Barcelona is the buzzword of the moment. One of Europe's most fashionable cities, this Mediterranean beauty by the sea treats stimulates your senses with every step: Fanciful Modernist architecture and medieval buildings sprinkle its streetscapes, first-class museums provide just the right dose of culture, the celebrated Catalan cuisine draws food lovers in droves, hopping nightlife can't be beat, and cutting-edge shopping provides plenty of consumer fun. Progressive, cool, cosmopolitan, and chic, the city has inimitable style and plenty of substance to boot.
The attractions of the old town that spread up from the waterfront are the perfect introduction to your three-day visit. Stroll on the tree-lined La Rambla promenade, visit the medieval cathedral of Barri Gòtic, wander around trendy El Born, pop in for a look at the Picasso Museum in La Ribera, and roam bohemian El Raval and its centerpiece – the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Venture to the elegant neighborhood of L'Eixample for a look at its Modernist landmarks, including the iconic Sagrada Familia. Another must-see is the verdant hill of Montjuïc, with its clutch of stellar museums like the charming Fundació Joan Miró and the expansive Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. If you have five days, do all that and spend some time along the waterfront, from the gentrified Port Vell area to the fishing enclave of Barceloneta to glitzy Port Olímpic. A week will give you plenty of time for in-depth exploration of the old city and its plentiful historical sites, soaking up the Modernist delights in L'Eixample, and squeezing in some leisure time by the sea. Take an outing to the delightful barrio of Gràcia, with its surreal Gaudí-designed Parc Güell, as well as a foray to the hill of Tibidabo, topped by a fun amusement park and affording jaw-dropping vistas. With all that entices, Barcelona simply begs for a visit.
Positioned between hills to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south lies Barcelona. Avinguda Diagonal divides the city into two areas: downtown, home to most attractions covered in this story, and Zona Alta, the upper town. At the heart of downtown is the old town, a maze of tight streets and charming squares bisected by La Rambla, a tree-shaded promenade flanked by Plaça de Catalunya and the harbor. To the east of La Rambla lies the medieval Barri Gòtic, and due southeast, the fashionable areas of La Ribera and El Born. To the west is El Raval, an up-and-coming-but-still-slightly-seedy neighborhood of immigrants and young bohemia. The waterfront starts where La Rambla ends at the spruced-up harbor of Port Vell; east of this area is the old fishing quarter of Barceloneta, further east still the glitzy Port Olímpic. North of Plaça de Catalunya is L'Eixample, home to the hallmarks of Modernist architecture including the much-photographed Sagrada Familia and a dash of other Gaudí-designed buildings. Due northwest of L'Eixample is the barrio of Gràcia, an enchanting enclave of narrow streets, cozy squares and, perched above it, another Gaudí landmark: Parc Güell. Of Barcelona's many hilltop neighborhoods, two in particular are worth a visit: the leafy Montjuïc (southwest of the center) and Tibidabo, the imposing hill of on the city's northwest boundary.
Barcelona is a joy to explore on foot, but you'll need public transportation to reach some of the outlying attractions, especially the hilltop neighborhoods. The six-line metro system is clean and efficient – as is the bus network – but shuts down at midnight (later on weekends). For late-night outings, taxis are recommended; a green light at the top of the car means it is available. If you want to cover a lot of ground, we recommend buying the tourist travelcard (9.60€+) that gives you unlimited use of public transportation. Avid sightseers should invest in the Barcelona Card (24€+), valid for all transport and discounts at museums, clubs, shops, and restaurants. You can purchase both cards and pick up a wealth of free brochures and information at local tourist offices (www.barcelonaturisme.com) – the major branch is at Plaça de Catalunya 17-S (daily 9am-9pm), another is in Barri Gòtic at Plaça de Sant Jaume (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-2pm). Art lovers should purchase the ArticketBCN (20€) which covers free admission to seven art centers including the Fundació Joan Miró and Museu Picasso; it too can be bought at the tourist offices and at the participating museums.
