Known for its vibrant culture, striking architecture and world-class gastronomy, Barcelona is one of the most captivating cities. And word has gotten out: the Catalan capital is flooded with tourists, especially during the summer, and it will see about 2.5 percent annual visitor growth over the next 10 years, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
To experience the Mediterranean metropolis’ true essence, plan your visit in the off-season — with mild temps (averaging in the mid-50s Fahrenheit) and fewer crowds, winter is an excellent time to explore the city.
Here’s our roadmap to achieving two perfect days in Barcelona.
When it comes accommodations, you’re spoiled for choice. If you want gorgeous design with a touch of whimsy, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Cotton House Hotel impresses with interiors imagined by Spanish designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán. Should you be looking for old-school opulence, head three minutes away for the regal comforts of Four-Star El Palace Barcelona.
With just two days in the city, however, the right location will be key. For that, Five-Star Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona is at the top of our list.
Discreetly tucked away on grand Passeig de Gràcia boulevard just across the street from legendary architect Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, this fashionable luxury hotel occupies a coveted spot in the heart of the eclectic Eixample District, within easy walking distance of popular pedestrian street Las Ramblas, the historic Gothic Quarter and designer boutiques.
Because nothing says “Barcelona” like a picture in front of a Gaudí work, your first order of business, after settling in, is to stroll across the street for a photo in front of Casa Batlló’s iconic under-the-sea-inspired façade.
From there, walk south about 15 minutes to Las Ramblas, where you’ll stumble on the well-known La Boqueria. Part farmers market, part food hall, this epicurean landmark can be a sensory overload, but a wonderful one. Tour the beautifully arranged fruit stalls, gaze in wonder at the hanging legs of jamón (Spanish Iberico ham) and marvel at the picturesque displays of local Mediterranean seafood. Pick up a freshly squeezed fruit juice or try some of the cured meat samples on offer.
But whatever you do, be sure to save room for your first Catalan meal. At the southeast corner of the market, wait your turn for a counter seat at the perennially packed Kiosko Universal. Specializing in ocean-to-table fare, the venue serves up achingly fresh seafood a la plancha (cooked on a flattop grill) with little more than salt and pepper. Regional specialties include ciperones (baby squid), navajas (razor clams) and sepia (cuttlefish). For a little bit of everything, get the parilla mixta (mixed grill), washing it down with one of Barcelona’s most popular beers, Estrella.
Replete from your meal, it’s time to wander through the Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter. Walking south on Las Ramblas from La Boqueria, look for Plaça Reial on the left side about three blocks down. Not only is the plaza itself beautiful, but it is a good point from which to enter and exit the historic district.
Pull out your pocket map to orient yourself with major points of interest (like 19th-century square Plaça Sant Jaume, Barcelona Cathedral and medieval-era Plaça de Reí plaza), then put it away and let instinct be your guide. Getting lost in these cobblestoned alleys — stumbling upon a small artist’s studio or boutique, only to realize that you’re steps away from an important monument — is part of what makes this historic section of the old city such a treasure.
Barri Gòtic transitions seamlessly into the district known as El Born, where you’ll find the Picasso Museum tucked away in a small alley. Housed in five medieval town houses, the space itself is stunning, and with more than 4,000 pieces making up one of the most complete permanent collections of Picasso’s work in the world, it’s a must-stop. Lines can be long (buy tickets beforehand), so if you’re short on time, pop into the gift shop. Underneath arched medieval ceilings, you can browse a treasure trove of collectibles and obscure prints — a great spot to pick up unique souvenirs and gifts.
When you’re ready for a pick-me-up, venture just down the alley from the Picasso Museum to El Xampanyet, a true local tapas experience. Find standing space along the bar so you can see all the specialties and order whatever your heart desires. The cecina (paper-thin slices of dried, salted beef) is extraordinary, but you can’t go wrong with anything, including the huge white asparagus spears, sautéed calamari and tortilla espanola (Spanish omelet).
