I tried an extreme day trip to Barcelona and back — in 24 hours

I tried an extreme day trip to Barcelona and back — in 24 hours
I tried an extreme day trip to Barcelona and back — in 24 hours

When I first heard about the trend for “extreme day trips”, I was intrigued and sceptical: 12 hours in a different country, fitting in breakfast, lunch, dinner, a couple of tours, a beach stroll, maybe a museum — all without a suitcase, toothbrush or place to stay. “Return flights to Milan are cheaper than a one-way train ticket to Manchester!” squeal the growing number of “holi-day” enthusiasts on my social media feeds. “Why endure miserable UK weather when you can fly two hours for a full day of Spanish sun?” they ask. Little wonder the Facebook group Extreme Day Trips has 124,000 members (and counting) and its excited members share itineraries and pictures from bite-size excursions to Tirana, Venice, Palma and even New York.

But can you really enjoy a city break that’s squeezed into one day? I wanted to find out for myself, which is why at 5.30am, one Thursday in March, I was joining the queue for security at Gatwick to catch a 6.55am easyJet flight to Barcelona. Like most other passengers I’m bleary-eyed from my 3am alarm; unlike most travellers — presumably including those already chugging pints at the Wetherspoon’s — I’ll be back at Gatwick later tonight.

There’s no room for lethargy (or a hangover) on an extreme day trip where every minute counts towards making your 700-mile journey worthwhile. I’m armed with an hour-by-hour itinerary jotted down in my phone’s notes app, plus a tiny rucksack containing my passport, a portable charger and a water bottle for this 12-hour solo odyssey. I’m planning to walk everywhere (other than taking the bus from the airport to the city centre) and I’ve booked two tours. The rest of the schedule I compiled using plans shared by my fellow extreme day-trippers in the Facebook group.

Barcelona with the Sagrada Familia Cathedral

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Never has the inflight announcement “we’re running ahead of schedule” sounded so sweet. By 10.15am I am through Barcelona’s passport control and on the bus to central Placa de Catalunya (£10 return; aerobusbarcelona.es). It’s shortly before 11am and I’m already walking along Las Ramblas in sunglasses and short sleeves on a March day that’s 5C warmer than London.

About 39 per cent of “holi-day” travellers (those booking an early outbound and same-day return flight) are motivated by avoiding accommodation costs, according to Luton airport’s 2024 travel trends report, while 35 per cent say having the flexibility to book last-minute trips is key.

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There is, however, an environmental cost to extreme day-tripping, especially for those going by plane from the UK to Europe, and when I told friends about my micro-break plans their first response was “that’s not great for the planet”.

Claudia Rowan on her extreme day trip

Claudia Rowan on her extreme day trip

There are also heated discussions in the Extreme Day Trips Facebook group about carbon emissions versus the benefits when you’re on a budget and have limited annual leave. It’s not just influencer-types sharing their #extremedaytrips — there are mums with newborns making the most of parental leave and millennial couples celebrating anniversaries.

So I’m curious to see if this trend stacks up and whether you can get under the skin of a city in only a few hours. After strolling to the end of Las Ramblas I find my first snag — the elegant 14th-century Barcelona Cathedral that leaves me wishing I had the time to stop and see inside. My tight timetable is another pitfall of a “holi-day”, and my packed schedule feels restrictive.

Churros with chocolate dipping sauce

Churros with chocolate dipping sauce

GETTY IMAGES

I console myself with breakfast at Churreria Laietana, where soft-centred churros are fried as I wait. I add chocolate dipping sauce and a latte, and it still costs less than £5 (instagram.com/churrerialaietana). My arteries won’t thank me, but this is an extreme day trip so, in the spirit of extremity, I’m going all out.

Afterwards, I make my way towards the next stop on my schedule, Park Guell. The one-hour walk is mostly uphill, passing through winding, syrup-toned backstreets and tree-lined boulevards full of coffee shops. By the time I arrive at the park I’ve done 10,000 steps and am sweating beneath the midday sun. Admission tickets to the park have already sold out for today, but luckily I’ve booked, so I’m soon pootling about Gaudí’s playground (£11; getyourguide.co.uk). The gardens are lovely, but it’s the spectacular view from the colourful, mosaic-lined curved balcony at the top — the sprawling metropolis and blue sea — that leaves me breathless.

At 1.30pm I amble back downhill towards the city centre, where I stop off at the cheap-and-cheerful Bar-Restaurant Martinez for a sandwich and sangria lunch. The huge sangria arrives, costing just £3, followed by a baguette filled with cheese, padron peppers and sausage (£5; Carrer de Bailen).

The Arc de Triomf

The Arc de Triomf

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I’ve got over an hour before my 3pm tour of La Sagrada Familia, so I grab a coffee and stroll through the quiet Gracia neighbourhood, along the atmospheric Avenida de Gaudí, and past Casa Mila, another of the artist’s modernist creations. By the time I arrive at Gaudí’s majestic basilica, which, yes, is still under construction, I’m stifling yawns — the treacherously early start is catching up with me. The guided, queue-jumping tour I booked soon energises me: there is nothing like this 19th-century masterpiece, a blend of gothic and art nouveau. The grand, imposingly cavernous interior of the Sagrada is even more spellbinding than its colossal exterior (£40; getyourguide.co.uk).

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It’s past 4pm when I leave the Sagrada and I still have five hours left in the city. Next stop: Arc de Triomf, which I reach in 25 minutes, followed by a visit to El Call — the medieval Jewish quarter from which Barcelona’s thriving Jewish community was expelled in the late 15th century — and the ancient synagogue (£3; sinagogamayor.com).

