Spain’s superstar never disappoints. Here’s the city & Costa Brava spots you can’t miss.
By Dina Harrison
Have you ever cried when you walked inside a church? I hadn’t either – until I stepped inside Sagrada Familia.
I was surprised to be so emotional about a building – especially after visiting so many amazing cathedrals in Europe. Gaudi’s stunner is an unfinished project that his followers have been working to complete for 137 years (in fact, the church just got its official building permit). And from its impossibly high ceilings to its rainbows of stained-glass to its tree-inspired pillars, Sagrada will move you.
And that’s Barcelona, in a nutshell: Everything is over-the-top amazing. After many summers exploring Europe pre- and post-kids, Barcelona is my very favorite city. I visit again and again and never get enough. And after two trips and nearly two weeks there over two years, even my kids want to go back.
Why? My daughter and I are now avowed Gaudi freaks. We loved Casa Batló, Güell Palace and Casa Milá – but there’s more to see! We loved strolling the neighborhoods. Our favorites include El Raval, Barri Gotic, and Gracia – an especially hipster spot with outdoor movies in the square. The beach is close enough for an afternoon dip.
The ROAM Report – Barcelona
The Good Stuff
Sagrada Familia You definitely need to buy tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. They can be downloaded to your phone – no need to print – but don’t wait until the day you want to go: Every summer day it was sold out for several days in advance. I’d also highly recommend going in the late afternoon, between 4:30-5:00pm when the sunlight is coming through one entire side of stained glass windows. Another cool thing is to ride the elevator to the top of one of the towers. The amazing artwork and sculpture on the roof is also incredible – and don’t get me started on the views! And in the basement, another church entirely. Wow.
Park Güell This Gaudi-designed park is a “must” and the kids will love it. A friend recommended visiting before noon – and she wasn’t wrong. Between the heat and the crowds, it seems a little more doable first thing in the morning. You can easily take a bus or public transportation to the park from anywhere in the city so you don’t have to walk up the hill. I’d recommend doing a tour with a guide – we learned a lot about the mosaics and the layout that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. If too boring, you can leave the tour and you still have your timed ticket entrance. The kids loved all the tile work, counting the colors, seeing the little “gingerbread” looking homes, and exploring the Gaudi forest. You’ll need tickets in advance for this one, too.
This summer we did Casa Milá. I think we liked Mila the best. Worth seeing at least one more of Gaudi’s works while you’re there but you don’t need to go to all three of them. Tickets are easily available for all these, with Milá likely being the busiest.
Beach Splash If you and/or your kids are tired, head to the beach and jump in. It’s such a scene and it’s worth an hour or two relaxing in the late afternoon. Water is warm and it’s teeming with people watching. We didn’t spend a ton of time there since we were going to the beach for a week after Barcelona both times, but it’s a cool scene and shouldn’t be overlooked. Grab a cerveza, people watch and build something in the sand. Even walking along the beach is a fun activity! (My kids were also stunned that so many women were topless! Something to consider depending on your kids’ age and maturity!) We didn’t carry towels around with us all day thinking this would happen. I did have a bikini and a bikini for my daughter in my bag. Jack swam in his underwear. If you sit out for 15-20 minutes, you’ll be dry enough to move onto your next stop.
Don’t Miss the Neighborhoods We roamed El Raval and Barri Gotic. It’s so interesting to see all the windy streets and old parts of the city. From churches to tiny alleyways, water fountains and cobblestone streets. And so many little boutique stores which I’m fascinated with – not only good shopping but the contrast of very old with modern shops. We loved the Gracia neighborhood in particular. It’s super hipster with lots of 20-somethings hanging out all day and night. I would highly recommend dinner there one evening! They show movies in the open square and many restaurants seem to be Mediterranean or Lebanese food but we loved having something other than tapas. Our favorite restaurant in Gracia was Al Waha for Lebanese and we knew we were in the right spot when many ladies with burkas and niqabs showed up. Of course, the Eixample neighborhood with its big boulevards, high fashion boutiques and great restaurants with sidewalk cafes was also another must. Great for an afternoon or evening stroll and worth stopping for a cocktail and people-watching.
Tapas of a Lifetime Our favorite restaurant is by far Cerveceria Catalan. It’s fabulous and you must go. MUST! Located off Passeig de Gracia in Eixample, the kids loved it and I loved it. Typical Catalan tapas and share plates. Note that they don’t tell you but many tapas come in half portions so you can order/try more. It’s heaven and don’t forget the chocolate, bread and olive oil for dessert. You won’t regret it. We tend to go for late lunch – around 2-3pm because dinner is super crazy. We went for dinner, waited an hour at 9pm, scored by getting seats at the bar, and ate from 10-midnight. It was heaven. We all are OBSESSED and even the kids dream about the tomato bread, shrimp and small plates. Two other restaurants that are highly recommended: Disfrutar (long waits but possible for lunch reservation) and Pau Claris (very fancy but would be good date night).
Cooking Class And now that you’ve eaten a ton, perhaps it’s time to cook like a local. We popped over to Barcelona Cooking and did a Spanish Cooking class and market tour. While we had done the market a few times on our own, it was different having a guide and seeing what the locals buy. Note the Boqueria market has become more of a tourist market and there are other local markets nearby like the Santa Catarina Market. We loved the cooking class as we learned to make strawberry gazpacho, paella, and tortilla espanola (Spanish omelette), tomato bread and creme catalan (a custard dessert). The kids also loved donning an apron and rolling up their sleeves getting into it. Plus what kid doesn’t love a blow torch to put the finishing touches on dessert?
