Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a sumptuous feast of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. The region of Catalonia is not quite Spanish nor French but a wonderful combination of both, with its own language and its own way of doing things.
This fun and vibrant city burst onto the world scene during the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. The televised events brought Barcelona into our lounges. Soon after, the inspiring duet ‘Barcelona’ was released by Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe who sang of the enchantment and charm of this city. This placed it even more firmly in our collective consciousness and the obsession with Barcelona was born.
Whether shopping on Las Ramblas, visiting the beach or a bar at Barceloneta, having a seafood and tapas lunch washed down with sangria or taking the cable car ride up to Montjuic, all are equally gratifying ways to experience and enjoy this incredible city.
Perhaps the most important structure in this city, symbolic of Barcelona itself, is the soaring La Sagrada Familia built by the incomparable architect, Antonio Gaudi. The cathedral, which is still under construction, is Gaudi’s design through and through full of curves, soft gradients and images taken from nature. This building is truly one of the most inspiring and unique in the world.
Entrance is free if you are attending mass, are a Friend of the Church or a child; otherwise it is €23.80 for the Sagrada Familia with audio guide including one tower, or €19.30 for audio guide which includes facades, the museum and interior of the basilica. The museum has scale models and drawings showing the construction process.
This architect and visionary undertook the task of building the cathedra in 1883 on the site of a previous neo-Gothic project. Gaudi dedicated his life to carrying out this ambitious undertaking which due to his sudden death (he was hit by a street car) was left unfinished.
Work continued on the church until it was interrupted in 1936 when the crypt and Gaudi's study, holding his notes and designs, were damaged by Spanish Civil War shelling. The project was resumed in 1952 using drawings and scale models as a base.
Today, the constructed part is open to visitors with services being held in Spanish at 9:00am and in Catalan at 7:30pm on Saturday, Sunday and Holidays. L5 and L2 on the metro and use stop Sagrada Familia. Climbing the towers is worth the effort for incredible sights of the city from the top.
Other creations of Gaudi include the Park Güell with architectural ornaments, fanciful staircases and houses that look like they are made from gingerbread. I particularly like the colourful circular seating sporting shiny tiles.
Tapas are little appetizers, or snacks. A true institution in Barcelona: the excuse to have tapas is an occasion to meet friends at any hour of the day! And there are so many little great tapas places along Las Ramblas and in the city’s markets.
A new eatery has been opened in Barcelona and is run by the prestigious Chef Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli fame). This time it’s a tapas bar but, of course, not a traditional one. At Tickets tapas are innovative and creative like all avant-garde culinary ideas of Adrià. Try the Jamón de toro: Salted tuna belly with Iberian cured ham fat (12.50€ or spiced tomato tartare with crunchy bread (8.50€). There is also steamed razor clams with ginger, Cayenne pepper and lemon air (11.20€) as well as liquid ravioli with Payoyo cheese (3.40€). Can’t wait to go and try this myself.
Cal Pep (Pl. de les Olles, 8) is one of the best and well known tapas restaurant in Barcelona. Everything at Cal Pep is fresh and fun, the tapas, the people, the service and the wine. The Cal Pep Restaurant next door is known for its seafood.
Quimet & Quimet is a great tapas bar, especially known for its cheese and mussels. It also has one of the most fantastic wine cellar of Barcelona. The mussels with tomato, the navajas, or any of the original "montaditos" are all excellent. Located at Poeta Cabanyes, 25.
The old Gothic District is full of enchanting little tapas places and coffee shops as well. Try out The Milk Bar and Bistro (Calle Gignas, 21) for excellent food.
