Cue the Cheetah Girls and a dreamy guitar boy. That’s your hint that I didn’t know much about Barcelona even though I took seven years of Spanish in grade school — of which I retained nada. No se? It was January, and our group had just been to Prague, Brussels and Paris so we were jazzed about the warmer weather in Barcelona. (If you’re going somewhere cold, dress accordingly; otherwise, it will ruin your trip.)
Barcelona is so much more than a Disney Channel original movie, and here’s several things you need to check off your list:
Eat paella and tapas
My Spanish-speaking friends were quick to let me know that Spanish cuisine is not Mexican cuisine aka no complimentary chips and salsa on the table. But there were some Spanish specialities that I enjoyed. Paella is a large Spanish rice dish with your choice of meat, and it’s hot and fresh. Most places you have to order it as a group because it’s just that big, and they deliver it to your table in a big skillet. Another gotta-try dish in Spain is tapas, which is just small plates. They’re famous for their potatoes with a sauce drizzled on top, and I also really enjoyed their Catalan sausage. You can order these as appetizers for the table or just order several for your entire meal. (Good money-saving tip for you right there.)
This is the Champs-Elysées of Barcelona with its big name stores and little shops. I hit up one of the massive Zara stores and took advantage of the mega sale. This is a heavy tourist area, but it’s worth a visit. I had some friends who bought the cutest mini cacti at a stall, and I hesitated because I had a feeling they’d get taken at customs. But the salespeople assured me they wouldn’t be; I should’ve stuck with my gut. They definitely got taken at customs, so do not buy the cute little cacti no matter how cute and pokey they are (at least if you’re American).
This almost 200-year-old marketplace is right off Las Ramblas and oozes bright colors. Hongyu and I enjoyed exploring this bustling market with crepes, fresh fruit, smoothies and meat. It’s a bit overwhelming but so worth it.
La Sagrada Familia
This is a must-see as it’s one of Barcelona’s biggest claims to fame. This church still isn’t finished, and you’ll see construction equipment everywhere. I didn’t pay to go in, but I heard good things from other group members who did. It’s unlike any church or really any religious building I’ve ever seen with its gaudy Gaudi style. Also, beware: this is a super touristy area, so keep an eye on your bags.
If I’m being real, I wasn’t crazy about La Sagrada Familia as that architecture isn’t really my style. On the flip side, I was head over heels for this once hospital, now museum. When Hongyu said she wanted to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, I was all for it but was interested to see what all the fuss was about for a hospital.
Let’s just say I was shook by this Art Nouveau site. Absolutely stunning! I enjoyed this spot way more than La Sagrada Familia. Not only was the architecture astonishing but the history also wowed me. The gardens are garnished with orange trees, and underground tunnels sit beneath the marble staircases. There’s also pink tiled ceilings, so if this isn’t on your itinerary, you’re missing out.
Get your taste of nature whilst being a huge metropolitan area. (This spot is also featured in The Cheetah Girls.) There are spots you have to pay to see and explore, but much is free. I enjoyed the flowered walls, street musicians and graffitied walls.
We made multiple stops to this spot, and wow, I really enjoyed that gelato. ‘Nough said.
This darling jewelry boutique is clean, cute and reasonably priced. I bought a necklace there, have been wearing it regularly for weeks and found the staff to be very kind.
Let’s go to the beach (each, let’s go get away)
It wasn’t near warm enough to swim, but we Midwesterners (woe is we, landlocked people) had to get a glimpse. Erica and I got up early to see the sunrise, and it was gorgeous. I guess 50s are freezing for the Spanish, so we had the area to ourselves save for a few joggers and dog walkers. The sweet serenity of the morning with the sound of crashing waves is something I can’t shake.
Day trip to Montserrat
I’m glad I made my pilgrimage to Barcelona, but my favorite experience from my time in Spain was our day trip to Montserrat, hands down, no questions asked. We had to take several trains from Barcelona through switchbacks along the mountain for a total of about 1.5- to 2-hour travel time to the spot, and it was an absolute dream. Once we made it to this mountain-side monastery village, we perused the farmer’s market with their fresh muenster cheese and candied pecans. After lunch at the cafeteria (this village is extremely small), we started our hike. I have butterflies in my stomach just thinking about the views of the Spanish countryside. After hiking some, we took the wildly steep cable car up for another view. I could not recommend this day trip any more!