Barcelona is overrated.
I just don’t get the hype of Barcelona. Really. I just don’t get it.
Barcelona was the last stop on a month-long trip through Spain, a trip that had included Córdoba, Toledo, Madrid, Ávila, Segovia, Salamanca, Burgos, and Zaragoza. We live in Spain, so we’ve been to other places like Sevilla, Malaga, Alicante, Valencia, León…
We’re familiar with Spain and have seen many of its beautiful cities.
So it was almost a shock to arrive in Barcelona and to see hordes of tourists gawking over underwhelming tourist sites.
Thinking of moving to Spain? Marta at Balcells Group helped us get our Visas. She’s an immigration expert and will help you with all your Visa needs. More detail here.
What is it that tourists like about Barcelona?
Ask tourists what they like about Barcelona and they’ll say Gaudí, the Sagrada Familia, Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter, the beaches, the nightlife. Ask them to be specific and they’ll list things like Park Guell, Boqueria Market, Casa Batlló, the Picasso Museum, Camp Nou…
Typical list of the Top things to see in Barcelona
Why Barcelona’s highlights are overrated
The main Gaudi highlights are the Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Casa Batlló, and Casa Milá. They’re all UNESCO world heritage sites.
I wrote about Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia here. And received a lot of hate on Facebook, people telling me that I was going to go to hell for even suggesting that the Sagrada Familia wasn’t the most extraordinary cathedral/church/basilica on planet earth.
On this most recent trip we visited some of Spain’s most incredible religious buildings. The Cathedral of Ávila for example dates back to the 11th century and is the oldest Gothic church in Spain. Toledo’s Primada Cathedral was built in the 12th century and is one of the most elegant Cathedrals anywhere. Construction of the Burgos Cathedral started in the 13th century, it’s almost filthy is its detail and opulence. How about the New and Old Cathedrals in Salamanca, Segovia Cathedral, or Seville Cathedral? (Seville Cathedral was built 500 years ago and is the 4th largest Cathedral in the world. Sagrada Familia is 46th on the list in terms of size..). I’m not even including Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral which is still the most incredible religious building that I’ve seen in my life.
My point? There are tons of great cathedrals/churches/basilicas in Spain and anyone who’s travelled around Spain will quickly realize that to call the Sagrada Familia the most extraordinary religious building on planet earth is just plain ignorance…
Ps. It’ll cost you 26 Euros to enter the Sagrada Familia. Most other religious buildings in Spain range between 5 and 10 Euros…
I’ve read remarks that Park Guell is “reason enough to come to Barcelona”, that “it’s the most beautiful park in the world”. Really? Really? Have these people travelled?
How people can pay 35 Euros (per person) to visit Casa Batlló or 25 Euros (per person) to enter Casa Milá is beyond me. Yes, they’re beautiful buildings (along with many others in Barcelona). But really?
Note: I personally think Barcelona is exploiting the whole Gaudi thing. We actually preferred the work of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Barcelona’s 2nd most famous architect. Go see Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau and/or Palau de la Música Catalana. Some incredible architecture at half the price of the Gaudi sites (with a fraction of the tourists).
Las Ramblas. This 1.2 km pedestrian walkway is synonymous with Barcelona. I don’t understand though why it’s so famous. Fine, it’s a nice walk to get to the port from Plaça de Catalunya (if there aren’t too many people as is usually the case). But otherwise I just don’t understand what’s so special about Las Ramblas.
La Boqueria. A market on Las Ramblas. Colourful and worthy of a photo if walking by. But otherwise how is this market different than any other city market in Spain? Even on a good day it’s packed full of tourists.
The Gothic Quarter. Granted, the Gothic Quarter as well as nearby El Born are worth exploration. These are the oldest parts of the city and you’ll see some beautiful churches (don’t miss Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar), a Roman aqueduct and some interesting fountains. Plaça Reial is probably Barcelona’s most beautiful square. There’s lots to see in the area and it is interesting…but I couldn’t help but think it all felt dirty.
The Beaches. Sorry, who goes to Barcelona for beaches? I see these photos of over-crowded Barceloneta and wonder why would someone come to expensive Barcelona to go to a crappy beach? That’s like going to Dubrovnik to go to the beach. Dubrovnik isn’t a beach destination, Barcelona isn’t either. Go to the Costa Brava if you want charming beach towns.
