Photograph by Gunnar Knechtel, laif/Redux
From the street performers who line La Rambla to works by modernist masters like Picasso, Gaudí, and Miró, the Catalan capital is awash in culture, much of it accessible for free with a little planning.
With its Seussian spires and intricate sculptures, the basilica known as La Sagrada Família may be best summed up as otherworldly. Under construction since 1882, the cardinal work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí is slated to be completed around 2026—the hundredth anniversary of the artist's death. Admission will set you back around $20, but marveling at the icon’s fanciful exterior is free. If you do splurge to have a look inside, book online to skip the notorious long line to buy tickets, especially in the summer.
Even if architecture isn’t your thing, Gaudí’s trippy Casa Milà (or La Pedrera, the quarry) on Passeig de Gràcia is a must-see. The house’s undulating face, lack of right angles, and surrealistic flourishes—twisted ironwork, chimneys shaped like soldiers—raised eyebrows when it was completed around 1912 but is now considered one of Gaudí’s greatest achievements. It was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, along with the other Gaudí buildings in the city. The entrance fee is around $23, but it’s nada to soak up the fantastical facade from the sidewalk.
Head south on the swank Passeig de Gràcia—one of the city’s main thoroughfares—and you’ll encounter more architectural gems, especially on the so-called "block of discord." Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s neo-gothic/modernista Casa Amatller and another Gaudí treasure, Casa Batlló, are notable structures there.
Get your bearings by cruising La Rambla, the pedestrian boulevard that stretches from Plaça Catalunya to the old port. The establishment of the 18th-century promenade, which traces the route of an ancient riverbed outside the medieval wall that once protected the city, was a big hit with Barcelonans eager to see and be seen. Aside from the influx of tourists, not much has changed. People-watching is free, as are the performances of buskers—elaborately costumed human statues dominate—though they always appreciate a couple of coins. Look for Joan Miró's circular mosaic halfway up La Rambla, near the Liceu Theatre.
Depending on the length of your stay, your stamina, and your appetite for attractions, the Barcelona Card could save muchos euros. Ranging from about $46 for adults and $18 for children for two days and up to $76 for adults and $40 for kids for five days, the pass covers admission to 26 sights (many of which also allow cardholders to skip the line, such as the Chocolate Museum and the Museum of Olympic Sports), public transportation within the city, and discounts to more than 70 other attractions, shops, and restaurants.
If you’ve got your eye on specific museums, however, check their websites for policies on discounts and free admission before you spring for the inclusive card. For instance, the Barcelona Contemporary Art Museum invites teachers, certain Spanish students, and those ages 65 and older to visit for free. What’s more, the museum’s $14 entrance fee is good for a month.
Several museums also open their doors for free on the first Sunday of the month, including the Picasso Museum. Housed in five adjacent medieval mansions, the museum's collection focuses on the artist’s early years; highlights are the ambitious "Science and Charity," painted when he was just 15, and the cubist "Blanquita Suárez." The museum also offers complimentary admission to those under the age of 18 and to everyone on Sundays after 3 p.m.
Barcelona is blessed with miles of contiguous beaches, but the most popular is arguably Barceloneta. Its broad, sandy beach is within walking distance of La Rambla and is equipped with bathrooms, showers, game areas, cafés, and even WiFi. Prepare to see the occasional sunbather au naturel.
The work of surrealist Joan Miró has a playful quality that resonates with kids, and admission to the Joan Miró Foundation in Montjuïc Park is gratis (those under age 14 anyway, accompanied by an adult, for whom admission is about $15). On display from the collection are hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and textiles, some 8,000 drawings, and a rotating exhibition of works by emerging avant-garde artists.
Tots can choose from multiple playgrounds at the historic Parc de la Ciutadella, including a special toy-sharing area near the duck pond. The rambling green space is also home to the Barcelona Zoo, Museum of Natural History and Science, table tennis, bike and rowing boat rentals, and a glass greenhouse packed with subtropical plants. Another big hit with kids: climbing the woolly mammoth statue near the Cascada, the park’s Baroque fountain and waterfall designed by Josep Fontsère.
Built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc added lights to its water display for the 1992 Olympics. Today, visitors can catch the show most nights after dark, on the half hour.
Food and Drink
The display of whole Iberico hams hanging at the entrance to the Mercat de la Boqueria alone is worth a visit to the storied public market. Inside, hundreds of vendors showcase everything from local seafood (best photo op: the cluster of fishmongers known as the “island of fish”) to regional specialties like olives and wine. Grab a pint of freshly squeezed juice (around $1) and roam among the Barcelonans shopping for dinner, preferably before the 2 p.m. pickup in traffic.
The first thing you notice about Santa Caterina Market is its undulating roof covered in colorful ceramic tiles (meant to represent fruits and vegetables). Refurbished in 2005, the enormous hall has more of a modern, local feel than Boqueria. After you’ve worked up an appetite, take a load off at the reasonably priced Cuines Santa Caterina, which serves Asian-Mediterranean tapas like vegetable tempura with pimientos sauce.
Originally intended as a housing community based on British garden towns, Gaudí's mosaic-riddled Park Güell was converted to a public park in 1926. Entrance is free, but there’s now a fee ($9.60 per adult if purchased online; $11 at the ticket office) to enter the Monumental Zone, where much of the good stuff, like the Dragon Stairway and Hypostyle Room, can be found. (The Gaudí House Museum charges a separate admission on top of this.) Still, it’s possible to wrangle free entry to the zone by signing up for the Gaudir+BCN cultural register. The clincher is you can only register in person at the Oficina d'Atenció al Ciutadà (Citizen Attention Office) in Plaça de Sant Miquel, open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and there’s a seven-day wait for passes.
Despite its dark past as a military prison, the 17th-century Castell de Montjuïc atop Montjuïc Mountain is a tranquil spot to wander around the garden-filled moat and take in the harbor below. Entrance is free after 3 p.m. on Sundays.
You could roam the medieval labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways in the Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter) on your own (read: Prepare to get lost) or take a free walking tour from Travel Bound, whose guides work on a tips-only basis.
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