Stopped temporarily at a traffic light, our scooters idling in a hum with many others packed around us, I suddenly became very aware of the impending choices, as I was about to enter a 7- lane traffic round about at Plaza de Espana, amidst heavy commuter and tourist traffic. The idea to rent scooters had seemed like an obvious choice during our trip planning phase, after Google street view showed thousands of scooters parked along the streets of Barcelona. “It will solve transit challenges as well as parking hassles” I had thought, plus “It will give us each freedom to come and go on our own, while making it easier to see a city where sights are quite spread out.”
All of this logic of course was tossed curb side at the first horn honk adrenalin rush, and the realization that the multi-tasking required to use Google maps and drive a scooter at the same time in a foreign city was a serious challenge.
We were visiting Barcelona primarily to attend the 2019 World Roller Games, where my son was competing and representing team Canada in downhill skateboard racing. But in addition to watching the competition, I had planned to squeeze in some serious sight-seeing to get my history and culture fill, and the scooter was my ticket to independence and efficiency, while offering him the freedom to get to practices easily, or chill with friends if he wanted to.
Barcelona’s many attractions are dispersed widely throughout the city, making touring a challenge. Unlike other European cities such as Prague or Vienna where sites are largely compressed and walkable for those game and energetic to do so, Barcelona requires the use of transit, combined with walking. Hiring a car is an excellent choice once leaving the city, but limited parking makes it a prohibitive challenge within city limits, not to mention a huge expense. Fortunately there was another viable option – renting scooters.
Scooters are endemic in Barcelona, and for good reason, they just make sense for local traffic. Cars are actually incredibly mindful of them too, since it’s highly likely that the person behind the wheel also drives a scooter from time to time. Men in suits and ladies in dresses with heals ride side by side with construction workers, others doing grocery shopping, or parents doubling their kids to school. Renting a scooter made us feel instantly like locals while seeing the sights, offered an easy escape from tourists, and ensured a quick ticket to the beach at days end.
Pocket Barcelona, by Lonely Planet offers a great summary of sites, history, different neighborhoods, and DIY walking tours. It sums up Barcelona as a whirlwind of madcap Modernista architecture, sun-kissed beaches and lamplit medieval streets hiding brilliantly creative dining and drinking dens. We could have agreed more. We used it to select areas and sites best accessed by scooter on our own, and then learned about the history of Barcelona through two different walking tours offered by Generation Tours – one a historical overview of Barcelona, and another offering a more in depth look at Gaudi & Modernism. Generation offers technically “free tours” but guests are encouraged to pay at the end through a tip. Our experience has always been excellent with free walking tours, since they are usually led by knowledgeable local university students, eager to earn a generous tip. Both tours took 2.5 – 3 hours each, and met for morning or afternoon departures from La Catadral, in the downtown central area, easily accessed by scooter with free sidewalk parking!
Barcelona walking tour
The tour started at La Catadral, Barcelona’s central place of worship. While the tour addressed the intricacies of northern European Gothic architecture, and its facade laced with gargoyles, we had toured the soaring interior space the previous day, and learned how it had been spared by anarchists in the Spanish civil war. Not to be missed if you are able to take it in is the 6pm Saturday, and 11am Sunday Catalan dancers performing the national dance out front in the square.
The university architecture building opposite the La Catadral is unassuming in design, but memorable for its Picasso drawing on the facade, a childlike stick sketch the artist begrudgingly submitted on commission in disrespect to politicians in his home country, while living in Paris. It’s these type of background stories that I found so interesting, and tour was laced with many. Our guide helped visitors understand the history of Cataluña, a region of Spain established in 1714, which to this day a lot of the Barcelona area clings faithfully to, even favoring the Catalan language over Spanish. Madrid’s attempt in 2017 to stop people from voting for Cataluña independence only made the lines more visible through protest. Catalan independence flags are on display in many areas of Barcelona. Understanding the historical context of Catalan is an important basis for your entire trip to Spain.
Our tour expanded on early Christianity and the influence of the Romans, right down to burred Roman columns from 2000 years ago at Temple de August, within building walls and under the streets of Barcelona, marked as Mont Taber at 16.9 meters. It touched on architectural features, spiced with tales of history and heroism. Be sure to rub your hand on the mailbox with three doves and turtle at the back of La Catadral, to be blessed with good luck for the rest of your life and a return to Barcelona!
