Barcelona is a world-class city with a beach town feel. Visitors can spend just as much time outside in the sun at a sidewalk café or on the beach as they can soaking in the fantastic museums and cathedrals. It's easy to satisfy all your touristy curiosities and still settle in quickly, finding your favorite tapas bar just around the corner from the apartment you, at least for awhile, call home.
There were pre-Roman inhabitants in the area where Barcelona is now located, and the area was occupied by the Greeks and Carthaginians prior to the Christian Era, but around the 1st century AD, Roman occupation put the community of "Barcino" on the Western Civilization map. It remained a small Roman town until around 250 when northerners started to invade and an increase in the city's fortifying walls ensured its eventual growth.
The first thousand years of Barcelona's history are characterized by relatively peaceful occupations by everyone from the Visigoths to the Moors to eventually the rulers of the Crown of Aragon. Under the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia became an important maritime power and Barcelona an important trading port in the Mediterranean. The unification of the Spanish Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1496 shifted the power to Madrid, and a focus on the Spanish exploits of the Americas decreased the importance of Barcelona as a trade port.
It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that an industrial revolution brought a kind of Golden Age to Barcelona, renewing its cultural splendor and leaving a trail of architecture and modern works that characterize the city still today. Throughout the 19th century increased urbanization, including a metro system, attracted the world's attention. The Spanish Civil War and Franco's eventual reign threatened to strip Barcelona of its unique cultural identity and development, but instead the city emerged with a stronger sense of itself as a mixed city with the potential for international greatness.
The 20th century saw profound changes in Barcelona with huge influxes of immigrants that resulted in rapid industrialization and improvements in running water, electricity use, and public transportation. The 1992 Olympic Games were a testament to how far the city has come. Barcelona has, in recent decades, established itself as a world-class city in business and industry and its spectacular architecture and traces of its history attract visitors from all over Europe and the world.
Barcelona is located on the northeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. It is 160 kilometers from the Pyrenees Mountains and Spain's border with France. The city is concentrated between mountain ridges and the sea in an area of about 100 square kilometers.
The city is home to about 1.5 million people and is the second largest city in Spain.
Barcelona has two official languages: Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a distinct language from Spanish—not a dialect—but they share common Latin roots and some Catalan words can sound very familiar to Spanish-speakers. As co-official languages, both have a presence in the city, but Catalan is the historic native language of the region. Thanks to immigration from other parts of Spain and Latin America, Spanish speakers should have no trouble getting around Barcelona. English is not widely spoken in the city (locals may understand your English, but may not necessarily respond in English), so it's best to learn some basic Catalan or Spanish before heading to Barcelona for any length of time.
Barcelona locals are sometimes surprisingly more conservative than tourists expect. Sure they eat dinner at midnight and love their festivals, but a typical Barcelonan is a well-dressed business person on his way to work. They are a passionate people, but don't confuse passionate with wild. You are more likely to get into a heated political discussion than a fist-fight. As in any big city, the tourist sites are often scenes of petty crime, but out where the real people live and work in Barcelona you can expect the locals to be overtly friendly and helpful…especially if you at least try out a few words in Spanish, or even better, Catalan.
The core of the city's attractions are easily accessed by foot over the course of an afternoon, but to get farther out and to see it all, you are encouraged to get familiar with the city's fine public transportation system. There are free transportation maps especially for tourists available at the transportation service centers. Organized walking tours are another great way to get to know Barcelona's varied neighborhoods.
Museu d'Historia de Catalunya (Catalonian History Museum): A local history museum with a strong focus on raising awareness of Catalonian cultural identity. Located in one of the oldest buildings along the old port. In the Palau de Mar, Pl. de Pau Vila 3. +34 93 225 47 00.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Catalonian National Art Museum): The museum has a collection focused on art from the region from Roman times to the mid-20th century, but there is a strong international presence as well, especially of Baroque and Renaissance works. Located in the Palau Nacional, built for the 1929 Expo. In the Parc de Montjuïc. +34 93 622 03 60.
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art): MACBA is well-known as one of Europe's finest contemporary art collections. A wonderful and thorough sampling of art works from 1950 through today with a focus on Barcelona artists. Plaça dels Angels 1. +34 93 412 08 10.
Picasso Museum: Barcelona's Picasso Museum focuses on the famous artist's developmental and early works, but includes pieces from throughout his career. Montcada 15-23. +34 93 256 30 00.
