Ways of seeing Barcelona? Let’s count. By foot, bike, rollerblades, skateboard, segway, bus, guided tour, private tour, self-guided tour… we’ve seen it all in the two weeks we’ve been here. We decided to test a few out.
Most visitors to Spain‘s Catalan capital Barcelona aren’t content with kicking back in local neighbourhoods as we are. They’re here to see the city’s sights – La Rambla, La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, La Pedrera and all of the other Gaudi buildings, the Picasso Museum, Miró Museum, Barcelona Cathedral, and so on.
We were too the first couple of times we visited – and they are worth seeing – so we thought we’d compare several different ways of seeing Barcelona and offer suggestions as to which we think are the best.
Ways of Seeing Barcelona
Let’s face it, you could easily spend a week playing at being Vicky and Cristina in Barcelona, ticking off monuments, churches and museums. But in the process you will probably miss out on exploring some of the city’s many fascinating neighbourhoods, such as Gràcia, where we’re staying in an apartment rental for two weeks.
As travellers, it can be a challenge to strike a balance between sightseeing, which keeps you in the tourist zone, interacting mostly with other travellers, and simply kicking back in everyday neighbourhoods, which gives you opportunities to more authentically connect with locals.
We’ve been giving this conundrum a lot of thought in recent years and over the first six weeks of our grand tour we’ve been exploring ways to try to achieve that balance. We decided to test out the different ways of seeing Barcelona and other cities to determine if there’s a way to strike that balance sooner rather than later, keeping in mind that most travellers don’t do what we’re doing and spend two weeks in each place.
One strategy we’ve been experimenting with has been to do a tour as soon as you arrive that helps you hit the ground running. The idea being to very quickly get your bearings, get acquainted with the place, and tick off the key sights so that you can get on with the more enriching task of getting to know the city’s neighbourhoods and its residents.
We tested out four different ways of seeing Barcelona and here are our conclusions…
This brisk one-hour walking tour should have been called the ‘Barcelona Express’ because it covered more than just the Gothic Quarter. I met my guide at Plaza Catalunya and our small group (just three the day I did it, although sometimes there can be as many as 25) strolled down La Rambla, the city’s main pedestrian walkway, passing La Boqueria market, Bethlehem Church and the Liceu Theatre, before heading into the Gothic Quarter.
On the way, our charming young Catalan guide, Cristina, a specialist in literary and historical tours who studied journalism and film at university, pointed out the Canaletas Fountain and Miro mosaics (neither of which I’d noticed before and yet I must have strolled Las Ramblas scores of times), the old city walls, and the Raval neighbourhood.
Once in the Gothic Quarter, we pinpointed all the main sights as we wandered through the atmospheric Jewish district, following the old Roman roads: Plaça del Pi and the Church of Santa Maria del Pi, Plaça Sant Josep Oriol, Plaça de Sant Jaume, where the seat of the Catalan government and City Hall are, Barcelona’s History Museum, and Plaza del Rei, before finishing at the Cathedral.
Verdict: Highly recommended. Of all the ways of seeing Barcelona that I tested out this was my favourite. The speedy tour didn’t take up a tremendous amount of my time, yet it took in all the main Old City sights, making it a great way for first-time visitors to get their bearings. Our lovely young guide was Catalan, and shared lots of great insights into local customs and traditions that I didn’t know, despite having visited Barcelona a number of times. She was smart, knowledgeable, and her commentary was fascinating. The group was tiny, so it was easy to engage with the guide, however, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much with a large group.
Not a tour as such, of course, but the Barcelona Card is a discount card that comes with a small booklet with information on the main city sights, a map, transport plans, and lots of vouchers for free entry into a heap of museums, plus discounts on other key sights, museums, and attractions.
It also includes a card with unlimited free travel on public transport including metro and urban buses, and travel on the airport train. You can choose from 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-day passes and the vouchers must be used on consecutive days.
The way I saw it was that this would force me to get out and see as much of Barcelona as I could in a short time.
