Ever since Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics, there’s been a buzz to this lively Mediterranean port that just keeps on growing
Vibrant, gloriously sunny, dynamic, energetic, a bit bonkers – it’s as good a way as any to describe Barcelona, the Catalan capital, on Spain’s northeastern coast. The Mediterranean port can satisfy just about everyone: culture-lovers, food fanatics, clubbers, fashionistas, beach bums... Thanks to the extraordinary Modernista creations of Antoní Gaudí, Lluis Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadalfach, the city’s architecture never fails to impress, enthral and entertain.
Several distinct areas make up central Barcelona, ranging from the ancient tangle of streets that make up the Barri Gòtic and the relatively organised grids of the Eixample to the rejuvenated waterside area at Port Vell and the up-and-coming districts of Raval and La Ribera. The city’s most famous street, La Rambla, bisects the lower half of the city from Plaça de Catalunya down to the port and the beach at Barceloneta. Tourists naturally gravitate to this long tree-shaded boulevard, heaving with cafés, restaurants and more than a few dodgy characters – and very soon they realise that there are more interesting attractions on the many streets leading off it. Although before you veer off La Rambla, be sure to visit the enormous indoor food market at La Boqueria and grab a bite and a glass of cava at one of the market cafés.
La Rambla is also home to many of the city’s hotels, which can mean a noisy stay. If you’re feeling flush, try Neri Hotel, a sumptuous boutique hotel housed in an 18th-century palace in the heart of the Barri Gòtic. If you’re not, try the budget option of the Pensión Mari-Luz, also in the Gothic quarter.
North of Plaça de Catalunya is the spacious, leafy district of Gràcia, home to many of the city’s classier shopping chains and the Hotel Casa Fuster, a superb example of Domènech i Montaner’s Modernisme style. It has a Gaudí-like bar, rooftop pool with fantastic views of the city and elegant rooms. A cheaper alternative is the Hostal Eden, a friendly pensión with a sunny patio. Both of these hotels are near some of the best examples of Modernisme architecture in the 19th-century Eixample district, and within walking distance of Gaudí’s famously unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia.
Much of the joy of Barcelona comes from wandering through buzzing, history-filled streets and chancing upon unexpected sights. A stroll through the Barri Gòtic on a Sunday morning, for example, will usually include the spectacle of locals slipping on their espadrilles to dance the Catalan sardana in front of the city’s cathedral in Plaça de la Seu. If you head out to the rather scruffy area of La Ribera, you can have some of the best seafood tapas you’ll ever taste in the equally scruffy surroundings of El Mundial in tiny Plaça Sant Agustí Vell.
You can find true peace at the splendid and cavernous Gothic Basilica del Maria del Mar in Carrer Montcada in the Born district. It’s Barcelona’s only church built entirely in the Catalan Gothic style, which, as it took only 55 years to build, is not so surprising. And while you’re in the Born area, drop by the Golfo de Bizkaia in Carrer Vidreria (number 12) for authentic Basque tapas, or pintxos as they’re known. Then head into the Barri Gòtic to stare in wonder at the Palau de la Música Catalana at Carrer de Sant Francesc de Paula, Europe’s only concert hall that’s lit by natural light. It’s a marvel of stained glass, tilework and sculpture, created by Domènech i Montaner in 1908.
Art-lovers will head to the museums devoted to two of the city’s famous sons, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, the former in the Born district and the latter museum set on the hill at Montjuïc. Take the cable car that crosses the harbour from Sant Sebastià tower via Torre Jaume I to Montjuïc for wonderful views of the city, as well as a look at the stadium built for the 1992 Olympics.
You can’t leave Barcelona without enjoying some of its green spaces, and, predictably, the parks are just as unusual as the architecture. Just east of the old city is Parc de la Ciutadella, home to the zoo, Natural History Museum, a huge statue of a mammoth and an enchanting ornamental fountain called the Cascade. Sit at the little café between the Cascade and the boating lake and enjoy a surprisingly relaxing part of the city.
The most audacious park in Barcelona is the eccentric and utterly beguiling Park Güell, created by Gaudí for his patron Eusebi Guëll in 1914. It was inspired by English garden cities, but it’s hard to imagine many English gardens containing two houses straight out of Hansel and Gretel, a sinuous mosaic bench that slithers along dragon-like for 152 metres, and 100 palm-shaped pillars that form a roof. Although it’s a bit of a walk (especially on a hot day) from the nearest metro station at Lesseps, it’s worth the effort to stroll within the grounds of the mad creation and have all of Barcelona at your feet.