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City life: Barcelona

With everything from stylish shopping to Gaudí’s startling architecture, a football coliseum and a trove of Michelin-starred restaurants, Barcelona is one of the world’s truly great city breaks

City life: Barcelona
The Sangrada Familia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

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I’m like a bee, buzzing amid the honey-coloured sandstone of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. It’s midday, it’s peak season, and the sun is beating down. Waves of tourists are washing around beneath the gargoyles of Le Seu Cathedral.

Thankfully, I know where to go for a breather. Just a few dozen yards away, there’s a place where the air feels cool; the atmosphere hushed. Plaça Sant Felip Neri is a leafy little square with barely a trickle of tourists and the turquoise tablecloths of a plush hotel restaurant aflutter gently against old stone. It’s not a secret, exactly — Woody Allen featured it in his 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona — but it is delicious. A pair of trees soar upwards, sprouting umbrellas of shade over a church bearing the scars of the Spanish Civil War and timeworn buildings that once housed the city’s shoemakers’ and coppersmiths’ guilds. A fellow traveller sits on the lip of a fountain, thumbing her guidebook. Like me, she’s struck travel gold.

That’s the trick to Barcelona. The Catalan capital boasts sensational food, thumping nightlife and some of Europe’s sweetest buildings and galleries (don’t miss the Joan Miró Foundation), but crowds are a growing issue. Tourists pour in from its airport and cruise docks and throng the Ciutat Vella and the beaches of the La Barceloneta neighbourhood. Elsewhere, vendors peddle selfie sticks around the magic fountains on Montjuïc (“Hola, selfie!”). Big hits like the Sagrada Família and Camp Nou Experience must be booked in advance online. In short, visits have to be managed.

Once you crack that, the layers peel back beautifully. From the backstreets of El Raval to the ginormous grid of L’Eixample, Barcelona remains one of the world’s great city breaks. There are leafy boulevards and little lanes, Modernisme gems and the bustling market of La Boqueria (best visited for breakfast, incidentally). You can splash the cash in high-end stores on Passeig de Grácia, or amble into some random trove set beneath flapping laundry and Catalan flags in the Raval or El Born. You can join the crowds in Antoni Gaudí’s cartoon-like Park Güell, or sink your teeth into a snap-fresh sardine a stone’s throw from the Med. This is a city that clicks.

La Basilica Galeria. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

La Basilica Galeria. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

What to see & do

It’s been years since I’ve had several days in Barcelona, so the first thing I do is book my entrance to the Sagrada Família. Gaudí’s flagship is a swirling chandelier of a cathedral that remains under construction 90 years after his death (the architect — run over by a tram nearby — once quipped, “My client is not in a hurry.”). Last time I visited, the interior was crammed with scaffolding. This time, it’s blossomed beautifully.

Sure, there’s hard hats and hammering. But the nave of the basilica is covered now, meaning it’s in use as a place of worship. Kaleidoscopic patterns of light explode through stained glass windows. Stairways swirl like snails’ shells. Columns soar towards the ceiling like cinematic tree trunks.

If you find the Sagrada’s scale overwhelming, there’s a peachy alternative in the Palau Güell (it’s often less crowded than the Casa Milà too). Gaudí received his first major commission in 1886 — from Eusebi Güell, one of Spain’s wealthiest industrialists and politicians. The resulting mansion, braided into the Raval on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, is a stunner — from its etched glass windows to seductively named spaces like the Hall of Intimates and Hall of Lost Steps. The central hall is its pièce de résistance, crowned with a parabolic dome in which lanterns were lit to appear like stars in the night sky. Above that is the roof itself, with its creative chimneystacks, trencadís (broken ceramic tiles) and cityscape.

