Take a big bite out of Barcelona with our run-down of the top attractions. The visionary architect Antoni Gaudí is behind the city’s main sights, from Park Güell to the Sagrada Familia. Outside his fantastical creations, there’s the beach, the touristy Las Ramblas and a great Picasso museum: plenty for the hungry tourist.
1. Step inside the Sagrada Familia
Few city sights are quite as amazing as the Sagrada Familia. This famous church was one of Antoni Gaudí’s final masterpieces. The Catalan architect began the project in 1886, but completed only a quarter before he died. It remains unfinished to this day, but the Sagrada Familia proves that art doesn’t have to be finished to be beautiful.
Visiting the cathedral is made up of two distinct experiences – circumnavigating the exterior and exploring the interior. The outside facade is free to admire. Go and goggle at the profusion of carved sandstone as many times as you like – there’s almost too much to take in in one go. Sculptures both gothic and modern crouch under formidable arches and jut from the writhing walls. By contract, the interior is a serene, smooth sanctuary, bathed in light and populated by soaring columns.
Queues can be huge to enter the church (after all, it’s the most-visited monument in all of Spain), so book in advance online and you’ll be assigned a time slot. Inside, let your instincts guide you through the long, atmospheric nave.
Point your camera directly at the ceiling for kaleidoscopic photographs of the beautiful vaulted roof.
2. Take a victory lap at Camp Nou
The pride of Barcelona is its formidable football team, FC Barcelona. The world’s third richest football club play in Camp Nou, the largest stadium in Europe. It’s quite a sight when it’s filled to capacity with nearly 100,000 frenzied football fanatics. The players aren’t bad either: Maradona, Guardiola, Ronaldinho – and, more recently the indomitable Messi – have all made history on the pitch. There aren’t many more thrilling experiences for football fans than seeing a match at the club; just book through their website during the season.
No ticket? No problem – on certain days you can tour the stadium. Deliver your own half-time speech in the changing rooms, find Maradona’s jersey in the museum, and visit the quasi-shrine commemorating Messi. The trophy room says all you need to know about the club’s illustrious history: there’s enough silverware in here to sink a ship.
Barça game sold out? Book to see RCD Espanyol play, another first-division team who call Camp Nou their home ground.
3. Enjoy panoramic views from Park Güell
In a city this sunny, it would be a shame to confine all the art to museums. Step forward, Park Güell: here you can experience Gaudí’s work sparkling in the sunshine. You have to pay to enter the core of the garden, known rather grandly as the Monumental Zone – but once you’re inside you’ll find terraces, walkways and staircases by Gaudí, all in his singular naturalistic style.
Imbued with his own brand of Catholic symbolism, everything in this park resonates with meaning and wonder. There’s a dragon staircase complete with a much-photographed lizard, a pavilion that looks as delicious as a gingerbread house, and Gaudí’s house, which can be visited for an additional fee. The park has UNESCO World Heritage status – rightly so, you’ll think – once you’re admiring the view from the gorgeous mosaiced terrace.
If you don’t want to pay the entrance fee, the surrounding parkland is free to visit. Climb Turó de les Tres Creus – a viewpoint just below three stone crosses, for a meditative reflection over the city.
4. Get bronzed and beautiful on the Barceloneta
Barceloneta, the main Barcelona beach, has always been a star – it even had a cameo role in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. But it only really became a proper beach in 1992, when artificial sand was brought in for the Olympics. These three miles of golden shoreline rival some coastal beach resorts in calibre. It’s a great place to catch a tan. Just hop off the metro at Barceloneta and take a ten-minute walk from here to the coast.
Barceloneta beach is brash and busy. Once you’re here, there’s nothing for it but to embrace the buzz: hawkers hawk, revellers blast out music and sunbathers form a towel patchwork across the sand. Swish hotels frame the shoreline – including the sail-shaped W Barcelona, which will work its way into the backdrop of most of your holiday snaps. Head north to find a quieter spot, or walk south and enjoy Sant Sebastia, the city’s second beach.
Barceloneta was once the city’s fishing district, and it’s still a great place to sniff out a paella. Share one at Barracca, a modern dining destination on the Passeig Marítim Barceloneta, the main seafront promenade.