A visit to Barcelona, Spain’s largest city and the capital of Catalonia, offers a truly unique travel experience. Upon arrival, visitors are seduced by the architectural pageantry, picturesque plazas and parks. But it is Barcelona’s attitude – adventurous, edgy and high energy – that captured my heart.

During peak summer months, Barcelona is a seductress that requires no beauty sleep. The streets are alive with activity 24/7, outdoor cafes and bars buzz with conversation and music fills the night air.

Over the last 2,000 years, Barcelona has reigned as Catalonia’s capital city. Barcelona has masterfully blended the best of old and new blossoming into a world class urban oasis of art, culture and history with nine designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Barcelona’s prime coastal location on the Western Mediterranean has kept commerce and tourism on the rise. Today, Barcelona is a top port of call for cruise ships welcoming 2 million passengers annually.

Equal to Los Angeles in terms of size and sprawl, Barcelona can be challenging to navigate.
When exploring the city it is important to have a plan in place and reserve tickets for major attractions in advance to avoid long lines.

During my recent pre-cruise visit, I focused on four distinct areas: Old City, the Harbor, the Eixample and Montjuïc.

The Official Barcelona Tourist Bus became my new best friend and favorite mode of transportation. With three tour routes, an English audio guide with headphones and a killer top deck view, I was guaranteed not to miss a thing. The hop on and off privileges and the bus schedule frequency also allowed me to soak in all the sights at my own pace.

Recommendation: the Two Day Ticket Pass offers a savings and discount voucher booklet for area attractions.

A self-guided walking tour is the next best way to discover the magic of Barcelona. Getting lost in a maze of roundabouts, boulevards, squares and narrow lanes only adds to the travel adventure. One is sure to find a church, fountain, statue or other treasure around every corner.

Must-See Highlights & Activities:

  • Barri Gótic: Barcelona’s most historic neighborhood marked by winding narrow medieval streets and the ruins of an ancient Roman temple and wall. People watching along La Rambla is the favorite past time.
  • A stroll to the harbor font via La Rambla: Barcelona’s most beloved boulevard in the heart of the Old City. On any given day or evening, this colorful pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare is brimming with tourists and local street artists. Note of caution: Beware of pickpockets.
  • La Boqueria: A lively and large public market housed in a 19th Century cast iron building just off La Rambla. Here you will find a vast array of fresh produce and gourmet food vendor stalls. The perfect place for a late afternoon snack. The fruit smoothies are a top pick.
  • Casa Batlló: A Gaudí home original where funky meets fantasy. A Modern/Art Nouveau marvel that should not be missed. One will be hard pressed to find a straight line; Rooms are curved sanctuaries. Intricate arches, carved wood and tile accents captivate the eye from every angle. The dragon-inspired rooftop offers an excellent view of the Eixample district and Passeig de Grácia, home to the city’s most elaborate residences and luxury brand shopping. Open Daily.
  • Basilica of the Sagrada Família: Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece. This Roman Catholic Church has been a work in progress since 1882. The city hopes to have the project completed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. When Gaudí’s design vision of 18 towering spires is finally realized, the Sagrada Família would rank as the tallest church in the world.
  • Shopping and Dining in El Born: Insiders have let the secret out. El Born is the place to be. Barcelona’s very own version of SoHo. This hip bohemian residential district is home to the Picasso Museum and a new mecca for nightlife. Its growing popularity is evidenced by the number of boutique hotels sprouting up. El Born’s prime location, northeast of the Barri Gótic and minutes from the waterfront, make it a special find offering both convenience and charm. Enjoy eclectic eats, trendy artisan and designer shops, galleries, wine bars and more.
  • Park Güell: A Gaudí-designed 30 acre park perched on a hilltop featuring whimsical art pieces, terraced grounds, the Gaudí House Museum and a panoramic vista of Barcelona.
  • Catalan Art Museum: Well worth a visit if only to see the museum’s impressive collection of 11th to 13th Century Romanesque frescoes and painted wooden altars. The museum is located in the National Palace built as the central pavilion for the 1929 World Expo. Other exhibits include Gothic, Renaissance and Catalan artwork as well as Modern and Art Deco pieces from the 19th and 20th Be sure to stop at the museum’s terraced entrance to catch a beautiful sweeping view of the Expo Fairgrounds, Plaça d’Espanya and Barcelona’s Magic Fountains which delight crowds with a light, music and water show most evenings.
  • Montjuïc: Barcelona’s famed historic hill which once housed a large fortress and castle. Now a popular stop for one of the best birds eye views of the city, Montjuïc boasts several modern art museums and is home to Barcelona’s Olympic Sports Museum and Stadium. Hop on the Funicular (part of the metro system) for a scenic ride to the top. A cable car ride is also available but will be the more pricey option.
  • Mirador de Colom:  A towering bronze monument of Christopher Columbus welcomes ships to Barcelona’s harbor. The popular 196+ foot landmark was erected in 1888 to honor Columbus who chose Barcelona as his point of disembarkation when returning from his maiden voyage to America. For a fee, visitors can travel to the top for a panoramic view. But go for the vista at sunset. Simply spectacular! Last lift ride is at 8 p.m.

Special Finds:

  • Jamón Experience: A unique gastronomic educational experience. Interactive and entertaining. Learn about production process, origins and varieties. Tour includes a tasting of up to 6 hams. So many hams so little time! Location: Opposite La Boqueria Market
  • Desigual: A fun and fanciful Barcelona brand with a loyal global fan base. With store on every corner, be sure to pack an extra large tote in your luggage. You won’t be able to resist Desigual’s latest fashion forward designs that are not yet available in U.S. stores.
  • The Hash Marihuana Cáñamo & Hemp Museum: Original Museum is in Amsterdam. Second location opened in Barcelona’s in May 2012. The museum offers a quirky collection of 6000 cannibas related items and memorabilia. Worth a stop for the bragging rights alone! But be forewarned: sampling is definitely NOT part of the tour.

For travel planning tips and destination information, visit the official Barcelona Tourism website.

Photos: Courtesy of Sheila Gaspers and Tourist Office of Spain