Beyond its famous tourist attractions, Barcelona has much more to offer. Here’s our list of some of our favorite unique and different things to do in Barcelona.
Explore the spectacular Sant Pau Modernist Complex
The Sant Pau Recinte Modernista is a miniature city of modernist buildings built in the early twentieth century to serve as Barcelona’s largest hospital. Designed by architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner, the complex is striking to the eyes – it could easily pass for the set of fantasy film, with its brightly colored tiles, mosaic decorations, and enormous panels of stained glass. You can find more information and tickets for the Sant Pau Modernist Complex here.
Ride around city on a bamboo bicycle
While not comparable to cyclist heavens like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Barcelona has made remarkable progress towards becoming more cyclist-friendly in recent years. With over 100 km of cycling paths already lining its streets, and 200 km more scheduled to be added to the network by 2018, a cycling tour can be a great way to explore the city. Try El Ciclo, which offers private, guided tours on bamboo bicycles. You’ll hit all the important landmarks, but also interesting and less-known spots that you’d have a hard time finding by yourself.
Get lost in Barcelona’s labyrinth park
The Parc del Laberint d’Horta – the Labyrinth Park of Horta– is Barcelona’s oldest urban park. It is an example of neoclassical architecture and artistic gardening dating from the late 18th century. As its name suggests, its main highlight is the sculpted shrubbery labyrinth at its center, which you can explore (and get lost in!). The Parc del Laberint is not as well-known as Barcelona’s other major parks, which makes it a good place to visit as it’s usually less crowded.
Enjoy the best view of Barcelona from an old war bunker
If you want a selfie with the entire city as the background the go-to place is the El Carmel Air Raid Bunker. A remnant of the Spanish Civil War, during which Barcelona was subjected to a vicious bombing campaign by General Franco’s fascist army, the bunker sits atop el Turó de la Rovira, one of the mountains that encircles the city on its northern side. The views are incredible; on a very clear days you’ll sometimes be able to make out the faint silhouette of the island of Mallorca, and you’ll get to imbibe a little of Barcelona’s history.
Tip from Matthias: El Carmel bunker is a great place for a picnic. Pick up a bottle of wine and something to snack on and enjoy the sunset.
Go for a swim overlooking the city at the Montjuic Olympic pool
Built for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Piscines de Montjuic hosted the diving events and the waterpolo qualifying rounds. Now they’re open to the public in the summer, and are a great place to sunbathe and go for a refreshing dip away from the crowds that gather on Barcelona’s beaches. If you’re brave, you can even try the high dive platform – it’s a massive 10 meters tall; definitely not a height from which you want to belly flop. You may recognize it from Kylie Minogue’s video Slow.
Visit one of Spain’s largest sculpture collections
The Museu Frederic Marès is one of the most important sculpture museums in Spain. It features the private collection of sculptor and collector Frederic Marés, which he built up over decades and bequeathed to the city of Barcelona upon his death. Its contents are varied, ranging from religious pieces from antiquity and the medieval period, to 19th century art. Marés first made his collection public and commited to giving it to the city in the 1940’s, but he went on to live another 50 years (he died aged 99), during which time his collection continued to grow.
Watch the sunset from Montjuic
La Caseta del Migdia is a little outdoor bar at the top of Montjuic hill, near the fortress which is also worth visiting while you’re there. The place is nothing fancy, just a few tables shaded by parasols where you can sip a cold beer and get a bite to eat (they serve one dish: barbecued chicken and “butifarra” with salad) while you watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, but the view is beautiful and the simplicity of the whole thing elevates the experience. On some evenings there is live music.
Shop for vintage clothes and eat street food at Palo Alto market
Palo Alto Market is the place where Barcelona’s independent designers and artisans get together to show off their products. Held on the first weekend of every month in a rehabilitated industrial space, the market features everything from pop-up hipster barber shops offering haircuts and artisanal beauty products, to shoe-makers making skateboarding sneakers from recycled truck tires, to food trucks selling tacos, sushi and burgers – all organic of course. In short, Palo Alto is the place to go to get your hipster fix.
Visit the avant-garde CCCB museum
More than a museum, the CCCB is a laboratory that dissects contemporary art, audiovisuals, architecture, photography and other mediums of cultural expression. Its exhibits can range from approachable and didactic to challenging and unfathomable. Don’t come looking for a typical museum experience, expect to the CCCB to challenge you.
Mix with locals over Vermut
El vermut (vermouth) is the Catalan tradition of having a pre-meal snack and a drink. Best had at a traditional bodega de barri, a neighborhood tavern, it’s just as much about being with friends and socializing as it is about the food and drink itself. If you walk past a local bar in Gracia in the late morning on a Sunday you’ll see crowds of people milling about on the street drinking and chatting. The drink of choice has the same name as the whole thing – vermut, and it’s a very simple combination of red or white vermouth on ice, with an orange or lemon wedge and possibly an olive. Food is also very simple: anchovies, cockles, assorted pickles, roasted almonds, and hand-cut potato chips are all typical.
