Perhaps it is the fact that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which has a distinct language and culture, that gives Barcelona a tempo and a style all its own. While Madrid feels more like London or New York, Barcelona feels more like Paris. There is so much to do in this beautiful city that 4 days in Barcelona barely scratches the surface.
There are wide avenues to stroll, along with the narrow paths of the Gothic quarter. Everywhere there is gorgeous architecture (even outside of Gaudi’s masterpieces) and a laid-back, sophisticated vibe. It also makes a great family vacation destination, with so many things to do in Barcelona with kids.
Four days are not enough to cover it all, especially if you want to take a day trip from Barcelona, but with so many other places to explore during our two weeks in Spain, we decided to see the highlights. Follow along on our itinerary if you want to do the same. And, my friend Bryanna has a great guide if you only have one day in Barcelona.
Where to Stay in Barcelona
Since we were planning on staying a few nights, we decided an apartment was the way to go. Even though we can easily squeeze three of us into one hotel room, the comfort of having a separate living space, full kitchen, and washing machine made the slightly higher investment worthwhile. If a family needs at least two bedrooms, apartment rentals are generally a better value.
I booked a penthouse apartment on vrbo.com, which had everything we were looking for: 2 bedrooms, 2 baths (bonus!), full kitchen, air conditioning, elevator, free WiFi, washer/dryer, and, (extra bonus!) a terrace. Plus the location in the Born district on Avenida Marques de la Arangetera was ideal.
It was conveniently located across the street from the train station, minutes from Metro stops, a 10-minute walk to the beach at Barceloneta, just up the street from Parc Cuitadella and Zoo, a short walk to the monument to Cristobel Colon at the foot of Las Ramblas. I don’t think that exact apartment is still available, but there are plenty of other great options on vrbo.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, some family-friendly options include:
Day 1: Arrival
We arrived on a Saturday after an overnight flight from Boston and a long layover in Madrid so we were pretty tired. After checking in, stocking the kitchen, and taking naps, we were ready to head out to dinner.
Unfortunately, the restaurant I’d meticulously researched, El Xampanyet, was unexpectedly closed. But no worries, we ended up right next door at Lonja de Tapas and had one of our best meals of the trip. Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the food, or maybe it was just the sangria, but we couldn’t have been happier.
The atmosphere was terrific with brick walls, beautiful artwork and an energetic vibe. I wouldn’t bother with the paella here but everything else was terrific, including the foie gras, salmon, marinated artichokes, sundried tomatoes, manchego cheese, and especially my daughter’s new favorite, chistorra (small spicy sausages). My favorite was the truffled eggs with bacon and patatas because it combines just about all my favorite foods into one dish. And did I mention the sangria?? I’m not sure how we had room for gelato on the way home but after exploring a bit (thanks to our naps for getting us on Spanish time), we had to introduce our daughter to REAL gelato (she’s a big fan!)
I wish I could recapture that excitement and anticipation we had that first evening. It was a trip we had prepared for and planned months, my daughter’s first to Europe, a fact she was quite excited about. (To learn more about how we prepared for the trip, check out my blog post with tips on preparing for vacation with kids.)
4 Days in Barcelona: Day 2
MOrning: Picasso Museum
On our first full day in Barcelona, we experienced the only rain we had on our entire two-week trip, but wow was it a doozy. I had planned on visiting the Picasso Museum first off because I’d researched and learned that it was free on the first Sunday of every month, which is when we were there.
I didn’t take into account that a free museum on a rainy day might appeal to a large number of people so we ended up standing in the rain for about an hour to get into the museum. It was probably the only time on the trip my daughter wasn’t smiling.
Of course with all that waiting and none of us huge Picasso fans, the museum was a bit of a disappointment. It just seemed like if you came to Spain, you really should go to the Picasso museum. The paintings we were most familiar with from his Rose and Blue Periods were interesting, but I can’t say they inspired me. Plus the crowds were thick, so we quickly moved on.
But, I will say that the museum itself was a bit of a treasure. It occupies five townhouses or palaces that date from the 13th to 15th centuries. In the coat room area, there was a glass floor that looked into the basement below. There were also small cells (complete with bars on the windows) or rooms on the lower floors. But the real features were the courtyards, which offered amazing architectural details including grand staircases, balconies, arches, and other design elements.
