The Best of Barcelona: History, Culture, and Art

Last summer, in the midst of an unprecedented and still ongoing drought, a rare prehistoric site nicknamed the ‘Spanish Stonehenge’ was discovered in western Spain. But even though it’s now on my list of places to go, I’ve been happy to discover some of the country’s history right in Barcelona.

Badalona Museum

First on my quest to see all the best sites was the History Museum of Barcelona. Like the nearby El Born Centre of Culture and Memory and the Badalona Museum a little out of town, it was astonishing to see well-preserved ruins from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. I felt a similar sense of the old amidst the new when exploring the city’s art, particularly the sculptures at the Museu Frederic Marès as well as outdoors in places like Parque de la Ciutadella (the city’s first public park, built at the location of a citadel from 1715) and Horta’s Labyrinth Park (where I got lost, literally and figuratively, until I found the statue of Eros in the centre of a maze).

Labyrinth Park

And yet, even though Barcelona dates back to the days of Ancient Rome, it’s not all marble and stone. Indeed, some of my best experiences have been at several ‘niche’ museums in the city. Personal highlights include the Maritime Museum (for a deep dive into ships), the Music Museum (which features instruments I’d never even heard of), the Diocesan Museum (full of religious artefacts), the Egyptian Museum (which brought back memories of visiting temples along the Nile), the Chocolate Museum (for a sugar rush), the Hash Museum (for a different kind of high), the Wax Museum (parts of which are so creepy you’ll wish you had company), and the Erotic Museum (parts of which are so awkward you’ll wish you were alone).

Music Museum

Of course the latter, much like the recently opened Museum of Forbidden Art, is not suitable for kids. And yet I’ve found that some of Barcelona’s spaces for youngsters also appeal to fun-loving adults. There’s the Aquarium (which includes a play area and the chance to feed the fish), the Natural Science Museum (which looks like a spaceship and feels like Noah’s Ark), and CosmoCaixa (a hands-on experience that combines the best of both worlds). This shouldn’t be confused with the CaixaForum – both are named after the Spanish bank whose logo was designed by famed Catalan artist Joan Miró – a former factory that now hosts exhibitions and was my most visited place in the summer thanks to its free weekly series of “micro concerts”.

Natural Science Museum

Indeed, many museums in Montjuïc (a mountain named for the mediaeval Jewish cemetery that, much like the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, I found fascinating to visit for its sculptures and mausoleums even though I was initially creeped out by the idea) shouldn’t be confused with others. For example, the Ethnology Museum of Barcelona (with over 70,000 pieces) isn’t the Museum of World Cultures (easily one of my best experiences given the well-curated collection and well-designed space) while the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia (featuring several amazing virtual reality experiences that immerse you in different sites) isn’t the History Museum of Catalonia (which offers a sweeping exploration all the way from the first settlers to the present day).

Museum of World Cultures

Some of my other favourite places in the area include the Botanical Garden (showcasing Mediterranean species that made it a nice way to reconnect with my South African ‘roots’), Poble Espanyol (an almost 100-year old reconstruction of major sites from around the country, complete with restaurants, an art gallery, and artisans at work), the Castle (which can be accessed via funicular and cable car in case you don’t want to huff and puff your way to the top), and the Olympic Museum, which is right next door to main venue for the Olympic Games in 1992.

Poble Espanyol

This stadium, which now hosts international artists in sold out concerts at prices that make me weep, was used by the Central Refugee Aid Committee as a shelter during the Spanish Civil War. It’s also the temporary home of the FC Barcelona football team while the famous Spotify Camp Nou undergoes a renovation. (As Europe’s largest stadium, the latter is a monument in its own right and also has a museum, although I didn’t go because there was such a long line of people on the random and chilly weekday morning I visited that my love for history lost 1-0 to my lack of interest in sport.)

Spotify Camp Nou Stadium

I found that the best way to access these and other sites in the south is on the red route of the Barcelona Bus Turístic, the official provider for the Tourism Department. Meanwhile, the blue route takes me to the posh suburbs of the north – think quiet neighbours and wide streets – as well as the city’s modernist architectural gems. One of my favourite stops was the Monastery of Pedralbes, which was founded in 1327 and contains so many spaces that it was wonderful to spend a peaceful morning discovering them all. But of course the highlights are works by Antoni Gaudí: Casa Batlló (which depicts a dragon being killed by St George), La Pedrera (whose rooftop sculptures inspired the design of the Storm Troopers in Star Wars), and Park Güell (which was meant to be a residential estate and includes the Gaudí House Museum where he lived for 20 years).

La Pedrera

As expected, the city’s number one attraction is the Sagrada Familia. But even though this is clearly the pinnacle of Gaudí’s work, I’ve also found a lot to appreciate from some of his other work, including Casa Vicens (the first house he ever designed), Palau Güell (built for a wealthy industrialist that became one of his patrons), and Torre Bellesguard (its Catalan translation means beautiful view, which is understandable once you wind your way up all the stairs to the roof and get over any mild fear of heights). If you don’t have time to visit everything, the Gaudí Experience has an ‘interactive’ 4D film that’s more fun than I expected it to be.

The Sagrada Familia

Full disclosure: as a journalist, I got to visit all these for free. But several sites offer open access for everyone. These include Drap-Art and Villa del Arte (which collaborated in a festival of sustainable art), Turó de la Rovira (a former anti-aircraft battery that protected the city during the Civil War and that requires a fair bit of fitness if you take the long walk up the hill like I did), La Model (an old prison that’s now an exhibition space), and Santa Mònica (an interdisciplinary arts centre that’s one of the few worthwhile things to do on the touristy Las Ramblas, with the obvious exception of the magnificent Liceu Opera House, where even those in ‘economy class’ get to enjoy live-streamed views of the stage thanks to individual screens in front of their seats).

Santa Mònica

Barcelona also presents several open days throughout the year. The most famous of these is the La Mercè long weekend, a festival that presents hundreds of events in just a few days at the end of September, culminating at Plaza Espanya with a memorable ‘pyro-musical’ firework show. Many museums are also free on the first Sunday of every month and/or every Saturday after 3pm. These get understandably busy so I’ve found that the best way to avoid the crowds is to arrive early, which in Spain simply means arriving on time.

Some final tips for making the most of your museum visit:

  • Some venues will either insist that you leave your backpack in a locker or wear it on your front, lest you accidentally knock over a priceless sculpture while taking another unnecessary selfie. Remember to bring a one euro coin for the deposit and to take it when you leave.
  • Because many locations have fascinating audio guides or dedicated apps, download these in advance. Also, bring a pair of headphones so that you don’t have to hold your phone to your ear like you’re waiting to talk to someone from customer care.
  • Google Maps gives you a good sense of how much time you can expect to spend at each location, although I often found myself so mesmerised that I was happy to put the world on pause and enjoy something new. Don’t be in a rush. It’s Spain after all.