The sun, the sand, the sangria; Barcelona has carved out a tourism niche, combining all the fun of an exotic summer destination with the incredible history, architecture and culture of an ancient European capital. No matter what ‘fun’ looks like to you, Barcelona is sure to have you covered.
But when most tourists visit Barcelona, they’ll tend to see and do the same sorts of things – La Rambla, Park Güell, Barceloneta Beach and Sagrada Familia. Sure, these sights and experiences are iconic for a reason, but focusing too much on the postcard stuff can see you missing out on seeing another side of the city. The real, unique and often strange parts that are found off the beaten path in Barcelona.
As a unique and eclectic city, there are a wealth of unusual things to do in Barcelona. But which of Barcelona’s hidden gems will turn a simple trip away into a truly memorable escape? Let’s take a look at 10 unique, fun and secret places in Barcelona that most tourists don’t know about!
In 1791 the wealthy Desvalls family wondered what they could do with a large plot of land at the foot of the city’s hills. They decided on a hedge maze made from cypress trees, as rich people so often seem to do. It features over 600m (2000ft) of paths for visitors to get lost in, and if you find the center you’ll be greeted by a spectacular statue of Eros, the Greek God of Love. Stunning architecture dots the grounds around the maze, with a number of Italian terraces and neoclassical pavilions added over the last 2 centuries. Entry to this now public park only costs a few Euros (and is free on Wednesdays and Sundays), although only 750 visitors are allowed in on any given day, so be sure to arrive early to avoid missing out!
It’s fair to say that tourist attractions don’t get much more unique than a toxic fountain. One of the best kept secrets in Barcelona, the Calder Mercury Fountain can be found at the Joan Miró Foundation building, a modern art museum located in the northeast corner of Montjuïc Park. Mercury – also known as quicksilver due to its appearance – is one of the only metals that is liquid at room temperature. This allowed American sculptor Alexander Calder to create a spectacular fountain in which water was replaced by running metal. Built for the 1937 World’s Fair and intended to reference the Spanish Civil War, it is an arresting sight, albeit one that you’ll have to enjoy from behind a pane of glass, as mercury is very dangerous!
As the Spanish Civil War raged in the late 1930s, the city of Barcelona built an intimidating defense system around itself. A beautiful and pertinent remnant of that time, the Bunkers of Carmel sit atop Turó de la Rovira Hill and allow you to gaze across the whole of the city. Here a handful of huge anti-aircraft cannons were mounted to concrete blocks, tasked with protecting Barcelona against attacks from the air. While the cannons have been removed, the concrete bunkers remain, and the site now serves as the ideal spot to watch a sunrise or sunset. Once a Barcelona hidden secret, tourists are finally learning about this gorgeous place.
Holidays are all about treating yourself, right? If you subscribe to that theory, I have one word for you – Disfrutar, which translates simply to Enjoy. A Michelin star restaurant located in the heart of Eixample, here you’ll be served up modern and delicious takes on Catalan cuisine. The pièce de résistance of Disfrutar is its gorgeous tasting menus, some of which can be 30 courses long. The experience is understandably pricey, but when you consider the amount of time, effort and imagination that went into every one of those 30 dishes, the evening actually ends up being great value! If you do choose to do a 30 course menu, be sure to put aside four hours or more (and perhaps skip breakfast and/or lunch!)
5. Casa Viscens
Antoni Gaudí is the major reason that many travelers visit Barcelona, such is the adoration for the Catalan architect. But many of these fans will only have two items on their checklist – Sagrada Familia and Park Güell. To only visit his two most famous sites is to miss out on some of the master’s finest work, as well as gaining insight into his evolution as an architect. Located in Gracia, the four-storey Casa Viscens was the first residence Gaudí ever designed, and is also cited as one of the very first examples of Art Nouveau architecture. It features his famously eclectic mix of styles and building materials, as well as a wealth of color that almost seems to jump right into your eyeballs. Inside you’ll find a museum devoted to the life and times of Gaudí, which features a constant rotation of exhibits, many of which are interactive.
If you find yourself wandering down Carrer de les Ramelleres, a block back from La Rambla, you’ll more than likely walk straight past one of the best hidden places in Barcelona. At number 17, on the edge of Plaça de Vicenç Martorell, you’ll see a simple circular hole, lined with wood and cut into a plain white wall. An orphanage operated here from 1853 – 1931, and this little hole is where ill-equipped mothers would place their babies. At the time it featured a turntable, allowing the infant to be anonymously spun to the other side. While the hole was also used for public donations of groceries and other supplies, its main purpose was baby drop offs, of which it performed hundreds. While not particularly spectacular, the history of this porthole makes it one of the best things to do in Barcelona off the beaten path.
A list of Barcelona alternative things to do is only complete when it features something morbid, and Montjuïc Cemetery is more than up to the task. Sitting on the city’s most famous hill, it features all that’s weird and wonderful about Catalan culture. Modernist graves turn the classic western tombstone on its head, with ghosts, ghouls and devils featuring prominently. Many of Catalonia’s most famous people rest here, including Lluis Companys (the last president of Catalonia before the Civil War), Joan Gamper (the founder of FC Barcelona) and Joan Miró (the famous artist). Be sure to head to the tranquil western wing of the cemetery where you’ll find El Fossar de la Pedrera – the Grave of the Quarry. 4000 victims of the Spanish Civil War were buried here, and touching tributes abound.
Stepping out of the morbid and into the modern, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center is one of the most unknown, unique and underrated of Barcelona’s hidden places. Torre Girona was once a reflective place of worship in the west of the city. But by the 1960s the popularity of the chapel had waned, and it was handed over to the neighboring Polytechnic University of Barcelona. When the city decided to create one of the world’s most powerful computers, it just turned out that Torre Girona was spacious enough to fit it inside. So today you can wander into what is a centuries-old church, only to find one of the most impressive computers ever built. It’s a stunning construction whose functionality somehow manages to surpass its form.
La España Industrial was a steam powered textile mill that operated in the Sants district from the 1800s until well into the 20th century. But when the company decided to move to a larger premises, arguments erupted about what to do with the wealth of land that the mill would leave behind. Despite approval initially being granted to build new housing, community spirit eventually won the day, with Parc de l’Espanya Industrial officially opened in 1985. Architect Luis Peña Ganchegui drew plenty of inspiration from the land’s industrial past, with a 32m (105ft) long metal dragon taking center stage. Here you’ll also find a number of sculptures created for the 1929 World’s Fair.
In Barcelona, off the beaten path might mean right next to the city’s major cathedral, as is the case with Museu Frederic Marès. An offbeat and eclectic museum that can be found in Palau Reial Major, a royal palace that dates back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition, this museum shows the personal haul of Frederic Marès, a passionate collector of artefacts and a talented sculptor in his own right. Most of the pieces are sculptures – mainly religious – that date from between the 15th and 19th centuries. Marès might’ve been called a hoarder had he still been alive today, as his collection fills up no less than 17 halls, and includes everything from ancient tools to tobacco pipes. It offers a fascinating (if overwhelming) look into centuries of Catalan life.