Barcelona has enough to keep the most voracious of culture vultures and self-indulgent of gourmands happy for weeks, but all those entry fees and tapas bills can mount up. Fortunately, help is at hand with these 20 free things to do in Barcelona.
You can also save on transport by investing in a T10 travel card, which allows you 10 journeys within the city on any form of public transport.
Market stalls on La Rambla in Barcelona © Takashi Images / Shutterstock
1. Free museums
Some city-run museums (including the Museu Picasso and MNAC) have an afternoon or evening each week when entry is free. Others are also free on the first Sunday of the month – check individual websites for details.
2. Time your visit for a festival
There’s almost always some type of festival going on in Barcelona, so this won’t be difficult. If you’re here around 24 September, don’t miss the five-day Festes de la Mercè, which brings the city to life with free concerts, dancing, fireworks, acrobatic feats and lively correfocs (colourful parades of drums, devils and firecrackers). Or try the summer extravaganza Festa Major de Gràcia in August, best known for its competition of decorated streets, but with a packed programme of free outdoor concerts.
The Mercat de Santa Caterina, with its undulating roof © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
3. Browse the city's markets
The most famous indoor market hall is the Mercat de la Boqueria, filled with an explosion of fruit, vegetables, seafood, rows and rows of cured jamón and some mind-boggling butchers’ displays. In recent years, however, it’s become extremely crowded and touristy, and more stalls sell fancy sweets and tropical juices than local products. If you want a more authentic market experience, try Mercat de Santa Caterina with its colourful undulating roof, or Mercat de la Llibertat in Gràcia.
4. Saunter up La Rambla
It’s unashamedly touristy, but ambling along this 1km-long walkway is a quintessential Barcelona experience. Lined with regal historical buildings, La Rambla is still a great place to stroll, particularly if you time it right – early morning is best.
The fantastical Modernista exterior of Casa Batlló © Alan Tan Photography / Shutterstock
5. Admire Modernisme architecture
While many of Barcelona’s architectural gems have admission fees to see the interiors, the arguably more impressive facades can be seen for free. Three stunning examples of Modernisme sit side-by-side on the Passeig de Gràcia – the Casa Lleó Morera, the Casa Amatller and Gaudí’s Casa Batlló. Elsewhere be dazzled by the mind-blowing workmanship of Gaudí’s magnum opus, La Sagrada Família; or a short walk away is the world’s largest Art Nouveau complex, the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau.
6. Bask on a beach
Barcelona has some wonderful beaches perfect for resting aching feet after days of sightseeing. Barceloneta is the most popular, with its lovely sweep of golden sand and promenade backed with restaurants, but it is feeling the effects of too many visitors these days. For something less crowded, walk further north towards the Fòrum area.
The beach at Barcelona © Santiago Cornejo / Shutterstock
7. Gaze at Joan Miró's public art
The definitive collection of Barcelona’s favourite homegrown artist at Fundació Joan Miró is worth forking out for, but there are fantastic Miró sculptures around the city for free viewing. Parc de Joan Miró is home to his epic 22m-tall Woman and Bird sculpture, covered in primary coloured glazed tiles and rising dramatically from a sparkling pool. There’s also a Miró mosaic in the central walkway of La Rambla and another displayed unexpectedly on the outside wall of Terminal 2 at the airport.
8. Visit the cradle of Catalan independence
The Born Centre Cultural is a dazzlingly converted former market building that has as its centrepiece remains of some of the hundreds of buildings razed to the ground by the forces of Philip V after the siege of 1714. For most Catalans the event marks the starting point of the desire for separation. It’s an emotionally charged place.
The Gothic interior of La Catedral in Barcelona © pixelprof / Getty Images
9. Be awed by La Catedral
In the heart of Barri Gòtic, the colossal neo-Gothic La Catedral is as impressive outside as it is within. Free entry in the morning makes it worth venturing inside to take in its soaring domed ceilings, pillars and cloister with courtyard of palms, orange trees and resident gaggle of white geese.
10. Sniff out free music, dancing and art
There’s always some sort of free cultural event going on around town, whether it’s jazz in the park, a poetry reading or a kids' workshop. Check with the tourist office.
