Barcelona is beautiful. Period. I can’t decide if it’s the temperate weather (which probably isn’t so temperate all months of the year), the prevalence of vegetation down every block (trees, huge trees & shade everywhere!), the amazing breezes that seem to never stop blowing, the quirky architecture (hello, Gaudi), the pretty beach, the amazing subway system, the tapas, the inexpensive everything, or if it’s a wonderful combination of all of those things. My money is on the combination. After a few hours in Barcelona, I already knew it was a place where I could live (you just get that feeling) and we had already started planning our first trip back. If you’re considering a European vacation, I cannot recommend Barcelona enough. It’s a truly magical and positively lovely city.
I often describe Barcelona as “the closest big city” to Toulouse, when I’m explaining where we live in France to friends back in the states. Then they often say, “Oh, wow, do you go all the time?” Until two weekends ago, the answer to that question as always, “No, we haven’t been yet.” Fast forward to a few months ago when our neighbors (Jacira & Alexandre) invited us to join them in Barcelona for a long weekend. Let me just say this – we have the best neighbors, and we could not have asked for two better people to travel with or explore Barcelona. It was a real treat that made Barcelona that much more special for the two of us.
Our trip started on Thursday morning. We’d decided to drive down to Barcelona from Toulouse. I’m told this is around a four hour drive. Due to the long, holiday weekend, it took us about seven hours. Regardless, we arrived in Barcelona a little after lunchtime (which is prime Catalan lunchtime) and found ourselves already hitting the pavement and exploring the city. Our first “attraction” involved us walking down Las Ramblas (see below). This is a huge pedestrian promenade (1.2km) that cuts the city in half, going from a central tourist area down to the water. While it’s a little crowded, it’s 100 percent shaded, filled with lots of little stands and amazing breezes. Jacira and Alexandre let us know they’re planning to build one here in Toulouse – starting at Jean-Jaures (which will be amazing!).
As we walked, we also looked for some spots to eat a late lunch. We wandered off Las Ramblas and toward the first of many Gaudi buildings, La Perdera. I’m told you can go on tours (those are people at the top), but we just admired it from the street and then backtracked a little for tapas/beer at El Principal E’Ixample. If you’re in this area, it’s a legitimate snack/lunch spot. We had peppers, cod cakes, tomato/cheese bread (really outstanding), cheese, squid, chicken wings, and of course beer.
Following lunch, we continued our walk south on Las Ramblas and were taken to La Boqueria, which is a huge market (think Marché Victor Hugo or Reading Terminal or Pike’s Place). Here we got a little fresh juice and wandered through all the stalls. If we lived here, I’d definitely be frequenting this spot AND a big bonus is that the market is open all day long (vs. Marché Victor Hugo closes at 1pm every day). I think this could also be a great spot for a little snack and/or lunch.
As we sipped our juice, we made our way south, wandering through the Gothic district and ultimately toward the port. The sun was starting to go down, and the afternoon just felt perfect.
Not far from the boats is La Plaça Ictineo (below). After a long day in the car and some walking around in the afternoon, we all stopped for a quick cat nap in the cushy grass with a beer in hand (Estrella, that is). Again, this is how I imagine evenings might be spent if we lived in Barcelona. Relaxation at its finest.
For dinner, we wanted seafood. More specifically, we wanted some squid and octopus. We were flying a bit by the seat of our pants and weren’t sure where to go. On our walk earlier I had noticed Bar Celta Pulperia. It appeared to be an extremely small hole in the wall that served octopus. So, we made our way back there and found ourselves with a table in no time. Let me just say, this is not a fancy restaurant, but it was absolutely delicious. So delicious, in fact, that it might be the site of THE best octopus I’ve ever had. I’ve always enjoyed octopus, but I know many people often complain it’s too “chewy.” I’d never found octopus necessarily “chewy” until I had this octopus, which was not chewy, at all. It was melt in your mouth amazing. In addition to the octopus we also had some squid, more peppers, fish, and giant prawns (also REALLY amazing).
We had two funny interactions at this restaurant. The first involved Damm Lemon, which is a Spanish shandy (and you know how we love a good shandy). We were excited to have a chance to drink it/try it, and ordered a glass. We ooh-ed and aah-ed and urged Alexandre and Jacira to try it. After one sip Alexandre made a face and declared, “We should get the waiter, this beer has gone bad!” It reminded me of that scene in Can’t Hardly Wait. We all laughed, though I think Alexandre and Jacira more because they think we’re a little crazy (in a good way). The second involved the giant prawns. Alexandre watched us de-shell the prawns and discard the heads. At this point Alexandre showed Jim how to properly do it and then encouraged him to suck the “goo” (that’s what I’ll call it) out of the head. He was successful in getting Jim to try it once, but not again. I didn’t try it, at all.
We continued with a few more orders of everything and a few more beers as well as some wine and/or sangria. It was the perfect end to the perfect first day in Barcelona with our French “family.”
The next morning we woke up with plans of taking a bus tour around the city and spending some time on the beach. As such, we prepared ourselves with loads of sunblock. Jim and I had coated ourselves with SPF 50-100. After we were thoroughly covered in zinc, we emerged to Alexandre asking us if we needed any tanning lotion, as they had brought some. This is where we had another funny exchange as we explained we burn (white to red to white again) and showed him our SPF 100 Banana Boat sunblock from the US and he showed us his 100% natural French tanning oil that had an SPF of 0. I wish I could wear SPF 0, but I would’ve looked like a lobster the rest of the trip. Once lotioned up and fed, we walked from our apartment to a subway station and passed the brewery of our very favorite, Damm Lemon.
