Barcelona is one of the most dynamic and stylish cities in the world. Summer is serious party time, but year-round the city sizzles - it's always on the biting edge of architecture, food, fashion, style, music and good times.
The buildings, especially the work of the eccentric genius Gaudí, will blow you away. The art, with significant collections by Picasso and Miró, will make you clammy all over. The people, with their exuberance, their creative spirit, their persistent egalitarianism, will fascinate you.
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What To Do
There are plenty of opportunities for exercise in this healthy, sports-keen city. If you're a golfer, you'll be itching to play in Spain, one of the capitals of the game. The seafront is the best spot for jogging, walking, skating and blading.
What To See
The wild and whimsical architecture of Gaudí enlivens the streets of Barcelona and makes for some of the finest city-walking in the world. The art will beckon you from museums and streetsides. The vibrant central drag, La Rambla, will lead you to the city's marvellous medieval quarter, Barri Gòtic.
The setting alone, in five contiguous medieval stone mansions, makes the Museu Picasso unique (and worth the probable queues). The pretty courtyards, galleries and staircases preserved in the first three of these buildings are as delightful as the collection inside.
La Sagrada Família
If you have time for only one sightseeing outing, this should be it. La Sagrada Família inspires awe by its sheer verticality, and in the manner of the medieval cathedrals it emulates, it’s still under construction after more than 100 years. When completed, the highest tower will be more than half as high again as those that stand today.
This undulating beast is another madcap Gaudí masterpiece, built in 1905-10 as a combined apartment and office block. Formally called Casa Milà, after the businessman who commissioned it, it is better known as La Pedrera (the Quarry) because of its uneven grey stone facade, which ripples around the corner of Carrer de Provença.
North of Gràcia and about 4km from Plaça de Catalunya, Park Güell is where Gaudí turned his hand to landscape gardening. It’s a strange, enchanting place where his passion for natural forms really took flight – to the point where the artificial almost seems more natural than the natural.
Església de Santa Maria del Mar
At the southwest end of Passeig del Born stands the apse of Barcelona’s finest Catalan Gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar (Our Lady of the Sea). Built in the 14th century with record-breaking alacrity for the time (it took just 54 years), the church is remarkable for its architectural harmony and simplicity.
Museu Barbier-Mueller d'Art Pre-Colombí
The wonderfully illuminated artefacts inside the medieval Palau Nadal are part of the treasure trove of pre-Columbian art collected by Swiss businessman Josef Mueller (who died in 1977) and his son-in-law Jean-Paul Barbier, who directs the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva. Together, the two museums form one of the most prestigious collections of such art in the world.
One of the strangest residential buildings in Europe, this is Gaudí at his hallucinogenic best. The facade, sprinkled with bits of blue, mauve and green tiles and studded with wave-shaped window frames and balconies, rises to an uneven blue-tiled roof with a solitary tower.
Museu d'Història de Barcelona
One of Barcelona's most fascinating museums takes you back through the centuries to the very foundations of Roman Barcino. You'll stroll over ruins of the old streets, sewers, laundries and wine- and fish-making factories that flourished here following the town's funding by Emperor Augustus around 10 BC. Equally impressive is the building itself, which was once part of the Palau Reial Major (Grand Royal Palace) on Plaça del Rei (King’s Sq, the former palace’s courtyard), among the key locations of medieval princely power in Barcelona.The square is frequently the scene of organised or impromptu concerts and is one of the most atmospheric corners of the medieval city.
Once a fortnight, gourmands can poke about the homemade honeys, sweets, cheeses and other edible delights at the <strong>Fira Alimentació</strong> from Friday to Sunday.
La Manual Alpargatera
Everyone from Salvador Dalí to Jean Paul Gaultier has ordered a pair of espadrilles (rope-soled canvas shoes or sandals) from this famous store, which is the birthplace of the iconic footware. The shop was founded just after the Spanish Civil War, though the roots of the simple shoe design date back thousands of years.
El Rey de la Magia
For more than 100 years, the people behind this box of tricks have been keeping locals both astounded and amused. Should you decide to stay in Barcelona and make a living as a magician, this is the place to buy levitation brooms, glasses of disappearing milk and decks of magic cards.