At this point I could have spared half an hour for a museum visit but instead I head for La Boqueria market to seek out a picnic dinner of DIY tapas. The market is still busy and packed full of stalls at 5.30pm, so I make my way round, collecting a cone full of tapas-style meat, a humongous fried wrap full of potatoes and cheese, and a pot of fresh fruit for pudding — a feast for less than £10.

The Jewish quarter of El Call

The Jewish quarter of El Call

DAVID ZORRAKINO/EUROPA PRESS/GETTY IMAGES

I pop the food in my rucksack to take with me to my final pitstop, 45 minutes’ walk away: Barceloneta beach. As twilight approaches I’m sitting on the golden sand, book in hand, munching through my picnic. The beach becomes swamped during the summer months, but during spring it’s wonderfully empty. All I hear as I watch the sun descend is the sound of the waves — and the seagulls squawking overhead, eyeing my dinner.

At 7.15pm, I make my way back towards the Gothic Quarter, past a harpist serenading passers-by in a dark side street. By 7.45pm I’m back at Placa de Catalunya, waiting for my bus, and at the airport by 8.15pm, ahead of my 10.10pm flight home. By the time I reach the gate my legs are like jelly, having clocked up over 38,000 steps.

Two and a half hours later I’m back in Gatwick, and home by 1.30am, having been awake for almost 24 hours. I’m exhausted, but for under £150, I feel as though I’ve had a proper city break. Would I do it again? Yes I would — but only once I’ve caught up on my sleep, and by train next time. Lunch in Paris, anyone?
Claudia Rowan was a guest of easyJet (easyjet.com), which has return flights from Gatwick to Barcelona from £42; and GetYourGuide (getyourguide.co.uk)

3am Wake up
6.55am Depart from Gatwick
10am Arrive in Barcelona and take the Aerobus to Placa de Catalunya
11am Stroll along Las Ramblas; breakfast at Churreria Laietana
11.30am Walk to Park Guell
12.30pm Explore Park Guell and its gardens
1.30pm Lunch: sandwich and sangria at Bar-Restaurant Martinez, followed by a walk around the Gracia neighbourhood, Avenida de Gaudí, and past Casa Mila
3pm Sagrada Familia tour
4pm Walk back towards the Gothic Quarter, passing by the Arc de Triomf and through the Jewish quarter
5.30pm Explore La Boqueria market — get takeaway tapas and walk to Barceloneta beach
6.15pm Tapas picnic on the beach; watch sunset
7.15pm Walk back to Placa de Catalunya
7.45pm Return bus to the airport
10.10pm Flight home departs
11.40pm Arrive at Gatwick
1.30am Home

Three other European day trips by train or ferry

1. Brussels, Belgium

Moules frites at Chez Léon in Brussels

Moules frites at Chez Léon in Brussels

ALAMY

Catch the 6.16am direct train at St Pancras and it’s possible to be in the Belgian capital before the clock there has struck 10am. With your homeward train leaving at 7.52pm, you’ll have just over ten hours to eat your way around town: moules frites for lunch at the family-owned Chez Léon (mains from £8; chezleon.be), proper Belgian chocolate from the 100-year-old Chocolaterie Mary for dessert (from £5; mary.be), plus excellent wine at Oeno TK (wines from £5; oenotk.com). In the afternoon, visit the Magritte Museum’s 100 Years of International Surrealism exhibition, which celebrates the work of Dalí, de Chirico and Miró among others until July (£15; fine-arts-museum.be). Round things off with a toast at Beerstorming, a microbrewery in Saint-Gilles, an area just south of the centre that’s also known for its fine art nouveau buildings (tasting £30; beerstorming.net).
Details St Pancras International to Brussels Midi from £123 return (eurostar.com)

2. Wimereux, France

The seafront promenade in Wimereux

The seafront promenade in Wimereux

ALAMY

From April 1, the first DFDS ferry from Dover departs at 4.40am, arriving at Calais at 7.10am, while the last return sailing is at 10.35pm — leaving you a potential 15 hours on French soil. Take the car and you’ve the freedom to make a day of it, exploring coastal spots such as Wimereux, a belle époque town about 30 minutes’ drive from Calais. Wander beside the seafront’s promenade of colourful villas and book ahead for weekend lunches of scallops and venison at La Liégeoise, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the art deco Hôtel L’Atlantic (set menu from £81; atlantic-delpierre.com). Stocking up on a case or two at the wine merchant Calais Vins, ten minutes from the ferry port, is a must too (check for opening times; wine-calais.co.uk).
Details Dover to Calais from £179 return for two passengers and a standard car (dfds.com)

3. Paris, France

Paris can be reached in just two hours from London on the Eurostar

Paris can be reached in just two hours from London on the Eurostar

ALAMY

The City of Light is ideal for day trips — two hours after hopping on the 6.01am train from St Pancras and you can be tucking into a proper pain au chocolat and thick hot chocolate. Squeeze in lunch at an old-school brasserie — we love Bouillon Julien in the 10th arrondissement (mains from £9; bouillon-julien.com) — around icons such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, which this year has a series of special exhibitions to mark the 150th anniversary of impressionism. With a train home departing Gare du Nord at 9.11pm, you’ll have time for an early dinner too.
Details St Pancras International to Gare du Nord from £78 return (eurostar.com)

Where would you go for an extreme day trip? Let us know in the comments below

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Source: thetimes.co.uk

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