We made our way Plaça Catalunya, but the lines for the bus tours were incredibly long and the sun was shining bright. We decided we’d head directly to the beach, instead, after grabbing some lunch and gelato. Oddly, by the time we made it to Barceloneta Beach (below) the sky was almost entirely covered in clouds. Regardless, we lounged on the beach and had a relaxing afternoon. Interesting factoid – this beach is man-made and did not exist before the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Pretty wild.
After the “bust” at the beach, Jacira highly recommended we make our way up to Park Güell. This would be our second Gaudi experience of the trip. I cannot say enough great things about this park. No matter what you’re doing in Barcelona, be sure to make it here. We didn’t do a lot of pre-planning (though), so we didn’t secure tickets to tour any of the buildings/houses within the park. But, it’s a public park, so we were free and able to walk around to our heart’s content (which we did).
This aspect of Barcelona reminded me a little bit of San Francisco, as it was up on the “mountain” or hillside with amazing views of the city and onward to the beach. My mother informed me this park was initially supposed to be a fancy neighborhood, but something went wrong (people didn’t want to live up there), so it became a park instead. I say Barcelona is lucky it’s a park – we commented how wonderful it would be to be able to job/run or even walk through that park on the daily. Truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
Then there are the views – the views!
The park is massive. At one point I saw a little mountain with some crosses, and declared I wanted to check that out, so we hiked a little more and went over to the crosses. As you can see it was a bit crowded (we all walked up to the top, which I have to admit was a bit freaky), but the views (again) were amazing. If you look at the large view photo above, you can see La Sagrada Familia (the Gaudi Basilica) in the upper left corner with scaffolding as well as framed by the trees in the bottom right photo.
That evening we made our way back to the same place where we had lunch (it was so good). Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant escapes me. Jacira (who is amazing and speaks French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, and English to name a few languages) was speaking with the waiter and organized it where we’d have a special order for paella for 4 that evening. It was so much delicious food. and a perfect way to round out the end of day 2.
On Saturday morning started similar to Friday morning with Jacira bringing back tasty pastries for everyone to munch on. It’s here we were introduced to Spanish croissants (I rather like them), which I’d recommend. The only concrete plan for the day was to visit Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. If you’re looking to visit Barcelona, I’d say this is one thing you absolutely, positively must visit/see. Pro tip – book tickets (at least a couple days in advance), so there’s no waiting in line and you know you’ll be able to visit.
Our tickets were for 1:30pm and came complete with an audio guide and tower tour. It was an absolutely beautiful day (not a cloud in the sky). They say the basilica will be complete in another 9 or 10 years. We all joked the four of us would return for the unveiling and/or buy an apartment not too far. Aside from how great it would be to be in Barcelona with those two again, I also think it’d be worth the trip to just be able to walk around this place without all the scaffolding and to see what it looks like complete.
Maybe it’s from friends who have been to Barcelona or all those art and language classes I took in high school & college, but I was familiar with Gaudi’s architectural work. Photos don’t really do it justice. From the outside and somewhat far away it looks cool, but also a bit messy. Up close it is unbelievably detailed and stunning. There are three facades: the Nativity façade to the East, the Passion façade to the West, and the Glory façade to the South (yet to be completed).
Based on the outside, I never would have imagined the inside would be so simple. I am absolutely in LOVE with the inside. It’s understated in a way that works. And it’s so bright with the most gorgeous natural light and stained glass windows. The below photos capture some of my favorite aspects, but (really) don’t even begin to do the space justice.
After we’d completed our tour of the outside/inside, we were able to take the elevator up to the top for our Tower Tour (photos below). If you have this option, I’d recommend it, as you have a chance to see some gorgeous views and some close up of all the detailing of the facades. The Corn and fruit were two of my favorite things (snapped below). The elevator only goes up, so you’re walking down a pretty windy staircase back to the base. 100 percent worth it.
Jacira and Alexandre were interested in eating good, Spanish pizza for lunch and knew of a restaurant on Las Ramblas. I remember we sat down and ordered a salad and pizza. I scoffed I’d never be able to eat the whole thing, but somehow I ate it all. I think that says something about how much of an appetite you can work up walking around.
After lunch we parted ways with Jacira and Alexandre (who wanted to go back to the beach, since the sun was out) and we opted to take the Barcelona Bus Turistic. We were looking for a way to see a lot of sights without doing a lot of walking. If you’re looking for a good hop on/hop off tour bus, I have to say this is a really good option. For 1 day I think it was 28 Euro/Person, but you could extend it for 2 days to make it 38 Euro/Person. There are also three different routes you can take, covering almost all of the city. From the photos below you can see some of our “sites” from our 2 hour (or so) ride on the mountain loop. In the first photo in the top left, you can see what used to be a bullfighting arena, which is now a shopping mall. The bottom right photo is a statue of Christopher Columbus.
At the beginning and end of our tour we passed Casa Batllo, yet another example of Gaudi’s architecture. We did not go inside, but it is something to see from the outside. This ended up being one of my favorite things about Barcelona…the fact that Gaudi architecture is peppered throughout the city in different forms. You won’t find this anywhere else, and that’s what makes it so special.
We had planned to have our final dinner close to Casa Batllo at Cervaceria Catalana. It was the one restaurant that one of Jim’s coworkers recommended that was already on my short list of places to eat. Let’s just say this spot did not disappoint, either. We finished up the trip with white champagne sangria, some of the best chardonnay I’ve ever had, and so many tasty tapas (I think the best might’ve been the beef on the baguette).
No better way to end a perfect trip with the perfect travel companions. It’s times like these we feel incredibly lucky to be living in Toulouse. So many wonderful memories made. Now to just plan for our return!