Text and photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia
“STOP MASS TOURISM.” The bright red letters were stencilled on a tourist map sign near the Roman Wall ruins in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella (Old Town).
It’s not difficult to see why some Barcelona residents are not too welcoming of tourists. Catalonia’s capital city of 1.6 million permanent residents received around 32 million tourists in 2017, and it often feels as though Barcelona is bursting at the seams.
Once the cruise ships dock, a tsunami of tourists descend on La Rambla, a picturesque pedestrian street that runs from Port Vell to Placa de Catalunya.
Lined with trees and tacky souvenir shops, La Rambla is sadly what most tourists think Barcelona is all about — giant mugs of sangria, overpriced and bland paella, and, unfortunately, pickpockets and scam artists.
The crush of tourists can also make it impossible to take a decent photo of the giant Joan Miro circle mosaic on the pavement, or get a sip of water from the Font de Canaletes.
An inscription on the floor next to the Font de Canaletes suggests that anyone who drinks from the fountain will return to Barcelona. (I was a bit skeptical when I did it the first time, but I guess since I did return to Barcelona this year, there must be some truth to it. And, no, I did not get sick from drinking the water.)
Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria or simply La Boqueria is another top tourist draw, with its entrance along La Rambla. It’s best to visit when it just opens at around 9 a.m. so you can take a close look at the offerings — from fresh seafood and fruits to olives, jamon Iberico, and cheese.
La Boqueria is also a good place to have breakfast, since some bars like El Pinotxo and Quim open at 7 a.m. on some days. Avoid going here around lunchtime, since you’ll probably end up frustrated at not getting a seat at the popular bars.
A lesser known food market is Mercat de Santa Caterina, which is built on the former site of the Convent of Santa Caterina. Despite its colorful curvy rooftop and Instagrammable food stalls, the market isn’t quite on the radar of most tourists (yet).
One good thing about La Rambla is if you turn into one of the side streets, you’re sure to find something interesting.
In my case, I found myself in the middle of Placa de la Seu. The plaza is dominated by the Barcelona Catheral (Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia). It has an impressive Gothic facade, but is mostly overlooked as more tourists flock to the Sagrada Familia.
Unlike the Sagrada though, entrance to Barcelona Cathedral is free. The 15th century cathedral is dedicated to the Barcelona’s co-patron saint — Eulalia, who was martyred when she was 13 years old after she refused to deny that Jesus was the son of God. Her body lies inside the cathedral’s crypt.
The cathedral’s 14th century cloister courtyard offers an oasis from the crowds outside. Thirteen white geese mill about the courtyard with a fountain and a statue of Barcelona’s co-patron saint St. George. The number of geese represents St. Eulalia’s age.
A trip to Barcelona would not be complete without a visit to at least one — or maybe four — of architect Antoni Gaudi’s creations.
His most famous work is the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, which attracted 4.52 million tourists in 2017. Work on the cathedral started in 1883, but was stalled in 1926 when Gaudi died after being hit by a trolley.
Construction on the cathedral continues, and our Sagrada Familia tour guide claimed it will be completed by 2026.
Park Güell is the second most-visited attraction in Barcelona, with 3.12 million tourists flocking here in 2017. Businessman Eusebi Güell, who owned the property, tapped Gaudi to create a private housing estate or a “garden city.” While it never became the residential community Güell envisioned, Park Güell was opened to the public by the Barcelona City Council in 1926.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Park Güell’s most popular site is the Nature Square where visitors can sit on curved benches covered in mosaic tiles and enjoy the view of the city. Some parts of the square, however, are currently undergoing restoration.
Because of the extreme popularity of Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, it is best to book tickets in advance since these are almost always sold out.
There are several Gaudi-designed buildings throughout Barcelona, such as Casa Batllo, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Palau Güell, Casa Vinces, and Casa Calvet.
Casa Batllo is hard to miss in Passeig de Gracia with its mosaic-covered, skeleton-inspired facade. Gaudi had worked on the house for businessman Josep Batllo Casanovas. He created balconies that resemble masks and covered it with colored glass windows.
Inside Casa Batllo, the rooms are empty but this allows visitors to pay close attention to the details like the mushroom-shaped fireplace nook, cantenary arches, wavy ceiling, and the building well decorated with tiles in five shades of blue.
Casa Batllo’s roof terrace is quite small, but there is no shortage of camera-toting tourists here. According to a tour guide, the small turret symbolizes the sword of St. George (Barcelona’s patron) plunged into the back of the dragon represented by the colorful arched roof.
Just a short walk away is Casa Mila (La Pedrera), which has a curvy limestone facade. La Pedrera is often described as the perfect example of how Gaudi was inspired by nature.
The attic has been converted into a museum dedicated to Gaudi’s works, but it’s hard to pay attention when the 270 parabolic arches make you feel slightly claustrophobic. On the fourth floor of Casa Mila, visitors can walk through an apartment that shows how a well-to-do family lived in Barcelona in the early 20th century.
Casa Mila also has a roof terrace with spectacular views of the city, as well as 28 chimneys that look like beefy ancient warriors.
Just off La Rambla, Gaudi fans can also find lamp posts designed by the Spanish architect in Placa Reial.
EL BORN DISTRICT
If you’re sick of Gaudi, escape to the El Born district. This is a charming neighborhood where you can easily get lost but find unique shops and cozy bars along the way.
Of course, there’s the Picasso Museum, tucked away in a narrow alley. A must-see for fans of Spain’s greatest artist, the museum has over 4,000 works by Pablo Picasso, who was born in Malaga but spent much of his adolescence in Barcelona.
The El Born Cultural and Memorial Center was once the location of the local market, but excavation work revealed the archaeological remains of a Barcelona district in 1700s. The building is inspired by the cast iron architecture of the 19th century.
But the place to get away from it all is Parc de la Ciutadella. The highlight is the Cascada, designed by Josep Fontsere and his then-student Gaudi. Echoing Rome’s Trevi Fountain, here the fountain’s center features a statue of Venus, while on top, a Aurora and her chariot is seen.
Here you can find a bench or a spot under a tree, sit back and just soak it all in. Barcelona, despite the hordes of tourists, is still one unforgettable city.
Text and photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia