From the very first moment of arriving in Barcelona, I could tell I was going to enjoy my time here: it felt wide and open and not hemmed in at all like some cities can, the sun was shining and the feeling was relaxed and chilled! The bus from the campsite dropped us right in the centre near to Universitat metro station and we walked from there to our apartment in the district of Gracia. The route took us along a stretch of the wide, beautiful Passeig de Gracia, with its swirling Gaudi-designed paving stones and ornate street lights. We passed two of Gaudi’s most famous buildings – Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (or La Pedrera as it is also known) – and crossed the Avenida Diagonal, a large street that runs diagonally right through the city.
The streets seemed particularly wide and open in this area of Barcelona, which is called L’Eixample (literally ‘the Extension’ in Catalan). L’Eixample was laid out on a grid system in the late 1800s, when the city tried to deal with the problem of overcrowding in its medieval heart. But here they did something quite unique and special – they cut the corners off the buildings on the end of each block. They are called chamfered corners and it means that the crossroads have a more open feel to them: they have more light and there is room to have trees growing there. Many of the streets also didn’t just have a central roadway for cars, but had a cycle path and a wide pedestrian walkway to either side, plus often a side road for cars as well, all of which gave a real feeling of space. You had to have your wits about you though as cyclists seemed to be everywhere and would appear suddenly behind you as if from nowhere.
They say it takes a lifetime to see all that Barcelona has to offer. You’d need very deep pockets as well, since many of the top attractions come with hefty entrance fees! So we realised we would have to pick our sights carefully and choose a mixture of experiences to try to get to know this great city.
Our first day was spent exploring on foot and getting a feel for the place. As I mentioned, we were staying in an apartment in the district of Gracia and we ambled along its narrow streets and through some of its delightful squares. Our apartment was right next to the Placa de la Villa de Gracia with its distinctive clock tower in the centre. In the evenings and at the weekend the square was full of children playing whilst their parents sat in one of the cafes or on one of the benches around the outside. The atmosphere was so relaxed and happy. And the same was played out in square after square across the city. Many squares had small children’s playgrounds in them: since lots of people live in apartments and have no outdoor space, this is where they go to meet friends and to play.
Later on we got our first glimpse of the famous Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, and then strolled along the Ramblas. This well-known street leads from the Columbus Monument near the port up to Catalunya Square on the edge of the medieval quarter of the city. It gets its name from a seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran through it. The Ramblas, as its name suggests, is actually made up of five different sections, each with its own name. Today it is a wide pedestrian street with a narrow traffic lane down each side, shaded by huge plane trees, bustling with locals and tourists and dotted with buskers and ‘living statues’.
Just off the Ramblas we visited the old covered market of La Boqueria with its colourful stalls and busy tapas bars and enjoyed the interesting architecture and features that seemed to be all around us. Visually, Barcelona is a wonderful city to explore: you are rewarded with countless interesting buildings, exquisite doorways and ornate facades. It feels as though architects (and their clients) were encouraged by the work that was going on here to use bolder designs and brighter colours, to take more risks and try more ideas than they would elsewhere, because the creative atmosphere encouraged it. The result is that virtually everywhere you look you see remarkable and interesting buildings and architectural details.
The one thing I didn’t like though, and which is a feature of virtually every urban space here, was the graffiti. It seemed to be everywhere and it has the effect of making areas seem rougher and more run down than perhaps they are. Roller shuttered doorways seemed to be the most popular canvas for this urban artwork, although no-where was off limits and we saw it adorning walls, lampposts, benches, street signs, bins – pretty much everything. I have never been aware of so much graffiti in the UK, although I know that it exists, particularly in towns and cities. I wonder, is it that we are more active in clearing it off walls and doorways and trains or is it that graffiti ‘artists’ are less prolific in the UK?
The simple grid system of L’Eixample and much of central Barcelona (with the exception of the old medieval parts of town) make it an extremely easy city to navigate around. It also has an excellent public transport system. In common with many other big cities these days it has a bike hire system – Bicing – but unfortunately it is only for locals as you have to pay an annual fee to pick up a bike from one of the many stands across town.
Getting around: the T10 ticket
We used both buses and the metro system to cover longer distances around the city. There are a number of different ticket options available, but for the short stay visitor the best is definitely to purchase a T10 ticket from one of the metro stations (Note: you can’t buy one on the buses). This is a multi-person ticket and so we only needed to buy one ticket at a time to cover all of us. It cost €9.95 for a T10 ticket for Zone 1, making each journey a lot cheaper than the €2.15 single fare. Zone 1 is sufficient to get to pretty much everything you may want to see in the centre of Barcelona.
