Spain's coolest city has got it all: incredible architecture, great bars and restaurants, superb shops – and the Med
Why Go Now?
The city that sleeps through the summer comes back to life with gusto in September. With the siesta over and the sun still shining, this is the perfect time to take in the many dimensions of Spain's coolest city. Along with amazing architecture – from the Gothic churches of the old town to Gaudí's modernist legacy – Barcelona offers dazzling nightlife, a cosmopolitan café culture and a Mediterranean coastline.
British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com ) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk ) operate "code-share" flights from Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham; easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com ) flies from Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com ) flies from Manchester, Leeds/ Bradford and Belfast. Barcelona's El Prat airport is 13km south-west of the city; a 15-minute taxi ride to the centre costs €20-€30 (£14-£22). Trains leave every half-hour; the 26-minute journey to Plaça de Catalunya (1), in the centre, costs €2.20 (£1.60). The airport bus goes there, too, every 12 minutes and costs €3.45 (£2.50). The main tourist office is underground on the Plaça de Catalunya, on the El Corte Inglés side (9am-9pm daily, 00 34 93 285 3834; www.barcelonaturisme.com ).
Get Your Bearings
Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city, but its small centre and grid layout mean that it is easy to navigate. The Plaça de Catalunya (1) links the old town with the extension laid out in the 19th century, known as Eixample. From here, the broad, tree-lined Rambla slopes gently down to the sea.
Another major thoroughfare is the Passeig de Gracia, which leads north-west from the Barri Gotic, Born and Raval districts of the old town, into the upmarket residential streets of Eixample.
The Avenida Diagonal cuts tangentially from east to west across the north of the city, passing close to Gaudí's extraordinary Sagrada Familia (2) church. To the west of the city lies the Med, and the regenerated coastal district of Barceloneta.
While all the sights of the old town are easily reached on foot, those further afield can be accessed by the efficient metro and bus service, both of which have a flat fare of €1.25 (90p) per journey.
Enviably located in the Born district, just moments from the winding streets of the Gothic area, the Hotel Banys Oriental (3) is one of Barcelona's best-kept secrets. It is discreetly situated at Carrer Argenteria 37 (00 34 93 268 8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com ). The hotel's elegant stone frontage and wrought-iron balconies belie both its modern interior and very reasonable prices: €99.50 (£69) for a double room, excluding breakfast, or €130.50 (£93) for a suite.
An innovative alternative is Hotel Omm (4), at 265 Carrer Rossello (00 34 93 445 40 00; www.hotelomm.es ), a boutique hotel whose futuristic decor has scooped numerous design awards. Its Michelin-starred restaurant and hip bar are always packed, while the rooftop pool offers a great view of Gaudi's nearby La Pedrera building. Double rooms are €210 (£147), with Wi-Fi but without breakfast; it is worth paying the extra €21 (£15) for the spectacular spread.
A great budget option is Hotel Casanova (5) at 184 Carrer Provenza (00 34 69 509 7612). It's a family-run place, but tiled floors, a sweeping staircase and shuttered windows lend it an opulent feel. Doubles with en-suite facilities cost €80 (£56); although there is no breakfast option, guests have access to a spotless kitchen – and there are plenty of cafés nearby.
Take a View
Take the lift to the roof of the Cathedral (6), at Plaça de la Seu (00 93 315 15 54; €2/£1.40), for an unrivalled view of the old city.
Take A Hike
Explore the maze-like streets of the Gothic quarter, home to some of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe. The area used to be known as the Cathedral Quarter, and the aforementioned three-naved basilica (6) is a good place to begin any explorations. A walk around the Cathedral's perimeter allows for a full appreciation of its 14th-century Catalan architecture, and the adjoining Episcopal Palace (7).
Head south down the narrow Carrer Bisbe to the Plaça Sant Jaume (8), which is flanked by the neoclassical City Hall on one side, and the Renaissance Generalitat (regional government) building on the other.
Walk east along the Carrer Jaume I to Plaça Angel (9), where you could divert to visit the Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat (10). Here you will learn how Barcelona has fared over the past two millennia; it opens 10am-2pm and 4-8pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and 10am-3pm on Sunday, admission €4.50 (£3.30) – but free on the first Saturday afternoon of the month. From Plaça Angel, aim south-east down Carrer Argenteria to Santa Maria del Mar (11), another 14th-century basilica whose uncluttered interior stems from the fire started by anarchists at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It has come to be known as "The People's Cathedral".
