What to See & Do in Barcelona on Your First Visit ~ And What Not to Do

Planning your first visit to Barcelona? With over 2,000 years of cultural heritage, psychedelic architecture, sun-kissed city beaches and a thriving gastronomy scene to explore, you’ve got plenty to be excited about!

These are my essential tips on what to see, do and eat on your first trip to Barcelona, as well as essential advice on what not to do. ¡Vamos amigos!

Barcelona Arc de Triomph by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Words & photos by your local Barcelona guide Ben Holbrook. All rights reserved.

Immerse Yourself in Barcelona’s Medieval Old Town

Carrer Ferran, Barcelona's Gothic Quarter - by Ben Holbrook

Light on Carrer Ferran in the Gothic Quarter

For that all important ‘wow, we’re in Barcelona’ moment, head straight to Barcelona’s ancient Ciutat Vella (Old Town), which includes the ‘barrios’ (neighbourhoods) of El Gotico, El Born and El Raval.

The Ciutat Vella is also the best place to stay in Barcelona on your first time in the city.

Plaça de Catalunya is a large square that marks the physical and symbolic heart of Barcelona, and the autonomous community of Catalonia as a whole, so this is a good place to start.

From Plaça de Catalunya you can wander down Barcelona’s iconic Las Ramblas, a colourful boulevard known for its countless shops, restaurants, cafes, street performers, flower stalls and the famous Liceu theatre.

Barcelona Gothic Quarter by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Archway to Heaven – The Gothic Quarter

Don’t waste your time eating on Las Ramblas. It might be tempting, but the restaurants and bars here basically exist to part tourists with their cash. Those giant jugs of beer and sangria (no self-respecting Spaniard would even contemplate drinking sangria) that you see people drinking are ridiculously over-priced. And the paella they’re eating? Straight out of the microwave.

Royal Pitstops

Plaça Reial – Barcelona's palm-filled square/playground (Gothic Guarter)

Plaça Reial – Barcelona’s palm-filled square/playground (Gothic Guarter)

Also just off Las Ramblas is the palm-filled Plaça Reial, which is lined with sunny restaurant terraces – I recommend stopping for cocktails or a glass of vino at Ocaña. From here you will soon lose yourself in the labyrinthine Gothic Quarter, and eventually the slightly more bohemian Born barrio, which is packed with cutesy ateliers and fashion boutiques. 

Santa Maria del Mar Gothic Church in El Born Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Santa Maria del Mar Gothic Church in El Born

Follow the ringing bells of the dramatic Santa Maria del Mar church and explore the little streets and squares that surround it for a few tasty tapas and glasses of wine. If you’d like to eat your way through this beautiful barrio then check out Wanderbeak’s delicious ‘Born to Eat’ food tour

Fairytale Squares and Basililcas

Barcelona Cathedral by Ben Holbrook

Barcelona Cathedral

Grab an ice cream at Swiit and soak in the views over the battle-scarred ramparts that once encircled Roman Barcelona – or ‘Barcino’ as it was called then.  

Also explore the fairytale squares of Plaça Sant Felip NeriPlaça del Rei and Plaça del Pi to get a sense of how old and beautiful this city really is.

Barcelona’s ancient Mirador del Rei Martí in Plaça del Rei

The ancient Mirador del Rei Martí in Plaça del Rei.

Market Moments

Halfway down Las Ramblas you’ll find La Boqueria, which is one of Europe’s largest food markets. Again, it’s extremely touristy these days, but be sure to take a pitstop at Bar Pinotxo.

If you’re like me and love moseying around markets then you may prefer Santa Caterina Market. My friend Sarah runs an incredible tour of the market and invites guests back to her beautiful apartment for a home-cooked feast – see my full feature on this here.

Get Your Culture Fix at Barcelona’s Best Museums

MNAC Art Gallery Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook

MNAC (National Art Gallery of Catalonia)

The Born barrio harbours a number of medieval palaces, some of which are thousands of years old. The most famous is on the time-transcending street of Carrer Montcada and houses the world-famous Museu Picasso. Definitely worth a visit even if you’re not all that into art.

I also recommend enjoying a fiery flamenco show at the baroque Palau Dalmases

Palau Dalmases Flamenco Show Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook

A moment of raw emotion at the Palau Dalmases flamenco show.

