Barcelona is beautiful. It’s lively, fresh, warm and welcoming. It’s the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia and the hip urban hangout for those who want to explore the Spanish Mediterranean. It’s delightfully affordable and down-to-earth for a Western European capital. However, I think the best things in life are free, so here are a few cultural activities to take in without spending a Euro.
Sagrada Familia’s Facades
Antoni Gaudí dominates the city. His architectural presence is revered and delightful to discover. The English term ‘gaudy’ stems from his extravagant, strange and intricate buildings. His masterpiece, of course, is the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s basilica, which is still under construction. (They’re working hard to have it finished for the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death in 2026, but it’s unlikely the deadline will be met.) I highly recommend entering the Basilica. The interior is awe-inspiring, melding natural form, function, and faith. However, if you’d like to save the entry fee, you can still enjoy the structure. Take in the nativity scene over the north-eastern entrance – overseen by Gaudí’ himself, the facade captures the entire biblical scene, crowned by the vibrant colourful Tree of Life.
Meander around to the south-western entrance and take in the Passion facade. See how the architect defined his own style with angular interpretations of the scenes. But the natural feature can be seen in the columns overlaying the structure, reminiscent of the bones of human skeleton supporting the facade. Both sides have a park adjacent with sunlit benches for you sit and look. And look. And look.
If you tire of the architecture, you can also take in a fine example of bocce ball play as the north-eastern park, Plaça de Gaudí, has courts filled with local grey-haired gentlemen squaring off against each other.
Antoni Llena’s Homage to the Castells
My favourite piece of public art had to be in the Homenatge als Castellers. In part because the form is playful, simple but imaginative. In part because I love how it plays tribute to one of the wildest activities I had ever heard of: the Castell. In Catalonia, people will build human castles at festivals. Yes, men will literally tower over one another, competing to be the highest castle. I only wish I could visit Barcelona in late summer to take in the festivals. For me, the creative, chicken-wire version was a small, but satisfying replacement.
See a Picasso Print
Facing the impressive Cathedral of Barcelona in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, there’s a Picasso print for all to see. The square opens up to the sunlight in the otherwise cramped maze of nineteenth-century buildings. Look up and you’ll see massive prints on the Architects’ Association of Catalonia building’s facade. The print was originally sketched out on a napkin and sent by Picasso in France to his friends fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It portrays the Catalonian history and culture, in particular, the Castell, as well as the innocent young Picasso and his friend observing.
Take in Park Güell at Sunset
Park Güell was intended to be a luxurious private development built within grounds designed by Gaudi. Thankfully, the private project fizzled, and the City turned it into a park. Fairy-tale architecture sits in front of impressive views of the Barcelona and the Mediterranean below. We dutifully bought our tickets in the late afternoon. While entering, we wondered about the large number of people hovering near the entrance. Entry to the smaller main entrance area of the Park is ticketed until 7 pm. After that, it’s free to enter and explore Gaudi’s natural playground. The timing works out that you can watch the sunset inside the grounds for free. The ticketed hours changes throughout the year, generally just after sunset. But, if you’re looking to explore by dusk and capture a stunning near-sunset with the crowds, simply walk on in after-hours.
Barcelona’s Nativity Caganer
The last, and perhaps quirkiest, addition to this Tour is the Caganer. Look for these works of art in tourist trinket shop windows. A part of the Nativity scene as much as the sheep and the Wisemen, Wikipedia explains: “Traditionally, the figurine is depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap (the barretina) and with his trousers down, showing a bare backside, and defecating.” In recent years, the nativity addition has taken on a pop culture twist. Now, you can find celebrities, football players and politicians all accurately carved, ready for a poo.
Barcelona is a joy to explore. The beautiful weather, nearby beaches, bikable roadways all add to it, but there’s a certain relaxed yet feisty atmosphere that fills the city. This feeling fills the city’s art and architecture, which can be explored in depth in its many impressive galleries and exhibition halls. Or, you can get a flavour of it can view it from the street side, an inexpensive but engaging way to explore.