The ABCs of Barcelona

Spain’s cultural gem appeals to all


Photo: Med Edd / Unsplash
Antoni Gaudí’s incredible Sagrada Familia basilica remains unfinished to this day.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Cheap flights from all over Norway have seen increased numbers of Norwegians heading for this corner of northeast Spain in recent years. Popular as a weekend city break or a full summer vacation, Barcelona is a cultural gem and truly has something for every traveler.

The Olympic Games are known for rejuvenating cities, but nowhere has this been truer than in Barcelona. From the announcement in 1986 through the games in 1992 and beyond, Barcelona enjoyed rapid urban development that transformed its reputation into a global city. Miles of waterfront was redeveloped, the Poblenou neighborhood overhauled, and new city squares with fountains and ponds sprouted up everywhere.

A is for Architecture

You don’t need any prior subject knowledge to appreciate the remarkable architecture of the city. Just take a stroll around the Gothic Quarter and Eixample district and you’ll find fascinating buildings around every corner. Two forms of architectural style dominate the city: the medieval Catalan Gothic, and the Modernisme movement of Antoni Gaudí.

Gaudí was heavily influenced by organic shapes from nature. He mixed this inspiration with a bold, brash, colorful style that resulted in some of Europe’s most famous buildings. The Sagrada Familia basilica has famously been under construction since 1882. Gaudí directed the construction until his death in 1926 but interpretations of the original designs by modern architects have caused controversy in more recent times. Still, art critic Rainer Zerbst said, “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.” The basilica is an absolute must-see, but be sure to book your tickets online in advance. If you turn up on the day, you’ll have to wait in line for hours.

The other must-see is Park Güell, perched high above the city’s Gracia neighborhood. A public park since 1926, Park Güell ranges from the beautiful to the fantastical. My personal favorite is the multicolored mosaic-covered salamander at the main entrance.

The renowned architecture of the city also spreads to town planning. The Eixample district—where some of Gaudi’s most iconic buildings are located—is praised for its chamfered corners, allowing for corner terraces galore and a more open feel to the streets.

Photo: Enes / Unsplash
Barcelona has miles of sandy beaches at its heart.

B is for Beaches

Many of Europe’s great cities have architecture, culture, history, and shopping. Barcelona has all that but hides an extra special string in its bow. Beaches. While not at all known as a beach destination, Barcelona has three miles of sandy beaches that locals take full advantage of. Whether you’re a sun worshipper or you want to enjoy the lively beach party scene during the evenings, there’s a beach here for you. Barceloneta is the biggest and most traditional, Platja Nova Icaria has the calmest waters, and Platja del Bogatell attracts an older clientele.

If beaches are your thing, some of Spain’s very best are close by. Head north to the package holiday paradise of Lloret de Mar, or south to the swanky LGBT-friendly resort of Sitges. The latter is a small town that boasts 17 beaches. Sitges doesn’t have much natural shade, though, so come well prepared.

B is also for Barça

One of the world’s most famous sporting names, FC Barcelona is enough reason for many soccer fans to travel across the world to the city. The club’s Camp Nou stadium is showing its age, but the museum and stadium tour remains worthwhile. Should you be in town when a game is taking place, it’s easier than you might think to get tickets in advance from That’s because the stadium holds almost 100,000 spectators. If you do go, wear any color other than white, used by fierce rivals Real Madrid.


Photo: Maria Michelle / Pixabay
Some of the remarkable architecture within Park Güell.

C is for Catalan culture

C of course stands for culture, but more specifically Catalan culture. Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia, and this trips up many first-time visitors. Scratch the surface and you’ll find the Catalan language, food, and customs everywhere.

The Catalan language was banned during the Franco dictatorship (1936-1975) and that, along with the momentum of the independence movement in recent years, means you’ll see and hear Catalan everywhere, especially outside of Barcelona. Another important cultural emblem of Catalonia is the castell, a human tower up to eight or nine levels high that is a sight to behold should you be lucky enough to see one. They are a common sight at festivals throughout the region.

When eating in a restaurant, you’ll most likely be offered pa amb tomaquet, which is simply lightly toasted bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and salt. It’s a fantastic alternative to simple bread and butter, and I guarantee you’ll be making your own when you get home! Another must-try is coca, the sweet or savory pizza-like pastry lining the shelves of bakeries everywhere. If you’re visiting in June, check out the Coca de Sant Joan, a sweet coca with candied fruits and pine nuts.

Getting to Barcelona is easier than you might think. American runs year-round routes from Miami and New York JFK, Delta also from JFK, United from Newark, and Norwegian from Los Angeles, Newark, and Oakland. Barcelona is also popular among Europe’s low-cost carriers, and is easy to get to from almost anywhere on the continent.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.