barcelona city guide: where to eat + what to do
Barcelona is a beautiful city — there’s truly everything, from the beach, to historical landmarks, to museums, to actual history, to fortresses, to hiking, to food…
Whether you spend three days there or two weeks, these are the highlights. Pick and choose depending on your interests are!
I love Barcelona, and it’s a city that I return to time and time again. (Well, it’s just been 2x so far but you know I’ll be back again ;) ).
The best place for Tapas / Pinxtos
We went here on our last day in Barcelona — they have the best patatas bravas I’ve had in Barcelona. They’re crispy and the ratio of aioli and red sauce to potato was perfect (I find that they usually have too little aioli and sauce).
They also had cava sangria, which, let me tell you, you don’t feel at first, but it definitely hits you have after half a liter (ha).
We tried a good portion of the menu (we were starving after a long hike in Montserrat), but my favorite was the honeyed short ribs - they strangely remind me of the sweet ribs my mom makes.
We got squid ink rice (pretty similar to a paella, but more “wet”), which was pretty salty but very flavorful. We also got a lobster rice, which was solid - I don’t love lobster, but if you’re into that, it’s great.
Teresa Carles and Flax&Kale are sister restaurants in the heart of the main part of Barcelona. They provide vegan versions of traditional Catalan and Spanish food, which is great if you’re craving some veggies.
When we went for lunch at Teresa Carles, the place was filled with locals and tourists alike. There were businessmen and groups of friends, and pairs of travelers like my sister and I.
They have a seasonal set menu that you can choose from for lunch (you select one starter, one main, one dessert or two of the three), which is pretty reasonably priced. I got the eggplant and vegan, gluten free chocolate cake and my sister got the gazpacho and the risotto.
The gazpacho was the standout star — it was made with basil “ice cream” on top and the tomatoes were flavorful.
The eggplant was good, but I’d pass on the risotto and the cake. Either way, if you’re vegan, it’s a place to go where you know you’ll be able to eat everything on the menu.
This place is adorable: it’s a streetside shop that has vegan and gluten free options like paleo toast (what I got) and unicorn lattes, as well as superfood yogurt parfaits.
The toast was amazing — the perfect snack, made on their homemade banana bread — and made with such care and love.
This cute brunch spot just outside of Barceloneta will cure all your brunch cravings. It’s straight out of something you’d find in Santa Monica; they have gluten free bread on occasion but also really great coffee, wifi, smoothies (they do them thinner here than in the US; just a heads up), and toasts.
They have 2 locations; I’ve been to both but the one in the Gothic quarter is bigger. It’s tucked into a quiet spot of the Gothic quarter, which is a treat, and huge inside. Their gluten free matcha brownies are amazing (they also have normal gf brownies and chai pecan gf brownies), as is their oat milk latte and regular espresso.
My sister had the sunrise juice with passionfruit (so refreshing) and the LSD latte (it’s just dandelion, don’t worry), which was mild but cozy.
They have food as well — I got scrambled eggs with avocado and potatoes - but beware if you’re sensitive to dairy because they use a lot of butter.
The location outside of the Gothic quarter is smaller but more “European” — it’s sunny and small; a great place to read newspapers in the morning or write. The bigger location has some plugs but you’re only allowed to work on your laptop at the big community table in the middle, which strangely has zero outlets.
I just came here for the coffee and the wifi, but it’s a bustling brunch spot as well. They have great cocktails as well.
Actually one of the best smoothie bowls I’ve had. They also do fresh juices and have (obviously) wifi if you want to chill.
This small, beach-side shop specializes in all things coconut (as if you couldn’t tell from their name). They have coconut ice cream, coconut smoothies and smoothie bowls, and more. I got the coconut ice cream and it was wonderful — it also comes in a coconut bowl.
This shop right in the middle of the Gothic Quarter has dark chocolate sorbet — my new favorite — and prides itself of transparent sourcing.
I had Swiit my first day in Barcelona and that’s where I first fell in love with dark chocolate sorbet. They are also very transparent about their ingredients and have gluten free cones as well.
This may be a taco place, but it has the vibe of somewhere you’d find in Austin. Their bartender was super nice, and he made amazing margs — they do them for pretty cheap; they taste great and come in a variety of fun flavors. They have multiple locations in the city; we went to the one by the beach!
Chinese food in Barcelona?
Yes, we did it. It reminded me of Din Tai Fung, the popular worldwide dim sum chain. It’s Chinese food, elevated, and they take care in marking what things are gluten free. They even have gluten free soy sauce.
