
Ornella had kindly provided us with a map and the most efficient way to see the many of the main sights in one day. A lot of the sights are within walking distance of each other but depending on where you are staying, you might want to take the metro to our starting point – Sagrada Familia.
Despite construction beginning in 1882, it’s anticipated that it will take until 2026 for building works to be completed. Don’t let that put you off visiting – the gothic architecture is a must see and understandably Barcelona’s top must-see site!
We didn’t go inside, but for €15 you can. Get there early to avoid the masses. It was heaving when we arrived, which was around 11:30am by the time we had walked there!
This 11km long avenue divides the city, running from west to east. It’s home to several impressive buildings (below), many faculties of the University of Barcelona and lots of the designer shops!
A Gaudi creation and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Expect crowds of picture snapping tourists that spill out into the road! Beware of cyclists and local drivers who (quite reasonably) drive along the road expecting the crowds to disperse from it!
Another Gaudi masterpiece! Personally I think it looks like something off a fantasy film set – it’s quite Harry-Potter-esque! It’s one of three buildings which make up the Block of Discord along with Casa Amasser and Casa Lleo Morera.
Good photo opportunities but by this point I’ve had my share of architecture for the day, so we head off into a few shops. As a side note, the shops don’t tend to open until around 10:30am – probably because everyone seems to be up so late eating dinner!
La Rambla (or Las Ramblas) is a 1.2km tourist centric boulevard where the centre is pedestrianised and lined with souvenir shops, bars and cafes. At one end is the Columbus Monument. We didn’t stick around at La Rambla on this day, instead choosing to come back for lunch another day and to revisit ‘La Boqueria’ Market!
Just off La Rambla, this pretty square is flanked by bars and restaurants and is a little bit quieter than La Rambla itself. Nice for a momentary retreat, but be mindful that there are a lot of street performers in the square. If you’re anything like me you will probably find ignoring their requests for loose change tiresome and decide to move on fairly quickly!
A bit of shopping…
At the top end of La Rambla there are more shops. Mango, Zara, Bershka and Pull & Bear fans rejoice – Prices are around 20-30% cheaper than in the UK! We spent a couple of hours wandering around the shops and getting a couple of drinks as we walked back to our hotel, some 1.5 miles away!
Day 2: Spa, Sun, Sand and Shopping
Aire de Barcelona Spa (allow 2-3 hours)
When you imagine a spa in the middle of a city, this isn’t what initially comes to mind. Most spas are in a hotel or health club and lack individuality, but Aire have managed to buck the trend completely!
The spa is based on a modern revival of ancient Roman baths – meaning it is immensely stylish and a real treat for the senses. From the moment you walk through the door the high arched ceilings, ambient lighting and fragrant air put you immediately into relaxation mode. This spa has won many awards, including accreditation as the best international spa from Conde Naste Traveller Spain and a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor (as well as being the number 1 spa in Barcelona).
There are 6 different ‘baths’: one around body temperature, one slightly cold, one ice bath, one hot bath, a jacuzzi and a salt pool where you can float more easily!
We opted for the somewhat luxurious ‘Hammam experience‘ treatment which included a lime scrub and a full body massage as well as access to the baths and steam room.
The place is so clean I would happily eat my lunch off the floor and as a tea worshipper, I was also ecstatic to discover that there was complimentary unlimited hot sweet minty-fresh tea. The cherry on the cake, you might say!
If you’re in the city, make time to come here – you WILL NOT be disappointed!
Having a beach in a city is a real luxury and one of the reasons Barcelona is so popular for city breaks, stag and hen parties and locals playing sports. The beach is big and sandy so it’s not too crowded and there are plenty of bars and restaurants so you really could spend all day here basking in the sun!
A 10 minute walk from the W hotel (at the end of the beach) takes you to to the Maremagnum shopping centre, so if you’re in the area it’s worth nipping in there for a bit of a ‘mooch’ (as my mum would put it)!
Mercat Del Encants (1-2 hours)
Head to the market which is only a stones throw from the ‘Glories’ stop on the L1 red line of the Metro for an eclectic mix of antiques, tech, fabrics and fashion. Expect to see lots of Zara seconds and other branded shoes in piles on the floor. Good luck finding a matching pair after 10am, when everything has been thoroughly mixed together! Some pairs were as cheap as €3 and had very little damage, so there are definitely bargains to be had if you have the patience!
