But for a taste of Catalan life beyond the metropolis – or simply for a change of pace – take a day trip from Barcelona to experience the mountains, beaches and pretty little towns that are just a short ride away.
Here are the best day trips from Barcelona.
Savor divinely beautiful views in Montserrat
Travel time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
The mountain of Montserrat is home to Catalonia's holiest site, the monastery of the same name. The views are spectacular – take walking shoes – and season permitting, you might be able to catch a choir performance inside the basilica. Afterward, ride the funicular or take a walk down to the Santa Cova, the spot where La Moreneta – a holy effigy of the virgin – was found, or up to the Sant Jeroni peak for a splendid view of the valley below.
How to get to Montserrat from Barcelona: The R5 line trains operated by FGC run half-hourly to hourly to and from Barcelona's Plaça d’Espanya station. Next, get the AERI cable car to the monastery from the Montserrat Aeri stop. Alternatively, take the R5 to the next stop (Monistrol de Montserrat), from where cremallera trains run up to the monastery every 20 to 40 minutes.
Escape the city clamor in Collserola
Travel time: 15 minutes
Barcelonins seek out the vast Parc de Collserola up in the hills for an escape from city life. Walking and cycling trails run throughout the park, which is dotted with farmhouse-style restaurants. Pick up a map of the various routes from the info center at Carretera de l’Església 92, close to the Baixador de Vallvidrera FGC train station. From here, those with a bit of energy can walk across the hills to Sant Cugat and take the train back to Barcelona from there.
How to get to Collserola from Barcelona: Get the FGC suburban train from Plaça de Catalunya, Carrer de Provença or Gràcia to Baixador de Vallvidrera.
Walk through a rainbow in Girona
Travel time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Girona's old town is a tight huddle of ancient arcaded houses, grand churches and sloped cobbled streets, with the grand cathedral looming over it. Until the virtual expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Girona was home to a huge Jewish community and the Museu d’Història dels Jueus tells their story.
For a different slice of history, visit the 12th-century Banys Àrabs ("Arab Baths"), which was used as a filming location in Game of Thrones, and the pretty Romanesque Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants. Stroll along the Onyar River to look at the colorfully painted houses that flank it or to reach the newer part of town, where you’ll find some excellent tapas bars. If your pockets are deep enough, Girona also has one of the world’s best restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca.
How to get to Girona from Barcelona: Take the train from Barcelona, which runs about every 30 minutes.
Get surreal in Figueres
Travel time: 2 hours
Figueres has some handsome Modernista architecture, a sprawling 18th-century castle (Castell de Sant Ferran) and a delightful little toy museum, the Museu del Joguet, but it is best known for the Teatre-Museu Dalí.
A former theater, it was converted by Dalí himself into a palace of surrealism, protected by tall red walls that bristle with giant eggs, Oscar-like statues and plaster croissants. Inside you’ll find paintings, a collection of jewelry designed by Dalí and some entertaining trompe l’oeil installations. A Teatre-Museu Dalí ticket will get you free entry to the Museu de l'Empordà, a fantastic art and archaeology museum that's considered one of the best in the region.
How to get to Figueres from Barcelona: Figueres train station, 800m (0.5 miles) southeast of the center, has half-hourly trains to and from Barcelona.
Sunbathe and party in Sitges
Travel time: 40 minutes
The pretty, whitewashed town of Sitges is perfect for seafront promenading and sun-worshiping, so in warmer weather, you’ll find the most central beaches quite crowded. Luckily, there are quite a few to choose from, so pick your spot for a morning of sunbathing (or skinny dipping off the nudist beach) before choosing a seafood restaurant nearby.
It’s not all about the sea in Sitges. If you have an interest in contemporary art and in the Modernisme movement, the classy old center’s array of elegant buildings, many housing museums, is well worth some of your time. The town also has great nightlife and a vibrant LGBTQI+ scene. One of Spain's best Carnaval celebrations is held here (dates change annually), and October brings the Sitges International Film Festival to town.
How to get to Sitges from Barcelona: From 5am to 10pm, regular trains run from Barcelona Passeig de Gràcia and Sants. Monbus runs from Barcelona every 15 to 50 minutes.
Relax in friendly and welcoming Vilanova i la Geltrú
Travel time: 45 minutes
Just down the coast beyond Sitges (there is a lovely, hour-long walk along the cliffs you can do to reach it), Vilanova i la Geltrú is a larger, more down-home version that has long dedicated its efforts more to fishing and industry than the leisure business, and has a pleasantly unpretentious air.
If you want to spend the day on the beach, Vilanova i la Geltrú is a good place to do it. There are some decent, wide beaches (head right to the south for a lovely little cove) and an interesting railway museum, the Museu del Ferrocarril.
How to get to Vilanova i la Geltrú from Barcelona: From 5am to 10pm, regular trains run from Barcelona.
Revel in Roman ruins in Tarragona
Travel time: 1 hour
Of a similar size and scale to Girona, Tarragona is known for its Roman remains. Since the Museu d’Història de Tarragona – which comprises the main Roman sites – tends to be busiest from mid-morning onward, it’s best to start with its Amfiteatre Romà and the Fòrum Provincial or the excellent Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona, which gives a useful overview of the city’s impressive Roman past.
Afterward, head for the grand cathedral, followed by lunch in one of the many restaurants thereabouts or in the fishing neighborhood of El Serrallo, where you’ll find many fine seafood restaurants.
How to get to Tarragona from Barcelona: The train station is a 10-minute walk south of the old town near the beach, with services to and from Barcelona every 10 to 30 minutes.
Step back in time in medieval Montblanc
Travel time: 2 hours
Montblanc is a good-sized medieval walled town with a decent selection of places to eat and sleep. It’s worth a visit on its own merits, but ideally, however, you should go with a car, to fully explore the Cistercian Route, a triad of stunning monasteries within easy reach of one another, at Poblet, Vallbona de les Monges and Santes Creues. You’ll need to set off early if you are hoping to see all three.
How to get to Montblanc from Barcelona: Five trains a day run from Barcelona Passeig de Gràcia and Sants; the first is around 7am.
Find a buried treasure in Colònia Güell
Travel time: 40 minutes
Apart from La Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s last big project was the creation of a utopian textile workers’ complex for his magnate patron Eusebi Güell outside Barcelona at Santa Coloma de Cervelló. Gaudí’s main role was to erect the colony’s church, Colònia Güell, although he only managed to finish the crypt, which is open to visitors. Its mostly brick-clad columns that support the ribbed vaults in the ceiling are inclined at all angles in much the same way that trees in a forest lean and are key to understanding the physics behind his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família.
How to get to Colònia Güell from Barcelona: Take FGC lines S4, S8 or S33 to Colònia Güell.
Shop the local markets in Vic
Travel time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Vic, with its attractive historic center and some fine restaurants, dominates the flatlands of La Plana de Vic to the south of the Pyrenees and is an easy train ride from Barcelona. Plaça Major, the largest of Catalunya’s central squares, is lined with medieval, Baroque and Modernista mansions. It is still the scene of regular markets, hence its other name, Plaça del Mercadal.
How to get to Vic from Barcelona: Regular rodalies trains (line R3) run to and from Barcelona.