Gourmet food might just be one of the best things to shop for in Barcelona in the colourful and exciting local shops and markets. Some of the delightful things on offer are: chocolates, pastries, local ice creams and fresh drinks but there are also very good wines like Penedès, charcuterie including the famous Jabugo Ham and Butifarras (sausage). Most of these local food shops will offer a vacuum service so you can transport fresh food home. The Boqueria Market (Ramblas, 91) is wonderful for cigars and also has lots of little tapas restaurants on its perimeter. Looking for a great bargain or previously ‘loved’ merchandise? Than head to Mercat dels Encants, Barcelona’s largest and best known flea market.
Enjoy the fragrant smell and riot of colours that is part of the Mercat de la Concepció, the flower market. Built in 1888 in the Eixample District, it is one of the oldest in Barcelona. On the other end of this spectrum, Mercat Santa Caterina (Avinguda Francesc Cambó, 16) is the latest market built in Barcelona. Totally renovated in 2005, it is located in the district of Ribera in Ciutat Vella and is great for fresh seafood, meats, fruits, and veggies that locals are fortunate to have access to. This will help you understand why Barcelona is a place for food lovers.
For clothes shopping, hit Custo Barcelona (Centre Comercial L´Illa Diagonal, 557) first. The story of two brothers who took a motorcycle trip around the world and then set up a clothing brand is a massive Catalonian success story. The Custo Barcelona brand now has some 3000 points of sale worldwide. It is rated as a top level designer brand, award-winning and internationally coveted, and with this in mind the retail prices are actually extremely reasonable.
Bulevard Rosa (Paseo de Gracia, 51) is a shopping area in the heart of Barcelona situated in the middle of the Eixample District. Well known for women’s clothing, jewellery, men’s clothing and gifts, there are over 100 stores to choose from.
Though it is a bit staid as far as department stores go, El Corte Ingles in Plaza Catalunya is a good reliable store for staples like perfume, handbags and shoes. They have built their reputation on quality goods and very good sales, also known as Rebaxas.
Standing like an enormous sail on the sands of the city the W Hotel, similar in appearance to the Burj al Arab in Dubai, is a beacon, a lighthouse drawing your attention to this ancient part of Barcelona. The tiny peninsula has golden sand beaches which are a draw for local surfers, families and visitors alike. On a hot day, this is the place to come to cool off, enjoy the sea and sand and then pop into a lovely local eatery for wonderful seafood.
Nestled right next to this stretch of sand is ancient Barceloneta, previously named L’Ostia. It is loaded with rustic bars, cafes and fantastic seafood restaurants. It was, historically, where the sailors and fisherman have always lived. Can Ramonet (Carrer Maquinista, 17) the oldest tavern in Barcelona is located here. Founded in 1763, it is mainly decorated with boating gear on the walls and boasts barrel-top tables to dine from. But the tapas are remarkable, particularly the calçots which are grilled on an open fire.
A fun bar to try is El Vaso de Oro (Carrer de Balboa, 6) which is near Joan de Borbó. It's long and incredibly narrow and there is only room for drinkers to stand two-deep at the bar. So, being popular, that means it's often four-deep. It's loud, buzzy and great entertainment. You'll have to be brave and shout your order at the staff, imperious in their white jackets with gold epaulettes.
L'Òstia (Plaza de la Barceloneta, 1-3) is the brain child of Jaume and Sebas, brothers who have travelled Spain and the world to learn their trade and find the taste of best tapas and Spanish flavours. Today they are back in the district of their childhood and of their ancestors to open their own restaurant in the district of L'Òstia (the old name of Barceloneta). The menu is traditional tapas for the purists but also tapas nouvelle cuisine for those who want to experiment. The mini-hamburgers of oxtail (7.90€) are a highlight.
Bitácora (Carrer de Balboa 1) is a classic neighbourhood bar where the staff are friendly and the food great value. It’s often busy, so you may have to share a table with the regulars.
Can Maño (Carrer del Baluard, 20) and La Bombeta (Carrer de la Maquinista, 3) are both simple and cheap restaurants. Go after 8pm and be ready to queue. You shouldn't have to wait too long, though, as neither place is one for a long leisurely dinner. You'll get really fresh seafood (Barcelona's small fishing fleet is based just a couple of hundred yards away) and tasty mixed grills of meat and vegetables. La Bombeta's speciality is bombas (deep-fried balls of mashed potato and minced meat, served with a spicy brava and alioli sauce).
