City and Sand

A trip to Barcelona means history, food, culture – and some outstanding beaches.


Winnie Agbonlahor

Published date: 

Oct. 1, 2016

For those torn between a European city destination and a beach vacation, Barcelona offers the perfect solution. It has everything you’d want from a European city; it’s rich in culture, has plenty of extraordinary sights, lots of cute little cafes and bars, infinite shopping opportunities, plus it has a beach within walking distance of the city center. If you take a trip to Barcelona - which from next August you'll be able to get to via a direct flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport - the only question you’ll have to agonize over will be: ‘What should I do first?’

You could start by strolling the cobblestone lanes and narrow, winding streets of the Gothic Quarter and spot remnants of the city’s ancient past. Give your feet a rest at one of the many restaurants and bars, especially around Plaça Reial which is always busy, or any other of the countless peaceful squares you’ll come across.

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Take a look at Barcelona Cathedral at the heart of the district at Pla de la Seu, which has a stunning courtyard full of plants and, oddly geese. Barcelona Zoo is located inside the sprawling Parc de la Ciutadella, a place where you’ll walk past people taking part in outdoor tai chi classes, yoga sessions, practicing their slack-line skills or other forms of acrobatics, holding huge children’s parties, rollerblading or just having picnics in the sun. There is also a pond with rowboats available for couples keen on injecting their holiday with some textbook romance. Or maybe all you want is to lie down in the shade to enjoy some peace and quiet.

To contrast that experience, head south and dive into the hustle and bustle of La Rambla - Barcelona’s most famous street. La Rambla is sometimes referred to as Las Ramblas because the street is unofficially divided into five sections. There’s La Rambla de Canaletes, named after a drinking fountain, the water of which supposedly emerges from what were once known as the springs of Canaletes; La Rambla dels Estudis, which is also called La Rambla dels Ocells (ocells means 'birds') because of its former bird market; La Rambla de Sant Josep, named after a former monastery; La Rambla dels Caputxins, named after another former monastery; and La Rambla de Santa Mònica, named after the Convent de Santa Mònica, which once stood on the western flank of the street and has since been converted into the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, a cultural center that mostly exhibits modern multimedia installations.

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Las Ramblas never sleeps. Souvenir hawkers, buskers, pavement artists, mimes, living statues and crowds of tourists are constantly pumping life into this wide, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard, ensuring a stroll here is pure sensory overload. If busy crowds of people make you anxious, this area might be too much.

Rambla del Raval, which is parallel to Las Ramblas, offers a quieter, less touristy alternative with restaurants and bars typically charging lower prices. While you’re there, go hunting for treasures at the famous La Boqueria market and give Fernando Botero’s playful Cat statue a rub for good luck. Don’t rely on its good fortune too much though as pickpockets are common.

There are plenty of ways to spend money - especially on food. But making sure you don’t end up getting a bad deal can be difficult. One very popular destination for tourists, for example, is Tapas 24 on Carrer de la Diputació, which features a cool interior - wallpaper made of newspaper and a kitchen in the middle of the restaurant. But it charges extortionary prices for rather average food.

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For better value, it is worth leaving the city center. You’ll be stunned how prices drop once you take the metro for just two or three stops. One example is La Cantonada de Prim, near the metro’s Besòs stop, where a bottle of wine or a huge plate of grilled king prawns will cost you little more than €10.

One absolutely unmissable Barcelona experience is to follow the trails of the great architect Antoni Gaudi, whose distinct buildings are all over the city. You don’t need to be an architecture expert to identify his works. His most famous one, of course, is  La Sagrada Familia church, which, after more than 100 years, is still under construction.

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Plenty of people are satisfied admiring all outer sides of this spectacular cathedral, which features dozens of towers hundreds of meters high and embodies Gaudi’s dislike for straight lines. (There were none in nature, he liked to note.) But lots of people also queue for hours and pay the €15 to go inside. The interior is worth the money, but don’t waste valuable sightseeing time by standing in line - simply pre-book your tickets online, walk straight in and prepare to be amazed.

You can enjoy more of Gaudi’s architectural wonders by venturing outside the city’s boundaries to explore Park Güell, which has plenty of curious-looking walls, bandstands, pavilions, fountains, nice picnic spots and great viewpoints which make for great Barcelona selfie locations.

For the beach element of your stay, there is, again, plenty to choose from. You can suntan and take a dip in the sea right by the city center while sipping on a mojito. But be prepared to literally be rubbing shoulders with everyone else who had the same idea.

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For a slightly quieter beach experience, you don’t have to travel far though. Simply take a regional train to Ocata and you will find yourself with plenty of sand to yourself and surrounded almost exclusively by locals. If you fancy a more glamorous beach, take a trip further up the coast to Tossa de Mar. There you’ll find several beaches including Platja Gran, which is enclosed to the west by the town’s medieval castle. It’s a scenic setting to relax in – before heading back to the cosmopolitan flair of one of Europe’s great cities.