Barcelona has been on my list for a long time now, and I finally got to check it – and a new country! – off as visited. Originally, we had planned to visit Barcelona in the summertime, for the prime-time experience of beaches, sunshine, all the good stuff. Unfortunately, life got in the way and by the time we were in a position to plan a trip, we were looking at mid-November. We decided to head on down to Barcelona anyway, even if we wouldn’t be splashing in the waves this time of year. (Spoiler alert: toes were dipped).
A long weekend in Barcelona
We left bright and early in the morning for our short flight – less than 2 hours – to Barcelona. We were in the city and checked into our hotel before it was even lunchtime.
We set out for a walk to get our first taste of the city, both metaphorically and literally, as our plan was to find a place for lunch. We hit our hangry limit just after 1:00 and the (quite touristy, but convenient) restaurant we chose was practically empty. I was aware that people generally eat meals later in Spain, and yet it’s still sort of odd when you get there, it’s 1:30pm and this large, popular restaurant is still a ghost town.
Anyway, over our meal of essentially high-end fast food, we planned a bit of how we wanted to organize our days; when to visit the Sagrada Familia basilica, when to see the beaches, and most importantly, when we were going to hit Frenchman’s favorite tapas place.
The answer to that question was: that night for dinner. And two more times. Shh don’t judge us.
Frenchman found this place (Cerveceria Catalana) a couple of years ago when he came to Barcelona with friends. On that trip, they returned daily for their entire stay. I thought they were silly for not exploring more of the food scene, but after trying to explore other options around the city, we just kept coming back. The food is, hands down, better than any other place we tried. Plus, their prices are shockingly reasonable in a town where a tiny plate of mediocre tapas can break the bank. We went all-out on our first dinner – delicious sangria, all the tapas we could handle, AND dessert. We returned for breakfast another day (actually the exact same menu, plus coffee) and dinner again for our last night in town. We just had to get another of those beef tenderloin tapas! So, so good.
But back to the city.
I had a rough list of the things to see, and in the end we managed to get to almost all of them. The advantage of visiting a beach city off-season is that you miss the huge lines most people complain about. What you don’t manage to miss, however, are the prices. Honestly, my main takeaway from this trip was how outrageously expensive everything was. Not food, for once, but actual tourist sites. The Sagrada Familia? 14€ just to go in. 35€ if you want to go up one of the towers. The Gaudí-designed Casa Batlló? 22.50€. Even the cathedrals charge. 6€ here, 9€ there… I watched them turn away an old Spanish woman who just wanted to pray. By the time we had paid for one or two things, our wallets were feeling a little bruised. But in the end we saw a lot, did a lot of walking and plenty of good eating.
Of course, the most expensive thing of all was the thing I most wanted to do. The Sagrada Familia. This enormous Gaudí basilica has been under construction since 1882 and is projected to be completed in 2028 or so. Because of this, half of it looks old and dark, while the other half is bright white and new. It’s a strange looking building, not at all what you would expect from a cathedral/basilica with non-traditional shapes and lizards and snails carved into it, and weird, very cool towers.
The Sagrada Familia
Everywhere I go in the world, if there’s a tower to climb I’ll do it. Without fail, it provides a unique perspective and a cool story in one way or another. This was no exception.
After a bad experience with a bout of vertigo the last time he was there, Frenchman decided to sit out the towers part of the trip. He came into the basilica with me, but for the skyline views I was on my own. For the Sagrada Familia, even in the off-season it’s recommended that you buy your tickets at least one day in advance. They will sell out, or if you go in the morning you might find the only open tickets are at 4pm which could totally screw up your plans for the day. We scheduled our visit for our very last morning in Barcelona, which was expected to be the sunniest day, for the best possible views.
The basilica is cool from afar, but incredible up close in the intense detail of every leaf, bird, animal and curve carved into each inch. And I was completely blown away by the inside, it was so not what I was expecting. It is enormous, and bright, and loaded with practically-neon stained glass. I’ve been in my fair share of churches/cathedrals and this one really did leave me in awe.
For the tower, you get to choose (when you buy your ticket) which side you would like to go up. The basilica features 4 main towers, two on the ‘Nativity’ side and two on the ‘Passion’ side. The main difference (now that they’re all built) is just the view you have when you get up there. On either side, you take an elevator most of the way up, go up a flight or so of stairs, and cross a bridge between the first and second tower. This is where you get the views over the city. It’s pretty small, but you go up in small groups so it’s not too crammed. Then, you take the stairs all the way down, peeking through windows on both sides as you go, looking out onto bits under construction, different angles on the city, and vertigo-inducing views of the windows spiraling down in the middle.
