One of the first things to know if you are planning a trip to Barcelona is that while the city is in Spain, the locals consider themselves the capital of the Catalonian province first and a part of Spain second.
If you’re looking for a location to bring your group to study Spanish, Barcelona is not the place. The primary spoken language there is Catalan and many locals would prefer English as their second choice for conversing rather than Spanish.

Their pride in their city is well founded. 2000 years ago, while Madrid was still a backwater Moorish settlement on the Spanish steppe, Barcelona commanded a vast Mediterranean empire and has long rivaled and often surpassed Madrid in political influence and economic might.

A city such as Barcelona could easily occupy weeks of your time, however since you don’t likely have that long, allow me to guide you through what I consider some of the experiences you should not leave Barcelona without.


Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain. Photo by Lance Harrell

Barcelona is well known for the phantasmagoric creations of Anton Gaudi and his influence can be both felt in the culture and seen throughout the city. Usually the first stop on everyone’s list is Sagrada Familia and I also highly recommend it. This massive cathedral seems to rise mythically from the earth beneath it, each angle offering yet another rare visual gem. The hypnotic spell it casts on your sense of time and place is only broken by the modern day construction cranes that are aiding in its completion.

Planning Tip: Sagrada Familia is one of the most visited sights in Barcelona, so be prepared to stand in line. I arrived on a Monday just before the 9am opening and counted about 100 people waiting to get inside. I decided to grab a coffee and try later, but by the time I returned at 10am there were nearly 500 in line. Don’t worry though, the wait is well worth the treasures inside.

Casa Batllo at night

Casa Batllo at Night, Barcelona Spain. Photo by Lance Harrell

Next head over to Casa Batllo, an apartment house renovated by Gaudi in the early 1900s. Located on the Passeig de Gracia, you can’t miss it, just look for the small crowd staring up at the tiled mosaics and skull-like balconies. For a real treat, visit it at night when the lighting adds to the surreal nature of the structure.

To complete the Gaudi trifecta, grab some tapas and spend a relaxing lunch at Güell Park.  Most visitors head straight up the central stairs to the main plaza, and although taking in the perfect view of the city while relaxing on the undulating, colorful, ceramic mosaic tiled benches shouldn’t be missed, be sure to take some time and explore the rest of the park where many of the more subtle treasures await.

But don’t let Gaudi steal the whole show. Barcelona has been in existence for millennia and is home to a plethora of beautiful structures spanning many architectural time periods. While I mention a few below, rather than point you in any one direction, I invite you to just take some time and walk the streets. You won’t be disappointed.

Anton Gaudi

Antoni Gaudí; (25 June 1852–10 June 1926) was a Spanish Catalan architect and figurehead of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s works reflect his highly individual and distinctive style and are largely concentrated in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, notably hismagnum opus, the Sagrada Família.

Much of Gaudí’s work was marked by his four life passions: architecture, nature, religion and love for Catalonia.[3] Gaudí studied every detail of his creations, integrating into his architecture a series of crafts in which he was skilled: ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry. He introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadís, made of waste ceramic pieces.


Ruins of Roman Settlement Barcino, upon which Barcelona was built.

Ruins of Roman Settlement Barcino, upon which Barcelona was built. Museu d’Historica de la Ciutat . Photo by Lance Harrell

As with any historically important city, Barcelona does not go wanting for museums, but regardless of your timetable or the nature of your group, there are two that I put on my “must experience” list.

In order to truly understand the city you are visiting, you need to experience the foundations upon which it was built, both literal and cultural. For a fascinating glimpse of the literal, visit the Museu d’Historica de la Ciuta (City History Museum) where you descend into the sub-basement and walk through the excavated ruins of the original Roman city of Barcia, from which modern day Barcelona grew.

On the cultural side, given the reciprocal influence between the city and the artist, to visit Barcelona without stepping foot in the Picasso Museum would be an insult to them both. The number and variety of the works on display is impressive, and you are likely to discover a few facts about the man and the context of his work that may surprise you.


Typical Street in the Barcelona Gothic Quarter.

Typical Street in the Barcelona Gothic Quarter. Photo by Lance Harrell

After visiting these museums in the Gothic quarter, I highly encourage you to take my next piece of advice, strange though it may seem; get lost. Most of what is to be found in the Gothic quarter is not on any map nor can it be researched online. This winding medieval maze of tight streets, tapas bars, shops and picturesque buildings is easy to get into and seemingly impossible to get out of, but it is this nature that lends itself to wonderful moments of discovery.  When you do finally emerge, after wandering through 50 interconnecting doglegged streets, you will find yourself carrying the desire to turn right around and do it again.

Tech Tip: Separating a student from their smartphone is a nearly unwinnable battle, so if you can’t win the war, change the rules of the game. Traveling has many components, one of which is earning bragging rights over your friends back home or even among those in your group. Set up a Foursquare scavenger hunt where students need to check in using the app on their smartphone at certain locations throughout the city, or simply remind them that being in a foreign city provides them with opportunities to gain points and badges that their friends back home can’t get.

One of the most bustling streets in the old city is La Ramba, and although you are more likely to run into a fellow foreigner than a local here, there are a few sights along this “carrer” that make my list.

Taking the L3 Metro and exiting at the Liceu station will put you in the center of the action and right next to your first stop, La Boqueria. As Barcelona’s primary produce market, it is both a visual and gastronomic feast, and I recommend visiting during mid-morning or late afternoon when you can indulge your stomach and sample all the delectable fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, chocolates, juices, coffees and other offering in this cornucopia of favor.

Now it’s time to start walking off some of that food by heading up the street my next suggested stop, the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu. This 15th-century medieval hospital was one of the first medical complexes in Europe, is one of the finest Gothic spaces in Barcelona and houses the Biblioteca de Catalunya (library of Catalunya).

Just a few streets away you’ll encounter the Sant Pau del Camp which is Barcelona’s oldest church and is the city’s earliest Romanesque structure. The current incarnation was built in 1127, although archeological evidence suggests it was used as a Roman graveyard as far back as the 2nd century C.E. The church’s unique design is reflective of it being a not only a place of worship but also of refuge for early Christians during a time of Moorish incursions.

Columbus Monument, Barcelona Spain.

Columbus Monument, Barcelona Spain. Photo by Lance Harrell

Before you lose too much light, make your way toward the sea and the Monument a Colom (Columbus Monument) which marks the first spot in Spain Christopher Columbus stepped on after discovering the New World. I recommend paying the small fee to take the elevator to the top where you can get a panoramic view of the entire city.  If you are traveling with a large group though, be advised that only four or five people can be at the top at one time, so make sure to plan your time accordingly.

My parting piece of advice is to cross the street, grab a gelato or a coffee and enjoy the sunset on the Mediterranean while reflecting on everything you have experienced. When you’re ready to head back to base, you will find yourself about 200 meters from the Drassanes stop of the L3 Metro line.

by Lance Harrell