The barrio of Raval is also part of Barcelona’s Old Town and was historically known as the red light district. Today, however, this culturally diverse area is the city’s leading hub of contemporary art and counterculture – ruled by the heavily-inked and artistically-inclined.

Most importantly, Raval is home to the ultra contemporary MACBA art museum and the CCCB cultural centre.

Casa Almirall Old Bar on Carrer de Joaquin Costa Barcelona by Ben Holbrook

Casa Almirall on Carrer de Joaquin Costa

Raval is also an excellent place to shop, eat and drink, with plenty of hipster haunts to explore. Don’t miss the retro-licious Holala! Plaza for vintage fashion – more vintage boutiques here if that’s your thang.

Raval, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Raval backstreets.

Enjoy brunch, beautiful burgers, tacos, speciality coffee and home-brewed craft beer at Caravelle and be sure to explore the many bars that line Carrer de Joaquin CostaCasa Almirall is a personal favourite, and Negroni is definitely one of my favourite cocktail bars in Barcelona.

Cruise Barcelona’s Sun-Kissed Waterfront

Volleyball on the beach in Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood JournalsBarcelona really does have it all! Its 5/6km stretch of golden city beaches means you can enjoy the very best of a lazy beach holiday and an urban escape in the one.

Barceloneta beach is the most popular (and most decadent), but you’ll find each beach becomes more and more relaxed as you head in the opposite direction. See my guide to Barcelona’s best beaches here. 

Cycling at the beach in Barcelona - by Ben HolbrookI suggest renting a bike from my amigos at El Ciclo (they also offer great bike tours) and cruising the boardwalk down to Nova Icària, Bogatell and Mar Bella – though these are all easily walkable as well.

Actually, Barcelona is amazing for cycling in general – see my ‘Barcelona cycling guide’ here.

SUP Paddle Boarding in Barcelona - By Ben Holbrook Driftwood Journals

Me paddle boarding – one of my favourite places to be in Barcelona.

If cycling’s not your thing, you can also enjoy all sorts of water sports in Barcelona. I particularly love paddle boarding in Barcelona during the summer months.

SUP Paddle Boarding in Barcelona - By Ben Holbrook Driftwood Journals

My favourite place to be at sunset in Barcelona.

Don’t leave your belongings alone even for one second while you’re at the beach (or anywhere in Barcelona for that matter). Barcelona’s pickpockets are an extremely talented bunch and they’ll have pinched and sold on your phone/passport before you even realise it’s gone.

Devour Barcelona’s Famous Seafood in the Old Fishermen’s Quarter of Barceloneta

Eating gambas / prawns on the Barcelona Food Lovers Food Tour in Barceloneta - by Ben Holbrook

Eating gambas (prawns) on the Barcelona Food Lovers Company Food Tour in Barceloneta.

One of my favourite places to eat in Barcelona is in the salty backstreets of Barceloneta. This waterfront barrio was originally where the city’s fishermen lived and is still the best place to eat tapas, seafood and paella in Barcelona.

Drinking Spanish wine at Bar del Pla on the Barcelona Food Lovers Company Food Tour in Barceloneta.

Spanish wine tasting / happy place.

The vibe and service style tends to be a little rough and ready, but you can expect huge portions and traditional Spanish dishes. See my favourite tapas bars and restaurants in Barceloneta here or if you’re a serious foodie then you’ll love exploring the best of the best on the delicious (and fascinating) Food Lovers Company tapas tour, which also explores parts of the Old Town – see the blog post about my experience here.

Discover Antoni Gaudi’s Bizarre Architectural Masterpieces

If it’s your first time in Barcelona then seeing Antoni Gaudi’s colourful modernist buildings will no doubt be high on your list.

Casa Batlló, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Casa Batlló

Start your Gaudi grand tour with a stroll up the glamours artery of Passeig de Gracia (just off Plaça de Catalunya in the city centre), which carves through the ritzy Eixample neighbourhood and harbours many of Barcelona’s flagship fashion stores, as well as the upmarket El Nacional gastro emporium and many of Barcelona’s most luxurious hotels.

Casa Batlló and Casa Milà 

Casa Milà (AKA La Pedrera) Rooftop in Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Casa Milà (AKA La Pedrera)

It’s also where you’ll find Gaudi’s iconic Casa Batlló, with its sea shelled-facade, dragon-scaled rooftop and bird-nested balconies. Just a few blocks up you will also find Gaudi’s instantly recognisable Casa Milà building (AKA ‘La Pedrera’), which beautifully demonstrates the Modernist master’s abandonment of straight lines in his pursuit of simulating the beauty of Mother Nature. 

Definitely spend a couple of extra euros to get a skip-the-line tickets both Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, and if you like music then check out their rooftop jazz nights.

La Sagrada Familia

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia looming over the city

Antoni Gaudi’s most famous building in Barcelona is of course the yet-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia church. This fantastical structure is unlike any church you’ve seen before and tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life and death.

In Gaudi’s eyes it was a gift to God and every single detail was laboured over in prodigal proportions. He even moved in to the building site at one point so he could keep an eye on everything. 

La Sagrada Familia Church in BarcelonaDon’t just turn up and buy a ticket on the door – you’ll have to wait hours in the blistering sun before you get in.

Do book a skip-the-line ticket in advance so you can go straight in and make the most of your visit to what is sure to be the most impressive church/building you’ve ever seen.

Honestly, I’m not generally one to recommend visiting churches, but this is a different story altogether.

Park Güell

I also recommend heading up to the leafy Park Güell, where you can see Gaudi’s colourful ceramics and masterful mosaics in all their glory, as well as dramatic panoramic vistas over Barcelona.

Park Guell Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

The park was originally intended as an exclusive housing estate for Barcelona’s wealthiest residents, a place where they could escape the smog of the city and live in peace. However, the project fell through and only two houses were ever built. Gaudi lived in one (now the Gaudi House Museum) and Eusebi Güell, the wealthy industrialist who employed Gaudi to design the park, lived in the other.

Don’t spend the extra money to enter the main terrace area of Park Güell if you’re travelling on a budget. I’m not sure it’s worth the extra dough, as most of the park is free to explore and enjoy.

Want more Gaudi? Visit Casa Vicens, Gaudi’s first ever commissioned house design project. Its colourful and somewhat ostentatious facade is said to have inspired other important architects of the time, marking the beginning of what is now known as the Catalan Modernisme movement.

Check out this Modernist walking route if you’re interested in seeing more of Barcelona’s famous architecture.

Discover the Trendy Foodie Barrios of Sant Antoni and Poblesec

Sant Antoni is my favourite neighbourhood in Barcelona. It used to be little more than a quiet residential area. Its leafy streets still feel relaxed and local, but today you’ll find many of the trendiest cafes, bars and restaurants in Barcelona.

The Juice House Vegan Restaurant on Carrer Parlament in Sant Antoni, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

The Juice House vegan restaurant on Carrer Parlament in Sant Antoni.

Carrer del Parlament is the epicentre of the local foodie scene, a sprawling, tree-canopied street lined with many of my favourite foodie spots in Barcelona.

Enjoy ultra-healthy vegetarian and vegan dishes and juices at The Juice House (excellent at any time of day) or slightly less healthy artisanal donuts at El Donuteria.

Barna Brew Craft Beer Bar in Sant Antoni, Barcelona – By Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Barna Brew beauty.

And whatever you do, be sure to sample a few craft beers (all brewed on-site) and creative Catalan tapas dishes at my beloved Barna Brew (my regular watering hole and without question one of the very best craft beer bars in Barcelona).

A few doors down you’ll also find Els Sortidors del Parlamentone of my favourite wine/tapas bars in Barcelona. And just a few streets over is La Bombilla, which is one of my favourite cocktail bars in Barcelona.

If you like the sound of eating in Sant Antoni then I would definitely recommend the delectable Evolution of Catalan Gastronomy‘ food tour, which visits many of my favourite spots in the ‘hood. 

Vintage Spanish Sifon bottle in Barcelona - by Ben HolbrookFrom Sant Antoni it’s just a quick stroll over to the more traditional nook of Poblesec, where you’ll find the famous tapas street of Carrer Blai.

There are countless tapas bars along here, many offering a tapa and a drink for around €2. I recommend Koska, Blai 9 and Quimet i Quimet, which is frequently lauded as one of Barcelona’s best tapas bars.

One of my favourite restaurants in the world is also in Poblesec – Mano Rota serves creative Mediterranean market cuisine fused with global influences, particularly from Peru and Asia. They’ve recently started offering a fully vegetarian tasting menu as well, which was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten – even though I’m not vegetarian. It’s basically Michelin star standard cooking but without the pomp and ceremony (or prices!). Save it for the last night of your trip and go out with a bang!

If you’re interested in eating the best of Poblsec then definitely consider joining one of Barcelona Eat Local‘s excellent food tours.

Glam it Up in the Trendy Eixample Barrio

Back in the 1850s, Barcelona’s government decided it was time to tear down the city walls that enveloped Barcelona and extend the city. “Eixample” literally translates as extension” and Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà’s revolutionary plans are considered to be among the first examples of modern urban planning.

Dining at Moments Restaurant - bowties optional

Dining at Moments Restaurant – bowties optional

In stark contrast to the dark and narrow alleyways of the Old Town, Eixample’s bright and airy boulevards were designed to improve the quality life for the city’s residents. But although Cerdà had socialist ideals, it was only the rich who could afford to move in.

Today Eixample is still one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods of Barcelona and is where you’ll find some of the finest restaurants and bars.

Cocktails at Hotel Almanac Barcelona

Cocktails at Almanac’s gorgeous bar (open to public as well as guests).

Traverse Carrer Aribau and you will find many of Barcelona’s best cocktail bars within stumbling distance of each other. Eixample is also nicknamed “Beerxample” due its concentration of excellent craft beer bars.

You can also dine on two-Michelin starred cuisine at Restaurante Disfrutar, or at the spectacular two-Michelin starred Moments restaurant, which is tucked away inside the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Pepa Pla, Carrer Aribau, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Pepa Pla – creative tapas, natural/organic wines and cool-but-casual vibes.

For the full bon vivant experience in Eixample, join Wanderbeak’s sensational ‘Gourmet Gaudi’ food tour, which includes oysters and Cava, a Michelin-starred meal and a tour of the most iconic modernist buildings in the area.

If you’re not travelling on a Michelin star sort of budget then I would also highly recommend dining at Pepa Pla, El Sifó d’en Garriga, Lateral and Cerveceria Catalana.

Kick Back and Enjoy Village Vibes in Gràcia

Colourful streets in Gracia, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood JournalsKnown as a village within the city, Gràcia was originally a small satellite town that was completely cut off from the rest of Barcelona until 1897.

But today, even though this bohemian barrio is only two or three metro stops away from the city centre, it still feels intimate, small and familiar, and is characterised by its strong sense of independent spirit.

It’s as if you have left the big city behind entirely and arrived in an entirely new land.

Street life and live music in Gracia, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood JournalsGràcia is known for its leafy streets and squares, which are alive with colourful buildings housing independent fashion boutiques, cool cafes and a myriad of characterful bars and restaurants to explore. 

Stroll down streets like Carrer del Torrent de l’Olla, Carrer Bonavista and Carrer Verdi, and soak up some rays with a drink in the lively squares of Plaça de la Virreina, Plaza del Sol, and Plaza de la Revolución

Stop for speciality coffee at Syra Coffee, tapas and wine at Gastera and Nou Can Codina, and if you’re lucky enough to snag a table, lunch at La Pubilla.

Catalan flag hanging from a balcony in Gracia, Barcelona - by Ben Holbrook from Driftwood Journals

Gracia is a passionately Catalan neighbourhood.

Life in Gràcia trundles along at a much more agreeable pace than in the rest of the city. At least it does until August, when the residents get together to celebrate the now legendary ‘Festa Majór de Gràcia’ (Gràcia Festival), decorating the streets with all sorts of different themes – on one street you may be transported to an underwater world, while the next will take you to outer space to a Star Wars themed universe. 


More Travel Guides for First Time Visitors in Barcelona

Where to Stay in Barcelona on your first visit

Best Hotels Near Las Ramblas, Barcelona ~ An Inside Guide

Alexandra Hotel (Eixample, Barcelona) ~ 4* Contemporary Design, Urban Sophistication

Almanac Barcelona Hotel ~ Personalised Grand Luxury in the City Centre

Best Boutique Hotels in Barcelona ~ A Grand Guide

H10 Cubik Hotel, Barcelona ~ Superior 4-Star Luxury in the City Centre

B-Hotel Barcelona: Superior 3-Star Hotel with Rooftop Pool & Bar

Barcelona in One Day ~ Must-See Sights and Essential Bites

Essential Things to Do in Barcelona ~ An Inside Guide


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