Top things to see and do in Barcelona
With an artistic and design heritage that’s nothing short of mind-blowing, Barcelona is perhaps best explored through the eyes of an artist.
The Catalan capital and second largest city in Spain offers much for lovers of art and architecture. Throughout its history Barcelona has attracted and inspired creatives like Gaudi, Dali, Miro and Picasso and, more recently, Australian portrait artist Peter Churcher, who has lived and worked in the city since 2006.
Churcher’s work focusses on everyday subjects; the man in the street. ‘What presses my buttons most about Barcelona is the constant flow of human traffic within the urban context of this beautiful city’, says Churcher. ‘Straight away Barcelona offered so much inspiration. I felt I had to be working here.’
With culture and history recommendations from Peter, here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do in Barcelona.
Where to start in a city that is home to dozens of cultural institutions? ‘While there isn’t a Prado or Reina Sofia here, Barcelona obviously represents itself particularly well in terms of regional Catalan art’, says Churcher.
El Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) houses the celebrated Romanesque frescoes taken from 11th and 12th century Catalan churches of the valley of Boi Taull in the Pyrenees mountains. The Romanesque period was particularly important for the development of Catalan art and the MNAC is the place to see it.
This museum also houses an extensive collection of Gothic painting and sculpture, along with the work of important Modernista artists, including Casas, Rusiñol and Fortuny.
Museu Frederic Marès is one of Barcelona’s hidden cultural jewels. Located in a medieval palace, it houses the private collection of the 20th century sculptor Frederic Mares, who collected everything from religious sculptures from the Middle Ages to cigar wrappers.
Perhaps most importantly, the collection features Romanesque and Gothic Catalan art, much of it saved by Mares himself from country churches prior to the destruction of their contents by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.
From there, the displays becomes more idiosyncratic and include china dolls, paper fans, cigarette boxes and ancient gardening tools.
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Most visitors to Barcelona will want to visit the Museu Picasso, which opened in 1963 and has expanded several times. The museum focusses on Picasso’s early career and his relationship with the city.
The Picasso Museum is spectacularly situated in a series of medieval palaces on the famous Carrer Montcada in the El Born district – the ‘millionaire’s mile’ of medieval Barcelona.
Churcher concludes: ‘Most importantly, however, Barcelona’s streets and architecture are the city’s greatest cultural asset. There’s no need to step inside a museum to experience that sense of culture.’
There’s no shortage of historical things to see and do in Barcelona. ‘Being something of a living museum itself, visitors need to know a little of Barcelona’s history to really appreciate the city’, says Churcher.
‘Barcelona was a powerful city in the medieval period; a important Mediterranean trading port with connections all over Europe.’
‘With the discovery of the New World in 1492, attention shifted away from the Mediterranean and across to the Atlantic. Geographically Barcelona had no role to play and fell into the doldrums for centuries.’
‘It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that Catalonia’s fortunes changed. The Catalans, always people of commerce and industry, benefitted from the industrialisation of Europe. A huge boom in the textile industry occurred, which saw the opening of many factories.’
‘At the same time many Catalan families who had made their fortunes in the colonies returned home.’
‘For this reason, today we see two distinct sides to the city.’
‘First, the amazing Gothic Quarter with its cathedrals, municipal halls, narrow winding streets and squares, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s one of the best preserved Gothic quarters in Europe.’
‘The flood of new money towards the end of the 19th century resulted in the newer section of Barcelona, which reflects the Modernista style. This is where we see the rise of Antonio Gaudí, with works like his famous Basilica de la Sagrada Familia and the Park Güell.’
Barcelona is all about shared meals with family and friends at any time of the day and there are literally thousands of eateries to choose from. Try these suggestions:
Tapas: Bar La Plata has been serving up tapas to locals and tourists alike since 1945, so they must be doing something right with their cheeky humour and delicious dishes. Bar La Plata is absolutely famous for its sardines.
Seafood: For the freshest options served by local fishmongers, head up the coast to Badalona and Restaurante Donzella Beach. Watch the catch of the day come in from your table on the sand, or sip a cocktail in the upstairs bar overlooking the beach. This is the perfect spot for a seafood paella.
Casual eats: Mamacafé offers fresh and friendly dining in the popular Raval neighbourhood in town. You can’t go wrong with a lunch menu for less than a tenner. The exhibitions by local artists are an added bonus.
Wine: The historic wine cellars of Les Caves Rekondo are just a 15-minute train ride from the city centre. Enjoy a divine Mediterranean menu of lobster soup, goat and truffles upstairs, served with exceptional Spanish wines brought up from the cave network below.
Markets: La Boqueria dates back to the 13th century and is a must for any visitor to the city. Grab a freshly squeezed strawberry juice for a euro, then stock up on cheese, ham and olives and head for a local picnic spot. If you can’t wait that long, pull up a stool for tapas or fresh seafood.
For shopaholics Barcelona’s El Corte Inglés department stores are an easy option, but as you wander around the Gothic Quarter you’ll find all the big name international brands present, including Zara, Mango and H&M. Look out for colourful Custo, chic/cool Massi Moduli and world-renowned Catalan fashion designer Sita Murt.
At 1.2 kilometres long La Rambla offers plenty of shopping options, but you are likely to pay more on this popular tourist strip.
Instead, head off through the maze of streets between here and the seafront and you’ll discover small art galleries, unique and colourful boutiques for clothing, hand-made jewellery and amazing shoes.
For design-driven shoppers, the concept store Beriestain, by industrial and interior designer Jamie Beriestain, is located in the city’s northwest. It offers everything from restored antique furniture to flowers, perfumes and books and even doubles as a museum and cafe/restaurant!
For relaxing things to see and do in Barcelona, the city’s beaches are great. But be warned: they’re also a haven for hawkers selling ice creams, fake tattoos, foot massages, jewellery and clothing.
If you prefer something quieter, head out of town to the beachfronts of provincial Barcelona, such as the quaint Sant Pol de Mar, between Canet de Mar and Calella. Here you can snack on fresh calamari and a chilled cerveza at a thatch-roofed beach café.
But perhaps the best way to while away a spare couple of hours is to find a comfortable cafe in the old city and get down to some serious people watching.
Says Churcher, ‘Standing on the balcony of my studio is pure Hitchcock Rear Window and appeals to the natural voyeur in me as an artist. The random meeting of two people’s gaze is a quintessentially Barcelona theme that I am exploring at this moment in my work’.
And that’s something we can all explore in this fascinating city.
Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Barcelona? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About Peter Churcher
Peter Churcher’s work is featured in many of Australia’s premier art collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, The National Portrait Gallery, The Australian War Memorial and Parliament House, Canberra. He has been an official Australian war artist and a finalist for the prestigious Archibald Prize several times. Churcher is currently working on a series of Barcelona-specific pieces.
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food reporter based between Europe and Australia. Ruby has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she’s probably tap dancing – and is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew – which produces the monthly Paris Tap Jam. She’s also a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project – which records and performs in Paris and beyond.