The Joan Miró Foundation: Extensive collection of one of Barcelona's most famous artists. Includes paintings, sculptures, and drawings. In the Parc de Montjuïc. +34 934 439 470.
Antoni Tàpies Foundation: Contains a largely complete collection of Tàpies' works and focuses on education and accessibility of modern art. Aragó 255. +34 934 870 315. Closed for renovation until mid-2009.
CosmoCaixa: This science museum opened in 2005 and has earned the reputation as one of the finest museums of its kind in Europe. The "Flooded Forest" Amazon rainforest exhibition is a proven favorite among children and adults. Teodor Roviralta 47-51. +34 902 223 040.
Maritime Museum: Located on the harbor where the royal shipyard used to be, the Maritime Museum covers the importance of Barcelona as a Mediterranean port city as well as other aspects of nautical history. The collection includes model ships, nautical artwork, figureheads, and a fine exhibit of nautical maps. Admission includes a tour of a 3-masted schooner in the harbor. Av. de les Drassanes. +34 933 429 920.
Gaudí Architecture: It's impossible not to see one of Antoni Gaudí's works while you're in Barcelona. You can take a guided tour, pointing out the highlights or at least find a tourist map and track as many of them down as you can. Of course, his unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, is the top tourist attraction in town. It's free to see it from the outside, but also worth the entrance fee to have a look inside. The Park Güell contains many sculptures and architectural elements. The park is free, but entrance to Gaudí's house, "La Torre Rosa," and its collection of Gaudi-designed furniture is not.
La Catedral: The main cathedral of Barcelona has a Gothic façade dating from 1870, but the rest of the building has been there hundreds of years longer and the present building is located on the place where the Roman temple stood over 2000 years ago. Plaça de la Seu. +34 93 342 82 60.
Camp Nou Stadium: Home of FC Barcelona, Camp Nou Stadium is the largest stadium in Europe (seating nearly 100,000)—so large that often games don't sell out, so find yourself some tickets and experience football pandemonium at its best. You can take a tour of the stadium when there isn't a game and the adjacent Football Museum will be of interest to any fan. Avinguda Aristides Maillol. For museum and stadium tours: +34 93 496 36 08. For tickets: +34 90 218 99 00.
La Rambla: This beautiful and busy pedestrian street is one of the most famous in the world. The tree-lined promenade is good for a stroll, and especially for some shopping, coffee drinking, and street-performer watching.
Montjuïc Mountain: Montjuïc is the name of the hill rising in the southeast of the city with great views of the city and the sea. The hill is a recreational area in itself but many of Barcelona's attractions are clustered here as well, including the 18th century Montjuïc Castle, the Botanical Gardens, the Olympic Ring, the National Palace and several museums.
Olympic Sites: The facilities where the 1992 Olympics were held are located around Montjuïc. In keeping with Barcelona's tradition of innovative architecture, all of the stadiums and pavilions erected for the Olympics were designed by famous architects and a stroll through the grounds will not disappoint.
Palau de la Musica Catalana: This concert hall, built between 1904 – 1908, is one of the best examples of regional modern architecture and if you can't get concert tickets, you can at least have a short tour of the stunning facility. C/ Sant Pere Més Alt. For concert tickets: +34 902 442 882.
L'Aquarium: Barcelona has one of the best aquariums in Europe with a focus on Mediterranean ecology and the huge "oceanarium" that offers close-up encounters with sharks. Moll d’Espanya del Port Vell. +34 93 221 74 74.
Figueres: This small town a few hours to the north of Barcelona sees most of its visitors head directly to the Teatre-Museu Dalí—a collection of some of Salvador Dalí's most bizarre works. The museum is worth the day trip in itself, but the town has a few other attractions—a castle, more museums, Roman ruins—making a 2 or 3 day trip quite possible.
Sitges: 40 kilometers down the coast from Barcelona, Sitges is probably the most famous of the nearby beach resort towns. A charming old town meets newer and bigger resorts on the beach, but Sitges stays true to its relaxed beach town roots. It's nice to take it easy on the sandy beaches but Sitges is also a famous place to party (the gay scene is particularly rich). Book ahead during summer and the very busy Carnival season.
