For anyone with a liking for art, music, dining, festivals and the good life lived 24 hours a day, the Spanish city of Barcelona is irresistible – especially in summer.
Although Barcelona has a 2,000-year history, it presents itself as a progressive, confident and contemporary city of sunlit waterfronts, kilometers of beaches, excellent restaurants and theaters, and, of course, its landmark Gaudí cathedral.
The Catalan city’s indulgent spirit is highlighted along La Rambla, the long avenue that is the social center of the city and the perfect place for a stroll and conversation. Yet the whole of Barcelona is a place to wander, to hop from one tapas bar to another, browse markets and take in wonderful art museums and attractions. At no time is that more the case than in August.
Although you can expect high-season tourist crowds, this is the best time for long hours of sunshine, an eruption of rooftop bars and cafés in squares, and lively music festivals and other events. If you want to know why Barcelona is the continent’s top city for short-haul holidays and so loved by Europeans, you could hardly visit at a better time.
Start with art, which is a living, breathing part of Barcelona. You can see the city’s artistic temperament in the gargoyles and curlicues of its historic Barri Gòtic quarter, and in the bold metals and curved lines of its more modern architecture. The patterns of its petunia-popping flowerbeds look like Picasso abstracts, and bearded gentlemen straight from a Goya canvas gossip on park benches. You can feel art in the atmosphere too. Art here isn’t stuffy but alive in the streets: the drift of jazz music, the sound of festivals, the stylish way of life. Late-night squares are shadowy cinematographic stage-sets through which laughter flows.
Although Barcelona is a city made for simply strolling and admiring, take time to visit its most outstanding architectural attractions, such as the glorious modernist complex of Hospital Sant Pau and masterpieces by Antoni Gaudí such as La Pedrera and the sinuous, tiled Casa Batlló building, which stands beside the striking, modernist Casa Amatller. As an added bonus, Casa Batlló hosts nightly rooftop music concerts in August, while La Pedrera has jazz events on Friday and Saturday nights.
Of course, Catalan artist Gaudí’s defining masterpiece is Sagrada Família, or the Church of the Holy Family. It was begun in 1882 and became his obsession, but when he died in 1926 it was barely started. It remains unfinished, a magnificent work of slow progress. (The construction is entirely funded by visitor tickets and donations; it will hopefully finally reach completion for the centenary of Gaudí’s death in 2026.) The surreal, fanciful wonder of magical, twisting towers has art nouveau influences but its own eccentric style, and features an abundance of symbolism in its intertwined saints, animals and flowers.
Barcelona also has outstanding museums, among them Fundació Joan Miró, devoted to the Barcelona painter and sculptor Miró; the contemporary art gallery CaixaForum, which hosts a series of summer concerts every Wednesday in August; and the Picasso Museum. Picasso lived in Barcelona as a child, and you can admire some of his childhood sketches, which show an amazing early talent and the influences of the city around him. In all, the museum houses some 4,000 Picasso works, including some from his famous Rose and Blue periods.
When museum fatigue sets in, there are other ways to soak up Barcelona’s arty heritage and contemporary character. You can shop for cutting-edge fashions in the quirky stores of El Born and Eixample districts. Some would argue soccer too is an art form here, as is café sitting and ir la marcha, literally ‘going on parade’, the nightly ritual of being out and about in the capital’s elegant squares and seemingly endless tapas bars.
As for the food, it’s easy to be seduced by Michelin-starred restaurants led by world-famous chefs such as Ferran Adrià, but you can also enjoy multi-ethnic El Raval district’s informal North African and South American cuisines, or Barri Gòtic’s traditional Catalan food, such as a hearty zarzuela (fish stew) and tapas dishes – though you’ll have to be a night owl, as the tapas scene really only gets going after dark, or after 10pm in summer. Also not to be missed is one of Europe’s top fresh food markets, La Boqueria, where you can shop for quality Iberian ham, varieties of Spanish cheese, heirloom vegetables and much more beneath wrought-iron roofs.
Most of all, though, Barcelona is a festival city. Across the summer, one festival seems to merge into another in a succession of rock concerts, fireworks, religious events and street parties. Sprawling green zone Montjuïc also features a summer open-air cinema, with classic and new independent movies shown three times a week in various languages. Locals bring food and picnics as the sun sets and the big screen flickers into life.
The biggest festival of the month is Festa Major de Gràcia, which this year runs on August 15–21. The carnival has been celebrated in Barcelona’s Gràcia district for over two centuries. Streets are decorated with flowers, banners and striking giant figures made from papier-mâché, and every other square or street has a music stage and its own bands playing everything from jazz to hip hop or salsa. Bars are open late, and beer and sangria – the Spanish punch of red wine and fruit – flows. In all there are some 600 activities, culminating in an award for the best-decorated street and a fireworks finale.
This is only one of various neighbourhood festivals in August. Festa Major de Sants (August 18–26) in honour of St Bartholomew has similar street decorations and fireworks, but is also notable for its human pyramids. Festa Major de Sant Roc (August 14–18) in the Barri Gòtic sees locals dress in 16th-century costumes, culminating in a parade with firecrackers, giants and fire-spitting dragons. The festival is also noted for its panellets, a tasty, traditional marzipan dessert.
Aside from the traditional, there are also events such as DGTL Festival (August 10–11), a celebration of techno music that also features art installations and fire-spitting machines. Every Sunday sees Brunch in the Park on Montjuïc hill, accompanied by an impressive line-up of international DJs. Also, Festival Mas i Mas runs the entire month and offers more than 200 concerts from funk to flamenco, and rock to gospel.
If you want to party, then August in Barcelona obliges. Regardless of whether you are dancing to techno beats, sampling the sangria at a neighbourhood festival or people-watching from a bustling tapas bar, it’s clear that this Spanish city celebrates summer like no other.