We got the E noodles, which had truffle oil. The gluten free version of noodles are the rice vermicelli. They also have fried rice and Peking duck (not gluten free due to the wraps that come with it and the sauce).
Everything here is gluten free. They have a whole pastry case with allergens clearly marked, as well as a variety of brunch and lunch options (gluten free burgers, eggs benedicts, vegan salads, etc.).
Arepas are naturally gluten free because they’re made of masa, corn flour. These arepas were cheap and filling — they’re made quickly in a little shop next to the Picasso museum. Not the best arepas I’ve had (those were at Orinoco in Boston and Mais Arepas in New Orleans), but they were solid (I’d recommend these as a post-beach food).
Things to Do
Gaudi: La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, Casa Batlló
Antoni Gaudí is one of the most celebrated architects in the world, and Barcelona houses most of his work.
Gothic Quarter: Walking Tour, Picasso Museum, Cathedral, Las Ramblas, Mercado de la Boqueria
No matter how touristy it seems, I love Sandeman’s walking tours when exploring a city (especially if I’m traveling solo). We did it when we were backpacking through Europe years ago — they’re free (you tip them what you think they deserve at the end), a good use of time, a good way to learn about the city, and are a good way to meet people.
We did one that took us through the Gothic Quarter and left us at Born, where we headed off to get food for a picnic. Our tour guide also emailed us a whole list of recommendations, which is helpful to get from a local.
The cathedral is there for you to see (the exterior) during the tour, but if you want to go inside, I recommend spending some time to do that, because Spain’s cathedrals are breathtaking.
The Picasso museum was a little underwhelming, but I loved learning more about Picasso himself.
Las Ramblas is the main street in Barcelona; it’s framed by trees on both sides and is always congested with tourists. It’s cool to walk it for a bit, but after that I recommend avoiding it at all costs. It’s easy to get pickpocketed there because it’s high traffic, all food along it is catered to tourists and quite terrible, and in general is overwhelming to walk along.
I feel similarly about La Bouqeria, the huge food market just off Las Ramblas, but it’s a cool experience for your first time. If you’re looking for fresh fruit, I actually recommend the smaller fruit stands or markets that you’ll find when walking around — I bought figs from an old Spanish grandma and they were the best figs I’ve had.
Barceloneta: The Beach
They imported the beach sand from Egypt and the palm trees from the US, but the Barceloneta beaches are still quite nice. They’re always packed though, and there are people around hawking mojitos / sangria / beer / all sorts of things, so keep a close eye on your stuff.
This is the hub for futbol (soccer) fans — it’s the official Barcelona team stadium. There’s a museum there and you can buy tours as well if you’re interested.
The Olympic arena is a must see for anyone who’s obsessed with the Olympics or just want to see a little bit of Olympic history. You can also swim in the gorgeous Olympic pool.
This is a fortress turned prison turned palace turned historical monument. Google maps will take you straight there — I actually recommend walking all the way up (it’s pretty steep, but a good workout and you get to see the parks and the city too), but you can drive as well.
The entrance fee is cheap (2E) and you can buy it online to save you some time once you’re there. The actual fortress doesn’t take long to visit, but there’s a museum part (free) that tells you more about the history, which I found really valuable.
And don’t worry, the walk down is much easier.
Picnic in Parc de la Ciutadella / Walk by the Arc de Triomf
We got a baguette from a local bakery (we went to Funky Bakers), food from Aldi (you can also go to La Bouqueria or literally any supermarket — I really like Veritas, which is like the Spanish version of Whole Foods), and had a dinner picnic in the park.
The park is bustling with people leading working classes, smoking (yep), reading, also picnicking, walking their dogs, jogging… it’s a hub of life and a great place to enjoy some fresh air.
Sunset at Bunkers de Carmel
We didn’t make it up here, but I’ve heard from locals and travelers alike that it’s a beautiful place to see views of the city. Go up there at sunset with a picnic and a bottle of wine, and enjoy.
Eat with Locals
We did an EatWith dinner on a rooftop in Barcelona; the host made us paella and a ton of appetizers. There was also this amazing homemade coffee liqueur to end it all off. It’s a good chance to taste really local food, learn how it’s cooked, and to chat/interact with locals.
Day Trip: Costa Brava
We used PlacePass to book a day trip to Costa Brava, a beautiful coastal beach about an hour outside of Barcelona.
