Barcelona is Spain’s “second city” and a mesmerizing blend of Gothic and Modernism styles. In contrast with the Gothic Quarter, many of Barcelona’s monuments were brilliantly designed by master architect, Antoni Gaudi, who is best known for Catalan Modernism. As the capital of Catalonia, this vibrant and beautiful city has unique language, history and culture and was an amazing city to explore for a few days with our infant son.
We traveled to Barcelona as a side trip from London, where we had been visiting family. My husband and I chose Barcelona because neither of us had been to Spain or visited the Mediterranean. Barcelona was particularly alluring because of its distinctive architecture, particularly Sagrada Familia. Because there are always a plethora of flight deals to major European cities from London, we were able to book a flight and hotel package through lastminute.com.
We stayed for three nights at the Hotel Villa Emilia, a boutique hotel with modern touches. Hotel Villa Emilia is located just outside the city center in Barcelona’s most famous residential neighborhood, the Eixample. The Eixample is a late 19th century development that means “the expansion” in Catalan. We loved the quieter, residential atmosphere of this upscale area and didn’t mind that we needed to jump on the nearby Metro for a stop or two to get to the main tourist areas.
The thing to remember about traveling to Barcelona with kids is that everyone eats dinner late. Dinner before 8 pm is challenging, at best. Most restaurants do not start serving dinner before 9 pm, and 10 pm is definitely more of the typical dinner time. Before dinner, many people enjoy tapas – small savory plates served with drinks – at bars. Our newborn rarely slept for more than a few hours at a time, so even though he did not have a “bedtime”, my husband and I were definitely sleep-deprived and ate at Chinese restaurants two nights of our trip simply because that was all we could find open early.
While evening dining may have challenges if you are traveling with kids, we had several amazing fixed price lunches that were delicious and extremely reasonable. Our favorite was 4Gats, a historic restaurant meaning “four cats” that Picasso frequented around 1900. My husband and I enjoyed a fabulous fixed-price lunch that included a bottle of wine. Our son enjoyed a “cat nap” in his stroller while we ate.
We mostly traveled by the Metro, which is one of Europe’s best. It was fast and efficient but not built to be stroller accessible. We quickly became experts at handling the stroller with stairs and escalators – so much so that I have admittedly taken strollers on escalators in the US when there was not an obvious alternative – despite all those signs indicating not to do so.
We saw bikes for rent all over the city, which have now become popular in the US as well, but at the time, it was pretty novel, and something we had never seen before.
The official languages of Catalonia are both Spanish and Catalan. It is surprising to learn that Catalan is the first language of most Barcelonans, and schools are required to conduct classes in Catalan. However, all adults speak Spanish as well. We have some limited Spanish skills but never had language barrier issues. Everyone in the tourist industry spoke fluent English, and English menus were available in restaurants.
Things to See
Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) is Antoni Gaudi’s still unfinished masterpiece of Catalan Modernism architecture and the icon of Barcelona. Sagrada Familia was never intended to serve as the seat of a bishop but definitely constructed in the scope and proportion typical of cathedrals and has been rated as the world’s most famous church.
Francisco Paula de Villar was the initial architect when construction began in 1883. Antoni Gaudi took over as architect in 1891 and worked on Sagrada Familia until his death in 1926. Gaudi intended for Sagrada Familia to have a major impact on Barcelona’s skyline, and his masterpiece is one of the tallest religious buildings in the world with 18 spires planned to represent the 12 Apostles, Mary, the four Evangelists and Jesus (the tallest).
Sagrada Familia is dedicated to the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. There are three façades – the Nativity Façade that depicts the birth of Jesus, and the Passion Façade that shows the crucifixion of Jesus have been completed. The Glory Façade, which will show the path to God, has not yet been completed.
The Nativity Façade was the only part of Sagrada Familia completed during Gaudi’s life. The Passion Façade was built according to Gaudi’s design, but does seem to vary in style from the original façade. The only part of the church that was completed while Gaudi was alive is the Nativity Façade. So, while Gaudi gets all the glory for this masterpiece, most of the church was actually designed by others.
