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Your Layover Guide to Barcelona (BCN)

July 17, 2015
11 min read
Your Layover Guide to Barcelona (BCN)
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The “Your Layover Guide” series features airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as suggesting things to do if you have time to explore the nearby city. This time around, TPG Contributor Alyssa Schwartz guides us through Spain's second-largest airport, Barcelona-El Prat (BCN).

Barcelona-El Prat International Airport is a cool, modern hub — and the second-largest airport in Spain. Photo by Jeroen Bennink / Flickr.
Barcelona-El Prat has been named "Best Airport in Europe" — more than once. Photo by Jeroen Bennink / Flickr.

Though it’s one of Europe’s busier hubs, Barcelona-El Prat (BCN) feels delightfully navigable and accessible compared to airports such as Heathrow and Frankfurt; even if you’re not departing on a Mediterranean cruise or planning a stay in this whimsical, artful city, BCN makes for an easy connection for those traveling onward.

Unanimously awarded Best Airport in Europe in the 25 million-plus passengers category at the Annual Assembly of the Airports Council International Europe for the second time in 2014, BCN is more than just passenger-friendly — the $1.7 billion terminal, designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill out of white granite and glass, is planet-friendly too, with solar heating and electricity-saving walls. There are also plenty of offerings to keep you relaxed and pampered during your layover.

At the Airport

The cutting-edge Terminal 1 at Barcelona El-Prat. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Though BCN has two terminals, international passengers are more likely to touch down and take off from Terminal 1, which opened in 2009. (Terminal 2 is mostly unused, aside from some low-cost European carriers; if you do need to transfer terminals, be aware they’re about 2.5 miles apart — a bit far to hoof it if you’re catching a flight and dragging luggage; the trip takes about 10 minutes and free shuttle buses run frequently.)

Barcelona’s airy, sword-shaped terminal caters extensively to weary travelers, with an on-site spa [a 30-minute circuit in the thermal baths costs just €19 (about $21), an hour is €29 ($32)], salon and fitness center. Facilities are open from 9am to 9pm, Monday to Friday and 10am to 8pm on weekends; though reservations can be booked in advance, services are charged to your credit card at the time of booking — you may want to keep it to a drop-in basis in case of any flight delays to avoid refund headaches.

If even a spa visit requires more energy than you have after an overnight flight, onsite day rooms are available from €59 ($66) for three hours [overnight from €149 ($167)]. A bargain compared to some airport hotels, rooms include double beds with private bath and shower, toiletries and slippers, flat-screen TVs and gym access. Terminal 1 also features a chapel and prayer room, located in the “La Plaza” area on the first floor, and two children’s play areas.

First class, business-class and elite-tier passengers on most airlines may access one of the airport’s four VIP lounges (three are located in Terminal 1 — one in the European departures area, one in international departures and one at the Barcelona-Madrid shuttle gates; there is also a lounge in Terminal 2) or pay €25 ($28) for entry. The airport also offers 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi throughout the terminal.

Luggage Storage

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Follow signs saying Consignas (Catalan for “left luggage”) to the ground floor lobby. BCN’s luggage storage facilities are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with sliding rates per bag based on storage time: fees start at €6 ($7) for 0-2 hours or €10 ($11) for 2-24 hours or per day up to seven days. It'll cost you extra for bags weighing more than 30 kg (66 pounds).

People movers make it easy — and cool — to get around Barcelona's airport. Photo by Shutterstock.
People movers make it easy — and cool — to get around Barcelona's airport. Photo by Shutterstock.


BCN’s 256,181-square-foot shopping concourse is a clotheshorse’s dream — with 51 shops, ranging from high-end designers such as Burberry, Carolina Herrera and Massimo Dutti to Spanish standards Mango and Zara, and local favorites Custo and Buff, don’t be surprised if you board your next flight with your wallet a little lighter and bags a little heavier. There are general duty-free shops in all departure areas, so you can also snap up your favorite cosmetics, liquors and other standards, tax-free.


With two beer-focused bars, numerous coffee counters, and a few decent spots for sampling tapas, BCN offers plenty of options for fresh food prepared in the local style. If you can’t make it into town, you can drown your sorrows in pa amb tomaquet, croquettas and other traditional Catalan fare at Porta Gaig, the airport’s most notable eatery by Carles Gaig, the Michelin-starred Barcelona chef. If a visit to the seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta isn’t in the cards, it’s still possible to dine on simple, grilled-fresh seafood at Asador del Mar by the popular restaurant group Moncho’s. Lizarrán (four locations throughout Terminal 1) and Mussol will fill any lingering cravings for jamon and patatas bravas. They may lack the ambiance of snacking in La Boqueria, but they’re not bad for not leaving the terminal.

Travel to the City Center

Aerobus is a cheap option for transport into Barcelona's city center. Photo by Shutterstock.

The fastest way into to town is to hop into one of the plentiful taxis docked on the ground level of Terminal 1 — at about €30 ($33), the 25-minute drive is also not terribly pricey, especially if more than one of you is traveling. Slightly longer in travel time — but also more economical — is the Aerobús, which departs every few minutes during the hours of 5:35am and 1:05am, and deposits passengers at the centrally located Plaça Catalunya (the last bus back to the airport departs Plaça Catalunya at 12:30am). Tickets cost €5.90 (about $7) one-way, and the ride takes about 35 minutes.