The elevator up is a nice treat, compared to, say, the Duomo in Florence where you nearly die climbing the stairs. Perks of a new basilica, I guess. Though I will say it sort of robs you of the satisfaction of saying you did it. But anyway, up I went with a nice German family, just me and them. The views were cool, and I took a few shameless selfies since I was flying solo sans Frenchman, who was wandering at ground-level. I took my time looking around and then started to make my way down, stopping here and there to snap a photo out the window. This is where it all went wrong*
I was following the nice German family down, because A) it’s a spiral staircase, there’s no passing, and B) it felt safer to stay with other humans. Somehow they started getting further and further ahead of me. I stopped on this cool balcony to look out and take a photo. I didn’t spend long because I didn’t want to lose the family, but I was too late.I couldn’t hear them ahead of me anymore, and the guys who had previously been behind me (and not fans of my stair photo pauses) were nowhere to be found either. (I didn’t even get a good photo).
On the way down, there are tons of instances where the exit arrow points down, but a second sign also points left… I immediately came to one of these after losing the family. Wh… which way is out? It was completely unclear. And it happened over and over as I spiraled down. Was I making the right choices? Where are all the other people? Where am I? Will this EVER END OR AM I STUCK? Mostly I figured it couldn’t be too bad; it’s a tourist destination and tourists can be stupid so places usually make it semi stupid-proof. But when I started seeing S.O.S call boxes I started to get nervous. The stairs just kept going and going and going. I also saw some views into the interior construction, which was both cool and worrying because it felt like I maybe wasn’t supposed to be there? Eventually I made it down to what I hoped was the ground floor at the end of the stairs and a door… I pushed it and there I was back in the basilica at the correct exit point from that tower. I felt relieved, but bewildered.
*Nothing actually went wrong. It’s just scary being alone in a confusing spiral staircase wondering how long it’ll take them to find you or if, god forbid, you might have to go back up because you went the wrong way.
Also, for the record, this entire story from elevator ride up to my return to ground level took a total of 15 minutes. It felt like forever.
Gaudí, Gaudí, some other stuff, and more Gaudí
Park Güell is free to enter and walk all around, but of course they charge to enter the “monument zone” with the famous mosaic benches and Gaudí lizard. You know, the whole reason you go there. Except after 6:15, when entry becomes free… but it’s completely dark out. When we entered the park, we didn’t know this so we wandered around for an hour or so before we came to the “zone” where, by the way, you can’t even buy tickets. You have to go all the way back to the main entrance, where we discovered they were sold out for the day. It was either leave or stay for an hour ’til it was free. We stuck around, feeling pretty sure we wouldn’t get a chance to come back before the end of our trip and cautiously optimistic that it would be dusky but manageable to see what we came to see. No dice. By 6:15 – and not a minute before – it was truly dark out. We and gaggles of other tourists with poor planning entered with cell phones held high trying to light up the benches for a peek at the famed tiles. Fortunately, my phone’s flashlight is pretty bright so between the two of us we got a good look. Not as good as daylight but hey, we worked with what we had.
Honestly, it was a pretty cool experience. Under the benches are these tall columns with sparkling tile ceilings and with everyone’s phones lighting them up they glittered beautifully. It definitely didn’t feel safe to let a bunch of dumb tourists loose in the dark (there were 0 lights near stairs or precipitous ledges), but no one seemed to get hurt.
We also checked out the Casa Batlló mentioned above, a big fancy house designed and built by Gaudí, and arguably one of his most famous works. The building has scaly tiles reminiscent of a dragon, skull-like balconies, and dripping, curved lines inside and out. I believe they said on the tour that there isn’t a single square edge in the building. The tour was self-guided, which I like, and included a headset attached to a smartphone loaded up with by-the-numbers chunks of info. Though the headphones are a bit nerdy, there were some cool augmented-reality effects that were a nice touch.
Other sights in our extensive wandering that I’m running out of room to talk about included:
- Parc de la Ciutadella once or twice, admiring both its impressive fountain and the spontaneous flamenco session taking place in the gazebo
- Montjuic hill and the palace/museum (we didn’t go in) and Plaça d’Espanya with its fountain in front of it
- Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter with surprise Roman ruins and medieval alleys next to thoroughly modern shops and architecture
- and lots and lots of food
Tapas & More in Barcelona
In addition to our pilgrimages to Cerveceria Catalana, we also made time for my food wish list, which included Sangria, Paella, Cava, and of course tapas. We also discovered my new favorite digestif, which comes in an unsettling bright yellow.
By day 4 of 5 we had seen and done a lot, save the 1 thing that Frenchman cared about. All this man wanted, his one and only request, was ham. Spanish ham is, apparently the best in the world. We were in Spain, and he wanted his ham. Ham ham ham. We’d had bits of it here or there in tapas, but he needed more. By the time we got home on Tuesday, we had consumed more ham than any reasonable people should. In tapas, in sandwiches, and in cones. Yes, cones.
Don’t get between this man and his ham.
Apologies for this enormously long post. I just had so much to say! If you made it this far, 10 points to you.