Turns out, a lot of flights to Europe have a Barcelona layover. So, when we realized that our budget flight to Santorini meant we’d be in Barcelona for THIRTEEN hours, it was a no-brainer to go into the new-to-us city.
However, we knew this would take a bit of planning to figure out what to do with our bags, deal with public transport, and make sure we got to see the couple of things we really wanted to (aka all the Gaudí gorgeousness)!
Honestly, it was still a bit of a mad rush with trying to do so much during a layover on our way to Greece – but, thanks to our pre-planning, it was a success!
Here’s how we made it work (goofy hats optional):
Pre-Planning for a Day in Barcelona
Barcelona is one of those places that definitely requires some pre-planning (same for Paris, Rome, and most other big tourist destinations in Europe – especially in summer and fall). Luckily, we learned our lesson about ‘just winging it’ in Paris where we couldn’t go to any of the major sights because they were booked solid. So, for Barcelona, we booked ahead.
Timing Your Barcelona Layover Right
First, we figured out how much time we could realistically be in the city – after accounting for dealing with luggage and transport. In our experience, we always do a 30-minute buffer both ways, but knowing how busy Barcelona is, we gave an hour.
So, with our flight getting in at 9 a.m., we planned two hours to deal with our bags and get into downtown Barcelona. That meant we didn’t want to book anything until closer to 1 p.m., just to be safe!
For our return, we knew we’d need to get re-checked in, since we booked our flights separately. We also had access to the lounge through our Priority Pass (included with our Chase Saphire Reserve Card), so we planned extra time to have drinks and snacks before our 11 p.m. flight.
After outlining it, we decided to plan activities in Barcelona between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. – which worked out really well.
However, we didn’t realize it was a holiday, so be sure to check for that! It really only limited our food options, so no biggie. But, Spain has tons of holidays all year round – so be sure to check for those, festivals, and other events that may affect your trip and travel time to and from the city.
Booking the Barcelona Highlights
Obviously, the uniquely beautiful Gaudí architecture is the main pull for tourists in Barcelona. We knew trying to see it all would end up in a disaster (we learn from experience, y’all). So, we narrowed down our things-to-see list to two places.
We booked both ahead of time – including a tower tour at Sagrada. And this was absolutely necessary! Guell actually had no availability for two days when we got there and we can assume from the limited booking time options when we locked in Sagrada weeks in advance, that it was a similar situation.
Finding Luggage Storage
You guys … have you ever heard of left luggage? It is our new favorite thing when backpacking through Europe. Yes, we house sit quite a bit – but, we also go on plenty of between-sit adventures with those bags packed for months of travel across seasons. And we certainly don’t want to schlepp those around a city and through attractions with us! (Especially cities known for pickpocketing.)
We first used a left luggage service on a weekend trip to Rome that we didn’t want to bring our big bags to. So, we stored them in London where we’d be flying in and out of. It was AMAZING! And pretty cheap. We knew this was the only way to make our Barcelona layover work!
We used the left luggage service in Terminal 1 (which is right by the train, and also where we flew out of). It was €10 per bag and WELL WORTH IT!
Tips for Using Left Luggage in Barcelona
The Barcelona airport is HUGE! Luckily, my genius husband had the bright idea of storing our luggage in the terminal we’d be leaving from in order to avoid hassle when we had to check back in.
We also booked our spaces ahead of time online (but didn’t pay until after we picked them up at the end of our visit). Not sure if this was needed, but it was easy enough to do to ensure they had space for us.
Just to be extra secure (since we travel with laptops), we bring a TSA lock to lock our bags when we use these services. We also note that there are breakables in the bags and make sure they aren’t throwing them around. This one just set them nicely on their own shelf!
Getting into Barcelona from the Airport via Public Transport
Downtown Barcelona is about 15 km (9 miles) from the airport. It’s a 30-to-40-minute ride via the metro, which is what we chose. Sure, we could have taken a taxi, but we weren’t interested in spending a ton on this trip – especially after dropping about US$80 on our activity entry.