For a whirlwind intro to the city, we recommend joining a hop on-off tour. Bus Turístic (19€+; www.tmb.net) covers 44 stops on its three routes and your ticket gets you discounts at some local attractions. The tourism bureau (Plaça de Catalunya, 17-S; www.barcelonaturisme.com) also offers thematic walking tours: Gothic (daily 10am, 1.5hrs; €9.50); Modernist (Fri & Sat 4pm, June-Sept at 6pm, 2hrs; €10.50); Gourmet (Fri & Sat at 11am, 2hrs; €14); and Picasso (Tues-Sun 10.30am, 1.5hrs; €12 with museum admission). To explore Barcelona in an eco-friendly way, rent a bike from one of the many bike rental agencies such as Classic Bikes in El Raval (C/Tallers 45; www.barcelonarentbikes.com; €6 for 2 hours) or Bike Rental Barcelona, who will deliver to your hotel (€9.90 for 3 hours). There are bike tours offered by Biciclot (www.biciclot.net) and Scenic (www.scenicbcn.com). A helicopter tour by CAT Helicopters (45€+; www.cathelicopters.com) gets you a pricey but unforgettable view of the city and the coast. A cheaper alternative is the cross-harbor cable car from the Costa i Llobera gardens on Montjuïc to the Sant Sebastià tower in Barceloneta (winter 10am-6pm, spring & fall 10.45am-7pm, summer 11am-8pm; every 15 minutes; €7.50, €9 return; 093/225-2718).
La Rambla & Barri Gòtic
A stroll on La Rambla is the perfect initiation to the delights of Barcelona's old city. Start at the fountain-dotted Plaça de Catalunya at the top of the promenade and join the sea of tourists and locals for an amble along this mile-long leafy thoroughfare lined with cafes and restaurants all the way down to where the street meets the sea. En route, you'll pass colorful stalls selling birds and flowers; newspaper and souvenir stands; street mimes; and the musicians who provide a soundtrack for your walk. You'll be stirred by the experience of Barcelona's vibrant street life, but don't be so moved to let your bag or camera dangle off your shoulder – pickpockets and bag-snatchers are infamously slick. Roughly half-way down La Rambla is a treat for your senses like no other: La Boqueria (no. 91-101; Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), a 19th-century covered market, sells fresh cuts of meat, shellfish, exotic fruit, and fragrant cheeses. Tip: Non-tourist prices are found at the stalls away from the main entrance. Sample the goods, but save room for dessert – nearby at no.74 (opposite the city's grand opera house) is Café de l'Opera (see Where to Eat); it serves the city's best chocolate con churros (thick hot chocolate with fried dough).
History buffs should now head east of La Rambla into medieval Barcelona and the Gothic Quarter known as Barri Gòtic. Age-old squares and alleyways make up a shady labyrinth complete with ancient structures that date back to the 13th century. At the center is La Seu Cathedral (Plaça de la Seu; daily 7.45am-7.45pm; 4€), one of Spain's most astonishing specimens of Gothic architecture. Dedicated to Santa Eulàlia – Barcelona's patron saint whose tomb lies in the crypt – it features elaborate choir stalls in the interior, a beautiful cloister that overlooks a palm tree-filled garden and a terrace (daily 1-5pm) with superb views over the centuries' old rooftops nearby. If you're around on a weekend, stop by the cathedral square for the sardana (the Catalan national dance) performance (Feb-July & Sept-Nov, Sat 6pm & Sun noon).
Just west of here lies Plaça del Rei, a stupendous square graced with some of the city's oldest buildings, including the remains of Saló del Tinell, the former royal palace that – legend has it – hosted Columbus on his return from America. Access to the Renaissance watchtower of Torre del Rei Martí is included if you visit the excellent Museu d'Història de la Ciutat on the square (City History Museum, Plaça del Rei s/n; June-Sept Tues-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-3pm; Oct-May Tues-Sat 10am-2pm & 4-8pm, Sun 10am-3pm; 4€; www.museuhistoria.bcn.es), but the real highlight here is the underground remnants of the Roman colony of Barcino. You'll pass excavated items ranging from statues to oil presses to mosaics as you walk along the underground paths that lead all the way to the Cathedral.
