Visiting the iconic city of Barcelona has always been a long-standing item on my bucket-list. I am not exactly sure which aspect of the city I was most excited about…perhaps it was the culture. I have always been excited by what looked like incredible food, vibrant nightlife, and extremely passionate people. And, of course, there was the soccer.
I made a special effort to visit Barcelona, en route to Asia, and was lucky enough to spend eight days in the heart of the city (big thanks to my friends who let me crash on their couch).
My first impression of the city came from above. Literally.
Flying in (via London), I immediately recognized Barcelona’s impressively mapped out urban design. Spacious, walkable roads are snaked across a grid, encouraging walking and biking throughout the city.
Cerda’s l’Eixample (Expansion) plan made walking enjoyable almost everywhere — 50 percent of all street space is dedicated to walking space, with the other 50 percent for all other forms of ‘traffic.’ — CityLab
Architecture, as I quickly learned, was an important aspect of Barcelona culture. Their buildings blended art and science. Brilliant curves and mathematical lines came together. Funky shapes and simple circles lined buildings in magical ways. That was Barcelona.
It was art and science.
Five years ago, when I moved to Sant Antoni, a neighborhood in the Eixample district (pronounced ‘eshampla’), I was overwhelmed by the endless blocks and blocks of buildings. And on each block, everything looked the same — fruit stands, bakeries, supermarkets, banks, then more fruit stands, more bakeries, more supermarkets and more banks… — Guide
But why? And how? How was the city architected in such a way to provide consistency and accessibility to its urban population?
The godfather of Eixample’s city grid is urban planner Ildefons Cerdà. He believed in healthy everyday living through basic needs — among those are sunlight, ventilation, greenery, and ease of movement.
The uniformity and continuity of squares was designed to eliminate segregation of all neighborhoods. Cerdà believed in sanitary conditions for all social classes.
(This did not completely work, as much of the city suffers from income inequality and rising home prices).
Another interesting thing I had never seen prior to coming to Barcelona was the “chamfered street-corners.”
These were designed in such a way to make traffic move more fluidly while still giving walkers a place to move. There are other interesting phenomenon, further outlined in this article, about Barcelona’s unique design characteristics, like how “all blocks are oriented northwest-southwest for maximum solar access,” or how the buildings were “supposed to be as tall as 16 meters in height as to not block the sunlight for other buildings.”
As I experienced, much of Barcelona’s beauty is non-obvious: subtle splashes of math interwoven in the art.
In roughly a week, I was able to see a great deal of the city and truly immerse myself in what I now come to see as “Barcelona culture” — a mix of going out until 6 in the morning, eating tapas, and admiring the brilliant architecture.
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia is perhaps Barcelona’s most well-known tourist attraction. The unfinished Roman Catholic church, famously designed by Gaudi, is truly an extraordinary sight. “It is anticipated that the building can be completed by 2026 — the centenary of Gaudí’s death.”
Like many districts of the city, the area surrounding La Sagrada has tons of small restaurants and bars to sit at and admire the site.
Arc De Triomf
The Montjuic Castle sits atop one of Barcelona’s many hills. It is an old military fortress, with an interestingly troubled past, as it was overrun by the Nazis. The view from the top is great, and I recommend taking the tram up.
Growing up both playing and watching, I have always had a keen interest for soccer. Regardless of your passion for the sport, Camp Nou is a sight to be seen. It is the largest stadium in Europe (second largest in the world) and home to centuries of sports’ history. Unfortunately, my visit did not overlap with an opportunity to see a game in action…but I imagined it…
Barceloneta, a seaside neighborhood, is perhaps my favorite part of the city. The beach is lined with dozens of traditional restaurants and bars. All of the best clubs (which are in my mind some of the best in the world) are lined right along the boardwalk. We spent many late nights (and early mornings) in in this area at Opium, Shoko, Pacha, to name a few…
I wish I had more specific recommendations/names, but, in general much of the food across Barcelona is the same: Tapas. Tapas are small appetizer-like items that vary in style/cuisine. My favorites were Patatas Bravas and spicy peppers. We also had great western foods. Bar-wise, we had a lot of fun at George Payne and the Stock Exchange Bar.
In general, Barcelona completely lived up to (and surpassed) many of my expectations. The nightlife scene is really amazing and the people you meet throughout the city are friendly and willing to help you get around.
The city-system is fairly easy to navigate, as there is an intuitive metro system that can take you pretty much anywhere for fairly cheap.
One interesting anecdote, in recollecting on the experience, is just how laid back the culture is there. Perhaps my gut takeaway is that Spanish people, much like Italians and Greek, live for the day — not the year, decade etc. Future planning, in my limited conversations with locals, did not seem to be the big priority (as it feels like it is in the US). This is obviously a generalization, one rooted in a biased sample size, but, nonetheless, I found immersing myself in the “relaxing” environment of Spain to be a fresh injection of culture and presence — to live life, and nothing more (or less).