Spain was the birthplace of several prominent artists, including Miro, Picasso, Salvador Dali and Gaudi. It was at this point that I wished my University Art History 101 class was not so far in my rear view mirror, but remarkably enough details surfaced to ask some intelligent questions! Our tour highlighted the lives of these artists during their early days in Barcelona, and how it informed and influenced later their Impressionism and Cubism work in Paris, and of course the eclectic architecture style of Gaudi in Barcelona.
After touring the Gothic Quarter and La Ramba, our tour wrapped up along the waterfront area, where 200,000 palm trees were planted for the 1992 summer Olympics. The industrialized waterfront was relocated, and the existing area was significantly upgraded with numerous large sandy beaches right off the downtown area. With a backdrop of yachts and an expansive public boulevard area as a compliment, it can be hard to remember that the whole area was actually man made.
Gaudi & Modernism walking tour
This tour centered on the Gothic Quarter area and ventured out to Gaudi’s outstanding work. The first stop was at “4 Cats Bar” where Picasso designed the menu used to this day, as payment for renting the space for an unsuccessful art exhibit. We took in buildings and homes up from La Ramba, where Gaudi was commissioned by rich families to design unique, and at times outlandish living spaces in a race to one up each other on the scale of absurd and lavishness at the turn of the century. His use of multiple natural materials including concrete, wood, metal and porcelain glass, combined with the absence of straight lines and the use of light, set him aside as brilliant, although many thought he was at best “odd” at the time. The Caso L les Morero built in 1905 modernism was the least unusual looking of the three on Passeig de Gracia. La Pedrera, officially called Casa Mila was built 1905-1910. Conceived as an apartment block, the approach to space and light was impressive. Apartments were bathed in light, offered flexible living and featured curvy walls. Of course no Gaudi tour would be complete without a visit to Casa Familia. It will be the tallest cathedral in the world once completed. Construction started in 1886 under Gaudi, and continues daily, with a projected completion in 2026. The church became Gaudi’s holy mission, complete with 18 towers, 3 bell tower facades – the Nativity facade, Passion facade, and the Glory Facade. The roof is held by a forest of angled pillars sprouting like a web of branches, creating the effects of a forest canopy, with stained glass divided in shades of red, blue, green and ochre creating magical shades of light at different times of the day. When complete, the cathedral’s capacity will be 13,000 people.
Other sites to visit by scooter
Montjuic museums, parks and Barcelona’s Olympic area was best accessed by scooter, since they were on the hill overlooking the city, as were the beaches beyond the downtown core, and Park Guell, a Gaudi landscaped park area high above the city, offering views out to the ocean, the city and Montjuic in the distance. We also found ourselves returning to some sites like La Pedrera and la Sagrada Familia, first visited on the walking tour. We simply wanted to spend more time then the tour allowed, and the scooters made it easy to do on our own.
Barcelona has much to offer in terms of history, culture, architecture, and of course food and nightlife. They say pick pockets in Barcelona are some of the world’s best, but we found it a very safe city, free of concerns if you are a mindful traveler.
It’s hard to believe we were able to sandwich so much sight seeing into our compressed time in the city – about 3 days of touring, interspersed with the WRG Olympic qualifying events, but the scooters played a major part in enabling that. And by the end of our stay we were dealing with those 7 lane traffic circles just like a local!
If you go
We rented from Cooltra, who had a main office in the heart of the city close the La Cathedral, but they are willing to deliver scooters to various other locations throughout the city by arrangement. Booking online in advance offered an additional 5% discount. While 50cc scooters would be totally adequate for most needs, and available to drivers with a regular class 5 license, we rented 125cc scooters to ensure we had more power for climbing hills outside the city and to be able to venture onto the highway and through tunnels if we chose to. 125cc scooters required a class 6 motorcycle license, or being at least 21 years of age with 3 years driving experience. Obtaining an international driver’s license was required before leaving Canada. Although not required by most rental car companies, the document is important if ever pulled over by police who don’t speak English, and we picked up in a review that having one made it easier to deal with Coolta, especially for ensuing the minimum license requires were met for a 125cc scooter. More info: https://www.cooltra.com/en/
Generation Walking Tours are highly recommended. Look for the guide with light blue shirts holding blue umbrellas in the square by La Catadral. Free tours of Barcelona depart every day at 10:30am and Mon, Wed and Fri at 3:00pm. Free tours for Gaudi and Modernism depart every day at 3:00pm. More info: www.generationtours.com
Great for planning, and small enough you’ll want to pack it along, Lonely Planet’s POCKET BARCELONA Top sights, local experiences is a must. Includes a handy pull out city map too.