There’s a great deal to detain you in Barcelona, but just beyond the city are a wealth of alluring day trip options. These include the nearby hill of Tibidabo – home to a vintage-style funfair, the holy Catalan shrine of Montserrat, the relaxed and pretty town of Sitges for beaches and museums, and perhaps most enticingly, the cava wine country in the region of Penedès.
The first bright, clear morning or late afternoon of your visit, head for Tibidabo, the peak of the Collserola range, which overlooks the city. The views are breathtaking. The church of El Sagrat Cor, floodlit at night, built in the first half of the 20th century and surmounted by a monumental figure of Christ, is one of the city’s landmarks.
To reach the summit, take the FGC train from the Plaça de Catalunya to Avda Tibidabo. From here the Tramvia Blau, an old-fashioned blue wooden tram, runs every day during the summer (weekends only in winter), taking you up to the funicular station, past grand villas. It’s great fun, trundling along in such a retro way.
From Plaça del Dr Andreu, you pick up the funicular, which lifts you through pine woods to the top of Tibidabo. Here, you are treated to a spectacular panorama of the city, the coast and the Pyrenees. It’s also the location of yet another sepia-tinged experience. Families flock to the famous, 1950s-style amusement park, the Parc d’Atraccions. With over 25 attractions, many of the old favourites remain but there is now a new generation of rides to experience, too. Check out the Sky Walk, an area with some of the best views of Barcelona.
Don’t miss the nearby CosmoCaixa, a splendid science museum with a Planetarium that projects a 3D show using the latest technology. Nearby is Torre Bellesguard (officially known as Casa Figueras), a Gaudí project that blends different architectural references.
The Parc de Collserola Is a huge, green swathe that makes a great escape from the city. Families come here on weekends and summer evenings to enjoy the fresh air. There are jogging and cycling tracks, nature trails, picnic spots and merenderos, where you barbecue your own food.
Another high spot is the Torre de Collserola communications tower, designed by Sir Norman Foster for the 1992 Olympics. A chic transparent lift whisks you to the top for fabulous panoramic views.
It’s easy to get to the Costa Daurada beaches from Barcelona. The coast south of the city earned its name from its broad, golden sands, in contrast to the rocky coves of the Costa Brava to the north. Sitges, a favourite resort of Barceloneses, is the best place for a day trip. It’s a short drive on the R2 motorway, or a 40-minute train ride from Sants or Passeig de Gràcia stations, if you get a fast train. There is also a scenic coastal drive which is narrow and curvy and obviously takes longer.
Happily, the pretty little town has escaped the high-rises and tawdry atmosphere of many coastal resorts, although it does get somewhat overwhelmed by crowds in summer. It’s also known for having the best gay scene in Spain, and attracts LGBTQ travellers year-round, but particularly during the riotous February carnival. There are two beaches, separated by a headland where gleaming, whitewashed houses cluster around the church of Sant Bartolomeu I Santa Tecla. Gay and nudist beaches can be found a little way beyond the other town beaches. The biggest and best of the lot is Platja d’Or (Golden Beach), backed by a palm-lined promenade and dozens of cafés and restaurants – some of them very good indeed. North of the headland is Sant Sebastià beach, which is smaller, quieter and extremely pleasant.
Villas owned by wealthy Barcelonans line the outskirts of Sitges, while the pretty streets between the beach and station are well stocked for food and fun. Located inland from Sitges, on the road to Vilafranca, is Sant Pere de Ribes, which has a 10th-century castle and a delightful Romanesque church.
Cava, Catalonia’s sparkling wine, comes from the Penedès, a pretty region south of Barcelona. These days the top-selling cavas are produced by Codorníu and Freixenet. The centre of cava production is the small town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia where several wineries offer guided tours and tastings.
The most interesting of these is Codorníu. This is Spain’s largest producer of cava and has been in the business since 1872. The family-owned winery is located on a spectacular campus, with modernista buildings by Gaudí’s contemporary, Puig i Cadafalch. Completed in 1898, it has been declared a National Artistic and Historic Monument. You probably don’t care as much about that as about sampling the booze, but it’s nice to know that getting sloshed can be cultural. For added value, visitors to the winery are taken on a theme-park-like ride through 26km of atmospheric underground cellars.
World-famous cava producer Freixenet has its headquarters next to the station. There are also some good restaurants in and near town, which the staff at Codorníu will be happy to tell you about. Most of them specialise in seafood accompanied, of course, by cava. Though by this point, you may be ready to sober up. Or not, either way.
If you visit Penedès between January and March you must try a specific regional dish, calçots – baby leeks grilled and dipped in a peppery, garlicky sauce – so popular they actually have a fiesta in their honour at this time, called the calçotada.
For something a bit more spiritual, visit Montserrat, Catalonia’s most important religious retreat and the shrine of Catalan nationhood. The view from its summit can encompass both the Pyrenees and Mallorca, and the monastery itself can be seen from afar, surrounded by the jagged ridges that give it its name – the Serrated Mountain. In Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, you will find the famous La Moreneta, the Black Madonna, which is said to be a carving by St Luke. More than a million pilgrims and tourists visit the shrine each year.
La Moreneta looks down from a gold-and-glass case, above and to the right of the altar in the basilica, but the faithful can touch or kiss her right hand through an opening. Each day the Escolans, the oldest boys’ choir in Europe, founded in the 13th century, fill the basilica with their high voices. Listening to them is a thing of wonder, no matter whether you are spiritual or not.
The monastery and its underground museum contain many valuable works of art, including paintings by El Greco.
Due to its popularity, Montserrat has a number of bars, restaurants and shops around the Plaça de la Creu. If you really want to get a feel for the place, spend a night in a former monk’s cell.
Montserrat is also a popular goal for cyclists and mountain climbers who ascend the spires of rock above the building. From the monastery there are walks to other hermitages and a funicular to the Santa Cova, the cave sacred to the legend of the Madonna. Statues and plaques line the paths.