From the soaring towers of the Sagrada Familia to its easily accessible Mediterranean beaches, Barcelona is a city unmatched by its European neighbors. The core of Barcelona is small enough to see on foot, and vibrant enough that you'll want to soak it all in from street level, so bring your best walking shoes, prepare to stay up late and keep your camera charged.
Antoni Gaudi is one of Spain's most recognized architects and a famous proponent of Catalan Modernism. Barcelona holds his best work, and you can see most of it in an afternoon. The first and most important stop on your list is the Sagrada Familia, an elaborate church covered in peaks and spikes. Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882 and is scheduled to be finished during the first third of the 21st century. The building's organic-looking towers and dizzying visual effects are unparalleled.
Park Guell and Casa Batllo are Barcelona's other Gaudi musts. Park Guell is a sprawling public park full of stunning buildings, sculptures and tiles designed by Gaudi. The architect's former home is among them. Casa Batllo, a residence on Passeig de Gracia, features a macabre skull-and-bones motif in its pillars and balconies.
La Rambla is the major street of central Barcelona, and it's crowded day and night with visitors and locals. The street is lined with shops and restaurants, and people can be found patronizing them, socializing and just hanging around here at all hours. The city's Barri Gotic, or old Gothic Quarter, borders La Rambla to the east and the lively El Raval Quarter to the west. La Boqueria market is Barcelona's largest and oldest public market, and this palace of gastronomic delights can be reached from La Rambla too.
Barcelona has four main beaches, all of which are minutes from the city center. The beaches comprise a 4.2-mile stretch of sand and tend to be more crowded on the end closest to La Rambla. Adventurous visitors can sail, surf and windsurf along Barcelona's shore, and if you need a little pick-me-up, there are plenty of lively restaurants abutting the beach.
Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN) is located about eight miles southwest of the city, and is the main airport of Catalonia. Eurail also services the city, and trains depart from the gorgeous Barcelona Sants rail station at a steady pace throughout the day. Driving to the city is great if you know the area, although parking within crowded Barcelona can be tricky at times. If you're staying somewhere else on the Mediterranean before arriving here, there are many options to travel to the city by boat. This method takes a little longer, but it's an incredible experience to wake up to the sunrise over the azure ocean.
Once you reach Barcelona, don't be afraid to take advantage of the city's excellent public transportation system. The Metro de Barcelona is fast, efficient, modern and extremely safe. Announcements are generally made in both Spanish and English, and the ticket price is based on what zone of the city you're traveling to.
The area around La Rambla has many hotels, but can be a bit crowded and expensive during its peak season. If you're traveling to Barcelona in the less-crowded fall or winter, when temperatures cool slightly, La Rambla becomes a much more attractive home base. The nearby Raval district is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in which to stay. Wherever your Barcelona hotel is located, be sure to get out and enjoy the city's Catalan culture as much as possible. Become one of the colorful crowd on La Rambla Boulevard and absorb the fantastic creative culture in the City of Barcelona.