11. Lose your way in Barri Gòtic
Get lost in a warren of cobblestone alleyways lined with bars and quirky shops and dotted with quiet little plaças, in the atmospheric medieval quarter of Barri Gòtic. Eventually you’ll almost certainly surface on La Rambla, or the Via Laietana, which flanks the area on the other side.
12. Wander through Plaça Reial
At this arcaded plaça, reminiscent of a more modest version of St Mark’s Square in Venice, look out for Gaudí’s first piece of commissioned work for the city – lamp-posts featuring coiled dragon-headed serpents leading up to a winged helmet.
13. Keep it real in El Raval
It lacks the historic impact of the neighbouring Barri Gòtic, but the network of lively streets around El Raval is home to an eclectic cast of characters including artists, backpackers, students and more. There are plenty of cool bars and vintage clothing stores, not to mention the colossal MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona), as impressive from outside as within and free late afternoon on Saturdays.
14. Relax in the Parc de la Ciutadella
Saunter down Passeig Lluís Companys, underneath the Arc de Triomf to the city’s best park – the Parc de la Ciutadella. A giant playground for all ages, it’s filled with an eclectic array of people, from West African drummers to tap dancers in the bandstand and aspiring circus performers practising on the grass. There’s also a monumental waterfall, a boating lake, the grand Catalan Parliament building and the lovely pink-hued Parroquia Castrense de la Ciutadella church.
The monumental waterfall in Parc de la Ciutadella © Sopotnicki / Shutterstock
15. Be enchanted at the Font Màgica
Built for Barcelona’s 1929 World Exposition, this water-, sound- and lightshow has been drawing tourists ever since. Sure, the Magic Fountain borders on the kitsch side – but what’s not to love about jets of multicoloured water rising in sync to cheesy 1980s numbers and show-tunes?
16. Seek out street art
Barcelona’s graffiti artists are a proud bunch and you’ll find some great examples of their work around town, particularly in El Raval and Poblenou. The city also has a long tradition of street art and sculpture. Some better-known examples include Peix, a giant fish sculpture designed by Frank Gehry overlooking the beach; Roy Lichtenstein’s 15m-high Barcelona Head at the Port Vell; Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies’ Monument Homage to Picasso on the Passeig de Picasso; and Fernando Botero’s enormous cat on the Rambla del Raval.
17. Enjoy the best view of the city from the Bunkers del Carmel
They might take some leg power to get to, but the Bunkers del Carmel offer the best view in the whole of Barcelona – a 360-degree vista with the city and all its iconic monuments on one side, and hills and the town of Sant Cugat on the other. You can also climb down inside the bunkers, where you’ll find a free small museum telling you about their role during the Civil War as an anti-aircraft battery, and later during the 1940s to 1960s as a shanty town housing over 3,000 people.
The stunning view over Barcelona from the Bunkers del Carmel © Andrei Bortnikau / Shutterstock
18. Explore Montjuïc
The lush green hill of Montjuïc rises up from the port, and is home to countless museums, gardens and important sights, as well as incredible city views. You might have to pay for the museums, but much of the rest is free. Wander around gardens such as the Moorish-inspired Jardins de Laribal with their elegant fountains, sculptures and steep tiled walkways; then take a jaunt around the grand Olympic Stadium, which played host to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. When you’re done exploring the lower slopes of the hill, take the bus (or hike if you’re feeling fit) right to the top, where you’ll find the Castell de Montjuïc. You have to pay a small fee for entry, but you can still wander around its walls and gardens for free, whilst admiring the astounding views.
19. Rummage at the Encants flea market
The Mercat dels Encants has an intriguing mix of trash and treasure. While it’s not without its fair share of odd shoes and outdated electronic devices, there are enough random oddities to make it worthwhile. There's also a surprisingly gourmet food court up on the first floor.
20. Browse the galleries in El Born
The charming area of El Born is packed with an exciting array of small independent art galleries and boutiques. Get lost in the narrow alleyways and see what gems you can find, from classic paintings to cutting-edge artwork. There are also two excellent free galleries nearby on La Rambla, hosting changing exhibitions – the Centre de la Imatge in the Palau de la Virreina, near the top, and the Centre d’Art Santa Mónica at the bottom.