Barcelona may be my favorite city in the world. It is certainly a top contender. Because one of my dearest friends is a native Barcelonian, I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited multiple times, and I have also had one of the best tour guides you could hope for. So when I found out that the 2017 International Trademark Association (INTA) Annual Meeting (May 20 -24) was being held in BCN (a common abbreviation for the city and its airport), I had only one question – Where do I sign up?
A Bit About the City
Barcelona, the capital city of the autonomous community of Catalonia, is nestled on the Mediterranean on the northeast coast of Spain. An ancient city (one unverifiable legend suggest that Barcelona was founded by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, and eponymously named Barcino in the 3rd Century BC), Barcelona was an important center of commerce for the Roman Empire by the 3rd Century AD. It fell to the Visigoths in the 5th Century, came under Moorish control in the 8th Century, was taken by the son of Charlemagne in the early 9th Century, came under the Crown of Aragon in the 12th Century, and then came under the rule of the Spanish monarchy with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469. In the 20th Century, as home to Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Antoni Gaudí, the ancient city became a wellspring of all things Modern.
Given its storied history, Barcelona teems with architectural, artistic, and cultural wonders, and offers cuisine and gastronomy that is virtually unparalleled. If you’re going to be there for the Annual Meeting, I definitely recommend removing your “I am at a conference” blinders so that you can take a good look around. Need some help? Here are ten things that I would recommend checking out. And remember, this list could be ten times longer, so try to save some time for exploration – you won’t be sorry.
- Look Up!
The architecture in Barcelona is almost unbelievable. Gaudí is a main reason why. This Modern architect and designer, heavily influenced by the Gothic Revival, transformed the look and feel of the city. Structures like Casa Milà, also referred to as La Pedrera (“the quarry”), give Barcelona an other-worldly aura. But that’s not all – you can take a stroll around Barcelona’s ancient Roman walls, visit the Gothic-era Barcelona Cathedral, behold the unlikely eminence of the colorful-by-night Torre Agbar, or bask in the Modern splendor of the Palau de la Música Catalana (The Music Palace of Catalonia).
There is all this and so much more. No matter your taste, there are sure to be at least a few buildings in Barcelona that you will adore.
- Tuck In!
Get ready to eat. Is fine dining your thing? If so, you are in luck! Barcelona has long been a hotbed of gastronomic excellence and innovation. As head chef of the (sadly) shuttered, but still legendary El Bulli restaurant, Ferran Adrià put Barcelona on the international culinary map when he rose to the role of head chef in the 1980s. Molecular gastronomy took hold, and Barcelona didn’t look back. Mr. Adrià’s younger brother Albert, who was the pastry chef at El Bulli, has since put on a new apron and proved himself to be his brother’s equal in crafting savory fare. His Tickets and Bodega 1900 restaurants are considered among the best in the world. Jordi Cruz, who at the age of 26 was the second youngest chef ever to be awarded a Michelin star, now serves his creative cuisine at ABaC Restaurant and Hotel.
If trendy isn’t your cup of tea, there’s no need to worry. Barcelona overflows with wine bars, tapas and pintxos places, traditional Spanish restaurants, and seafood for days. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bring your appetite, because you’re going to need it.
- Check out a Museum
Is art your thing? Barcelona’s got it. The Picasso Museum features some of the artist’s Modern masterpieces, like selections from the Las Meninas series, but it also features many of his early, pre-Cubist works, which sheds some light on Picasso’s evolution as an artist. The National Museum of Catalonia has a wide ranging collection of works from Roman times to contemporary art. The Joan Miró Foundation is a personal favorite. I have a great appreciation for Miró, and a print purchased at the museum hangs in my office.
- Take a Stroll in the Parc
Park Güell (or “Parc” in the native Catalan language), is a series of public parks and architectural elements located in Barcelona on Carmel Hill. It is stunning. Originally conceived by Spanish entrepreneur Eusebi Güell as a residential enclave for the wealthy, Güell entrusted the task of designing the compound to Gaudi, his lifelong friend. Reportedly, Güell once said to Gaudí, “I don’t like your architecture, I respect it.” This is a sentiment I don’t share, but I don’t think Güell stood alone in that thought. In any event, the park never became a commercial success. Only two houses were ever built on the property, including the one Güell died in. In 1923, the Güell family gifted the park to the city of Barcelona.
