Breath-taking Barcelona is a city that seemingly never slips out of fashion, and with good reason: here you can find a rich cultural heritage, surrealist avant garde architecture, mouth-watering gastronomic delights and even a sandy-beached coastline. It’s little wonder that, despite being notoriously expensive, it is one of Europe’s most-visited cities.
One of Barcelona’s hallmarks, of course, is the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. Most of his works are in Barcelona, including his (still in progress) magnum opus La Sagrada Familia, and each exhibit his distinctive fusion of nature and religion to create remarkably organic-looking structures. One good example is his best-known outdoor masterpiece – Park Guell. With its riotous splatter of colours, topsy-turvy walls and cavernous, naturalist arches, Park Guell feels like one big modernist canvas come to life.
The much trumpeted Banc de Crecandis, an open space with a curved bench looping around its edges, is impressive. So is the oft-photographed main entrance with its Hansel and Gretel houses guarding the foot of a stairway leading to the nest of Doric columns that support the Banc. However, the park’s real highlights are further inside, particularly Turo del Calvari, where higher altitude views of the great city below reward any physical exertion that you have to put in.
After a pit stop to catch my breath, it was on to La Pedrera. Conceived as an apartment, this structure is all about the roof really. Wooden looking figures – a sort of cross between the Easter Island statues and tofu-carved voodoo dolls – sit aside spinning top shaped mosasics. More views are on offer, and from here it’s also possible to contrast it with Barcelona’s most celebrated modern building, Torre Agbar.
Being on a budget, I decided not to pay admission for Casa Batllo. Barcelona is indeed an expensive place! I compensated later on by taking some night time shots of the multi-coloured marzipan facade to go with the ones I’d taken right at the beginning of the day (my hostel was very close to it). I assure you that monetary, rather than time-bound, reasons were behind me not going in. But any lingering disappointment over this was more than made up for with my visit to the stunning La Sagrada Familia.
Entry to Sagrada is through the impressive but, compared to the Nativity entrance, somewhat stripped back Passion facade. I scaled the tower to catch some more great views of the city, as well as a closer up view of the works in progress (expected completion date 2027) that are the towers themselves. Here you get a real appreciation of the naturalistic, intricate attention to detail, with religious symbolism and naturalistic flourishes abounding (where else can you see spires topped by bunches of fruit?)
Back at ground level the interior felt like a masterpiece of grand design. Gaudi truly has achieved his stated aim of creating a ‘forest-like’ effect, as magnificent pillars sprout tree-like from ground to ceiling. The stained glass windows complement the natural light spilling from outside too. Leaving the interior takes you to the unmissable highlight: the Nativity facade. Each of the sculptures here tells part of the story, and the overriding mood is one of joyous exuberance.
Now all that Gaudi stuff is great of course, but if I’m totally honest with myself, what really stoked me for my Barcelona visit was the Nou Camp home of FC Barcelona. When I arrived at the stadium I plunged straight in to the museum. The trophy collection and other memorabilia are impressive, but the most interesting exhibits were the areas detailing the history of the club. Here was an intriguing snapshot of the history of Barcelona’s Catalan identity, which thrust the club straight in to the middle of the region’s turbulent political history, not least during the post-civil war years of Franco’s regime.
It is made abundantly clear that oppression of Catalan culture was rife, and it’s a testament to the resilience of those who’ve run the football club over the years that it has become the major force it is today. The “mes que un club” (“more than just a club”) slogan is everywhere, and this is readily apparent on the rest of the tour too, which enables you to get views of the stadium interior, walk through the press and dressing rooms, limber up in the players’ tunnel and get a dugout view of pitchside.
Back in Barcelona’s compact city centre is the Barri Gotic, home to Barcelona’s La Catedral, undisputed spiritual centre of the city before that man Gaudi came along with his Sagrada. It’s an impressive building in its own right, with rich ornate side chapels lending a grand, noble air to the sombre atmosphere. Look out for the geese in the cloister too!
Aimlessly wandering the streets of Barri Gotic is a good way to get a real sense of Barcelona’s vibe. The old town feels like the city’s heartbeat, really, and its narrow, labyrinth lanes, broken up by occasional open spaces, bring to mind Arabic Medinas, albeit with a Gothic twist. Catalan flags often hang from the windows of the buildings too, a reminder that this region of Spain has its own proud identity.
A visit to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without a stroll through its main thoroughfare, La Rambla. The single place most people rave about is the food market, Mercat de la Boqueria, and you absolutely should give some of the goodies here a sample: the freshly produced smoothies I remain particularly fond of! But the sight of a barely legal Marilyn Monroe lookalike blowing kisses from the adjacent Erotic Museum is something I haven’t forgotten either…!
It is very easy to fall in love with a place like Barcelona. Yes, of course it’s overflowing with tourists and rampantly commercialised, but it’s like that for a reason: namely it is a great city with a character and an appeal all of its own. Believe me when I say that a visit here is very much worth your while.