Re-energized from your snack, you can explore El Born. If you’re still thirsty for culture, visit the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, a stunning example of 14th-century Catalan architecture, or El Born Cultural Center, a beautifully restored late-19th-century market where excavated ruins are on display. And peruse trendy boutiques stocking local designer fashions like Coquette, La Comercial and Ivori.
Fatigue is probably setting in at this point, so return to Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona for a siesta. Or better yet, go down to the hotel’s fabulous, temperature-controlled indoor pool for a refreshing dip. Need a little more R&R? Soothe sore feet with a Refoundation Massage at the Four-Star spa.
While you can always book a table at high-profile restaurants like avant-garde Disfrutar or buzzy and perennially packed Tickets, tonight you’re headed to the unpretentious dining room of Mont Bar. Just half a mile from the hotel, the intimate spot serves up locally sourced, seasonal haute cuisine. Build your degustation menu from an array of à la carte selections, then delight in the myriad culinary surprises. Just make sure not to miss the stracciatella, an ethereal take on the Italian cheese with mozzarella and pesto topped with airy foam and flower petals.
End the evening with a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, taking in a nightcap at Banker’s Bar — try the signature Banker’s Martini with a twist of lemon and ginger — before turning in for the night.
Start your day with the sumptuous breakfast buffet at Blanc, Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona’s all-day restaurant. Cozy up in one of the white, wing-backed chairs to sip fresh-pressed juices and nosh on dishes like poached eggs with jamón Iberico, fruit and house-baked pastries.
Today, you will see another Gaudí work, the awe-inspiring La Sagrada Família — make sure to buy skip-the-line tickets with tower access in advance online. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the greatest architectural works of the century, the Roman Catholic minor basilica is so intricate and grand in scale that it’s been under construction for more than a century, with a projected completion date of 2026. Don’t be surprised if you have an emotional response as you crane your neck to admire the soaring ceilings, detailed sculptures and the magnificence of the stained-glass windows.
For lunch, hop in a cab to Quimet & Quimet, which many consider the best tapas bar in the city. The restaurant occupies a tiny space with just a couple of standing bar tables, resulting in throngs of people often spilling out of its doorways. In winter, the likelihood of snagging a space at the bar — where you can interact with fourth-generation owner Joaquim Perez, his wife or daughter — is much higher. Ask for recommendations and go all out. Highlights include conservas (jars) of preserved Galician cockles, oysters and mussels that taste so fresh you’d think they were just fished out of the sea, and a flavorful salmon, Greek yogurt and truffle honey montadito (open-faced sandwich).
You will spend the rest of the afternoon at Montjuïc, a nearby hill that’s home to Barcelona Olympic Park and various museums. Ride the Montjuïc cable car to Montjuïc Castle, the highest point on the hill. See Barcelona in its entirety from the terrace of this 17th-century fortress, taking in everything from the port and coastline to Sagrada Família in the distance.
Though Montjuïc is not very walkable — you’ll want to take the funicular to get around or hop a cab to get from spot to spot — it is also home to Fundació Joan Miró modern art museum, which boasts an astounding collection of 14,000 works by the Barcelona-born artist; and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, where you can experience 1,000 years of Catalonian art under one roof (the first-floor collection of modern art is particularly impressive).
With arts, culture, and architecture out of the way, you’ll have just enough time to squeeze in some shopping. Take a taxi to the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Passeig de Gràcia near Avinguda Diagonal. You’ll also encounter flagship stores for Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez, locally founded footwear and accessory brand Lotusse, along with international haute couture labels such as Chanel, Hermès and Prada.
Back at the hotel, freshen up and change before your last meal in this magical city. Just a short drive from the Mandarin Oriental is Dos Palillos, an Asian-Spanish fusion venue where you can experience the meticulousness, mastery and skill of not just one but three El Bulli — one of Barcelona’s most famous fine-dining restaurants before it shuttered in 2011 — alumni: chef-owner Albert Raurich, former El Bulli chef de cuisine under Ferran Adrià; his sommelier and wife, Tamae Imachi; and head chef Takeshi Somekawa. Like the city of Barcelona, you can bet the meal will be unforgettable.