While there is no metro service from the city center to the airport, there is a train station located a five-minute walk from Terminal 2, with trains departing for Passeig de Gracia station every 30 minutes between 5:42am and 11:38pm. At €3 (about $3), it’s the cheapest option, and the trip is about 25 minutes in duration.

If You Have a Half-Day

 Casa Batlló. Photo by Michele Ursino / Flickr.
Gaudi's Casa Batlló, a private home, is one of the architect's finest creations. Photo by Michele Ursino / Flickr.

You might not have time to wait in line for the perpetually crowded (and entirely worth the hype) Gaudi sites, but if you take the train into town and disembark at Passeig de Gracia station, you’ll surface within steps of the fabulous Casa Batlló, an apartment designed by the incredibly imaginative Antoni Gaudi to feel like inhabitants are under the sea (the famed architect was inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Though you won’t have time for a tour, take a stroll by to take in the colorful tile mosaic and arched roof — which looks much like a dragon.

From there, stroll 15 minutes to the famed bustling La Boqueria market to gawk at massive cuts of jamón and enjoy a sample (or five) before you head back to the airport.

If You Have a Whole Day

Food hall La Boqueria — and Barcelona itself — is famous for its fine selection of jamon (ham). Photo by Sean Munson / Flickr.
La Boqueria, the main food hall in Barcelona, is famous for its epic selection of charcuterie. Photo by Sean Munson / Flickr.

Switch up the order of the half-day itinerary and hit La Boqueria for breakfast before you walk over to Casa Batlló — this will help you work up an appetite for lunch later. Don’t pause for too long outside — Casa Batlló’s beautiful exterior walls reveal little of the magic inside; instead, take advantage of the extra time and spring for the audio tour [€21.50 ($24); €5 (about $6) extra for a fast pass, which allows you to skip the line].

When you’re done, it’s time for a walking tour of some of the city’s best tapas bars. Start around the corner from Casa Batlló at Tapas 24, a basement eatery which does the classics — and twists on the classics, such as the McFoie burger, which is exactly what you’re imagining right now — better than anywhere else (though there’s more food in your future, do not — repeat, do not — skip dessert; order the xocolata amb pa sal i oli, balls of dense, dark chocolate cream drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt).

It’s a 25-minute stroll to Casa Martino, a sleek new vermuteria (keep your eyes peeled along the way for Mercat de Sant Antoni, one of Barcelona’s biggest food markets, currently undergoing a massive restoration project which will turn it into a culinary destination à la La Boqueria). From there it’s another short walk to Quimet et Quimet (Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes 25, Poble Sec), one of the city’s most iconic tapas bars. Opened in 1914 and run by the same family for four generations, this quaint little shop is stocked floor to ceiling with wine bottles and conservas, preserved Spanish delicacies.

Next, shake off that food coma with some fresh sea air — and terrific people watching — at Barcelona’s picturesque seashore. In town, it’s easy to forget Barcelona is a beach city. But with its wide promenade packed with strolling visitors and locals, dusk on the water isn’t to be missed. Wrap your day with some Mediterranean bounty in the form of a heaping pan of paella at Barraca, an airy restaurant with a chic beach house vibe from Michelin-starred chef Xavier Pellicer.

If You Have the Night

Barcelona comes alive at night, so if you have time, try to get out on the town. Photo by Jorge Franganillo / Flickr.
Barcelona comes alive at night, so if you have time, try to get out on the town. Photo by Jorge Franganillo / Flickr.

With its free 24-hour airport shuttle, clean, modern rooms and free Wi-Fi, TRYP Barcelona Aeropuerto Hotel is a solid bet close to the airport — it’s also the closest hotel to Terminal 1. Rates start at €110 ($112) or 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.

Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz-Carlton property, is right on the city's shore.
Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz-Carlton property, is set right on the shore of the Mediterranean.

However, with several relatively quick ways to get back to the airport (and Barcelona’s infamous proclivity for late-night dining and drinking), consider staying in town. Located in the Port Olimpic and soaring over Frank Gehry’s iconic fish sculpture, Hotel Arts Barcelona offers sublime city and sea views paired with a luxurious, chilled-out ambiance and top-notch service. If time permits, check out the nautically themed 43 The Spa, a sprawling facility on the hotel’s 42nd and 43rd floors that melds a mixture of massage techniques with sea-scented aromatherapy. The club lounge — complete with cava and champagne bar — is a worthy upgrade. Rates start at €265 ($296) or 60,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards points per night.

If you like rooftop pools with a city view, you're bound to love Barcelona's Grand Hotel Central. Photo courtesy of the hotel.
If you like pools with a city view, you're bound to love the rooftop at Barcelona's Grand Hotel Central. Photo courtesy of the hotel.

Closer to the in-town action, Grand Hotel Central offers sleek, modern rooms inside a restored 1920s high-rise in the trendy El Born district. Though there are endless gin and tonic bars and cafes within steps of the front door, you’ll want to make sure to save time for a drink at the hotel’s rooftop Sky Bar, one of the most beautiful in all of Barcelona. At this member of the Design Hotels loyalty program, rates start at €237 ($265) per night.