The city of Barcelona, Spain, is many things to many kinds of travelers—a haven of architecture and design for culture vultures; a culinary hotspot for foodies; and a home port for throngs of cruisers heading out to other parts of the Mediterranean. When they arrive, however, they’ll also find one of Europe’s great cities in the midst of change. Facing recent terrorism, a vocal regional secessionist movement, gentrification, and growing tourism, this city is in the midst of defining how it will face the future and welcome foreign guests.
Visitors who come now will feel this shifting energy everywhere, and will notice it as plainly as the Catalan flags that overhang many of the city’s wrought-iron balconies. For those who are ready to experience the best of this newer, more complex Barcelona—and new takes on old Barcelona—here’s what to see.
The Latest and Greatest from Gaudí
You can’t visit Barcelona without encountering the work of its local hero and favorite son, architect Antoni Gaudí. He pioneered a curving, nature-inspired style known as Catalan Modernism that’s roughly parallel to the Art Nouveau movement in France. His creations, from the scaly-looking Casa Batlló with its roller-coaster roof, to the candy-colored houses of the Palau Güell, are all Barcelona must-visits, but none are quite as famous as Gaudí’s masterpiece cathedral, the Sagrada Família. Under construction for the last 135 years, it won’t be complete for another nine. If you visit in the coming year, you’ll notice the tower of the Virgin Mary rising from the center of the construction site; it will eventually reach more than 400 feet. You’re also likely to see progress on the Passion facade, the side of the cathedral that will be the church’s main entrance. Tickets range from 15-29 euros (about $18-$35USD) and are timed. Some tickets offer audio guides, entry to the towers, and/or entry to the Gaudí house museum. Buying online in advance is highly recommended and allows you to skip the (often long) lines.
Slightly less well-known than the Sagrada Família, Casa Vicens is the first home that Gaudí ever designed. After years of private ownership and disrepair, it was restored and opened to the public as a museum at the end of 2017. With design inspired by Andalusia's ornate Moorish palaces, the home feels like a testing ground for the ideas that Gaudí would employ elsewhere, from colored stucco walls to ceramic ceiling tiles molded into the shapes of leaves and flowers. Timed tickets cost 16 euros ($19USD); advance purchase is recommended.
New Neighborhoods to Explore
While the main drag of La Rambla, the Barri Gòtic with its old cathedral, and the checkerboard L’Eixample neighborhoods are well-trod by tourists, a few new areas are emerging as places to wander, shop, and eat. The residential Gràcia neighborhood, where Casa Vicens and the Palau Güell are located, is one such place. With its balconied apartment buildings and flowering trees, this peaceful enclave is home to many young families. Stop for a drink or a coffee on the Placa de Virreina, pop into one of the many shops selling organic food or eco-friendly clothing, or simply explore the pedestrian-friendly streets. For coffee as excellent as the people-watching, try Onna Cafe, which exclusively brews Costa Rican beans and caters to a nonstop stream of locals and visitors.
El Raval is another neighborhood that’s quickly becoming a tourist haunt, thanks to its proximity to the ever-bustling La Rambla; it’s also experiencing a wave of gentrification. With the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) at its heart, this area is a hive of boutiques, bars, and restaurants. It's also home to large Sikh, Muslim, and Filipino communities, so it’s not uncommon to see a halal butcher or a Filipino grocery store near an art gallery or a vintage clothing shop. For lunch, we recommend Caravelle, where everything on your plate—including sandwich bread and hot sauce—is made in-house. The owners also brew their own beer on-site. Nuovum, directly across the street, carries beautiful leather goods, while its neighbor, La Variété, has chic home goods and gifts. Stop by MACBA on a sunny afternoon to witness a phenomenon that’s as well established as the museum itself—the many skateboarders who use the flat surface of the surrounding placa to practice their tricks.
Barcelona is no stranger to the concept of small, affordable, high-design hotels, and a new crop extends this trend in the city. OD Hotel, which has sister properties on Ibiza and Mallorca, has a minimalist aesthetic that we’d imagine works well on a breezy Mediterranean island. It feels at home in this seaside city as well. Even basic rooms feel spacious and refreshingly uncluttered, and the compact but stylish rooftop pool—a must-have feature in Barcelona—is a good place to end your day. You'll pay about $190-$230 per night in Barcelona’s cooler fall and winter months, and about $250-$290 per night in the summer high season, with the exception of August. Look for deals during this period, when high temperatures drive travelers to more comfortable climes.
Sharing a similarly clean-and-modern design is Casa Bonay, which is built into a renovated home in L’Eixample and feels like a leafy urban oasis. Rooms include yoga kits, a curated selection of magazines, and Malin+Goetz bath products. Its ground-floor bar and cafe, Libertine, is a moodily lit stunner. Expect to pay $150-$175 for the smallest interior rooms, while rooms with balconies go up to about $275 per night.
For an especially homey feel and bare-bones amenities, we love the urban-apartment sensibility of Casa Mathilda. Its fourteen bright rooms are situated on a single floor in an L'Eixample building that’s still home to many permanent residents. Rooms sell quickly, and get expensive when inventory runs low. You can find prices for as little as $100 per night, or as expensive as $500 per night for the same room, depending on the season.
For a splurge, try the Almanac—the first of a new brand that you’ll soon see in other European cities—with its plush velvet and gold accents, winding staircase, and tall windows. Rates run from $360-$400 per night in summer, and $250-$300 per night in cooler months.