Back above ground, give in to sunny pleasures and unwind with a drink at our favorite square in the Gothic Quarter, Plaça del Pí, home to the 15th-century Santa Maria del Pí church; the adjoining and equally charming Plaça Sant Josep Oriol hosts a painters' market each weekend morning. Another great square, the grand Plaça Reial, with its 19th-century pastel-colored arcades, soaring palm trees, and a fountain with Gaudí-designed lanterns around it is just a short walk to the southeast.
La Ribera, El Born & El Raval
For a spot of shopping and a dose of culture, head southeast of Barri Gòtic to La Ribera and El Born, the most gentrified part of town, with some of the trendiest boutiques, restaurants, and bars around. The old harbor area is also home to the Museo Picasso (C/Montcada 15-23; Tues-Sun 10am-8pm; 6€ permanent collection, 5€ temporary exhibits, 8.50€ combined ticket; www.museupicasso.bcn.es), an homage to this influential painter's formative years in Barcelona; Picasso's first solo exhibit was held at Els Quatre Gats (see Where to Eat) in 1900. The row of connected medieval buildings that house the museum showcase a number of works from Pablo's Blue Period (1901-1904), but other items on display – 3500 in total – won't disappoint.
The marriage of old and new is a seamless one in Barcelona, and a short walk south of the Picasso Museum to the church of Santa Maria del Mar (Plaça de Santa Maria) proves it. The Catalan-Gothic beauty of a church, with its stunning stained-glass rose window above the main door, is a striking contrast to what fronts it – the tree-lined Passeig del Born (see Where to Shop), a stylish zone with the city's most cutting-edge shops and, come nighttime, the ultimate in bar and restaurant action. (See Nightlife).
One of Barcelona's favorite parks is on the eastern edge of La Ribera. Parc de la Ciutadella ( daily 10am-sunset; main entrance off Passeig de Picasso) is an urban oasis with a boating lake, historic greenhouses, and a smattering of Modernist structures built for the Universal Exhibition held here in 1888. The onsite Zoo (Carrer de Wellington entrance; daily June-Sept 10am-7pm, Mar-May & Oct 10am-6pm, Jan-Feb & Nov-Dec 10am-5pm; 14.50€ adults/8.75€ children; www.zoobarcelona.com), with its gorilla museum, pony rides, and mini-train is ideal if you have kids in tow.
Barcelona's multiculti flavor is best displayed in El Raval, west of La Rambla, where new immigrants live alongside new bohemians and, apart from a clutch of offbeat bars, clubs, and shops, gentrification hasn't taken over – yet. Better to stick to daytime wanderings here, especially in the neighborhood's seedy lower section, once the notorious red light district and today an area of mostly decrepit buildings. The upper part of the neighborhood is a little more spruced up thanks to its star attraction, the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Plaça dels Angels 1; July-Sept Mon, Wed, & Fri 11am-8pm, Thurs 11am-midnight, Oct-June daily Mon, Wed-Fri 11am-7.30pm, Sat 10am-8pm and Sun 10am-3pm year-round; 4€ permanent collection, 4€ temporary exhibits, 7.5€ combined ticket; www.macba.es), a sparkling Richard Meier-designed structure of white concrete and glass surfaces that stands out among its neighbors' shabby facades. An incredible atrium, glass-floored galleries, and winding ramps house a collection of late-20th-century works with an emphasis on Spanish and Catalan artists; look for photos, paintings and installations by Antoni Tàpies, Joan Miró, and international artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joseph Beuys, among others.
An elegant area stretching northwest of Plaça de Catalunya, L'Eixample is the result of the late-nineteenth-century expansion of Barcelona, whence the name, which effectively means 'Extension'. In contrast to the cozy labyrinthine layout of the old city, everything comes on a bigger scale in this zone of grand boulevards like Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla de Catalunya. Here you'll find the city's signature buildings of Modernism, a Catalan version of Art Nouveau made famous by Barcelona's homegrown Antoni Gaudí. Even if you're not an architecture buff, a peek at some of these whimsical structures is an absolute must.
