Dazzling, historic architecture, hauntingly beautiful plazas, and the buzz of life lived to the fullest in public spaces typify this ever popular Barcelona barrio. Pedestrian street La Rambla is the area’s backbone, spilling towards the sea in a colourful patchwork, ranging from street performers, to Boqueria Market and cultural gems like the Liceu opera house. These contrasts are reflected in the range of accommodation here, from edgy boutique hotels to budget abodes and luxurious oases.
We recommend: Mercer Hotel Barcelona
Tucked away in a quiet street, the intimate and oh-so-luxurious Mercer Hotel Barcelona brings the city’s intriguing history to life. Celebrated Madrileño architect Rafael Moneo spent seven years creating it, incorporating historic gems such as walls from the Roman city of Barcino. The result is a blend of historic wow-factor and sleek modernity. It includes monumental arched doors and a spacious, stone-walled public area flowing into a charming patio with 17th-century arches and orange trees. The frescoed Mercer Restaurant serves a French-style seasonal menu using ingredients from local markets. Glass lifts lead to rooms with exposed stone walls, original beams and designer furniture. Elsewhere, the timber-decked terrace, with its plunge pool and bar, offers views of the Santa Maria del Mar and Barcelona Cathedral, as well as the humbler, but equally charming, neighbouring roof terraces.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €295 (£246). mercerbarcelona.com
Best for service: Casa Camper Barcelona
The USP of this hotel — located among galleries, boutiques and lively streets — is its service. Staff lay on an all-day, free buffet and guests are privy to maps and personalised recommendations for what to do in the city. Rooms have a lounging area with a hammock, desk, TV and a balcony.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €192 (£160). casacamper.com
Best for local flavour: Hotel Barceló Raval
The lofty tower of the Hotel Barceló Raval stands out starkly in the gritty, but up-and-coming Raval barrio, near La Rambla. Rooms are lit a softly glowing white, purple or green, and include Nespresso machines, iPod docking stations and free wi-fi. The open-plan lobby has a relaxed restaurant and bar where a hip, young crowd spills out onto the terrace. An 11th-floor viewing point is open in summer, too.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €99 (£82). barcelo.com
The Eixample’s sweeping boulevards, with their swirling, sinuous Modernista architecture, are laden with quirky, charming hotels. The area is a brilliant base for exploring the city, with good shopping, a wealth of both upmarket and affordable restaurants, and a more refined ambience than that found as you drift seawards. Public transport is plentiful but the long, open streets make for great walking, so you may well find you explore the area entirely on foot, particularly if you focus on the streets around bustling square Plaça de Catalunya.
We recommend: Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona
Perched on the glorious Passeig de Gràcia — home to Gaudi masterpieces and opulent boutiques — the elegant Mandarin Oriental’s exquisite rooms feature oriental touches, including beautiful decorative screens, that blend seamlessly with modern designer furniture. Huge beds are gloriously comfy while the bathrooms stand out for their beautiful mosaics. The hotel’s dazzling public spaces include an interior patio and a roof terrace with a small but perfectly formed pool, surrounded by deck chairs and a bar. The pool in the basement, meanwhile, has a spa and sauna attached. The two Michelin-star Moments Restaurant is run by Carme Ruscellada, one of Spain’s leading chefs, and her son Raül Balam, while the more casual Blanc Brasserie & Gastrobar has dazzling white decor and a hanging garden. The Mandarin’s friendly, professional staff are what really sets it apart, though — from the warm welcome at check-in to the ongoing efforts to help with anything during your stay.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €325 (£271), room only. mandarinoriental.com
Best for singletons: The Praktik
In a quiet street just minutes from La Rambla, this cosy hotel has a chic, no frills approach. While some rooms are small, all capture the feel of Barcelona’s charming Modernista residences. Many have original tiled mosaic floors, and the double doors leading to balconies are typical of the area. The modern details, such as sleek, compact bathrooms and designer furniture sit perfectly with the original features.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €77 (£64). praktikhotels.com/en
Best for design: Murmuri
Set in a lavish Modernista building in the heart of the Eixample, this retreat’s interior was designed by Kelly Hoppen — the 53 rooms are luxurious, with pale cottons contrasting with the dark hues of the designer furniture. There are two restaurants: Petit Comitè, for classic Catalan, and elPassatge de Murmuri, with a gorgeous terrace. Guests can also use the facilities of the Hotel Majestic, around the corner, with a rooftop pool.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €209 (£174). murmuri.com
Barceloneta and Port Olímpic
It may be winter but Barcelona’s beaches remain beautiful — the sea dotted with sailing boats and the odd local. The traditional fisherman’s neighbourhood of Barceloneta has always had a strong local flavour, offering a laid-back contrast to the bustling centre. A new wave of hip bars, restaurants, cafes and surf shops have sprung up alongside the traditional seafood restaurants that have long been Barceloneta’s speciality. And what few hotels there are, are worth checking out, as even away from the waterfront this is a lovely place with pretty squares, a great market and busy street life.
