Relax or Bar Hop in Europe’s Best Beach City

It’s time for tapas and perfect weather.

We love our Londons, Parises, and Romes, but Barcelona might just have the best combo of all the major European cities. First of all, it’s a lively metropolis situated next to a beach. That means restaurants, bars, art, and museums all next to a golden shore with aqua blue waves. And the weather is fantastic. Not too hot, rainy, humid, or cold, the capital of Northern Spain has the ideal Mediterranean pleasantness. Plus you’ll find old gothic architecture mixed with funky modernist buildings, all the wine and tapas you can wash down, and nearby mountains for day hikes or just to admire from the sandy beach. It’s the ultimate I-just-need-a-vacation escape.

But as with most European hubs, there are the usual, expected, touristy sites, and then there are the cool buildings, restaurants, and bars you find only from experience living here. And that’s where we got your back.

Touching on a few first-timer must-dos, we’re filling in the gaps of your touristy sightseeing checklist with the local recs. Whether for your down time, eating and drinking time, to answer your “What’s next?” question, or to get a more genuine sense of the city, these are places where you can experience what the city feels like for locals. Here are the traditional and unexpected things to do in Barcelona.

View of the city from Park Guell in Barcelona
Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock

Start your sightseeing with a tour of Gaudi buildings

Going to Barcelona and not touring the range of strange and gorgeous buildings is like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. From gothic to modernist, architecture is what Barca is known for (outside the beaches and nightlife, that is). So first, start off with the classics.

You simply must see all of Gaudí. The famous artist defined Barcelona with his quirky architecture on buildings across the city. Definitely don’t miss La Pedrera's wavy façade and haunting rooftop, the towering and ever-growing La Sagrada Familia cathedral (including the mind-blowing interior), the “dragon” house of Casa Batlló topped by bright scales and bone-framed balconies, the colorful and rhythmic trencadís (tile mosaics) at Parc Güell, and even the recently remodeled and now open to the public Casa Vicens. Antoni Gaudi’s iconic take on Modernisme (also known as Catalonian Art Nouveau) is quintessential Barcelona.

Palau de la Música Catalana

Then venture off the beaten path for more stunning architecture

The downside to Gaudí’s huge legacy is that it overshadows other architectural feats in the city. But believe us, there's so much more to discover. And many of these insider-tip haunts even have entertainment like art or music on the inside, in addition to a stunning outside.

Palau de la Música Catalana is a vibrant turn-of-the-century music hall flanked by whimsical columns, designed by Modernist architect Luis Domènech i Montaner. When the lights are on, it sparkles from the inside like a brightly lit jewel box. You can also buy tickets to see a performance, which often involves classical music.

The same architect also created Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, which is a gorgeous complex of buildings, complete with beautiful gardens, that was once an old hospital from the early 1900s. Guided or self-guided tours take you across the grounds to hear what life in a hospital was like at that time. And it's just a short walk from the Sagrada Família cathedral.

The colorful and cocoon-shaped silhouette of Torre Agbar stands out from every angle of the city's skyline. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, this striking tower has transcended its functional origins as a water management company headquarters. Located in the Glòries area, it now hosts an observation deck called Mirador Torre Glòries that’s open to the public. As part of the experience, you’ll find an interactive artwork called the Cloud Cities experience. Or head to the basement of the building for an immersive music and science production about the city called Hyperview Barcelona.

Then you have the elegant Casa Ametller, built by another Art Nouveau architect, Puig i Cadafalch. The lavishly decorated façade combines contrasting burgundy and cream tiles. But more importantly, the building was commissioned by a bourgeois family of chocolatiers, which means there's a chocolate shop and coffee parlor in the backyard.

Lastly, you can stare—or stay—at the W Barcelona hotel on Barceloneta beach. This distinctly sail-shaped contemporary building was designed by another local genius architect, Ricardo Bofill.

View of the city from Teleferic de Montjuic
Travel Faery/Shutterstock

Enjoy sky-high views from Montjuïc

Barcelona's skyline is best enjoyed from a higher vantage point. That's why many people go for a ride up the Montjuïc mountain teleféric (cable car). Montjuïc harbors quite a few interesting lookouts, but the best views over the city are probably on the top of the hill around Castell de Montjuïc, a 1640 fortress and watchtower that doubled as a prison for political dissidents during and after the Civil War.

Monjuïc is considered to be the “lungs” of the city, a peaceful green area that once hosted the 1929 International Exhibition and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Both of them left a visible mark on the mountain. Wandering around the garden areas, you’ll find the neo-classical Olympic Stadium and the Palau de Sant Jordi sports venue by architect Arata Isozaki.

Art lovers will be able to choose between historical art museum Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) famous for its Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance pieces; the Caixaforum museum, built on the grounds of a former modernist factory; Teatre Grec, a Greek style amphitheater (the backdrop for the Summer performing arts festival by the same name); or Mies van der Rohe pavilion, a glass, steel, and marble Bauhaus-style building designed as the German pavilion for the International Exhibition.

View of city from rooftop pool

And then kick back on a scenic hotel rooftop

There's an alternative way to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views without needing to leave downtown. During the late-spring and summer months,Barceloninsflock to the rooftops of some of the best hotels in the city.

