I went to the north of Spain twice in the early nineties and visited Barcelona for a day each time. I only remember bits and pieces — walking down the Ramblas and how weird the Gaudi cathedral was — and can’t find any pictures from either trip, so it made sense to make it the first city break of 2013 and the first time we’ve done something like this since the birth of Junior ((Last year we travelled a lot less than usual, and even then mostly in the UK or for longer than a weekend.))

Catalan Flag

As it turns out, it was a great place both for a weekend away and for people with small kids. Even with a toddler we found it easy to get around, managed to take in most of the sights and eat some great food. What more could you ask for a weekend away?

The only real problem we found was that the locals tend to eat dinner late, long after we would have liked the little guy to be back in bed, asleep. (Actually, I’m blaming it on Junior here, though I’m not sure how well I would cope having to wait until 10pm for dinner!) After the first night eating in a passable tourist spot we decided to switch dinner and lunch on subsequent days. This allowed us to have something substantial during the day when restaurants were open and pick up some tasty tapas snacks in a bar early in the evening. Of course Junior still stayed up late, running around plazas and having fun while getting in the way of as many people as possible…

Tapas restaurant near the hotel

Our first plan of action, as it is on most trips, is just to wander around in the centre of town and see where that leads. We had already walked down part of the Ramblas on the way from the bus to the hotel, so we decided to amble down the other half which leads down to the water front.

The main thing, the only thing in many cases, that people told us before heading to Barcelona was to watch our pockets when walking down the Ramblas. Maybe we got lucky but it didn’t seem that bad while we were there. I can see how it might be a thieves paradise but precautions beyond any other big city felt a little paranoid.

Barcelona beaches

During that quick walk around we found that the centre itself was walkable but that the city was very spread out. Some of the main sights would require figuring out the metro system.

Barcelona metro system

One afternoon we decided to go to the park above the city, near where the Summer Olympics were held in 1992. Perhaps the most impressive part of the afternoon was the ride up there on the Funicular de Montjuïc. For people in a hurry I would really recommend having a toddler, as we were rapidly pulled to the front of the queue and escorted up a lift to the starting point of the ride.

Barcelona beaches

From the gondola you can see pretty much all of the city, from the beach and harbour on one side to the more built up centre. When you get in it feels like it should lift over the hill and plant you down safely on the other side, instead it deposits you in the side of the hill. We assumed that there would be lots of parks and green space where Junior could run around. We found museums and roads and an absence of maps. So the parks could be there but, if so, we missed them!

It’s difficult to visit Barcelona without seeing at least some buildings designed by Gaudi. We went to Park Güell, Casa Milá and Casa Batllò.

Park Güell

The park was hard work. Coming out of the metro station it wasn’t entirely obvious which direction to go, so we followed the crowd. Luckily this was the right option. Turning an unlikely looking corner we were confronted by an escalator. Which led to a series of more escalators and steep inclines. When you get all the way to the top it is impressive. It’s big and there are a lot of landscaped gardens, buskers and sandy play-areas.

We left the famous Gaudi cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, to the last day, just before the journey back home. It is as… weird as I remember. I mean that in a good way. They claim that it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Europe. It’s not clear how they measure that, but when we visited the queue went all the way around the block and it makes me very grateful that we booked tickets online.

Sagrada Familia

The outside looks almost organic, as if it grew, though the cranes, which were there two decades ago if I remember correctly, are a bit of a give away that other forces are at play. From the inside you get a very clear view of the stained glass windows. Since they’re new they are very bright and vibrant in a way that the glass in most other cathedrals are not.

Sagrada Familia

However one thing that struck me is that although it looks different from almost any other church I’ve seen, it does not appear — to a layman at least — to be constructed any differently to older buildings. Many of the new buildings in the City of London, for example, are built using implausibly small amounts of new materials, glass and metals rather than stone. It doesn’t detract from the building but I thought it was interesting.

And that was about it, that was our weekend away. I guess the ultimate test is whether I would go back again, and the answer is a resounding Yes (even though I now have evidence that I have been!). We’ve now done all the obvious “tourist” sights but I think it’s the kind of city that would be pretty neat to just “hang out.”

(There are more pictures available on Flickr if you’re interested.)