For twelve days this October, I traveled throughout Spain and Portugal. Despite months of careful research and planning, things started off a challenge before we even left New York. As we were about to leave for Newark Airport to catch our Norwegian flight to Barcelona, we received a text from Norwegian that our flight was canceled. And that was it. After being on hold with the airline for about twenty minutes, we learned that we could either be rebooked on the same flight the next night or just refund the cost of the tickets. We could have rebooked but our Saturday night hotel was already paid for, and we had a jam-packed Sunday filled with pre-booked tickets. I wasn’t ready to sacrifice a day of vacation. So at 7:30PM we turned to the internet to see if there was any way to get to Barcelona, leaving ASAP. We found one! We left shortly after booking our new flight to Barcelona…by way of Moscow. To kick start our vacation, we flew all the way to Russia, then back down to Spain. We arrived that Saturday night, exhausted, but eager to start exploring Barcelona.
Our first full day in Barcelona I had dubbed “Gaudi Day.” Antoni Gaudi was one of Spain’s most influential architects. His whimsical Catalan Modernist (aka Modernisme) style and influence can be seen throughout the city.
First, we started at Park Guell, which was designed to be a park and private housing development. While it never really got off the ground as a private residence, it can now be enjoyed by the public. I selected this as our first stop of the day as it was the farthest from where we were staying. I highly recommend buying the timed ticket entry to avoid the long lines that form at the entrance (even during the shoulder season!). The timed tickets also provide access to the Bus Guell, which takes you from the subway up to the park entrance. Pictured above is the Nature Square, with its colorful tiles and sweeping views of the city.
From there, we walked through one of the park’s viaducts, which were designed to transport people and carriages. This one is known as the portico of the washerwoman because of the noticeably different column.
As you walk through the park, the next remarkable monument is the Hypostyle room which leads to the stunning Dragon Stairway. A theme that can be seen throughout Gaudi’s works is a reverence for nature. The structures strive to mimic the undulations found in nature.
The whimsical details of the pathways are both playful and beautiful. Be sure to plan at least two hours for exploring.
If you want that coveted selfie in front of basically anything, you are going to have to wait. There was also a line for entrance into the Porter’s House as it had a one in, one out policy. But, well worth the wait! It was interesting to see our first real interior.
Even leaving the park, you can see little Gaudi details.
As we wound our way down towards our next stop, we encountered La Casa Comalat, designed by one of Gaudi’s successors.
Our second stop on Gaudi Day was La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila. Again, buying your tickets online ahead of time is crucial to beat the lines. This tour of the private residence also includes an audio guide. Designed as an apartment complex for the Mila family, this towering building is unique in its shape and design.
The tour begins in the open internal entry way. The colors and shapes are meant to evoke the feeling of the ocean. Although built along the fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, this building as not without controversy. It was a bit too modern for its time! The owners of the building lived on the second floor, so they had their own private stairwell. Additionally, the iron gate entry was large enough to provide access for a carriage or car to pull into the below ground parking garage. This was a first for a residential building!
From the entryway, you take the elevator straight to the roof-terrace. Here, the stairwells, ventilation towers, and chimneys undulate and mimic the natural geography. The audio tour expertly explains the purposeful design.
From the roof, you wind your way into the attic. This space was originally the insulating chair chamber and laundry room. The arches are designed so that no buttresses would be needed. The expanding and contracting of the arches is like the heartbeat of the structure. Today, there is an exhibit on Gaudi’s works in the space.
The inside of Casa Mila, provides a glimpse into the evocative time-period in which the apartment was constructed. Bright, lush fabrics provide a texture to the already unique architecture.
From Casa Mila, we head for our first lunch stop! At Enrique Tomas’
Gaudi’s still unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica is the crown jewel of Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, and although Gaudi was unable to see its completion, architects believe we will see it in our lifetime. There are two facades to the basilica- the Passion Facade and the Nativity Facade.
Again, like the other Gaudi attractions in the city, buying a ticket ahead of time is crucial. There are security lines and mobs of people and school groups. We went mid-afternoon, so it was pretty packed outside. Once we got inside, the crowds dispersed. The large stained glass windows capture the warm light of the sunrise on one side and the cool tones of the setting sun on the other. The towering structure and light come together to create a spiritual experience.
If you are visiting, I also recommend getting the extra ticket for the top of a tower. We did the Passion Facade tower. Although there are timed entries, you do still have to wait for the elevator up. It is well worth the wait to see the views, as narrow as they might be. While the ride up is easy, it is a very narrow, winding staircase that takes you back down.
The Nativity Facade, as the name implies, tells the Nativity story in ornate, detailed sculptures. Even in telling a Biblical story, elements of nature are present throughout.
The Passion Facade is remarkably different from the Nativity. Starker, geometric shapes tell the story of the last days of Christ. It isn’t hard to see why this is Barcelona’s most popular tourist destination. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to explore both inside and out.
From there, we headed towards the El Born neighborhood. Did you know that Barcelona has its own Arc de Trimof? This arch was designed as the entryway for the World’s Fair and now leads to the Ciutadella Park.
By this time, it was late afternoon and very much time for a tapas break! We stopped into Bormuth, a local neighborhood favorite in El Born. We sampled classic Spanish tapas: Patatas Bravas, apple-smoked sausage, and croquetes. Vermouth is also all the rage in Spain, so we all had a glass. Although it was all delicious, I think the sausage was my favorite.
Our final museum for the day was the Picasso Museum. Before booking our trip to Barcelona, I did a lot of research about what sites to see (and not see). Although I had read mixed reviews of this museum, I think it was well worth visiting (if you have time). Located in the Gothic Quarter, the museum houses the art works of Picasso’s early artistic career. The audio tour guides you through his formative years. In addition to early paintings, you can see other craft works and his later study of Las Meninas.
After a quick siesta, it was time for more food! Since we were staying at the Hotel Colonial Barcelona we were really in the heart of it all. First, we stopped for a glass of local wine and a cheese plate at La Vinya del Senyor. Although we didn’t snag one of the coveted outdoor tables, this wine bar is located very close to the Church of Santa Maria Del Mar (also worth stopping into).
For dinner, we ventured a few blocks to Casa Delfin, a mainstay of Catalan food for over 100 years. I can see why! The brasserie-like space was bustling, but we didn’t have to wait for a table (or have a reservation) to sit inside. We started our meal with squid sauteed in garlic and parsley…cooked to perfection! We also ordered the octopus, which was cooked with smoked paprika. Starting a trend for almost every meal of the trip, we got croquettes (ham in this case). Finally, we split a seafood paella for our main. A very delicious, seafood forward start to our trip!