Besides everything, Barcelona just isn’t very attractive. We spent a day on the Hop On/Hop Off going up Montjuïc, seeing the port, seeing different parts of Barcelona…and just didn’t find Barcelona attractive (except for one area which I cover below).
What I DID like about Barcelona
There was one thing I actually did like (maybe even loved) about Barcelona. It didn’t have anything to do with the main tourist sites.
I loved Barcelona’s L’Eixample Neighbourhood. This area, north of the older part of the city, was built up in the 19th century. It features a grid of streets, wide boulevards, and beautiful architecture. It also features some of the most famous modernist architecture that Barcelona is known for (buildings like Casa Batlló, Casa Amatller, and Casa Milá). But it’s much more than these buildings: it’s a whole neighbourhood of stunning architecture, pedestrian streets lined with trees, little restaurants, cosy cafés and tasteful bars. It reminds me of parts of Paris and even Prague. In many ways this neighbourhood is quintessential Europe. If I was young and had a good job (because Barcelona is expensive) I can imagine living in the area and most probably loving it. Barcelona might be a cool place to live.
But I’m talking about the tourist experience in this post. And the average tourist won’t come to Barcelona to experience the day-to-day life of the L’Eixample neighbourhood…
Barcelona is overrated. Don’t want to take my word on it? Rough Guides did a poll asking their readers to list the “Most Overrated Places in the World”. Barcelona ranked among the Top 10.
Why did I feel the need to write this post? There are so many beautiful places in Spain and it blows my mind that some travellers equate Spain with Barcelona and limit themselves to this city. Visit Madrid instead and take some side trips to Toledo, Ávila and Segovia. You’ll be amazed. Go to Seville, it’s the most beautiful and interesting city in Spain (and is way cheaper than Barcelona). But don’t put Barcelona at the top of your Spain itinerary.
Note: I cover all the above destinations on Mapping Spain.
Related: How to plan a Trip to Spain
Related: Why Toledo should be on your Spanish itinerary
Related: Signs a place has been ruined by tourism…
If you haven’t subscribed yet and want to get our posts and newsletters sent to your email, just insert your email address below
Thanks for this. We’ll be in BCN in 2 weeks and your reactions are instructive. I see so many posts from Americans about how much they LUV Barcelona, and I wonder…how will we feel? I must say….having lived in Chicago, New York, and having spent considerable time in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, (etc etc), I always wonder when I read these gushing comments: “have these people seen other places in the world? And where.?” I suspect there are several things going on: 1.) Barcelona is their first stop (on their trip or off their cruise or whatever), and it becomes the “imprint” city by which all the others they visit are judged. Since they haven’t been many other places, they don’t have your perspectives on what represents a “great” city; 2) bragging rights—it’s so cool now to say you’ve been to Barcelona that you couldn’t possibly admit to people you found it either mediocre or underwhelming 3.) they really see things they like and speak to them; I can’t deny this May well happen, but how much of the city do they see? I especially interested in the non-Gaidi modernists and this looking forward to the hospital and the Palau music center. We’ll obviously do the SF and Parc Guell because…how can you not?
But I’ll reserve judgement. (However I feel lucky we’ll be staying in l’eixample….)
The herd mentality with Barcelona is a bit like (on a much smaller scale) the people who LUV Lucca and Cortona in Tuscany because those are the only hilltowns they ever visit (and everyone tells them they HAVE to see those.) These are fine towns, don’t get me wrong, but if you’ve been around Tuscany enough you realize there are so many other hilltowns with other great and distinctive points…so if you end up going to Lucca or Cortona last instead of first, your perspective may be very different. I liked Lucca, and Cortona has a striking hill position, but there are so many others….and I get strange looks and nasty comments when I tell people they were “okay, but par for the course in Tuscany.” And Frances Mayes won’t return my calls. I wonder where Cortona would be if she hadn’t made it an “it” place, demanding you find it as lovely as she did.
Anyway keep up the good work
I get your drift on the first city. May I add my theory? Barcelona is a huge cruise port. Both for embarkation and itinerary stops. Let’s compare it to nearby cruise stops. Marseille, Genoa, La Spezia, Palermo, Naples, Florence and Civitavecchia (Rome). None of these ports make it easy for passengers to tour the city or even get out of the port area easily. Civitavecchia is 40 miles from central Rome. Now on the other hand, is Barcelona. One can walk into the city center, walk to the beach. Plus Barcelona has very decent public transportation.