Verdict: Highly recommended. Of the different ways of seeing Barcelona that I tested out, this would be the second ebst for me. Order this online before you arrive in Barcelona, so you have it for the airport train. We really liked using it as it directed us to all the main sights and yet gave us freedom to choose what we wanted to see and when we wanted to see it. It’s also terrific value. Our only complaint would be the requirement to use it over consecutive days. Unless you got the 4-/5-day Card we think it would be impossible to see everything. But we’re happy to be proven wrong!
This open-top double-decker tour bus follows three different tour routes, covering all the major sights, with 44 stops to choose from where you can hop off, explore at your own pace, then hop on again, spending as little or as long as you like at places.
You get a handy booklet with info on the sights and maps outlining the different routes, clearly identifying stops and how long it takes to get between them. They also throw in a discount voucher booklet you can use at the main city sights.
There’s a guide who gives you headphones when you board and the booklet and voucher book if you don’t already have one, however, while he’s there to answer questions, on our trip he stayed downstairs, and we were on top so there wasn’t really an opportunity. You plug your headphones into the back of the seat in front of you and there’s a fairly constant stream of commentary throughout the journey.
If you stayed on board for the whole ride, then the Forum route would be 40 minutes long, while the Northern route and the Southern Route would take two hours each. The routes are also inter-connected so you can change buses at transfer points and create your own route.
Verdict: Recommended, with some qualifications. This is one of the better ways of seeing Barcelona and is great for first-time visitors who don’t have short attention spans – if you do you’ll get bored quickly as there are long gaps in what is a rather serious commentary and the bus goes slowly. Although obviously this is so you can take in the sights and shoot some good pics as you cruise by. If you can get a seat up top it’s brilliant – time your trip so you’re riding along Passeig Gracia, Avenida Diagonal, Montjuïc and the waterfront in the late afternoon when the light on the elegant buildings and views over the city and sea are just gorgeous. Also make sure this is the first thing you do, otherwise, again, you might get bored if you’ve already walked down some of the streets. It’s really great for orienting yourself to the city.
I chose this 3.5-hour tour as it covered the key Gaudi sights, which for many visitors to Barcelona is the main reason to visit the city.
The bus headed up Passeig de Gracia, cruising slowly by Gaudi’s gorgeous apartment buildings, Casa Batllo and La Pedrera. It then stopped at Gaudi’s whimsical Parc Guell which we walked around for 50 minutes.
Back on board, the bus took us to the city’s most recognised landmark, La Sagrada Familia, where we did a quick whizz around the church with the guide pointing out the main biblical scenes.
The bus then cruised down to the Ribera-El Born quarter for a visit to the stupendous cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar, before finishing at the Picasso Museum.
Verdict: Only recommended if you like large group tours. This was my least favourite of the ways of seeing Barcelona that I tested out. It was really disappointing, partly because of my expectations. I thought the focus was going to be on art, and yet our guide’s commentary was laced with all kinds of trivia from shop opening times to the fact that the owner of Zara is Spain’s richest man. The guide also had a tendency to point out every place that featured in the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I didn’t read the info on the site properly, so didn’t realise that the tour was on a big coach, it was a large group, and it was multilingual, meaning there was a lot of time when our tired guide was speaking in French, Spanish and English, so I was hearing the commentary three times – great for improving my language skills, but tedious. Being in such a big group meant sometimes I simply couldn’t hear the guide at all. This was also the first time I’ve ever followed a guide around with an umbrella, and I didn’t like it. Having said that, aside from a few others, the majority of the 30 or so people appeared to enjoy it – they seemed to know what to expect and enjoyed chatting with each other more than they did seeing the sights. I would have preferred a group a quarter or even half the size that was more engaged in seeing the city.
Have you been to the Catalan capital before? What are your preferred ways of seeing Barcelona? Do you ever struggle with trying to find a balance between seeing the sights and experiencing everyday life?