Last year, whilst away on a cottage weekend, a group of friends and I decided we would start doing an annual surprise trip – one person is tasked with planning an entire trip in complete secret! We were quite a few glasses of prosecco down at this point so instead of drawing straws to decide our first organiser we left it to the spin of an empty bottle and it was…me! Being a regular at organising group trips I was happy to go first but the pressure was on!
The planning stage
We set a budget of around £250 for travel and accommodation and a few well-trodden destinations were vetoed. The rest was up to me! I toyed with a few ideas but quickly narrowed it down to a long weekend somewhere in Spain with sun, tapas and sangria in mind. Valencia was top of the list but unfortunately the price of flights put it out of budget. In the end, I settled on Barcelona having heard great things from friends who had been before.
Return flights with Easyjet worked out at £100 each with hand luggage only, leaving £150 per person in the budget for accommodation. When travelling with a group I always think it’s nice to stay in a place to yourself rather than be divided up into hotel rooms with no communal space to hang out. Airbnb was therefore the perfect place to search!
I was blown away with the number of places available on Airbnb in Barcelona – spacious, reasonably priced, centrally located and beautifully decorated – it was hard to narrow it down! In the end I selected a gorgeous modern apartment a short walk from Las Ramblas in the Ravel region of the city. It worked out at around £120 a head meaning I had a little budget left over for a few surprise extras!
Our selected weekend in October came around quickly and I was super nervous thanks to a very changeable weather forecast. It’s hard enough planning what to pack in this situation yourself let alone when you have to help four others plan their outfits without giving the destination away! Before I knew it the time had come and there was no turning back…
Off to Barcelona we go!
Thanks to a bit of boarding card origami I managed to keep the rest of the girls in suspense about our destination until we reached the gate at the airport! It was rather nerve raking for me but so great to hear the squeals of excitement when they finally found out where we were heading! It felt good to be able to share the plans I’d made at last and get the trip underway.
Our journey was smooth and before we knew it we’d touched down in a rather rainy Spain! It was confusing to figure out where to get a taxi at the airport but thankfully we managed to flag one down before we got too soaked. It was only about a 20 minute journey to the apartment (35€) and we were greeted by one of the host’s friends.
After a quick tour (the place was as amazing as the photos) we were given a priceless run down of the best places to eat and drink in the area. I actually think this is one of the biggest perks of staying in an Airbnb – nothing beats local suggestions!
I soon realised that, given the weather, we weren’t going to be able to do all the outdoor things I’d planned, including afternoons just wandering around. This made the restaurant recommendations even more valuable as it gave us guaranteed good places to hide from the cold! We weren’t going to let the weather stop us from exploring the city though so layered up as best we could (the rest of the group actually ended up packing better than I did!) and set off.
La Sagrada Familia
One of the surprise extra activities I managed to squeeze into the budget was a trip to the most famous building in Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia – the masterpiece designed by Gaudí. Audio-guide tickets came it at just £20 each with a timed entry slot. There is the option to include a trip up one of the towers in your ticket but, having read a few reviews that it’s a little claustrophobic and there are equally spectacular views from other buildings for free, I didn’t bother.
There seems to be a lot of reviews online which suggest the entrance to La Sagrada Familia for people with pre-booked tickets is hard to find – you only have a 15-minute slot to enter and can (apparently) be refused even if you are only a few minutes late. However, it wasn’t an issue at all. We arrived at the dedicated metro station on Carrer de la Marina (on the ‘nativity’ façade) and the entrance was right opposite – you really can’t miss it! Once through airport style security, one person from the group can collect the audio guides for all and the tour begins at your leisure.
The scale of the building, the intricacy of its stone work and the beauty of its stained-glass windows is breath taking. If you haven’t been yet, GO! The audio guide was a little confusing about where you were meant to be standing at times and I didn’t see everything that was described because of construction work taking place inside. However, despite this, it was very informative, and I loved being able to wander around this spectacular building at my own pace whilst learning about its construction.
Just don’t miss the extra bit of the tour accessed outside from the ‘passion’ side (I did) which shows some of the sculptures used to make the stone ones. We spent around an hour and 15 minutes for our visit and all came away awestruck.
Gaudí walking tour
I booked us on to the 11am Gaudí walking tour with Runner Bean Tours after being impressed by their website, reviews and tour options. We met our tour guide, Anna, in Plaça Reial and were pleased to find that the very large group was going to be split into two to make it more manageable. We set off on the tour that would last a few hours and saw many of Gaudí’s works, including Palau Güell, La Manzana de la Discordia, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. Along the way we also learnt lots of interesting facts about Gaudí and Barcelona. For example, did you know that:
- There are no right angles in any of Gaudí’s buildings
- St. George is also the patron saint of Catalonia
- The Chupa Chups (lollipop) logo was designed by Salvador Dalí in the colours of the Catalan flag
During the tour we took two trips on the metro. You can buy a T10 ticket (10.20€) which equates to 10 single journeys in Zone 1 and can be used by multiple people on the same trip (just pass it between you at the barrier). This meant we could cover a greater distance and was a great way for any first timers to get the hang of using the metro with a local at hand to help. Don’t worry, we still got plenty of steps in!
We had a really good time despite the cold and were pleased it ended at La Sagrada Familia as it meant we could ask some of the questions that weren’t answered by the audio guide! The quirk of this type of ‘free’ tour is that how much it costs is entirely up to you. Once the tour is over, you are free to tip the guide whatever you thought the tour was worth or whatever you can afford. This makes it accessible for all and means the guides really put in the effort to make it worth your while!
Let’s go to the beach, beach
A great thing about Barcelona is its location on the coast, with loads of beaches to unwind on when the city break walking gets a bit much! We thankfully got some proper sunshine on the last day of the trip – better late than never I guess – so we ventured off to Barceloneta Beach for a wander before we had to head to the airport. It’s a lovely walk from the city centre to the beach, passed the beautiful marina and then along it towards the famous W hotel. The views are stunning.
Be prepared to be hounded a little by the hawkers selling scarfs but they aren’t too much of a problem. One person we didn’t mind approaching us was a lovely lady offering mini massages when we had flopped onto the sand. At 5€ for 15 minutes it was well worth it and despite the language barrier her sense of humour had us all in fits of laughter! In the end three out of five of us had a little zen session.
Eating and drinking
Given we actually spent the majority of our trip indulging in the local food and drink there isn’t enough space here to do the recommendations we were given justice! So, watch this space for a further blog dedicated to the amazing restaurants and bars we encountered…
Barcelona was a perfect location for our first surprise trip. There were so many places to visit and we loved the vibe of the food and drink scene. I will definitely go again to tick a few more things off the list that we didn’t manage to get to. I wouldn’t head back in October as the weather really did hinder how long we wanted to be outside. So, I think a spring/summer trip would be on the cards for next time, allowing more opportunities to stroll through the city and soak everything up in the sunshine!
The next surprise trip is coming October 2019!
A word of warning on safety
Barcelona is known for its pickpockets. I made sure everyone in the group was prepared and we all took a small bag that could be worn across the body with our valuables in. This wasn’t enough to stop a man taking his chance though and one of the girls ended up being grabbed by the throat in an attempt to steal her necklace one evening. Other than getting a complete shock she wasn’t hurt and nothing was taken. I don’t say this to scare anyone or put you off visiting this amazing city. However, it is important to recognise both the highs and lows that come with travelling. Just ensure you are prepared and remain vigilant, especially once it starts to get dark.