Even if you've seen photographs of Gaudí's Sagrada Família (C/Mallorca 401; Apr-Sept 9am-8pm, Oct-March 9am-6pm; 8€, 3.5€ guided tour; www.sagradafamilia.org), nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the real thing, found on the easternmost edge of L'Eixample. Its eccentric architect started this extraordinary building in 1882 and continued working on it for 40 years until his sudden death in 1926 cut the grand project short. The man who envisioned the Temple of the Holy Family, with its 18 spires and a giant tower dedicated to Jesus Christ, is buried underneath the nave – but probably doesn't rest in peace, as the church has been a controversial construction site since the 1950s (with ambitious plans to finish by 2020); many believe it should have been left untouched as a monument to its great mastermind. The scaffolding, cranes, and noise aside, the spectacular structure will to wow you with its latticed stonework, dripping concrete, and carved buttresses. If you dare, make a dizzying climb up one of the towers for a close-up look at the gargoyles and other intricate sculptures (an easier route whisks you up in an elevator for 2€, but expect to wait in line).
Walk ten minutes west along Carrer de Provença and come to Gaudí's last secular project, the Casa Milà (Passeig de Gràcia 92; daily 10am-8pm; 8€), also known as La Pedrera (Stone Quarry), a curvy limestone house complete with sinuous arabesques and designed for a rich businessman. Start at the rooftop terrace and check out the bizarre chimneys decked out in marble, glass-bottle fragments, and tiles; then pause to take in the view of Sagrada Familia. Stop inside a get a et a peak into the artist's life via the audio-visual materials in the Gaudí Space, then visit El Pis de La Pedrera, a reconstructed Modernist apartment on the fourth floor, for a look at how bourgeois families lived in the early-20th century.
One of Barcelona's most popular attractions is another Gaudí confabulation: the undulating Casa Battló, a short stroll south on Passeig de Gràcia (Passeig de Gràcia no.43; daily 9am-8pm; 16.50€; www.casabatllo.es) where you can tour its elaborately decked out apartment, atmospheric attic, and elaborately tiled roof. Tip Reserve your ticket in advance to avoid lines. Next door at no.41, the tile-covered gable of Casa Amatller is yet another Modernist feat, this one designed by the architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch in an eclectic style that combines neo-Gothic and Flemish elements. For other Modernist milestones in L'Eixample, check out www.rutadelmodernisme.com.
Just north of here is one of Barcelona's best small museums, Fundació Antoni Tàpies (C/Aragó 255; Tues-Sun 10am-8pm; 6€; www.fundaciotapies.org) which showcases a stellar collection of works by Catalonia's most famous living artist including his abstract paintings, sculptures made of organic materials and found objects, drawings, books, and engravings.
Some of the city's best museum-hopping is found on Montjuïc, a hill overlooking the harbor just southwest of the old city, and art buffs could easily spend a day just visiting the cultural institutions here. Our favorite spot is the small and lovely Fundació Joan Miró (Parc de Montjuïc s/n; Tues, Wed, Fri, & Sat Oct-June 10am-7pm (8pm July-Sept), Thurs 10am-9.30pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm; 7.5€ for permanent collection, 4€ for temporary exhibits; www.bcn.fjmiro.es), in an airy building with a fantastic display of paintings, drawings, and tapestries by this Catalan artist famous for his signature use of primary colors and organic shapes. The museum's sculpture garden and the views off the rooftop terrace are a must-see.
An enlightening lesson on Catalan heritage can be had at the nearby Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Parc de Montjuïc; Tues-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm; 8.5€ valid for two days), a treasure trove of 11th- to 20th-century objects inside the imposing Palau Nacional on the mountain's northern flank. The museum's first-rate collection runs the gamut from Romanesque murals to Gothic frescoes and a fine anthology of modern Catalan art, including many Modernist works.
