On a rainy Sunday afternoon in Nice, my feet feel a bit itchy so I jump on Skyscanner flight search and type in “Nice” to “Everywhere”. The rain makes me restless and I feel a need to escape. The Skyscanner search pulls up the cheapest flights from Nice to anywhere and leads me to Budapest, a place I’ve always been curious about. Excited by the dirt cheap fare on Wow Airlines, I jump at the chance to see Budapest and start to book my flights leaving in just two days. But the Wow Airlines website has issues with my phone number and won’t accept any version of it. As hard as I try, I can’t get beyond the basic information page to actually book my flight without a valid phone number. So, I return to Skyscanner and find a Plan B – BARCELONA! Surprisingly, I find a dirt cheap flight on Vueling Airlines ($81 USD round-trip) and book it! Finally, I’m heading to a place that’s been on my bucket list for years! So, here are a few Barcelona travel tips to make the most of a surprising, spontaneous getaway and find the magic in this amazing city!
The first surprise – that I’m going to Barcelona rather than Budapest!
The second surprise – no hotel deals?
Surprisingly, there are NO hotel deals available! I’m usually an expert in finding travel deals but Barcelona baffles me. The options are either top-end hotels (expensive) or dirt-cheap hostels. It seems Barcelona lacks the basic, one-star, bare-but-clean hotel option. So, thirty years after my first European backpacker hostel experience, I decided to try it again and I book A DORM ROOM in a hostel! Agoda has a deal for just $64 USD total for four nights at St. Christopher’s Inn. It’s perfectly located near Placa Catalunya and a great price. I figure at that price, if it’s completely unbearable I’ll just leave.
The first night in my dorm room with eleven other women from all over the world, I almost give up. Each bed has a thick, gray curtain which blocks out the light, offers a bit of privacy, and creates sort of a little capsule feel. Unfortunately, it also blocks out all air flow and I spend the first night tossing, turning, and sweating as I listen to the night sounds of my roommates snoring and farting.
The next day, I search every gift shop and junk store in Barcelona and find a tiny electric fan. Best twelve Euros I’ve ever spent! The next few nights I have air circulation inside my tiny coffin-like capsule and am oblivious to the night sounds of my farting, snoring neighbors.
(Barcelona travel tip – pack a portable fan if you attempt to endure the backpacker hostel dorm scene!)
The third surprise – Amazing Barcelona bakeries!
On my first morning in Barcelona, I wander aimlessly. That’s one thing I love about exploring a new city – just wandering while I let the city reveal its magic. On that morning, I stumble upon the most amazing hole-in-the-wall bakery with magical white chocolate croissants. As I look around I realize that Barcelona’s bakeries are even better than the French bakeries in my Nice neighborhood! So I give in and indulge in a huge white chocolate croissant and wash it down with a cup of Americano, confident I’ll walk off the calories while exploring the city.
(Barcelona travel tip: best place for white chocolate croissants is El Mos bakery located on Carrer Dels Tallers.)
The fourth surprise – I’m not immediately blown away by Barcelona. (Huh?)
On that first day, I was NOT feeling the magic of Barcelona. It was a bit overcast, slightly gloomy March day and I was tired and sleep-deprived from my restless night in the dorm. I walk through the narrow streets of Las Ramblas, take a stroll down to the port, and stop at Placa Reial for a cappuccino and some people-watching. Across the plaza, some Barcelona football fans are warming up for that evening’s home game against Manchester. They’re loud, drunk, obnoxious football fans. As the afternoon wears on and game time nears, the city is filled with drunk Barcelona fans screaming at Manchester’s drunk fans.
For dinner, I find an open-air cafe along Ramblas, order a large beer, and watch drunk football fans stagger by. After dinner, I stop by a few nearby jazz bars in search of live music. But, sadly, there is no live music that night – there’s a home football game so no one cares about music.
I stroll back toward Placa de Catalunya near my hostel but I really don’t want to go back to that horrid dorm room without a few drinks, so I stop at Cafe Zurich and it’s a great find! With red wine for 2.85 EUR and outdoor tables ideal for people-watching, it’s perfection!
(Barcelona travel tip: Cafe Zurich is located at Placa Catalunya near the El Triangle Shopping Center.)
The fifth surprise – Sagrada Familia blows my mind!
The next morning, the sun comes out and the sky is blue. I fill up on strong coffee, determined to attack some of the highlights of Barcelona with a bit more enthusiasm. After a long walk through local neighborhoods, I finally arrive on the corner across from Sagrada Familia and gasp in awe. (“Holy S**t!”) Even from a distance, I sense this is a magical place. I join the long line for tickets not caring how much it costs to get in and opt for the entrance ticket plus audio guide for 26 Euros. It’s TOTALLY worth the price of admission.
