To paraphrase one wise traveller, I envy those who’ve never been to Barcelona because they still have so much to look forward to…
Like most travellers, I fell in love with Barcelona the first time I laid eyes on her. She was a temptress, a city of relentless energy and secret corners, a place of singular culinary excellence and sassy streetwise confidence.
Las Ramblas, image via pinterest.
There are many Barcelonas. There’s the catch-all Las Ramblas with its flower sellers and scammers, its sex museum and world-class opera. Arrayed along its western shore El Raval has a glorious temple to modern art rising above streets that are in places gentrifying, in others careworn with grit and intrigue. East of Las Ramblas, the Barri Gòtic is the city’s medieval labyrinth, where the city was born and where boutiques and bar tops groan under the weight of tapas within sight of architectural signposts that span civilisations and centuries.
Where Las Ramblas ends, the city fans out along the coastline, sometimes soaring and stylish, then tightly packed and filled with seafood restaurants in the old fisherfolk neighbourhood of La Barceloneta. Back inland, La Ribera and El Born are quietly elegant and the centrepiece for so much that is good about shopping and eating in BCN – retro and cutting edge, vintage and innovative, quirky and rooted in tradition.
Away to the north, L’Eixample is Barcelona’s most stately and refined corner, dominated by the grandeur of Passeig de Gràcia and the otherworldly creations of Antoni Gaudí. Montjüic is all about museums and fine views. Gràcia, where the climb to Tibidabo begins, is alternative and one to watch in Barcelona’s perpetual story of evolution.
What holds it all together is the enduring sense of a city that is a miracle of the human condition – I always feel here as if I’ve stumbled into a celebration of life itself. It’s a place where great art and great architecture and great food and great shopping are the essential fabric of daily life, all done with a stylish flourish. And in BCN, a passion for trying what’s new never strays far from a near-religious devotion to what has gone before. Which is, of course, why Barcelona works, and will always work.
It’s also why there is a Barcelona to suit everyone. What’s your favourite Barcelona?
Casa Camper, image via expedia.
WHERE TO STAY
- Over where the old town meets El Born, Hotel Banys Orientals has the intimacy of a boutique hotel, a fabulous location, and achingly chic rooms – the perfect Barcelona address.
- From the people who brought you Camper shoes, Casa Camper brings the same sense of fun to their designer rooms; it’s very difficult to leave the hammock on a sunlight morning.
- Shaped like a spinnaker, W Barcelona has the best views in the city, and is all clean lines, impeccable service and a mindset that segues nicely into Barcelona’s cool, classy and casual approach to life.
Nu Sabates, image via pinterest.
- Breakfast on Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol in the heart of the Barri Gòtic by ordering the pa amb tomàquet – toast rubbed with tomato, salt, garlic and olive oil.
- Learn to cook like a Catalan at Cook & Taste, run by Bego Sanchis. Begin with a market tour, learn to cook the perfect paella, then sample the fruits of your labour.
- Wander the streets of El Born or Gràcia, places where locals outnumber tourists and where the offbeat sights and sounds of Catalan counter-culture meet Spain’s passion for outdoor living on the city’s streets.
- Sit in the silence of the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, my favourite Barcelona church and a simply perfect example of Catalan Gothic. Afterwards, retire to the adjacent La Vinya del Senyor, a postcard-perfect wine bar with a 350-strong winelist.
- Listen to Juanito, owner of Bar Pinotxo at the entrance to Mercat de la Boquería and one of the city’s great raconteurs, hold court. The market is where the great chefs of Barcelona go to do their shopping.
Casa Delfin, image via pinterest.
WHAT TO DO IN BARCELONA
- Gaudí may be a cliché but with such originality on show, who really cares? His unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Família, seems to spring from the pages of Harry Potter, its improbable forms owing more to witchcraft and wizardry than to any known architectural norms. And don’t miss Casa Batllo or La Pedrera or Parc Güell. There’s a day filled right there, without even trying.
- Pablo Picasso may be been born in Málaga and spent much of his life in exile in Paris, but Barcelona was his spiritual home in Spain. Museu Picasso inhabits five conjoined medieval stone mansions and is the finest collection on the planet from the great man’s formative years.
- Up the hill in Montjüic, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) has many calling cards, but if time is limited, I always find that the soulful Romanesque frescoes taken from village churches across Catalonia are alone worth the climb.
- The ‘look’ of the Barcelona Olympics, Joan Miró is known for his almost childlike use of bold, primary colours and Fundació Joan Miró will help you fall forever in love with one of the great Spanish masters of the 20th century.
- La Catedral stands in the heart of the old city, surrounded by a tangle of laneways, Roman ruins and grand old symbols of Gothic Barcelona; it is something of a city rite of passage to pay homage to the geese that inhabit the cathedral’s courtyard.
- Take in a live performance of classical guitar or opera at the Palau de la Música Catalana. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you see or hear because the architecture is the main attraction, an astonishing confection of Modernista flights of fancy.
Casa Camper, image via pinterest.
WHERE TO SHOP
- L’Arca – silk kimonos, 1920s wedding dresses, 200-year-old embroidered silk vests…BCN’s true home of vintage, L’Arca has serviced the apparel needs for films as diverse as Titanic and Perfume.
- When they first opened Cereria Subirà in 1761, Australia was little more than a vague notion on European maps of the world. Barcelona’s oldest shop, it sells gorgeous candles and has an extraordinary baroque interior.
- Handmade leather shoes for both men and women are beautifully crafted at Nu Sabates by a couple of modern-day Catalan cobblers.
- Lurdes Bergada is a mother-son team of designers who turn out unusual cuts using all natural fibres and in the process effortlessly span the gap between mainstream and edgy.
- Els Encants Vells is four-times-weekly outdoor market. Yes, you’ll find junk and frilly flamenco dresses, but keep your eye out for genuine antiques, original artworks and the occasional Olivetti typewriter – BCN’s best treasure hunt.
Monvinic, image via pinterest.
Casa Calvat, image via pinterest
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- BCN’s culinary scene is a mix of out-there experimentation and centuries of tradition. Casa Delfín leans towards the latter, serving up calçots (like massive spring onions) which you eat with a bib and red-pepper sauce in February and March.
- Tapas 24 is one of the city’s best-loved purveyor of fine tapas, taking simple dishes and applying magic touches – the ham-and-cheese toastie here uses cured ham and truffles…
- Casa Calvet is one for architecture buffs as the dining room’s interior boasts a splendid early Gaudí interior. Tradition reigns supreme here, but they’re not averse to some surprising combinations, such as venison with juniper.
- Disfrutar is the city’s flagship when it comes to experimentation – the combinations here are as surprising as the presentation but such is its well-deserved fame that you’ll need to book almost at the same time as you book your air ticket. Then again, it’s so good you might to book here first and build your trip around it…
- Tickets is where Ferran Adrià went after he closed El Bulli, for years voted the world’s best restaurant. You never quite know what you’ll get here, except that it will be zany and utterly delicious. Book online at least two months before.
- Monvínic is BCN’s most celebrated wine bar. As you walk in the door, they hand you an iPad and you’re left with a choice of more than 3000 wines.
- Milano is to cocktails what Monvínic is to wines, with besuited waters, glass cabinets and BCN’s best cocktails.
Tapas 24, image via pinterest
Anthony Ham is one of Melbourne's most sought after travel & nature writers. Having been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Travel Africa, Wild Travel, Wanderlust and Lonely Planet Traveller, we are excited to have him as regular contributor on the sassind blog.
Look out for his monthly posts that are guaranteed to inspire the traveller in all of us.