Barcelona is one of those special cities that everyone talks about and with places such as this, I often have doubts of whether they will live up to the high expectation built up from the opinions of others.
Stepping off the flight into the balmy Spanish air, I felt both elated and nervous of my first solo adventure. But I was also eager to experience the treasures of this much loved city and so armed with my carefully laid out backpack and high school Spanish vocabulary I set out to find my accommodation, first by taking the aeroport bus to the Plaça de Catalunya (the main shopping square in Barcelona) and then a 10 minute walk down a straight road to the hostel. A pretty easy journey and yet, 2 hours later and with the sunlight fading, I was well and truly lost. Fortunately the people of Barcelona are friendly souls and between the locals and my trusty online maps I found my way to my holiday home and bed.
I awoke early the next day to the sound of birds singing in the morning sun through the open balcony doors. Barcelona is not a city that sleeps for long and the low hum of traffic reminded me of the many plans I had for my first day of exploration. Now with any large city, the single best recommendation I can give you is to spend an hour or two on a hop-on hop-off bus tour before you do anything else. When time is of the essence and there are so many things to see, it is easy to become overwhelmed. A tour is a great way to get an overview of the city and cross a lot of the main sites off in one day. At around 35 euros for a 72 hour pass it is also a good value option.
Sitting in the sunshine, drifting around the city I was delighted to find the first jewels, the Casa Batlló (or the House of Bones) and Casa Mila,
dotted between the everyday shopping streets of the city centre. Gaudi’s architectural influence is apparent both in his immediate creations and future building designs. The city is dominated by his many masterpieces including the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.
As well as the plethora of architecture, there is art aplenty to be found for the keen creative tourists among us. Picasso and Matisse studied in Barcelona and the Museums dedicated to these brilliant artists are a joy to visit. The Picasso Museum situated in the gothic quarter is hidden in the old streets of the city and the walk from the Barcelona Cathedral with its tall catalonian buildings and winding streets made the visit all the more worthwhile.
Barcelona is a place for walking as well as bus rides. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the relaxed vibe and golden sunshine and I set aside my second day to enjoy some of the better known places to wander. The first stop of three was to the stunning Sagrada Familia. Please do not let the unfinished state of the great cathedral put you off a visit. The exterior of the building is outstanding, where every inch of the walls provide something to look at, some story to tell, and are full of incredible sculpted detail. While this in itself is impressive, the real vision is to be seen inside the Cathedral. There is a feeling of awe and calm as you enter the great doors and are greeted with the beauty of the white decorated walls and flower topped ceiling, providing the perfect contrast to the majestic stained glass windows which sweep from one end of the rainbow to the other, around the majority of the interior. You will need your camera for this photographers’ dream, where even the back of the building is covered with sculptures of religious scenes and a representation of Gaudi himself, bearing the weight of his final masterpiece.
Tip: Book your tickets to the Sagrada Familia in advance of your trip. I understand from disappointed queued visitors that tickets often sell out before midday.
After taking in this splendour I hopped aboard an afternoon bus and took the trip up into the hills to the outdoor Park Guell with its colourful animal sculptures. Too late to purchase a ticket to the Park’s Palace and sculptures, I instead opted to walk around the free parkland where you are free to explore at your own pace and discover the various crafted bridges and stepping stone pathways around the park. The views of the city here are outstanding and if you have the time, a lazy afternoon could be spent quite happily here.
After the quiet calm of Park Guell, I made my way down the busy streets to the last place on my agenda. La Ramblas is the market street of the city. Lined with traditional spanish buildings and an archway of trees, and one of the largest in Barcelona, this street stretches from the gothic quarter right down to the Plaça de Catalunya. Stalls selling local produce, souvenirs and trinkets, dotted with the occasional street performer adorn this street each day making it a hub of activity. This famous street is also home to the Barcelona drinking fountain where the legend goes that anyone who drinks the water from the fountain will be destined to return to Barcelona again.
With my fated bottle of water, I strolled down the now familiar route to my hostel, comtemplating my trip. With a pit stop at the one of the many bakeries to pick up some of the delicious mini pastries that are popular here, I realised how much I had seen in my short time in Barcelona, and how at home I already felt.
Barcelona is like an old family friend with a sunny disposition. The city’s ability to welcome in the numerous visitors each year is remarkable and the spanish people are open and friendly to the tourists who come here, with them approaching me to help on more than one occasion when I may have been looking a little lost, (I was). The city is easy to navigate round and manages to retain its cool relaxed feel in spite of the fairly constant traffic and tourist bustle. There is so much to see and do that I would recommend going with a plan and remember to eat and drink some of the local food, it is magnifico!
With art and architecture, sunshine and sangria, this city has everything you could want in a holiday destination or a short city break. It is modern and stylish, whilst holding on to its spanish roots, simply put it is wholeheartedly and undoubtedly Barcelona.
TIPS: Phone maps – To start with a lot of the streets with look very similar and until you have your bearings, it will be incredibly easy to get lost. Mobile map apps were a godsend to me so keep this in mind (but this is also a great place for a wander, so once you find your feet, throw the map away and enjoy exploring this treasure of a city).
Pickpockets wits – Popular tourist sites and main squares are popular spots for thieves, so be wary of your belongings at all times.
Sunday Supermercado closures – In Barcelona, the supermarkets are closed on Sundays. If you can, try and find out where the locals shop, they tend to be cheaper and have a good range of foods.
Solo travellers – I was surprised to meet so many solo travellers in this city, but this really is a place where you can feel comfortable being in on your own. Great for a first-time solo trip. Enjoy!
Book tickets in advance – Where possible I would recommend booking tickets to any attractions that you are hoping to visit on your trip. The Sagrada Familia, The Picasso Museum and Park Guell in particular had long waiting lines.