She may love to flaunt herself but look beyond Barcelona’s summer beach parties and buzzing Barrí Gòtic to fall under the spell of her laid-back charms.
Mention Barcelona, and it is Antoni Gaudí’s over-the-top architecture and Ferran Adrià’s equally ambitious culinary feats that spring to mind. Throw in the lively beaches, colourful street art and action-packed nightlife, and it’s easy to imagine that life in the Catalan capital plays out in an equally extravagant fashion.
But step away from Las Ramblas and the round-the-block queues for the Sagrada Familia and you’ll find that much of Barcelona operates at a more leisurely pace.
The city is also compact and easy to navigate. Start the day with a lazy breakfast in El Born, browse the boutiques as you stroll to Barceloneta for a dip in the sea, linger over lunch in a shady plaza, then take in a museum before tapas, dinner and cocktails — you won’t have to break a sweat, or spend a fortune.
Barcelona’s neighbourhoods all move to their own, remarkably distinct rhythms. First time visitors often head to Barceloneta, where the narrow streets and quiet plazas carry echoes of easygoing Andalucia. Closer to the city centre, they favour El Born’s hip cafes and designer shops and the slightly faster pace. And everyone loves the Barrí Gòtic’s mysterious medieval alleyways and the Eixample’s sweeping boulevards and glorious Modernista architecture.
However, fewer tourists make it through the dynamic, multicultural Raval to Sant Antoni, a traditional, welcoming area with relaxed local cafes and authentic tapas bars. Neighbouring Poble Sec is equally inviting, with its long, pretty streets tumbling down the hillside from Sants-Montjuic’s vast green parks, with the odd artist’s studio and quaint bars hidden along the way. But it’s in these unaffected areas, plus chilled-out Gràcia, home to the city’s prettiest cafe-filled plazas, where the locals come to relax, that you glimpse a little of the real Barcelona.
The Boqueria and the Santa Caterina markets in La Ribera are favourites, but try Barceloneta’s smaller market, Gràcia’s elegant Mercat de l’Abaceria on Travessera de Gràcia, or the soon to reopen Sant Antoni, one of the city’s finest in a glorious 1882 building.
Life unfolds outside in this seaside city. Take a paseo after dinner — find a plaza or a bench, sit back and watch the world parade by. There’s nothing more representative of the best of Barcelona than this passing show.
Food glorious food
While more flamboyant chefs have recently stolen the limelight, Catalans were famous for their hearty take on Med cooking long before El Bulli was dubbed ‘the world’s best restaurant’ in the noughties. From laidback tapas bars to elegant cafes, historic taverns and sunny terraces — the hardest thing about eating in Barcelona is narrowing down the choices.
The city’s best cooking relies on Catalonia’s excellent and varied produce: superb seafood, wild game and mushrooms from the Pyrenees, heady olive oil and handmade cheeses and cured meats. And of course the local wines, particularly the powerful Priorats, are the perfect accompaniment.
Lunch is the main meal, when the three-course menu del dia offers superb value, and beachside Barceloneta is far and away the best place for a seafood feast. If you want simple fare with a local crowd, try Can Maño — the rowdy, friendly place offers chipirones (baby squid), the freshest grilled fish and absolutely no frills. Or head to Nass for modern Mediterranean — with a set lunch menu excellent value at €12 (£9.70), this new gourmet mecca is also great for a la carte in the evening.
For lighter, international-style eating head to Federal Cafe in up-and-coming Sant Marti and savour delicious homemade cakes on the leafy roof terrace. Cafe Zurich in Plaça Catalunya, meanwhile, is a favourite meeting spot for people-watching at the top of the teeming Las Ramblas, while its interior balcony is an oasis of calm in the city centre.
And if it’s the over-the-top New Catalan cooking you’re after, Ferran Adrià’s feted bar Tickets has inherited all the creativity of El Bulli’s famous 33-course tasting menu. The surreal setting offers classic tapas, impeccably fresh seafood, plus favourites such as liquid olives and airbags filled with Manchego, while desserts include miniature candyfloss trees.
