A question I get quite often from my cruise clients is whether or not to take a cruise excursion while in port or go at it independently. My answer depends on the port of call, if my clients have been to the port before and how comfortable they are exploring on their own. (Note: As of this writing, many cruises are on hold and excursions must be taken through the cruise line. This article assumes we will have options to book our own excursions or explore independently in the near future.)
As an avid independent traveler, I tend to steer away from the cruise line excursions, as I find them overpriced, touristy, crowded and too structured. I'm not a fan of crowds and much prefer a small group tour for the better experience and value. If I am going to take a tour, I usually go with a trusted and vetted supplier. That said, I will take an excursion offered by the ship if I'm in a city I'm not comfortable exploring on my own (e.g. Tunis), the 3rd party excursion company doesn't offer what I am looking for and/or if the ship's excursion is just plain better.
In some destinations I find exploring a city independently the most enjoyable. I can structure the day to my liking, linger at a spot longer, experience the sites most important to me, and enjoy the local food and beverages. In Europe especially I find the transportation systems ideal for this type of exploration as long as you are comfortable with it and don't have trouble walking.
This is exactly what I did while in Barcelona for a day. The cruise docked close to city center, making this port perfect for seeing the city on my own.
Some people may not be a fan, but I find that the Hop On Hop Off buses offer the best opportunities to visit must see sites when limited on time. Yes, they do take you to top tourist sites, however how long you stay at a particular spot is totally up to you. If something catches your eye you can stay a bit longer than what a scheduled tour might allow. In Barcelona, the bus can be picked up near the port, which makes it quite convenient. The biggest decision is deciding which of the routes to take first.
Not wanting to miss the iconic Sagrada Familia, we headed there first. The cathedral was designed by architect Antoni Gaudi, along with a number of other sites in the city. His style is very recognizable, unique and fascinating - a combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau. Construction started on the cathedral in 1882, and is still under construction (scheduled to be completed in 2026).
TIP: If I had to do it over again, I would opt for a private city tour or get off the ship a lot earlier, take a taxi to the cathedral and get a skip the line tour. Then catch the Hop On Hop Off bus from here to see the other sites. The lines to get in to the venue start early and are quite long, so if you don't get there early enough the wait times will eat up too much of your valuable shore time.
The second stop of the day was another Gaudi creation, Park Guell. It is a short walk from the bus stop, but well worth the visit. You need a ticket to get in here as well. I was there in April and had no problem getting in, however in the peak summer months one may want to purchase a ticket ahead of time. They only allow 800 people in per hour.
The park was originally built as a residential development, but the concept failed and was later turned into a park. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the park displays beautiful works of mosaic tile. The dragon fountain welcomes you at the park entrance. Interesting shaped walkways take you to the top of the park and a lovely terrace with mosaic tiled seats. The terrace also offers a wonderful view of the city.
Another Gaudi masterpiece is Casa Batllo. The facade looks like it was made from skulls and bones. The "skulls" are actually balconies. The building was originally a home built for the wealthy aristocrat Senor Batllo who lived on the lower floors and rented out the upper floor apartments. I found the attention to detail and interior design quite intriguing and fascinating.
If time allows, stop at the National Museum, if just for the views of Barcelona. We didn't have the time to go inside, but the 360 degree view of the city gave us a great perspective of the city and how big it was. The museum’s collection of modern art has works by Gaudi, Salvador Dali, Picasso and many others. The displays include drawings, prints, and posters dating from the 16th century and more than 134,000 coins and medals.
The routes start/end near the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic). It is considered the central hub of the city with its great shopping, restaurants, cafes and nightlife. The area can be quite crowded and touristy (hold on to your wallet and purse) but you will find many of the city's attractions only a short walk away, including the Barcelona Cathedral and Picasso Museum. We meandered around the area for several hours before heading back to the ship. We also got to experience a parade and mock funeral procession!
The Gothic Quarter offers plenty to see and do. If you have been to Barcelona before or would rather not get on the tour bus, this area is a perfect place to spend a half day or more exploring.
Despite getting a slightly late start (we left the ship around 9 am), we were able to take the full circle route, approximately 2 hours. We saw the main attractions we wanted to see and drove past others, like the Olympic Park, that were nice to see but not as important to us.
Barcelona is a perfect city to explore on your own. If you enjoy walking tours, another option is to hire a local guide for a few hours for an insider's view of the area. There is plenty to see and do close to the cruise port, so enjoy what the city has to offer!
When your cruise starts or ends in Barcelona, I highly suggest adding several days to your itinerary. Barcelona is a fascinating city. There is plenty to explore, and if you are in to the culinary scene, the markets and restaurants will not disappoint.
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