Visiting Sagrada Familia
Since our first reservation was at Sagrada Familia, we took the L9S to the L5 to the Sagrada Park. We easily walked to the entry and (after some initial confusion on where to go), got our tickets and audio guide.
With our time slot, we had about an hour to explore inside the stunning Gaudí church before we needed to show up for our Nativity Tower tour.
Seeing this masterpiece in person was worth the hassle of storing our bags, taking the metro, and the hefty entry price (€17-32 each).
For those who aren’t familiar, this Basilica was designed by the famous (and extremely creative) architect Antoni Gaudí. It’s been under construction for 135 years – making the cranes almost as iconic as the many towers.
Some churches are plain outside and ornate inside, but not this one. There are details all over this modern Gothic masterpiece! Don’t miss a walk around the outside before and after wandering through the colorful inner parts of the church (our favorite!)
Although the size and details on the outside are impressive, the colorful windows, unique archways, and stunning simplicity inside all came together in such a breathtaking way. It’s really an unreal place that triggers so much awe.
The tower tour was a highlight as well. After doing some research, we went for the Nativity Tower in order to check out the views of the city and ocean beyond – this is also the tower Gaudi oversaw before he died. As promised, it was fantastic! Getting this close to the spires was amazing as well. Very happy we added this on!
During this part of our visit, we stored our day bag and went up the small five-person elevator to the start of our tower tour. A short walk led us to the viewing platform where we could see for miles.
Thank God for good weather! We loved getting to admire all of the intricate details and just overall height of the church from this unique vantage point. It was well worth the extra cost and slight disorientation after winding down all those stairs!
Visiting Park Guell
We’re walkers (and, after not sleeping on our over-night plane … yes, exactly the ones from the Walking Dead that word probably triggered images of).
So, we just trekked it the 2.3 km (1.5 miles), mainly uphill, to Park Guell. Of course, with a stop for lunch and beer on the way. While the park was beautiful, we were hitting our limit of exhaustion at this point (beer was probably not a great idea either…) But, the park really was stunning.
The vast majority of the park is free! However, the most iconic areas do have a fee area, which we felt was worth it. Here, you can admire the unique buildings and city views. Plus, there’s an interesting tunnel-like structure and pathways to wander.
One of the colorful buildings houses a souvenir shop, while the other is set up more like a museum. At this point in our delirious wanderings (due to lack of sleep on our overnight flight and jet lag), we didn’t spend too much time in these crowded areas. But, they are worth a walk-through – especially since you’ve paid the fee to be able to access them.
This area isn’t very big, but it was worth the time to go just to be immersed in the Dr.Seuss-esque area Gaudi created.
After this last stop, we were hot, soaked with sweat, and ready to lounge. So, we got on the train at the nearest spot, got a little off track trying to find the right connection, and eventually got back to the airport.
For reference, take the L3 to L9S – which will include about a 10-minute walk from the park.
If we had more time, we’d have loved to visit Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, taken in the views at Montjuïc, and eaten way more tapas. But, we did well with the time we had!
Leaving the City & Using the Lounge!
We LOVED Barcelona. But, this lounge was heaven after such a hectic day. Sala VIP Canudas had some great food options (including my favorite – Spanish omelet)! So, we spent a few hours eating, drinking, using all the Wi-Fi, and charging all the devices. We so love these free perks of lounge life – as well as the comfier seating and very clean bathrooms that haven’t been used by quite as many other people.
Plane travel is pretty much the worst when you are on a budget, but these lounges help us forget just how awful long travel days can be. Or maybe it’s just the alcohol. Ha!
Speaking of alcohol, we ended up having some drinks and chatting with a honeymooning couple also on their way to Santorini. This led to losing track of time and all of us having to run to our plane to make it to Greece. Good times!
Our thirteen hours in Barcelona is a bit of a blur, with the lack of sleep, jet lag, and alcohol intake, but we’re so glad we went and that we took hundreds of photos to help jog our memories of this special place.
What is your favorite long layover memory? See more of our travel stories here.