Freddie Mercury couldn’t have sung it better: “Barcelona – Such a beautiful horizon/ Barcelona – Like a jewel in the sun/ Something in Spanish, Something in Spanish/ Viva Barcelona.” After visiting this gem of a city, I was sorely tempted to write a serenade of my own (or learn Spanish) but I decided to spare my neighbours’ ears and write an equally praise-filled travel blog post instead.
Warning: you will want to pack your bags and hop a flight to this magical city the second you finish reading this.
You’ll discover an appreciation for architecture you didn’t know you had
Awe-inspiring cathedrals and impressive historic buildings abound in Europe so unless you’re an architecture buff, an art history major or have an incredible eye for detail, appreciating every cloister, stained glass window and ornate door handle can become a bit of a challenge. (That said, I still won’t pass up an opportunity to climb hundreds of steps up a bell tower or wander through the gilded corridors of a 17th century mansion). But no matter how many stained glass windows you’ve admired, no matter how many pulpits you’ve stifled a yawn in front, you can only feel awe when standing in front of, within, or behind the Sagrada Familia. And it’s not even finished yet.
While construction of the Sagrada Familia began in 1882 under the architect Francisco Paula de Villar, the credit for its majestic design goes to Antoni Gaudi. In 1883, Gaudi took over from de Villar and spent pretty much the rest of his life designing and building his masterpiece. You may be surprised to learn that by the time Gaudi died at the age of 73 in 1926, less than a quarter of the building had actually been completed. But when you see this Modern-meets-Gothic basilica for the first time, you’ll understand why the building is an UNESCO Heritage Site and why it is still under construction to this day. From its fairytale spires and intricate facade to the disco-like lighting provided by its stained glass windows, the Sagrada Familia is worth the visit – architecture lover or not.
Make sure you book your visit in advance (a day or two should be fine) or you may not make it inside. And if you’re craving more Gaudi after this first delectable taste, head to Parc Guell for a garden of Gaudi (entrance to the general gardens is free, but you’ll need tickets to enter the area which houses Gaudi’s works). Still not satiated? Take a walk down the La Rambla and spot two Gaudi creations: Casa Mila and Casa Batllo.
You’ll meet Champagne’s equally bubbly Spanish sister
A trip to Cordorniu is a must for your Barcelona bucket list. It may not technically be in Barcelona, but the 50-minute drive to this historic winery is so worth it. Cordorniu is the first and oldest cava producing wine cellar in Spain. And cava is the mouthwatering Spanish answer to Champagne.Founded in 1551, Cordorniu made quite a name for itself as a winery before claiming the illustrious title of first cellar to produce cava in 1872. Cava is made using the same traditional method for making Champagne. When asked what the difference between Champagne and cava really is, our Cordorniu tour guide shrugged and explained, “The only difference is the region. I’m actually not sure why Champagne is so famous and cava is not.” Me neither. After my first sip of Cordorniu’s crisp and tangy Brut, I was hooked. And, best of all, I could afford to be. Unlike Champagne, cava is seriously reasonably priced. In other words: I walked out of Cordorniu with several bottles of deliciousness.Head to Cordorniu for a tour of the old cellar, which includes a train ride through the 17th century underground storage tunnels, and to sample some cava… and buy some too.
You’ll fall in love with the food
When it comes to eating habits, the Spanish do it best: why commit to one, big dish when you can enjoy a whole bunch of small ones? Sangria-fuelled, tapas-style lunches and dinners were the order of the week in Barcelona. Whether you pull up a chair at a trendy spot in the gothic quarter or opt for a busy bar in Eixample, the tapas options are sure to be plentiful.
The best tapas are the simple ones. Don’t go home without trying some Pa amb tomàquet, fresh bread rubbed with crushed tomato and olive oil (and don’t be disappointed when you just can’t replicate this moreish dish at home); Galician octopus, paprika spiced octopus (calamari is no competition); and lots and lots of jambon iberico, this cured ham is the rich and salty stuff that foodie dreams are made of.
There’s a magic fountain
Barcelona’s Magic Fountain of Montjuïc shows up the Trevi fountain and other renowned, European fountains by adding a light and music show to its list of stunning features. This piromusical (and a shorter way of saying music, water, fireworks and laser light display) lights up Barcelona skies every evening pretty much throughout the year. Show times and days vary so be sure to check this when adding it to your itinerary. Budget conscious travelers will be pleased to know that this spectacular show is a complimentary one. It’s also an incredibly popular one, so if you’re keen on a close-up view, make sure you show up an hour or two in advance to secure a front-row standing spot. But if your early dinner turned into a lengthy, try-all-the-tapas-on-the-menu sort, don’t be discouraged – the metres high water acrobatics can be seen and the dramatic, classic crescendos can be heard from a distance too.
Learn a few salsa steps or show off the moves you already know
Whether you’re a seasoned salsa dancer or a total beginner, a night at a salsa club is a must. There are a couple of clubs in and around the Eixample neighbourhood. Most of the clubs don’t have a cover charge but they do have a one beverage rule; when you enter the club you’ll be given a chip which you must give to the bartender when you have your first drink, he’ll give you a chip in another colour to hand to the club bouncer when you’re ready to leave. Perhaps this is common practice elsewhere, but new to the system, I misunderstood and thought the chip we received upon entering entitled us to a free drink. My disappointment was soon forgotten; a myriad salsa dancers is really quite a distracting phenomenon.
The dance floor is packed with salsa-goers ranging from obvious first-timers to professional-level dancers. The best thing about it: partners switch nearly every song, with professionals and two-left-feeters mingling easily. You can stand at the bar and watch the action or you can linger hopefully at the edge of the dance floor until one of the seasoned dancers offers to give you a whirl. Whether you’ve practiced or not, I would suggest the hopeful-linger approach; my story of being swept around the dance floor by a professional salsa dancer is a favourite from my travels in Barcelona.
From left to right: the kind of tapas you want to have spread across your table every evening – this selection includes cured ham, manchego, chorizo and patatas bravas; after a visit to Cordorniu, cava will be your drink of choice too; views of the magic fountain from our early-dinner-run-late position.