As well as its famous cultural sights, Barcelona has lots to offer anyone with an interest in good food and wine. Try this gastro-themed ramble through some of the city's back streets for starters...
La Rambla is the busiest street in one of the most bustling cities in Europe, but even here there are some relatively hidden places to enjoy. This suggestion for a short walk will take us from the Hotel Gaudi (see below) to the Picasso Museum and through to the port area of Barceloneta, taking in eateries along the way. The whole walk will cover around three miles (five kilometres), but is unlikely to feel like it; I would leave around lunchtime and expect the walk to take several hours, depending on breaks.
Opposite Carrer Nou de la Rambla, and leading off La Rambla, a pair of tall arches open into Plaça Reial, a grand 19th-century square full of tall palm trees, with neoclassical arcades around the sides. The square was formerly known for its squatters, prostitutes and drug-sellers; however, it’s now a tourist favourite, not least for the terrace cafes. Avoid weekends though, when it seems to fill up with stag parties. La Taxidermista (Plaça Reial 8) is a refurbished restaurant in the former Natural History museum. It prepares fantastic modern cuisine using local produce: artichoke ravioli in chicken broth; rocket and spinach salad with ham and poached egg; octopus with mashed potatoes and roasted red peppers; fries made from yams; and delicious paella. The menu is offered in both Spanish and English.
Leaving Plaça Reial by one of the many passageways, or by Carrer del Vidre, go to the street behind, the Carrer de Ferran. Here, turn to your right – you are heading away from La Rambla. This street is full of cafes and bars, and while all are of a similar quality, one or two stand out. Molly Malones (Sun-Thurs, 12pm-2am; Fri-Sat, 12pm-3am) is everything you expect it to be - a bit of home away from home, if you like, with friendly, English-speaking staff, British beers and foods, and sports on big screens. Café Schilling (www.cafeschilling.com; Mon-Sat, 10am-3am; Sun, 12pm-3am), however, is something different and a bit of a bar/café landmark. The bottle-lined walls and dim, moody lighting give it a real sleazy feel (in a good way) but the location, in the Barri Gotic, and the reasonable prices make it a real favourite. The food at lunchtimes is limited to sandwiches, salads and snacks, and the service is slow to the point of ignorance. Nevertheless, this remains a great place to while away an hour or two over a coffee or beer, people-watching or soaking up the atmosphere of the dark surroundings.
Walking further along this route, you will pass through Placa St Jaume and cross Via Laietana. While there are a few interesting bars and cafes around here, they are expensive and not really worth wasting your money in. You now come onto Carrer de la Princesa, which houses probably the best small chocolate-maker in Barcelona. Espai Sucre (www.espaisucre.com; Carrer de la Princesa 53) does not specialise in chocolate, but does have a special chocolate menu. It brands itself as the world's first ‘dessert restaurant’, serving a range of set menus from three desserts up to a much larger tasting menu. Further down this street is Xocoa (Carrer de la Princesa 8), part of a chain of fashionable chocolate shops; this is a very nice place to buy chocolate gifts, either for yourself, or to take home.
Turning right off Carrer de la Princesa, you will come to Carrer de Montcada, a narrow cobbled alley, which leads to the Picasso Museum and the relatively small and inconspicuous El Xampanyet (Montcada 22; Tue-Sat, 12pm-3.30pm and 7.30pm-11.30pm; Sun, 12pm-3.30pm; closed Mondays and throughout August). Miss this cava bar at your peril: El Xampanyet is probably the coolest place in town. Blue-tiled walls and antiques combine with marble tables and a zinc bar; cava, made by the bodega's own vineyard, is sold by the bottle and is very cheap.
Tapas here are also extremely good, fresh and relatively inexpensive (€1-€2 per portion). Among the best are the anchovies, small fillets in oil and vinegar, which are sweet and tasty. There are also fat green olives, jamón ibérico, tortilla, cheese-stuffed baby peppers, broad beans and ham and a host of others. They will even make up a plate for you if you want to try a range of different tapas. If you don't want the cava, you can also order fresh cider here. Take note: Catalans prefer their cava medium sweet, and El Xampanyet does not sell dry cava. You can sit and sip your drinks over tapas with a mix of ageing locals and the pre-club crowd; however, I recommend standing at the bar so you can get to know the owners. Try to get there early to guarantee entry.
Further down Carrer de Montcada, heading towards Barceloneta, you will pass the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar. Carry on down Carrer Rera Palau and you will come to a main road, Avinguda Marques de l’Argentera; this is the beginning of Barceloneta. Here you have a choice of directions, largely dependent on the time and the weather. If the weather is not good, or you are early, or have booked, on the opposite side of the road is a restaurant, 7 Portes. If the weather is good, or you arrive here later, the fish restaurants of Barceloneta are a two-minute walk to your right, along the Passeig d’Isabel II.
Restaurant 7 Portes (www.7portes.com; Passeig d’Isabel II, 14; open all year, 1pm-1am) offers an opportunity to sample some of the finest Catalan dishes, accompanied by Spain's best wines and cavas, served by attentive staff smartly dressed in white aprons. The restaurant has four dining areas of different capacities, decorated in traditional style. Of the mains, the special zarzuela fish stew with half a lobster or Señor Cortina's oven-baked langoustines are popular choices that make the restaurant worth the visit. Meat dishes include roast suckling pig, veal fricassee with wild mushrooms, meatballs stewed with peas, and black or white sausages with haricot beans. Like all Spanish eateries, 7 Portes offers an excellent selection of rice dishes - fish paella with hot peppers, Barcelona rice with ham and cheese, and black rice Emporada-style with cuttlefish and its ink. The guest list includes names like the King and Queen of Spain, Charlton Heston and Catherine Deneuve. Booking is advised, as this restaurant fills very quickly and is extremely popular.
Almost all of the restaurants on the quayside walk offer similar high quality food and drink at fairly high prices. Going to the street behind, you will find the kind of places frequented by the locals, offering the same fare, only cheaper. From here, it is a walk of around 10 minutes back to the start, along the Passeig de Colom, to the column, and back through La Rambla.
Where to stay
I try to stay at the Hotel Gaudi (€90-€120 per room per night during the summer) on Carrer Nou de la Rambla (a little further down La Rambla from the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the old market of the Boqueria). It is a clean, comfortable and welcoming three-star hotel; on my last visit, I spoke to a German businessman who had been staying here regularly for over 20 years. Furthermore, for two people staying in a double room, finding a hotel off La Rambla is likely to save around €40-€50 per night.
I would advise getting a copy of the Everyman MapGuide to Barcelona (ISBN 1841592366), or another fold-out map book. I prefer the Everyman because the maps are of a reasonable scale, they fold out of the book, and the book itself gives places of interest on each map.