With so much to see, do, and taste, even locals can feel like tourists in the energetic and ever-changing streets of Barcelona. We’ve highlighted some Catalan classics; it doesn’t scratch the surface so much as gently breathe on it, but it’s a good place to start.
Barcelona is brilliant; Catalonia’s cosmopolitan capital has a culinary scene as vibrant as its clubs and architecture as colourful as its culture, all protected by a fiercely proud local identity that still welcomes all visitors. Modern and medieval buildings sit side-by-side overlooking beautiful beaches and luscious city parks. Jacob Weber has put together a short guide to walk you through an ABC of Spain’s second largest city.
1. A is for Art & Architecture
The city is world-famous for its awe-inspiring art and distinctive design scene; it’s a melting pot of modernist and Middle Age construction, a treasure trove of architectural tradition in a beautiful blend of old and new. Even if you can’t tell your Gothic from your Gaudi, you can't fail to absorb the atmosphere that seems to radiate from the very streets themselves. It’s a smorgasbord of styles, a clash of colours, stoic and staggering in equal measure: effectively an enormous open-air museum for aficionados of architecture (or could that be connoisseurs of concrete?)
A year’s worth of free walking tours might not be enough to see it all, but the works of one of the city’s most famous sons are a good place to start: Antoni Gaudi, the masterful modernist architect, was renowned for his original and creative designs that were – and are – quite unlike anything seen anywhere else. No fewer than seven of the city’s World Heritage sites bear his name. His masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, is the most enduring image of Barcelona; the towering Roman Catholic cathedral, still under construction over 100 years later, features four architectural styles from Spanish Late Gothic to Art Nouveau. The interior is quite remarkable; elaborate and ever changing, ornate yet organic with barely a flat surface in sight, inspired by the free-flowing curves and shapes of nature. It’s the most-visited monument in the country, so make sure you pre-book a ticket. Rather than queue for hours in the sweltering Spanish sun, you can put your time outdoors to better use and explore one of the most iconic green spaces in the city: Gaudi’s Parc Guell. This mystical, multi-coloured park features stunning mosaic work and curious stone structures, with a great view of the city from the terrace at the top. Across town, the 42 acres of the Parc de la Cuitadella include the Barcelona Zoo, massive sculptures and the famous centrepiece fountain, designed by Josep Fontseré and his apprentice, a young – you guessed it – Antoni Gaudí. The apartment buildings at La Pedrera, Gaudi’s final civilian project and a work of architectural ingenuity, are curving, captivating and thoroughly unconventional. With its undulating form and unusual façade, it was innovative well beyond its time when it was completed in 1912. Commissioned for one of the first car-owners in Barcelona, it came with the first underground car parking space in the city.
There are two particularly stunning examples of Gothic architecture. The Cathedral of Santa Eulalia is one of the most beautiful buildings in Barcelona; visit at the right time at a weekend (usually Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings) and you might catch a Catalan tradition in full swing: the Sardana dance. The cathedral takes pride of place practically in the centre of the Gothic Quarter, and is a good starting point to explore the rest of this part of the city; history and mystery are around every corner, and it deserves at least a half-day dedicated to exploring the winding, narrow streets. It’s a short walk to the graceful Santa Maria del Mar, an outstanding piece of 15th century Gothic architecture and one of the most important churches in the city, once a symbol of Barcelona’s rule over a Mediterranean empire. It’s massive while modest, awesome yet austere, with a spacious and serene interior.
Although art and architecture are often one and the same in Barcelona, purists of either discipline have plenty to pursue independently and after checking out all these funky facades and barely believable buildings, art lovers are spoilt for choice themselves. The Museu Picasso houses one of the most extensive collections by the eponymous artist, fans of whom should also pay homage to the Els Quatre Gats café, once a central meeting point for the city’s most important modernist minds and a favourite of the 17-year-old Picasso. The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya contains a colossal collection of Catalan art from as early as the 12th century and Romanesque art from even earlier. For the more modern-minded, the MACBA houses a 5,000-strong permanent collection of contemporary art from the mid-20th century onward.