But for a true taste of Barcelona’s best, duck around the corner for tapas at Quimet i Quimet, which has a surprisingly good wine list and crisp croquettes, superb local cheeses and tiny elaborate sandwiches served at the packed bar by the fifth generation of the Quim family.
Can Maño: Calle Baluard 12. T: 00 34 93 319 30 82.
Nass: Calle Judici, 5. T: 00 34 93 221 75 64. www.nassrestaurant.com
Federal Cafe: Calle Parlament 39. T: 00 34 93 187 3607. www.federalcafe.es
Cafe Zurich: Plaça Catalunya 1. T: 00 34 93 3175193.
Tickets: Aveñida Parallel 164. www.ticketsbar.es
Quimet i Quimet: Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes, 25. T: 00 34 93 442 31 42.
Barcelona comes to life when the sun goes down, but it’s not until much later that the locals really let their hair down in this truly 24-hour city. There are infinite ways to enjoy a night out as the whole city seems to gear up for fun — even your peaceful breakfast cafe might be unrecognisable by midnight, when the tables have been cleared to make way for the dance floor.
On a long summer evening, wine bars are the perfect first stop — La Vinya del Senyor, with its picturesque courtyard next to the dramatic Santa Maria del Mar church in El Born is one of Barcelona’s most seductive settings. Or try sleek Monvínic in the Eixample, where a well-heeled crowd choose from a truly extraordinary wine list, including up to 60 wines by the glass and delicious tapas made from the pick of local ingredients.
Cocktail bars are enjoying a renaissance — just a little further into the Eixample, Dry Martini takes you straight back to the 1930s, where white-coated barmen whip up the city’s finest mixes. El Born’s great cocktail bars include romantic La Fianna, recently named one of Spain’s top 10 bars by Vogue, while the suave Boutique Bar in the new Ohla Hotel on nearby Via Laietana serves inventive blends to an upmarket crowd.
The Barrí Gòtic’s Ginger Bar is one of Barcelona’s best combined cocktail, wine and tapas bars — explore the various levels to find the perfect, intimate banquette for famously fresh tapas (try the apple tart with foie gras) and romantic lighting.
There’s plenty of action on the beachfront, from the slick Eclipse Bar on the 26th floor of the glitzy W Hotel to Vila Olimpica’s crazy Club Catwalk, with house music downstairs and R&B upstairs. If music is your thing, Sala Apolo on Nou de la Rambla has hosted some of the city’s best concerts over the last 50 years, while legendary jazz club Jamboree still hosts stellar acts and has a great atmosphere.
La Vinya del Senyor: Plaça Santa Maria 5. T: 00 34 93 310 3379.
Monvinic: Calle Diputacion 249. T: 00 34 93 272 6187. www.monvinic.com
Dry Martini: Calle Aribau 162. T: 00 34 93 217 5080. www.drymartinibcn.com
Ginger: Calle Palma de Sant Just, 1/Calle Lledo 2. T: 00 34 93 310 5309.
Boutique Bar: Ohla Hotel, Via Laietana 49. T: 00 34 93 341 5050. www.ohlahotel.com
La Fianna: Calle Banys Vells 15. T: 00 34 93 315 1810. www.lafianna.com
Eclipse Bar: Plaça de la Rosa de las Vents 1. T: 00 34 93 295 2800. www.w-barcelona.com/eclipse-bar
Club Catwalk: Calle Roman Trias Fargas, 2-4. T: 00 34 93 224 0740. www.clubcatwalk.net
Sala Apollo: Vila i Vilà 60-62. 00 34 93 329 8641. www.sala-apolo.com
Jamboree: Plaça Reial 17. www.masimas.com/jamboree
Piles of style
Barcelona’s fashion scene is an intriguing mix of tiny boutiques where local designers showcase their latest creations, glitzy showrooms selling leading international labels and historic stores stocking infinite versions of one item — the food and homeware displays are dangerously enticing.
