City of art

City of art

With its perfectly crafted blend of culture, architecture and gastronomy, it’s not hard to see why Barcelona has become one of Europe’s most popular destinations.
By Richard Holmes

Whether it’s a flying visit before a cruise holiday, or a week-long immersion in the city’s ancient streets and charming squares, there has never been a better time to book a break in the capital of Catalonia.

A gander at Gaudi

The name Antoni Gaudí is synonymous with Barcelona, and few have done as much to shape the city’s public spaces and skyline as this celebrated modern architect. Dominating that skyline is the breathtaking – really, no other word does it justice – Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s most famous work.

Construction work on this awe-inspiring cathedral began in 1882 and it is only due to be finished in 2026 – a full century after Gaudí was knocked over and killed by a tram. Today, his remains are buried in the crypt, but his vision of colour, nature and faith is put on remarkable display in his work-in-progress above. The narrow tower walkways (which you can visit at additional cost) offer superb city views. Just be sure to book your tickets online and arrive early, before the crowds from the visiting cruise ships arrive.

Gaudí’s other works show a more playful side to his architectural vision. In the west of Barcelona, Park Güell’s fairy-tale towers and serpentine mosaic bench are colourful counterpoints to the formal gardens laid out above the city.

Casa Milà is equally quirky, with its twisted iron balconies and wave-like rooftop. Here, look for the glass-topped chimneys known as espanta bruixes (‘witch-scarers’).

Around the corner, the neo-Gothic Palau Güell mansion makes a worthwhile diversion for architecture buffs. Plus, it is just a short walk from the oh-so-charming Gothic Quarter.

Go gothic

If you’re short on time in the city, you’ll want to spend much of it in the Gothic Quarter, where winding alleyways deliver you into sun-splashed plazas. Tiny churches hide in between chic boutiques and you could easily spend your days wandering, happily lost, between historical apartment blocks. Those cobbled streets underfoot date back 2 000 years to the Roman settlements on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Start your wandering at the striking Barcelona Cathedral, a remarkable blend of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. It was here that Christopher Columbus was honoured on his return from ‘discovering’ the New World.

But the area brims with museums and galleries. Palau de la Generalitat has been the seat of Catalonian government for six centuries, while the superb Museu d’Història de la Ciutat on Plaça del Rei tells the story of early Roman conquest in the area and the palace’s later history as the seat of the feared Spanish Inquisition.

Promenades and parks

Perhaps talk of the Inquisition and ancient history is a little dour for this sun-soaked city? Head straight for Passeig de Gràcia then. This glamorous shopping boulevard in the district of Eixample is Barcelona’s answer to Fifth Avenue, with a string of boutiques showcasing global brands and local designers tempting you to part with your hard-earned euros. Even if an actual purchase is too dear for your pocketful of rands, it’s still the best place in the city for window-shopping.

Also well worth a wander is the iconic La Rambla, a pedestrianised boulevard running from Plaça de Catalunya to the harbour. Although it can be jammed with tourists in the summer, strolling along it is a great way to dip into the surrounding Old Town. The multitudinous pavement restaurants – though rather expensive – are a fine place to enjoy a cold cerveza and spot of people-watching.

To escape the crowds, wander across the Old Town towards the expansive Parc de la Ciutadella. Unlike Parc Güell, it’s free to enter and there’s no shortage of space for a quiet picnic in the shade. It also hosts regular festivals, exhibitions and concerts: electronic-music festival Sónar is one of the most popular in summer. The southern portion of the park is home to the Parc Zoologic, a popular escape for travellers with kids in tow.

Markets and meals

To stock up for your park picnic, there’s only one market to consider: La Boqueria is one of the world’s most famous fresh- produce markets – and with good reason. A few steps from La Rambla, you will find dozens of market stalls piled high with fresh Catalonian produce – from superb summer fruits to salty Spanish jamón. You’ll discover cheeses from across Catalonia, while the scent of freshly baked baguettes wafts through the crowded passageways. Just a few steps from the market, El Celler de la Boqueria stocks wines from vineyards all around Spain.

Barcelona is, of course, famous for its tapas and the cosy restaurants dishing up regional cuisine, and there’s no shortage of these around the market. You’ll discover wonderful tapas eateries throughout the rest of the city too, and they come alive in the early evening as office workers stop in for a snack and a glass of wine.

For a memorable night out, book well in advance for a seat at Tickets, the acclaimed tapas restaurant run by the Adrià brothers. Can’t get a table? Cal Pep in trendy El Born neighbourhood is also well worth a visit; and El Xampanyet has been in the same family of chefs for close on a century.

Sun, sand and sea

Last, but not least … hit the beach. You’re on holiday, after all, and the city embraces its stretch of Mediterranean coast with open arms. Barceloneta Beach is famed for its seaside restaurants and cafes, and is just a short walk from the heart of the city. Further east, you’ll find a more local flavour, with beaches such as Bogatell and La Nova Mar Bella offering a laid-back taste of beachside Barcelona.

Photography: Gallo/Getty Images, Alamy/Lucas Vallecillos, Unsplash Images/Andrea Enriquez Cousino

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