The T10 ticket is valid for 10 journeys on the bus, metro, tram or local train. Each journey can last up to 75 minutes, after which you would need to use another ticket, but in reality any journey you make in the city centre will be less than 75 minutes in duration, so this is never an issue. Once you have got your ticket, you simply validate it by putting it in the ticket barrier at the metro station or in the machine on the bus. If more than one person is travelling on the same ticket, you need to put the ticket through the machine once for each person. The number of journeys taken is recorded on the back of the ticket so that you know how many you have left. No matter when you bought it, the ticket is valid until the end of January of the following year. It was a brilliant system and great that it was open to tourists as well as locals.
Essential information: Online booking
The other key thing to know when visiting Barcelona is that if you want to avoid having to queue at the top attractions, you are going to have to get to grips with purchasing tickets online. All of the Gaudi buildings and park that we visited had timed entry tickets and you needed to go online and pick your slot in advance, otherwise you would have to wait in a very long line to get in or discover on your arrival that the next available entry wasn’t until 4 or more hours later!
We found the process to be very simple and we never had to print any tickets out as they simply email them to you and you then show the ticket on your phone at the entrance.
Getting around: Google maps
One final tip about navigating around cities like Barcelona: if you haven’t yet discovered the usefulness of Google maps, then you really should start today. It is brilliant and will show you all of the different public transport options to get where you want to go, as well as the frequency of buses or trains and the number of stops. So, how do you use it?
First of all, you will need to download the Google Maps app to your phone or tablet, so you will need to do that in advance at home or on wifi somewhere. Then you start by finding on the map the place or street you want to get to and then tap on it or drop a pin on it (press and hold the screen). Google maps will then find a route from your location to that dropped pin.
In the example below we were trying to get from the Sagrada Familia back to our apartment on Carrer de Francisco Giner (image 1). Once we had dropped a pin on the apartment, we tapped on the blue circle in the bottom right of the screen (this one has a picture of a car on it, but it may have a bus or a walking figure or bicycle depending on what you last had selected).
The next screen (image 2) is where you can choose your preferred mode of transport. At the top, underneath the two locations you are navigating between, are symbols for the different options. You can choose between driving (a car), public transport (a bus/train), walking (a figure), taxi (figure with a bag and arm up) or cycling (bicycle). Here I have selected public transport and at the bottom are the different options: a 15 minute journey taking bus 33 or 34 or a 19 minute journey going on line L5 on the subway. The first option had the least walking and we were all tired, so that is the one I chose. When you tap on the one you want, you get a map and detailed directions (image 3 and 4). So, our journey started with a 240m walk to the bus stop: if you tap on ‘MAP’ next to this instruction you get a detailed map (image 5) showing the direction to walk to the bus stop. Then we needed to get a number 33 or 34 bus for 5 stops to Diagonal-Passeig de Gracia. The app actually gives you real time bus information: in our example, if you tapped on the arrow next to where it says ‘Sagrada Familia’, you got a list of the two buses and the expected time until their arrival (image 6).
If you follow your journey whilst you have the app open, you will see your progress along the route on the map so you will know when to get off the bus. The map also gives you directions to get from the bus stop to your destination at the other end. It is fantastic! I cannot tell you how often this app has helped us out. It is particularly helpful in showing you bus options as these are usually the hardest to figure out when you are ‘on the ground’ so to speak in an unfamiliar city. And often there is a much simpler and quicker bus route than making your way to the tube or metro and using that. If you’ve not tried it before, I recommend you do next time you are out and about somewhere.
Getting around: Maps.me
The only problem with Google maps is that it uses data, and depending on how much data is included in your mobile phone tariff, this might or might not be a problem for you. So, the other app that we have found to be invaluable when navigating around unfamiliar places is Maps.me.
This is another free app and it does a similar job to Google maps, but it doesn’t use any data! It doesn’t give public transport options and the timings it gives for driving places seem to be way off, but for finding a walking route, it is brilliant. Once again, you will need to download the app before you go and then also download the map(s) for the area you are visiting.
It allows you to find routes to and from different locations and can also easily search for things on the map. One of its best uses for us? Where are the nearest public toilets? Image 7 shows a search I did for toilets near to the Sagrada Familia – the blue dots are all public toilets. You can tap on one and then choose ‘route to’ at the bottom of the screen and it will give you a map of how to get there – a life saver when you really need to go! The app will also find supermarkets or post offices or whatever else you might need. It also shows key sights, metro stations and bus stops and its maps are really clear and easy to read (image 8).