Whilst there’s an almost overwhelming amount of choice for things to see and do in the city of Barcelona, it’s also a great base for those seeking to discover in land Catalonia and its charming villages, sprawling vineyards and authentic bargaras. Take for example the hidden Santa Maria Benedictine Abbey which sits high on Monsterrat mountain, disguised amongst a rocky outcrop. Barcelona Turisme have made visiting the Abbey easy with a package that includes the bus journey to Monsterrat, the scenic railway journey to the top of the mountain and discounts for the shops and restaurants you’ll find there.
Visit a salt mine (the only one of its kind in the world) at Cardona, an impregnable fortress constructed in the Middle Ages. The castle has been standing since 886 when Guifré el Pilós, the Count of Barcelona, gave order for the military fortress to be built in the middle of Catalonia. Today you can tour Cardona, the salt mine and Sant Vicenç – a collegiate church which is an outstanding example of Catalan Romanesque architecture, whilst discovering the legend of Minoya Tower and discovering why the castle has never been defeated by weapons.
Nestled in the panoramic Pyrenees National Park you’ll find Vall de Núria, surrounded by magnificent forests and backed by rolling mountains. Book a guided tour with Barcelona Turisme which includes the bus and train journey as well as panoramic cable car ride and a tasting session of traditional cured meats, sausages and liquer. A visit to Vall de Núria presents the perfect opportunity for you to delve deeper into the Catalan countryside and admire the flora, fauna and pretty villages you’ll pass by enroute to this mesmerising destination.
Over 700,000 hectacres in Catalonia have been cultivated into vineyards. The rich and and fertile soils, coupled with the warm climate has led to a flourishing wine industry that’s been perfected over centuries. With a fantastic selection of wine tours on offer, guests can partake in unforgettable experiences such as making their own cava or wine tasting in a 10th century medieval castle.
In 1976, it was decided that the Collserola Mountains, the natural western boundary of the city, should be protected from urban sprawl and encroachment.
This has meant that this beautiful forested parkland is available for city dwellers and visitors for their enjoyment. The forests are of Aleppo pine, evergreen and deciduous oak and flourish in one of the most urbanised bits of coastline on the Mediterranean. Over 50% of Catalonia's population lives within 10 kilometres of this specially conserved eco-park.
The most visited part of this green oasis is Parc de Vallvidrera. You can be here in 20 minutes from Plaça Catalunya if you take one of the FGC trains. Good stations to jump off at are Baixador de Vallvidrera, Les Planes and La Floresta. There is beautiful scenery easily at hand from each, with well-marked senderos (footpaths) criss-crossing the area in all directions.
Take the cable car (similar to a bucket shape) from the Port right up to the Castell Montjuïc. It currently costs $14.67 return in a small car that holds eight adults. At 170ft above sea level, the historic military castle is well worth a visit and there are regular daily guided tours in English for 7€.
Collserola Information Centre, Ctra Església, 92, Vallvidrera, 08017. www.parccollserola.net
You will never run out of things to do in Barcelona. Even having a beer at a café of bar on Las Ramblas and then strolling along the avenue admiring the little pet shops and convenience kiosks along its centre can entertain you for a couple of hours.
Once you have visited you will come back again and again.
London based travel writer and photographer, Lynn Houghton was a concert performer in her early life before throwing off the choir robes and deciding to write full-time about travel. Born in the Canadian Rockies, of English and Welsh parents, she is naturally drawn to the outdoors and nature. Now travelling on assignment, she covers culture, cruise and cuisine for websites and consumer and trade publications. She writes extensively about the U.S. and Canada but also covers Africa as well for targeted consumer titles.
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