Barcelona is jam-packed with attractions, from incredible architecture to world-class museums, lively markets, and fabulous urban beaches. Even exploring the warren of narrow streets and pocket squares of the medieval old city can take a whole afternoon.
But as beautiful as my adopted home city is, it also suffers from over-tourism. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, this city of 1.6 million people saw nearly 12 million tourists visit, plus many day-trippers arriving by cruise ship. Remarkable Gaudí landmarks — Sagrada Familia, Park Güell — and top sites like the Picasso Museum have become perpetually packed with tourists, especially in the summer high season.
Fortunately, there are ways to support responsible tourism and avoid major crowds. I’ve lived in Barcelona for five years, and the key to enjoying your time is to balance visits to major attractions with stops at lesser-known cultural sites and venture a bit farther from the center to discover local neighborhoods. Poblenou, for one, has trendy bars and restaurants, plus some of Barcelona’s best beaches.
If you put some of my suggestions below onto your list of must-dos, I guarantee you will have a far more pleasant trip with fewer crowds, while also seeing a more authentic side of the city.
Sant Pau Recinto Modernista
A 10-minute stroll uphill from Gaudí’s celebrated Sagrada Familia is the world’s largest Art Nouveau site. Designed by Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and completed in 1930, this former hospital complex stretches across nine city blocks and is made up of dozens of red-brick pavilions surrounding landscaped courtyards.
Since the complex is so large, it rarely gets crowded, so you can take your time wandering around and admiring the buildings’ wealth of ornamental details, including colorful mosaic tiles, elaborate ceiling frescoes, and stained-glass windows. The highlight for me is the main administration pavilion with a grand marble staircase leading to hallways lined in multicolored stained glass — it’s a very Instagrammable spot.
There’s always something interesting going on at this arts center set at the foot of Montjuïc, just across from the National Museum of Catalonian Art. Traveling exhibitions put on by La Caixa Foundation run the gamut and are well-curated. I’ve seen retrospectives of Magritte and Warhol, the furniture designs of Jean Prouvé, and themed shows from opera to vampires.
It’s also free to visit the building, a former textile factory, and a beautiful example of industrial Modernisme architecture. I always make it a point to go up to the roof terrace for views of the sprawling red-brick complex and its crenelated roofs, turrets, and filigreed towers.
Fundació Joan Miró
Architect Josep Sert designed this gleaming all-white museum atop Montjuïc to house the surrealist artwork of Joan Miró, a Barcelona native and one of the most celebrated 20th-century artists. Miró’s bold, bright, abstract pieces, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and textiles from all periods of his life, are perfectly at home in the spare, light-filled space. My favorite spot is the rooftop, where his colorful, whimsical sculptures are set against jaw-dropping views of the city.
Turó de la Rovira/Bunkers of Carmel
When I want to show visitors the best views of Barcelona, I take them up to these hilltop bunkers located 900 feet above the city. From here, you have panoramic vistas of the mountains, sea, and the whole of Barcelona spread out below. It’s a favorite weekend picnic spot for locals, but history buffs can study the plaques dotted around the site to learn how these bunkers helped defend the city from air attacks during the Spanish Civil War. Buses 22 and 24 run from Plaça de Catalunya to El Carmel, and from there it’s about a 10-minute walk uphill to the site.
Barcelona History Museum (MUHBA Plaça del Rei)
Most visitors focus on Barcelona’s medieval architecture or the works of Gaudí, but the city actually dates back more than 2,000 years, when it was a Roman colony called Barcino. I love showing people its lesser-known ancient history, with a visit to this mostly underground museum located deep beneath the Gothic Quarter’s Plaça del Rei.
Walkways stretch over the excavated Roman streets, which reveal the commercial life of the city from the first century BC, including a winery (with giant terra-cotta vats), a fish-salting factory, and a laundry area. As you go up, each level reveals a different era; for example, you can see the remains of the city’s first Christian community dating from the fourth to the seventh centuries, and the formation of the medieval city in the 13th century. It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration of ancient Barcelona.
Instead of fighting for a little wedge of sand on the crowded beaches of Barceloneta, do as the locals do and head east to strands of the Poblenou district. The beaches of Bogatell, Mar Bella, and Nova Mar Bella tend to be less crowded than those closer to the city center, and the atmosphere is far more relaxed, with fewer drunk, rowdy tourists. (Do keep in mind that one section of Mar Bella is a gay nudist beach.) You’ll find all the same amenities as in Barceloneta, including chiringuitos (beach bars), sand volleyball courts, lifeguards, and most importantly, toilets and outdoor showers.
