Catalonia's colourful capital
Barcelona combines everything that is most charming about Mediterranean cities – a relaxed pace, months of endless sunshine, unbeatable food – with the cultural and design clout of almost any city in the cold north.
Its patchwork of architectural styles displays dark, Gothic façades next to the harlequin buildings of the Modernistas and the skyline-piercing constructions of Jean Nouvel or Herzog and de Meuron. A day spent admiring them can be topped off with a sundowner on one of the city’s many beaches before dinner at any number of Michelin-starred gastronomic temples or humble, family-run tapas bars. This is a city with a proud sense of identity and its language, culture and traditional festivals are fiercely guarded. Human pyramids, fire-breathing dragons and fibre-glass giants strolling the streets are in evidence most weekends if you look hard enough.
Hot right now . . .
Sally Davies, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
The beloved Omm hotel, Barcelona’s first design hotel, was much mourned when it closed last year, but the Sir Victor (Carrer del Rosselló 265; 0034 932 711 244) has risen from its ashes with a stylish revamp, a rooftop pool and a particularly good steak restaurant, Mr Porter.
The Alchemix (Carrer de València 212; 0034 938 337 678), described in its own words as a “gastro-cocktail bar”, is an elegant spot for an aperitif, with two chef-barmen bringing their experience working at famed Bangkok restaurant Gaggan to deliver some of the coolest cocktails in Barcelona – many with Asian ingredients in the spotlight.
With a name inspired by the mechanic’s shop that once stood here, Benzina’s (Passatge de Pere Calders 6; 0034 936 595 583) industrial chic interior belies the soul-warming Italian food coming out of the kitchen. Its terrace tables down a blind alley are highly coveted.
48 hours in . . . Barcelona
Modernisme is the local take on art nouveau, and the Passeig de Gràcia is its showcase. Starting at the top and walking downhill, you’ll pass Gaudí’s undulating apartment block, La Pedrera (Carrer Provença 261-265; 00 34 93 484 59 00), which now contains an exhibition centre. Be sure to head up to the roof for the perfect Insta shot alongside Gaudí's warrior-like chimneys. A little further along you’ll come to his fantastical Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia 43; 00 34 216 03 06), a glittering, polychromatic affair, also open to the public – although with limited time you might want to just check out the facade and those of its neighbouring buildings, which perfectly illustrate the contrasting styles of Modernisme.
A short stroll seawards from here will take you to Tapas 24 (Carrer Diputació 269; 00 34 93 488 09 77), one of the city’s best tapas bars, but make sure to get here well before 2pm for any chance of a seat.
From here, it’s an easy metro ride to Gaudí’s other great masterpiece, the unfinished Sagrada Família (Carrer Mallorca 401; 00 34 93 207 30 31). A vast molten wedding cake of a church, it’s as breathtaking within as it is otherworldly without. The queues can be long, but you can bypass them by buying a ticket online beforehand.
The area around the Sagrada Família is not wildly interesting and lacks decent eating and drinking options, so it’s time to head to Barceloneta and its xiringuitos (beach bars). The crowds start to dissipate in the early evening, and while there is nowhere in Barcelona to watch the sunset (the hill of Montjuïc is in the way), its reflection in the W Hotel at the southern tip can be a close second.
No self-respecting Spaniard would eat paella for dinner (there is an almost superstitious belief that rice is impossible to digest at night), but there are plenty of places that serve it to visitors. Can Solé (Carrer de Sant Carles 4; 00 34 93 221 50 12) is a lively but traditional spot with an open kitchen – not the cheapest, but one of the best.
There's no better digestif than a moonlit stroll along the beach, but along the seafront you'll also find a line of bars, perfect for a seaside nightcap. Note that many, such as CDLC (Passeig Marítim 32; 00 34 93 224 04 70), require you to be a little dressed up before you'll feel fully comfortable. Secure one of the day beds that sit alongside the dancefloor inside to see Barcelona's glam set at play.
Puig i Cadafalch was one of Gaudí’s contemporaries, and had a more florid approach, seen at its most ecstatic in the Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall (Carrer Palau de la Música 4-6; 00 34 902 442 882) in the Born. Have a coffee downstairs to sneak a peak at the lobby, or book a guided tour for the whole thing.
Walk south of the Palau and through the Santa Caterina market and eventually you will end up at the Museu Picasso (Carrer Montcada 15-23; 00 34 93 256 30 00), which offers a look at the artist’s early work from his years in Barcelona. The highlight of the collection is Las Meninas, 58 sketches and paintings based on Velásquez’ masterpiece of the same name.
A couple of blocks south of here is Cal Pep (Plaça de les Olles 8; 00 34 93 310 79 61), known for its super-fresh seafood tapas. It pays to book ahead, as it can get very busy. Inside, there's a cosy dining room at the back, but if you sit there you'll miss all the fun. Better to stand up at the bar and watch Pep and his men working the stoves. The streets around here are also filled with stylish little boutiques such as Coquette (Carrer Rec 65; 00 34 93 319 29 76) for women, and La Comercial Hombre (Carrer Rec 73; 00 34 93 319 24 35) for men.