This huge Roman Catholic church was designed by famous local artist/architect Antoni Gaudi (1852 – 1926). Work began in 1882 and at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, less than 25% of the construction had been completed. Construction finally reaches the halfway point in 2010 and completion is estimated in 2026.
Before walking in, I spend some time outside admiring the detail in the carvings above the entrance door. Biblical stories are told within each of the intricate carvings lining the facade.
And then I walk into the church and it blows my mind! Sagrada Familia is a truly stunning place and, finally, I’m feeling the magic of Barcelona! I’ve been to a lot of churches and cathedrals in my time and this is definitely my favorite. Better than the Duomo in Florence and possibly even better than St. Paul’s in Rome? (Well, maybe…)
Gaudi was a fan of incorporating nature into his work and designed the huge interior pillars to represent trees and branches. There is symbolism in every design detail so purchasing the audio guide is highly recommended. The explanation of Gaudi’s vision makes the visit so much more meaningful.
(Barcelona travel tip – put Sagrada Familia on the top of your “To Do” list!)
The sixth surprise – Barcelona is made for walking!
After having my mind blown at Sagrada Familia, I decide to walk somewhere near the Arc de Triomf and manage to find it without Google maps or GPS. Surprisingly, Barcelona is extremely easy to navigate on foot. The metro is efficient, but for tourists, walking allows you to get a real feel for the city.
Walking through the local neighborhoods en route to the Arc, I notice Catalan flags proudly displayed in many windows and on balconies. Many of the people wear yellow ribbons showing their support for the separatist movement and defection from Spain. (The people of Barcelona are Catalan and have a very different language and culture than the rest of Spain. There is strong separatist movement in favor of defecting from Spain and creating the Catalan Republic.)
Once I reach the Arc de Triomf, I keep on walking and discover a city filled with parks, promenades, and places to just hang out and relax.
(Barcelona travel tip: Walk everywhere and soak up the vibe of Barcelona.)
The seventh surprise – Beautiful Barcelona beaches!
On my last morning, I hit the coast and explore the port and beaches of this coastal Mediterranean city. Outdoor waterfront seafood restaurants and small cafes line the port area. Across from the port. the plaza is lined with North African, Indian, and Pakistani salesmen selling knock-off Nike’s, cheap sunglasses, and “designer” handbags. Beyond the plaza, I finally get my first glimpse of a Barcelona beach – a beautiful wide stretch of fine sand. Outdoor cafes line the plaza across from the beach and I imagine the area on a warm summer day, filled with sun worshippers, volleyball players, and water sports enthusiasts. Even on a cloudy Spring day, I notice the sailboats and SUPers out on the rough waters of the Mediterranean.
(Barcelona travel tip: during warmer months, plan to spend a day exploring the port and beaches of Barcelona.)
The eighth surprise – Montserrat’s mountaintop monastery.
Montserrat is a stunning mountaintop monastery located about an hour north of Barcelona. Although the tourist office offers day trips to Montserrat for about 70 Euros, it’s very easy to get there on your own for 20 Euros round trip. The organized tours are typically half-day tours, which is probably enough if you’re not into hiking. However, if you are a hiker, one full day is not enough to hike all the surrounding trails. The entire area is one huge national park with great trails and absolutely stunning views! For hikers wishing to spend the night and explore more, Hotel Abat Cisneros has 80 rooms and a restaurant in an ancient stone hall. Fortunately, there are also a few other bars and restaurants in town for a post-hike beverage.
(Barcelona travel tip: Follow this detailed guide on getting to Montserrat on your own.)
The ninth surprise – Vueling Airlines!
I usually am not a fan of European low-cost carriers after having some horrid experiences with Easy Jet. Based on that, I had really low expectations of Vueling and booked them only for the cheap price. Before getting to the airport, I checked their carry-on baggage restrictions and got out the tape measure to make sure I’d be in compliance. Shockingly, I found Vueling to be the opposite of Easy Jet. Check-in was quick and painless, the flights were on time, and there was no “bag police” at the gate like Easy Jet where they force you to stuff your purse inside your carry-on to comply with their strick ONE BAG policy. Vueling felt like a “real” airline at a bargain price!
(Barcelona travel tip – if you’ve got a choice between Easy Jet or Vueling, always choose Vueling!)
More Barcelona travel tips: sites on my “To Do” list for next time:
Casa Battlo – an apartment building masterpiece built by Gaudi. I visited the outside but the museum tour is on my list for next time.
Park Guell – another of Gaudi’s masterpieces, this huge park complex features Gaudi’s dragon sculpture and offers stunning views of the Barcelona skyline. Another must-see.
Gracia – quaint suburb just north of downtown.