With its sun-soaked beaches, Mediterranean hospitality, and unparalleled architecture, it’s easy to fall for Barcelona. The city appeals to all the senses: There are wines to be swirled and tapas to be gobbled, passageways to be explored, and paintings to be pondered. The ancient and avant garde intermingle in the Catalan capital, where you can find Roman ruins, Moderniste apartments, and high-fashion boutiques all on the same block. With centuries of history to explore over miles of winding streets, sightseeing in Barcelona might seem a little intimidating. But all you have to do is tackle this list of 25 essential experiences to enjoy everything the city has to offer.
A gastronomic mecca that attracts more than 45,000 visitors a day, La Boqueria may be the most famous food market in the world, and for good reason. Its endless stalls entice shoppers with abundant displays of the region’s finest cheeses, charcuterie, seafood, and produce. Some vendors have adapted over time to tourists’ demands, but for a taste of how things were at La Boqueria way back when, sidle up to the bar at Pinotxo, where quick-witted 75-year-old Joan Bayén (“Juanito” for the locals) has been churning out hearty country fare like cigrons amb botifarra negre (stewed chickpeas with black pudding) and calamarcets amb mongetes (tender baby squid and white beans) for a half a century.
SANTA MARIA DEL MAR
To gain some perspective on the antiquity of Santa María del Mar—and the resilience of Barcelona’s architectonic tradition— consider that each boulder used in the church’s construction was hauled one at a time from surrounding mountainsides and shoreline by ordinary civilians. When the project was finally complete in 1383, 54 years after the first stone was laid, the citizens marveled at what they’d created: a soaring Gothic temple accented with vivid stained-glass panels, illuminated by natural light, and buttressed by sparse, improbably slender columns. Much of the original structure remains today, despite damages to the interior from an 11-day fire that broke out during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
EL PALAU DE LA MUSICA CATALANA
Gaudí may be the most recognizable face of Catalan Moderniste, but many of his contemporaries left their mark on Barcelona as well. One of them was Lluís Domènech i Monater, the Barcelona-born architect behind the Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music), built in 1908. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the auditorium’s interior bursts with color, pattern, and texture, all of which culminate in a skylight so vast that during daylight hours, performances take place without the flick of a single light switch. Choral, orchestral, and opera music reign supreme here, but that’s not to say the Palau’s program hasn’t featured its share of mainstream artists: Ella Fitzgerald, Norah Jones, and Paco de Lucía have all walked across its stage.
No visit to Barcelona would be complete without a stroll through Las Ramblas, the wide, shady boulevard that runs through the heart of the city from Plaça de Catalunya down to Port Vell. Whether you’re taking in a street performance, ambling beneath the trees, or people-watching from a terrace, there’s never a dull moment here. To get a bird’s-eye view of all the action, finish your Ramblas route at the 18th-story mirador at Columbus Monument for panoramic views of the city and sea. Just be sure to watch your wallet around these parts: This is pickpocket central.
CAVA AND VERMOUTH
Prosecco and other budget sparklers rely on industrial carbonization to make their wines bubble. But Catalan cava, like fine champagne, gets its effervescence and complexity from bottle fermentation. You can taste some of the region’s best bubblies at La Vinya del Senyor, a cozy, understated restaurant with several by-the-glass boutique cavas to choose from. If you’re lucky enough to snag a table on the plaça, you’ll be rewarded with views of Santa María del Mar’s 14th-century façade.
On sunny weekend afternoons, neighborhood bars fill up with locals out to fer el vermut, the Catalan ritual of catching up with friends over a few dainty glasses of this aromatic, garnet-red aperitif, customarily garnished with an orange slice and an olive. Barcelona’s best vermouth bars, like Morro Fi, blend their own vermouths by infusing fortified wine with any range of botanicals, but in a pinch, the bottled stuff is perfectly passable, too (just ask the bartender for a quality Catalan brand such as Vermut Yzaguirre).
No place on earth can hold a candle to Barri Gòtic when it comes to concentration and breadth of Gothic architecture. This is the most ancient part of the city, where labyrinthine streets empty into medieval plaças. Yet amid all the antiquity, Barri Gòtic boasts some of the city’s best shopping. Handmade espadrilles, or alpargatas as they’re known in Spain, make cheery, affordable souvenirs; find them at La Manual Alpagatera, worth a visit if only to marvel at the floor-to-ceiling stacks of sandals available in every hue and style. For rarer finds, wake up early on a Sunday morning to explore the Mercat Gòtic, where you can treasure hunt for antiques and, if luck strikes, witness a traditional Catalan dance on the plaça called the “Sardana.”
FUNDACIO JOAN MIRO
Perched on Montjuïc, the hard-to-pronounce hill that rises behind the city center, Fundació Joan Miró was founded in 1968 by the Catalan artist himself with the aim to make his art more accessible to the public. Today more than 10,000 of his masterpieces, from the early Surrealist paintings to the Dada-inspired later works, are on display. Whether you’re inside for a half an hour or an entire afternoon, don’t miss the rather hilarious Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement.