With over 30 million tourists visiting every year, Barcelona is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. And it isn’t hard to see why. From its great weather and food to its thousands of years of history, Catalonia’s cosmopolitan capital oozes class from every pore.
While every guide will tell you to visit the Sagrada Família and La Boqueria, (and you definitely should) we thought you’d like to know about some other places in the city that deserve to be better known. I’ll also tell you about a few hidden gems that I’ve found while working as a tour guide and travel writer here.
Plaça Sant Felip Neri
Tucked away in a small side street just behind Barcelona Cathedral, the tranquility of this pretty square belies its often tragic past. Presided over by the Baroque Church from which it gets its name, it was here that parishioner Antoni Gaudí was traveling to on July 7th, 1926. But before he could arrive, he was hit by a tram and succumbed to his injuries three days later. In January 1938, in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, 42 children were killed when one of Mussolini’s bombs dropped on the church’s underground shelter. Even today, the pockmarked walls bear witness to one of the first ever civilian bombing raids.
Nowadays, the peacefulness of the square is broken only by the sound of the church school’s children as they play. Also in the square is the tiny one-room Museu de Calçat (Shoe Museum) and a café where scenes from Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were shot. The fountain in the center of the square was also the location for the music video of My Immortal by rock band Evanescence.
Located in the suburban district of Horta-Guinardó, Horta Labyrinth Park doesn’t receive all that many tourists. But I often take family and friends here when they need a respite from the bustling and crowded city center. Aside from the getting lost in the maze, visitors can also see the former palace of the noble Desvalls family, which incorporates a medieval watchtower and played host to the Kings and Queens of Spain on three occasions.
There is also a neoclassical and romantic garden, which features two Italian-style pavilions and a large pond. They were the filming location for the 2006 movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. There is also a large Mediterranean forest that surrounds the more cultivated park.
Palau de Musica Catalana
While this UNESCO word heritage site can hardly be called a hidden gem, this phenomenal building is dwarfed by the fame of La Sagrada Família and other works of Gaudí. This is a real shame because this stunning venue can hold its head up high against some of the very best architecture the world has to offer. Built between 1905 and 1908 as a home for the Orfeó Català choral society, the building is one of the world’s finest examples of Catalan Art Nouvea.
Perhaps its most impressive feature is the gigantic stained glass window that fills the auditorium with natural light during a performance. Guided tours are available in English, but if you buy a ticket to see a concert, you can visit for free!
The Bunkers of Carmel
Covered with sprawling apartment blocks built for working class immigrants, the Carmel neighbourhood is another one that does not see many tourists. But it does have one thing going for it: the best view in Barcelona. Anyone energetic enough to climb the 257 meters to the top (or smart enough to get a taxi) will be rewarded with one of the greatest city views anywhere in Europe, if not the world.
The hill on which the bunkers stand, Turó de la Rovira, also has an interesting history as it functioned as a Republican anti-aircraft battery during the Spanish Civil War. In the years that followed, it became a shantytown known as Els Canons (The Cannons). At its peak, it had over 100,000 inhabitants, mainly from Andalusia.
Casa Vicens, the first house ever designed by Gaudí, has been out of the news for several years as it underwent a multi-million Euro refurbishment. But after opening to the public in November 2017, now is the best time to see it in all its glory. Located in the trendy neighborhood of Gràcia, Casa Vicens is unusual as it mixes Moorish and Hispanic styles together using iron, glass, ceramic tiles and even concrete. A private residence until 2014, the house is now a museum and runs guided tours seven days a week.
Nestled in the hillside of Barcelona, the neighborhood of Poble Sec seems to have been up-and-coming for over 20 years. Aside from its pleasant streets and cafes, the district also has plenty of sites on offer. Refugi 307 is an air raid shelter built into the side of Montjüic Hill and nearby is Teatre Grec, a Greek style amphitheater that hosts a variety of open air performances. On Avinguda Paral·lel, you can find El Molino, Spain’s answer to the famous Moulin Rouge.
If you’re feeling peckish, visit the tiny, family-run tapas bar Quimet i Quimet. A little further up the hill is a great viewing point, Mirador del Poble Sec, and you can also take a cable car to Barceloneta, the city’s beach district.
Camp Nou Stadium and Museum
With a capacity of 99,354, Barcelona’s Camp Nou is the biggest football stadium in Europe. The attached museum, located in the working class neighbourhood of Sants, is undoubtedly impressive. However, it also does a great job of showing how the history of the club is inexorably linked with ideas of Catalan Nationalism and identity. Exhibits in the museum include Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Ors and La Blaugrana’s 5 European Cups, as well as dozens of other objects from Barcelona’s 119-year history.
There is also a shop where you can purchase official merchandise for your soccer-crazy friends, including jerseys, mugs and even a toaster that will imprint your breakfast with the club crest!
Tempted to visit sensational Spain? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x2, James Getgood x3.)