- Visit a Church that Has Been Under Construction for 135 Years
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (“Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family”), commonly referred to as the Sagrada Familia, is large Roman Catholic church designed by Gaudí. (Are you sensing a theme?) It is his as yet incomplete magnum opus. Construction of the structure commenced in 1882, and has continued fairly constantly (there was an interruption due to the Spanish civil war) until this day. The sixth and final construction phase started in 2010 and current projections call for completion in 2026, which will mark 100 years since Gaudí’s death. La Sagrada Familia is also the architect’s final resting place. This masterful combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles is open daily from 9 am to 8 pm at this time of year. There is an area for worship and contemplation within the basilica, but regular masses are not currently being held.
- Set Aside Some Time for Marketing
The modern supermarket is a fact of life throughout much of the world, and Barcelona is no exception. But BCN’s network of neighborhood food markets still plays a vital role in the life of the city. Need fresh fruits and vegetable, meats or fish? No problem. Need two chicken eggs, one duck egg, salt cod that has been pre-soaked in water for two days, and a big slice of Spanish tortilla? You can get all that, too – and much more. Many of the markets also have small restaurants, cafés, bars or snack counters. They are a great place to grab a quick lunch or an afternoon snack. The best known market, La Boqueria, attracts locals and a lot of tourists. I suggest you check out the Santa Caterina market. It has been open since 1948, but was remodeled in 2005. It is worth the trip just to get a peek at the roof.
- See the Sea
Barcelona was once regarded as the city that turned its back on the sea. The 1992 Summer Olympics changed all that. Much of the city got a makeover for its international coming out party, and the Mediterranean port was transformed. Railroads, warehouses, and other structures that cut the city off from the sea were removed and the seven kilometers of seashore was made new. The Barceloneta is a triangular piece of land that cuts into the Mediterranean, and features the Old Port (Port Vell) on one side and beaches on the other. Sunday is paella day, and this is the area you want to visit to sample Spain’s national dish. There are tapas restaurant, “chiringuitas,” which are beachside bar and snack places, an aquarium, and more, including the historic streets of La Barceloneta, a neighborhood bordered by the sea.
- Climb (or Ride) Up a Hill
Montjuic Hill overlooks the city. You can walk up (and check out the Olympic stadium on your way), or, if you are in a hurry, you can take the Montjuic funicular or the cable car from the Barceloneta. Bring a camera (or make sure your smart phone has a full charge), because you are going to want to take pictures. The views of the city are amazing. While there, you can see the National Palace, which houses the National Museum of Catalonia, or visit the 17th century Montjuic Castle, an old military fortress. The Joan Miró Foundation is nearby, too. If you can manage to be there at 9 pm on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, you can watch the show at the Montjuic Magic Fountain, a mixture of water, lights and music that is a lot more fun than 2-D videos might imply.
- Get out of town?
If you are one of those people who likes to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, even when you are on vacation at a conference, then Sitges (it’s pronounced SEE-chuss, btw) may be the place for you. This beach town is about 35 kilometers southwest of Barcelona and you can reach it by train. You can stay the night or just spend the day. A “must see” destination for LGBTQ travelers (but everyone is welcome!), Sitges combines the feel of a quiet beach town with a thumping night life. There really is nothing quite like it.
- Ramble Along La Rambla
Okay, it’s pretty much a tourist trap these days. La Rambla is a tree-lined open air mall/pedestrian way that connects the Plaça de Catalunya with the Old Port. There are vendors, street performers, restaurants, cafés and bars, and a lot of people. Why bother? It’s a nice walk and you can stop by the Boqueria market on your way. And, for whatever reason, you cannot go to Barcelona without walking the Rambla at least once. If you don’t, they might not let you leave. I tease, of course, but still recommend that you check it out. If you are coming from abroad, this is a great place to stop by on your first day when jetlag is at its worst. Watch your wallet, and feel assured that you will be able to order something to eat or drink from a multi-language menu at one of the tourist restaurants. You may as well order una jarra de sangria (a pitcher of sangria) while you are at it.
This list is a good place to start, but it only scratches the surface. Barcelona is full of music and theater, cabaret and dancing, and night clubs that are really open all night. I encourage you to think about the things you like to do most and do a little bit of quick research. Whatever you are looking for probably will not be hard to find.
Most of all, bon viatge and have a great time. See you there!