I have been to all the cities you mentioned, and I mentioned. Barcelona is NOT a London or New York City. No one really thinks of Barcelona as a top, world class city. But they do like it, because of its accessibility and world class sightseeing! Even outside the city are great things to do. We went to the Cava wineries and Montserrat. In 4 days we totally enjoyed all that Barcelona offered, but even then, we did not do everything. Now imagine an 8 hour port day. People return from the cruises and gush about Barcelona because it is easy and has so much to see.
I would further enhance my theory, in that most people who visit Barcelona for their first time, do it from a cruiseship. We did 4 nights (which turned into 6 nights in March 2020-Covid), pre-cruise. Family members who were with us, were enthralled by Barcelona. They liked the wide streets, the friendliness, the food, and the lack of intensity (as in NYC). For us, it was enjoyable time before Covid slammed all the doors.
Some background on me. I sold travel for 30 years. Owned a cruise-only travel agency. Retired from an airline.
I live here (followed my Catalan partner who is a Barcelona native), and am bored out of my head. Barcelona, for the most part looks poor, rundown and uncared for (but then again, so does much of Catalonia and Spain). The only time I don’t smell cigarette smoke is while I’m sleeping, but I am often woken by the disgusting smell of a lit marlboro. It seems like everybody and their mother smokes here and people literally dont think twice about lighting up and blowing cigarete smoke right in yoru face. The smoking is so pervasive and people seem unconscious about it. Becasue this place is in a 1973 time warp there are even ashtrays out of tables, everywhere, all over the city, in cafes, restaurants and bars. Luckily, people cant smoke inside a restaurant, but still, I swear it’ll be a miracle if I dont get some awful disease from breathing in all this second hand smoke. Next, the inabilty to take a deep breath of fresh air, at any time, due to the constant, disgusting smell of sewer vapors that are pervasive here. Thsi city stinks like piss and shit. It comes out of the sewers, constantly and its enough to perpetually takeyour breath away. It’s everywhere and something here is wrong. Smells like teh strees of India. Not bashing India but it’s absolutely true. But what gets me, and this I can’t wrap my head around, is the fact that the Catalans and Spanish will literally sit at an outdoor cafe table with their coffee and cake right next to a sewer that pouring out its skinky vapors and they don’t bat an eye lash. They don’t even notice it. I want to throw up. What is wrong with this place and these people? Yea, I’m not into Barcelona after all these years and yes, it’s shocking that this is Europe, shocking. It looks and feels more like a mix of Caracas or Lima or Havannah and Mumbai or Delhi. Also, no mosquito screens in the windows, dangerous wiring just hanging in huge clumps off of building, no fire escapes, no sprinkler systems, no 2 ways in or out of a place (exits) in the event of an emergency. It’s a place that really really needs to modernize and come to first world standards in terms of infrastructure and public safety. Excuse typos, Thanks!!!!
Thank you Anthony. Read this to my wife and she laughed – she says it reminds her of New York…in the 70’s!
yes Barcelona has nice POINTS, like the guadi park, sangarda familia etc, but the city which is in between is nothing special. I found it pretty plain, lack of trees or colors, architecture is plain except some of the extraordinary points. The thing is the gothic quater is too small so it feels like a nicer Frankfurt that was bombed and rebuilt in then modern buildings and kept a small old part.
Agree that Barcelona is overrated. Sagrada Familia? Meh. Toledo’s cathedral, Codorba’s Mezqita, many others…all better, less packed, and less $. Gritty, seedy feeling where we are staying. Open drug dealing, aggressive panhandling. La Rambla?Souvenir and gelato stands that you could get anywhere. The locals? Openly unfriendly. Then there’s the tourist tax. Venice is also overtouristed, but worth it. We have spent 8 weeks in Spain over 2 trips. Barcelona: bottom of the list.
Another great post. And I agree once again!
I’ve visited Spain several times–once, did a month of backpacking around the country (about 20 years ago). I spent a couple of weeks in and around Barcelona, too. Had met two female friends, who were from Catalonia, while they were in the US. They showed me around and we had a blast. They were from the suburbs and were super sweet. I met their families (one set of parents originally from Andalucia and the other from Catalonia), and I stayed with them. It was a nice experience.
A year later, I moved there. I’d actually wanted to live in Madrid or Andalucia, but there was a job opportunity for me and so, I took it. I knew that there’d be the expectation (and the job and outside of it) to learn Catalan and I’d heard that BCN wasn’t the friendliest place to be.
That’s exactly what my experience was.
