Barcelona, Spain: First impressions

A really cool statue in the Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy, a Baroque-style church built in the 1800’s.  You go, girl!

Of all the cities we visited in Europe, Barcelona was one of our favorites.  There are so many things to love about the city, including a rich culture and complex history, some of the most important architecture in the world, a fascinating Gothic Quarter, beautiful beaches, wonderful food, friendly people, and world-class shopping.

An interesting little piece of art in the Gothic Quarter

All that being said, we got off to a shaky start.  We arrived in Barcelona via train from Nice, France.  Of the many train trips we’d taken during our time in Europe, this one was the most beautiful.  The train hugged the Mediterranean coastline much of the time, and we saw distant mountains and azure flashes of water as well as ancient cities, the old buildings clustered around themselves in tight pockets of valley.  Some of the landscape was rugged and as colorful as anything we might see in Utah or New Mexico.  We watched the scenery pass by, captivated, and rejoiced when we crossed the border into Spain, the country where we would spend the most time of any on this trip–at least six weeks.

We pulled into the Barcelona-Sants train station in the early evening, and from there we would need to catch the Metro to our hotel.  We walked through a long, mostly deserted tunnel and then started up an escalator that would take us to our metro connection.  A group of teenagers was ahead of us on the escalator but otherwise we saw no one.  When we were about halfway up, the escalator came to a jolting halt.  I felt a stab of annoyance but figured it was a technical glitch and just kept walking.  The kids, who were at the top by that time, looked back, also surprised, but kept going and disappeared out of sight.  Before we knew it, two guys were standing behind us, close.  Dale was in back of me, and I heard him say to them, “Go around,” so I hugged the right to allow them to pass, but they didn’t.  When we reached the top, we turned right and they went left.

It was only once we were on the Metro headed toward our hotel that Dale told me exactly what had transpired behind me.  Those two guys had probably spotted us with our big backpacks and decided we might be an easy target.  They hit the emergency stop at the bottom of the escalator, likely intending to pick our pockets or slash the bottom of our packs and, like some twisted version of a piñata, see what goodies fell out.  Dale had instantly realized what was going on and had given the potential thieves a continuous stare down that said, “Don’t mess with me.”  It worked, because they left us alone.

Petty thievery is an issue in most large European cities, and it’s always important to be alert to your environment, but turns out that Barcelona has one of the highest amounts of petty crime in Europe, so much so that it has been identified as the pickpocket capitol of the world.  The problem is so ubiquitous that there are warnings posted everywhere, telling the unwary to watch their belongings closely.  We observed that local bicyclists used not just one chain, but two or three to keep their bikes intact and in their possession.  Thievery and scams are of course especially bad in tourist areas, because tourists tend to walk around with open maps and open bags, distracted.  So the lesson is, always pay attention to your surroundings, especially when you’re in Barcelona.

The good news is that Barcelona is otherwise a very safe city.  Violent crime events are almost nonexistent (unlike the US, unfortunately).  We arrived at our hotel without further incident, and during the rest of our stay we were hyper-vigilant, with me holding my purse tightly and Dale carrying his important items in a sealed pocket of his pants when we were out and about.

A beautiful statue in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona (and one that reflected our mood at the end of our first day in the city)

The event did initially color our impression of Barcelona, but in the coming days we quickly got over it.   There is so very much to love about the city, a fact that many people must agree on, because it’s one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.

The area we spent a lot of time wandering around in was the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic in Catalan), Barcelona’s ancient city center.  It’s a cluster of labyrinthine streets, many of which open onto plazas.  There are hundreds of cafes and shops contained within the buildings of the Quarter.  It’s a charming area.

A street in the Gothic Quarter

Many of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th centuries, a time of prosperity for Barcelona (before a period of repression by the leaders in Madrid led to poverty and stagnation).  There are also so many remnants of Roman structures throughout the Gothic Quarter that the topic warranted its own blog post.

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as Barcelona Cathedral, was one of the highlights of the Gothic Quarter.  Construction started in the 13th century and continued into the 15th century.  In the 19th century, the neo-gothic façade was built over the exterior of the church, and it was so reviled by the architect Gaudí that he supposedly never set foot in the church again, but I thought it was beautiful!

Barcelona Cathedral
Barcelona Cathedral. We took a tour that included access to the roof, and that’s where this photo was taken.
Barcelona Cathedral. A view of the city from the roof.
Barcelona Cathedral
The cloister of the Barcelona Cathedral, which contains the Well of the Geese. A whole gaggle of geese live here, permanent residents of the cathedral.
Santa Maria del Mar, an example of Catalan Gothic style, is in the neighboring district of Ribera, built between 1329 and 1383.

Once you get outside of the maze that is the Gothic Quarter, you find modern buildings and wide streets that are laid out in a logical pattern.  Running along one edge of the Quarter is Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous boulevard, a wide, shady street that is closed to traffic and dominated by stores and restaurants.  It’s one of the most visited places in the city and is notorious for the hordes of pickpockets and scammers who prowl there, so watch your purses and pockets.  We are budget travelers and didn’t spend much time on Las Ramblas, but for those seeking world-class shopping in Barcelona, this is the place.  There’s also an enormous market, La Boqueria, one of the largest open-air markets in Europe, where locals and tourists alike flock to buy fresh foods.

Las Ramblas


Despite our uneasy beginning in Barcelona, we quickly fell in love with its charm, unique culture, and eclectic beauty.  There’s so much to say about the city that I’m going to end this post here.  Here are our posts discussing   the wonders of Barcelona’s food, history, or modern architecture.