Head across the Via Laietana and into the Barri Gòtic, to the great Gothic cathedral (Pla Seu, 3; 00 34 933 428 262). Be sure to visit the cloister with its gaggle of clanking geese – 13, to represent the 13 years of age of Santa Eulàlia, one of the city's patron saints, when she died at the hands of Roman emperor Diocletian. Leave time for the tangle of medieval streets around the cathedral – you’ll get lost, everybody does, but that’s the charm of this neighbourhood.
If you’re lucky, your wandering will lead you right outside the lively El Portalón (Carrer Bany Nous 20; 00 34 93 302 11 87), where you can order terracotta jugs of house red and choose from a long list of tapas in what was – in medieval times – a stable. It's quite popular with tourists early on in the evening – arrive a little later (around 10pm) if you'd rather eat with the locals.
If you've still got any energy left, nearby El Paraigua (Carrer Pas de l'Ensenyança 2; 00 34 93 302 11 31) is a great spot for a nightcap. It serves cocktails upstairs in its Modernista-designed bar and offers live music downstairs in a brick-walled basement. To really dance the night away, however, you'll need to walk another block or two to Marula Café (Carrer Escudellers 49; 00 34 93 318 76 90), a temple to funk and soul that's open long into the small hours.
Where to stay . . .
Interior designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán has worked his magic over the Cotton House Hotel, combining the grace of the original building (the former headquarters of the city’s cotton guild) with modern artworks and bold colours. The result really is fabulous.
Doubles from €196 (£142). Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes 670; 00 34 93 450 50 45
Hotel Neri is a delightful little place to lay your head with only 22 rooms. It's housed in a 17th-century mansion and what it lacks in facilities (no pool, no gym) it makes up for in style and location – just next to the cathedral, it could not be more central. Its terrace on an atmospheric little square and its leafy rooftop bar are extra pluses.
Doubles from €240 (£214). San Sever 5; 00 34 93 304 06 55
Spacious, sunny and classy are not always words you hear used of a hostel, but the Casa Gràcia is exceptional, with marble floors, an antique lift, high ceilings, Corinthian columns, verdant displays of plants and antique chests dotting the long, bright corridors. The common areas are clean and elegant, and there is a leafy terrace.
Dorm beds/double rooms from €16 (£13)/€60 (£48). Passeig de Gràcia 116 bis; 00 34 93 174 0528
What to bring home . . .
Browse handstitched leather satchels, wallets, cases, backpacks and tote bags in all the colours of a bejewelled rainbow at Capricho de Muñeca (Carrer Brosoli 1; 00 34 933 195 891).
Snag your very own pair of traditional Catalan espadrilles from La Manual Alpargatera (Carrer Avinyó 7; 00 34 93 3010172). The shop has every conceivable style and counts Jack Nicholson and Pope John Paul II among its clients.
When to go . . .
Winter can throw up some azure skies and improbably warm days, while summer – though humid – is not as blisteringly hot as other Spanish cities. Spring and autumn are the safest periods, perhaps, weatherwise, though they are the most prone to sudden showers, particularly around October and November
The period from late-July to early-September is a strange one – most locals with the means to leave town do, which makes for a quiet, traffic-free experience but it also means that most restaurants are closed and cultural events are thin on the ground. The busiest period is Easter, when prices of flights and hotels are correspondingly high.
Know before you go . . .
Local laws and etiquette
Tipping is a pretty relaxed affair in Spain, and people tend to round up to the nearest euro in a bar, café or taxi, and leave just a few euros in all but the smartest restaurants.
Drivers are required to keep a fluorescent gilet inside the car, to be worn if they break down or have an accident on a busy road and need to get out of the car (they come as standard with hire-cars). Glasses or contact lens wearers are legally required to keep a spare pair in the car (though this is rarely enforced).
The Spanish can seem very abrupt, and use 'please' and 'thank you' minimally. They find the Anglo-Saxon method of constantly using these words insincere – in Spanish it’s all in the intonation and delivery. There is little sense of personal space here, but that can mean that, for example, people will greet and say goodbye to strangers when they enter or leave a lift.
The Articket is excellent value and allows entrance into the CCCB, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Fundació Joan Miró, MACBA, MNAC, and Museu Picasso. You can buy it at any of the participating venues. The Bus Turístic price includes a book of discount tickets for a range of attractions around town.
British Consulate: Avda Diagonal 477, 13º, Eixample (00 34 93 366 62 00; gov.uk//world/spain)
Emergency services: 112 - Fire, police or ambulance
Tourist office: Plaça Catalunya, Eixample (00 34 93 285 38 34; barcelonaturisme.com)
Telephone code: Dial 00 34 for Spain from abroad. There are area codes (93 for Barcelona) but they must always be included, even from within the Barcelona area
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: London to Barcelona takes around two hours
After stints living in Seville and Madrid, in 2001 Sally Davies settled in Barcelona's El Born, a stone's throw from Ciutadella Park and the Santa Caterina market, two of her favourite places anywhere.
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