Paris and Barcelona are two of Europe’s most exciting cities to visit. This also means they are among the most popular and can get very crowded. But if you follow our strategy, you’ll enjoy your time in both of these amazing places and see a lot of sites.
The best way to approach destinations that can get super busy with tourists is to visit the most popular attractions during the slowest times and go to the lesser-known spots during the rest of the day and evening. You probably already know that for the most visited attractions, like famous museums, cathedrals, parks and houses, you can usually order tickets online ahead of
time. For these you absolutely want to be among the first in line because as more people enter, the sites become more and more crowded throughout the day. Then fill in the rest of your time with some of our lesser-known gems, listed below. You’ll find that you’ll be highly rewarded for swimming against the current!
First, Lighten Your Load
Before we tell you about some of the less-touristy places you’ll want to spend time at Paris and Barcelona, here’s another tip. Something we hear about a lot these days is where to store luggage. With more people booking rooms via Airbnb or other non-hotel short-term rentals, visitors want a place to drop off their bags before check-in or after checkout. There are some luggage lockers in Paris and Barcelona, but they’re often not in convenient locations or you have to pay for the whole day. What we’ve found works best is the new generation of luggage storage companies, like LuggageHero, where you can store your bags in locations all over the city and pay by the hour. Because of all the convenient drop-off points all over Paris and Barcelona, you can even move your bag around as you visit different attractions. Or just leave them in a location that is most convenient for all your stops.
Like we said, make reservations at the top ticketed locations, such as the Louvre and Centre Pompidou, early in the day. As for popular places you might just view and not enter or for those that are free, either visit early or around dinnertime, when everyone else is eating. Those include the Arc de Triomphe, Jardin du Luxembourg and Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, the
world’s most visited cemetery.
Some people call Bercy Village a “faux French village” in the middle of Paris. But actually it’s not fake at all. Situated in the 12th arrondissement, it’s a newish urban renewal project that saved small 19th-century wine warehouses from being destroyed. While it has been discovered by tourists, it’s still a less-popular site. Bercy Village is a fun spot to spend a few hours, especially if you’re into architecture and urban design, or, of course, shopping. While there, check out the beautiful Parc de Bercy next door. The park was the former vegetable gardens of the Bercy district, dating from when the wine merchants oversaw the land. In summer and spring there are a multitude of lovely flowers in bloom.
Bassin de la Villette, a remarkable stretch of water that was once an industrial port, is now experiencing a revival: the harbors are filled with people strolling about. There are restaurants overlooking the water and you can even rent electric boats there. At 800 meters long by 70 meters wide, the Bassin is the biggest artificial stretch of water in Paris, linking the canal de
l’Ourcq to the canal Saint-Martin. Numerous cultural activities, such as concerts and plays, make this canal basin a festive place and very popular with Parisians. In fact, starting in 2017, you can even swim there during the summer in blocked-off pool areas.
Everything is right again with the Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, after a recent redesign that created Les Berges de Seine, a 2.4-kilometer (1.5 mile) stretch of riverbank that is only for pedestrians and cyclists. It was once a heavily trafficked thoroughfare connecting the banks at the Musee d’Orsay and the Pont d’Alma. Now you can find floating botanical gardens, capsule hotels, boat bistros and amazing views. Next up: Not to be left behind, the Right Bank, or Rive Droite, is getting a similar treatment.
As with Paris, make reservations at the top ticketed locations, such as Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum, early in the day. It’s best to visit spots that are free or that you’re not going inside, early in the day or when people are eating dinner (that’s much later in Barcelona than in Paris!). Those might include Gaudi’s Casa Milà and Las Ramblas, the
central boulevard where locals and tourists alike congregate.
The ultimate cure for tourist overload in Barcelona is a visit to the hospital –or at least the site of the former Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul). Now named the Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site after being transformed into a museum, research center and cultural center, this stunning complex set on 40 acres is the work of Barcelona’s lesser-known but equally genius architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1849-1923). He, too, holds a high place in the canon of Catalan modernisme, Spain’s version of Art Nouveau, so much so that the hospital complex is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
There’s a new and under-the-radar stop to add to the list of Gaudi buildings to visit. After years of repairs, Casa Vicens, the first house designed by the city’s defining architect, opened to the public in late 2017. While Gaudi is most famous for his unfinished swirling cathedral, he designed many buildings in and around the Catalonian capital, from relatively standard works to the more asymmetrical, organic, even surreal buildings he became known for. Casa Vicens, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2005, fits into the latter category. The four-story eye-popping building was designed as a summer home for a stockbroker as Gaudi’s first notable commission when he was in his early 30s. Built between 1883 and 1888, it boasts fanciful turrets, brightly colored tiles, and wedding-cake ceilings.
Another popular place to ramble is along Barcelona’s waterfront, and while it’s certainly popular, it’s also long and wide, so there is space to move. Start with Rambla del Mar, a wooden bridge which gives you a great overview of the port and leads to the shopping center MareMagnum and the Aquarium. But beyond those attractions, the waterfront is the perfect escape from art and architecture. Instead you’ll find a promenade lined with palms and frequented by joggers and cyclists as well as seafood restaurants and waterfront bars, and a series of enjoyable beaches. If you really need to get away from the crowds, a quick train ride out of Barcelona will take you to several super seaside paradises in Catalonia.