I’m willing to bet it’s a fair few of you.
It ticks many boxes for the ideal weekend break; it has beaches, great food, cava by the bucket-load and sangria by the jug.
And it is home to the Crowned Prince of Catalan Modernism: Gaudi. The good people of Barcelona continue to slave doggedly over the construction of the Sagrada Família, which is predicted to be finished in 2026, a mere 122 years since building began. A patience mirrored by the Art Nouveau devotees, and obedient tour-groups that placidly queue for hours in the midday sun to get inside.
I’m sorry to admit it, but the writhing, organic forms of Gaudi have always left me feeling a bit queasy. But of course the Sagrada Familia is a must. Just be sure to book tickets in advance.
The other Gaudi hotspot is Parc Güell. This is something between a park and a fairground fun house; not a straight edge to be found, and the stonework peppered with psychedelic mosaics. It commands excellent views over the city, and street musicians create a varied ambiance – from profound Andalucían strumming, to jubilant Brazilian trumpeting, and everything in between.
Barrio Gótico and El Born
But, to me, the best of Barcelona is the shabby tangle of medieval streets and Roman ruins which make up the Barrio Gótico and El Born. Here flowers tumble out of cracked balconies, and heavily graffitied doorways give way to scruffy interiors through which daily life echoes off damp walls.
Naturally, like all artistically seedy areas, it is on its way up. And there is an inevitable abundance of organic coffee to be found, served to you by tattooed trendies.
One of the main arteries of El Born is El Passeig del Born, which dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was used for jousting. In the 16th Century, while the Spanish were at their most inquisitive, it was a handy spot for executing heretics. Today it is a great place to while away a balmy evening, sipping cava or Estrella Damm alongside Catalan hipsters.
If you happen upon El Born first thing in the morning, you will see unassuming, prosaic Catalan life pottering around. Little old ladies, wheelie bags, flat-capped abuelos, and local fruterias passing the time of day with regulars. Honey-B, a bakery-come-co-working space, will sell you an excellent almond croissant. Take this, along with a café con leche, to nearby Jardins del Forat de la Vergonya and watch the children play, and Barcelona wake up.
Next door to El Born is the barrio Sant Pere/Santa Caterina. This first district of medieval Barcelona is few years behind in terms of gentrification. And it is a great place to lose yourself in a bohemian reverie. If you’re in the area at lunchtime, get thee to Celta Pulperia and tuck into some damn fine octopus.
Avoid Barcelona’s tourist thoroughfare and pickpocket haven La Rambla, unless you want to pay too much money for oversized tumblers of bad sangria. Granted, the Mercado de La Boqueria is worth a visit. But my heart belongs to Madrid’s Mercardo San Miguel.
Definitely worth seeking out however is the Jardins Rubió i Lluch, just behind La Boqueria. Tucked within the walls of the Institute of Catalan Studies, this beautiful garden, dotted with mandarin trees and fountains, is the perfect antidote to the tourist scrum. Grab a table under the arches and enjoy the street performers.
By now you might be ready for the beach. The city beaches are convenient but crowded. If you can, secure a sun-lounger on Nova Icaria and order cold drinks to your heart’s content. Mokai beach bar is good for a simple lunch of grilled langoustines.
But in hot weather, the sea can feel rather soupy. And, with the port so close, it is hardly surprising it is a bit on the murky side. So, if you have time, hop on the train from Estació Sants to Castelldefels. Here you will find fewer crowds and cleaner water against a setting of green rolling hills. Just remember to get off at Castelldefels Platja, rather than Castelldefels itself, otherwise you have a rather hot 20 minute slog to the beach. Rent a sun-lounger for half the price of the city beaches and have a cold Estrella for me.
Once you’re thoroughly sanded and sunned, take an stroll along the Passeig de Lluís Companys to the Arc de Triomf, glowing red in the evening sun, in all its neo-Moorish glory.
A night out in Barcelona is an abundance of opportunities. Here are a couple of dinner suggestions:
There is no doubt the tourists have discovered this cavernous joint, which is tucked behind a deceptively small bar in the Barrio Gótico. It was founded in 1835 and its original coal-fired ovens give off such a heat that the chefs can only stand in front of them for 2-minutes at a time. They wait their turn with their backs to the wall, stepping forward at brisk intervals to hurriedly prepare bowls of rabbit stew or vast, sizzling chuletón (t-bone steak). The service is friendly and the food hearty.
The elegant Plaça Reial is just next-door. Pop in for an aperitivo or a nightcap at one of the many bars tucked under the arcades.
This little gem is situated at the end of El Passeig del Born, and a glittering tribute to Catalan cuisine (despite the fact the owner is, in fact, English… shhh). If you’re there between February and March, you must try the calçots, which is something between a leek and a spring onion. It is usually served blackened after lengthy roasting on hot coals. Peel off the charred outer layers and you’ll find pure melt-in-your-mouth heaven. It is also a great place to try coca, a crisp Catalan flatbread, which usually comes smothered in tomato sauce.
From here Barcelona nightlife is at your feet. But beware… Most central places unceremoniously shut at 1am. This might come as a shock, but you can always find a place to knock-back a final caña or vermouth Casero before heading to a discoteca, or winding your way home.
Now I know I’ve only scratched the surface here. So share your favorite corners of Barcelona in the comments below.