Lunch On The Run
Just east of Santa Maria del Mar (11), the Passeig del Born (12) is the most fashionable street in the city. At No 34 you'll find the stylish Pitin Bar (00 34 933 195 087), which serves light snacks, including filled ciabattas, for around €5 (£3.50), on a sunny terrace.
Be prepared to brave the long queues and head to the Picasso Museum (13). Pablo Picasso spent some of his formative years, between 1895 and 1904, in Barcelona, arriving in his mid-teens and leaving in his early 20s. More than 3,500 of the artist's works – from pencil sketches to starkly expressive self-portraits – are housed in five sprawling Gothic mansions, numbers 15 to 23, on the Carrer Montcada (00 34 93 319 63 10; www.museupicasso.bcn.es ). Established in 1963, the museum focuses on Picasso's early works. It opens 10am-8pm Tuesday to Saturday, and 10am-3pm on Sunday, admission €6 (£4.40).
Barcelona's wide, tree-lined boulevards have a distinctly Parisian feel. Serious shoppers should head north to Plaça Joan Carles I, and work their way down Passeig de Gracia. As well as being home to Chanel, Miro, Armani, Cartier and Mango, the wide, leafy boulevard also houses Gaudi's undulating 1907 construction, the Casa Mila (14), and numerous restaurants and cafés.
A walk down this street will bring you to Plaça de Catalunya (1), which houses the aforementioned vast department store El Corte Inglés, and what must be the world's biggest Zara shop. Be sure to stock up – prices in this high-street favourite are around a third lower in its native Spain.
The city was "turned" to face the sea in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, and now boasts a lively beachside area (15), with more than a dozen cabaña bars spilling on to the sand. A freshly made mojito costs around €8 (£5.50).
Dining With The Locals
The elegant Café de L'Opera (16) at Rambla 74 (00 34 93 317 7585; www.cafeoperabcn.com ) provides a welcome respite from the street's sandwich bars and tourist crowds. Hidden at the lower end of Las Ramblas, this quaint café serves traditional tapas, such as tortillas and patatas bravas, with prices starting at €9 (£6.50).
Sunday Morning: Go To Church
The soaring Sagrada Familia (2), Antonio Gaudí's monolithic, still unfinished temple is Barcelona's most recognisable landmark. Building on the architect's ambitious project is hoped to be finished by 2026, the centenary of his death. It is extremely crowded at most times, but opening time on Sunday morning gives you a better chance of appreciating his towering genius in some solitude. It opens 9am-6pm daily October-March, until 8pm April-September (admission €8 (£5.70); 00 34 93 207 3031; www.sagradafamilia.org ).
A Walk In The Park
Continuing the Gaudí theme: to the north of the city lies the architect's fantastical Parc Güell (17), which was inspired by the English garden cities so beloved of his lifelong patron, Don Eusebi Güell. You can walk there in 10 minutes from the Lesseps metro station. Entering the park feels like walking into a fairy tale, as well it might: its gatehouses were based on designs that the architect made for the opera Hänsel und Gretel. As well as a sweeping staircase and a mosaic dragon, the park contains a house once inhabited by Gaudí, now a museum (Casa-Museu Gaudí, 00 34 93 219 3811; www.casamuseugaudi.org ); admission is €4 (£2.80).
Take A Ride
The open-topped Bus Turistic is well worth the €19 (£13.50) day fare. Departing from the centre of Plaça de Catalunya (1) every five-25 minutes, the hop-on hop-off service has three routes that cover all of the city's major sights, from Parc Güell to the Olympic Stadium.
Out To Brunch
Les Quinze Nits (18) at Plaça Reial 6 (00 34 93 317 30 75; www.lesquinzenits.com ) is a popular evening venue, but for shorter queues you should tackle it at lunchtime. The most pleasant café on this neoclassical square, it offers a gourmet salad for €20 (£14) or black rice with cuttlefish for €33 (£24).
Icing On The Cake
The biggest football stadium in Europe, Nou Camp (19), at Avenida Aristide Maillol (00 34 93 496 36 00; www.fcbarcelona.com ) is well worth a visit, especially with Thierry Henry now in the local squad. Tickets start at a reasonable €18 (£13) and go on sale online a month before each game. The nearest metro stop is Collblanc.