Hola Barcelona! Catalonia’s sparkling capital is bursting with bohemian ambience and busy streets. This cosmopolitan metropolis is filled with authentic cuisine, iconic architecture, beaches galore and views unlike anywhere else in the world. Discovering every hidden gem this seaside city has to offer would take a lifetime, so I’ve made it my goal to return every summer – so far, so good.
It wasn’t long before the strangers in my internship program were familia and we dubbed Barca “our city.” Here are some highlights that bring me back to the best days of my life – living in the European bike lane around Barcelona in the summer of 2017, right before the Catalan independence trial in October. My time there revealed a culture unlike any other city in Spain I’ve visited.
I’ll admit “Barcelona” by Ed Sheeran was my theme song while walking along Gran via – one of Barcelona’s busiest streets that my flat was on. It leads to el corazon de la ciudad, aka the heart of the city, which is Plaza Catalunya. This square connects the Ciutat Vella and Eixample neighborhoods and acts as a transportation hub for locals and tourists. The subway, metro lines and city railways connect underground and sculptures, fountains, hotels and shopping centers thrive above. Initially, this space was the land surrounding the gates to the walled city and part of the defensive wall still stands along Las Ramblas, which is super close to the square.
To the north, commuters and tourists are navigating through Plaza Catalunya. To the east is Ciutat Vella, the Gothic Quarter. La Rambla is Barcelona’s most famous street and filled with flowers, restaurants, shops, people, theaters, monuments and art. La Rambla consists of five streets (Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla dels Caputxins and Rambla de Santa Monica) hence why it’s called Las Ramblas. It’s over half a mile long and historically was used as a waterway to divide the Old Town to the east and suburbs of El Raval and Eixample to the west. La Boqueria market’s gastronomy thrives on Las Ramblas and is filled with something for everyone.
Ciutat Vella is Barcelona’s fascinating “old city,” near Las Ramblas. Strolling through The Gothic Quarter’s twisted labyrinth is like entering a time machine and going back to medieval times. I discovered narrow streets that traced ancient cathedrals, Roman walls and authentic pubs. It’s almost as if getting lost amongst talented artists, street performers and music echoing off the buildings was on the itinerary. Time is the last thing on everyone’s mind here and the streets are filled with people at midnight as much, if not more, than during the day.
It wasn’t until my second time in Barcelona that I stumbled upon this special mural, while searching for gelato. In 2014, Joan Fontcuberta, Catalan photographer, asked locals to send in photographs of their own that resembled moments of freedom. So 4,000 of those prints were arranged by color and density to show two people kissing from afar. The kiss symbolizes affection, empathy and liberty honoring Catalan lives lost during the Spanish Succession in the 18th century as well as regional identity and freedom.
Written next to the mural is, “The sound of a kiss isn’t as loud as a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.” This mural was supposed to temporarily stand tall at 26 feet for the 300th anniversary of Catalonia Day on September 11, yet it’s still there today, near the Barcelona Cathedral and seeming to pop up out of nowhere.
Skipping siesta to see the blue hour along the Mediterranean was so worth it in the morning and evening hours. Adrenaline was already pumping as we ascended up a mountain via funicular train, so arriving to a European theme park only increased it.
Religious or not, standing at the very top of the church, way above the Ferris wheel and next to a gigantic statue of Jesus, you’ll definitely feel some powerful Spanish vibes. We spent the day on top of the world with our inner child glistening as we went on rides, dipped our churros into chocolate and thought we discovered the best view.
The sun went down and we bought wine, then decided to head for the Turo de la Rovira hills and view the city from the best view: Bunkers del Carmel.
These were built during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and then when the Olympic Games came to town in 1992, the city council rehoused all the residents and left the area abandoned. They’re one of Barcelona’s best-kept secrets, but are increasing in popularity since you can see all of Barcelona’s landmarks at once. On one side there’s rolling hills and mountains and the other is the city and sea. We had a picnic dinner of crackers and wine, snapped some pictures, listened to music and took in the stunning view. It’s truly indescribable.
