The Catalan city of Barcelona attracts millions of visitors every year with its abundance of art and culture. Thanks to cheap flights within Europe, with airlines like Ryanair or Vueling, it is easy and cheap to get there if you’re already on the continent. While you’ll have to spend some money on the most famous sights in the city, like La Sagrada Familia or Park Güell, there are also plenty of free things to do and see in Barcelona.
Getting around Barcelona
With 1.6 million inhabitants, Barcelona sounds like a big city, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. You can explore most of the sights in and around the town center on foot or by short metro ride. If you’re planning on riding the metro a few times, you should consider buying a T-10 pass, which gives you 10 rides and costs €9.95 for use in Zone 1. There are also 2-4 day transport passes if you intend to ride a lot, allowing you to use the metro & buses an unlimited time during your stay. Another way of getting to know Barcelona and its sights is riding a tourist hop-on hop-off bus. The Barcelona Pass includes entries to certain sights and a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, so if you intend to see most of the included stops anyway, this may be worth considering.
Exploring Gaudi’s artwork
One of the most famous artists from Barcelona, a man who has had a huge architectural influence on the city, is Antoni Gaudi. From the incredible Sagrada Famila Cathedral to the beautiful Parc Guell, signs of Gaudi’s art are visible throughout the city. Even if you’re traveling on a tight budget, you can’t miss out on some of Gaudi’s masterpieces.
La Sagrada Familia
The most famous of Gaudi’s sights in Barcelona is the impressive Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Construction on the unique cathedral began in 1882 and continues to this day. Setting foot inside of the cathedral will set you back €15 and is likely to take your breath away regardless of how many other European cathedrals you’ve visited. In high season (during summer) and on weekends you’ll want to buy your ticket online since it is cheaper than in person and is often necessary due to the amount of people who want to visit. To get there you can take the metro line L2 or L5 to the Sagrada Familia stop. Before you head inside you can get a nice view of La Sagrada Familia from a nearby pond southwest of the cathedral, near the entry to the metro station.
Construction on the cathedral is expected to finish in 2026, however much of the inside is pretty well polished already. Gaudi took over construction from Francisco Paula de Villar a year after construction began in 1882 and transformed the cathedral with his unique architectural and engineering style. When Gaudi died in 1926, the cathedral was only about a quarter finished.
It’s hard to describe the feeling once you enter La Sagrada Familia as it’s nothing like any church or cathedral you have seen before. Giant pillars reach up to the beautiful roof of the cathedral and makes you feel really small walking beneath it. Compared to other catholic churches, there are not many religious symbols displayed and the cathedral has a very modern feel. After you’ve spend enough time inside, there is a small museum in the basement where you can learn more about the construction process.
One of Gaudi’s other popular attractions is Park Güell, a recreational park displaying some of his beautiful mosaics and structures. The closest metro stations are Lesseps or Vallcarca from which you’ll need to walk around one kilometer to get to the park. Another option is to take a bus from the metro station that drops you right in front of Park Güell. The entrance to Park Güell used to be free, and still is for most parts of the park, but to enter the monumental zone with the famous mosaic terrace and the houses, you’ll need to get a ticket for 7 Euro/pp. It is best to book a ticket online, as you’ll encounter long wait times otherwise or there might not be entries left for the day. If you’re trying to save money and avoid the crowds, it’s possible to visit Park Güell before and after the official opening hours, keeping in mind that it might be dark outside.
The most beautiful parts of the park are the colorful mosaic terrace and the hall of arches underneath it. From the terrace you’ll also get a nice view over the two smaller houses Gaudi built at the entrance, and the whole city of Barcelona. The monumental area isn’t big and unless you’re visiting other parts of the park, your visit probably won’t take much longer than half an hour.
One of Gaudi’s two private houses in Barcelona, Casa Batlló is a completely remodeled house that the architect completed in 1904. The house is renown for its organic theme, most of which is inspired by sea life. Straight lines are virtually absent in the large home, and bright colors pop out in all directions, especially on the roof which resembles a colorful gecko.
It is possible to buy tickets online, in a Barcelona Tourist Office or at the house. At 23 Euro pp the tickets aren’t cheap, but if you enjoy Gaudi’s art then they’re definitely worth it.
Free sights & things to do in Barcelona
The Gothic Quarter
Although a lot of the most popular sights in Barcelona are also quite expensive, there are a few things in the city you can see for free. Strolling around the famous Gothic Quarter won’t cost you a cent, but you’ll get to see some very narrow streets, old, beautiful houses, and explore small art and fashion shops.
La Cathedral de Barcelona
In the Gothic Quarter you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit La Cathedral de Barcelona, a huge cathedral built in 1448. This is the only church in the city where you’ll have to comply with a dress code. Shoulders and legs to the knee must be covered in order to enter the cathedral.
The Magic Fountain at Montjuïc
Another free and worthwhile activity in the city is the Magic Fountain in front of the National Art Museum at Montjuïc Castle. On certain nights of the week (depending on the time of the year) there is a beautiful water show at the big fountain, displaying different colors and classical music in the background. The show can last for a few songs, or can go on for hours depending on the evening.
To get there you can take the metro to the stop Plaza España and from there it’s only a five minute walk to the fountain. In high season you should come early as hundreds of people flock to the fountain to see the spectacle.
Probably Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, is a street lined with shops, cafes, and hundreds of people at almost any time of the day. La Rambla isn’t overly impressive and you should be aware of pick pockets, but there are a few nice spots nearby, such as the busy fruit and vegetable market La Boquería or Plaza Real, a nice square with restaurants and bars.
If you’re tired from all the sightseeing, luckily there is a beach to relax and swim in the middle of Barcelona. Just a short stroll from the Gothic Quarter, or a quick metro ride, is the famous Barceloneta Beach. The man made beach offers a nice break from the city life and stifling heat during the summer. It’s possible to swim or paddle board anywhere at the beach, or go to one of the many restaurants nearby to enjoy the scenery.
Trying the local cuisine
When visiting Barcelona you can’t miss out on trying the local Spanish cuisine, like tapas and paella. Tapas are small appetizers of all sorts that allow you to try a bit of everything, and sometimes can also be ordered as full meals. Paella is a rice dish, typically made with seafood or chicken. Saffron gives the dish its distinctive yellow color. There are hundreds of tapas bars in Barcelona with prices ranging from 1 to 5 Euro per tapa. A cheap option is the chain 100 Montaditos, where the tapas are served on a slice of white bread, with locations in different locations in Barcelona. If you’re around Barcelona on a Thursday you should head down to Carrer Blei, where all the bars on the street serve up tapas for 1-2 Euro with beer for 1 Euro. For a good paella you’ll probably have to spend around 12-15 Euros, though try to avoid the touristy restaurants near the beach if you want to keep the price down. One restaurant with a great paella that we tried was O Toxo in Carrer del Carme, just off La Rambla. Another must-do when it comes to food is a visit to the popular Xampanyeria Can Paixano in Barceloneta. This old established bar serves great cava (sparkling wine) and tapas. It’s always packed and has an amazing atmosphere.
Even though the main attractions in Barcelona aren’t cheap and can be very crowded, the city has a lot to offer and is more than worth the visit. If you can, plan your visit for early spring or late fall, as there will be way less tourists around but the weather is still good.