Every popular European city has dozens of top 10 lists online, and much of them repeat the same famous landmarks and things-to-do. This list will repeat the big ones too because, well, they’re big for a reason. The only difference with my recommendations is that there’s always a tip to get a little bit off the well-beaten paths. Why? Super touristy is just not my style, nor is wasting money in des pièges à touristes.
Las Ramblas: This is on the top of many to-do lists because it’s a bustling, famous pedestrian street. In the summer it’s packed. Some search for the bars that Hemingway allegedly hung out at, but are now so overpriced that Ernest would surely run the other direction. In terms of shops, bars, and restaurants, Las Ramblas is a tourist trap. So check it out to buy T-shirts or people watch, then get off this crowded street. The side streets and markets just off Las Ramblas are much more interesting. To the west, Barri Gotic’s narrow alleys have the character and old world charm that you’re looking for. It’ll be easy to get lost on these medieval side streets, which will lead you—like the infamous Spaniard, Columbus—to some great ‘finds’! Some of my favorite Barri Gotic spots: La Palma Bar, the Picasso Museum, and Harlem Jazz Club for live music.
Plaza Real: Again, this place is no secret, but it doesn’t have the tourist trap feel if you go to the right spot. This old square is a good place to escape the hustle of Ramblas, sit down and get a drink. There are some great eating options as well. Les Quince Nits has an international menu, good food, reasonable prices and its outdoor seats are perfectly situated to soak in the 19th century square. If you’re feeling more like tapas fusion, stylish retro décor, and some transgender flare, hit up Ocaña—situated in the opposite corner of the plaza. If you’re lucky, a street performer will be playing tunes by the fountain—center stage. Side note: in Plaza Real there’s a 'hidden' bar in the northwest corner. It’s called Pipa Club, but there’s no sign. Just go to the unmarked door and ring the bell. Someone will probably let you in.
El Museo Nacional del Arte Catalunya: Walk toward Parc de Montjuic from the Plaza Espanya metro stop and you’ll be struck by the majesty of El Museo Nacional peering down on you. I happened to come across this palace on a jog and was immediately inspired—Rocky Balboa style! I ran up the hundreds of steps and beyond, making it to the 1992 Olympic Village where you can grab a view of southwestern Barcelona and the coastline. The views from this hill are great. I admit, I didn’t even go inside the museum, but the panorama is well worth the hike up there.
La Sagrada Familia: I’d been to Gaudi’s famous church 15 years ago and remembered its iconic east-facing façade. That’s all I remember because I didn’t pay—and probably couldn’t afford—to go inside. Last week I finally paid the 18 Euro to actually go in and, Jesus Christ, was it worth it! The grand architecture and style are mind-boggling. How awesome is La Sagrada Familia? For the first time in my adult life, a church made me consider re-embracing my long-dormant Catholicism. That’s powerful. In short, stand in line and pay $20 to go inside—vale la pena.
Park Güell: For another of Gaudi’s unique creations, I have the opposite advice: Do not buy a ticket. Situated in the cool neighborhood of Gracia, Park Guell is worth the visit but I was disappointed that they now charge to enter the most attractive, mosaic-rich part of the park. Not too long ago, I remember walking right in and sharing a bottle of wine on the serpentine benches overlooking the city. Now you have to wait in line, buy a ticket, and enter in 30 minute shifts to access this area. Thankfully, there are two sections of the park and one is still free. I recommend taking your wine up there, sitting down and soaking in essentially the same view—gratis.