In 1888, the Arc de Triomf was designed and built to serve as the gate to the Universal Exhibition celebration (Spain’s first International World Fair) in Parc de la Ciutadella. It symbolizes respect and continues to welcome all nations entering and was built with red bricks that still stand out in the clear blue Barcelona skies. It’s half the size of the one in Paris. The prestigious landmark today is pictured in the background to the right.
Parc de la Ciutadella is a 42-acre park built on former military grounds from the 18th century. Palm trees enhance the greenery found all over the park. It’s an ideal place for a romantic picnic, boat ride for two or just a casual walk. Everywhere I turned, violinists, reggae or guitarists were serenading the couples in hammocks or tapestries, enjoying the fresh air. We headed for the lake, so we could rowboat to the Cascada fountain with a golden statue which is supposed to replicate the Fontana di Trevi in Rome.
Gaudi sprinkled his magic so that every step one can take in Barcelona, he would be remembered. From the tiles carved into the streets to Casa Mila’s nine-story curvy apartment complex, to Casa Batlo, Plaza Reial’s fountain and terrace cafés, Gaudi’s influence is everywhere. But you cannot miss the two iconic masterpieces from Gaudi: La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.
Abstract shapes, intricate designs and Gothic style carefully define Gaudi’s avant-garde approach behind the architecture of La Sagrada Familia, the large unfinished church. It’s a symbol of Christianity that began in 1883 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026. The massive and extravagant structure has multiple façades that are inspired by fear, nature, depth and the list is growing. I stepped inside and felt like I was in a life-size kaleidoscope. This 560-foot-tall landmark is expected to hold up to 14,000 people and is practically the size of a football field.
Park Guell is Barcelona’s hidden public park on the southern slope of Mount Carmelo, on the Sierra de Collserola range. It took a few tries before we finally discovered it; definitely worth the wait. Paths are paved for bicyclists, walkers and dancers (if you remember the Cheetah Girls’ Barcelona debut). This park is a UNESCO World Heritage site inspired by English gardens. It was supposed to be a residential neighborhood with mesmerizing views of the city, but didn’t happen. However, the fountains, wavy icicles literally made of stained glass and colorful shapes that cover walkways and benches make this park unique and a tourist hot spot – if you can find it.
El verano, aka the summer, is prime time for celebration. In June, I went to Sant Joan, the annual celebration of summer held on the beach. Day and night, fireworks exploded whenever and wherever people pleased; it sounded like a war zone and I remember literally having to watch where we stepped. It was intimidating at first, but knew it was tradition. In July, there were music festivals galore (I attended Sonar Music Festival and Barcelona Beach Festival).
Barcelona is festive and the hot nightlife scene ignites as the clock strikes midnight and ends when the sun comes up. Whatever vibe you’re looking for, Barcelona has it. A few of my favorites are Icebarcelona, Shoko, Dux Gin and Bosc de Les Fades café. Mirroring Prague’s IceBar, IceBarcelona is the perfect pregame and exquisite escape from the Mediterranean heat along the beach. On Tuesdays we go to Shoko, which is similar to CocoBongo or Las Vegas nightlife. Dux Gin is a hidden gem, where locals choose to go. We went here on our first and last nights and had to karaoke to Bohemian Rhapsody both times. Bosc de Les Fades Café is hidden between Las Ramblas and the Gothic Quarter. It’s an indoor café with realistic-looking trees and earthy vibes to match that make it feel like you’re at a bier garden amongst fairies and garden gnomes.
After soaking up the sun on the Mediterranean coast, I’ve got to say there’s nothing that can quite compare. Even the less popular beaches are relaxing. Bicycling down Las Ramblas and along the sea to get to Barceloneta or Mar Bella Beach was typical during the work week. Conveniently near the boardwalk of restaurants and clubs, they’re great for younger crowds. The white sand and Mediterranean Sea lure tourists in, but locals would never sink their toes into their sand.
If we were craving a picture-perfect beach day like in the movies, we’d take an hour long trip by train to Blanes in Costa Brava. More specifically, Cala Bona, aka pretty cove, was hidden behind Marimurta, a stunning botanical garden. With a mountainous backdrop, calm water and ample space make this the place – or la playa – to be.