I first discovered Barcelona during my placement year at university, where I spent five months in a small town to the northwest of the Catalan capital teaching English and perfecting my Spanish (somewhat difficult in a Catalan-speaking town!). As Friday rolled round and another week of classes ended, my housemate and I would regularly board the bus bound for Barcelona (as often as we could afford to anyway), and as we rolled into the city, the excitement of what awaited us was palpable. As students, we didn’t have much money, but we certainly made the most of our time in this fabulous city, taking in the myriad sights, sounds and smells that met us around every corner.
The recollection of the buzz I felt walking down the iconic Rambla for the first time is guaranteed to bring a smile to my face to this day, as is sitting at a café on the delightful Plaça del Pi in the city’s Gothic Quarter, watching a wedding party spill out of the stunning Santa Maria del Pi church. Other highlights? Wandering down to the port in the sunshine. Relaxing by the fountain in the Plaça de Catalunya watching the sardana (a traditional Catalan dance). Staring in awe at Gaudí’s magnificent feats of architectural brilliance and admiring the masterpieces of the Picasso Museum. Queuing to get a table at a fantastic paella restaurant tucked away in the Gothic Quarter. Looking down on the city from the lofty heights of Montjuïc. Soaking up the atmosphere at Parc Güell and Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona… A thousand memories to make this one of my most favourite places.
Looking at Barcelona from an industry perspective, it really offers something for everyone. Not only is it quickly and easily accessible with no shortage of flights from pretty much every regional airport in the UK, it has no shortage of attractions to tempt the visitor, be it artistic and architectural gems, a world-famous sporting calendar including football and Formula One, or simply shopping, sightseeing and sunbathing opportunities in plentiful supply. And with over 10,000 restaurants across the city serving traditional tapas, paella and Mediterranean-infused fare, not to mention an international epicurean influence, you won’t go far wrong on the food front either.
What kind of feedback do you get from your clients?
It’s fair to say that the typical City Direct customer demographic is hard to define in just a few words. A common and consistent thread however throughout our customer base is that they are seeking a memorable city break experience that not only offers great value, but quality of product and service, too. We’ll often be contacted by customers who fancy a city break yet, having been to the classic stalwart destinations such as Paris, Krakow, Rome and Barcelona, aren’t quite sure where they should try next. Our first-hand knowledge of Europe’s cities means that we can recommend the perfect destination according to their budget, time and interests. And increasingly, our customers are trending towards the multi-centre holiday, capitalising on the many treasures that the countries of Europe have to offer, many just a short train or plane journey away.
A cosmopolitan city with its finger on the pulse, our customers know that any itinerary in Barcelona is going to be a busy one, for a relaxing city this is not! What we regularly and repeatedly hear however with any Barcelona break is that our customers feel that they have received real value for money not only in terms of the price paid, but also with regards the quantity and quality of sightseeing opportunities on offer there.
Expect the unexpected
Most people visiting Barcelona have a fair idea of what to expect from this vibrant city and indeed with so much on offer slap bang in its centre, the vast majority would not think to consider what lies beyond the city borders. And yet, just a short train ride away, you’ll discover a wealth of unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful towns and cities steeped in history, culture and art. To the northeast there’s Girona with its atmospheric, labyrinthine Old Quarter, and Figueres, dominated by its utterly unique Dalí Museum. To the southwest there’s historical Tarragona, once the capital of Rome’s eastern Iberian province. And to the northwest there’s the stunning mountain-top Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, a popular pilgrimage site and renowned for its spectacular natural beauty.
Although English is widely spoken, as is Castillian Spanish, Catalan is the first language of Barcelona and Catalonia (naturally), so expect to see and hear this used widely around the city. The word ‘chocolate’ for example is ‘xocolata’ in Catalan!
Reputedly the world’s fourth most creative city behind San Francisco, London and New York, things don’t stand still in Barcelona for long. Be it a new exhibition at one of the city’s foremost art museums – the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Fundació Joan Miró and the Museu Picasso are my particular favourites – or a contemporary new building to complement the classic and surreal architecture so prevalent in the city, a shiny new shopping complex or a freshly-christened Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s always something new and exciting to discover in the city.