A fun attraction for both you and the little ones lies a short distance away at the open-air Poble Espanyol (Mon 9am-8pm, Tues-Thurs 9am-2am, Fri 9am-4am, Sat 9am-5pm; Sun 9am-11pm; 7.5€, 4€ kids; www.poble-espanyol.com), a museum comprised of two miles of streets and six squares showcasing reconstructions of typical Spanish architecture from different regions of the country, including Andalucian whitewashed houses and patios, palm-fringed Mallorcan mansions, and medieval Valencian houses as well as kids' activities, workshops, stores, and plenty of restaurants.
Long-gone are the days when Barcelona's waterfront was a sketchy area of dubious characters and decrepit buildings. Known as Port Vell (the Old Port), this four-mile stretch of palm-fringed seafront has attracted sun-tanned locals and wide-eyed tourists to its Miami-flavored setting since the early 1990s.
Take in a panoramic view from the platform at Mirador de Colom (Plaça del Portal de la Pau; daily 9am-8.30pm; 2.2€), an iron structure topped with a bronze statue of Columbus commemorating his return from the New World in 1493, then catch a ride on one of the Golondrinas (4€+) from the pier below it for a vista from the sea.
Across the wooden boardwalk is Barcelona's tackiest attraction, the Maremàgnum entertainment center (Moll d'Espanya; www.maremagnum.es), set on an artificial island packed with overpriced restaurants, bars, and shops; the city's fun aquarium (Mon-Fri 9.30am-9pm, Sat & Sun 9.30am-9.30pm, weekends in July & Aug till 11pm; 15.50€; www.aquariumbcn.com) and IMAX theater (check the website for a screening schedule; www.imaxportvell.com) are the main reasons people visit. If you're pressed for time, we recommend skipping it in favor of a stroll along the long, slender streets and palm-dotted squares of Barceloneta, the old fishing quarter that occupies a promontory to the east. This is one of the city's most authentic barrios and home to some of the best-value fish restaurants (see Where to Eat).
A pleasant 15-minute walk further east along the seafront promenade takes you to Port Olímpic, the city's Olympic district marked by two tall towers – the Hotel Arts and Mapfre – with the marina at its center and a plethora of summer-only beach bars known as chiringuitos.
For a small-town vibe, head to the delightful barrio of Gràcia northwest of L'Eixample, past Avinguda Diagonal. Once a separate town, today Gracia is a culture-rich enclave of low-rise buildings and tight-packed alleyways dotted with charming squares such as the tree-shaded Plaza del Sol, our favorite. The area's biggest attraction is another Gaudí masterpiece, his stunningly landscaped Parc Güell (C/d'Olot; daily Oct-March 10am-6pm, Apr-Sept 10am-8pm; free for park, 4€ for museum), a fantastical hilltop retreat spread over several lush acres complete with two gingerbread gatehouses, wavy benches covered in ceramic tiles, a series of meandering paths, and an artful dragon covered in mosaics. This eccentric architect spent the last 20 years of his life living in the park's Casa-Museu Gaudí; today it showcases a collection of his personal objects and drawings.
For the best vistas of the city and the sea – that on a clear day stretch all the way to the Pyrenees Mountains and the island of Mallorca – make the trek up to Tibidabo. Getting there is as riveting as the view; first comes a ride on an antiquated old tram, and then a fun jaunt above the pine trees via the Funicular del Tibidabo (2.3€ one-way, 3.5€ round-trip). At the end awaits Tibidabo amusement park (May-June Sat & Sun noon-8pm; July & early Sept Wed-Fri noon-8pm, Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-10pm; Aug Mon-Thurs noon-10pm, Fri-Sun noon-11pm; mid-Sept to April weekends only, hours vary; 11€+; www.tibidabo.es), an old-fashioned funfair that dates back to 1889 and features over 30 attractions from roller-coaster rides to old-fashioned carousels; you can even try the world's first large flight simulator and feel as if your flying. If rides aren't your thing, have a drink at any of the mountaintop spots and ponder the blue sea below.
