One of the reasons I love living in Barcelona so much is that you can live incredibly well and do truly amazing things without spending even a single cent. Life’s good here, no matter how much you have in the bank.
From the dazzling Modernista architecture and labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter to the palm-filled parks, mountains and glistening beaches, this is my inside guide to the best FREE things to see and do in Barcelona.
Words and photos by your inside guide, Ben Holbrook
1. Hike or Run the Carretera de les Aigües
This is the place where I’ve probably spent the majority of my free time over the last year. Carretera de les Aigües is a 10 km dirt track that winds its way along the face of the Serra de Collserola natural park, offering unbeatable views across the entire city as you move from one end to the other. It also affords views of Barcelona Football Club’s iconic Camp Nou football stadium, as well as some of the football stars’ luxury homes in the surrounding Pedralbes area – I spotted Shakira and Pique’s home on one of my bike rides!
Make it Happen: Take the FGC train from Placa Catalunya to Av. Tibidabo, from there hike up Avenida Tibidabo to the Pla dels Maduixers carpark, where the trail starts. This little map will help.
2. Go Wild in Gaudi’s Otherworldly Park Güell Barcelona
One of Gaudi’s greatest and most revered works, this elevated park affords peerless views over the city and the Mediterranean. It’s overflowing with the architect’s signature ceramic detailing, as well as exotic palms and pines, carob trees, olive trees and gooey cactus plants.
Yes, you do have to pay to access the “main bit” of Park Güell, where you will find the emblematic ceramic lizard and snaking benches, but as I found when I took some visitors to see the park this summer, you can explore and appreciate most of the best bits without paying a penny.
Commissioned by Eusebi Güell, a successful businessman, the park was originally intended to be an exclusive residential estate for wealthy Catalans, but due to complex land sale laws and the fact that it was so damn difficult to access, only two of the sixty houses originally planned were ever built – Gaudi himself lived in one for a time.
Make it Happen: Ride the metro up to Lesseps or Vallcarca (both green line) and follow the signs and escalators to the park. Wander around, snap some selfies, lick an ice cream.
3. Body Bronze in the Buff
There’s a lot of nudism in Barcelona and if you fancy getting involved just head over to San Sebastien Beach (at the foot of the five-star luxury W-Hotel or Mar Bella Beach (at the opposite end of the beach), and get your kit off.
Make it Happen: For San Sebastien beach (the most convenient), just walk or ride the metro (yellow line) to Barceloneta beach and walk up the beach towards the W Hotel until you start noticing more flesh around, then strip off. For Mar Bella beach, either follow the beach northwards or take the metro (yellow line) to Llacuna.
4. Swim at Barcelona’s Cleanest Beaches
Barceloneta beach is the liveliest and most impressive in terms of people watching, but if you want to get in the water I suggest heading north to beaches such as Nova Icaria, Bogatell, Mar Bella and Llevant. Don’t worry, you can access them all on foot. Just follow the beach boardwalk and walk in the opposite direction of the modern, sail-like W-Hotel building that juts out into the water by Barceloneta beach.
5. Nibble on FREE Foodie Samples at the Markets
If, like me, you love sauntering around traditional markets, you’ll go ga-ga in Barcelona. Mercat de la Boqueria is the most obvious choice, but it’s a bit hectic for my liking. Instead, head to the spectacular Santa Caterina Market, which is covered by an undulating, multi-coloured ceramic ribbon, reflecting the vibrancy of the produce that lay within. Ask for a sample or two and I’m sure you’ll get something delicious for free!
6. Soak Up the Epic City Views from the Carmel Bunkers
Built atop the mighty Turó de la Rovira hill as anti-aircraft bunkers to protect Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, the Carmel Bunkers offer panoramic views over the city and mountains that lie behind. After the war, the local homeless population got together and built makeshift homes on the site, both for themselves and their livestock. Today, the shacks, residents and animals have all gone, leaving behind almost nothing to hint at its eventful past. In fact, if it wasn’t for the photography exhibition – the bunkers are now owned by the city’s Museum of History – and a few gaudy floor tiles, you’d never know that this was once a a bustling shanty town.
