See Barcelona in one day complete with merienda and a Spanish guitar performance? It’s very possible! A weekend (or 2 days) in Barcelona is more than enough time which is good news for us time to those of us who don’t have a lot of vacation days to spare. Here’s Part 1 of the series:
Sunny Spain. This was the vision that led us to Barcelona in January when the weather in most of Central Europe is a toss between rain and, well… more rain. Our hope is to fly in to Barcelona on Friday night, soak up some Vitamin D the entire weekend then head back to Amsterdam sun-kissed and recharged.
So when I stepped out of our apartment on Saturday morning with the sun shining oh-so-bright, I almost felt like skipping my way down Rambla Catalunya. But instead I froze. Literally.
It was actually 2ºC that morning—35°F to dearest friends in the US. Apparently, it was the coldest weekend that Barcelona has seen in years—a real anomaly that none of the locals could explain. The average temperature of Barcelona in January should be 15°C and there I was, in my flimsy khaki (non)jacket, planning to spend an entire day outside.
Wearing our bravest smiles, we headed out to meet our tour guide at Plaça Catalunya—a square that all visitors to Barcelona should know about. It’s at the very tip of La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous pedestrian avenue, the hub of all Hop-on Hop-off buses should you want to get on one, and has Metro station that can take you to various spots in the city.
DAY 1: FULL DAY TOUR
The plan was to dedicate Day 1 to the highlights of Barcelona by taking part of a full-day guided tour. (Day 2 was for a more immersive experience on Catalan cooking.) Signing up for guided tours is something that I usually opt for when 1) I do not have much time, and 2) if I really want to learn about the place from a local guide. In the case of Barcelona, both were true.
We met up with our guide, Nicolas, at 9AM for the small group tour, supposedly limited to 8 people at the most. You can imagine how excited we got when we found out that only KD and I signed up for the tour that day, turning the small group tour to our very own private tour! Another good thing about traveling to Barcelona in January is that it’s well within the off peak season and the amount of tourists in the city goes down to but a small fraction of the sweaty, summer mobs.
AMAZING VIEWS FROM MONTJUïC
Our first stop was Montjuïc, one of the highest points of Barcelona which gives you a breathtaking and commanding view of the city. Nicolas felt it was a good way to start the tour to 1) give us an overview of the city, 2) point out certain areas that standout, and 3) plot out the route that we’re taking that day.
LA SAGRADA FAMÍLIA
We drove down from Montjuïc for about 20 minutes with Nicolas calling other significant Barcelona landmarks along the way. I started to take notice of the route that he’s taking. Having spent 6 full days in Barcelona in 2009, I was a bit familiar with the city and I knew that he was leading us to La Sagrada Família.
I thought Nicolas was going to leave the church for last given that it is, after all, the crowning glory of Barcelona. I had hoped to chat with Nicolas first on making the “reveal” somewhat dramatic for KD as I knew he was going to absolutely love it.
But we were one right turn away to the church and one right turn away to an ordinary, run-of-the-mill “reveal.”
But Nicolas turned left, drove further ahead, and further, made another left, parked the car, and asked us to walk with him instead. I figured I was wrong and we were headed somewhere else. We were in a residential area with very narrow streets and he was telling us about the history of the neighbourhood. We followed him to a right turn and suddenly, unexpectedly, unbelievably, there it stood in front of us: Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Família.
I did not only get the dramatic “reveal” for KD, but even I was surprised. Like I guessed, KD was absolutely in awe. Juxtaposed with the residential buildings, the Sagrada Familia’s facade is really a sight to behold. And once inside the church, KD stood transfixed, amazed by the genius of Gaudi. After the aurora borealis, he and I agree that La Sagrada Família is the most beautiful site to see in Europe:
TAPAS Y CAVA
It was close to noon when we arrived at Cuines Santa Caterina, a restaurant in Mercat de Santa Caterina (Santa Caterina Market) which is another must-visit for all architecture fiends. There, the three of us took a break for some cava—world-famous Spanish sparkling wine produced in Catalonia, and some tapas:
BARRI GÒTIC WITH A SOUNDTRACK
After snacking and wining, we headed off to Barcelona’s gothic quarters to view the oldest part of the city. There are a lot of sites tucked away in the many winding cobbled streets of this pocket of Barcelona but I will recommend that you don’t miss:
- The Barcelona Cathedral also known as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia with its grand doorway of angels and its magnificent gothic architecture. Inside, don’t miss the 13 resident geese. They’re adorable.
