As with the other guides on this site, I don’t pretend to cover everything. These are my personal highlights and low lights of what’s out there. I hope it’s the supplement you were looking for to narrow down, expand or otherwise warp your itinerary. Enjoy!
A quick note on travel guides: I was a Let’s Go girl when I lived abroad. Then they got a little newsprinty and I cut over to Lonely Planet, but they’re not as selective as I’d like (I know what they include or omit constitutes an opinion but they don’t narrow it down a lot), so I went looking for a new, more opinionated and organized guide for this trip to Spain. My new best friend is the Top 10 series by DK Publishing: excellent photography, small enough to carry around, removable map included, and content divided by area and category. Sweet.
What You Should Do
Let’s just get it out of the way: yes, you should probably go and see Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished monster cathedral. You’re going to see it whether I say you should or not, so I’ll get behind your effort. I can’t stand Gaudi and the Modernista style, but the cathedral does have sort of a Guinness Book of World Records appeal, given how long they’ve been building it (128 years and counting). In my view, that’s on a par with the world’s largest ball of twine, but, truth be told, if I were within walking distance of that twine ball, I’d probably go see that too. Seriously though, it is impressively large and unique, so man up, get over your horror of tile work and head over there. I wouldn’t walk to the top of the spire though – punishing trip, I hear.
Unless you’re a fan, Sagrada Familia will also relieve you of any responsibility to go out of your way to catch Parc Guell, or the apartment building La Pedrera, other highly recommended Gaudi constructions. You’ll probably pass some Modernista work on your way to other places you’re going anyway, so no need to plan special outings.
Surprisingly, given that it’s also in the Modernista style, the Palau de la Musica Catalana makes the top of my list. Maybe that’s because I love me some stained glass and the concert hall has a one-ton inverted stained glass bell in the center of the ceiling. Also, unlike Sagrada Familia’s endless ramblings, the palau has a tight, efficient design with a purpose: a concert hall with the best possible acoustics for one of the first co-ed professional choirs. All the sculptures and tiles and columns and iron work fooforah support that objective. Mad props. It’s an amazing thing. Oh – and they got the whole thing built in a mindboggling three years. Take that, Gaudi.
To see inside, you have to book a tour (in the right language, mind you) or attend a concert. Tour’s just under an hour and they run regularly in English, but the tours book up and the Palau’s web site is not helpful, so it might be a good bet to wander by on your way elsewhere, buy a ticket at the box office for another day so you know you’re sorted.
Eat fideuà, olives, and jamon iberico
See notes on fideuà and restaurant recommendations here.
If you don’t like olives, as I didn’t before my first trip to Spain, this is the place to learn. You don’t have to go out of your way to find them – they’ll be served before almost any meal at a restaurant – but you may want to track down a grocery store to bring some back with you after you’ve had them. Most likely the ones you’ll be served are manzanilla olives, native to Spain, or manzanillas stuffed with – don’t gag: they’re not the same as the ones you pick off your pizza – anchovies.
Jamón ibérico is a must. It’s cured ham from pigs fed exclusively on acorns. Which sounds boring for the piggy but is salty and tasty for you. You don’t have to buy one of the entire legs, hoof included, that you see at the grocery store to gnaw your way through before you get to customs (or smuggle it in a tennis racket case as someone who shall remain nameless told me she did); the cheap stuff in sandwiches from bodegas will be stringy and unsatisfying, and the $95/lb. offerings are a little rich for some of us. Start with ordering some at a proper restaurant one afternoon and see how you like it.
Picasso was a misogynistic jerk, we all know that, but the man could paint. And draw and collage and pot, which is a welcome expansion of the usual, “Look at my naked cubist ladies!” museum repertoire. Barcelona was something of a hometown for Picasso, and the Picasso Museum was willed an excellent collection of his early and student work: drawings for larger works, small oil paintings on wood, notebooks full of pencil sketches and so on. Of course they have large, important works as well, but the most appealing part for me was seeing the early classical grounding that allowed for Picasso’s later evolution into groundbreaking styles. The artist in progress and so on. The museum is housed in a city castle, which makes for a charming but also somewhat disorganized and labyrinthine experience.
Head across the alleyway from the gift shop to the Textil Café for a coffee or lunch before or afterwards. It’s half-filled with tourists and the service is painfully slow, but it’s in a pretty, sheltered courtyard and their food is quite good.
Montjuic and related activities
Barcelona, in case you haven’t noticed, is ringed by mountains which provides a handy opportunity to take funiculars up the sides of them or, if you’re deranged, bike up them. Montjuic is one of said mountains, the least suicidal one to bike, and home to, among other things, the Fundacio Joan Miro (a museum dedicated to, er, Miro), the imposing Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Olympic stadium (built for the 1936 Olympics, used in 1992) and a warren of very lovely parks with, sometimes, views across the city. The funicular to the top is part of the metro system, so heading up and making an afternoon of it isn’t nearly as complicated as the map looks like it will be. Definitely hit the Miro, wander the gardens, skip the stadium, if you’re up for it take on the National Museum and then meander downhill via escalator, stairs and paths among the fountains and gardens that will land you in the Placa d’Espanya where you can check out…
The Barcelona Pavilion is a “house” by Mies van der Rohe built of steel, glass and marble for the king’s reception at the 1929 World Exposition. They tore down the original, thought better of that bad decision and reconstructed it in the ’80s. If you have any interest in architecture or design, you have to go. It’s small and costs about $7 to get in, but it’s worth half an hour just to be inside those straight lines. We ended up here after a long, long day, happy to discover it was open until 8PM and intrigued that the brochure clearly labeled “English” was just as clearly written in French. I assume this was in keeping with one of van der Rohe’s less well-known utopian plans for future society. (Architectural info + bad photos here. Better photos here, especially here.)
