After spending much of the past week in Barcelona on a family vacation, the one thing that strikes me about the place is why more oceanfront cities aren’t like this. Barcelona has everything you want in a city – energy, history, culture, walkability, nightlife, good food and drink, a diverse geography that includes mountains and sea, beautiful architecture, family activities, plenty of public spaces, sunny weather, air conditioned hotels, an airport that’s not too crowded and pretty efficient. It’s not outrageously expensive, either, at least compared to most other huge metropolises like this.
Barcelona reminds me a lot of Los Angeles because of the weather, ocean, mountains and wide blue sky. The main difference, and an important one, is that Barcelona’s downtown area is not stuck way out in the middle of what used to be nowhere, far from both the ocean and the mountains. In Barcelona the urban center bangs right up against the Mediterranean Sea and its lovely beaches. You can leave the beach on foot and be in a pulsing, cosmopolitan neighborhood in a matter of minutes. In L.A. (and too many other oceanfront cities), you have to pile into a car or bus after leaving the beach and haul through heavy traffic, for too many miles, before reaching the urban center.
Barcelona has something for everyone. If you’re a foodie, you have ample choices between the native Spanish/Catalan cuisine (seafood, paella, tapas, cured meats, suckling pig) and a wide range of international choices: Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican/Tex-Mex, Japanese, German/Bavarian (lots of that, as I recall), Argentinian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, North American, etc. Even fast-food junkies will be happy here, given the large number of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Taco Bells and KFCs in Barcelona.
If art is your thing, you can choose between museums featuring the works of masters like Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, etc., or head to one of the bohemian neighborhoods where independent artisans have their studios and workshops. For history, there are numerous ancient cathedrals and/or castles to visit. For families, there’s a pretty large central park located beside a zoo that I believe will be relocated elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. Shopaholics have pretty much every conceivable option, from upscale boutiques to mid-priced chains and cheapo places. Outdoor enthusiasts can hit the ocean or (I assume) hike the mountains. You can bike everywhere here, and there are plenty of places to rent bikes. You can also walk everywhere (which we did). The nightlife is ever-present, judging from our PM strolls about town.
If you’re looking for a few tourist highlights, we enjoyed seeing the Cathedral of Barcelona in the Gothic Quarter, the Maritime Museum, the Picasso Museum, the Barcelona Zoo, the beach and the Chocolate Museum. But for me, just walking and exploring aimlessly is plenty interesting and fulfilling.
I came away from Barcelona wondering if it’s my favorite city in the world. It’s like Paris with better weather, more diverse food options and a beach. Maybe not quite as much charm, but pretty damn close. I might prefer Amsterdam juuuuust a little more because Amsterdam is smaller and more compact, so you can go anywhere there using your feet and nothing else. I also dig the bohemian/hipster vibe in Amsterdam, but the weather in Barcelona is much better. London has more parks, and probably more museums and family-friendly stuff, but those are about the only advantages I can see (OK, the Thames is pretty cool, too). I’ll probably always consider New York my favorite city, but the weather can be brutal there, and the airports are a pain in the ass to get into and out of.
Put it this way: Barcelona might not be my favorite city, but it’s right there in the mix, and it probably checks off the most boxes of any city I’ve ever visited or lived in.