Even when on vacation, it’s hard for a travel editor to stop working. Last summer, I went on Contiki's Amsterdam to Barcelona tour all around Europe for my vacation, taking notes and photos for our Instagram page as we worked our way through Amsterdam, Paris, Lucerne, Nice, and Barcelona. There's so much to see and do in this beautiful city—it's kind of a relaxed, cleaner version of Paris—and we managed to fit a lot into the three days and nights I stayed there. Here's my cheat sheet for visiting Barcelona and some special tips to help you make the most of your time there.
Always book your tickets online ahead of time
If you're planning to see the three big Gaudí sites—La Sagrada Família, Park Güell, or La Pedrera at Casa Milà—make sure you book your tickets online ahead of time to avoid being locked out of something you came all the way to Barcelona to see. As an extra perk, you'll get to skip the long lines by planning ahead. Parc Guëll, a sort of Gaudí Disneyland for the senses, only allows a certain number of people in each day and gives you a specific time to enter, but is well worth visiting. A basic ticket to La Sagrada Família costs 14.80 euros, or 23.80 euros for access to the towers and a guide. Tickets to Park Güell start at 7 euros for adults and 4.90 euros for seniors over 65 and children ages 7-12. Tickets to La Pedrera at Casa Milà are 20.50 euros for adults, 16.50 euros for students, and 10.25 euros for children ages 7-12.
During my trip, we learned only too late that this is a necessary practice for getting inside La Sagrada Família. The day we went to see it, only the one person in our group of five who had booked his ticket online weeks before was able to get inside that day (the rest of that day's tickets were already sold out by the time we arrived). The rest of us snapped photos of the outside of the church, still very impressive, and took out our frustrations on a pitcher of sangria and a table full of tapas at El Tastet de L'Artur around the corner (mentioned below) as we waited for him to finish touring the inside. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, but a little bit of a let down and a lesson in planning ahead we will never forget.
Two Words: Tapas and Sangria
Barcelona is known for its amazing food and the best way to sample it is by ordering plenty of tapas and washing them all down with a cool, refreshing glass of red or white sangria. There are tons of little cafés and restaurants all along the beach at Barceloneta and on all sides of La Rambla, and plenty of daily deals to be had. Right around the corner from La Sagrada Família, we discovered a cute little place called El Tastet de L'Artur that had a set tapas lunch menu for 15 Euros per person. The tapas just kept coming and sangria was included, yum! While you're in Barcelona, make sure you try the seafood paella, another popular and delicious dish. If you're spending time at the beach along Barceloneta, stop by Tapa Tapa, a great spot for a tapas-filled dinner right along the water.
Visit La Boqueria
One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting La Boqueria, a huge market located just off La Rambla (the official address is Rambla, 91 Mercat de la Boqueria) where local vendors sell everything from locally grown fruits and vegetables to locally sourced meats and cheeses. Everything was so fresh! My friend and I spent our morning visiting all the shops, sampling and buying little candies and nuts to snack on, tasting colorful fresh fruit juices, and collecting enough food to have a picnic. Seriously, don't miss this beautiful European marketplace.
See a Flamenco show
If you're feeling adventurous, travel up the hill to the Montjuïc neighborhood for sweeping views that overlook the entire city. Stick around for the Tablao de Carmen dinner and flamenco show, one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. Afterwards, walk down the block from the restaurant's location in Poble Espanyol into the park and watch the Magic Fountains of Montjuic light-music-and-fountains show, an event similar to the Bellagio light and music show in Las Vegas, happening each night between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. free of charge.
Stay in the center of town—for less
You don't necessarily have to spend a fortune to have a great vacation in Barca—stick to fail-safes like Airbnb to stay within local neighborhoods in an apartment rental at reasonable prices. The metro system in Barcelona is so extensive you can even stay in the suburbs and take the trains back and forth—we stayed at the super-swanky Hotel Novotel Barcelona Cornella, located mid-way between downtown Barcelona and El Prat airport, but there are lots of other Accor Hotels, a well-known hotel brand throughout Europe, that offer many budget-friendly options. If you're deadset on staying in the city center, another affordable option is Generator Hostel, a new type of hostel designed to resemble a boutique hotel—the only difference is that some of the rooms have bunk beds. I stayed in a private room at the Generator Hostel in London during a trip in March and would definitely recommend this brand for its unique design and fun nightly activities they host to encourage everyone to hang out and get to know their fellow travelers.
The metro is your friend
If you're going to be making a bunch of trips on the city's metro, it's better to purchase the 10-trip pass and you and your friends can work your way through them for up to 10 trips for about 10 euros. The Barcelona metro is pretty easy to navigate, and reaches just about everything you'll want to see, often leaving you within a short walk of whatever you're trying to find. If you're going to be out late, please be aware that parts of the metro do shut down after midnight. We were stuck one night as a result of this and ended up splitting a cab, which wasn't really a big deal, but it can be pretty surprising when you're in a new place and plans change suddenly.
Party like a boss
If you feel the urge to party like a rock star, there are plenty of places to choose from for amazing nightlife. Try the trendy Port Olympic area, home to Opium, one of city's hottest nightclubs. As some people in our group learned, Opium requires its guests to be classy individuals, dressed to the nines, and not appear to be intoxicated when you enter (so take it easy before you go out, and be on your best behavior when in line and are close to the door as this policy is strictly enforced). If you've ever wanted to dance all night til the sun comes up, this is the place to do it—during the summer months, the doors open onto the beach and the party continues in the sand at sunrise.
A word about safety
Our Contiki Trip Manager gave us a big speech in Barcelona warning us about purse-snatchers and pickpockets, especially in tourist hotspots like La Rambla. Keep a close eye on your personal belongings, especially fancy phones and cameras, and whenever you leave the city's various bars and clubs at night. Female travelers should always take a taxi home with a group or at least tell someone where they are going and when they expect to be back. That being said, our group didn't really have a problem—most of the time on La Rambla (at night after dinner and drinks) it was no worse than being in Times Square and seeing people hawking different things at you, like "Hey girls, want to get free drinks? Hey girls, want to see a show?" It all comes down to you being alert and paying attention. Once during my time in Barcelona, I stopped on the street during our guided walking tour to buy something, and realized later on that the man had given me back the wrong change and I had been scammed. I should have only paid 8 Euros and I had inadvertently paid 15 because our group was nearly out of sight and I was distracted, hurrying to catch up at the time. It was really only 7 euros, but still something to watch out for.