As one of Europe's most visited cities, Barcelona offers a full variety of lodging options, running the gamut of all tastes and budgets. From luxury spots to family-run hostales and quirky hotels, the city doesn't skimp on overnight choices. The most affordable rooms get snatched up fast though, so if you're aiming to save on your hotel, you'll need to book well in advance.
With the advent of Catalan cool came an immense hotel boom. Now sprouting like mushrooms are five-star properties like the Ritz-Carlton-owned Hotel Arts (Carrer de la Marina 19-21; 093/221-1000; www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/barcelona) in the 44-floor tower overlooking the Port Olímpic and Hesperia Tower (Gran Via 144; 093/413-5000; www.hesperia-tower.com), a self-enclosed skyscraper oasis of luxury in an industrial park away from the city center. Offbeat accommodations range from the 25-room Casa Camper (C/Elisabets 11; 093/342-6280; www.casacamper.com) in El Raval, owned by the eponymous shoe company, to The5 rooms (C/Pau Claris 72; 093/342-7880; www.thefiverooms.com), a chic and friendly B&B in L'Eixample. You'll feel like royalty at the Hotel Neri, a boutique hotel hidden in an 18th-century palace in Barri Gòtic. (C/Sant Sever 5; 093/304-0655; www.hotelneri.com). Design enthusiasts appreciate the swank Hotel 1898 (La Rambla 119; 093/552-9552; www.barcelonahotel1898.com) inside the former Philippines Tobacco Company headquarters on La Rambla.
Tried-and-true luxury hotels abound, particularly in L'Eixample; for classic elegance, check in at Hotel Palace (Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 668; 093/510-1130; www.hotelpalacebarcelona.com), formerly known as The Ritz and still a grand dame of Barcelona hotels, where service is top-notch and plush perks abound. The four-star Hotel Claris (C/Pau Claris 150; 093/487-6262; www.derbyhotels.es) sports a rooftop pool, eclectic rooms, and a private collection of ancient Egyptian and medieval art. If you want to mingle with the cool crowd, your spot is Hotel Omm (C/Rosselló 265; 093/445-4000; www.hotelomm.es) where Feng Shui decor blends with movie-themed interiors; the roof's plunge pool affords views of Casa Milà and the top-rated restaurant serves creative Catalan cooking (see Where to Eat). Architecture buffs should consider Casa Fuster (Passeig de Gràcia 132; 093/255-3000; www.hotelcasafuster.com), a five-star property housed in a landmark Modernist building with sleek rooms, an elegant Viennese café, and a rooftop terrace and gym.
In the midrange category, the best option is Hotel Banys Orientals (C/Argenteria 37; 093/268-8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com) at the heart of hip El Born. 43 cozy rooms are set inside an antique building with a stylish minimalist décor. Slightly pricier is L'Eixample's sophisticated Hotel Constanza (C/Bruc 33; 093/270-1910; www.hotelconstanza.com) with a Japanese-inspired lobby and rooms with dark-wood furniture and heaps of toiletries in the en-suite bathrooms. Also in this area is the well-priced Hotel Balmes (C/Mallorca 216; 093/451-1914; www.derbyhotels.com), whose airy units feature colorful accents; the verdant patio has a pool and the lobby showcases African art. In El Raval, a stone's throw from La Rambla, Sant Augustí (Plaça Sant Agustí 3; 093/318-1658; www.hotelsa.com) is Barcelona's oldest hotel. Housed in a former convent, the rooms here come equipped with three-star perks like air conditioning and televisions.
If you're traveling on a budget, Barcelona offers several options easy on your wallet. Our favorites are the two Gat properties in El Raval: Hostal Gat Raval (C/Joaquín Costa 44; 093/481-6670; www.gataccommodation.com) where many of the funky rooms have balconies overlooking the MACBA, and the slightly pricier Hostal Gat Xino (C/Hospital 149-155; 093/324-8833; www.gataccommodation.com) where units are all en-suite and a buffet breakfast comes at no extra cost. In L'Eixample, we recommend the Market Hotel (Passatge Sant Antoni Abat 10; 093/325-1205; www.markethotel.com.es) and, not far from here, the cheaper Hostal Girona (C/Girona 24; 093/265-0259; www.hostalgirona.com), where a rustic feel and antique furniture provide plenty of ambience. For rock-bottom rates, book the Hostal Rembrandt (C/Puertaferrisa 23; 093/318-1011; www.hostalrembrandt.com) near La Rambla; it has charm to spare for the price, perfectly pleasant rooms, and a nice interior courtyard.