Offering an alternative travel option to flying, this year saw the unveiling of a new high-speed TGV train running between Paris and Barcelona, making it possible for UK travellers to depart London via Eurostar in the morning and arrive by train (changing stations in Paris) just over 10 hours later. Perfect for the train enthusiast and for those wanting to combine the French and Catalan capitals.
Dish to die for?
As I mentioned above, you’re certainly not going to go hungry in Barcelona! Given its Mediterranean position, an absolute must whilst in the city is its seafood and zarzuela, a traditional Catalan seafood stew, is definitely worth sampling. Another delicacy is fideua, a paella served with noodles instead of rice. If you fancy a more gastronomic experience, then Barcelona has no shortage of Michelin-starred restaurants (there were 18 in the city in 2013). With two Michelin stars, ABaC enjoys a prestigious reputation as one of the city’s leading restaurants.
Barcelona is a pretty easy city break destination for us to offer, with plenty of flight options and a wide range of quality hotel accommodation on offer both in the city centre and along the seafront. Probably the only challenge we face is to avoid clashes with the big sporting events and conventions taking place throughout the year (Barcelona is a big convention city), when hotel availability is more limited and thus the prices rise accordingly.
Barcelona is a busy city at any time of year and can be a little daunting when you first arrive so take time to get your bearings and be sure to keep your valuables safe. Sadly pickpockets are commonplace, particularly in the touristy areas of the Rambla, the Sagrada Família and the train stations. Be assured however that, on the whole, Barcelona is a very safe city to explore.
Where to start? Most people tend to gravitate towards the Rambla as a natural starting point on any Barcelona itinerary. Running from Plaça de Catalunya down to the port, La Rambla is a unique, lively and colourful boulevard packed with buskers, living statues, flowers, birds, newspaper stands and bookstalls. Whilst here, be sure to take in the bustling Boqueria food market, where a fragrant and kaleidoscopic array of fresh produce will literally assault your senses!
Of course, you’ll want to explore the many highlights of the Barri Gòtic (the city’s Gothic Quarter) to the right of the Rambla, characterised by narrow cobbled streets and tall buildings. Focal point of the Gothic Quarter must be the city’s magnificent El Seu Cathedral, venue for the Infanta Cristina’s wedding, but other attractions include the imposing Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar, and Plaça del Rei, in addition to the Picasso Museum, where you’ll find over 3,500 works of art by this world-revered artist, and the fabulous Palau de la Música Catalana.
The Gaudí monuments are another Barcelona pre-requisite. From the Plaça de Catalunya, head northwest along the Passeig de Gràcia into the Eixample district and you’ll find the colourful Casa Batlló as well as the distinctive, undulating waves atop La Pedrera, also known as Casa Milà. A little further from the centre is perhaps Barcelona’s most iconic landmark, the Sagrada Família, the city’s most popular attraction with over three million visitors per year. Amazingly, this architectural masterpiece is still unfinished despite work starting in 1883. And if you fancy heading slightly further out of town, the truly individual Parc Güell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is well worth a visit. Firmly stamped with Gaudí’s flamboyant flair, the park is enchantingly colourful and visually surreal in equal measure.
Montjuïc is another popular area to explore and a ride via cable car makes for the perfect mode of transport. Once atop the mountain, you’ll find the 1992 Olympic stadium; the Palau Nacional, home to the striking Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) and the Magic Fountain in its foreground; Poble Espanyol, a collection of Spanish houses in different architectural styles; the Fondació Joan Miró; and the Castell and Botanical Gardens of Montjuïc. Heading back into town, you’ll pass the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc, home to the Venetian Towers, Arenas de Barcelona and the Parc Joan Miró.
And finally, it may not have the historical allure of the Barri Gòtic and the architectural wow-factor of the Eixample, but head down to the bottom of the Rambla and across the wooden bridge to Port Vell, home to Maremàgnum, a huge shopping and cinema complex, also home to one of Europe’s largest aquariums. Back across the water, enjoy a seafront walk along the pedestrian promenade from the Christopher Columbus monument to Frank Gehry’s (he of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao fame) distinctive fish statue, at the base of the Hotel Arts skyscraper.