(I know this is a little off topic since this is really about the city being overrated as a destination, but…I thought I’d share this side of things since I experienced the city as a tourist and ex-pat.)
I did not enjoy living there very much. Couldn’t stand the tourist trap it was (and I’d imagine still is) and the young Euro trash partying nonstop. I did not connect with the local culture very much, either, and I did try. I had the opportunities, too, through my job and the neighborhood I lived in. A certain warmth I’d experienced in other parts of Spain was missing.
I enjoyed seeing some of the architecture and wandering around some of the old streets, but in general, I found that many of the tourist sites were overrated. My heart will always be in the rest of Spain. It’s a wonderful country with such a rich culture–so much to see. BCN is at the bottom of my list of recommendations for Spain if anyone asks me.
PS: Yeah, those beaches are ridiculously crowded. I went once and never returned.
Agree that Barcelona is overrated. Sagrada Familia? Meh. Toledo’s cathedral, Codorba’s Mezqita, many others…all better, less packed, and less $. Gritty, seedy feeling where we are staying. Open drug dealing, aggressive panhandling. A guy tried to unzip my husband’s pocket today in the Barri Gotic. La Rambla?Souvenir and gelato stands that you could get anywhere. The locals? Openly unfriendly. Then there’s the tourist tax. Venice is also overtouristed, but worth it. We have spent 8 weeks in Spain over 2 trips. Barcelona: bottom of the list.
I totally agree with your post. Barcelona is hugely overrated but in my opinion this is not quite a problem of an underperforming city but rather of having unrealistic expectations. Barcelona is a city where people work and live, while travel agencies sell it as a theme park of sorts. Conflict between residents and certain types of tourists is served!
As a long time Barcelonian I wish I could snap my fingers and make all the stud/hen parties, buses coming from the coast for “a day in Barcelona”, cheap beach & alcohol oriented tour operators, and a big et cetera go away. Serious and well behaved tourists welcome anytime!
But I did the next best thing, which is to move out to a quieter place.
A couple of comments:
The full Sagrada Familia name is “Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia” (Sacred Family Expiatory Temple) and, as such it can only be funded by private donations (i.e. no government or church money). So the hefty entrance fee is actually paying for its construction! The style is Gaudi’s interpretation of Art Nuveau, known locally as Modernisme. You can love it or hate it, but due to its weird style it’s difficult to compare to any other church, temple, basilica, or cathedral.
The pre ’92 Olympics Ramblas was a sight to behold. Locals would stroll on weekends (called “ramblear” in local parlance ;-)) and get the full city flavor. Now it is nothing but a tourist trap that locals try to avoid at all costs. Almost nothing is left from the old Ramblas, except maybe at the very bottom. Its only redeeming quality being the connection between Plaza Catalunya and the Port Vell (Old Harbor). Anyway, locals would try to avoid Las Ramblas (there are six of them) by taking Portal del Angel and getting down to the Port Vell through the Gothic quarter.
The city greatly improved during the Covid lockdowns but is now the usual obnoxious self. Anyway, let me know if you ever come through again. We can always try to improve you view!
Thanks for your detailed comment Adolfo. We’ve seen “bad” tourism in other places – ultimately it’s up to government to clean that up. But once a place gets a reputation as a young person party place hard to put the genie back in the bottle…
It’s actually important to remember that the Segrada Familia is *not* a cathedral, but a basilica. In contrast to cathedrals, whose grandiosity is entwined with being a seat of power, a basilica is… just a church. A church so pretty, ornate, and/or grand that it’s granted the designation of Basilica. And there’s special piety in building such a church without connection to the hierarchical power structure.
I went to Barcelona for 4 days in 2000, and promptly returned for 2.5 years. It was a magical time in a magical place. Before low-cost flights, cruise ports, or instagram.
I’m not at all religious, but from what I’ve read a Basilica has higher significance than a Cathedral, the reason being that the Pope grants them certain ceremonial powers. A Cathedral or church can be designated a Basilica by a Pope. A description of the differences I found Googling.
I appreciate you pointing it out but that’s splitting hairs and not really relevant to the point I was making. I was comparing religious buildings – be they cathedrals, churches, a half mosque/half Cathedral, or a Basilica. It’s subjective of course – I’m not crazy about the Sagrada Familia just as I’m not crazy about a lot of modern religious buildings around the world (I wasn’t impressed by the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca either). I find they are often stark and missing the detail of hundreds of years of history that you see in the older churches/cathedrals etc. But of course some people like something more avant garde…
Thank you for taking the time to comment. The World would be boring if we all loved the same places.