Should you fancy diving deeper into the neighbourhoods, it’s worth getting your bearings with a guided walk. A tour of the Gothic Quarter saw me burn serious shoe leather while soaking up over 2,000 years of Catalan history around Plaça Sant Jaume — from the Roman columns and arches in the Temple d’August to the cavernous naves of the old cathedral and the bustling thoroughfare of Las Ramblas, whose name means stream or river. “In the Middle Ages it was a sewer, same as now,” my guide jokes.

Another of Barcelona’s mega-sights is the Camp Nou (‘New field’ in Catalan), the coliseum-like home of FC Barcelona, around three miles from the city centre. Locals are fiercely proud of their football team, and souvenir shops are crammed with the distinctive striped jerseys — Lionel Messi’s iconic number 10 shirt outselling all others, of course. A whopping 95,000 spectators regularly cram into the stadium, although the behind-the-scenes Camp Nou Experience offers a less frenetic look at the stands, as well as the Megastore and museum.

At first, I felt miffed at having to queue for 45 minutes to fork out €23 (£16) on what’s clearly a money-spinning hamster wheel. But the gleaming trophies and legendary players’ paraphernalia soon sucked me in. One pair of boots, dating from 1910 (“They’re like hiking boots,” one visitor says), belonged to Paulino Alcántara — Barcelona’s top scorer for 87 years until Mr Messi showed up. Names like Cruyff, Maradona and Guardiola give me goosebumps. The story of Catalan identity is told, and you learn how central FC Barcelona is to that. Its motto, ‘Més que un club’ (‘More than a club’), is emblazoned across the stands.

Shopping

After ticking the big boxes, get lost in El Raval. The city’s former red light district still has its seedy side, but I prefer it to the more manicured parts of El Born. Outside the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) you’ll see skate kids, bo-ho cafes and kebab shops, as well as designer outlets like Med winds — which crafts its ‘Med-a-Porter’ clothing and accessories in Italian and Spanish workshops — and vintage clothing shops like Dandelion, full of Instagram-friendly city threads.

In the Gothic Quarter, seek out an eccentric boutique called La Basílica Galería — part contemporary art and jewellery store (selling ‘organic-inspired’ sculptures, including glass jellyfish mobiles), part perfumery (with sample scents captured in upturned antique crystal glasses). There are also handbags made of acacia wood, old-style cabinets and a soundtrack of tweeting birds. A cool stone floor completes the seduction. I browsed for an age.

It’s a similar story in Kokua, a family-run shoe store on Carrer de la Boqueria. Here I find row after row of exquisitely colourful ballet flats (there isn’t a heel in sight). Thinking about a gift, I ask the shop assistant if they have a website. “Yes, but you can’t buy them online,” she says coquettishly. “You can only buy them in Barcelona.” Here, in the land of Mango and Zara, that’s music to my ears.

If you find a Trend Map Barcelona, pick it up. I chanced upon one on a bench in the Gothic Quarter, and followed its promises of alternative and authentic discoveries to analogue photography specialist Caprile Photo, and ‘ultra-lightweight’ trainers specialist W.A.U, among other nuggets. It’s the polar opposite to the big brands and haute couture hits of the Passeig de Grácia, perhaps Barcelona’s quintessential shopping street.

La Boqueria. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

La Boqueria. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

Where to eat

Barcelona is more expensive than other Spanish culinary hotspots like Valencia and San Sebastián, but the quality makes it worth a splash. Catalonia’s capital boasts 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, although with options like paella by the beach in La Barceloneta, a mix of Catalan and ethnic restaurants in Grácia or tapas in El Born and La Boqueria, you can quite happily skip the top bracket entirely.

Famously, Ferran Adrià — of elBulli restaurant fame — cut his teeth at Pinotxo Bar — set in a tiny stall just inside the main entrance of La Boqueria. The cod croquettes are salty sweet, the beef stew plumped with potatoes and peas, and the sautéed chickpeas gorgeously moreish. There’s no menu — but having the dicky-bowed owner run through his fare amid the market bustle is as Barcelona as it gets.

