From free Sunday mass at La Sagrada Família to the exquisite and uncrowded Sant Pau to insider access to Fundació Joan Miró thanks to a hotel hookup, here’s how to duck the crowds in Spain’s most popular city.
You’ve probably heard that Barcelona is crowded. Maybe because Barcelona “overtourism” headlines have been crowding the travel news cycle since 2016, when tourism statistics indicated that Barcelona’s 1.6 million residents were overwhelmed by 32 million visitors that year. That’s a lot of selfie sticks and fanny packs. The Guardian described it as a “tourist theme park.” CNN included Barcelona at the top of their list of destinations to avoid in 2018, and Barcelona’s own mayor made headlines the world over with a law that imposed a moratorium on new hotels and tourist apartments in an effort to curb visitors. This was followed by reports of graffiti and signs posted around the city telling tourists to go home. Between the law and the locals, it might seem that “Bypass Barcelona” is the not-so-subtle message. But should you just resign Barcelona to the same fate as Venice? The oh-well-I-wish-I’d-visited-sooner list? I spent a few days there to see if Barcelona is still worth visiting, and spoiler alert: the answer is a hard yes.
There’s a reason millions of people visit Barcelona every year: it’s a cool city with some of the world’s most interesting and beautiful sights. Is it busy? Sure, but contrary to the hype, the entire city does not feel like Times Square. And there are ways to dodge the crowds and have a great time—as long as you know what you’re doing.
Take Yourself to Church
Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—aka La Sagrada Família—is Barcelona’s top attraction and unsurprisingly, the city’s most congested spot. About 4.5 million people visit Gaudí’s masterpiece basilica each year, with a further 20 million people visiting the area just to work their Insta-angles in front of it. While there are some touristy sights that you can skip when you visit Barcelona, this is not one of them. You simply have to visit and I’m going to insist that you go inside, too. (You’ll thank me later.) La Sagrada Família has been under construction for over a hundred years and the main structure is due to be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death. You can expect this attraction to get even more crowded as it nears and meets (I have faith) its completion date, so you might want to visit sooner rather than later. It’s not the finished product yet, but it is an incredible work in progress that does not at all feel like a construction site. Bonus: you have an excuse to come back after it’s done to compare notes.
So how do you dodge the Família crowds?
Hire a tour guide. I know—usually, tours==crowds, but taking a tour allows you to bypass the ridiculous congestion and selfie-crowds outside as you access the church via a separate entrance. Plus, without a guide, you’re just walking around with your mouth agape, missing out on all the interesting details, backstory, and context. Oh, and your ticket directly funds the ongoing construction, so your paid admission is helping to execute Gaudí’s vision.
Come back on Sunday morning for mass. I don’t care if you don’t usually go to mass, this mass is an opportunity for a FREE second look, and a chance to sit and actually soak in the beauty of this incredible building doing exactly what it was designed to do: churching. You are not permitted to wander or take photos during mass (but you already took those photos on your aforementioned tour), so you can just sit and listen/not listen to an international mass while you enjoy the light streaming through the stained glass and the columns stretching like tree branches to the sky. Think of it as a moment of peaceful reflection on your vacation. The line for mass forms just before 8 am (mass starts at 9 am) and is as efficient as Disney in its organization. After mass, you have a few minutes to snap a few crowd-free photos and then out the door you go—halo polished—as they reopen the church to ticket-holders.
Take Advantage of Your Hotel’s Connections
While many hotels offer a concierge with hookups to hot restaurants and nightclubs, the aptly-named Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona has the kind of authentic connections to local institutions that can only come with a 100-year history. Consider the hotel’s relationship with the Fundació Joan Miró, a magnificent museum on Montjuïc hill, looking out over the city and housing one of the most comprehensive collections of works by Barcelona’s iconic artist. Miró was a former guest of the Majestic—along with other notables like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and García Lorca—and legend has it, the artist would spend hours in the lobby admiring a painting by his tutor, Modest Urgell. The hotel still prides itself on its art collection, which includes more than 1,000 pieces, all on display throughout the hotel. Miró-lovers, or just art-lovers, can avail of the Majestic’s close relationship with the Fundació (the hotel supported the restoration of a massive Miró tapestry in late 2018) and visit the museum before it opens to the public. Guests can wander the airy white galleries crowd-free, access the museum’s incredible archive, and even enjoy a day-long experience that involves visiting the artist’s summer home, Fundació Mas Miró in Mont-roig, to experience firsthand the landscapes that Miró transformed into world-famous works of art.
