Many years ago, I first wandered languidly through the 42 acres that compose Park Guell. It holds acres of forest, flowers, whimsical buildings, and tiled sculptures designed by Antoni Gaudi. Ok, not every building and structure is designed by him, but most are. Within its walls, you can linger for hours, or at least I did when I visited in the past. As I discovered this year, things have changed. Today you probably won’t want to stick around longer than you have to if you go in the summer because, within those 42 acres, you will find thousands upon thousands of tourists. The park is so popular now, and tourism so burdensome that you must reserve a timed entry ticket to see it. You must also do this days and days in advance if you are there during high season. There are lines of influencers to get the best views for selfies, and you must wait patiently to get your own shot of the city from some of the most famous lookout points.
There is something I do now that I am not sure how I should feel about myself. Ashamed? Polite? I dart in and quickly take photos and dart out like a hummingbird supping culture instead of flower nectar. I am trying to be polite because so many people are crammed in, waving their selfie sticks and getting every angle that they do not budge, which seems increasingly rude. They practice the same blank smiles from multiple angles, taking dozens of each. At the same time, you politely wait for the opportunity to see what is behind them without viewing a sea of faces staring away from it, oddly back at you, while they record themselves there.
I rarely photograph myself because I do not find my appearance exciting enough to add to the images. My head does not need to emerge from the bottom of the skyline of Barcelona for me to remember I was there or prove it to anyone else; plus, if I’m being honest, I hate how I look right now from most angles. Why spoil a picture of a gorgeous vista with my grinning, chinless, sweaty face? Still, I want that photo of the view, and I feel like I’m being polite by being quick. Then I’m also ashamed I feel like I need a photo at all, but then I do not want my face in it because I’m supposed to love myself no matter what I look like. Etc, etc. It is complicated, the twisting up of shame, courtesy, and need.
What isn’t complicated is that the thousands of tourists you will encounter will have no such reservations. They will knock you in the head with those selfie sticks and never say shit about it. They will head for the best view and backdrop and occupy it completely for 20 minutes while they preen, oblivious to anyone else wanting to see it and even oblivious to what they are there to see in the first place. I often guess they are influencers, but many are probably just accountants, dentists, or teachers seeking influencer-worthy photos to share on their social media. For them, this may be a dream trip they have saved for and planned for a long time. If they are American, they must get everything out of their 10 paid vacation days because they must save those other four days for dental work or a family emergency.
This is to say that visiting Park Guell this time made me think about the other visitors crammed inside those 42 acres more than the park itself. We arrived at our designated time and hoped to keep the walking to a minimum due to my mother-in-law’s bad knee. As we climbed the first hill, we gazed over the city, seeing the sea beyond and landmarks like Sagrada Familia in the distance. We stopped briefly at the top of the hill at a clustering of people around the three crosses (Cavalry) with one of the best views of Barcelona, then descended again on the paths. Guards watched various entries so no one could wander in without paying for the privilege. I tried to quickly find the main spots to view before my mother-in-law’s knee gave out, and I stopped to ask a guard where the staircase was. He told me to keep going the way we were, so I hoped we were on the right path.
As we looped back around, we emerged on the sculpted paths hovering above the park on columns crafted in such a way they looked as if they organically emerged from the mud after heavy rain. The effect is a beautiful blend of natural elements, lumpen and flowing, bursting with greenery, that reflects so much of Gaudi’s unangular style. From there, we walked into the open-air area lined with the famous serpentine, tiled benches where tourists crammed at the edges taking photos of themselves near the best views, like ants on honey if honey were a backdrop of Barcelona. I opted to stand in line for far too long at the toilets.
Then afterward, we walked down underneath to see the fanciful columns supporting the park benches and area above, a ceiling punctuated with circular indentations and mosaics, before descending the densely packed staircase with another jaw-dropping number of people taking their photos with the famous dragon (el drac) of Barcelona. It is a fat, colorfully-tiled salamander. It is cool, but it is also like an elaborate garden feature you might see at an eccentric great aunt’s home so I wouldn’t suggest knocking people down to see it. You will find it represented in every tourist shop in refrigerator magnet form if you have trouble getting close enough to get a good look on your visit to the park.
Once we squeezed past the El Drac admirers, we made it to the exit and looked at each other in exhaustion, like we were a litter birthed from a selfie-stick-lined womb. The consensus was to leave the crowds and heat and return to the hotel. I enjoyed the park much more many years ago. The problem with comparing it to then is that nothing had changed except the price and timing of entry and the intense crowds. I don’t want to keep looking back and wishing for fewer people, horrified at the masses, and I will have to find a way to get past this habit as I revisit so many popular sites.
- Park Guell is not to be missed when you visit Barcelona but get your tickets for entry far in advance. You do not need a special guide or price. Just go to the main website: https://parkguell.barcelona/en/buy-tickets?q=en/buy-tickets
- Try and research the best times to visit when you will find it the least crowded. I have no idea when that would be anywhere anymore, as records are being broken with tourism numbers this year.
- If you can, find little spots to linger that are more private. Many people zip through and only see the main photography points and miss the lovely spots to linger that are away from the throngs.