I was 17 and I had never felt more grown up. I was being whisked off on a city break by my then boyfriend to Barcelona. A city break! How mature. How impossibly cosmopolitan. And it was on this city break that my love affair with Barcelona got started. The food, the architecture, the indescribable buzz of a truly open and welcoming place in the heart of the Catalonia region.
This was a city that wanted you to love it. And I did.
I returned twice more, never tiring of looking at at the Sagrada Familia or taking a hustle-bustle stroll along La Ramblas. In fact, it was the first holiday I took with my now husband. But my last visit was well over 11 years ago now and my heart ached to go back. With an officially mature eye this time. With just my camera and myself and two days to do as I pleased. Explore my first city on my own terms – could there be a more perfect place for my first solo trip? A place that felt so familiar, yet still so undiscovered.
The short answer? There couldn’t. Here’s how to spend two days in Barcelona!
Barcelona is one of those cities that is perfectly sized for a short but sweet city break. With a flight time of just over 2 hours from the UK, it’s easier to reach than most destinations in England (and Scotland!) and cheap flights are in abundance. I booked £19.99 return flights in the Ryanair flight sale only a few weeks before my departure and it felt like the bargain of the century to be honest.
Once in Barcelona itself, there are lots of options to get you around the city. I chose to walk most places (it helped to work off the borderline savage amounts of tapas I consumed), but on previous trips I made a lot of use of their excellent metro, getting you out to places like the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell really quickly. You can buy a 48 hour pass (or longer, depending on your length of stay) for just 13.05 EUR in advance, meaning you can save your feet for dancing should you be so inclined!
The only thing I would say is that taxis have always felt expensive to me in Barcelona – on my previous three trips I used taxis, especially from the airport and at around 30 EUR one way, I’d say for the 10 minutes you’d shave off your travel time you should get public transport from the airport to your chosen hotel.
Where to Stay
I’ve stayed in lots of places in Barcelona, and usually around the Gothic Quarter or Las Ramblas, but because I was travelling solo and I had a visit to Park Güell firmly in my sites I decided to stay a bit further out from the main bustle in Eixample. It’s known as one of Barcelona’s coolest districts (natch), filled with art galleries, cafes and cool places to eat and drink. It was also one of the first neighbourhoods built outside of the medieval main city of Barcelona, meaning you get to experience a totally different side to the Catalan capital once there.
I opted to stay at the Praktik Garden Hotel, one of a few Praktik Hotels in Barcelona largely due to price, location and I’ll admit the pictures on the website. It’s an entirely instagrammable hotel, with a light and airy vibe and plants every where – it’s sort of bringing the outdoors in. Some of the rooms have terraces overlooking the garden too, which would be a lovely extra if you felt like splashing out.
It’s basic though, but for just £113 for two nights it was such a bargain. I was planning to scope out the breakfast and bar scenes whilst staying in Barcelona so I didn’t mind that the hotel had no bar or breakfast offer. What it did have was plentiful free coffee in the morning and the most GORGEOUS outdoor terrace, which was good enough for me.
A guide to the districts in Barcelona
If you are wondering where to book your city break in Barcelona, here’s a quick guide to all the districts in the city to give you a feel of where to stay (click the area names to book hotels):
- Eixample – impossibly cool, set outside the busy part of the city with lots of modern places to eat, drink and explore.
- Barrio Gotic – probably the best known area of Barcelona, and the oldest. Narrow streets, back street tapas bars and the best nightlife in the city
- Barceloneta – based at the beach, it’s the best place to try seafood and watch the world go by.
- El Born – a perfect mix of the old and new, with the narrow streets you’ll find in Barrio Gotic, and the upmarket feel of the bars in Eixample.
- La Rambla – the biggest street in Barcelona lined with market stalls, shops and an edge of craziness. It’s probably the most touristy area of Barcelona, but it is worth seeing it if only once.
- Montjuic – high up in the hills you’ll find great views, the magic fountains and a sense of tranquility being set slight apart from the rest of the city.
There is so much to do in Barcelona for every single taste and budget, so much so that in four trips there I’ve barely scratched the surface. You could spend your days people watching from a cafe, stopping at every tapas bar you find before collapsing into bed, your belly nicely full. But that would do an injustice to an incredibly artistic city, with architecture to die for.
For Gaudí fans there is so much to see here (and I’ve heard some great reviews of the Gaudi free walking tour with Runner Bean Tours), or for a more general overview of Barcelona, you can grab a spot on my favourite Sandemans free walking tour of the city.
But you’ll want to stop along the way, and this is where I’d recommend:
Probably the most famous landmark not just in Barcelona, but in all of Catalonia. In fact, alongside the Notre-Dame de Paris, I’d say it is probably the most famed cathedral in the world and not just because it still isn’t finished yet! Designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, he took over the work in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926. He is buried in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, and is a true hero in the eyes of the Catalan people.
This year has seen the 135th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the temple, and currently 70% of the Basilica is finished. In fact, there is a timeline to finish by 2026 but its true that there has been a long standing joke about it ever actually being completed. This would be on the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
Despite its unfinished nature, the Sagrada Familia is one of the most impressive and truly awe-inspiring buildings you’ll ever lay eyes on. With its gothic / art-nouveau style and Gaudí’s typical flourishes, it’s an absolutely huge building which is just as impressive inside as it is out. You can of course just spend time circling the outside (and I suggest you do – there is a great park opposite its front facade from which to admire the whole building), but you’d miss out on the incredible moment you walk inside and look up to the impossibly high vaulted ceilings.