Even the narrow, cobblestone street outside the museum was captivating, with huge, dark wooden doors that at night open up to a dance club, while others hide tapas bars that are closed during the day (like the elusive El Xampanyet).
The entire Barri Gothic (Gothic quarter) and neighboring Born district (where we stayed) just felt so European, yet had a feeling of something more. Something mysterious and interesting. It intrigued me and called up images from the Barcelona I’d read about in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
By the time we were done with the museum, we were quite hungry so I was very glad I’d already researched a restaurant just steps away from the museum. We ate at Cafe de la Princesa, which is half boutique and half restaurant. The restaurant is set in a very relaxing courtyard. The architecture, as well as the food, has a Moorish influence.
The food was good, but not amazing, with a bit of a limited menu. I had a salad and my daughter had the salmon. What we remember most is the bathroom. It was behind a stone wall, which had two sinks on the backside with plants hanging down and a water feature. Then you could use one of the two stalls. My daughter was amazed that there weren’t separate bathrooms for men and women and they both used the same sinks. The things kids notice!
Afternoon: Gothic Quarter
With the sun finally coming out, we had a better time exploring the Barri Gothic that afternoon. We visited the Catedral de Seu, which is only open during specific times so be sure to check ahead.
While Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, which we visited the next day, is the most famous in Barcelona, I think visiting this gothic cathedral is an important contrast before or after seeing La Sagrada Familia, especially for children that may not have experienced old European cathedrals already.
Since we are Jewish and read about the Spanish Inquisition prior to our trip, we also were on a quest to find what remnants we could of Spain’s once vibrant Jewish community. Searched as we did around the Jewish quarter, we were not able to find the synagogue (turns out it is below street level), but we did at least find evidence that Jews were once there.
The rain cut short any shopping we would do and instead of rambling down Las Ramblas, we jogged, through a downpour, all the way back to our apartment where we had to wring out our clothes right down to our socks. After warming up, we had to head back out though because it was the final game of the European Cup and Espana was playing Italia. Oddly enough, my in-laws were in Italy watching the game, cheering for the Italians of course, while we were in Spain cheering on the local team.
We were a bit nervous about being near any main plazas, knowing how rowdy futbol fans can get after a game so we stuck to our plan for dinner in the Gothic district at Sagardi. Here we were able to sample some traditional Basque cuisine, since we were not able to travel to the Basque region this trip.
Instead of sitting in the tapas (or pintxos as they call it in Basque) bar, we headed for the main dining room, where we enjoyed dishes from their wood-burning grill. We met some lovely airline personnel sitting at the table next to us who frequent Sagardi when they are in Barcelona and gave us some other tips about the places we were going to visit.
They were quite impressed with our daughter, who was very well informed about our itinerary and what she was most looking forward to seeing. Not even the grumpy couple next to us complaining about being charged for their bread (quite common in Spain) could dampen our mood. Especially when we kept hearing enthused exclamations of “GOOOAAALLL” coming from outside.
On the way back to the apartment, people were spilling out of tapas bars into the streets watching the game in anticipation. We were able to peer in just as the win was secured. On the rest of our walk home, we were serenaded with choruses of “Championes, championes…” And an Espana soccer fan was born.
4 Days in Barcelona Itinerary: Day 3
When people think of Barcelona, they think of Gaudi. Antoni Gaudi that is, the Catalan architect and figurehead of Spanish Modernism. His buildings are prominent throughout Barcelona, but the most famous by far is his cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. With only 4 days in Barcelona, we decided to dedicate our third day to Gaudi, starting with La Sagrada Familia.
MOrning: Sagrada Familia
Construction on Sagrada Familia, now an official UNESCO World Heritage site, began in 1882 and is still going on today. And that isn’t just figuratively. When we visited, we saw many construction workers moving in and out of the building. While Gaudi passed away in 1926, his vision lives on and they expect to complete the cathedral in 2026.
Since Sagrada Familia is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Barcelona, you can expect large crowds. I was so relieved that I purchased timed-entry tickets in advance via the Sagrada Familia website, because when we arrived there were long queues outside. As we were leaving, I noticed that two girls that got off the Metro with us and had to queue up outside were just getting to go inside.
If you think if you’ve seen one European cathedral, you’ve seen them all — think again if you haven’t seen La Sagrada Familia. It is so unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. You could literally spend hours taking in all the details.