After a few hours at Bogatell, I like to make my way to the neighboring Parc del Poblenou for a pit stop at the hip al fresco eatery Camping, which serves excellent snacks and sandwiches, and organic drinks.
Mercat de Sant Antoni (Sant Antoni Market)
Tourists swarm the stalls of the famous La Boqueria market on the Rambla, but very few locals actually do their shopping there. For a more authentic market experience — in a building that’s even more beautiful, in my opinion — stop by this vast indoor market, occupying an entire block in the Sant Antoni district.
Inside an elegant iron structure that dates back to 1882 is just about everything a foodie could want, like fresh produce, seafood, meat, cheese, bread, Spanish olives, olive oil, and wine. And of course, there are multiple stalls where you can watch vendors expertly slicing a leg of Iberian ham. I don’t cook but I love coming to this market to soak in the atmosphere (and pick up some lovely local cheeses and wines). On Sundays, while the interior is closed, a market of secondhand books sets up shop on the periphery.
Plazas of Gràcia
One of my favorite pastimes is going café-hopping among Gràcia’s pedestrian plazas (or plaças in Catalan). This district to the north of the city center was once a separate village and it counts around 15 squares — shady spots where residents come to mingle and catch up over coffee, wine, or vermouth.
My top three picks are Plaça de Virreina, Plaça de la Rovira i Trias, and Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia — all within a short stroll of one another. Virreina, framed by elegant residential buildings and tall trees and anchored by the 19th-century stone church of Sant Joan de Gràcia, is a wonderfully peaceful spot. There are several cafés in the plaza, and a couple more alongside the church, so you can usually find a table if you’re patient.
Nearby is Rovira, which has some of the better dining and drinking options, including La Rovira, which specializes in local beers and good pub-style food. One of the largest, liveliest squares is Vila de Gràcia, marked by a tall clock tower at its center. Families love to gather here and let kids run freely around the plaza. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a seat on the terrace of Nabucco Tiramisu, which serves excellent Italian coffee and pastries.
Museu Frederic Marès
Adjacent to the Barcelona Cathedral is this fascinating museum holding the eclectic collections of sculptor Frederic Marès (1893–1991). Skip the lower levels with their seemingly endless parade of medieval-era Madonnas and Jesuses, and make a beeline for the marvelous Collector’s Cabinet on the top floors. Here, you’ll find 17 themed rooms packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of whatever struck Marès’s fancy — everything from medieval armor to walking sticks to ladies’ fans and pipes and cigarette cases. Pouring through the matchbook collection alone could take hours.
I love perusing the many wonderfully weird items, like Victorian-era needlepoint portraits crafted from human hair and a whole section of bouquet holders, carried by the most fashionable 19th-century European ladies.
Moco Museum Barcelona
When I lived in Amsterdam, I regularly visited this museum focusing on contemporary and street art, so I was excited when the new outpost opened in Barcelona last October. Set in a 16th-century palace in El Born, just a stone’s throw from the Picasso Museum, it displays a small but stellar collection of works across two levels.
Downstairs are modern and contemporary masters like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Opie, while upstairs features pieces from street artists like Kaws and Banksy. Several rooms are dedicated to experiential and digital art, including an awesome immersive light-and-mirror installation by Studio Irma. And this is one museum where you won’t want to skip the gift shop filled with cool prints, postcards, tote bags, T-shirts, and limited-edition merch.
Magic Nights at Casa Batlló
I’d always avoided visiting this masterpiece of Gaudí, chiefly because of the long lines no matter the season. But then I discovered Magic Nights. Instead of queuing up with the daytime crowds, you can spend a bit more than the regular 35 euros admission for an intimate evening that also includes a live rooftop concert — plus free cava!
Doors open to Magic Nights ticket holders at 8 p.m. for a tour of the house (with a free audio guide), followed by the concert starting at 9 p.m. There are three ticket levels — blue, silver, and gold — with the latter (priced at 59 euros) netting you a front-row table to the concert, plus an extra drink. But the blue tickets (49 euros) also give you the full experience, including a visit to the new Gaudí Cube, a spectacular immersive video-and-sound installation in the basement. What really makes it worth the extra cost is seeing the house without the throngs of tourists — there are times that I had the rooms nearly all to myself. Magic Nights runs seasonally, from April to November.
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