Explore a little-known architectural gem: La Casa de les Punxes
If you walk eastward along La Diagonal from Passeig de Gracia, La Casa de les Punxes will jump out at you immediately. Designed by Catalan modernist architect Josep Puig I Cadafalch, the building, whose name translates to House of Spikes, looks like a medieval castle with its stone façade and its towers ending in pointed spires. It’s open every day of the week from morning until evening.
…and more cool architecture by Puig i Cadafalch
Right next to the Casa Batlló sits the Casa Amatller, also by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Often upstaged by its more famous neighbor, the Casa Amatller is a building of great beauty in its own right. Blending Catalan modernism with Dutch and Flemish inspirations such as its flat, ridged façade, its façade is evocative of constructions found in cities like Amsterdam and Bruges.
Go on a street art tour
If you wander around Poblenou or the Raval, you’ll run into a beautiful surrealist mural or an interesting piece of protest art every few meters. Graffiti is abundant in Barcelona, and some of it elevates the genre to the category of stuff you could see in a fancy art gallery. You can take it all in on your own, but you’ll enjoy it far more if you join a guided tour with a guide that can contextualize the pieces and tell you about the culture of street art and its meaning.
Have a Catalan Barbecue
La calçotada is the Catalan equivalent of barbecue, and unlike most countries where the focus is on the meat, here the star of the show is a humble onion. Calçots (pronounced Cal-zots) are wild-growing, over sized spring onions. They’re cooked over an open fire until charred and black, peeled, and eaten with a sauce called salvitxada (not romesco!). Eating calçots requires some technique; you’re supposed to dip the entire thing in the sauce, then raise it over your head, and lower into your mouth. As you can imagine it’s a messy affair, which is why a lot of locals have a dedicated calçot-eating shirt, often an old t-shirt which after years of use ends up resembling an abstract painting.
Taste delicious Mediterranean cuisine
Marea Alta is the restaurant with the most spectacular views in the city. It sits 100 meters up in the air, at the top of the Colon tower, and it enjoys a 360º view of of Barcelona, the port, the surrounding hills, and the Mediterranean Sea, to which it pays homage in its cooking. The restaurant is not a gimmick. As every talented chef knows, the most important aspect when trying to create a truly delicious dish is to use the best possible ingredients. That is the law Marea Alta lives by, searching for great ingredients and elevating them with cooking techniques that respect and maximize their natural flavor.
Fly over Barcelona in a helicopter
Barcelona from the ground is beautiful, but Barcelona from the air is spectacular. A bit pricier than more conventional tour options (different packages range from 50€ to 300€ per person), nevertheless, if you want an unforgettable experience –and some incredible pictures to take home with you– a helicopter ride is the way to go. The Montserrat massif, with its striking rounded rock peaks, as if they were made from the liquid wax of a lava lamp, sits 50 kilometers north of Barcelona and can be reached in mere minutes by helicopter.
Get lost in Montjuic’s many gardens
Montjuïc is the large hill that brackets the city of Barcelona on its southwestern side. It is home to many of the installations built for Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic Games, as well as parks, museums, and Barcelona’s botanical garden, which you can visit for free on Sunday afternoons. Especially noteworthy are the Jardins de Mossén Costa i Llobera –the Costa and Llobera Gardens– an interesting park where you can find over 800 different species of cacti. The park overlooks the sea, so it’s a good place to pause for lunch and enjoy the views.
For the adventurous: explore a cemetery
Cemeteries are often thought of as somber, morbid places, but they can also make be interesting spots to visit if they house famous graves or, like Barcelona’s, they have abundant collections of sculptures and decorated mausoleums and gardens. If you want to do something distinctly non-touristy check out the Cementiri de Montjuïc and the Cementiri de l’Est. The former is built on the sea side of Montjuïc hill and has spectacular views, while the latter could double as a funerary art museum for all its lavish decorations.
Help build a human tower
You may have seen pictures of them in motivational posters that get circulated on Facebook; human towers built by people wearing white pants and colorful shirts, all standing on each other’s shoulders, rising into the air. They are Castells, a Catalan festive tradition born in Tarragona over 200 years ago and that has since spread to the rest of Catalunya. Castells season are the months of May and June, so if you’re in town during those days definitely take the chance to see them. On some occasions, you can even join the pinya, the base of the tower.
Relax in a quiet garden in the center of Barcelona
The University of Barcelona’s main building hides a little treasure in its main building on the north side of Plaça Universitat, a quiet, lush, green garden that’s a perfect place to escape the city’s bustle and relax for a few minutes. During the school semester you’ll find the gardens populated by students, but during off months they’re quite often empty. The garden are open from Monday to Friday.