Huge shopping centres haven’t completely taken over here, but if you want to browse the big brands such as Zara and Desigual, explore the area around Portal de l’Angel. And even if it’s only for window shopping, don’t miss Paseo de Gracia for luscious boutiques — including Loewe, one of Spain’s oldest luxury retailers in its dazzling Modernista setting, and design icon Vincon for Europe’s coolest furniture, design, and kitchenware. Just around the corner, Spanish fashion icon Agatha Ruiz de la Prada’s colourful clothes are always fun, while Rambla de Catalunya has inspiring homeware shops and plenty of great cafes to rest shop-weary feet.
For one-of-a-kind boutiques, head for El Born around Calle Rec and Princessa and the tiny side streets in between, to browse shops such as On Land for eclectic fashion pieces and MTX, where Mertxe Hernández dreams up her ethereal, colourful clothes and quirky handbags and jewellery. And for classic Spain, explore the history of the iconic espadrille in La Manual Alpargatera, a venerable old store dedicated to this emblematic and recently revitalised Spanish shoe style.
Don’t miss Vila Vinateca’s two shops facing each other across a tiny pedestrianised street — one offers an exhaustive selection of wines, the other is a gourmet heaven filled with fine hams, more than 350 cheeses and the purest olive oil imaginable. Dare to enter Cacao Sampaka, a modern chocolate shop whose specialities include selections featuring spices from the Americas, and order a dark Asteca hot chocolate in their sunny courtyard.
Zara: Portal de l’Angel 11-13 and 32-34. www.zara.com
Desigual: Calle Arcs, 10. T: 003 4 93 215 0884. www.desigual.com
Loewe: Paseo de Gracia, 35. T: 00 34 93 216 0400. www.loewe.com
Vincon: Paseo de Gracia 96. T: 00 34 93 215 650. www.vincon.com
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada: Calle Consell de Cent 314-316. T: 00 34 93 215 5288. www.agatharuizdelaprada.com
On Land: Calle Princessa 25. T: 00 34 93 310 0211. www.on-land.com
MTX: Calle Rec 32. T: 00 34 93 3194344. www.mertxe-hernandez.com/index.php
La Manual Alpargatera: C/Avinyó 7. T: 00 34 93 301 0172.
Vila Viniteca: Calle Agullers 7. T: 00 34 90 232 7777 . www.vilaviniteca.es
Cacao Sampaka: C/ Consell de Cent, 292. T: 00 34 93 272 0833. www.cacaosampaka.com
TOP 10 local tips
01 If you want the beach to yourself, beat the sun-worshipping grannies and families to it and get there before 11am.
02 Buy a T10 travel ticket at metro stops, tabacs or kiosks, while taxis are plentiful and affordable.
03 The city is known for its pickpockets — take the minimum in cash and a safely hidden credit card.
04 Take the funicular from Barceloneta to Montjuic for ultimate city and water vistas. www.portvellbcn.com/en/pi_transbordador_aeri
05 Head uptown to the Cosmocaixa, a brilliant new science museum with views over the city. http://obrasocial.lacaixa.es
06 Head to Vioko in Barceloneta for inspired passionfruit mousse and Crema Catalana. Paseo Juan de Bourbon 55.
07 Picnic on the beach or the Parc de Ciutadella — pick up a superb takeaway or local cheeses and organic fruit at Sant Carles shop. Sant Carles 13.
08 Explore the Miro Foundation and the Catalonian National Art Museum at Montjuic. www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org www.mnac.cat
09 Buy an Art Ticket, the cheapest way to see the city’s leading galleries. www.articketbcn.org
10 Hire a bike and ride — the beachfront is especially good on two wheels — or take a tour in a classic sidecar. http://ridebrightside.com
On screen: Barcelona has starred in countless movies, from Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother to Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Spanish Apartment’s entertaining look at Erasmus students in the city and Whit Stillman’s drama Barcelona.
Books: Barcelona by Robert Hughes. RRP: £11.99. Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin. RRP: £8.99.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. RRP: £9.99.
Websites: Tourist board: www.bcn.es
Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona: www.tmb.cat/en/home
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)