Some say Barcelona has trumped Paris as a foodie destination. Whether or not you agree, there's no denying the burgeoning gourmet movement in the city. In Barcelona itself, options range from fine five-star dining to cheap spots for a quick bite. If you tire of the creative Catalan cuisine, ethnic restaurants are slowly appearing on the scene. Lunch, served between 2pm and 4pm, is the day's most important meal, and often comes with great value menú del día (set menu). Dinner is served late – the earliest you can expect to eat the day's final meal is 9pm, so plan accordingly.
For high-end, contemporary Catalan cuisine, head to L'Eixample. The chic Cinc Sentits (C/Aribau 58; 093/323-9490; www.cincsentits.com) churns out specialties such as wild Mediterranean sea bass, Iberian suckling pig, or shredded oxtail topped off with artisanal cheeses. Michelin-starred Alkimia (C/Indústria 79; 093/207-6115) serves treats for a refined palate – wild rice with crayfish or an updated version of the very Catalan pa amb tomàquet (white bread rubbed with tomato pulp and olive oil) – in a sparse interior as not to distract from the food. Glamorous Moo (C/Rosselló 265; 093/445-4000; www.hotelomm.es) inside the Hotel Omm (see Where to Stay) offers haute Catalan fare paired with a terrific wine list; the lunchtime tasting menu for 40€ is worth every euro. For a delicious blend of ambience and gastronomy, head to Casa Calvet (C/Casp 48; 093/412-4012), housed in a Gaudí-designed building with ostentatious interiors heavy on drapery and stained glass.
For a speakeasy-style gourmet dinner at midrange prices, book a table at one of the city's most-praised newcomers, the intimate Tapioles 53 (C/Tapioles 53; 093/329-2238; www.tapioles53.com) in Poble Sec, where globally inspired dishes prepared with fresh ingredients are presented in person by the Australian chef. Compared to the offerings in Madrid and Sevilla, tapas may not be Barcelona's strong suit, but we've singled out a few great and well-priced spots to sample them. The traditional Quimet & Quimet (C/Poeta Cabanyes 25; 093/442-3142) in the Poble Sec area below Montjuïc serves affordable montaditos (bite-size sandwiches topped with various fillings), cheese, wines, and cava (champagne) in a miniature dining room. Mam i Teca (C/Luna 4; 093/441-3335) dishes out great charcuterie and daily specials in a cozy space a stone's throw from the MACBA in El Raval. For new-wave Catalan tapas, don't miss a meal at Comerç 24 (C/Comerç 24; 093/319-2102) in El Born, where tastets (small portions) of creative dishes like soy quail lollipop or mollet egg with Jabugo ham are prepared in a cool, no-frills spot.
For those on a tighter budget we recommend value lunches at Les Quinze Nits (Plaça Reial 6; 093/317-3075) in Barri Gòtic, where Mediterranean fare is served in an airy interior or on a lovely outdoor terrace; try the botifarra (grilled sausage with beans). Café de l'Opera (La Rambla 74; 093/317-7585) is another mainstay, best known for its chocolate con churros, but also serving light fare like sandwiches and salads. Also recommended is the turn-of-the-20th-century Els Quatre Gats (C/Montsió 3; 093/302-4140) that offers Mediterranean standards and great ambience. If you want a bite that's healthy and easy on the pocket, Organic in El Raval (Junta de Comerç 11; 093/301-0902) has great lunch buffets for only 9€ on weekdays. Our favorite spot in Barceloneta, Can Majó (C/Almirante Aixada 23; 093/221-5455) serves fantastic paella at low prices.