Continuing the somewhat peculiar story, “los boonkers”, as the locals call them, seem to have become some sort of mecca for perfect-smiled, selfie-taking, neon-lycra’d locals, who pout and pose shamelessly against the dramatic city backdrop. Be sure to stop off at Delicias Tapas Bar, where the locals line up for a spot on the terrace and a chance to indulge in proper tapas and no-nonsense seafood. Order a beer to drink whilst you wait for your table.
Make it Happen: Jump on the number 24 bus from Passeig de Gràcia and get off at Carrer Muhlberg. Or if you’re feel like stretching your legs, ride the metro to Alfons X (yellow line) and keep walking up hill until you see signs (and beautiful people in neon and lycra).
7. Discover the Best of Picasso and Company with Free Museum Sundays
Dripping in art and culture, Barcelona is home to a staggering selection of world-class museums. And the best news for culture vultures traveling on a tight budget is that they’re almost all FREE on Sunday afternoons.
Some of my favourite (free on Sundays) museums in Barcelona:
Visit MNAC to see Catalan art from the Romanesque period housed in the spectacular Palau Nacional. Don’t miss Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, the legacy of Francesc Cambó.
Visit CCCB (Contemporary Culture Centre of Barcelona) to see contemporary art, music, dance and readings on the site of a medieval monastery.
Visit Museu Picasso to see some 3,500 early works of one of the world’s most iconic artists.
Visit Palau Güell to see one of Gaudi’s earliest designs, a mansion (more a palace than a mansion) designed for Eusebi Güell, where he lived before moving to Park Güell. Bedazzled with peculiar shapes, iron detailing and colourful chimneys, it is stamped with what eventually became Gaudi’s signature style.
Visit MACBA to see mind-melting contemporary art – temporary exhibitions are free on their opening nights.
8. Live Slowly in Gràcia, Barcelona’s “Secret Neighbourhood”
Gràcia was once completely separate from Barcelona, but when the city walls were knocked down, the city grew and gobbled it up. Today, despite the fact that it’s only a couple of metro stops away from the city centre, this vibrant neighbourhood has held on to its independent spirit and feels very much like a different world.
Walk through the leafy squares such as Plaza de la Virreina and sit on the steps of the Sant Joan de Gràcia church to soak up the small-town atmosphere.
Discover Gaudi in Gracia
As well as being effortlessly charming, Gràcia is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Casa Vicens, which was Gaudi’s very first commissioned house design.
It’s also the location of the annual (every August) Gràcia Festival, Barcelona’s most famous street party, which sees the locals decorate the streets in themes ranging from King Kong and the Moulin Rouge to “under the sea” and “airport”. Live music and all night debauchery make for an unmissable and completely free Barcelona experience.
But be careful in Gràcia, because there are plenty of charming independent boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and bars to tempt you to spend your money, especially on and around Carrer Verdi, Carrer Bonavista and Carrer del Torrent de L’olla.
Make it Happen: Take the metro to Fontana (green line) and walk from there – be sure to get your tickets in advance.
9. Explore the El Born Barrio and Travel Back to 1714
Part of the Old Town, El Borne (or just plain old “Born” as it’s known locally) has undergone serious gentrification over the last few decades and is now oozing with vintage fashion boutiques, chic cocktail bars and fancy restaurants.
But there are plenty of free things to do in Born too, including the fascinating Born Centre Cultural, which is housed in the renovated former market building and features remains of buildings that were destroyed during the siege of 1714 – said to be the start of the Catalan’s desire for independence from the rest of Spain.
Born is also home to the 14th century Santa Maria del Mar church, said to be one of the world’s purest examples of Gothic architecture. Take off your hat and pop in for a moment of reflection under the heavenly vaulted ceilings.
Make it Happen: Take the metro (or walk) to Jaume I (yellow line), cross the big and busy Via Laietana road and stroll on.
10. While Away an Afternoon with a Picnic in Parc Ciutadella
18 hectares of tranquil little nooks, fruit orchards, green houses, palm trees, boating lakes, a zoo, a gilded water fountain and its own Arc de Triomf, there’s nowhere I’d rather be on a sunny day in Barcelona. Take a picnic of jamón, cheese, bread, olives and a bottle of cava and you’ll soon understand what I mean when I say you can live well here without spending a fortune. Read more about this Parc Ciutadella here.
