There’s the striking, often surreal architecture. The colorful neighborhoods pulse with an alternating beat of edginess and sophistication. Miles and miles of beaches and iconic parks are in symbiosis with the idyllic year-round weather, which facilitates dining alfresco at all the perfectly inviting cafés.
Barcelona is an almost ideal European city. It’s no wonder it ranks #2 in the world (right behind Tokyo) in our Place category, which measures both the natural and the built environment of a city. Steeped in history and wearing its cultural identity proudly on its sleeve, the capital of Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain with a history of attempted secession—as the October 2017 attempt to leave and resulting police violence that flashed across screens globally demonstrated yet again—and general marching to its own beat. Don’t be surprised to hear locals speaking Catalan as you walk along the narrow lanes of Barri Gòtic, Europe’s largest Gothic quarter and the heart of Barcelona.
Here you’re likely to stumble upon a lively square, buzzing with buskers and adoring audiences. Nearby, revelers spill onto sidewalks from tiny cafés and bars. Look a little closer and you might also find the remains of a centuries-old Roman wall… or the spraycan work of a street artist whose portfolio you’ll see in a New York gallery a year later. In Barcelona, every neighborhood is entirely unique and worth a visit, and last year’s record-setting 32 million visitors probably agreed.
Tourism may be vital to the city’s economy, but locals have taken to the streets to protest gentrification and rising prices due to escalating numbers of tourists. The mayor, Ada Colau, responded earlier this year by introducing the Strategic Tourism Plan 2020, which aims to curb tourism and curtail practices that negatively affect locals, like real estate investors who snatch up apartments only to rent them on Airbnb, thus driving up prices.
The city’s plans to combat excessive tourism include limiting car traffic in the most congested zones, implementing “no Segway zones” and regulating rooms in vacation rentals. City Hall has not only imposed a moratorium on new hotels, it has also fined Airbnb and HomeAway thousands of euro for advertising illegal tourist apartments (those that haven’t been registered and don’t necessarily pay taxes or fees to the city). A word of advice: do your research before you book your accommodations.
Once you get here, though, go to El Born—a neighborhood known as much for its eclectic nightlife as its popular Picasso Museum. Go park yourself at any bar or restaurant in El Raval and you’re bound to make friends with the local artists, musicians or designers who call this neighborhood home… and maybe end up sharing a plate of pintxos with them.
Explore Gràcia, a small village that’s been incorporated into the city and is popular with the young families who live here, as well as the hordes of tourists who end up here on their way to Gaudí’s colorful Park Güell.
Want more modern architectural wonders? Barcelona and Gaudí have you covered. The two go together like café con leche, and it would be sacrilege to leave the city without a visit to Eixample, the neighborhood where Gaudí’s Gothic masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, is scheduled for completion on the centenary of the architect’s death in 2026. For something completely different, visit Barceloneta early in the morning, when the old fishermen are just returning with their catch and the tiny cafés are starting to pour their first cups of coffee. This beachside neighborhood feels like it must have years ago—before the posh yachts, sail-shaped W Hotel and anti-tourist flags.