February 24-26, 2023
I had to make some tough decisions when planning the itinerary for our 10-day trip to Spain last year, but the hardest choice by far was deciding we didn’t have enough time to squeeze in Barcelona. I justified this omission (to a very disappointed Andy) by rationalizing that it would be much easier to find an opportunity to come back to a big city like Barcelona than a place like Ronda or Granada, so I was well aware that I needed to hold myself accountable to this promise. Thankfully, it worked out perfectly for us to plan a trip to this beautiful city on the coast of northeastern Spain over the last weekend in February, which is always one of the most challenging months for travel because it’s so hard to find a place anywhere close to us where the weather isn’t downright terrible.
I’m sure it would have been great to visit Barcelona and its beaches during a warmer month, but I honestly love exploring popular places in the off-season when we can still enjoy all of the culture and gastronomy without all of the crowds. It also ended up being extremely sunny and ~55° (F) the entire weekend, which felt almost tropical compared to London in February and was ideal for walking around the fifth-largest urban area in the EU. Our hotel also worked out great—we stayed at the very vibey (and surprisingly affordable) Casa Bonay, which was right in between the popular bars, boutiques, and restaurants of the El Born district and all the Gaudí landmarks and higher-end dining in L’Eixemple. The hotel complex is in a 19th-century mansion that has been phenomenally restored to its preserve colorful, geometric-tiled floors and indoor/outdoor setup, and it had plenty of excellent on-site dining options, including the Libertine cocktail bar and Chiringuito rooftop bar.
We landed on Friday evening and made it to our hotel with plenty of time to spare before our dinner reservation at 10 PM—a perfectly normal dining hour by Spanish standards—so we walked over to El Born in search of tapas. Formerly the craftsmen’s district, El Born is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Barcelona and is now one of its trendiest. Most places were absolutely packed, but we managed to grab bar seats at Especiarium Bar. The elaborate cocktails and simple-but-delicious snacks at this quirky bar and the phenomenal seven-course dinner we enjoyed at Cruix later that night set the stage for an absolutely amazing weekend of incredible meals, drinks, and sightseeing.
If you’re planning a trip to Barcelona, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations in Spain.
Food & Drink
- Cruix: If I could recommend just one restaurant in Barcelona, it would definitely be Cruix. The seven-course tasting menu we had at this friendly, contemporary restaurant in L’Eixample was absolutely exquisite—and somehow was just €35 per person(!!!). From the onion cappuccino we had for amuse-bouche to the crispy rice with dry-aged beef served in a gigantic pan to the Tom Kha Kai soup ice cream for dessert, each dish was truly better than the last. We’ve been to a lot of Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants, but this one absolutely took the cake.
- Estimar: This tiny, intimate seafood restaurant tucked away in an alley in El Born is one of the hottest up-and-coming restaurants in Barcelona. The restaurant, which only has a few tables and is dominated by the impressive fish counter displaying the catches of the day, was beautifully decorated and had outstanding service and presentation with unique (and gorgeous) utensils, dishes, and serveware. Estimar is known for its exceptionally fresh seafood, and rightfully so, but nearly everything on the menu was priced by the 100-gram serving, which made it really complicated to order. We did enjoy the fresh oysters and ‘breaded squids sautéed in olive oil at 180° with black ink mayonnaise’ (AKA fancy calamari for €36) that we had for starters and the cheesecake we split for dessert, but the main dishes just didn’t live up to the hype—or the unbelievably hefty prices.
- Bar Mut: One of the challenges of eating dinner so late in Spain is that we always end up needing a pre-dinner meal. For Saturday’s early evening meal, we managed to snag a walk-in table at this sleek, trendy wine bar just off Passeig de Gràcia and selected some of the incredible tapas from the chalkboard containing the daily specials. Calling Bar Mut a tapas bar really doesn’t do it justice because their tapas and wine list were so much more elevated than the traditional offerings at most tapas bars, but despite the gastrobar vibes, it was still delightfully laid back and unpretentious. I honestly wish we would have had a dinner reservation here instead of Estimar, which was several times more expensive than and approximately half as good as Bar Mut.
- Bodega del Born: We had a lovely, impromptu lunch at this hole-in-the-wall tapas bar in El Born and it couldn’t have felt more authentic. The tapas selection was very simple, but everything we ate was delicious and very inexpensive. Perhaps the most charming part, however, was the decor—the tiny bar was covered in thousands of paper tags containing wishes and gratitudes from patrons over the years, which made for a particularly lovely atmosphere.
- Dry Martini: I’m not typically much of a martini drinker, but I would be fully on board if all martinis were made as exquisitely (and deliciously) as the ones we had at this upscale bar in L’Eixample, which is world-renowned for being a temple to its eponymous cocktail. Despite the swanky decor and whitecoat waitstaff (and fairly expensive prices), the establishment was refreshingly unstuffy and the outdoor seating options would have been fantastic in warmer months. We sat at the bar and were able to watch the bartenders prepare each cocktail with awe-inspiring attention to detail and true artistry, which I would highly recommend.
