Trip dates: 2017 Jan. 25 to 29
We visited Barcelona in late January, and as busy as it was, the feel was undeniably different than it would be in spring or summer. Barcelona’s famous beaches were empty, and streets that in summer are gridlocked with tourists were easily passable.
This was all part of our plan; we’ll gladly trade an opportunity to lie on the sand for the chance to avoid a crush of people. In actuality it worked out to our satisfaction; aside from one downpour, the weather was pleasant, and aside from Saturday night, the crowds were thin.
This trip, our first to Barcelona, was all about getting to know the city and its history. We opted for museums over music, the labyrinth streets of the Gothic quarter over the whimsical color of the Gaudí highlights. As anyone who has visited Barcelona will tell you, the city has a great deal to offer. We definitely do want to come back in a warmer, brighter time of year to enjoy the famous culture, music and beaches. But that’s another trip.
Things to do with kids in Barcelona
The apartment in which we stayed was located in the Plaça de la Cucurulla, which is smack in the middle of the Gothic Quarter, near the Catedral de Barcelona, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi and about a dozen other gorgeous, enormous churches. The location offered excellent walking access to the El Raval neighborhood, the Gothic Quarter, El Born and Barceloneta, which runs along the Mediterranean Sea.
This part of the city, especially, is eminently walkable. Because public transportation was a little more expensive than we’ve grown accustomed to in Budapest and the free-ride age limit lower (meaning we’d have to buy tickets for two of our kids), we opted to skip the metro and walk wherever possible. It was for the best. Without staying for years, there’s no way to see everything that a city like Barcelona offers, so it’s best to pick a few highlights and take it slow.
Most of the streets in the neighborhoods near our flat are glorified alleyways not often used by vehicles, so the only impediments to a relaxing stroll are the myriad intersections and the need to zig and zag around other pedestrians.
In many ways, it actually resembles an outdoor mall. If you’re looking for a place to shop, this is it. Walk any street in this quarter, and you’ll find store after store, rolling doors thrown open and inviting the world in. It was a little overwhelming for us, actually, coming from Budapest, where products aren’t nearly as plentiful. Spain in general, and Barcelona in particular, has a much more Western feel than Hungary in terms of the availability of goods, whether you’re shopping groceries, cosmetics or clothes.
As far as green space goes, it’s hard to beat the Parc de la Ciutadella, which is home to the Catalonian Parliament and the Barcelona Zoo. A little pond offers rowboats to rent, and the nearby Cascada Monumental features a three-story waterfall coming from a mountain topped by a gilt statue of a horse-drawn chariot.
The park is at the southeast end of the Passeig de Lluís Companys, a long pedestrian walkway anchored at the far end by the Arc de Triomf, which was built to serve as the entrypoint to the Exposició Universal de Barcelona*, or World’s Fair, in 1888. Even in winter, the path had a festival-like atmosphere. Here, tourists stand frozen around a man blowing massive soap bubbles that float above leaping children. There, a dozen or so elderly Spanish men appear gathered to talk the politics of the day.
On a sunny day, the park offers a huge amount of space for the kids to run, and there’s even a playground (more of a tot lot, really) to divert the kids for a while. The park also boasts a life-sized statue of a mammoth, and life size for these creatures is impressive.
*This is Catalan, not Spanish. To us, it looked like a hybrid language created from French and Spanish, but in actuality it developed from the Latin spoken by the Romans who inhabited the area. Today, Catalonia is the region of Spain in which Barcelona sits. An interesting exhibit in the El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria (more on this below) tells of the fall of Catalonia at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.
Before we visited, we read a number of reviews claiming that paying the entrance fee for Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell wasn’t necessary, that you could enjoy plenty at the park without denting your wallet. This is true, but it wasn’t until we arrived that we understood it. Park Güell is a massive hillside park originally designed to be a residential housing development. Various trails meander across the hillside, and touches of Gaudí’s creativity abound. While access to the Monumental Zone does get one closer to the detail of Gaudí’s intricate mosaics, with kids in tow it would have been too difficult for us to ponder the pieces to make the entrance fee worthwhile. We enjoyed use of the trails and playgrounds instead.
To get there, we took the V17 bus up the hill and got off outside the Centre Cívic El Carmel. That’s what Google told us to do, but to Google everything is flat as a map. From the bus stop, we walked along some residential streets and were treated to panoramic views of the city and the park, which we approached from above. It took us a beat to realize the route Google had us following went right off the cliff edge of an overlook area, down a long set of steep stairs. Once inside the park, we walked down a series of winding paths to reach the Monumental Zone. While this is a beautiful approach, depending on your kids it might not be the most child-friendly option. Definitely don’t attempt it with a stroller.
A more direct option would be to approach from the bottom, via Carrer de Larrard. This street deposits you right at the main entrance gate, where a quick look around will help you decide whether to enter the monumental zone or just explore the park grounds. There are a couple of playgrounds and a picnic area, in the southeastern tip of the park, but bathrooms are few.
Overall, the park was a fun experience that gave us enough of a taste of Gaudí that we felt OK in skipping La Sagrada Família, which had been seeming more difficult given our shortening time in Barcelona. From the park, by the way, you have a great view of La Sagrada Família and its coterie of cranes, which hover overhead because — this is the honest truth — the church has been under construction since the project began in 1882. The expected completion date is 2026.
El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria
El Born Cultural and Memorial Center is a free history museum of sorts that provides a look at ruins from 18th-century Barcelona. Readerboards in Spanish, Catalan and English provide a brief history of Catalonia and a look at the style of life in the early 1700s. It’s all housed in a former produce market, built in 1876.