We recommend: W Barcelona
Dazzling views and a perfect position for a beach holiday. You’ll probably spot the La Vela, as the sail-shaped property is known locally, as you fly into Barcelona and you certainly won’t lose your way home — its crown is visible across the city. Instead of five-star formality, expect a hipper approach — young staff are casually dressed and the bars, including the popular Eclipse Bar on the 26th floor, host impressive DJs. And while glitzy public spaces are designed to mirror the ocean’s hues, the rooms are more discrete, giving the dazzling views centre stage. When it comes to food, everything from burgers and poolside cocktails to Michelin-star chef Carles Abellán’s Bravo 24’s creations are on offer, while Barceloneta’s seafood restaurants are a short walk away and La Rambla just half an hour.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €200 (£166). w-barcelona.com
Best for coast: Hotel 54 Barceloneta
This cosy hotel features 28 rooms with balconies, a rooftop terrace overlooking the yachts in the nearby harbour and a new terrace on the bustling Paseo Joan de Bour Borbó that’s ideal for people watching. But it’s the location — a minute’s walk from the beach — that’s the standout attraction.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €100 (£83). hotel54barceloneta.es
Best for views: Hotel Arts Barcelona
This towering, luxury hotel’s opulent public areas go large on floral decoration, while the spacious rooms have some of the city’s best vistas. The two Michelin-star Enoteca is as famous for its wine as its food — build an appetite while ogling the view at the Six Senses Spa on the 42nd floor.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €250 (£208), room only. hotelartsbarcelona.com
La Ribera/El Born
The recently opened Born Cultural Centre is just one reason to visit this area. More laid-back than the Barrio Gótico and Eixample, the area is home to gems like the Picasso Museum and the Santa Maria del Mar church, and is a great place to wander among charming pastel-hued apartments. Many of the winding streets are lined with historic facades and tiny boutiques, showcasing local designers. Some of the city’s hippest bars are found here, too.
We recommend: Chic & Basic Zoo
The Chic & Basic concept is brilliant — crisp, clean, affordable hotels with everything you need and none of the unnecessary frills. The new Chic & Basic Zoo has plenty of character and a cool, modern style that fits in perfectly in the hip Born barrio. Set in a beautiful building in one of Barcelona’s most happening locations — surrounded by buzzy boutiques, cafes and bars — it has small but airy, bright rooms, the best of which have beautiful balconies looking over verdant Ciutadella Park. For a very competitive price, you’ll find free tea, coffee and water in the ‘help yourself’ areas of the hotel. And although the check-in area and lounge are just around the corner at Chic & Basic Born, a gentle stroll down this charming street is a small price to pay for reasonably priced accommodation in such a perfect setting.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €80 (£66), room only. chicandbasic.com/hotel-barcelona-zoo
Best for couples: Hotel Banys Orientals
This hotel is located on a pretty street with great tapas bars, and some of Barcelona’s top boutiques and historic gems, like the Santa Maria del Mar church, just a few minutes’ walk away. It’s reasonably priced, so requires advance booking if you want one of the elegant rooms, all with designer furniture, a four-poster bed and balcony. The restaurant, Senyor Parellada, serves excellent Catalan cuisine.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €105 (£87), room only. hotelbanysorientals.com/en/
Best for local sights: Hotel Ciutat Barcelona
A pleasant, affordable hotel in the heart of the Born district, just minutes from the Picasso Museum, the dazzling Santa Caterina Market and hip bars and restaurants. While rooms here aren’t huge, they’re well-designed and comfy. The charming rooftop terrace has a lovely pool and excellent views. Breakfasts are served, but with the huge range of cafes and bakeries nearby, it’s tempting to skip it and have a cafe con leche with the locals.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €80 (£66), room only. ciutathotels.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)