A perfect Barcelona itinerary

 

If you’re planning to visit Barcelona, I’d like to offer a tested, enjoyed, and real-life itinerary for a perfect visit.  How do I know? I just got home! 😉

Tip #1:  Take your time

We spent 8 days in the city, arriving on a Monday (midday) and leaving the following Monday afternoon.  Barcelona was our home base, and aside from a few day trips, we didn’t try to travel beyond the borders of Catalonia.

Why?  Barcelona is a city best absorbed slowly, one sip at a time, one sunset at a time.

We’ve traveled through Europe several times, usually cramming in everything we can, moving from city to city every few days. It’s exciting but also exhausting. This time, we set aside that little twang of FOMO pain (“But we’re so close to Madrid!”) and agreed that we would stay put.  The result? A fantastic, interesting, restful vacation that brought us home with great memories instead of exhaustion.

Tip #2: Get to the locals

With AirBnB and other companies offering excursions and adventures, there’s no reason not to get out there beyond the museums and cafes to experience local culture.  A few of our highlights:

  • Sailing the Mediterranean Sea at sunset — AirBnB Experience led by a fantastic sailor on his gorgeous sailboat (link). The evening concluded with tapas and wine at the marina where we chatted with our new-found friends.
  •  Making paella with a local in Sitges – AirBnB Experience.  Not only did we get to eat delicious paella, the ingredients were as fresh as that morning’s catch, we enjoyed visiting the local market (so much fish!), and we learned a lot about local culture from our host chef Rosa.  She took us on a mini tour of Sitges as well, a lovely beach town a short train ride down the coast. Once we were done with lunch, we were free to roam the city and enjoy the beach.

Tip #3: Don’t overdo it

We developed a rule back when we took students on field trips to big cities or overseas: one museum a day, and two “big things” a day, max.  It’s just as true for adults as teens: you need downtime to really soak in what you just saw.

It’s tempting to cram as much as you can into every day, because “you only live once!” and “sleep when you’re dead.”  But you’ll get much more out of the experience if you select just a few museums, parks, cathedrals and the like to fill your days.

Tip #4: Embrace the snack culture of Barcelona

I loved Barcelona for many reasons, but topping my list is their ability to spread little snacks throughout the day. It makes touring much more fun:  finish up an activity, then beeline for the nearest cafe for an inexpensive yet tasty cafe con leche and pastry or a bit of jamon.  Retreat to a museum during the heat of the day, then find some churros and chocolate.  Kick off the late afternoon with some vermouth and patatas bravas.

Barcelonans seem to snack their way through the day yet without overloading their calorie budget at any one point. It was a great way to experience many tastes and views around the city.

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Depart on international flight

Day 2: Land in Barcelona.  Check into AirBnB and get settled and refreshed.  Tour Park Guell. Visit local grocery store for basic supplies: yogurt and cereal for breakfasts, fresh fruit for snacks, and wine, jamon, cheese, bread etc for suppers at the apartment.

Pro tip: stay up on your feet until local bedtime to get over jet lag faster. It’s brutal but worth it in the end. 

Day 3: Day trip to Sitges. AirBnB Experience: Paella in Sitges (8am-2pm). Went with our host Rosa to the market to buy fresh fish and seafood for the paella and vegetables for gazpacho. Cooked and ate like royalty!   Beach day in Sitges; light snack before taking the train home. Supper at the apartment.

Pro tip: The train system in Europe will take you nearly anywhere you want to go, but it can get expensive. Our tickets to Sitges were only 3 or 4 Euros after the station attendant explained we could buy a pack of 10 rides for a reduced rate.  We were traveling with someone fluent in Spanish, but if that hadn’t been the case, I would have done more research before arriving at the station. Don’t expect to find English speakers working the windows. 

Photo

Day 4:  After a brief ramble down Las Ramblas looking for coffee, we did Montjuic Fort (in the morning) and Gardens (afternoon). Leisurely breaks throughout the day including coffee and lunch at the Juan Miro Foundation. Lovely cable car ride up the mountain and back.  Sailing the Mediterranean and Sunset Tapas: AirBnB Experience. Supper at a restaurant on the shore.

Pro tip:  Learn to use public transportation! We did a few taxi rides the first day or so until we got our bearings, but the metro stop was a short walk from the apartment and we used the bus system several times. With Google Maps on your phone and international data (or a local SIM Card), you can get anywhere you need to go without having to plan everything down to the detail. It’s great! Such a change from our trips to Europe just a decade ago!  

We also traveled with a laptop and the house had free WiFi, so we spent a few minutes each evening researching the next day’s adventures. 

Day 5: Day trip to Girona. Rented a car and drove to Girona. Stopped off in Blanes (one of the Costa Brava towns) along the way to visit a friend and have lunch there – crepes at a seaside shop. (Needed a break from ham sandwiches.) Toured Girona (site of Game of Thrones filming – Circi’s “walk of shame”) with views of the cathedral, the old city, and the city walls.   Toured the Museum of Cinema there, which was an absolute delight.  Drive home. Supper in the apartment.