Another tapas bar I starred in Google Maps is Cal Pep, on Plaça de les Olles. You may have to wait for a coveted spot at the counter here, but don’t let that put you off. This is where I taste mouth-watering sardines, along with razor clams — “Don’t cut,” directs the waiter, “eat like noodles” — all washed down with a glass of beer. The chefs cook a few feet in front of your face, and though the waiters are a little too eager to push the more expensive plates, it’s definitely worth a nibble.

But the best single bite of my trip comes courtesy of a deliciously crispy croquette at La Bellvitja, in the Raval. Sitting beneath a vaulted brick ceiling late in the evening, I hoover up a heart-warming goo specked with ruby-red jamón with a side of small, salty peppers. It’s a new arrival, and only afterwards do I learn the restaurant is part of London’s Brindisa Tapas Kitchens group.

Nightlife

Don’t be tempted to hit the bars with a vengeance at 8pm. You’ll enjoy a lovely meal and drinks, sure — but you’ll also be wondering where the locals are. They often tend to eat bigger meals with family during the afternoon, surfacing much later to snack in tapas bars and party into the wee hours. It’s worth syncing with the system as soon as you land.

Darkness brings a whole other level out of Barcelona. After a touristy ramble down Las Ramblas, push into the Raval for a cocktail on the terrace at Bar Lobo. Afterwards, mosey over to Carrer de Sant Pau for a shot of grit at Bar Marsella. Dating from 1820, this rundown time capsule made its name as an absinthe bar frequented by Hemingway, among others — the signature drink comes with a lump of sugar that you dissolve into the potion. Peeling paint, whirring ceiling fans, musty cabinets and cracked mosaic floor tiles tell all kinds of timeworn tales.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there are lots of local gems hidden away amid the labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter — and not just Irish pubs, either. El Born boasts plenty of stylish and expensive nightlife options, such as the classy cocktails at Coppelia Club — the place to satisfy your small-batch G&T craving. It’s not all snooty, however. I loved the wagon-style compartments shoehorned into a passage between buildings at Bar Pasajes.

Clubs in Barcelona don’t get going until 2am or 3am, so pace yourself. The city famous for its Sónar music festival (16-18 June) does a mean line in dance too — check out Sala Apolo, in the Raval, for indie bands and live DJs, while Les Enfants is the city’s oldest nightclub, attracting lots of students. There’s a reason for those siestas, you know.

Where to stay

Hotel rooms can be pricey in Barcelona, thanks not only to the volume of visitors but to a recent effort to curb them (a year-long freeze on new hotel operation licences). If money’s tight, it pays to travel off-season (midweek, even better), and it may be worth trawling Airbnb.

I stayed at Barcelona Catedral Hotel, a slick, modern four-star just a stone’s throw from La Seu Cathedral, with a terrace, restaurant and pool. Nearby Hotel Neri — a 22-bed Relais & Châteaux member spread over two palaces off Plaça Sant Felip
Neri — is a more opulent option.

If you fancy a beach base, try the ritzy W Barcelona, or save money by checking into Generator Barcelona in L’Eixample — a sleek hostel that runs tapas tours, cocktail tastings and live music events.

Essentials

Getting there
Ryanair, EasyJet, Vueling, Norwegian and BA fly from the UK to Barcelona-El Prat Airport, nine miles from the city. Train, bus and taxi (about €29/£20.50) connections are all available at the airport.
Average flight time: 2h.

Getting around
A T10 card costs €9.95 (£7) covers 10 free public transport journeys in Zone 1 (the main tourist area). A three-day Barcelona Card (€45/£32; children €21/£15) offers the same, with discounted entry to some attractions.

When to go
To avoid the summer heat and crowds, visit in October, November, March and April.

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€).
£1 = €1.41.
International dial code: 00 34 93.
Time difference: GMT +1.

More info
barcelonatourisme.com

How to do it
Thomas Cook City Escapes has two nights at the four-star K+K Hotel Picasso, including return flights, from £282pp.


Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)