While we did not purchase tickets in advance, it is highly recommended now that you buy your tickets online with a specific entry time to avoid the long lines. We entered through the Nativity Façade, which will be a side entrance after the Glory Façade is completed. Construction was very much ongoing on both the interior and exterior when we visited. It is very common for cathedrals and monuments to require restoration work, and scaffolding has obscured the perfect picture of many cathedrals I’ve visited over the years. However, it is quite exciting to witness the initial construction of a historic monument. The only other time I had a similar experience was when I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial in 2002 and got to witness a rare blast first-hand. I am always fascinated to see the progress of both monuments.
The colors of the stained glass are so brilliant and interesting.
Modern technology and the funds from entrance fees have drastically helped construction. The main nave was completed a few years after our visit, and the Pope held a consecration Mass in 2010. The goal is to complete construction by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but estimates show that it is likely to take a few years longer than that.
I have visited literally dozens of cathedrals around Europe, but Sagrada Familia is truly distinctive. It is really surreal to visit this vast and awe-inspiring church. After the York Minster, which will forever hold a special place in my heart, it is probably my second favorite church in the world and definitely one not to miss. After our tour, we relaxed at a nearby park to enjoy the view of the completed spires away from the crowds.
La Rambla is a colorful, tree-lined pedestrian mall between Plaça de Catalunya and Port Vell, is one of the most popular tourist destinations. There are lots of shops and baskers lining the road, which was once under water.
La Boqueria Market (Mercat de Sant Josep) is Barcelona’s food market located just off La Rambla. It is also known as Mercat de Sant Joseph and is visually stunning. since 1200, main entry is beautiful. The market is colorful and visually stunning. Because the stands near the front pay the highest rent, they also have the highest prices.
The Columbus Monument is the 200 foot column honoring Christopher Columbus at the end of La Rambla. This monument recognizes Columbus’ journey to Barcelona to report to Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand V after returning from North America in 1493. The style of this pedestal, column and statue reminded me of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, which we also visited on this European vacation.
Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic)
The Gothic Quarter is the center of the old city with narrow, cobblestone streets. These pedestrian-only streets are the perfect location for an afternoon stroll. Picasso lived in this neighborhood around the turn of the 20th century.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia/Barcelona Cathedral
The Barcelona Cathedral was constructed between 1298 and 1450. However, the front façade was ornately recreated around the turn of the 20th century to add an interesting blend of Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture. This Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia of Barcelona who was martyred here in the fourth century. We enjoyed the view from the Cathedral’s roof, which is widely known for gargoyles.
Church of Santa Maria del Mar is a 14th century Catalan Gothic church whose name means meaning “Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Sea”.
We were not prepared with beach gear on this trip but did stop by at a beach briefly so that all three of us could dip our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. Beaches are so close to the city center and well-loved by the locals. Hop off the Metro, and you feel like you have arrived at a resort!
We often go to the highest point of a city we are visiting to get the bird’s-eye view of an area. So, we took a ride on the Tibidabo Funicular to the summit of Mount Tibidabo. The view of the Tibidabo Amusement Park and the city was definitely worth the trip. The Tibidabo Amusement Park opened in 1889, but many of the rides are originals with unparalleled scenery. It was our son’s first amusement park and something definitely to add to your list if you are traveling with kids.
The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor (Expiatory Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) stands on the summit of Mount Tibidabo. It was completed in 1961 in the neo-Gothic style with a statue of Jesus on top of the central spire.
Barcelona With Kids?
I was more nervous about this trip than any others because it was our first time abroad as parents. Nonetheless, our infant son was a great travel companion during the four spectacular days we spent in Barcelona. My son was exclusively nursed at the time, and we were pleasantly surprised that nursing in public was much more common-place and accepted than is was in the US at the time. So many people on the streets stopped us to inquire about our son, often utilizing limited English skills or hand gestures to communicate with us. There may have been occasional stroller challenges on the cobblestone streets, but nothing too challenging for us to overcome for families with young ones.
Next time we go, we definitely won’t miss the Picasso Museum. I have no idea why we didn’t put this on our list and wonder if we avoided it as newbie parents simply because we were traveling with our infant. Now, I firmly believe that kids of any age are not too young for the art museum.
Our son may have no memories of the trip, but FC Barcelona is his favorite soccer team. Mere coincidence?