So you want to cruise from Barcelona? Good choice. This iconic Catalan city on Spain’s north-east coast has more ship options than anywhere in the Mediterranean and is one of the most vibrant and accommodating metropolises in Europe.
It boasts dozens of compelling attractions, as well as a unique culture, and great food (especially the food!). But it hasn’t always been a leading light, and its recent tourism history is one of rebirth rather than long-standing fame, hence it has positively rocketed to the forefront of Med cruising, ahead of the likes of Civitavecchia (for Rome), Venice, Marseille, Athens and Istanbul.
In some ways, Barcelona has long had these ambitions. Way back in 1888, the World Exposition in the city presented it as one of the great global centres of the day, and its ideal position on the Med ensured it maintained that prominence for much of the first half of the 20th century, even despite the depredations of the Spanish Civil War and an economic recession.
But, by the 1980s, decades of civil strife (notably from the Franco dictatorship) and high unemployment had taken their toll, and the city was a pale shadow of the beacon that had held the great World Fair in 1929. Cue the Olympics. In 1986, Spain won the rights to hold the 1992 Games, and a city went into overdrive.
That process of regeneration and revitalisation is still at work today thanks to a hugely successful public works effort that effectively rebuilt Barcelona’s infrastructure and put it in the world’s shop window as a dazzling place to visit, and not just for Olympians.
The ’92 Olympics were arguably the most successful – in all-round terms – of the modern era, and the city is now a tourist magnet of epic proportions, drawing nine million hotel guests in 2018 (an increase of more than seven million since 1990), plus, wait for it, 2.7 million cruise visitors.
That’s right, fully a quarter of Barcelona’s visitation is due to the cruise industry, and, while a good deal of that is because of the excellent, modern port infrastructure and location in the western Med, much of it is also a reflection of just how much there is to see and do here.
So, with no further ado, here are our Top 10 things you should consider on your next visit to the Catalonian capital:
10. Camp Nou
Soccer fans will already have this on their radar, but even those who don’t think football is worth their time should be fascinated by this 1950s temple to sporting excellence. It hosted the final of the 1992 Olympic football event, as well as other major competitions and, with a renovated capacity of 99,354, it is an awesome sight to behold, even on non-game days.
9. The Magic Fountain
Built in 1929 for the Great Universal Exhibition but part of the extensive Olympic refurbishment, this eye-catching cascade of water, sound and light in the Montjuic neighbourhood, close to the Olympic Stadium, is compelling by both day and night. Choreographed show times run from 8-9pm or 9-10pm daily.
8. Palau Musica de la Catalana
Another early 20th-century gem, this elaborate concert hall is an iconic centre for live music but is equally absorbing even if there are no concerts taking place. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, it features breathtaking architecture and a series of daily guided tours that showcase its full magnificence.
7. Mercat de la Boqueria
If you’ve already seen the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul or the Farmers Market in Venice, you will have some idea what to expect when you step inside this vast fresh produce paradise, where some 200 vendors set up stalls every day to provide one of the most colourful scenes in the whole of Spain.
6. Costa Daurada
When you have a few days to spare either pre or post-cruise, you should definitely head for this splendid strip of Catalonian coastline just to the south and west of the city. With 152km of gorgeous seaside – including some impressive beaches – it also boasts the Roman town of Tarragona as well as a series of picturesque villages.
5. Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar
For pure Gothic splendour, this iconic 14th-century church takes some beating anywhere in Europe. Modern-day architects marvel at its Medieval purity, and the sense of awe and wonder at the huge internal spaces are part of its unique feel, while there are guided tours of the main church and roof spaces from May to October.
4. Las Ramblas
Talking of iconic, this largely pedestrian 1.2km boulevard through the centre of Barcelona is a must-see territory for just about every visitor. Here you’ll find a wonderful cross-section of the city, from the “living statue” performers to some of the best shopping and dining on offer, notably in the Placa Reial, where the tapas cuisine is simply superb.
3. Gothic Quarter
To the east of Las Ramblas is the historic heart of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic. Dating back to Roman times and chock-full of Medieval streets, it boasts the Museum of History, Jewish Quarter, Cathedral, stellar shopping along Portal d’Angel and weekend art market, which harks back to the works of Picasso and Miro.
2. Park Guell
Dive into the world of the extraordinary Antoni Gaudi in this homage to the father of Catalonian Modernism, the nature-based architectural style that is featured throughout the city. The Park features some astounding stone structures, ceramic tiles, and the house where Gaudi lived, as well as the separate Monumental Area, with its panoramic views.
1. Basilica of the Sagrada Familia
If there is one thing that captures everyone’s attention, it is this eye-popping structure that is part-church, part organic creature – and part-alien spaceship. Begun in 1882, it became Gaudi’s most renowned project a year later and is still developing (to his plans) today. While his works can be seen throughout the city, nothing states the bold, innovative style that he championed like this truly stunning colossus of architectural ingenuity. Miss it at your peril!
PS: If you want to read a truly excellent tourism history of Barcelona (as we did), take the time to peruse a 2012 Senior Thesis by Claremont Colleges student Lillian Reid, which lays out the full, fascinating story. You can find it on this link.
Have you visited Barcelona? What was your favourite experience, and are you keen to go back? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.