I highly recommend renting the audioguides for everyone in your party because you can’t fully appreciate the architectural and creative achievement this building is without it. Even kids, who you think would find old churches boring, find Sagrada Familia fascinating.
There is so much to look at. Each side of the building offers a different facade–the Passion, Nativity, Glory (still under construction) and Aspe facades. You will begin your tour outside the Passion facade. When you move inside, what you notice first is the light.
Where other cathedrals are dark and sometimes gloomy or oppressive feeling, Sagrada Familia is full of light from the towering columns to the sun streaming through stained glass windows. I commented later in the trip that it as is gothic cathedral builders worshipped a God of fear, while Gaudi was inspired by a God of love. There was such a visceral difference between the two styles.
We took our time to marvel at the symmetry of the columns, the twisty staircase, the chapels, the stained glass windows, the shiny pipe organ, and the somewhat disturbing crucifix. Out the other side of the church, you will spend some time taking in the details of the Nativity facade.
The pictures only begin to capture the beauty of this building. It made a huge impression on our daughter as well.
Afternoon: Parc Guell
After taking in our fill at Sagrada Familia, we moved on to another Gaudi landmark, Parc Guell. We took the Metro out to Gracia and then had quite a hike up to the back entrance of the park, where we picked up some smoothies to beat the heat and a picnic to eat in the park.
With the sun out it was a much different day than we had the day before, and much hotter! The good thing about coming into the back of the park was the amazing view across the city and getting to see how Sagrada Familia really towers over the rest of the city.
You could easily spend a day in the park. After picnicking and spending a little time on a playground we battled the crowds to see a few of the other park landmarks including Gaudi’s lizard (we took a magnet version home), his wavy mosaic benches, and the buildings around the entrance that look like they have ice cream cones on top.
One of my favorite things was the field of flowers…just like out of a Monet painting.
By this time we were pretty hot, tired, and sweaty so instead of hiking back down to the Metro, we decided to take one of the cabs lined up at the front of the park and drive past Casa Mila to Casa Balto, in order to see Gaudi’s other famous buildings.
Once we arrived at Casa Batlo we realized the admission fee was a bit higher than we felt like paying for the amount of time our tired bodies would allow us to spend there. Instead, we walked over to Plaza Cataluyna, at the head of Las Ramblas, the main tourist shopping thoroughfare (and by tourist shopping I mean t-shirts and souvenirs).
I’m not really sure why people get excited about walking down Las Ramblas. Yes the avenue is wide and there are plenty of street vendors around but the shops are mostly souvenir shops and can feel a bit seedy, which I guess is why you hear so many warnings about pickpockets in that area.
If you are really interested in shopping, the Barri Gothic or the area up by Casa Batlo are much nicer. Of course, the main attraction just off Las Ramblas is La Boqueria — one of the best food markets in Europe.
Afternoon: Las Ramblas & La Boqueria
We made a stop at La Boqueria but wished we got there earlier because many of the stalls were starting to close. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, just the sights and smells of the market are a wonderland for kids and adults alike.
You will find fruits, meats, candy, spices, peppers, eggs, seafood, and vegetables in abundance. We bought some tropical fruits to try and bring back to the apartment. We also stopped at the crepe stand, where my husband went savory with cheese, jamon (Iberian ham), spinach and herbs, while my daughter went sweet and got nutella and fresas (strawberries), which she proclaimed to be the best crepe in the world.
It was an exhausting day with a lot of walking in the heat (of course we didn’t know real heat until we got to Seville and Granada where the temps were above 100 degrees Fahrenheit), so when we finally got back to the apartment it was nice to relax on the terrace with a cerveza before cleaning up for dinner.
That night we had planned to have dinner at the famous Cal Pep tapas bar, which was just a few minutes’ walk from the apartment. Since they don’t take reservations you need to line up early or be prepared to wait. We were too tired to do either.
After considering trying again for El Xampaynet and seeing both were standing room only, we decided we really needed to sit down and ended up at a very authentic looking (and tasting) restaurant called Bodega la Tinaga, also in El Born.
The restaurant was very rustic looking, with hams hanging from the ceiling and stone walls. We feasted on a cheese plate, pan e tomate (bread with tomato smeared on, a Spanish staple), jamon (of course, always ham — very hard to keep kosher or halal in Spain), my daughter’s new favorite, chistorra (small sausages), and vino roja (for the grown ups at least.) After enjoying the night scene in El Born, we were ready to turn in after a very busy and memorable day.