- Plaça Sant Felip Neri which is a small, quaint square away from the crowds. You can sit under the shade of a tree and watch local kids play football or tourists stroll by and feel utter peace. But you can also take a closer look around you and see some ghosts from the past like bomb marks from the Spanish Civil War all over the walls on one side of the plaza, and a building marked with a boot emblem claimed to be a secret meeting place for the Knights Templar.
- If you hear a Spanish guitar in the background as you stroll around Barri Gotìc, follow it. If the music is coming from Adrian Roman, plant yourself there and make a mental note to buy a lottery ticket because it is your lucky day. Plant yourself there and listen to the best street performers in all of Barcelona.
GAUDI’S PARK GÜELL
After a sumptuous lunch of paella negra, we headed to Park Güell. The timing couldn’t be more perfect and is one that I’ll recommend to anyone planning to go to Park Güell. With over 17 hectares of park and gardens—all adorned by Gaudí’s dreamy and whimsical architecture—you can choose to either burn your heavy lunch by walking around the park, OR find a quiet, shaded area away from the tourists, and have a well-deserved siesta. Since KD and I ate a paella pan each, we decided to walk around and burn some calories whilst we admired every masterfully sculpted element of the park: houses that look like they’re made of gingerbread, rock colonnades, a tiled dragon that spits out lucky water, an never-ending bench… the list is practically endless!
Although this was not part our private tour, this is a stop that I will recommend to all who will follow this itinerary. Touring Park Güell can take 2 to 3 hours. There will be a lot of climbing and walking on rough terrain so it’s easy to feel exhausted after. If you’re not taking a car or a taxi, you’ll find the trek to/from the nearest bus stop is long and steep and quite tiring. So by the time you reach your next tour stop, you’ll be drained. So why not recharge with some merienda?
Merienda, a light meal eaten between lunch and dinner, is a concept that’s common in Spain and other areas in the world with heavy Spanish influece such as Latin America and the Philippines. Growing up in Manila, my day is not complete without having it. This meal is not common in countries where dinner is served at 6pm. But with the Spanish schedule of lunch at 1pm, siesta at 3pm and dinner at 10pm, a 5pm snack works just fine.
And the perfect merienda in Barcelona? There’s nothing better than some freshly cooked churros with a cup of thick, dark chocolate.
LA PEDRERA & CASA BATLLÓ
After Park Güell, we headed to Passeig de Gràcia for our last stop for the day. Along this road are two Antoni Gaudi sites 500m away from each other: La Pedrera (also known as Casa Milà) and Casa Batlló. We said goodbye to Nicolas after going over a brief history of the two Modernista Gaudi masterpieces and left us to explore on our own.
Standing right in front of La Pedrera and looking up, one can really appreciate how unique and one-of-a-kind Gaudi is with the wave-like facade and balconies. Tourists would typically stop there but what they do not realize is that Gaudi’s brilliance continues inside and is visible in every single element of the apartment building—from individually-designed knobs to the sentinel/soldier chimneys in the rooftop:
The sun has set by the time we got to Casa Batlló. The timing is perfect, once again, as the apartment is one of the best-lit buildings in all of Barcelona. Too tired to cue and go in, we sat on one of the wooden benches in front, looked up and took everything in. Our eyes feasted on the many, many colours and shapes, as our minds tried to comprehend why Gaudi would think of juxtaposing shapes of skulls and bones with splashes of bright greens, blues and yellows. What was he thinking? What was his intention? We cannot begin to guess, so there we sat and admired:
It was a long day but it was not yet over. The plan is to cap a day of touring with a treat: dinner at Chef Paco Perez’s Enoteca at the Ritz Carlton’s Hotel Arts Barcelona. After dinner, we called it a day—a pretty darn brilliant day.