These spaces guarantee stunning views in a more quiet and relaxed environment, surrounded by plants or seated around a pool, along with excellent cocktails. It’s a haven of tranquility amid the bustling city activity. As a bonus, these rooftop spots frequently organize live music concerts, DJ sessions, yoga lessons, dinners, and even movie nights.

Casa Bonay rooftop might be one of the trendiest spots in the city. It’s also one of the greenest. Live music ranges from pop to funk to electronica. There’s also achiringuito(beach shack) restaurant that allows you to choose between tapas and all kinds of BBQ dishes. Keep an eye out, because their lobby space and restaurants are also frequently brimming with cultural activities, so if you plan ahead, you are likely to enjoy a double bill of entertainment.

Yurban Trafalgar chill-out rooftop area is reputed for having one of the best 360º views in the city, overlooking the old city area. It’s also the perfect setting for a vermouth wine.

You can't get more central than Hotel Pulitzer's rooftop, right by Plaça Catalunya's. This chill hideaway turns up the volume from Thursday to Sunday evenings, when the hotel terrace hosts DJ sessions.

Equally centric and overlooking Passeig de Gràcia (the main shopping area in the city), Hotel Sir Victor's rooftop terrace serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes easily shareable with a group. Enjoy them while lounging on sunbeds surrounding the pool.

Another reason not to miss out on Gaudí's Casa Batlló: their rooftop also hosts flamenco, jazz, rumba, and soul, for a night of live music under the stars.

Tapas spread
La Bodegueta Provença

Try top non-touristy tapas

Ah, the Tapas. Those heavenly individual food bites frequently (but not exclusively) served on top of bread or in tiny casseroles. Being one of the most beloved Spanish pastimes and the best excuse to meet up with people, you’re going to find tapas bars all over the city. But beware—many of them are tourist traps serving bland and pricey snacks. The best way to avoid the duds is to drop by some of the city's most emblematic bars or visit budding, vogue venues that are creating new takes on the tapas traditions.

A good starting point is the very centric and time-honored La Bodegueta in Eixample. The chefs here stick to simple, text-book-but-quality classics such asjamón ibérico, seafood dishes, or huevos rotos, which are fried eggs torn open on top of fries with different garnishes.

Keeping up with tradition, El Xampanyet in Born dates back to 1929 and is known for theirsmall montadito sandwiches and cava sparkling wine. It’s usually pretty crowded, so the earlier the better here.

Speaking of classic tapas: If bravas are your jam (and who doesn’t love fried potatoes dipped in spicy sauce and aioli?), Bar Tomás will be your potato mecca. It’s located in the Sarriá upper district and is worth the trek. But if you don't have time to venture from the city center, don't worry, almost every bar in Barcelona has bravas on the menu, and it’s considered a local sport to find the best ones according to your taste.

If you do head to Sarriá, you could also visit El Canalla. This two-story bar has a beautiful, classy space, as well as a kitchen focused on seasonal produce.

For a more modern and playful approach, Sant Antoni Gloriós in the eponymous Sant Antoni market district claims to combine the kitchen of grandparents and grandchildren. They are praised for their meatballs, chickpeas with prawns, veal dishes, and yes, also bravas.

Strolling around Sant Antoni, you can also find Bar El Pollo, run by a young chef with a love for tradition and Basque origins. Here you can enjoy a northern-style tortilla, one that’s more mellow and undercooked (trust us, that's a good thing).

In the Gràcia neighborhood, Pollería Fontana is famous for their roasted chicken croquettes. But this vintage-looking venue also serves up some innovative food combos such as cuttlefish balls, squid with artichokes and bacon or butifarra(Catalan sausage), and green bean omelets.

Not far away, Antúnez gastrobar sinks its culinary roots in Catalan and Spanish tradition, but adds a contemporary twist topped with some Italian flourishes. Their foie and duck cannelloni are a must, but you shouldn't miss their Spanish tortillas or the varied croquette fillings.

Bartender pouring Vermouth
Las Vermudas

Sip on some incredible vermouths

Forget about brunch in Barcelona. Yes, there are quite a few great brunch restaurants in the city, but the real Barcelonian thing to do on a Sunday at midday is meet with friends for a vermouth. Vermouth, the city's favorite aperitif, is an herb-infused fortified wine with orange peel and a dry, slightly tart flavor. It’s usually sipped along with tapas and raciones (small sharing platters) such as croquettes, olives, cheese plates, Russian salad, marinated anchovies, and other sea delicacies like mejillones (mussels), zamburiñas (scallops), or caracoles (sea snails).

The best places to get acquainted with the vermouth experience are local bodegas, the most traditional bars around the city. Many of them are concentrated in the Sant Antoni or Poble Sec area, but you can find a vermouth bar in every neighborhood.

Some of the best? Look for the red door of Quimet & Quimet, where they also craft their own beer; the tiny and in-high-demand Morro Fi, often attracting a younger crowd; the ample and relaxing terrace at Bar Calders; Las Vermudas for homemade vermouth and vermouth cocktails; Bodega Lo Pinyol for original tapas and classic decor of hydraulic tiles, wood barrels, and marble tables; the central location and refined dishes at Bar Mut; old school vibes and decent prices at Bodega Quimet; or La Pubilla for their esmorzars de forquilla, which is a traditional Catalan breakfast.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Amaia Porteiro is a contributor for Thrillist.