Barcelona’s winding old backstreets and picturesque plazas are largely car-free, making them perfect for exploring on foot and free of charge. While you can spend time simply wandering and soaking up the atmosphere, there is a range of great free walking tours available that will give you the lowdown on Barcelona’s history, art and culture. Walking is also a great way to appreciate traditional life in Barcelona which, thanks to the pleasant climate, has always largely taken place outdoors. When you get tired, take a seat in one of the city’s many public seating areas.
While most museums in Barcelona charge entrance fees, the majority of them offer free entry every first Sunday of the month, or one afternoon a week. This is usually a Sunday, but check each museum’s website before planning a visit. This scheme means you can admire Picasso’s masterpieces or learn about Barcelona’s maritime history absolutely free of charge. Be sure to get to your chosen museum early, as queues form quickly and the doors usually shut half an hour before the advertised closing time.
It’s true you do need a ticket to access the main areas of Park Guëll that contain most of Antoni Gaudí’s photogenic work. It’s possible, however, to wander around a large part of the park without paying a cent. Enter via the entrance on the southwest side of the park and check out the Turó de les Tres Creus – ‘the hill of three crosses’ – then wander down and walk around the famous market area with its mosaic benches (you can’t access the benches, but can easily admire them from afar). Finish off with a stroll through the lavender and rosemary bushes up to the top, from where you can enjoy views of the whole city.
Barcelona is flanked on its northwestern side by the Parc de Collserola, the largest metropolitan park in the world. This huge expanse of protected land covers the range of small mountains (the Serra de Collserola) between the Besòs and Llobregat rivers. It’s home to a tremendous amount of wildlife, including wild boars and the elusive genet, a small cat-like animal. The park is crisscrossed with hiking trails that are popular with active locals in the evenings and at weekends. Some of the trails offer spectacular views over the city, and many start near metro and train stations, making it super easy to hit the hills for a free hike.
While you have to pay a fee to access many of Barcelona’s landmarks, you can enjoy the exteriors of these great buildings without spending a penny. Wander up Passeig de Gracià and admire the famous Dragon House, Casa Batlló, as well as the more sombre La Pedrera. Then, cut down Via Laietana and pop your head into the entrance hall of the Palau de la Música with its colourful patterned columns and beautiful facade. Elsewhere, you can check out the splendid frontages of Antoni Gaudí’s world-famous basilica, the Sagrada Família, without joining the huge queues to buy a ticket. Yes, you might miss out a little from not going inside, but there’s more than enough on the exterior to keep you entertained on a budget.
Not a weekend goes by in Barcelona (especially in the summer) when there isn’t a celebration or festivity taking place somewhere in the city. La Mercè Festival is Barcelona’s biggest event, taking place at the end of September each year, but there are local celebrations happening throughout the year. Keep an eye on the local council’s website to find out what’s happening during your visit. Most festas involve free activities and traditions such as processions, traditional dances and folklore. All these are interspersed with plenty of live music and general merrymaking that won’t cost you a thing.
Barcelona’s famous Montjuïc hill has a number of beautiful outdoor gardens that can be enjoyed for free. As well as being stunningly beautiful, they are often less crowded than the central Parc de la Ciutadella. The Gardens of the Grec Theatre have a beautiful amphitheatre carved into the hillside, while the Laribal Gardens are accessed via the Escaleras del Generalife, an enchanting stone staircase bordered by a trickling waterfall. For something a little different, head over to the Mossèn Costa i Llobera garden for an impressive collection of cacti and succulent plants. Montjuïc is also home to the Magic Fountain, which puts on a regular show of hypnotic water choreography.
Spend time relaxing on the beach free of charge (while you can, of course), we’re not just talking about having a casual splash around in the water here. Open-water sea swimming is one of the most popular activities in Barcelona and a fabulous way to get fit for free. There are lots of groups that meet for a communal swim; check out websites like Meetup for info on where and when. In addition, the Vies Braves website has loads of useful information on places to swim in the city, as well as further up the coast.
Many of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks and sights are easily accessible and out in the open for all to enjoy. In some cases though, you need to know where to look to truly appreciate the city’s cultural heritage. The Gothic Quarter, for example, is chock full of architectural secrets – from mysterious letter boxes laden with symbolism, to cursed skulls. Get online and do a little research before heading out to discover a side of the Gothic Quarter that few people notice.
While you’re wandering around, be sure to check out Barcelona’s lively street-art scene that helps to give the city its gritty urban character. This is art that’s not confined to a museum and is out in the open for all to enjoy, free of charge. If you’d like to know more about the artists and the local scene, the Barcelona Street Style Tour is a pay-what-you-like walking tour where guides will take you on a journey to see the most significant and interesting works of urban art.
From May to August, Barcelona’s parks and green spaces are transformed into outdoor music venues for Music in the Parks. The summer-long programme of jazz and classical music covers pretty much every neighbourhood of the city. You’ll find concerts happening in the popular Parc de la Ciutadella as well as lesser-known parks and gardens such as the Parc de la Trinitat and the Jardins del Turó del Putxet. Some of the parks also offer guided visits before the concerts.
If these free activities aren’t enough to keep your wallet full, there are also plenty of other ways to reduce your expenditure on a trip to Barcelona.
Food on a budget
While eating at Barcelona’s many bars and restaurants is one of the great joys of visiting the city, the expenses can soon add up. Be sure to plan a few picnics instead of spending your entire budget on eating out. The beaches are perfect for some al fresco dining. Try to avoid supermarkets located near typical tourist attractions, as they are crowded and have significantly higher prices. Shop instead at smaller independent food shops where they sell fruit and vegetables at bargain prices.
Shop like a local by heading to one of the city’s produce markets. If the crowds at the world-famous Mercat de la Boqueria are too much, opt instead for the less well-known Mercat de Santa Caterina or Mercat de Sant Antoni.
Keep a lookout for lunchtime menús del dia in bars and restaurants around the city. These are three-course meals that often include wine and can be a reasonably priced way to enjoy local cuisine. They’ll certainly fill you up all day, meaning you probably won’t need to spend much on dinner later – maybe just a few reasonably priced plates of tapas to keep you going.
Getting connected and getting around
Make the most of Barcelona’s free city-wide Wi-Fi, signified by W signs at access points throughout the centre.
If keeping costs down is crucial and you’re not going to use public transport a whole lot, it’s best to opt for a T10 metro card. This card can be used on metros, trains and trams within the city’s zone one and even for getting to the airport on public bus number 46. The 10 journeys on the card can be shared among more than one person, and work out at just €2.20 (£1.90) each.
Cycling is also an economical option for getting around Barcelona – there are many kilometres of cycle lanes in the city centre and bikes can be rented from downtown stores, such as Green Bikes, for as little as €10 (£8.70) a day.
For a cheaper night on the town, keep an eye out for happy-hour deals at bars and be sure to speak to the many reps that ply the beaches offering promotions and free entries to their clubs. Arriving at nightclubs before 1am is a good way of getting free or discounted entry.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Tara Jessop.