The capital of Catalonia and the second largest city in Spain, Barcelona is a lively beach city filled with things do to (and to eat).
A popular beach destination for many Europeans, Barcelona has a very international flavor. It won't be suprising to hear numerous languages at this tourist hotspot, but as it is used to many international guests many people here speak and cater to English speakers. If not, the gesture game is always easy to understand, but a little Spanish manners go a long way (gracias, buenos dias, etc).
WHEN TO GO:
Barcelona is a city that has different personalities depending on the time of year you go.
January-March- While I was there in January I saw deserted beaches and a rather empty city. This was great for doing tourist things (the bus was half empty) but you miss out on the fun of Barcelona.
April-May- Weather gets better, but there are many holidays around Easter so keep in mind a lot of things will be closed at this time.
June-July- The city comes into it's own in the summer with many outdoor things going on and lively beaches.
August- Super crowded, but the city is in full swing in August with full beaches and a fantastic festival in the neighborhood behind Sagrada Familia.
September-October-The city starts to cool down, but also it becomes their rainy season so bring an umbrella. Also September is full of festivals with the Catalan day September 11th and the La Merce festival at the end of the month, there are plenty of things to do and celebrate in September.
November-December- Barcelona celebrates Christmas in style with their many lively christmas markets lining the streets. Here is a review of the different markets throughout the city.
Barcelona is a great city to explore by foot, however it is really spread out so it is best to take some help from a Bus or from the Metro.
Metro- Although a bit difficult to understand at first, the Metro is organized by color so always remember what color of the line you want to take. Although many of them are based around the tourist attractions, they are usually a bit of a walk from them to always bring a street map with you. Here is a pdf that has the metro and many of the larger streets and below is an overview of the metro (don't get overwhelmed, just note which stops are by the locations you want to visit, and where your hotel is).
Bus Tours- I usually don't love the bus tours, but at Barcelona the bus tours were the most direct way to get to all the tourist destinations. I did the 3 day passes with Bus touristic (it has a huge eye on the side of them) both times I was there. As there are 3 different lines, there is certainly a lot to see, but I mostly used it as a regular (educational) bus.
Attractions: Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Montjuic, Barcelona Cathedral, Beaches, Festivals
Dining & Shopping: Las Ramblas, Placa d'Espanya
What to Eat: Rioja, Sangria, Jamon, Paella
DRINKING & DINING: Let all your pain be Champagne:
France in general is amazing for wine and Champagne (a great day trip from Paris, check it out here), although the brand names tend to dominate the scene with the Champagne, I have found incredible wines just though brousing wine stores and local markets in Paris. With the local markets, they are more than happy to have you taste the wine as they are incredibly proud of their product. I have had many a dinner that was just wine and different cheeses (dairy and fruit servings met, check!).
Harry's New York Bar- This is my favorite bar in the ENTIRE WORLD (actually I lied, it's tied with Delirium in Belgium). Upstairs it doesn't look like much dominated by college pennants, however go downstairs when the piano player is going and you will feel like you are in a speakeasy. I have never been so obsessed with a place in my life; I have brought anyone who has visited me here because I love it so much. ALSO, this is the place that invented the Bloody Mary, the Side Car, French 75, and more.
L'Escargot Montorgueil- Definitely touristy and expensive but the only place I have had golden escargot, and there are so many types of escargot you can take your pick. Easy to find as it has a giant gold snail on top of the door.
JanTchi- Most perfect Korean food I have ever had. I lived in this area and I would go to this place for fantastic Bimibap again and again.
Le Soufflé- This place serves amazing souffles, and it is open from 12-4 and 7-10. It is small and can be a bit expensive so if you go, try to go around 2-3 this way it will be less crowded and you can get lunch prices.
Things to Try:
France is notorious for food so in addition to trying varying wine and cheeses you have to try the following:
Souffle- These are fluffy cake/pastries that can house meats, cheeses, and sugar desserts. My favorite souffle was the cheese one so if you go try it.
