Barcelona is one of the most touristic cities we have visited, and while this does mean that there are a lot of opportunities to be ripped-off, if you understand what you are getting into before you go, you can still have a good value, enjoyable holiday.
First of all, it’s important to know that over 8 million people visit the relatively small city of Barcelona each year, and during the high season in particular, it can really feel overrun with tourists. Local authorities struggle to balance the economic advantages of tourism with the management of such large numbers of people in a city with infrastructure designed for far fewer people, leading to various policies aimed at limiting tourism (such as restrictions on AirBnB, not approving the building of new accommodations at times, etc.) which means that although the cost of living in Barcelona may be quite affordable, it can be expensive to visit. Despite these restrictions, there are around 30,000 cruise ship passengers arriving at the city’s enormous port every day, which means that if you can avoid ‘cruise prices’ you’ll be able to enjoy the city at a much lower cost.
For example, the Barcelona Cathedral has a charge to enter during the day, but if you come back in the early evening, it is free to enter. Take a look around the old 1st C BC Roman ruins and come back to visit the cathedral in the early evening. It’s a lot more peaceful without all of the lines and crowds too. (Check the website before you go to make sure you get the right times, and adhere to the dress code)
Similarly, Park Guell, one of the most famous icons of Barcelona, can also be visited for free if you go at the right time. Despite what you may hear, the entire park is free of charge, with the exception of the relatively small monument area, which becomes free after sunset (the time it becomes free varies, so it pays to check). Usually, it seems, they make you wait half an hour after they close the final group. Bring a camera with a flash so that you can still take pictures. If visiting close to dark doesn’t appeal to you or fit your schedule, you can still visit the front of the two famous houses from the street at any time of day, and see all of the monument area from above the viewing platform (in the park) and below (from the street level). The usual price starts from 7 euro, and for this you will see nothing you cannot see from the outside. The fee doesn’t include entry to the museum or to the houses, so unless you are a die-hard Gaudi fan, I recommend enjoying the park from outside the paid area, and perhaps going in after sunset if you want a photo with the dragon mosaic (it’s less crowded then anyway and you’ve got a better chance of being able to take one). The decision to charge people to enter Park Guell has been controversial, as the park was left to the people of Barcelona, and locals now must go through a lot of bureaucracy to visit if they don’t want to line up and pay with the tourists, so don’t be surprised if you see some anti-tourist graffiti outside the paid section of the park.
Fans of Gaudi can visit some of his other architectural wonders at Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. (Again, if you want to actually go inside, you’ll have to part with your money and your time as you line up, but the exterior is certainly worth a look).
La Sagrada Familia is a work-in-progress but still worth a look. You have to pay to go in (with again, massive lines and crowds – if it’s too full, there’s a chance you may be denied entry) but viewing the sides from the outside is very much worth your time.
Throughout much of Europe you’ll find that on one day of the week or month there is a day you can visit museums for free, which in Barcelona, is the first Sunday of the month. If you are a museum fan, it is a very affordable way of visiting some of the major museums (which can really add up in price) but you do need to time your day well. The Picasso Museum is so popular, you can’t simply walk in – you need to line up for a timestamped ticket, or reserve one online, and then come back at the allotted time. This is a good option if you are time rich and money poor, but not for traveler the other way around.
Unless you are a huge fan of Picasso, there are much more interesting museums to visit which are also free on the first Sunday of the month and which are far, far less crowded. The Frederic Marès Museum, which contains thousands of items collected by the sculptor is one of them – uncrowded and terribly interesting and extensive.
The History of Barcelona Museum also gives you a good overview of the region’s past, but beware – the sign outside claims the information is in Catalan, Spanish and English, but the entire ground floor appears to be in Catalan, Spanish and French (not English) only. Underground, French disappears to be replaced by English, so if you don’t read French, you may want to head straight for the underground section where the ruins are. There is also a Museum of World Cultures you can visit free of charge.
The Catalonia History Museum is also supposed to be free on the first Sunday of the month, but it had closed early when we tried to visit.
One of the best free attractions in Barcelona is the Magic Fountain. It’s best to visit at night when you can see the light and sound show.
A great view of the city can be had from the abandoned bunkers on the top of the mountain. Make sure you bring adequate water with you in the heat. Even though I found this place via Atlas Obscura, not in a tour guide and it’s not a stop on the major tours or bus trips, it is still absolutely crowded.
View from Bunker del Carmel
Food in Barcelona can be expensive in the more touristy areas like La Rambla (which personally I’d stay away from unless walking around in a permanent British stag/hens night is what you’re into), but there are some good places to eat. We had wonderful Venezuelan food, great churros from Xurreria, and Tacos Tacos is a fantastic place to order reasonably priced tacos (1 euro each if you go on Taco Tuesday) from a swear-word inspired day-glo menu – the chicken with mole (chocolate sauce) was my favourite. Tapas and paella are of course what you want to try when you come to Barcelona, and if you’re happy to eat somewhere a bit off the beaten track visit Restauran Internacional, which despite also serving other nation’s foods (most notably Chinese), it also does a decent tapas and paella combo for by far the cheapest price we saw – 8.95. If you visit in the warmer months, milk de leche and xocolate negro icecream are also high up on the list of recommendations. Stay on guard wherever you go though – there are thieves everywhere, often posing as beggars, and it’s not a bad idea to attach jingly or bright keyrings to any of your unsecured belongings – that’s what prevented the guy who tried to steal my phone from getting away with it.
Barcelona is a beautiful city, but unless you have any real desire to soak up its culture and visit its attractions specifically, there are plenty of other places in Europe for you to send your tourist dollar if your main objective is to relax or party. There are other places that could do with a boost in tourism, and chances are, you’ll have a better time there simply because you won’t be dealing with the constant crowding. I really recommend watching the short and enlightening documentary Bye Bye Barcelona before you visit, to get a better picture of the tensions between locals and tourists and the government, find out how you can be a better tourist, and hopefully, if you do decide to visit Barcelona, you can enjoy it much more knowing what to expect.