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Barcelona Essentials

barcelona parc guell park gaudi mosaic lizardSince hosting the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona has received the attention it deserves as a premier vacation destination. The capital of Spain's Catalonia region is one of the country's -- maybe even Europe's -- most beautiful and vibrant places. A city of contrasts, it is like no other in Spain; this is most evident in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves (one name to keep an eye out for is Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous and unique architect).

Barcelona is also a city of neighborhoods, all distinct. The easiest way for visitors to get their bearings is to know that the city is basically divided into two parts. First, there's the old city, which is where the heart of everything -- from museums to shopping and cafes -- is based. Then there's the port area, known as Port Vell, featuring bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe.

In fact, one of Barcelona's best attributes is that while it seems large and spread out, its neighborhoods are surprisingly walkable and easily accessible by bus, metro or even foot (in comfortable shoes). Don't miss a stroll along La Rambla, replete with produce and flower stands, a historic opera house, and a thoroughly intriguing open pet market with cages of for-sale lizards, chirping birds and other exotic animals.

Just be sure to rest your feet now and then over a few plates of tapas (which are meant to be shared, but we won't tell) and an ice-cold pitcher of sangria.

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Editor's Note: Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets, particularly along La Rambla. Leave valuables in your hotel safe, and carry credit cards and cash in a secure place (ideally in a money belt under your clothes). For more information, see our Money Safety Tips.

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What to See
A fabulous promenade leading from the port to Placa de Catalunya, the center of old Barcelona, La Rambla is lined with shops, cafes, flower stalls, street performers and a wonderful food market called Boqueria. You'll pass by the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona's circa-1848 opera house (it was gutted by a fire in 1994 but has been rebuilt). La Rambla ends at the Placa de Catalunya -- a huge plaza that's the heart of the city and is surrounded by shops and cafes.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's funkiest church, was designed by Gaudi. The most unusual thing about it? It's not finished yet! He began working on it in 1883 and designed intriguing features such as the bell towers, covered in Venetian mosaics, and the nativity-themed facade, with doorways representing faith, hope and charity. Services are held in the crypt where Gaudi is buried. The best way to experience Sagrada Familia is to take the elevator to the top of one of the towers (though on our visit the elevator was out of order and we hiked up the stairs instead); there's an awesome view from that height. Also spend some time in the church museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) is Barcelona's ode to the art of the past few decades, housing works by major international figures (Klee, Broodthaers) as well as the biggest up-and-coming Catalonian artists.

Architect Antoni Gaudi designed Palau Guell, a gorgeous late-19th-century palace capped with whimsical, brightly colored chimneys. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Another Gaudi design, Parc Guell is a pleasant public park overlooking the city -- a maze of tropical flowers and colorful accents. The entrance is guarded by a mosaic lizard and two fanciful gatehouses (one of which houses a souvenir shop).

Gaudi's brilliant colors and fantastical designs can be seen at two other must-visit sites: Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (commonly known as La Pedrera, or "the quarry"), both located on Passeig de Gracia.

For a look at Barcelona at its most gracious, pay a visit to the Eixample neighborhood north of Placa de Catalunya; this is where the city's toniest boutiques, galleries, antique shops and restaurants are clustered.

barri gotic barcelona gothic quarter lantern Visit the atmospheric Barri Gotic, Barcelona's gothic quarter, where the architecture dates back to the 13th century. Streets are winding and narrow, and there are numerous boutiques and antique and artisan galleries. One of its best-known attractions is the Picasso Museum; founded in 1963, the museum specializes in the works of Pablo Picasso (he donated works himself). Also in the neighborhood is La Seu Cathedral, parts of which date back to 1298 -- but it wasn't actually completed until the late 19th century. Santa Maria del Mar is another cathedral worth inspecting; it is, for this ornate city, unusually simple and quite elegant. It was built between 1329 and 1383.

Sports enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Olympic Stadium. It existed before the Olympic Games were held there, but it was completely remodeled in 1992 just for the occasion. These days, the stadium is used for various events, and is home to baseball team Barcelona Dragons as well as a Barcelona soccer club.

For serious beach time, the best bet is to take a RENFE train to the coastal towns of Sant Pol or Sant Pau -- both are north of the city and are easy day trips.

The village of Montjuic rises 700 feet above the city's commercial port and is chock-a-block with cafes, boutiques, art galleries and museums. Not to be missed is the Archaeological Museum, which showcases artifacts from prehistoric cultures in both Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Another highlight is the Fundacio Joan Miro, which features tapestries, paintings and sculptures of Catalonian Joan Miro -- he's considered a Surrealist. Another key art museum is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya; it's got one of the world's premier collections of Romanesque art.

Take a pilgrimage to Montserrat. "The Serrated Mountain" -- over 4,000 feet high -- is an exquisite setting for a monastery. The original church opened in 1592, though Montserrat is an ongoing work in progress. While the complex includes shops and cafes, the real points of interest are the Basilica Facade and the Black Virgin -- the soul of the monastery. Other features include the Placa de Santa Maria with its Gothic cloisters and the museum, which exhibits works of art from Catalonia along with West Asia. If you're visiting in the early afternoon (around 1 p.m.) try to catch the male choir singing Virolai, the hymn of Montserrat. Montserrat is a working monastery and is home to Benedictine monks. It's easy to get there; a train runs hourly from Barcelona's Placa Espanya.

One fun attraction right in town is the Erotica Museum, located on La Rambla. More than a tawdry peep show, the museum (the only of its kind in Spain) showcases sexuality through the ages and contains a variety of artifacts from all over the world -- everything from Buddhist sculptures to modern-day photography and art.


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