Crepes- There are literally a hundred ways you can have a crepe, they have savory and sweet crepes that are sure to hit every craving. The most popular crepe is a nutella crepe and they have these crepe stands outside many cafes and along the streets. In my experience the street crepes were the most enjost enjoyable.
Escargot- you will get these in either two ways, in the shell or in little pools of butter already deshelled. Either way is delicious but the pools of butter one is the easiest to eat and dip the bread in. If you get them in the shell, don't panic, just use the little clamp they give you to hold it and pull it out with the little fork on using the outer part of the shell lip (not in the center). I love escargot and its not gross like everyone thinks it is.
Magret de Canard- Not to be confused with Confit de Canard (which is fried duck) this is Duck breast, if they cook it, it should be soft and pink on the inside. I absolutely love this dish and it was my go to at most restaurants.
Grenouilles- Frog's legs, after finally trying this I have to say they taste like lighter yet greasier chicken wings. Only setback is how many tiny bones are in here.
Macaroons- heavenly little cookie sandwiches the macaroons are a lovely little bite, if you want the best go to La Duree and get a box. They are amazing.
ANYTHING at the butcher and ALL OF THE DESSERTS. France does dessert right. Get a dessert with every meal and while you go to any bakery keep your eyes open for new breads and pastries!
STROLL AROUND ON THE STREETS OF SPAIN:
Paris is full of amazing and unique stores, restaurants, markets and parks. Enjoying these things is an intrinsic part of Parisian life so if you just do the tourist sights you are missing out on what Paris really is.
Keep in mind that things are much more expensive around high tourist areas. However if you go to the stores in January or July, France is having their mandated sales so you are likely to encounter more of a bargain. Additionally, there are many indoor shopping areas known as Passages when you look on a map. These glass covered walkways are usually inbetween buildings and full of unique places to eat and shop.
Also by no means is this list exhaustive, these are just areas I liked to shop in.
Saint Honore and Rue de Rivoli- Think high end, even if you don't want to spend the money they are still nice streets to walk down and window shop.
Les Halles- Great market full of unique vendors and a giant mall. Also only place we could get bread on a Sunday.
Le Marais- Affectionately known as the gay Marais, it is full of boutiques, unique bars, and high end style. The Marais certainly has a character all on its own.
Boulevard Haussmann- tons of stores and restaurants, most importantly houses Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, the most major and recognizable department stores in Paris.
St.-Germain-des-Prés- home to Le Bon Marche, another great department store, this area is peaceful and full of neat stores, cafes, and boutiques.
Place d'Italie- decent sized mall full of most stores you can think of
Latin Quarter- A great area full of amazing bookshops, cafes, and restaurants.
Canal Saint Martin- This canal is great to walk around, find fun cafes and to enjoy the indie shopping available.
French style parks are different to those of in the states as they are predominately sand (the kind that dusts up when you walk on it). This is so that you can look at the grass, not walk on it. Despite this strangeness, the parks are beautiful with many wrought iron chairs, fountains with little boats and well constructed trees and shrubs.
Tuileries: Huge park and gardens right outside the Louvre, also home to the Musée de l'Orangerie, the Tuilerie gardens are a must.
Jardin du Luxembourg: Like the central park of NYC, the Luxembourg gardens house many things including a palace, stunning sculptures, a museum, a boating lake, puppet show, bee hives, pony rides, tennis courts and more. There are many restaurants and bars surrounding the park so it is a great place to spend the day.
Palais Royal: Beautiful hidden garden about a block and half before you get to the Louvre, I loved walking through the Palais Royal gardens as they were smaller and not as crowded as the Tuileries.
OVERALL, Paris is the perfect city to get lost in and explore (unless you are by the train stations or by the Moulin Rouge, super sketchy). I loved turning down little side streets and discovering amazing bookshops and little bars that were older than my country. Although you could just go to Paris for a few days, I would recommend going for two weeks, this way you can take your time and discover the city to the fullest, it really is absolutely amazing.
