Last weekend I was lucky enough to stay with my lovely friend Emily and her partner Chris in their home in Barcelona. I just love visiting cities with locals (check out my Berlin and Washington DC posts if you agree) as you really do get a much more intimate, personal experience — although of course the touristy stuff still gets in there.
Kerry, Emma and I flew out of Gatwick with Veuling on Thursday night, and took a taxi to Emily’s flat in El Camp de l’Arpa del Clot. What a great location! During our weekend we were able to walk to most of our activities, as the beach was only 45 minutes away, and you could even see the Sagrada Família from their balcony. An added bonus of this visit was the cooked breakfast of garlicky Spanish omelette with fresh tomato bread and olives, thanks to expert chef Chris.
Our first day in Barcelona, we wasted no time and headed straight to the beach. I say we wasted no time, but I actually stopped to go in not one but two shops along the way for an iced coffee and a new t shirt.
Platja del Bogatell
Bogatell beach is one of seven beaches along the 4.5km coastline. Together they’re ranked as the best city beach in the world by both National Geographic and Discovery Channel! I was worried it would be heaving with people, as British beaches are on such warm sunny days. But no, there was plenty of space, with everyone relaxed and chilled (and topless).
Fun fact: Barcelona didn’t always have such lovely beaches, they were built for the 1992 Summer Olympics along with new green spaces and hotels. Before that, this area was mostly industrial. Since the beaches aren’t naturally occurring, the sand has to be artificially replaced whenever it’s eroded by the weather.
We brought most of what we needed with us, including white and red sangria (fancy or what), but there are also lots of cafes and bars along the front where you can buy food or drink. Many of them have their own deck chairs and parasols you can use once you’ve bought something. If you’re looking for something more energetic than sunbathing, there are volleyball courts you can use if you bring your own ball, and you can rent things like paddle boards too.
Most of the day was spent relaxing and drinking sangria, before grabbing some bikini sandwiches (which are sort of like toasties) on our walk back.
Of all the things we had planned for our weekend in Barcelona, this was the one I was most excited about. I had last been to the Sagrada Família on a family holiday way back in 2002, and I couldn’t wait to see how much it had changed in the last 21 years.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona is really something special. The largest unfinished Catholic church in the world, it’s been under construction since 1882, and is expected to be completed in 2028. Through its history, the work has been stalled numerous times, by the Spanish Civil War, by anarchic sabotage, and most recently by the pandemic.
The architectural style is a mixture of Gothic and Art Nouveau and is classically Gaudí, looking like it’s been sculpted from naturally-occurring stalagmites. It towers over all the nearby buildings, and it’s due to be even taller when it’s finished at a planned 560ft. There is a park on either side of it which give you great views of the east and west facades, Plaça de Gaudí which has a pond at the centre, and Plaça de la Sagrada Família. These facades each show a period of the life of Jesus, with the nativity to the east and the passion (crucifixion) to the west. The south facade is still under construction, but it will show Jesus’s ascension to heaven.
To visit the Sagrada Família you need to book tickets in advance from the website. Once you’ve done this, make sure to download the official app, where you can listen to the audio guide as you walk around.
When we walked through the doors, I fully gasped. My mouth actually fell open. With 148ft ceilings held up by 33 massive columns, it should feel imposing, but the natural shapes and the light streaming in from every angle makes it feel like you’re walking into a majestic forest. The columns are even carved to look like trees, separating into branches at the top. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Something I loved about the design of the basilica is that there are no statues on the inside, only natural shapes. This is because all the statues are on the outside, so that the stories are visible and accessible for everyone in the city.
Maybe our favourite aspect of the Sagrada Família, as a collective, was the stained glass windows and the rainbow of light they let pour into the church. To the east the windows are shades of blue and green to create the fresh crisp light of sunrise, while to the west the widows stain the light orange, yellow and red for the warmth of sunset. It really is quite mesmerising.
After about an hour walking around the basilica and listening to our audio guides, we went to get some food. After a sangria at a bar on Pg. de St. Joan, we headed to Bar Xapako, a local tapas joint recommended by Emily’s friend Zack. It was full of locals and we ordered everything on the menu we liked the look of. My personal highlights were the vinegar anchovies and the Iberico ham (which I was determined to eat as much of as possible over the course of the weekend). We didn’t have to go far for digestifs, and ended up at Bar Nostrum across the street for mojitos and vermouth.
This was our big walk day, and we racked up 23,000 steps over 17.5km. From Emily’s flat we walked up through El Guinardó to Parc del Guinardó, where we climbed up to the Spanish Civil War bunkers at MUHBA Turó de la Rovira, before descending through Can Baró towards Vila de Gràcia. This is where we had our lunch before walking home. If you’re looking for a good walk to take in views of the city, I’d definitely recommend it, but maybe not on a super hot day!
Parc del Guinardó
Described as an “over-looked rustic gem”, Parc del Guinardó is one of the largest green spaces in Barcelona. It was actually designed by Jean Claude Nicolas Forste – the world famous French landscapist who also designed the Champ-de-Mars in Paris. The hilltop at the highest point is 250m above sea level, and the pathways snake their way through the park to the top, stopping intermittently at paved terraces.
It was only 22c on the day of our climb, and much of the trail is shaded by trees, but even then we needed a lot of sun cream and water to get us up, so make sure you’re prepared for this hike.
MUHBA Turó de la Rovira
This panoramic view of Barcelona comes courtesy of an anti-aircraft defence system built during the Spanish Civil War. After the Second World War, the officers’ quarters and dormitories around the bunkers were taken over by civilians and turned into a village, now called Los Canones.
Otherwise known as the Bunker del Carmel, the bunkers today are covered in graffiti and great for climbing over to get different views of the city. It’s a 360 vantage point, and you can see all the way out to the Mediterannean, up to the theme park on Tibidabo, and over to Montjuïc Castle.
