Spain’s a great value European destination, and the Catalan capital of Barcelona is no exception. Barcelona is praised for its art, architecture and gastronomy, not to mention its fabulous outlook over the Mediterranean Sea.
While you can tick off the city’s main sights in just a couple of days, you’ll want to take things at a slower pace. Give yourself a week, and you’ll have time to visit the mountain monastery at Montserrat, tour the Roman ruins of Tarragona and take a day trip along the coast to pretty Cadaqués.
Sound tempting? Here’s how to do Barcelona on a budget.
When to Visit Barcelona
Here’s the good news: Barcelona’s a year-round city. While much of northern Europe shivers during the winter months, Barcelona often enjoys mild weather and plenty of sunshine. Typically in December, you can expect ideal sightseeing temperatures of around 14 to 15°C. It gets a little chillier at night, but nothing unpleasant if you pack a coat. The last time I was here, I didn’t even need a sweater on New Year’s Eve.
Slide back to October or fast forward to April, and you can add a few more degrees. In early autumn or late spring, temperatures usually manage to hold up to an average of about 19 to 21°C.
Rain’s rarely an issue: showers tend to be light and short-lived. The wettest months are September and October. Even so, there are plenty of museums and other indoor attractions to keep you occupied.
Of course, the hottest months are July and August, but that’s when prices tend to peak too. If you want to save money, book a trip outside school holidays – especially the main summer period where the city is uncomfortably crowded – and steer clear of Easter, Christmas and New Year. Less demand means lower costs.
Where to Stay in Barcelona on a Budget
Finding accommodation in Barcelona on a budget is pretty straightforward. As with any major European city, the most central hotels tend to be the most expensive. In Barcelona, many of the luxury hotels cluster in Eixample or the Barri Gotic. Try nearby Poble Sec for an affordable yet central option. But even on the Rambla, it’s not hard to find basic hotels where doubles can be snapped up for around £40 to £50 a night. Split between two travellers, that’s a pretty good deal. I’d recommend booking several months ahead for the most offerings.
Also, consider a shared bathroom, as rooms that aren’t ensuite are often much cheaper. However, if you do, check reviews for cleanliness on a reliable website such as www.booking.com (the trick is to make sure the site has a policy of only accepting reviews after confirmed stays, so you know they are genuine).
Cheaper still is a hostel. It’s easy to find a dorm bed for as little as £11 to £12 a night outside the peak summer season. However, you won’t have to splurge much to upgrade to a private room. You’ll still get all the benefits of staying in a social hostel – great news for solo travellers – yet you won’t risk missing out on a good night’s sleep.
Getting Around Barcelona on a Budget
If you’ve left it a little late to book your accommodation, and the city centre hotels or guesthouses are looking a bit pricey, all is not lost. Barcelona has a cheap and extensive public transport network. Pick a place that’s close to a metro station, and you’ll barely notice the inconvenience of staying further out.
If you can base yourself in the city centre, most of the major attractions are easily walkable.
Simplify the process of using public transport by investing in a Hola Barcelona Travel Card. With this ticket, you’ll get unlimited journeys on a range of different types of transportation, including the metro, bus, Montjuïc funicular, tram and local trains. It also includes getting downtown from El Prat, the main international airport. This way, you won’t need to waste money on expensive taxis or hotel transfers.
Note: The clock starts ticking from the time you validate the pass. The Travel Card lasts anywhere from 48 hours (16,30 euros) to 120 hours (38 euros). That’s more than enough time to explore the city. So you won’t feel the need to save valuable minutes by using the more expensive Hop On, Hop Off tour buses.
Cheap or Free things to see in Barcelona
One of the best ways to get your bearings when exploring a city for the first time is on a walking tour. Check out the Free Tours by Foot website to view the schedule during your stay. The English-speaking guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic; you can choose to leave a tip if you think they’ve earned it. Try the Old Town and Gothic Quarter walk. It blends ancient ruins, medieval squares and historic churches with a liberal smattering of anecdotes and fascinating stories.
Cathedrals and Architecture
Antoni Gaudí’s unusual architecture makes his work a must-see when in Barcelona. It costs nothing to see his famously unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, from the outside. While it’s worth paying for the privilege of touring its spectacular interior, if you can time your visit for the annual Open Doors days in September, you might score a freebie. Register your details on the cathedral’s website to be in with a chance. For worship only, each Sunday at 9 am, there’s a special international mass, though places are strictly limited and sightseeing isn’t permitted.
Along with quirky Casa Batlló, Parc Güell is another Gaudí essential. While the Forest Zone is free, you’ll need to pay to enter the Monumental Zone – where the colourful mosaics are – unless you’re a Barcelona resident.
Barcelona’s museums mostly charge for entry, but if you don’t mind the crowds, then take advantage of the free admission offered on the first Sunday of every month. They also participate in a series of open days every year; check the website of the institution you’d like to visit and book your trip to coincide with one of those dates.
Aside from the first Sunday of the month, admiring the works of art in Museu Picasso won’t cost you a penny on Thursday evenings. At the same time, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya lets you in for nothing after 3 pm on Saturdays. The city’s Museu Maritim restricts complimentary admissions to a narrow window on Sunday afternoons. However, the exhibits in the entrance hall and the Espai Mirador are free.
Barcelona’s a coastal city, and in summer, the most popular free activity is without a doubt going to the beach. There are almost three miles of sand to choose from. The most popular playas are Barceloneta, Nova Icaria, Mar Bella and Bogatell.
Playa de La Barceloneta
Barceloneta is usually lively, partly because it is the closest to the city centre and its numerous bars and restaurants.
Platja de la Nova Icaria
Nova Icaria is not quite as busy. Its central location near the Olympic Marina still has enough eateries to satisfy most visitors.
Playa de la Mar Bella
Active types flock to Mar Bella, where you’ll find people windsurfing, kayaking and renting out Hobie cats.
Playa de Bogatell
Foreign travellers often overlook Bogatell. That said, it’s a firm favourite with the locals. You’ll join plenty of joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers if you buck the trend.
Eating and Drinking on a Budget in Barcelona
One of the best ways to save money dining out in Europe is to switch your main meal to lunchtime. Take advantage of the fixed price menu, and you can save your hard-earned cash for something else. In Barcelona, that also gets around the issue of needing to eat much later than you might be used to at home. Locals prefer to dine out after 10 pm, and in the early evening, restaurants can be empty and soulless.
Somehow when I’m hungry, I always seem to end up at a market, and as Barcelona has a whopping 43 of them – 39 specialising in food – you probably will too. In summer, they’re a great place to pick up the makings of a picnic, but there are also plenty where you can dine in.
The Mercat l’Estrella in the Gràcia neighbourhood even offers workshops, cookery demonstrations and free tastings regularly. With its main entrance on La Rambla (don’t miss the fabulous Art Nouveau stained glass), La Boqueria is as convenient as it is iconic. Inside, you’ll find a plethora of stalls – the produce gets cheaper the further away you venture from the entrance. The market’s also home to several tapas restaurants, but to sample these taster-sized plates, the best place to head in Barcelona is Carrer de Blai in the Poble Sec district. Try somewhere like Blai 9 or L’Esquinita de Blai, where individual dishes start at just 1 euro.
After dark, Barcelona’s bars come alive. The city’s answer to champagne is cava, and in my opinion, the best place to drink it is at El Xampanyet. A copa in this historic bar, which opened in 1929, will set you back a wallet-friendly 3 euros, but you get to admire the beautiful wall tiles for nothing. I’ll drink to that!