This compact bar is a veritable hive of cultural activity where you never quite know what to expect. Aside from art exhibitions and poetry readings, you will be pleasantly surprised by the eclectic live-music program. Jazz groups are often followed by open jam sessions, and experimental music of all colours gets a run. While many performers are local, international acts also get a look-in.
Gran Teatre del Liceu
Barcelona’s grand old opera house, restored after fire in 1994, is one of the most technologically advanced theatres in the world. To take up a seat in the grand auditorium, returned to all its 19th-century glory but with the very latest in acoustic accoutrements, is to be transported to another age.
Barcelona is perhaps less chronically addicted to partying than cities in the south of Spain, but it puts in a fair effort, with some wild occasions dotting the calendar year-round. There's plenty of dancing and a few fancy-dress parades during the 10-day Carnaval in February/March.
Barcelona celebrates 16 official holidays a year, including all the major Catholic festivals, as well as New Year's Day (1 January), Labour Day (1 May) and Spanish National Day (12 October).
On 23 April, the Dia de Sant Jordi, also the Day of the Book, is a local festival celebrating Catalonia's patron saint. The Berbena de Sant Joan (also known as La Nit del Foc, or Fire Night) kicks off midsummer celebrations on 23 June with drinking, dancing and fireworks. Barcelona brims with music, dance and theatre during Festival del Grec, held from mid-June to the end of August, and around 15 August the Festa Major de Gràcia sees the streets of Gràcia decorated and full of dancing and music.
The last huge hoorah of the summer is the Festes de la Mercè, celebrated around 24 September, which includes concerts, dancing, a swimming race across the harbour, and a correfoc (fire race). During the International Jazz Festival from late October through to the end of November, the city finally cools with some jazz and blues.
Food and Drink
Jordi Vila, a culinary alchemist, serves up refined Catalan dishes with a twist in this elegant, white-walled locale well off the tourist trail. Dishes such as his arròs de nyore i safrà amb escamarlans de la costa (saffron and sweet-chilli rice with crayfish) earned Vila his first Michelin star. He presents a series of set menus from €38 to €84.
One of Gòtic's long-standing favourites, Pla is a stylish, romantically lit medieval den (with a huge stone arch) where the cooks churn out such temptations as oxtail braised in red wine, seared tuna with roasted aubergine, and 'Thai-style' monkfish with prawns, lemongrass and apple foam. It has a tasting menu for €36 Sunday to Thursday.
As you wander into this sprawling vegetarian spot, to the left is the open kitchen, where you choose from a limited range of options that change from day to day. Servings are generous and imaginative. The salad buffet is copious and desserts are good.
One of Barcelona's culinary delights, Casa Delfín is everything you dream of when you think of Catalan (and Mediterranean) cooking. Start with the tangy and sweet calçots (a cross between a leek and an onion; February and March only) or salt-strewn padron peppers, moving on to grilled sardines specked with parsley, then tackle the meaty monkfish roasted in white wine and garlic.
This is, literally, one of the sizzling tickets in the restaurant world. It's the new tapas bar opened by Ferran Adrià, of the legendary El Bulli, and his brother Albert. And unlike El Bulli, it's an affordable venture – if you can book a table, that is (you can only book online, and two months in advance).
La Vinya del Senyor
Relax on the terrassa, which lies in the shadow of Església de Santa Maria del Mar, or crowd inside at the tiny bar. The wine list is as long as War and Peace and there’s a table upstairs for those who opt to sample by the bottle rather than the glass.
Transport yourself to a Humphrey Bogart movie. White-jacketed bar staff with all the appropriate aplomb will whip you up a gimlet or any other classic cocktail your heart desires. Barcelona cocktail guru Javier Muelas is behind this and several other cocktail bars around the city, so you can be sure of excellent drinks, some with a creative twist.
It’s a pool-playing, rock and roll kinda world in this popular late-night haunt, where those without disco desire but in search of one (or two) more drinkies converge when most of the other bars in Barcelona have closed. It’s a no-nonsense place and full of beans after 3am.