2. B is for Bars
From stylish cocktail spots to raucous rumba bars, cavernous superclubs to swinging jazz joints, there’s a tune for everyone to dance to when the sun goes down (and until it comes back up again).
The city has long been building a reputation as a hotbed for electronic music, from local talent to superstars of the international circuit and in tandem with the ever-popular annual music festival Sonar, this status is going from strength to strength. Fans of house and techno should venture underground to La Macarena, a diminutive dancehall not far from the Gothic Quarter. It’s house music meets house party which is about as intimate as it gets; the capacity is just 80, the DJ booth is in the middle of the dancefloor, and the atmosphere is electric. Moog is another small club with a big name on the local and international house music scene. Razzmatazz, meanwhile, is a massive club with a reputation to match; spread across five rooms, Barcelona’s pre-eminent after-hours destination plays indie, rock and electronic music in a colossal, industrial-style set-up.
For some Latin flavour, head to Mojito Club, a sizzling salsa bar with a passionate crowd. Even if you’ve got two left feet, don’t panic; you can get a crash course in the club at 10 p.m. before staying on to strut your stuff later. If you’re looking for an authentic flamenco experience, head off the tourist trail to 23 Robadors, a cosy club in the El Raval neighbourhood near the Gothic Quarter. It’s intimate and intense – artists and audience are packed into a 20 sq. metre room – and, with €1 tapas, great value for money.
By the sea, Opium is the plush pick; by day it’s the most glamorous bar on the beach, all Balearic beats and champagne magnums; by night it’s one of the hottest tickets in town, especially during the summer months when the likes of David Guetta and Avicii come to play. It is one of the few clubs in the area that has a 6 a.m. license, so you can watch the sun rise over the sand after dancing the night away.
Up on Montjuic, the hill overlooking the harbour, La Caseta del Migdia is a hidden gem. You won’t find huge sound systems or neon cocktails up here, just a small bar with some of the best views in (and of) all of Barcelona.
3. C is for Cooking
Sightseeing and salsa dancing are hungry work. Thankfully, Barcelona has an outstanding reputation for food and drink. The coastal location means the menu is largely Mediterranean, with a focus on fresh vegetables and sumptuous seafood. However, in the hilly inlands of Catalonia are major lamb and pork-producing regions, thus influencing the concept of ‘mar i muntanya’ – or, surf ‘n’ turf. In recent years, Barcelona has been a hotbed for creative cuisine; the infamous elBulli (now closed) was described as the most imaginative fine dining restaurant in the world, winning the world’s best restaurant award a record five times for good measure. Of course, traditional Catalan cooking is still very widely available: hearty meat dishes, plenty of wine and cheese and delicious sweet treats. Creative flair has also uplifted and inspired the fast-food scene – that is, bocadillos (sandwiches), not Burger King – with an ever-increasing focus on fresher ingredients and craft quality. Fastvinic, the smaller sister to one of Barcelona’s most famous restaurants, serves up the finest sandwiches in the city, with high-quality, local and seasonal produce. Classic snacking staples such as pa amb tomàquet (toasted bread with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt) are a mainstay on most menus.
The massive Mercat de la Boqueria, on La Rambla next to the Liceu metro station, should be your first stop on a tasting tour of the city for a whirlwind introduction to the Barcelona buffet. Over 300 stalls boast a diverse range of regional delicacies, and it’s a great place to soak up some atmosphere. Otherwise, tourist trap eateries on Las Ramblas are best avoided. Another top tip: as with anywhere in Spain, avoid gaudy ‘paellador’ signs like the plague. The only thing it’s a sure sign of is that the paella is frozen and of poor quality.
Barcelona has a strong café culture, with an abundance of bistro-style breakfast eateries offering perfect pastries for indulging a sweet tooth. Escribà is the oldest and most famous, showcasing incredibly creative cakes and desserts. You’ll struggle to avoid crema Catalana, the local version of crème brûlée. And to wash it all down? Well, Catalonia is the capital of cava, Spain’s answer to champagne, so a glass of bubbles is essential. Check out Bobby Gin for an upgrade on the classic G&T cocktail, with over a dozen varieties of spirit and mixer.
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