Each year, for a weekend in the middle of September, Barcelona hosts the festival of “La Mercé.” Somewhat unintentionally, I found myself in Barcelona in the midst of the festival, smack dab in the center of the plaza of Sant Jaume.
There, a group of Catalonian gymnasts called “castellers” created what can only be described as “human towers.” A long-held tradition in Barcelona, groups from different regions of Cataluña entered the plaza for the event. From middle-aged men and women to children no older than 5 years of age, these people began the construction of the tower, climbing onto their teammates’ shoulders, eventually creating an elaborate demonstration of human strength. Moments that seemed like decades after the beginning of the construction, the youngest member of team swung his arms up into the air, meters off the ground, 7 or 8 levels of people below him, all trembling with effort. From there, the race to deconstruct the tower began as visitors and locals cheered the groups on together. Watching the castellers’ tradition—the display of teamwork, practice, and confidence—was such a unique and unexpectedly fascinating experience.
That’s quite possibly the best word to describe Barcelona—unique. Even on any other weekend, there’s something utterly distinctive about this city. From the beach to the winding narrow streets, it’s so quintessentially Spanish. But at the same time, the inhabitants don’t even speak what is traditionally considered Spanish (Castellan). Instead, they speak “Catalan,” a dialect closer to French than Castellan.
Then there’s the unique architecture of designer, Antoni Gaudí, designer of the most readily recognizable image of Barcelona: Sagrada Familia. Even still, there are the street markets of La Rambla and the Olympic Village from the 1992 Olympics. There’s so much to do and see in Barcelona but here are a few of my best suggestions:
1. Marvel at the sight of Sagrada Família.
You are not allowed to leave Barcelona without catching a glimpse of the monument of modern architecture. That’s right, I said modern. Although construction on Sagrada Família began in 1882, the construction is still ongoing. It’s estimated that the final tower will finally be built by 2028. (Spanish viaje #2, anyone?) The basilica is so intricately designed—unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the outside, the towers look as if they are melting (or possibly giant sand castles?); the shapes are just so unique. And besides the typical religious imagery, there’s a ton of different depictions of dragons, alligators, and other unexpected creatures. Inside the basilica, the walls look considerably newer, with gorgeous geometrical stained glass. You can also watch an amazing video of the projected construction of the remaining towers. The trip to Sagrada Família isn’t complete without an ascent to the top of the completed towers.
2. Wander the markets and enjoy the seafood paella along La Rambla.
La Rambla is the central street of Barcelona. Immediately after arriving in Barcelona, I wandered down the gorgeous tree-lined walkway past many of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Early in the day there are always street vendors set up with plenty of different paintings and trinkets. Silver rings, evil eye bracelets—there’s a ton of jewelry and souvenirs to be found for all your friends back home. At night there are a lot of street performers in the area and plenty of restaurants for trying typical Spanish cuisine. (Don’t leave without trying the seafood paella!)
3. Ride the Teleférico to Montjuic.
Possibly one of the best views in Barcelona, the teleférico, similar to a gondola, takes you on a straight line across the city from the port beaches to the top of Montjuic. It’s expensive (11 euros one way) but totally worth it. On the ride to top of the hill you can spot Sagrada Família, the Christopher Columbus statue, and the entire shoreline of beaches. Once on Montjuic, you can also visit the 1992 Olympic stadium and Palau Nacional, which hosts the National Art Museum of Catalonia. At night there is also a huge fountain show in front of the Palau. Basically, so much to do on Montjuic. It’s not to be missed.
4. Oh yeah. I guess you should check out the beach.
Be it spring, summer, winter or fall, there’s nothing more beautiful than the Mediterranean. (Maturity check: beware, many of the beaches are topless.) But really, the beach is gorgeous. Bring a picnic lunch, grab a good book, and soak in the sun and the waves.
Barcelona was one of the first trips that I did in Spain and still one of the best and easiest. The next place I visited was a little bit harder to manage (Why public transport, WHY?), but also still entirely worth it. It’s to the west side of the Iberian Peninsula: Lisbon, Portugal. Until next time, hasta luego, chicos!