When the floor of the building was being dug out in 1994 to convert the structure to other uses, well-preserved remains of buildings were discovered. Not only do the archaeological remains tell of a former Barcelona, but the structure that surrounds it is worth the visit in its own right. It’s a beautiful example of early cast-iron architecture, which went on to play a significant role in the Catalan modernism movement.
La Central del Raval
We visited this huge bookstore to find some Spanish storybooks to bring home, winding our way in from the main entrance. But better yet, you should enter through a side entrance on Carrer de les Ramelleres that opens directly into the ample children’s section — and which also, in case someone, ahem, isn’t behaving himself, doubles as an escape route to Plaça de Vicenc Martorell. The plaça is home to a fun little playground with a slide, a teeter-totter and enough sand to fill your kids’ shoes, pockets and ears without making a dent in what’s left.
Parc de la Barceloneta and beach
Being from the Pacific Northwest, water is one thing we love to seek out while traveling. So in Barcelona, it was imperative that we trek down to the Mediterranean to watch the waves roll in, evocative of our erstwhile home. The Parc de la Barceloneta is one of a series of green spaces along the waterfront, which has sandy beaches all the way up to the Parc del Fòrum. National Geographic has called Barcelona its No. 1 beach city, which is impressive given that before the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the city had exactly zero sandy beaches.
Barcino: A walk through Roman Barcelona
Carrer del Paradís is the site of a first-century-B.C. Roman temple, some remains of which are still standing, enclosed by an apartment building. The temple is just one of many free-to-visit historical sites scattered throughout Barcelona. An online guided tour of the Temple D’August and other points of historical interest is provided by the Barcelona History Museum. Other sights are the remnants of a Roman protective wall from the 13th and 14th centuries at Plaça Nova, a Roman necropolis at Plaça Vila de Madrid, sections of the first walled compound from the first century B.C. at Pati d’en Llimona, and many more. These fascinating historical relics are a great series of destinations for a sunny-day walk around the old city.
Museu d’Història de la Ciutat de Barcelona
In its history, Barcelona has much in common with Zaragoza, which was our preceding stop on this trip, just over 300 km inland.
Originally a Roman colony, Barcelona was founded in roughly 10 B.C. by Caesar Augustus; its initial name was Colonia Iulia Augusta Paterna Faventia Barcino.
Recent archaeology has revealed much of Barcelona’s history.
Like Zaragoza, which was founded by Augustus a few years earlier, Barcelona boasts a massive underground museum that exhibits, in situ, some remains of the early city. What’s special about Barcelona’s version is that the old ruins are seen in various stages of history, from the 1st century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. All more or less on top of each other, there are laundry facilities from the 2nd century, a fish-salting plant and winery from the 3rd century and an Episcopal complex that grew slowly from the 4th to the 8th centuries.
The ruins here are similar to what’s on display in Zaragoza, so unless you’re a history buff, it’s probably not necessary to visit the museums in both cities.
Where (and when) to eat in Barcelona
That tricky Spanish schedule
Barcelona was the third city we visited on our first tour of Spain (read about our visits to Madrid and Zaragoza), and still, after more than 10 days in the country, we had trouble fully adjusting to Spain’s unique mealtimes. Not able to stay up late enough to enjoy dinner with the locals at 10 p.m., we opted for late lunches out and dinners at home.
High chairs are difficult to find in restaurants in Spain. But they do exist! When we walked through the open door of the restaurant Made in Sicily, a red high chair at the back of the place shone like a vermell beacon, beckoning us to sit and eat. We’re glad we did, because for 15€ we got a delicious pizza big enough for two meals. If you find yourself in the Gothic Quarter with an empty stomach any time between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 a.m., do stop by. (Yes, I know pizza isn’t authentic Spanish food. So sue me. The boys sure weren’t complaining. And… baby chair.)
Where to stay in Barcelona
Where you stay, of course, depends a lot on what you’re planning to do and, probably, what time of year it is. We stayed in the Gothic Quarter, which was quite walkable, at a stylish two-bedroom apartment managed by Short Stay Group. It was a great fit for our young family, with a crib, washing machine and decent wifi. It bears repeating, though, that we visited in January, in the low season.
During the high season, the crowds might knock off some of the Gothic Quarter’s appeal. And the flat was a ways away from the beaches and from La Sagrada Familia, which is worth factoring in if those are on your to-do list. So work out a list of must-sees, factor in the season, then choose a place to stay.
Other things to do in Barcelona that we just didn’t have time for
Sant Pau hospital, La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, Casa Vicens, and the list goes on
Barcelona possesses a long list of architectural treasures. But because of our time and budget — not to mention our kids’ patience — were limited, we had to choose just one or two places from our wishlist. Some were under renovation, many were too pricey, one felt like a repeat of sorts (La Sagrada Família is, after all, a Catholic church, and we had seen so many beautiful Catholic churches on this trip). This time we chose family-friendly Park Güell. For a future trip, my wife’s stumping for a visit to the Art Nouveau hospital Sant Pau, and of course to that creative wonder La Sagrada Família.
Note that most of these sites strongly encourage visitors to buy tickets in advance online.
To the southwest of the city center is Montjuïc, a hill overlooking Barcelona’s harbor bristling with museums and other sites of interest. The bus line 150 winds its way up and around to Monjuïc Castle, founded as a fortress in the 18th century. There’s the palatial Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, and there’s even a funicular and a cable car on the hill. On this trip, we just didn’t have time to venture this far.
Tren de l’Oreneta
Up in the forests behind Barcelona is a child-sized steam train line: L’Oreneta. It is open only Sunday mornings and holidays, so unfortunately we missed it this trip, but it looks to be a blast and affordable, too.
Museu de la Moto de Barcelona
We considered visiting the Museu de la Moto because we have some pint-sized moto lovers in our family. We ended up skipping it only because we’d been to so many museums of late.
More photos of Barcelona
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