You can choose from a variety of ones, but we did this one with Andrew, which involved a pickup from the pickup point by Plaza Catalunya, a small hike down to the beach, a 2-ish hour kayaking trip that involved cliff (rock) jumping (optional) and snorkeling, free time for lunch (lunch was not included; there are shops and restaurants or you can bring your own), and a drive back to the city.
Costa Brava was absolutely beautiful. If you have time, definitely recommend.
Day Trip: Montserrat
We originally were going to do a tour just so we wouldn’t have to think too hard about this, but it ended up being cancelled — which was actually for the better, because we got to operate on our own schedule.
It took far more research to get to Montserrat, which is a monastery / town / mountain area about an hour’s train ride from Barcelona.
The train leaves every hour or so (train table here) from Plaza de España on the 36 minute mark.
This station is huge, so get there 20 minutes early to buy tickets, navigate, etc. Since there are various entrances to the station, you’ll need to go to the one directly behind the roundabout with the giant statue on it. It’ll say L3 to Montserrat.
Once inside the station, you’ll buy your tickets. Where you go depends on what you want to do. There are a couple of options here:
Train only: this was the one we wanted to get, as we wanted to hike up Montserrat rather than take a cable car or rack railway. It was 11E per person for a return trip (roundtrip) ticket and you buy those at the self-service kiosks. Note that you will need to pay in cash or with a card that has a pin code, or else the machine will not let you purchase. Since our credit cards didn’t have a pin and we didn’t have our debit cards or enough cash on us, that led us to…
Train + rack railway: you buy this ticket at the booth in the middle of the station. The rather disgruntled guy explained to us multiple times that you can only buy that type of ticket there and that he couldn’t sell us any other types of ticket. This brought it up to 24E per person for a round-trip ticket. The rack railway will take you up the mountain in a train, but you will need to transfer. We just got off and hiked rather than take the rack railway, but obviously that was a waste of 20E.
Train + cable car: You can buy train + cable car tickets at the self service kiosk as well, but in case that’s not working, you can also buy the tickets at the the station once you get to Monsterrat. For that, get of at the Aero de Montserrat station and purchase your tickets there. Cable cars will take you up on, you guessed it, cables, so if you’re afraid of heights or don’t like even ski lifts, take a different option.
All inclusive: This includes everything. Duh.
There are 2 options: you can get off at Aero de Montserrat (what we did) or take the train a few stops further to Monistrol de Montserrat. Either way, the hike up takes ~1.5 hours one way.
From Aero de Montserrat, you’ll go over the bridge and take a right onto the road. There is a walking path for you.
From there, walk about 5 minutes, or until you see the hike entrance (looks like this) — there will also be a break in the rail on the side of the road for you to cross.
Follow the arrows on the hike — there are yellow and green arrows spray painted everywhere to indicate where you should go.
It’s pretty steep — the first half is largely rocks and involve a bit of climbing; the second half (you will get to a sign and a fork in the road; you want to go toward Monestir de Montserrat rather than the other option, which leads down to the town) involves a lot of stair climbing. Like a LOT. Be prepared to sweat.
There’s a cafeteria, gift shop, museum, and bathrooms at the top, as well as tables if you want to bring your own food (recommended — we brought gluten free PB sammies and fruit). From there, you can also continue going up to see various points.
The way down is much quicker, but also more dangerous due to the rocks. Use your hands.
Bug spray (optional, there were some bugs there and a lot of leaf overgrowth)
Lightweight hiking backpack (I recommend this one from HikePro to carry your food in)
P.S. If you book through PlacePass (aka decide you do want a tour), there are some tours that include wine or cava tasting, which sounds awesome.
Places to Stay
Our first Airbnb was in the L’Hospitalat area, which was about 20 minutes subway ride from the center of the city. It was much quieter, yet was still accessible to places (I recommend choosing Airbnbs close to the subway stops for this reason if you’re going to stay away from the city center).
Plaza Catalunya, which was the second area we stayed in, is much closer to the city center, which also means many more people, but allowed us to see most of the sights in Barcelona in a shorter period of time. Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb booking.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious stay, there are a wide range of hotels from 2 to 5 stars. You can use booking.com to find your hotels!
This was how I originally saw Barcelona in 2014 — at a hostel right by Las Ramblas. I was backpacking (not the camping type, the hostel-ing) type across Europe with some friends at the time, and it was a great way to meet people. It was crazy cheap as well, and clean. Honestly, no worse than many college dorms. I used booking.com to do most of these bookings.
Besides, often you just need a place to crash, and it’s just a bed.