- Especiarium Bar: All of the signature cocktails at this quirky and creative cocktail bar in El Born involve elaborate drinking vessels and fun accoutrements—for example, my Japanese gin-and-matcha cocktail came in a plastic container shaped like an origami bird and was served with dried seaweed. It’s much larger than most of the surrounding bars, which made it much easier to get walk-in seats despite being a Friday night in one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city.
- Three Marks Coffee: The owner of our local coffee shop in London recommended this fantastic coffee bar and our hotel happened to be right next to one of its three outposts. We had coffee and croissants here after touring the Sagrada Família and, in addition to having excellent coffee and plenty of seating, there were also plenty of friendly dogs to greet us outside.
- Nømad Coffee Lab & Shop: This popular coffee roastery was another recommendation from our coffee shop friends. We didn’t make it to one of Nømad’s storefronts, but thankfully our hotel brewed Nømad beans in its coffee bar so we still got a taste of why it’s one of the most celebrated coffee shops in Barcelona.
Activities & Attractions
- Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família: Antoni Gaudí’s famously unfinished Catholic church in the Eixample district is probably the most recognizable landmark associated with Barcelona, but I was still completely unprepared for the sheer size and opulence of the Sagrada Família. We were able to avoid the insanely long queues because I reserved our entry tickets through GetYourGuide and we made it to the entrance relatively quickly once we figured out how to access the audio guide app (it was a little tricky). The church has three uniquely decorated and equally grand façades: the eastern-facing Nativity façade containing the main visitor entrance, the western-facing Passion façade, and the southern-facing Glory façade that is still a work in progress. We were both immediately blown away by the intricate sculptures adorning the scenes across the Nativity façade and yet were still even more in awe once we walked inside. The stained-glass windows and the gigantic columns throughout the nave designed to resemble trees and branches made it seem like we were in an art installation instead of a minor basilica, and it would be impossible to describe just how beautiful it was in real life. It was truly the most beautiful church we’ve visited and we really enjoyed the experience (aside from going up to the top of one of the towers, which was definitely not worth the time or money).
- Casa Batlló: The Passeig de Gràcia is a beautiful avenue in the Eixample district with high-end shopping and some of the city’s most important architecture, including another Gaudí masterpiece located on the celebrated Illa de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord), a row of extravagant, contrasting buildings designed by four of Barcelona’s most important Modernista architects. Locally known as Casa dels ossos (House of Bones) due to its skeleton-like appearance, the six-story Casa Batlló avoids straight lines and is adorned with a colorful mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles called trencadís that seem to flow across its façade. The exterior was absolutely stunning and after visiting the (absolutely excellent) boutique on the main floor, I really wish I had reserved tickets to tour the rest of the house and its museum—something that I wouldn’t have ever guessed we would have been so interested in doing.
- Casa Milà: Popularly known as La Pedrera (“the stone quarry”) due to its rough-hewn appearance, the last private residence Gaudí completed before his untimely death is located just a few blocks away from Casa Batlló and the Illa de la Discòrdia on the Passeig de Gràcia. Casa Milà was personally not my favorite but if the weather had been better, I would have definitely tried to go up to the rooftop terrace, which is supposed to have spectacular 360-degree views of the city.
- Arc de Triomf: The gigantic arch crossing over the central promenade of the Passeig de Lluís Companys was originally erected as the gateway to the 1888 Universal Exhibition hosted on the site that eventually became Parc de la Ciutadella, a sprawling park on the northeastern edge of Ciutat Vella. Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf is known for its redbrick friezes and Neo-Mudéjar style and, unlike triumphal arches in other major cities, was not built to celebrate a military victory.
- Plaça del Rei: The 14th-century public square known as “King’s Square” is located in the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), the historic center of the old city containing some of Barcelona’s oldest landmarks, including the remains of the city’s Roman walls and several medieval structures. Plaça del Rei is primarily surrounded by the Palau Reial Major (Grand Royal Palace), a complex of buildings that the sovereign counts of Barcelona and kings of Aragon used as a royal residence between the 14th and 16th centuries. The neighborhood’s labyrinthine street plan and narrow streets winding between lots of tall buildings make it kind of challenging to navigate, and we actually stumbled upon the square while we were looking for something else. It was definitely a happy accident to come across such a beautiful (and quiet) landmark that somehow felt hidden away from the chaos and noise of the surrounding area.
- Basílica de Santa Maria Del Mar: Built at the height of Catalonia’s preeminence as a maritime and mercantile power in the 14th century, this beautiful Gothic church is surrounded by some of the best open-air markets, art galleries, and boutiques in the city, including an outpost of Handmade: Avarcas and Espadrilles, a local and family-owned company that specializes in handmade (and unbelievably comfortable) espadrilles and leather shoes. The church itself is quite simple and unadorned, especially compared to the other large churches in Barcelona, but it provided some much-needed tranquility in an otherwise loud and bustling area.
- Atelier Madre – Manuel Dreesmann: This spacious, minimalist boutique in the Born quarter is home to an independent atelier for handmade leather products that are absolutely stunning—and highly functional. I bought a beautiful crossbody purse and a few miscellaneous items for our flat, and I really enjoyed walking around the store and learning about how they make their products. Perhaps best of all, each product is named after a customer and is accompanied by a cute/cheeky story of how the idea for the product was conceived.