The home of Parc Güell, Gràcia is a stylish neighbourhood that really reminded me of the Marais in Paris. Known for its 19th-century boulevards and pedestrian lanes lined with indie boutiques, galleries, and arthouse cinemas, this is a great place to mooch around in for an afternoon.
We made our way to Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, where cool Catalan bistros and wine bars surround the landmark clock tower. On the day we were here there was a historic reenactment happening in the square, with dozens of people dressed in soldiers uniforms and hay strewn across the pavement. We grabbed a table at Las Euras and enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip. We shared anchovy-stuffed olives, big meatballs in fresh tomato sauce, and padrón peppers encrusted with huge crystals of salt.
If you like beautiful books and good coffee, make sure you stop at the News & Coffee kiosk in Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia.
After lunch we joined the queue for Anita Gelato on the corner of Carrer de Sant Domènec. The flavours we chose were insanely delicious and indulgently thick and creamy — vegan dark chocolate, pistachio, and salted caramel.
Enjoying our ice creams, we continued to explore the Gràcia streets. Carrer de Puigmartí was closed to traffic and lined with table top games like snooker, marbles and table football. We paused to play while Emily’s partner Chris popped into Gra de gràcia to buy some herbs and spices.
On the Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district, you’ll find Casa Batlló, one of Gaudí’s masterpieces. Most of the façade is decorated with colourful mosaics in blues and greens. There’s a popular theory that the turret at the top is supposed to look like St George’s lance being plunged into the roof of the building which looks like a dragon’s back.
The whole block is known as the Illa de la Discòrdia (“Island of Discord”), due to each building in the row being designed in such a different Modernist architectural style, all by Barcelona architects.
After admiring this beautiful apartment building, we headed down the famous La Rambla, which was absolutely packed with tourists. It was a beautiful evening and everyone was out to enjoy it. We veered off into Plaça Reial, where we found the location of our evening activity: Flamenco.
Flamenco at Los Tarantos
Established in 1963, Los Tarantos is the oldest tablao flamenco in Barcelona. One show lasts about 40 minutes, and costs €20 per ticket, which you need to book in advance. The place was packed when we were there, and we were some of the last in the audience to arrive to the extent that we had to sit at the bar. This didn’t end up being a problem, as we still had a great view and easy access to drinks.
This wasn’t my first flamenco show as Matt and I saw one in Seville back in 2018. Both times I found it really moving how much emotion the dancers and musicians invest in their performance. It reminds me in lots of ways of traditional Portugese Fado which we heard on our trip to Lisbon. It’s worth saying that flamenco is historically Andalusian rather than Catalan, so it’s not strictly an authentic Barcelona experience. But it’s still lots of fun!
That evening we had a gorgeous dinner at Tosca del Carme on the other side of La Rambla. We ordered very reasonably priced cocktails and lots of tapas. Some of the winners for everyone was the ham and cheese platter, the chorizo bean stew and the classic tomato bread (which we were managing to eat at almost every meal).
We’d planned to spend another day at the beach on Sunday, but we woke up to a grey sky and a light but chilly breeze. Hoping that the sun would come back out, we fell back on plan B —a visit to the historic hospital that we had walked past so many times.
Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau
You don’t need to book to visit this beautiful former hospital, but you do need to pay to get in (€16 each). Once inside, the map of the campus gives you a route you can take around all the different buildings.
Built between 1901 and 1930, the Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul is described as a village within a city. Made up of 12 separate buildings connected by underground passages, Sant Pau is the largest Art Nouveau complex in the world. It was a fully-functioning hospital until as recently as 2009, when it was replaced by the much newer institution to the north of it. Now it’s seen as a museum and cultural hub, and is even used as a workspace by the World Health Organisation, Barcelona Health Hub, and the United Nations.
Architects and experts have been working to restore these beautiful buildings since 2009, and some are still covered in scaffolding or completely gutted. Eight of the 12 pavilions have been completed so far. There are only two or three which are open to the public, but the whole campus is a beautiful place to stroll around, with hidden mosaics and intricate window carvings to discover.
In the Sant Rafael Pavilion you can see a historically recreated nursing room to demonstrate how the hospital would have looked in the 1920s. This includes a light-filled “day room” where patients could see their visitors.
The administration building, where you enter and exit, is the largest on the campus. In the basement is the Hypostyle Hall where pillars bear the weight of the entire building, and where the Emergency Services used to be housed. The foyer on the ground floor gives way to a beautiful staircase, with an incredible ceiling and stained glass skylight.
From the Domènech i Montaner Hall on the first floor you can get a great view back over the campus with the Operations House in the middle and the pavillions lining the sides. From the other side of the hall, grand windows look all the way back up Av. de Gaudí towards the Sagrada Família.
After our cultured morning we decided to pop into the Estrella Damm brewery where they were celebrating the launch of a new gluten-free beer with a gluten-free festival. The cobbled square was full of food stalls and red sun chairs, and we browsed around before ordering a tapas spread of pasta.
Platja de la Nova Icària
For our last afternoon in Barcelona we were back on the beach, soaking up as much warmth on the sands of Platja de la Nova Icària as we could before our flight home.
We finally managed to get some churros! On our walk back from the beach, we were rescued from an energy lull by Gelateria Luigi and enjoyed crispy, fluffy, sugary churros dipped in warm nutella.
Barcelona is absolutely dreamy at this time of year. If you’re looking for a lovely sunny weekend away, this really is the best destination. With the beach, the climate, the architecture and the food, you can see why it’s the 5th most popular European city to visit, and it’s so easy to get there from London. If I had to pick my number one highlight it would be the moment I walked into the Sagrada Família —unforgettable.