Tossa De Mar Once you tire of Barcelona, you may want to get out of town. Head North East towards France and you’ll soon find yourself in rugged Costa Brava. How to get there? Either rent a car, hire a driver or take the bus, which is what we did. Tossa de Mar is a small town with a castle perched on the hill overlooking a beautiful beach. It’s a bit of a tourist town in that many food options are pizza and Italian but if you look deeper you’ll find great food. Our favorite spot was Bar La Luna, just below the castle. It’s a very small place (maybe 12 tables) and they have the best little tapas and sangria. Kids could run around the cobblestone streets while waiting, or you can head up to the castle for sunset. We loved the small mostly pedestrian town with all the crepe and ice cream places, and the musicians, face painters and henna tattoo artists. It feels very compact and I didn’t have a problem letting the kids wander. During the day, the beach is fabulous. A decent break makes boogie boarding and tubing really fun. We rented chairs and umbrellas (a must in the hot sun) for about $10-20 per day. When they weren’t swimming, kids played in the sand, had fierce games of War or UNO and ate Calippo popsicles. After some R&R, we were all recharged and ready for some more culture.
Cadaques Cadaques is another beach town in Costa Brava about 1 hour closer to France but still in Spain. It’s next to Port Lligat which is the home to Salvador Dali. So if you are a Dali fan, you won’t want to miss touring his very eclectic and eccentric house and art studio. You’ll need tickets in advance so plan ahead. (And you can walk from Cadaques to Port Lligat.) We stayed at an AirBnB apartment (which bonus: had laundry) and enjoyed the small fishing village of Cadaques. Another notable thing that puts Cadaques on the map is a restaurant called Compatir which means to share. It is run by some of the sous chefs from the famous el Bulli restaurant and is a MUST. The kids and I had a fabulous meal. They encourage sharing; so we did. We split the crab and avocado starter, the tuna cannelloni, the scallop and fennel salad, the monkfish and squash, and the Black Forest cake. Overall it’s an Interesting menu, outstanding service and food preparation and lovely setting with indoor and patio options. Reservations are a must. We loved walking along the rugged coast and found a 3-mile hike which was scary at times — if you fall, you’d land in the water about 6 feet below so not terrible – but nerve-wracking for this mama. The lighthouse in Port Lligat is also very cool!
- Barcelona – Hotel Well & Come We loved the central location, neighborhood and tiny rooftop pool to cool off each day. However, the rooms are a little small – think rooms in NYC or San Francisco. Airbnbs are plentiful, too.
- Tossa de Mar – We loved Hotel Diana right across from the main beach in the center of town. The Hotel Diana was a former seaside mansion that was converted into a hotel and still has the original stained glass in the music room.
- Cadaques – There are not a lot of options in terms of hotels here, so we rented an apartment for two nights, which was nice because it also had a washer dryer.
The Not So Good
The Crowds Barcelona is now among the most popular and “over-touristed” destinations in the entire world – and for good reason, it is amazing! That said, you need to book well in advance to visit the main tourist attractions and eat at the most popular restaurants. And if crowds aren’t your thing, there is plenty of the city that the group tourists never step foot into – or avoid visiting during spring break or summer.
Avoid Las Ramblas The tourist street that leads from the center of town down to the beach is waaaay too touristy and there are lots of pickpockets there. We tend to avoid it. Keep your valuables close around town because the large number of tourists has attracted a large number of petty thieves.
Montjuic Takes Time I’m not sure Montjuic Park is totally worth it. We took taxi up last summer, walked around for ages, then took the gondola down to the beach. The gondola was cool and we got some great photos overlooking the beach BUT we also just wandered around a park for a half day. We were on Day 6 so had time, but it would be at the bottom of my list if you are prioritizing. There are plenty of smaller parks and playgrounds to have your kids play at if you need a quick break without the hassle of heading up there. That said, we did NOT go to the Olympic stadium and I understand there are some things you can have your kids do up there. So if sports is their gig, check it out.
Good to Know
Public Transport Barcelona is a big city and you’ll need to get around like a local. There are ten ride train/bus ticket packs available in the metro stops. Everyone needs one – kids too (but confirm what ages need them). It’s super easy and we used all ten rides each of the two summers in a row. We always took public transportation as it’s super clean and easy. If your phone works, Google Maps made it easy to know which bus to take and which stop to get off. Google Maps was a lifesaver! The Moventis bus system is also great and there are multiple buses per day to Costa Brava. We took a morning one and 90 minutes later we had our toes in the sand.
Late Mornings & Nights In Barcelona, first thing in the morning is like 10am since you’ll be having dinner at 10pm.
Live Phones It’s good to have a working cell phone in Barcelona. I use our cell phones all the time for photos, Google Maps, the train and bus schedules, and dinner reservations. You can also buy museum tickets on the fly in many places. Which means you’ll need decent coverage even if you don’t have WiFi. You’ll also need an external charger you can throw in your bag so you don’t have to head back to the hotel when you hit 20% battery.
Ask About Lodging If you rent an AirBnB, ask the owner specific questions about where it’s located. Is it on top of a hill? Is there an elevator or steps? While these things shouldn’t scare you off – it’s good to be prepared especially if you’ve got a stroller, small children or elderly friends coming along! Also some hotel rooms are quite small – make sure there is room for 4 people or if you’ll need two rooms.
Dina Harrison – June 2019
Like ambassadors of adorable, Dina’s two-of-the-cutest-kids-you’ll-
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