Barcelona is unlike any other place in the world. A city in transition, its recent history has been shaped by the growing Catalan independence movement as well as a thriving community of immigrants from all over the world. It's metropolitan, cosmopolitan, and an absolute must on any European bucket list.
But the city can be overwhelming to navigate for new visitors. That's especially true when you're short on time. To help you out, here are some of the most essential things to do in Barcelona, from major sights to hidden gems.
Almost any list of things to do in Barcelona will have La Sagrada Família at the top. Ours is no exception.
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí's master work has been under construction since 1882, and it's still not done. It's the only church of its kind in the world, and a stunning centerpiece of Barcelona's daring architecture scene.
Lines at the ticket booth can get long the day of, so buy your tickets online in advance if possible.
Like the Sagrada Família, Gaudí's Parc Güell was never completed. At least not as his client had envisioned it, anyway.
Catalan industrialist Eusebi Güell originally envisioned the project as a sort of garden city-estate for wealthy families. But plans changed, and the area eventually transformed into a city park. Its gingerbread-like houses and colorful tilework look like something straight out of a fairy tale.
To lessen the strain of mass tourism, some areas of Parc Güell do require a paid ticket. However, there are plenty of free areas to visit as well.
Barcelona's storied Gothic Quarter dates back to Ancient Roman times, when the city was called Barcino. In fact, you can still see the remains of the old city walls in some areas.
Today, it's Barcelona's most popular neighborhood. The Gothic cathedral towers above its serpentine streets. Food and drink options range from no-frills traditional watering holes to trendy new restaurants. Head to Plaça Sant Jaume and you might even see a performance of the sardana (a Catalan folk dance) or the death-defying human towers known as castellers.
Public transportation in Barcelona is cheap and efficient, but the best way to see the city is by walking.
The most famous pedestrian street in town is Las Ramblas, an idyllic boulevard lined by stunning architectural gems. The colorful Boquería Market is a true feast for all five senses and well worth a visit. However, don't stop to eat or drink anywhere on Las Ramblas itself. Places here cost an arm and a leg, and are often not great quality.
You've seen La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell. Now it's time to complete the essential Gaudí trifecta with Casa Batlló.
Gaudí originally designed the famous house as a residence for the Batlló family from 1904–1906. Today, however, it's a museum, event space, and UNESCO World Heritage Site that welcomes more than 1 million visitors per year.
Besides a standard visit, tickets for many unique experiences are also available. Two standouts are the nighttime visit and concert and the theatrical tour led by actors in period dress.
Learn Something New at a Museum
Whether it's raining and you'd rather stay inside or you just want to experience a new side of Barcelona's rich culture, there are plenty of museums to keep you busy.
Explore Montjuic in Barcelona
The majestic hill towering over Barcelona was the centerpiece of the 1992 Olympics. You could easily spend an entire day exploring the wonders of Montjuïc.
The area is home to some pretty incredible museums, including the previously mentioned MNAC and Fundació Joan Miró. You can also visit an open-air pavilion depicting architecture from all over Spain at Poble Espanyol, or tour the old Olympic Stadium. For something more relaxing, take the cable car to enjoy stunning views, or marvel at the Magic Fountain show.
There's no shortage of options for day trips from Barcelona. But if we had to pick, we'd go with Montserrat.
30 miles from Barcelona, this historic monastery is tucked into the idyllic hills of the Catalan countryside. The area is home to some great hiking trails, from which you can enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding natural paradise.
To get there, take the R5 train (direction Manresa Baixador) from Barcelona's Plaça de Espanya station. Get off at Aeri de Montserrat, which has access to the cable car to get you up the mountain.
Tour the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau
Gaudí gets all the credit, but there's a lot more to modernist architecture in Barcelona. Exhibit A: the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau.
This huge art nouveau complex was a hospital back in the day. Today, part of it has been restored to its former glory, so you can see what the medical facility was like in the 1930s. The rest of it is a health and sustainability educational center, as well as the home of some cool and colorful mosaics.
Make a Splash at the Beach
Most people who visit Barcelona on the summer have one thing on their mind: the beach. To make things as easy as possible, many of them will head straight for Barceloneta Beach near the city center.
But Barceloneta is hardly the end-all-be-all of Barcelona beaches. It can get loud, crowded, and dirty—hardly the relaxing day in the sun you're probably envisioning.