From gastronomes to design aficionados, football fans to beach bums; Barcelona has long been an easy sell. Josephine Price explores.
Spain’s second city is an endearing enclave of beaches, bars, beguiling architecture and boundless personality. The Catalonian hotspot, hemmed in by the undulating Serra de Collserola Natural Park and the balmy Mediterranean Sea, encapsulates the charms of the Mediterranean along with the fiercely autonomous Catalan character. These urban coastal landscapes have inspired the likes of Picasso, Miro and Dali and its inspiring artistic nature lives on through the Gaudi masterpieces that still define the city. All this, teamed with Barcelona’s late-night culture, world-class cuisine and ever-expanding choice of hotels, drew in over 700,000 US tourists in 2015. Furthermore, as the Mediterranean’s cruise capital, the city sees 2.5 million passengers descend from cruise ships each year to explore its streets.
For years, the iconic Gothic Quarter and long, sandy beaches stole these crowds but now neighborhoods like the elegant Eixample and the bohemian hillside quarter of Gracia are exerting their own irresistible pull.
Visitors navigate through hanging haunches of Iberian ham and stalls overflowing with vegetables, piquant red chorizo, bright Padron peppers and other Catalan classics. It’s been running since the 13th century but La Boqueria only settled in its current Modernista shelter in 1914. Stalls like El Quim show there’s more to Spain than its tapas. Expect foie gras burgers, fried eggs with squid and a bustling backdrop. boqueria.info
Gastronomic hideaway Bar Mut is located near the center of the Eixample in a refined setting off the Avinguda Diagonal. The high-end, cozy restaurant-bar showcases the best of Barcelona’s cuisine. Wine bottle-clad walls tower above a bar strewn with small plates, but it’s the menu scrawled on a blackboard that’s brought to the tables where the real treats are to be found. Opulent options include lobster sauteed in Champagne. Rumor has it that George Clooney has frequented the speakeasy-style upstairs bar. barmut.com
Beach-goers should peel themselves away from the sun loungers to join the queues at beachfront restaurant Xiringuito Escriba at midday. The menu concentrates on rice and seafood dishes (the classic paella with prawns, langoustines, mussels, clams, cuttlefish, monkfish reposing in the restaurant’s distinctive fish stock is a must-try). It’s beseaten with wooden spoons from gigantic cast iron skillets, and is best accompanied by a refreshing summer punch made from sangria, fresh fruit and Cava. xiringuitoescriba.com
Hospital de Santa Creu I Sant Pau
Queues snake out of the Sagrada Familia for good reason. Gaudi’s ongoing masterpiece is a stalwart on the Barcelona tourist trail. Afterwards, head north to The Hospital de la Santa Creu I Sant Pau — the world’s largest Art Nouveau site. Underground tunnels link the six main buildings — and provide respite from the summer heat. Built between 1902 and 1930 this bright, airy masterpiece features multicolored tile murals. santpaubarcelona.org
Sprawling up Carmel Hill, Parc Guell is a collection of public parks created by Barcelona’s main man. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is enduringly iconic and oozes the city’s fanciful yet harmonious blend of nature and architecture. The entrance, flanked by two buildings in the whimsical trademark Gaudi style, leads through to the parks and the main raised terrace whose tiled, kaleidoscopic bench has long captured the hearts of travellers posing for photos using the city as a backdrop. parkguell.cat
Overlooking the city’s harbor, in the south west of Barcelona, Montjuic is one of the rare natural high points of this low-rise city. Once the site of a forest, which was later cleared to provide a grazing patch for Barcelona’s livestock, the hill is now home to the grand Spanish Renaissance-style Palau Nacional, the foreboding fortress of Castell de Montjuic and the cascading parklands that tumble down the steep slopes.
Hotel Arts Barcelona
Barceloneta Beach, the sandy interlude between the buzzy capital and the balmy Balearic Sea, is where the upscale Hotel Arts Barcelona pierces the horizon. The glass-and-steel tower has a lobby that’s strewn with chandeliers and fresh flowers, 483 luxury suites and apartments and the 43rd-floor Six Senses Spa. Frank Gehry’s gigantic fish sculpture towers over the pool area — dividing opinion among the locals but enchanting design aficionados. ritzcarlton.com
H10 Urquinaona Plaza
A stone’s throw from the Placa de Catalunya, on Urquinaona Plaza, this outpost of the H10 brand features an inner courtyard with a glass roof, enabling light to flood in. The roof houses a sun-trapping terrace with a pint-sized pool and bar. Rooms are whitewashed and compact with high ceilings and large windows. Just yards from the metro station and 10 minutes from the Gothic Quarter, it’s an ideal base for city rambles. h10hotels.com
Slip off the wide avenue of Passeig de Gracia into the discreet Margot House — a nine-bedroom haven opposite one of Gaudi’s most famous facades, Illa de la Discordia. Scandi and Japanese influences pervade the interior design. A neutral color palette of concrete, cashmere and light wood accents makes the tiny bolthole look minimal and modern. There’s also a 24-hour cafeteria, honesty bar, an open-plan lounge area and library. Bathrooms are decked out with Aesop products and Turkish bath towels. Guests can rent out Brompton bicycles to tour the city. margothouse.es
We zoom in on Gracia, the bohemian barrio tucked away in northwest Barcelona
Parc Guell often lures visitors to the northern neighborhood of Gracia, yet there’s much more to discover in these old streets and leafy squares. Devoid of classic tourist attractions, the village-like atmosphere attracts those looking to slow the pace to discover family-run Catalan restaurants and to peruse independent boutiques. Existing as a separate town until the 19th century when it was absorbed into the expanding city of Barcelona, the barrio retains its proud, independent nature, creating a welcoming bohemian vibe. From Cine Verdi, the quarter’s arthouse cinema, to the bar-lined Placa de Sol, there’s plenty of culture here to soak up while architecture buffs will admire the Jaume Foster Library and Casa Vicens — Gaudi’s nod to Mudejar-style Modernism. As European squares go, Placa de la Vierreina is an enduringly charming must-see. Settle in at one of tables scattered across the tree-lined square in the shadow of the Sant Joan Baptista de Gracia church. To sample the best of the neighborhood though, visit in August for the week-long street festival, Festa Major de Gracia. It is the most well-known of the Catalonian capital’s festivals where residents get involved in street-decorating competitions by day and rambunctious carnival-style street parties by night.