Cost: 15 EUR in advance from the Sagrada Familia website. It gets extremely busy, so its wort buying and printing your ticket in advance so you don’t have to queue to buy tickets and then to get in. There are also guided tours, audio tours and tower tours available for extra cost.
Based high up, away from the main drag of Barcelona is Park Güell, comprised of stunning gardens and on-the-brink-of-outrageous architecture by Gaudí. Part of the park is completely free to enter, so you can stroll to your hearts content, but to enter the monumental zone and see the truly incredible mosaic works of Gaudí, you need to pay. It’s worth it too, if not just for the views of Barcelona itself but for the sense that you are in some kind of cartoonish gingerbread house style land. I don’t mean to belittle the works you’ll find there, but it honestly feels a little other-wordly!
In fact, I had missed it the previous three times I had visited Barcelona, and I’m not sure why because truly it was the highlight of my trip. It isn’t the easiest to get to, and you’d be forgiven if you came to Barcelona and just concentrated on the area directly surrounding the gothic quarter. But I implore you to take some time and make the effort to get up there.
You can arrive on foot, by bus, by metro and of course by taxi, but I’d really recommend the bus option. Unless you are super fit, you’ll find the hike up there difficult and you should save your energy for clambering around once inside. The metro doesn’t stop that close by either, but the 24 and 92 busses stop just 250 yards from one of its three entrances. You can easily catch that from the centre of the city, and if you get the Hola BCN 48 hour travel card its all included.
Cost: Some of the park is free to enter, but the best bits are not. You should buy a timed ticket in advance at a cost of 7 EUR per person as they only let 400 people in every half an hour. In height of season you could be queueing up for ages!
Catedral de Barcelona and Barrio Gotic
Located in the heart of the Barrio Gotic, the Catedral de Barcelona (also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia) is clearly not quite as impressive as its long distant relative the Sagrada Familia, but it is a very beautiful cathedral in its own right. It is a fully operational cathedral and the seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona, with masses taking place frequently each day (largely in Catalan, but with the odd Spanish service thrown in for good measure).
But the cathedral is not the only place worth visiting in the gothic quarter and it’s well worth spend an hour or two getting lost in amongst it’s crazy maze of tiny streets and alleys, just to soak up the atmosphere of the old city. Don’t forget to pass by Carrer del Bisbe Irurita (a Neogothic-style bridge by architect Joan Rubió) the Plaça Reial (known as the Royal Square) and the Plaça de Sant Jaume (known as the political heart of Barcelona with the City Hall and the palace of the Catalan Goverment located here).
Make sure you stop and seek out Plaça Sant Felip Neri, a hidden gem in amongst the gothic streets and often missed by tourists. Between 10.30am – 11.30am the square is full of noisy children, playing from the school that spills out into the square, but at all other times its a tranquil place which belies its sad history. This was the spot bombed in WW2, and 42 people died here, including many children. The scars of war are still bourn on the faces of the buildings that face into the square.
Cost: The Catedral de Barcelona is free to enter at various times of the day so it is best to check their website before you visit. At other times you can visit with a 7 EUR donation, but even during the free times you might want to make that donation as you get to see other, exclusive areas.
Casa Batlló, Casa Milo and Casa Calvet
If you are either a Gaudí fan or you just love unusual architecture, there are more Gaudí pieces to be found dotted about the city so you can really appreciate both his style and his growth as one of the most famous architects in the world. The earliest of these is Casa Calvet, one of his earliest buildings (1899) and although more conservative than others you can see his signature curved style even then. Casa Calvet now plays host to a restaurant, so you can experience both the inside and outside of this building.
Casa Milà, known locally as La Pedrera (which translates to the Catalan for stone quarry) is famed for the fact it looks like waves from the ocean – in fact no matter how long I looks at the building I couldn’t get my perspective right.
Perhaps my favourite Gaudí buildings (outside of the Sagrada Familia) is the Casa Batlló, built as a metaphor to St George and the Dragon. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has a completely eye-catching design which makes it stand out proudly from the rest of the buildings. From both the inside and outside it’s a masterpiece of light and colour mixing wood, ceramics, glass and stone in a way that only Gaudí knows how.
Cost: Tickets to Casa Batlló are 23.50 EUR in advance online (28 EUR at the ticket office) with other types of ticket and price points also available from their website.
From the gothic to the scenic, Barcelona is at its heart a seaside city so stretching those legs and heading to the water is a thing every single visitor should do. For me, there is nothing like strolling down La Ramblas towards Port Vell, the boats coming into view with perfect blues skies hovering overhead.
Port Vell has definitely been having an renaissance of sorts, and its the area that has changed most from all my trips to Barcelona. Whether it is talking a stroll along la Rambla Del Mar (a beautiful wooden bridge across the water) or checking out the Palau de Mar (an impressive warehouse that houses many restaurants but also the Museu d’Història de Catalunya) it’s a fabulous way to have some down time and enjoy the sunshine.
You could even pop into Maremagnum, a shopping and dining complex that comes alive at night with bars and clubs in The Village area.
I’d never much strolled across this part of the city, so on my last day spent some time across from Barrio Gotic in El Born