There are possible explanations for Barcelona being so highly sought: the Olympics brought huge attention to Barcelona which as a city was not highly regarded before the Olympics, the beach was constructed for the Olympics there was no city beach prior to 1992, Barcelona is a huge embarkation port for cruises, the main port in the Western Mediterranean, and Antoni Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia are huge magnets with the cathedral being publicized like no tomorrow.
Personally I think that Barcelona as embarkation port and cruise port have brought thousands of visitors and publicity that put Barcelona so high on people’s lists. I sold travel for almost 30 years. Barcelona is one of the most requested places to start or end a cruise. There are other embarkation ports but they have issues. Rome is 40 miles from its port: Civitavecchia. Marseilles is just blasé, not much to do. Venice doesn’t even let cruise ships into city waters anymore. Athens is just so far and expensive for flights. Barcelona has a bigger airport with more flights than other Spanish coastal cities. All of this makes Barcelona ideal for the cruise lines and passengers.
For me, I liked Barcelona. I liked the sights and how easy it was to get around the city. We rented a car to see the Cava wineries and Montserrat. I am not your typical tourist in that I am satisfied with the usual top 5 things in a city. And yes, we were sailing on a cruise from Barcelona. Are the other Spanish cities more attractive or should be more attractive? Probably. But considering how cruising adds to Barcelona’s attractiveness cannot be denied.
Thank you John. You’re absolutely right about the Olympics. And the cruising aspect is definitely true. But there are also a lot of young people who go to Barcelona and I think they go to party. We had a nice quiet room for 2 nights – 3rd night a bunch of young guys moved in next door, obviously on drugs. We complained to reception and they talked to them but didn’t get anywhere. They told me it’s a common problem. Long story short, we ended up being moved to an upgraded room on the top floor.
Lucky for you, that the hotel helped, many don’t. What hotel was that? I still think the #1 party city in Europe is Amsterdam. Nothing compares. City officials have tried to cut back on the red light district and the marijuana cafes, and it has helped with the noise. But Amsterdam still attracts lots of partiers. When I stay in Amsterdam, I try to research the location for possible night noise. That has worked for me. Barcelona is different in that people don’t eat dinner until much later in the evening, which means people are in the streets much later. Maybe try AirBnBs that are in more residential areas?
Hi John. It was Room Mate Emma. The room was actually great and didn’t hear noise from the outside. But the issues was next door and nobody was going to get them to quieten down.
Have lived in Barcelona for 43 years and not been pickpocketed yet! The cities you mentioned are beautiful I agree but have negative points too, and not all of them have our Mediterranean luminosity. There are too many tourists, possibly, but if they come here it is for a reason.
Thanks for the comment.
Spot on Frank, Sevilla, Madrid and many other cities leave Barcelona behind. An awful lot of hype for an overrated city!
Thanks Norah 🙂
I agree yes it’s nice to visit once we have had several short stays 2-3 days and several day stops on cruises but I doubt I will go back. I don’t like anything about Gaudi and as for Las Ramblas do it more than once and you begin to realise it’s just lined with tacky souvenir shops selling mass produced junk you can buy anywhere just change the name. We loved both Madrid, Valencia and Seville so different and seem so much more Spanish. It seems to me if people love Barcelona they don’t love Madrid. I suppose in the end it come down to personal choice.
Barcelona and Madrid so different. Wouldn’t it be great to take the best aspects of each and put them together into one better whole? 🙂 But they’re like apples and oranges. If I had to chose I’d go with Madrid personally. But you’re right, comes down to personal taste.
Agree. I like Barcelona but I find Seville more beautiful and unique, and Valencia much less touristy but with a similar hip, young, urban vibe plus nice beaches. These two would be better choices when it comes to larger Spanish cities imo. Madrid is great for museums and has a really amazing park plus the best restaurants but I find it too dense/overcrowded and with too little water. I would therefore recommend Barcelona over Madrid, mostly because the Gothic Quarter is so amazing.
Totally agree about Seville and Valencia. Both very nice cities. Barcelona and Madrid like apples and oranges. And you’re right Madrid is dense. Not sure which of the 2 I like most…
Totally agree. Much prefer Madrid. And much less chance of being pickpocketed!
True. Everyone knows someone who’s been pickpocketed in Barcelona. It’s the 1st thing they warned us about when we checked into our hotel.