In addition to being a beach hotspot, Barcelona has plenty of tourist attractions as it was the home of the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi, so it comes as no suprise that he has left his mark on the city with some incredible buildings, a park, and a beautiful Cathedral. Aditionally, Barcelona was home to the Olympics in 1992 with the stadium and other remnants still standing. However as I've said for Paris if you book your tickets in advance and time your visits well, you will be one of the select few who spend more of their time exploring instead of waiting (especially for the Gaudi buildings and Gaudi park).
Gaudi not Gaudy:
Sagrada Familia- The icon of Barcelona, Sagrada Familia is the church that never ends. Designed by Gaudi and built by practically everyone in Barcelona, the building is usually everyone's first stop in the city so prepare yourself for lines. BUY THE TICKET IN ADVANCE OR YOU WILL BE IN LINE FOR OVER AN HOUR (in August you won't even get in at all). Also, if you have no fear of heights, I highly recommend taking the elevator up and seeing the peaks of the building up close (they're really beautiful). Also don't forget about the basement, they give an overview of the never ending building on the cathedral, and the progress they have made over the past decades. If you want a through tour, grab an audio guide and give yourself 2 1/2-3 hours.
Parc Güell- A beautiful park full of Gaudi works, this park was made in the early 1900's and is great to explore during a beautiful day. The part of the park that includes the museum requires tickets, and when I went in August, it was booked for the day so I would recommend getting tickets in advance. After the museum hike up the hill, and get a beautiful view of Barcelona.
Additional Gaudi buildings are spread throughout the city, here is guide to the other top attractions.
On the Mountain:
Montjuïc Castle - The views from this castle are incredible. As you wander along around the cannons and listen to the history of the castle from the videos, you are transported through the history of the castle as it's defense of the city, and then, unfortunately it's attack of it.
Olympic Park- Lower on the Mountain than the castle is the Olympic Park. Here was a main stadium and park for the 1992 Olympic Games. Although the stadium itself has definitely seen better days, its nice to take a brief walk around the park and soak up the feeling of the games (and there is a stand that sells beer so you can soak some of that up too).
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya- The imposing beautiful building is on top of the beautiful staircase at the Placa d' Espanya. It is one of the largest museums in Spain and hosts stunning Roman, Gothic, Baroque and Modern Art. If anything, just stand in front of it and take a picture overlooking the city.
As a largely Catholic country, Spain has plenty of beautiful Catholic churches. Around every corner you are able to discover one golden guilded masterpiece to another. An important thing to note: as you visit these churches there are plenty of nuns and people checking the length of your shorts and your exposed shoulders, so in the summer bring a scarf around that you can tie around your shoulders or around your waist.
Barcelona Cathedral- In the gothic quarter, I stumbled across this beautiful cathedral. The architecture and the ceilings will literally take your breath away. Walk around the area and you'll find beautiful architectural touches along the alleys and courtyards. Also, in the summer I was fortunate enough to find a festival and concert outside the cathedral at night so keep your eyes open!
Maria del Mar - A rustic, beautiful church whose simplicity and age are just amazing (especially in contrast to the excess and splendor of the Sagrada Familia).
Check out the Views:
Versailles- A former bull ring, but now a mall, you are able to pay 2 euro to take the elevator for amazing views of the city and of the mountain.
Chateau de Vincennes- On the left side of the Park Guell is a mound with a cross on top, if you climb up you can see for miles, great photo ops.
Disneyland Paris- The Disney of Europe, Disneyland Paris is just like the one in Florida, except MUCH smaller. With many of the same rides, Euro Disney has two parks: Disneyland Park (the one with the castle) and Walt Disney Studios. They also have a Disney village with Disney Hotels, Disney Stores and a Disney Starbucks (just kidding, it's a regular Starbucks). If you want to go, go, but the Florida one is better.