Make it Happen: Either walk there from the Born barrio or take the metro to Arc de Triomf (red line). Don’t forget your picnic!
11. Take a Stroll Through Bohemian Raval
Infamous for its historical role as the city’s hub of prostitution and poverty, Raval has often been described (even by myself) as dangerous and somewhat uncouth, but gentrification has seen things change quite dramatically. This spectacular, multicultural melting pot of a neighbourhood is still a little rough around the edges, but its reputation as a haven of debauchery and disheveled demeanour have been replaced by an air of bohemian irreverence and slick hipster vibes. Today in Raval professional skateboarders mix with well-heeled fashionistas and tech solopreneurs.
Low rents have attracted many of Barcelona’s quirkiest and trendiest independent traders to Raval and it’s also become the beating heart of the city’s arts and culture scenes – it’s here that you’ll find the world-famous MACBA contemporary art museum (which is equally famous for being one of Barcelona’s hottest skateboarding spots), as well as the CCCB cultural centre (mentioned above in number 4).
Make it Happen: Walkable from the city centre (follow Carrer Tallers off Las Ramblas) or take the metro to Placa Universitat (purple line) and walk from there.
More FREE Things to Do in Raval, Barcelona
Escape the crowds in Raval’s secret gardens, which are tucked away in the grounds of the historic Hospital de la Santa Creu. Fragrant orange trees, trickling fountains and elegant archways make it the perfect spot for a moment of inner-city tranquility.
Window shop your way along Raval’s cool streets of Carrer Tallers, Carrer Riera Baixa, which are packed with vanguard vintage stores and guitar shops, and don’t miss Carrer Doctor Dou, Carrer Joaquín Costa and Carrer del Carme for some of the Barcelona’s best bars and restaurants.
If you decide to eat in Raval, check out Caravelle, which is my absolute favourite foodie spot in Barcelona. They offer hearty brunches and proper coffee, home-brewed craft beers and some of the best burgers in Barcelona.
Visit the ancient Sant Pau del Camp church, which although lacks the spiralling splendour of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, is actually the oldest religious site in Barcelona. In fact, with evidence to date it back to the year 977, it’s one of the oldest churches on the planet.
Grab a bench on the leafy and lively Rambla del Raval, the neighbourhood’s main artery, and watch the world go by for an hour or so. If you feel living it up a little, sneak up to the rooftop terrace of the lavish Barceló Raval Hotel and enjoy a cocktail or two with awe-inspiring views of the city.
12. Get Lost in the Gothic Quarter
The oldest, most photographed, dirtiest, wildest, narrowest-streeted neighbourhood in Barcelona, a stroll through the rabbit warren that is the Gothic Quarter is quite simply unmissable.
Listen to the flamenco guitar outside Catedral de la Santa Creu, sit on the fountain in the lively Plaça Reial or rub your hands over the gashes that were blown into the facade of a school in Plaça Sant Felip Neri when fascists bombed the square, killing 42 people in the process. The school is still a school and the church is still a church, but the medieval palace that took up one side of the square has been turned into the luxury five-star hotel Neri – arguably the most elegant and luxurious hotel in Barcelona.
Make it Happen: Walk and wander from Plaça Catalunya.
13. Discover Tibidabo Vintage Theme Park and its Heavenly Views
Avinguda del Tibidabo is a handsome, mansion-lined boulevard – the house at number 32 features in The Shadow of the Wind as the house of the Alaydas and is where the dramatic ending of the book is set. The road is served by the city’s iconic blue tram (Tramvia Blau), which costs €5.50 and trundles its way up the hill, where it drops you off at the funicular (another €5 or so), continuing almost vertically up to the whacky Tibidabo Theme Park and the majestic Temple de Sagrat Cor church, which is the illuminated “Jesus with open arms” statue you can see from almost anywhere in the city.
The views from the theme park and church are simply out of this world and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get a bird’s eye view of the city. If you don’t want to pay to ride the blue tram and the funicular, I suggest simply taking the L7 FGC train from Placa Catalunya to the Av. Tibidabo stop and hiking the rest. But be warned, it’s a fairly demanding and time-consuming walk.