Montserrat: Montserrat is a jagged peak about an hour northwest of Barcelona. The views of the "serrated mountain" are quite spectacular and the view from the 1200 meter peak is fantastic as well. Take the cable car to the top or hike for several hours, experiencing the region's unique landscape. An active monastery and a shrine to Our Lady of Montserrat, Patron Saint of Catalonia, are waiting for you at the top.
Barcelona is a nice outdoor city with great weather and lots of parks and plazas. Children will enjoy exploring the city, and the CosmoCaixa and L'Aquarium are two museums they will really enjoy, with lots of exhibits for younger visitors. Barcelona's nightlife isn't exactly kid-friendly, but the area is perfect for a small road trip. Consider taking a few days to drive along the Costa Brava, stopping at the many beaches and beach towns along the way.
Barcelona's cuisine has a fine reputation for being both tasty and innovative. Its position on the sea means lots of seafood, but other meats (mainly poultry and pork) are well-represented, often combined with fish or shellfish. Expect most dishes to be heavy on the garlic and typically tomato-based like many Mediterranean cuisines. Besides paella (which is native to Valencia, south along the coast), expect a wide selection of sandwich-like food. Great slices of thick bread are served with fresh tomato, garlic and olive oil as a common breakfast food. Hams, salamis, cheeses, olives and pickled veggies are common lunch items. Dinners are exciting and varied with inventive sauces combining fruits, nuts and spices. Plan on having a bowl of fish stew down on the waterfront at least once.
Barcelona has a strong identity as a city with a great nightlife. It's possible to find any kind of bar or club in the city. Daytime cafes often double as bars at night. With its modernist bent, there are lots of jazz clubs as well as the postmodern dance clubs. There's a good mix of beer, wine and spirits, but cava—the local sparkling wine—is the specialty and the xampanyeria, or champagne bar, is a regional phenomenon and well worth devoting an evening to.
Barcelona is the fashion capital at least of Spain and is fighting for a distinctive position in the rest of Europe. Designer clothes and high-end shoe stores are easy to find, but the shopping in Barcelona is about more than just fashion. Decorative art is also high on the list, with both functional items and whimsical gifts available in a wide price range. From modern malls to long pedestrian streets to traditional markets, there is a lot to buy in Barcelona and plenty of places to go shopping. Hours tend to be fairly long on weekdays but with a distinctive break for lunch and siesta in the afternoon.
The main international airport is about 10 kilometers outside of the city and is connected by train, bus, and taxi to the city center. Barcelona is being served by more and more discount airlines from all over Europe, increasing air traffic and visitors every year. Some airlines fly to Girona (notably Ryanair), which is over an hour north of Barcelona by bus or train.
Car traffic coming into Barcelona from outside the city is fairly light considering the popularity of road trips around the region. A car can, however, be a hassle in the city with limited parking and plenty of pedestrianized streets. If you plan to stay in the city for a few days, consider parking the car either at your apartment if it's possible or at a large parking area outside of the city center and take advantage of the accessible public transportation.
Trains connect Barcelona with other major cities in Spain and neighboring France and Portugal. For smaller destinations around the city, it is more common to travel by bus than by train.
The metro system is extensive in Barcelona, connecting all the surrounding neighborhoods. You can buy a single-journey ticket or, even better, purchase a 1- to 5-day transportation card that will grant you unlimited access to the metro, buses and trams. The Barcelona Card offers the same transportation options but includes entrance to many attractions as well. The metro runs until midnight on weekdays and 24-hours during weekends.
The city bus system is connected to the metro system and can get you anywhere in the city. Long distance buses go from Barcelona to many nearby towns as well as farther afield.
Taxis aren't unreasonably expensive like in many cities in Europe, but with a great public transportation system, you might not ever have to travel by cab. Late at night, it's sometimes your only option, however, and the local taxi drivers are generally quite honest and abide by the meter, though they are likely to refuse to take you if you are too many passengers or have too much luggage.
Barcelona enjoys a pleasant Mediterranean climate with comfortable weather year-round. Summers are warm to hot with temperatures in the high 20s to 30s°C. Higher humidity levels in August can make it a bit steamy, but generally summers are quite nice. The most rainfall comes in the autumn months of September and October, but these days are interrupted by sunny days and moderate temperatures. The winter months are cool, but rarely cold with temperatures in the 10s°C with an occasional freeze in January or February.