The Iberian Peninsula has been an obsession of mine since I was a teenager and hadn’t ever stepped out of California. I’d sit on my parents’ balcony, absorbing Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of rolling green hills and bohemian café conversations, reading book after book, and wishing that I could transport myself to these faraway lands. Now, as a seasoned traveler who just visited Barcelona for the third time, I still wish I could teleport myself. I reminisce about the December days as I browsed outdoor Christmas markets and sat in outdoor cafés, sipping tempranillo, reflecting on the world’s beauty. There is something unique about this Catalonian capital; it has captured my heart and settled into my bones.
You’re likely to fall in love with Spain wherever you go, but Barcelona will captivate you like no other city. If you enjoy art and culture as much as I do, it will leave an indelible nostalgia within you that makes you return through the years. Home to almost two million people and nine UNESCO sites, this city founded by the Romans has evolved into a cosmopolitan, cultural powerhouse. While urban life can get busy, there is always something to celebrate in Barcelona — sometimes until dawn.
If you have one day in the city, here is a list of what you cannot miss:
24 Hours in Barcelona
Getting around Barcelona is simple. Public transportation is quite organized, with a multitude of bus and metro routes throughout the city. Ride shares such as Uber and Bla Bla Car are also easily accessible.
If you’re an early bird, don’t miss the sunrise over this metropolis. Head to the breathtaking Collserola Tower and ride up to the 10th floor for spectacular panoramic vistas as the sun brings life to the city. Or, head to the Bunkers, formerly known as Los Bunkers del Carmel Turó de la Rovira. Dating back to the Spanish Civil War in the early 1900s, this is an incredible historical site that also provides 360° views of Barcelona’s incredible architecture, which is even more mesmerizing under the warm morning light.
Next, get to know Barcelona’s café culture by heading back toward the heart of the city into the neighborhood of Gràcia. Cafés Caracas opens at 6 a.m. and offers excellent espresso, croissants, and bocadillos (light sandwiches). Or, head to Bar Casi, where locals flock for homestyle-cooking, including tortillas paisanas and strong coffee.
With your belly full and mind alert, set out for Park Güell before crowds gather. While you may have visited La Sagrada Família or Casa Batlló on our previous tours, this is a unique opportunity to experience a different side of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture. In the late 1800s, Eusebi Güell commissioned Gaudí to construct his home, and eventually, the vibrant, whimsical Park Güell. Explore the Catalan Modernist result of this friendship, pondering not just the infamous Greek Theatre, but also the viaducts, the Gardens of Austria, and the home where Gaudí resided. The result is a cross of nature, animal mosaics, and pure brilliance.
As siesta time quickly approaches, grab another espresso and a churro con chocolate at Churrería Laietana. Barcelona beckons and it’s time to see the Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic. Stroll through the cobblestoned alleyways, witnessing modern street art amidst medieval architecture. Browse artesanias from local vendors, ranging from leather goods and essential oils to handmade jewelry.
There’s a rough-around-the-edges magnetism in the Gothic Quarter, as you’ll see when you visit the Museu Picasso. The great Cubist painter, officially named Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, was born in Málaga, southern Spain. However, he was drawn to the culture of Barcelona and lived there for nearly 10 years. At the museum, you will find the world’s largest collection of his works — with over 4,000 permanent pieces on display. Please note that the museum is closed on Mondays — as are most museums within Europe.
You can also take a self-guided walking tour to see where Señor Picasso lived throughout the years. Afterward, head to Els Quatre Gats, where he held his first exposition. As one of Woody Allen’s chosen scenes for Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and one of Salvador Dalí’s hangout spots, this quaint café is not to be missed. Their carajillo (espresso mixed with whiskey or the liquor of your choosing) is also exceptional.
If you’re not into Picasso, you can always head to the Museu d’Història de Barcelona to see where the city got its Roman beginnings over 2,000 years ago. Or, you can visit the Jewish Quarter, highlighted by the 14th century Centre d’Interpretació del Call. No matter what you do, stop by the remarkable La Seu Cathedral, known simply as La Catedral. This Gothic masterpiece is sure to take your breath away, no matter your religious affiliation.
As evening approaches, soak in the vibes of the Gothic Quarter and grab a pint of beer at Cat Bar. Or, head to Las Ramblas to do some shopping and people watching. After, take a long stroll down to Playa Barceloneta, where you can see the docked yachts and the moon reflecting off of the water. This southern region is a welcome respite from the bustle of the city.
Then, you can look for a chiringuito, or makeshift snack table, along the beach, or enjoy Spain’s infamous paella at one of its many seaside restaurants, like Bodega La Peninsular. If your dietary restrictions prevent you from savoring seafood, the cozy BarCeloneta Sangria Bar serves up a luscious vegan paella dish, as well as tapas and a unique mixologist-style sangria.
If you’d like a night cap, there are plenty of options. The nearby W Hotel is opulence at its finest, with refreshing cocktails like Aperol Spritz. Or, if you want to check out one more area before the night ends, head to Bar Marsella, an 1800s bar with vintage charm. Ernest Hemingway used to hang out here, and his go-to was a glass of absinthe, which the bartender will serve topped with a fork and flaming sugar cube. This is the perfect way to savor the rich history and culture of Barcelona.
If one nation has mastered the science of work-life balance, it’s Spain. From extended lunches and siestas to ubiquitous open-air cafés, the Spanish sure know how to enjoy life. You’ll find adapting to the rhythm of Barcelona quite mesmerizing. Locals are friendly, eager to chat, and always up for tapas and cava (Spain’s version of champagne!). In this city where life happens outside, new friends will always find you.
*A previous version of this article was originally published in Vantage Viewpoints