From experimental art and architecture and sandy urban beaches to an enticing late-night dining scene, you can feel the energy coursing through the streets of Barcelona
Barcelona is a sophisticated and stylish city that has always been cutting edge. From Norman Foster’s shimmering beachside fish sculpture and Gaudí’s colourful Parc Güell, to Ferran Adrià’s gastronomic wizardry, Barcelona pushes the boundaries. After Franco’s restrictive regime lost power, there was an explosion of cultural energy that is still manifest in the quirky art galleries, hip bars, edgy fashions and, above all, the active, creative population. Is this one of the world’s most exciting cities? Definitely.
Autumn is a great time to go as the weather is still warm and the stag and hen party season that can blight the city’s epicentre, La Rambla, is over. The beaches are more romantic and less crowded as the city is returned to the locals.
What to do
Every district is different, from cool Born with its trendy designers and the labyrinthine Barri Gòtic, to the boulevards of Eixample and edgy Raval, which is home to some of the city’s best bars. Start with a stroll down La Rambla, stopping at the heaving fresh food stalls of La Boqueria market to soak up the sights and smells of this food-focused city. Walk through Plaça Reial and admire the Gaudí lamp posts before continuing to the Barri Gòtic, which is filled with Roman ruins, Gothic churches and medieval palaces.
For a creative fix head to Raval – the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (www.macba.es) is a gleaming white building housing a fantastic collection of contemporary art. In Born, Museu Picasso (00 34 93 319 6310; www.museupicasso.bcn.es) is home to an unrivalled collection of the Catalan artist’s early work in five lovely mansions. A short metro journey away is Gaudí’s immense, unfinished Sagrada Familia (00 34 93 208 0414; www.sagradafamilia.org) with its soaring columns and towers. Once the dome is completed the building will be the highest in the city (at 170 metres tall); take a vertiginous hike up one of the towers for excellent views.
Take time out from the city and make for the hilltop Parc Güell. This fairy tale outdoor space is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Recover from the steep walk on a bench decorated with multicoloured tiles and watch as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Where to stay
Barcelona is full of hotels, from large and luxurious properties to intimate boutiques. Hotel Banys Orientals is a minimalist gem that exudes black-and-white designer simplicity; the rooms have four-poster beds and Philippe Starck chairs. Omm is a fabulously hip boutique hotel designed by local architect, Juli Capella. Its soothing Zen-like interiors give way to a pool with views of Gaudí’s daring feat of architecture, the Casa Mila. The restaurant, Moo, serves superb Michelin-starred Catalan cuisine by the Rocca brothers. Alternatively, Neri has 22 stylish rooms within a beautifully converted 18th-century palace. It’s a hotel of contrasts – coarse wooden tables and contemporary art, flat-screen TVs and rustic stonework.
Where to eat and drink
Young, adventurous chefs emerge from restaurants like El Bulli (00 34 97 215 0457; www.elbulli.com) – an hour outside Barcelona – to challenge preconceptions by whipping up mind-boggling dishes. Can Fabes (00 34 93 867 2851; www.canfabes. com), on the outskirts of the city, has been at the forefront of the country’s innovative cucina nueva for almost 30 years – multi Michelin-starred chef Santi Santamaria creates some of Spain’s finest food. Ca L’Isidre (00 34 93 441 1139; www.calisidre.com) serves Catalan cuisine at its best, mixing classics with more modern dishes.
Regional cooking, with an emphasis on the seasons, can also be found in the many tapas bars. At Pinotxo (00 34 93 317 1731), in La Boqueria market, the fresh, exciting dishes are well worth the wait for a stool. Café de L’Opera (00 34 93 317 7585; www.cafeoperabcn.com) on La Rambla is one of Barcelona’s oldest cafés, dating back to the 18th century, and has a terrace that is perfect for people watching.
Time running out?
Check out the city’s urban beaches – walk along the promenade at sandy Barceloneta before going for a dip.
To eat with the locals don’t venture out before 9.30pm. A sociable bunch, the bars and restaurants come alive at night.
Currency is the euro. Barcelona is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour 10-minute flight from London.
Iberia Air (0870 60 90 500; www.iberia.com/gb) flies direct from Gatwick and Heathrow to Barcelona. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies direct from Gatwick, London Luton and Stansted.
Turisme de Barcelona: Plaça de Catalunya or Plaça Sant Jaume (00 34 93 285 3834; www.barcelonaturisme.com).
Barcelona and Modernity: Gaudí, Picasso, Miró, Dalí (Yale University Press, £40). A visually dazzling guide to Catalan art.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.