If you fancy more of a ‘geek-out’ head to the shop called ‘Dacasa‘ in the market for some interesting gifts and nik-naks.
Las Ramblas (1-2 hours including lunch)
Since we were in this area again, we stopped for coffee and a snack in one of the many food places on La Rambla. Expect to be ‘treated’ to entertainment by yet more street performers who may then ask for a tip and to be invited into every restaurant along the road. If you want less hassle, carry a bag of sweets very visibly – eating or drinking is the biggest deterrent for the restaurant ‘marketeers’!
Whilst there is a buzz about the place, La Rambla is clearly tourist-centric and can be a little bit less ‘authentic Barcelona’ as a result! Worth visiting for a drink, but not my favourite part of the city as I hate being hassled!
Similarly, it’s much less relaxing when you’re in a bustling crowd. There don’t appear to be many locals here at peak times – possibly because it can be a bit overbearing and slightly tacky compared to the other areas of the city we visited. When I say tacky, I mean relative to the rest of the very sophisticated city. The tackiness rating would be a 1/10 where Blackpool is a 10.
La Boquera Market (allow 30 minutes -1 hour)
La Boquera is an indoor market just off La Rambla which dates back several hundred years. It’s packed full of food stalls including a couple of bars where you can sit and eat at the counter.
The stalls on the outer ring of the market are aimed at tourists and the prices reflect it. Walk into the centre of back of the market (away from La Rambla) for a bit of a quieter experience and up to 50% off prices you’d see on the La Rambla side!
The market is very busy, so pay special attention to any valuables!
Gothic Quarter (allow around 1 hour)
I love the Gothic Quarter! Coffee shops, architecture, narrow passages and small shops with lots of little trinkets make it a lovely place to take a bit of time out and wander around!
It’s still quite touristy, but much less in-your-face than La Rambla!
The Olympic Stadium
For a great 1-2 hour stroll and fab views out over the city, head to the Fira de Barcelona area and take the many escalators up to the parks and olympic stadium. It’s tranquil, pretty and ambient in contrast the the busy city below.
This was the last thing we did before we left for the airport, and I’m glad we managed to fit it in!
Where we stayed:
We stayed at the Ayre Hotel Gran Via. I booked this hotel for the following reasons:
- The positive reviews on TripAdvisor
- Proximity to public transport and the fact it was walking distance to all the major attractions in the city
- It was away from La Rambla, therefore better value and less likely to be noisy!
The hotel was fab – the staff were amazing, very friendly and welcoming without being overbearing! The closest metro station was a 2-3 minute walk away and the AeroBus (to and from the airport) stop was 20m from the front door of the hotel!
The best Tapas we ate was at Michelin starred chef Carles Abellan’s Tapas 24. Quite simply, it was incredible food. It’s extremely popular – as you would imagine – but doesn’t take reservations. You instead walk-in and stand and wait for a table!
We only waited around 20 minutes and it was well worth the wait! This restaurant shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Barcelona! The only caveat would be that if there are more than 4 of you, it might be a long wait for a table!
Try the McFoie Burger for something a little different, and the ham croquettes for an immensely good version of a classic.
The next best meal was actually at our hotel! We ate in the bar there on the first night (when we arrived at 10:30pm) and were pleasantly surprised by the very tasty tapas – so much so that we ate there again just before we left for the airport!
I was much less impressed with the somewhat oily pizza we had on La Rambla – that was distinctly average!
We walked a lot when in the city because the weather, atmosphere and architecture make the views stunning.
We ‘supplemented’ the walking with a T10 multi-trip metro ticket. Basically you buy one ticket and can use it up to 10 times – or 5 times each if you’re sharing one ticket as a couple (which isn’t sneaky – it’s actually permitted)!
The tourist areas of Barcelona have a terrible reputation for pick-pocketing, but you don’t need to be afraid. Just be sensible! We carry a backpack when we go exploring but we use a combination lock to make sure nobody can get in it except for us!
Keep wallets and phones in front pockets only (not loose ones) and beware of being stopped for ‘surveys’ or being walked into when there is plenty of room as these could be moves engineered to swipe your valuables – but this is fairly obvious and you should be operating this level of scepticism in any busy place rather than just when on holiday!
That’s all for now!
If you’re planning a trip, check out my planning page for more tips!
The 5 Week Wanderer