Other Majestic connections that allow for an off-the-beaten-tourist-path and crowd-free experience include a day trip to the Alta Alella winery, a certified organic winery just outside Barcelona; a tour of some of the city’s most impressive modernist houses, followed by a private dinner in one of the houses; and private sailing excursions that offer unique views of the city.
With a central location on the Passeig de Gràcia, a stone’s throw from La Pedrera and Casa Batlló; a trendy rooftop restaurant and bar with beautiful city views; elegant rooms and a luxe spa; and the grand title of “Europe’s Best Breakfast” (I’m not sure how this gets evaluated, but I want that job), this hotel can literally set you apart from the crowds and provide a richer, deeper, and more luxurious experience of Barcelona.
Don’t Tell La Sagrada’s Crowds About Nearby Sant Pau
While most of the city’s visitors congregate and mill about at La Sagrada Familia, just a few minutes’ walk away is the remarkably untrafficked Sant Pau Recinte Modernista, a former hospital that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest Art Nouveau complex in the world. Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner rejected typically sterile hospital environments, instead setting hospital wards among gardens, while the brick structures were embellished with sculptures, mosaics, and stained glass, and topped with polychrome ceramic tile roofs in extravagant shapes and details. Allow ample time to explore the delightfully uncrowded complex with its underground tunnels, ornate and colorful spaces, and fascinating history.
Don’t Go Inside Casa Batlló
Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló is easy to spot on the Passeig de Gràcia because it’s the building with the scaly dragon-like roof and lustrous glazed ceramic and glass embellishments. It’s also the building with the long, winding line of people waiting to be herded through its curving interiors. Here’s the deal: there’s a lot of Gaudí to see in Barcelona, and at some point, something has to give or you will be sad and cranky in all your vacation photos (unless you love tour groups). You’ll probably want to enter Gaudí’s La Pedrera to experience the rooftop chimney park (worth dealing with any crowds to see) so I’d recommend settling for an exterior visit at Casa Batlló. Enjoy the fantastical facade and take your time deciding which of the three very different magnificent houses on the Manzana de la Discordia (the Block of Discord) gets your vote: Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló, or Casa Lleo Morera. Then, head to the first-floor outdoor terrace of the Servei Estacio art supply store around the corner from Casa Batlló, for a free—blissfully uncrowded—view of the back courtyard of the house!
Ramble Off Las Ramblas
While walking Las Ramblas is a key part of the Barcelona experience, it can also feel like walking in a cheesy parade that you didn’t sign up for. Cruise ships dock at the beginning of the city’s most famous boulevard and the entire stretch caters to the throngs of tourists–a major gripe with locals. Don’t eat or shop along here. Instead, head to La Ribera (also referred to as El Born) to sit in shady plazas and wander charming narrow streets filled with boutiques and restaurants. Plan to visit Santa Maria del Mar and the Museu Picasso while in the area. For less crowded, more local feeling neighborhoods, head to Upper Barcelona and the villages of Gràcia and Sarriá, where you will find cobbled lanes, charming cafes, and hip bars and restaurants.
Get Out of Town
Barcelona has so much to offer that you could easily spend a week shopping, eating, and sightseeing your way through every corner of the city–but you’re sorely missing out if you don’t take advantage of its position within easy reach of mountains, beaches, sleepy Catalan villages, and more. If you’re here for a long weekend, you can definitely include a day trip in your itinerary. If you’re here for a week, you can easily swing two. Sitges, Montserrat, Tarragona, Figueres, and Girona are all easily accessed by car, train, or organized tour from Barcelona. I included a trip to Montserrat—a spectacularly beautiful Benedictine monk mountain retreat about one hour Northwest from Barcelona by train—in my long weekend plans and it offered the perfect break from the city, as well as a perfect example of just how easy it is to add a little Pyrenees or pilgrimage site to a Barcelona visit. The Santa Maria de Montserrat Benedictine monastery is nestled in the mountains and is one of Catalonia’s most important religious retreats, as it houses the statue of La Moreneta, the Virgin of Montserrat, one of the few black Madonnas of Europe. Catch the famous Basilica boys choir at 1 pm daily, take a funicular higher up onto the mountain for even better views, and hike to Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of Montserrat. Then catch the evening train back to Barcelona.
And This is Where I State the Obvious: Don’t Visit in Peak Season
I realize that telling you to visit Spain in the off-season is like your mom telling you to eat ice-cream in winter because it’s on sale, but Spain really is delightful in the fall, winter, and spring, and all the lovelier when you don’t have to wear elbow pads and a helmet to deal with those summer crowds. From November to mid-March, and for the months of May and late September into October, the Catalan capital enjoys thinner crowds, shorter lines, and pleasant weather. (Ps. You should always listen to your mom.)