Go beyond La Sagrada Familia to get to know this beguiling Spanish city, says Ella Buchan.
Why go: A mix of busy squares and atmospheric, labyrinthine streets, the Gothic Quarter or Barri Gotico is at the heart of the old town, bordering tourist thoroughfare La Rambla and stretching to the seafront. It’s perfect for visitors who want to explore the city’s major cultural attractions and have easy access to the beach.
What to do: The medieval streets are home to tiny tapas bars, Catalan restaurants and nightlife spots from craft cocktail joints to old-school pubs like Els Quatre Gats, which opened in the 1890s and hosted of one of Picasso’s first exhibitions. Attraction World has a two-hour Gothic Quarter Walking Tour, £18, covering the area’s architectural landmarks and hidden history.
The impressive Barcelona Cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, is one of the area’s most famous buildings. Visitors can gaze at the vaulted interior’s altarpieces or potter around its shadow, where artisan vendors sell handcrafted chocolates, leather wallets and honey.
Plaça Reial, dotted with palm trees and lined with restaurants with tables spilling outside, is one of the busiest squares.
Suggest clients escape the crowds by wandering towards the waterfront, home to a dynamic dining and nightlife scene. The Green Spot, a bright, cosy restaurant with Scandi-chic decor, innovative vegetarian cuisine and regular live jazz, is a local favourite.
Why go: The first neighbourhood created outside the walls that once surrounded the old town, Eixample is rich with designer stores and modernist architecture, including several creations by the city’s most famous designer, Antoni Gaudí.
What to do: Browse souvenir stalls and people-watch by the fountain in leafy Plaça de Catalunya, a buzzy square lined with cafes and restaurants. Or wander around Quadrat d’Or (Golden Square) – the most central part – to get a sense of the district’s eclectic, and often eccentric, architecture.
Passeig de Gràcia, the main thoroughfare, has upscale shops tucked beneath facades embellished with floral motifs, stained glass and neo-Gothic details. It’s also home to two of Gaudí’s fantastical wavy, sculpture-topped apartment buildings – Casa Mila and Casa Batllo – both of which have rooftops open for self-guided tours.
Clients can go deeper into the area’s history and architecture on a two-hour Modernist Walking Tour, £16 with Do Something Different.
Gaudí’s intricate, unfinished Roman Catholic church, La Sagrada Familia, is also in this area, and is one of the city’s most visited attractions.
Why go: El Born is a walkable area dotted with charming places to discover, alongside renowned museums and architecture. Its narrow streets and squares are home to tucked-away tapas restaurants and tiny bars pouring vermouth.
What to do: This arty area is heaven for those who enjoy pottering among galleries and boutiques. Ceramics and glasswork studios sit next to stores selling wine, jewellery and logo T-shirts.
The Picasso Museum’s impressive collection of paintings and sculptures is spread across five adjoining medieval palaces. Fans can visit places associated with the artist on a two-hour walking tour ending at the museum, for £25 including entrance fee via Attraction World.
Other notable attractions include the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, an inspiring Gothic church with huge stained glass windows, and Santa Caterina Market, whose multi-coloured wavy roof mirrors the vibrant produce sold underneath.
Why go: With quiet streets meandering towards sandy Bogatell Beach, El Poblenou has become a hip enclave thanks to tech companies moving into its old factories and warehouses. It’s ideal for second-time visitors looking for a walkable, vibrant area away from the tourist crowds.
What to do: The area is dotted with craft coffee shops and restaurants serving pizza, seafood, inventive vegetarian food and creative spins on Catalan classics. Suggest Timesburg Poblenou for huge gourmet burgers, or Can Dende, a popular brunch spot. Unassuming side streets and small squares are home to gourmet food stores, bakeries and local-label fashion boutiques.
Why go: Overlooked by Montjuic hill – home to gardens and the Joan Miró Foundation – this compact area is known for nightlife and some of the city’s best restaurants.
What to do: Small parks and tree-shaded squares with outdoor cafes offer respite from the busy, broad avenues that slice through the neighbourhood. Theatres, concert venues, cabaret shows and nightclubs make this a popular after-hours area, too. But one of the main draws is the food. Poble Sec has some of the city’s most renowned restaurants, including Xemeni – with a Venetian menu – and Albert Adria’s Tickets, where the tapas and decor come with theatrical flair. Foodies should book way in advance for the most sought-after spots.
Vila de Gracia
Why go: Life is centred around tree-dotted squares in this charming neighbourhood, once a separate town. The laid-back vibe is dramatically disrupted each August by the Feste Major de Gracia, a raucous festival with parades and street music.
What to do: This area has one of the city’s most diverse dining scenes, with Ethiopian, Japanese and Indian restaurants alongside favourite tapas bars and bodegas.
Otherwise, it’s all about Gaudí. Among his creations here is Casa Vicens, an art nouveau townhouse that’s now a museum. Park Güell, reached via an endless flight of steps or (thankfully) escalators, is a must: undulating paths wind around Gaudí’s bold, sculptural buildings and mosaic benches.
Architecture enthusiasts can take a four-and-a-half-hour Gaudí tour that includes Park Güell and other important sights, £93 from Do Something Different.
Why go: El Raval’s most visited attraction is Mercado de la Boqueria, where people perch at tapas bars close to sellers hawking meat, vegetables and olive oil. But the true spirit of this vibrant enclave is found on its narrow streets, with walls emblazoned with street art and bars tucked away in leafy courtyards.
What to do: The Museum of Contemporary Art, or MACBA, displays 20th-century pieces by Catalan artists, while smaller Arts Santa Monica has rotating exhibits and workshops. For food, recommend Restaurant Marmalade, serving fusion cuisine and craft cocktails in an old furniture store, or Llop, a relaxed farm-to-table spot with topped toasts and substantial salads.
The shopping scene is a predictably hip mix of vintage and record stores. More surprising is Sant Pau del Camp, a 12th-century monastery with narrow cloisters, intricate mosaics and courtyards dotted with palm trees and sculptures.
Where to stay
For prime position: Mandarin Oriental Barcelona
This luxurious hotel, which has a beautiful, tucked-away spa and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Moments, poses elegantly on Passeig de Gràcia, known for upscale shopping and modernist architecture. Rooms have enormous bathtubs and sleek design details, while several have terraces filled with greenery. Doubles from £470, including breakfast.
For neighbourhood pottering: The Barcelona Edition
This chic hotel, next to Santa Caterina Market in the hip El Born district, has a laid-back, understated style punctuated with striking design elements such as the sleek white staircase tucked off the lobby, which curves towards the ‘hidden’, vintage-style Punch Room. The plant-filled rooftop has a pool and loungers with views over the city’s rooftops. Cosy doubles, with window seats and marble bathrooms, start at £280.
For city and beach: Hotel Arts Barcelona
The pool at this sleek waterfront hotel, close to Port Olímpic marina and beaches and the Gothic Quarter, faces Frank Gehry’s Peix sculpture, a giant, shimmering steel goldfish created for the 1992 Olympics. Enormous doubles, with marble bathrooms and views that stretch to La Sagrada Familia, start at £270.
Super Break offers a three-night stay at the centrally located three-star Autohogar Hotel, Barcelona, with breakfast, from £328 including flights from Gatwick for a stay in mid-September.
Jet2CityBreaks offers three nights’ room-only at the four-star Senator Barcelona Spa Hotel with flights from Manchester on September 10, from £299 including 22kg baggage allowance.
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