As one of Europe’s most visited cities, Barcelona has always been a place I wanted to see. I couldn’t wait to stroll along the La Rambla just like so many others before me. To see the Sagrada Familia and all the other marvels Gaudi left behind. Hola Barcelona! We were ready for you!
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I was very excited to visit the place where Spanish Inquisition was once rampant. Spain was the kingdom once ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella that led to discoveries of the new world. It was a dream trip in the making. The reality turned out quite differently.
The airport in Barcelona is fairly standard. There is a decent selection of stores, but I found it unremarkable. There is a direct connection to the city by train, which was quite handy. We ended up staying in an Airbnb, conveniently located on the subway line and near the Sagrada Familia.
Barcelona is a large city and one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean. It’s a busy place with lots of tourist flocking to the city on a regular basis. To me, it’s not like the many other European cities I’ve been to so far. It doesn’t have that old Europe look and feel. The Catalan Modernism style, made famous by Gaudi, has a lot to do with that.
When we arrived, I wanted to see all the places we read about. Here are some of them that are worth checking out while visiting Barcelona.
The La Rambla
The La Rambla is an interesting mix of a pedestrian boulevard, patios and touristy shops. It pumps life into the city like an artery that runs through it. Since its shaded by many trees, walking along it feels more like walking in a park. Except for the crowds, noises and surroundings.
According to Lonely Planet, the name La Rambla comes from an Arabic word meaning a stream. As you might have guessed, a stream once ran here. Back in the Middle Ages it went by a lovely name of Cagalell (Stream of Shit) – I take that it wasn’t as desirable a place back in those days. Thankfully, times have changed.
Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor
The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor translates to the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It stands proudly on top of the Mount Tibidabo, overlooking Barcelona. Although the church looks quite old, it was actually constructed in the first half of 20th century. The Board of Catholic Knights (I didn’t know that was a thing), instigated its construction to prevent a Protestant temple from going into that spot. Not as dramatic of a story as you might imagine.
Due to its location overlooking the city, the church has been compared to the Sacre Coeur basilica in Paris. It’s free to get inside and the views are stunning.
Unlike the Sagrada Familia, this cathedral is pure Gothic style and dates back to the 13th century. The construction took about 150 years, which shows that masterpieces often take time and outlive the visionaries behind them. There is no entrance fee to the cathedral, but you can enter the cloister for a small donation fee.
The neighbourhood around the cathedral is a bit more reminiscent of what you think of when you think old world Europe. Plenty of tourists add to the feel as well.
In the footsteps of Gaudi
It seems that no visit to Barcelona can be completed without walking in the footsteps of a man who left his mark on this city so profoundly. Born in 1852, Antoni Gaudi is Barcelona’s poster boy. He single-handedly created the vision behind so many of the city’s famous landmarks.
While Gaudi was a devout Catholic, his work isn’t the same as what you can expect of other religious structures in other parts of the world. The feel of Gaudi’s work reminded me more of nature and not the standard ostentatious, gold and stained glass windows, decorated with religious scenes.
Walking inside the Sagrada Familia reminded me a bit of the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík. The elegant lines of the interior of the church are very prominent here. The whole place is illuminated by the colourful glass that lets in the light. It’s definitely a sight. I remember looking up and feeling as if I was in some sort of elaborate cave. I’m not a religious person so I can’t say that it made me feel anything holy, but it didn’t creep me out as some churches do.
We visited during the high tourist season so getting tickets to go inside required a pre-booking online. There are timed entrances and you should get your tickets ahead of time, even the day before. The church as been under construction for some time. Construction commenced in 1882 and is expected by be completed by 2026. So yes, you are walking inside vision still in the making. There are many models of the completed work, but I came across this neat video that brings it to life.
Much like the Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell is a Gaudi legacy. The vision for the park was an idyllic English-style garden city. With fancy villas, gardens and public places, the project was a reflection of the style that was popular in the beginning of 20th century.
After the project failed, it became a public park with Gaudi’s influences throughout. We had to get tickets ahead of time (like the day before) and were assigned an entry time. You get to walk through a lot of parkland before hitting the main attractions that are situated by the main gate. Entrance fee was 7.50 Euro per person and wasn’t worth it in my opinion. It was more of a hassle to get the tickets than it actually took to see the park.
Other Modernista buildings
After our unpleasant experience with tickets at both Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell, we opted not pay to see the rest of the buildings done or influenced by Gaudi. You can see the intricate details outside and while the inside is purported to be just as fascinating, we weren’t wiling to keep buying expensive tickets and having to wait for a long time to get in.
If you are in Barcelona during the off-season time, this might be a different experience. For us, it wasn’t worth it and we had no patience for the process.
Not my cup of tea
I must admit that Barcelona left me disappointed. I wanted to like it. Everyone I knew told me it was great and that I would love it. Were my expectations too high? As both Alex and I felt the same way, I think it was just one of those places that didn’t do it for us.
I love architecture and Europe has tons of places where architecture is a big draw for me. Barcelona wasn’t one of those places. While Gaudi’s work is impressive, it wasn’t my favourite. It is totally possible that my impression was guided by the ever-present money grab feeling that I got here.
As the city is dealing with overtourism, it makes sense that they will try to control it. Enforcing timed entrances to attractions and limiting tickets are some of the ways they do it. I understand that, but at the same time I felt that every place was making it difficult for us to visit. I was especially disappointed by the Parc, which we paid to see. That seemed like the case for all other attractions.
Our Airbnb was also not the most pleasant experience. Did that add to the negative feelings we had about Barcelona? No doubt. It’s funny how an experience can make you feel about a place.
Bringing it all together
While we’d definitely go back to Spain, we wouldn’t go back to Barcelona. I think it’s one of those places that you should see, but if you’re not in a hurry, then wait. It really pains me to say this as it seems that I’m one of the few people who didn’t like Barcelona. However, I’m glad we went and saw it. Checked it off the list. Done.
Have you ever been to Barcelona? Did you have a positive experience or was it more similar to mine? Let me know.