Barcelona is blessed with a dramatic setting: the entire city slopes from dramatic hills down to the sea. But most tourists don't get much higher than Montjuic, the complex of museums and historical sites plunked onto a hill just south of the city center.
On my last trip to Barcelona, I decided to take a few hours to get higher. Just a few minutes' train ride from the center of town can put you along a road hundreds of feet above Barcelona, with stunning views and a great cup of coffee at the end of it.
From central Barcelona's Placa Catalunya station, I took the S1/S2 commuter train to Peu de Funicular (a 12-minute, €1.35 ride) where I caught the tiny Funicular de Vallvidrera. This is an adorable little vehicle, a cable car about the size of a large elevator, which gets dragged up the side of a steep hill for several minutes until it deposits you in a whimsical little station at the top of Vallvidrera, a beautiful suburban neighborhood full of quasi-Modernista houses on winding streets.
Every time you turn around in Vallvidrera, you're faced with a vista either over the city, down to the sea, or over the huge Collserola park behind the city. From the funicular, a 15-minute walking loop down the Carrer de Navarro i Reverter and then back around on the Carrer dels Algarves reveals striking views and charming houses around every turn. This is a quiet residential neighborhood, but it looks like many of the local architects were touched by the spirit of Gaudi. Continue down past the funicular on Carrer del Queralt and down the steps to find the tiny center of the village, with a tiny boutique called Mandarina (Carrer Queralt, no number) and a few local cafes. The best view is from the back room of Can Josean (Placa Vallvidrera 6; tel. 93/406-8399).
From there, you've got two options. You can head down through Barcelona's back forty, the huge, forested Parc de Collserola, or up along the ridge for more views and some very high-class coffee at the end. If you'd just like to take a forested stroll, take a right at Vallvidrera's main plaza and then a right at the fork onto Carretera de l'Esglesia. That winding road will lead you down through the hills for about half an hour, past a picturesque farmhouse-museum-information center dedicated to the Catalan writer Jacint Verdaguer. (It's open from 10am-2pm Tuesday-Friday, and 11am-3pm Sunday; www.bcn.es). After another 10-minute stroll, you come out in front of the Baixador de Vallvidrera train station for a quick S1/S2 ride back to town.
If you'd rather stay up on the ridge, head back up to the funicular station. You can then walk along the winding Vallvidrera-Tibidabo road past the Torre de Collserola (www.torredecollserola.com), the Norman Foster-designed TV transmission tower about 20 minutes away. There's an observation deck on the tenth floor of the tower with the absolute best possible views of Barcelona, but you might be sated with views by then. Instead of walking, I took the #111 bus (€1.35), which comes every half hour.
Another 15-minute walk (or a very brief bus ride) brings you to one of Barcelona's finest hotels, the Gran Hotel La Florida. Now, you're only about five minutes' walk from the kitschy Tibidabo amusement park, which is a lot of fun but also a zoo of tour buses spewing out school and church groups. Take a few minutes to gather yourself, rather, in the La Florida's peaceful lobby bar. Coffee, tea and tapas here are expensive (€6 for tea, €5 for coffee or soft drinks) but extraordinarily good. Sandwiches and salads run €15-18; you can get much less expensive, humbler fare at a snack bar a few minutes further down the road.
I headed past Tibidabo, but I've been there before; it's an old-school amusement park with Coney Island-style rides where the classic feel and dramatic views are a large part of the experience. Most people recommend the gallery of automata, but I like the house of mirrors, myself. Right by the amusement park entrance, you can hop on the Funicular de Tibidabo (€2), a sort of antimatter version of the Vallvidrera train. It goes down the same hill, but it's a much larger, graffiti-scarred mess. At the foot of the hill, I found a bus that connected me back into the Barcelona subway system.
I did the whole run, round-trip, in about two hours from central Barcelona.
The Vallvidrera and Tibidabo funiculars aren't the only popular ways to get above Barcelona. If you've got a little more time -- call it a half-day -- Montserrat is both breathtaking and easy to reach on your own. Montserrat is a church complex on top of a mountain outside town, reached by a series of trains, cable cars, funiculars and rack railways. (There are tours, but there's really no reason to take one.)
Yes, Montserrat has a very good art museum, a renowned boys' choir and an extremely popular Catholic pilgrimage site. But my reason to go is to eat a picnic lunch at the top of the 4,000-foot mountain, with Catalonia laid out all around me. Getting there is at least half the fun: take the R5 train from Placa Espanya station to the Montserrat-Aeri station (1 hr, €3.80), where you catch the Aeri de Montserrat (www.aeridemontserrat.com), a stomach-churning cable car that goes up the mountain for €5.40. There's also a train that goes up the mountain, but as of this writing, it's out of service. On the mountain, you then catch the Funicular de Sant Joan, which is basically an elevator up the side of a cliff. (Admission to Montserrat costs €12.45 for adults, including the museums and funiculars.)
Things are already looking up, so to speak, when you get to the top: you have a choice of three paths, two leading up to semi-ruined chapels with dramatic views, the third one leading up for quite a ways to just a dramatic view. I'd hike up Jacob's Stairway to the ruined Santa Magdalena Chapel, with its panoramic view; it's a great place to unwrap your sandwiches. Check out the art museum before heading back, on the long trip down to the sea.