14. Ramble Las Ramblas
Unquestionably the most famous street in Barcelona, Las Ramblas is a boulevard that stretches out for 1.2km from Placa Catalunya in the city centre to the port. It’s packed with restaurants and shops, though I’d recommend avoiding them as you’ll get charged tourist prices. It’s definitely worth a quick stroll though.
What not to miss on Las Ramblas (not all free):
La Boqueria Food Market, the city’s busiest and most famous food market.
The Liceu Theatre, an incredibly grand and opulent theatre that’s been wowing audiences since 1847.
The Christopher Columbus monument, which can be found at the end of Las Ramblas nearest the port.
Boadas Cocktail Bar, the oldest (and my favourite) cocktail bar in Barcelona – situated on the corner where Carrer Tallers branches off from Las Ramblas.
Kælderkold craft beer bar, conveniently located just off Las Ramblas on Carrer del Cardenal Casañas. If you’re into craft beer, be sure to check out my guide to Barcelona’s best craft beer bars.
Placa Reial, which I mentioned above, is a bustling hive of activity where you’ll find great restaurants and bars – situated about half-way down Las Ramblas.
Font de Canaletes, which, if you sip some of its water, will ensure your return to Barcelona.
15. Discover Barcelona’s Next-Level Street Art
Barcelona is all about creativity, and everything here seems to revolve around art and design, whether it’s new or old. Thought-provoking murals and paste-ups can be found throughout the city, and if you head out to the “murs lliures” (free walls) of Poblenou, you’ll also be able to see graffiti sprayed by some of the world’s most revered artists.
16. Discover Gaudí’s World Renowned Architecture
It’s true that you have to pay to go inside Antoni Gaudi’s Modernista masterpieces, but you can visit and photograph their colourful facades for FREE.
Gaudi buildings you can see for FREE include:
Sagrada Família, the unfinished church that has become Barcelona’s most recognisable landmark. I must add that I do recommend spending a few euros to go inside. But read my advice on this before you do.
La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, which can be found on the elegant Passeig de Gràcia, one of my favourite streets in Barcelona.
Torre Bellesguard, which Gaudi designed for Martin I, the last king of the Catalan dynasty.
Casa Vicens, which was until recently a private residency. It was bought by a banking family for a cool forty million euros and will be converted into a museum, allowing visitors to discover its opulent interior.
Park Güell, as mentioned above.
17. Explore Modernista Architecture Beyond Gaudi
Antoni Gaudí is of course the godfather of the Modernista movement, but he wasn’t the only architect who made Barcelona what it is today. The following buildings are equally as breathtaking:
Casa Amatller, Casa de les Punxes (House of Spikes) and Palau de la Música, designed by Catalan architect Puig I Cadafalch, who also designed the La Casa Martí, which is where Els Quatre Gats restaurant – famous for being a favourite watering hole for the likes of Dali, Picasso and Hemingway – still stands.
Casa Lleó Morera, designed by Domènech i Muntaner, who also created the must-see Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest and most inspiring examples of Modernista architecture on Earth.
18. Hunt Out Joan Miró’s Mind-Bending Public Art
Barcelona’s prodigal child is by far my favourite artist. I love his playful, colourful style and mind-bending sculptures. And whilst you need to buy a ticket to enter the Fundació Joan Miró (well worth €12!), there’s a smattering of his work to be found throughout the city that you can gawk at for free. Parc de Joan Miró, home to his bold, 22m-tall Woman and Bird sculpture, is probably the most spectacular.
Keep your eyes peeled as you pass through Barcelona airport’s Terminal 2 and you’ll spot one of artist Joan Miró’s mosaic. There’s another one on Las Ramblas too.
19. Magic Fountain of Montjuïc
For a truly heartwarming experience, there’s nothing better than watching the Magic Fountain water and light show as the sun sets. Situated at the foot of the imposing Palau Nacional, this romantic spectacle provides a memorable experience of people of all ages, and it’s completely free.
Make it happen: Stock up on a couple of cold cans or a bottle cava and ride the metro to Placa Espanya. Get there for about 7.30pm/8pm and find a spot to lay out. Times are as follows:
Autumn and Winter: Friday and Saturday, from 7pm to 9pm.
Spring and Summer, (from 31st March to 29th October): Thursday to Sunday, from 9pm to 11.30pm.
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