What You Could Do (specialty)
These are some “if these are your kind of thing” recommendations.
Formatgeria La Seu
The artisanal cheese movement has yet to catch on in Spain, so it’s a rarity to find a place so focused on and willing to discuss cheese. It’s not that Spaniards aren’t making cheese in huts on the sides of mountains and meadows, it’s that Spain isn’t flooded with the wine-pairing classes and Whole Foods’ marketing and retired bankers going into goat-rearing that America and France have. Formatgeria La Seu has been chipping away at that for several years now. The shop is central (if tiny), the proprietress is Scottish so you can ask questions freely, and the cheese is phenomenal. Follow her lead and buy whatever she tells you to: she knows whereof she speaks since she goes out into the countryside to find and collect the best cheeses herself. If you have a spare Saturday afternoon, you can even swing by and take a class. (Hours: 10-2, 5-8)
I know. I don’t wear ’em either. But these are some kickin’ kicks. Handmade on the premises, the espadrilles at La Manual Alpargatera come in everything from the traditional flats to crimson gladiator wedges. I bought two pairs and love them like my future children. Who will also, presumably, provide little in the way of arch support.
Some restaurants, especially the ones on the water that serve that day’s fresh catch, drop off bottles of clear liquor and shot glasses at your table after you’ve finished eating. Have some. It’s a digestif made out of fruit and gasoline. You’ll like it, especially if you’ve just had half a bottle of wine with dinner. In fact, you’ll like it so much that you’ll swing by the grocery the next day and buy a bottle for $7 to bring home with you. The stuff is terrible but highly addictive.
Vincon is a design shop a few blocks north of Placa de Catalunya and worth a visit, if only to buy a few gifts and wish you had that much money to spend on a minimalist bassinet your baby’s going to outgrow in 20 minutes. The place is huge and offers everything from rubber handbags molded to look like roosting hens to high-end kitchenware to Pantone luggage.
Sant Felip Neri Square
Round behind Barcelona Cathedral in the Born neighborhood is a tiny square with a small café outside a wildly expensive hotel. There’s a lovely tree, a fountain, it’s off the beaten path and the café con leche is perfect. While you bask in the afternoon sun, you can think sad thoughts about the bullet holes in the church wall across from you. Location here.
What You Could Do
We didn’t re-visit Tibidabo this time, but it’s worth a trip after you’ve been up Montjuic, that is, which is a nicer mountain. Tibidabo does have better views though, given that it’s much, much higher. Drive, if you have access to wheels, and you can stop at various points on the way up or down the hill to take photos. Otherwise, public transport will get you there and you can visit the highly impressive Temple de Sagrat Cor church, wander the park, sample the amusement rides which have inexplicably been installed next to the cathedral and generally take in the sun and altitude. (Panorama preview here.)
Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat
The History of the City Museum is not gripping and was, for me, a little tedious, but it does allow you to go underground and view excavated Roman ruins still laid out as they were found. Streets, laundries, wineries and so on lie under suspended pathways beneath modern Barcelona. If you – or your kid – are into archeology, you’ll like it here. (Their web site is spectacularly unhelpful. Check your guide book.)
Museu d’Art Contemporani & Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona
MACBA/CCCB. If you’re an artist, you should hit MACBA, but if you’re not, you, like us, will think that the focus on modern art of 30 years ago feels more archival than interesting. What was cutting edge video collage in 1973 does not feel like classic art now: it feels, sadly, expired. I’m all for a white building though, and the current exhibition of “what we’ve got in the basement” won’t go on forever. (Photo to the left is Lawrence Weiner’s, Some Objects of Desire, 2004.)
What You Can Totally Miss
I think all the guide books are high when they recommend La Rambla as a must-see in Barcelona. It is distinctly an “avoid it if at all possible” on my list, crammed as it is with foreigners, pickpockets and the worst of the worst of tourist-pandering shops and restaurants. If you want the rambla experience (trees, cafes, shops), get off the subway at Placa de Catalunya and walk north on Passeig de Gràcia or Rambla Catalunya.
Again with the crack-smoking by the guide book editors, Corte Inglés, the biggest department store in Barcelona, is a mess. Yeah, it has a little bit of everything, but it also has mostly nothing. If you want the clothes, go to the shops themselves: Mexx, Kookai and Desigual all have stores elsewhere in the city with better selections than the sub-boutiques crammed into Corte Inglés. The whole Corte Inglés experience was like going to a pointless WalMart masquerading as a Macy’s. (One exception: the basement of the location in Placa de Catalunya has a comprehensive drugstore for buying only-sold-in-Europe products, and a fully stocked grocery store.)
Unless, of course, you’re a future Olympian. In which case, you might have a word with them about using the track for a couple of laps.
I don’t understand the appeal of Campers. They’re wide, unflattering and not even a little bit chic. I thought maybe I’d missed their point because I had only seen the styles they export to the United States. Turns out they export all their styles to the United States and they cost just as much in the city that spawned them as they do in the States. Still stumped.