4 Days in Barcelona: Day 4
Morning: Barceloneta Beach
After three days in Barcelona, we had already seen so much…the Picasso Museum, the Gothic Quarter, Gaudi’s masterpieces, La Boqueria, Las Ramblas…but there was so much more to see. After all the intense sightseeing, we were ready for a change of pace.
So we hit the beach…at least for a walk. Our apartment was about a 10-minute walk to Barceloneta. Barceloneta reminds me a bit of Venice Beach, CA — very artsy, funky and cool.
On the walk over you pass the docks where the yachts and cruise ships are in port. From there you can see the cable car that runs from Barceloneta to Montjuic, which is when we realized there was no way I was going on that, let alone my acrophobic husband. It is so high and so long you can barely see the car traversing between the giant posts.
The beach itself is nothing truly special, coarse yellow sand makes up the short beach. The water is fairly calm and clean, but there is a steep dropoff to deeper water. We weren’t there to swim, but it was nice to put our feet in the water and stroll down the beach.
We were first planning on stopping for lunch at Can Manel la Puda for some beachside paella, but we weren’t quite hungry yet so we decided to walk along the beach a bit further.The further we went, the more we wanted to see what was that giant golden fish-shaped building at the end of the boardwalk? (Turns out it was designed by Frank Gehry for the 1992 Summer Olympics)
Once we finally arrived we were starving but there were plenty of beachside restaurants along the way. You could tell that this area transformed into a club scene at night by the decor.
We ended up at CNC, where we enjoyed some more tapas including a Spanish tortilla (omelet with potatoes and sometimes other ingredients — a great staple for picky eaters.) I also had my favorite gazpacho of the trip, perfect for the warm day. After a long walk, we really needed a siesta (and I needed to do some laundry before we headed off to Sevilla the next day.)
After some downtime, we were headed to a new area to explore, southwest of the city center where you will find the Olympic stadium, Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya, and other sites. We started with a ride on the funicular up to Castle Montjuic.
Montjuic, which translates to “Jew Mountain” in medieval Catalan, is an old military fortress, first built in 1640 and turned into a castle in 1694. While there isn’t a lot to see in terms of the castle, there is a fabulous view of both the harbor and the city. I’d recommend taking the cable car up and then possibly hiking down if you wanted to spend a day in this area.
In 2007, the site was turned over the city to be used as a municipal facility. The night we visited, they were setting up for an open-air concert. In addition to walking the gardens and grounds, you can climb up to the top of the ramparts for a terrific view.
We didn’t have a lot of time for hiking so we took the funicular back down the hill. We decided to walk past the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Cataluyna, with hopes of seeing the Montjuic Fountains. They say it is beautiful to sit on the steps of the MNAC and watch the sunset and catch a show of the magic fountain. Unfortunately, the fountains were dry so it was time to move on.
Our reservation for the evening was at El de Tablao Carmen for dinner and a flamenco show. Tablao Carmen is located in Poble Espanyol, an open-air architectural museum.
Poble Espanyol was built in 1929 for the Barcelona International Exhibition as a model village to depict the different regions and architectural styles around Spain. (Think Epcot for Spain.) While some tour books recommend Poble Espanyol as a must-see, I would say it is an easy to skip attraction.
Much better to spend time driving around and seeing the real thing. When we finally arrived at Poble Espanyol (taking a cab would have been a better idea as it was much further than it looked on the map), it was pretty much deserted except the other people there to see the show.
Tablao Carmen was about what you might expect from a dinner show. Timed seatings, banquet-style food served quickly to get to the main event. You don’t go for the food — you go for the flamenco. It reminded me a bit of when we went to the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
The flamenco was excellent, at least in our uneducated opinion. The foot-pounding, soul-wrenching song gets you deep inside. It also makes a huge impression on the kids.
Next time, I’d like to stop in one of the smaller flamenco bars in Sevilla and see how it differs. For this trip, being able to make a reservation when we had a free night was worth it to ensure we got to enjoy this Spanish pastime.
And that was a wrap on our time in Barcelona. If you are planning a trip to Spain, be sure to check out these articles: