Do you dream of gorgeous Gaudi, tapas on tap and a vibrant beach/city break with lashings of glamour and culture? Follow Johanna Payton’s lead and visit Barcelona from the UK by train
In 1998, I made my first visit to Barcelona. I’ve never enjoyed flying, and that was a prototype no fly holiday: we hopped on a coach to the Costa Brava.
I breathed the atmosphere in so deeply it never left my lungs
Most of that holiday – when we were very young, and very foolish – was in no way glamorous. But a day trip to Barcelona was the cultural highlight.
From seeing the building site that was the Sagrada Familia to spotting the little green parakeets flitting about in Parc Ciutadella, I was so overcome by the experience I had to sit and take deep breaths on a park bench.
I don’t know why there was a 20-year hiatus between that mind-shifting day and my latest visit: it was as if I breathed the atmosphere in so deeply it never left my lungs.
But when it came to booking this year’s big summer break, wondering where we could go for culture and a beach fix – without flying – those intoxicating memories came flooding back.
A Google or two later and I was armed with the information that you can get from London to the Catalonian capital in just 12-hours and two trains.
Mission “Barcelona from the UK by train” was very much accepted.
It’s easy to visit Barcelona from the UK by train
We left London’s St. Pancras station at 7:30am on the last, misty morning of July.
After an easy zip through the Eurotunnel – and half the length of France – we were in Lyon in time for lunch. 90 minutes between connections was the perfect amount of time to facilitate a freshen-up and a burger, then we were back on an RENFE/SNCF service straight to Barcelona, complete with air con, in-ride entertainment and spacious seats.
At 7:30pm, we pulled into Barcelona Sants station and a 15-minute taxi ride across town despatched us safely to our digs, the TRYP Condal Mar hotel in the Diagonal Mar neighbourhood.
From the chic reception area to the stylish rooftop pool, this is a young and vibrant hotel with a brilliant location minutes from the underground station, close to Barcelona’s quieter stretch of beaches and a stone’s throw from the huge Diagonal Mar shopping mall (handy when you’ve got a teenager in tow).
The area immediately around the Condal Mar is quiet and industrial (which may explain the outrageously reasonable prices for such a swish hotel) so we tucked into room service on our first evening (excellent pizza and addictive patatas bravas) with an early swim in the rooftop pool firmly on the agenda for the morning.
With five days in the city ahead of us we looked forward to a mixed itinerary of sightseeing, food and seaside fun: the best thing about Barcelona is being able to seamlessly mix a city and beach break.
It was easy to walk into town from the hotel (but do wear comfy shoes as it’s a good hour or so into the city centre), or the Barcelona Metro is quiet, easy to navigate and takes you to all the main tourist spots. You can pick up line 4 (the yellow line) at Selva de Mar, less than 10 minutes’ walk from the hotel.
We enjoyed mooching along the long promenade, stopping for lunch at one of the plentiful beach bars on the way. An amble through Parc Cituadella gave us our first taste of Gaudi magic (check out the dragon-adorned fountain in the middle of the park) and a fresh orange juice with vanilla ice cream float in the El Born area provided a welcome sugar rush.
Food is always very much on our radar and we ate some truly fabulous treats during our stay.
NAP (Neapolitan Authentic Pizza) was a delicious discovery. Pizza here will punch your taste buds – and if the burrata is available as a starter, do not hesitate.
Tucked unassumingly away in a gritty El Born sidestreet, the beautiful hospitality of the Italian staff at NAP is only matched by the lip-smacking taste of the pizza.
The service is a little chippy at Cuines Santa Caterina, in the famous Santa Caterina Market, but the tapas is tasty and not too pricey.
The menu is based on produce fresh from the market – and the chorizo casserole, fillet of pork with foie gras (sorry) and Thai green chicken curry are to die for.
ARTiSA is easily overlooked given it’s heavily touristy position, sandwiched between La Rambla and the Plaça Reial – but the churros and chocolate here is divine. And affordable: we paid just €4 each for the pleasure.
We had no room left for the cakes and pastries, but they looked amazing.
And for a special occasion (we happened to be celebrating one during our holiday) take yourself down to Cafe del Mar (yep, that Cafe del Mar) at Port Forum.
The spontaneous birthday cake that appeared for my beau pushed us totally over the edge
If you have plenty of cash to splash, you’ll be treated like queens and kings, here – and fine dining with a classic Ibiza soundtrack is my idea of heaven.
Out on the terrace, overlooking the glamorous pool club, we feasted on freshly baked bread, croquetas, mussells and the most decadent paella with red prawn and crayfish: an umami overload.
Although under-18s aren’t allowed into the pool area, there’s a simple children’s menu in the restaurant: even our seafood-sceptic teenager, egged-on by the waiter, tried the rice.
Dessert reached all new levels of indulgence. Cafe del Mar passion fruit lipstick? Delicate macaroon? Nougat brittle? Wasabi ice cream and black sesame seed lollipop? Seriously. I was dreaming of the gourmand-style dessert plate for weeks after.
The spontaneous (and nothing to do with me) birthday cake that appeared for my beau pushed us totally over the edge – I’m surprised we didn’t sink when we jumped straight into the sea at the gorgeous Forum Beach straight after our decadent lunch.
It was a lunch that wasn’t planned, but couldn’t have been better if we’d spent weeks organising it.
Food wasn’t our only Barcelona pleasure, of course. There was plenty of culture – and shopping – over our five-day stay.
The Picasso Museum gave us a welcome break from the scorching heat – and a wonderful overview of the artist’s work and relationship with the city.
Many Euros were shelled out in the vintage shops on and around Carrer dels Tallers (Flamingos on Carrer de les Ramelleres was my favourite), a multitude of comic shops were visited (the boys even stopped for burgers in the Glups! cafe at Norma Comics) and we savoured every second of wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the street art.
I was in no rush to leave Barcelona – and in no doubt that I would not be waiting another 20-years between visits.
But another no-fly trip was calling; we’d easily got to Barcelona from the UK by train but we wanted to go further.
There was an overnight ferry waiting in the harbour with our names on it…
How to get to Barcelona from the UK by train:
Johanna took a direct Eurostar service from London St. Pancras to Lyon Part Dieu.
From Part Dieu, a direct service operates to Barcelona Sants.
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Pictures: Johanna Payton