The medieval church of Girona, famous for its backdrop in several Game of Thrones scenes

One of our group decided to spend the day on her own, and visited a Gaudi museum and did some city walking and exploring. We enjoyed swapping stories about our divergent experiences that evening.

Photo

Day 6:   Sleep in!  It was Friday, and we were all pretty tired, so we enjoyed a very leisurely morning at the apartment. Lunch at Tasso, a great little lunch and tapas place near La Sagrada Familia. Back to Montjuic. After an unsuccessful attempt to see the cathedral without having purchased tickets in advance, we changed our plans….  In the afternoon we all went to the National Museum of Art, and walked down the Montjuic paths to a local Churro shop for our first real taste of churros and chocolate – magical!  That churro shop was well off the beaten track, and the owner poured us some of the biggest drinks (whiskey, scotch, gin & tonic) I’ve ever seen for an incredibly affordable price. 

Day 7:  Half of us toured the Gardens and Olympic Stadium and Plaza in the morning while the other half caught up on sleep.  The Olympic area is well worth your time!

Pro tip: We use AirBnB for travel lodging  because you can’t beat having a whole apartment or house as a retreat when you’re genuinely tired. There’s little that a hotel could offer that we didn’t have at our AirBnB (aside from a pool, but we were in a coastal city), and much that an apartment can provide which far outshines any hotel I could ever afford.

Awake, we went out to a little cafe for lunch then gaped at the awe-inspiring beauty of La Sagrada Familia. Get tickets online in advance! Plan to spend a while at the cathedral just soaking up the beauty.

La Sagrada Familia cathedral

Off to the Gothic Quarter for shots of vermouth and a late afternoon snack. The vermouth was a house blend and it was just fantastic. Wish we had done that earlier in the week.  We shopped a bit too and enjoyed wandering the Gothic Quarter for its architectural interest and quirky little side streets – definitely recommend!  Later in our trip, we found the best souvenir shopping here.  Wrapped up the day by seeing the Maritime Museum – I’d give it 3/5 stars.

Day 8: Leisurely brunch at a lovely little shop lear Plaza Catalunya off Las Ramblas.  Strolling!  Finally back out for a delicious final evening meal in Barcelona at a Basque place  recommended by a friend of a friend, and more wandering in the Gothic Quarter and down by the Port.

Rejected: Mount Tibidabo. We could see it from our apartment, but after researching the fees to ride up the mountain for the views, and the insane price to get in to ride the ferris wheel, we decided to use our day in other ways.

Day 9: Shopping and departure!  We don’t recommend leaving shopping for the final day of a trip, but that’s how it ended up for us. Thankfully, we found some neat souvenirs in the Gothic Quarter, and hauled everything back to the apartment for final packing and taxi ride to the airport.

Pro Tip: We should have checked into whether shops would be closed on Sunday.  They were.  Everything was closed except restaurants.  Really put a wrinkle in our shopping plans.

Final Thoughts

Barcelona was a delightful city for a one-week stay.  It felt more like becoming friends rather than rampaging through the city.

This was the itinerary that worked for us.  It didn’t include as much wine as we’d expected; we found that tapas and jamon got tiring after a few days too.  But coffee breaks were a consistent source of happiness, and we had no trouble finding beautiful places to explore.

In retrospect, I’m very thankful we booked the AirBnb Experiences for paella and sailing, because those gave us such a rich exposure to people and places we would have missed otherwise.

I’m also thrilled that we took the time and trouble to rent a car and drive to Girona. It’s a beautiful medieval city, and the Cinema Museum was one of the neatest collections I’ve ever seen – for just 5 Euros!

My only disappointment was that we had trouble finding good souvenirs. Many of the “tourist junk shops” were owned by people with zero connection to the city, and the merchandise there was worse than usual. Hucksters were swarming us at most popular sites, but their wares were subpar and derivative. Ugh.   Museum shops didn’t really offer a great selection of merchandise worth taking home for the price they were charging.

We’re used to European cities having a signature product that makes a perfect gift. Barcelona offered many wonderful experiences, but little to take home.  Las Ramblas and the shopping districts are fun, but I don’t think of Gucci or Prada or Zara as places to buy souvenirs, just as I don’t shop Fifth Avenue when I visit New York.  We did buy some vermouth (Yzagerre, if I remember the brand correctly) at a grocery store and some chocolate and saffron. I found a neat t-shirt at a local shop in the Gothic quarter along with a few other real gems in that area.  If you’re headed to Barcelona, start looking for your take-home gifts early and often.

But if that’s the worst I can say, it was a great trip! 😉

We’re lucky to have a couple friends whose travel style matches ours. Go find yourself a few people who will be your adventurers, and good luck on the Path! 

I’ll upload the best of our photos as soon as I get them sorted and edited.

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