If you tire of local food, head to Shunka (C/Sagristans 5; 093/412-4991), considered among the best Japanese spots in town; or try the curious fusion of Japanese and Catalan – think tuna tataki with foie gras or duck magret in shiitake pickling brine – at Shojiro (C/Ros de Olano 11; 093/415-6548). Another popular non-Iberian option is Himali in Gràcia (C/Milà i Fontanals 60; 093/285-1568), where Nepalese cuisine is at its cheapest for lunch with a set menu for 8€.
For sea vistas that don't cost a fortune, savor fresh seafood on the sunny beach terrace or in the bright interior of hip Agua (Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta 30; 093/225-1272). If you have cash to splash, grab an open-air table by the sea at Andaira (C/Vilajiosa 52–54; 093/221-1616) where eclectic gastronomic combos are bound to tickle your taste buds. For a birds-eye of Barcelona, book a terrace table at L'Orangerie inside the Gran Hotel Florida (Ctra de Vallvidrera al Tibidabo 83-93; 093/259-3000; www.hotellaflorida.com) where innovative Mediterranean cuisine is paired with awesome views.
Barcelona is one of Europe's coolest party spots, attracting droves of international nighthawks for serious clubbing fun. Nights usually start with a late dinner, followed with a bar crawl that kicks off around 11pm and continues until 3am when the crowds move on to the clubs (or discotecas, as they're known locally). There's something to suit everyone's taste in Barcelona, from live flamenco acts and blaring techno gigs to tango performances and acoustic concerts. For up-to-date listings information, pick up the weekly Spanish-only Guía del Ocio entertainment guide (www.guiadelocio.com). English speakers should subscribe to Le Cool weekly bulletin (www.lecool.com/barcelona) or pick up the free Barcelona Metropolitan (www.barcelona-metropolitan.com) magazine.
The always-crowded Club Fellini (La Rambla 27; www.clubfellini.com) is a mainstay, with three rooms providing surefire fun: boogie down to techno and house in the Mirror Room; dance to electro, rock, and punk in the Bad Room; or get down to funk, soul, and dancehall in the Red Room. Fellini's sister club, La Terrrazza (Poble Espanyoll; www.laterrrazza.com), is a seasonal open-air affair where Barcelona's trendy and beautiful dance to tech-house under starry summer skies. One of the city's oldest clubs (over a 100 years old), La Paloma (C/Tigre 27; www.lapaloma-bcn.com), is set in a theater in El Raval and done up with plush velvet fabrics and shiny chandeliers; grandparents practice their cha-cha-cha steps in early evening and, come midnight, DJs spin eclectic tunes to a younger crowd. Our favorite small club is Moog (C/Arc del Teatre 3; www.masimas.com) in El Raval, where a bar, chill-out area, and tiny downstairs dance floor are dedicated to electronica. For clubbing by the sea, check out the cool Sugar Club (Moll de Barcelona; www.sugarclub-barcelona.com) in Port Vell or mix with the fashionistas at Club Catwalk (C/Ramon Trias Fargas; www.clubcatwalk.net) in Port Olímpic with its beach-y decor and a roster of hip hop, R&B, and house.
For jazz and other music treats such as flamenco, Afro-Brazilian fusion, and Cuban, head to the small and smoky Harlem Jazz Club (C/Calle Comtessa de Sobradiel 8; 093/310-0755). More jazz, funk, and Latin beats can be heard at Jamboree (Plaça Reial 17; 093/319-1789; www.masimas.com), a cavernous basement space with live gigs most nights. Upstairs is Los Tarantos, known as the city's best flamenco spot and host to top-of-the-line performers since the 1960s. If acoustic sound is your thing, head to Razzmatazz (C/Almogavers 122; www.salarazzmatazz.com), a large club in a warehouse that puts on live acts and club nights for a mixed crowd in the industrial area of Poblenou.
For the bar scene, head to downtown favorite Barcelona Pipa Club (Plaça Reial 3; 093/302-4732; www.bpipaclub.com); it's been pulling in loyal locals since the eighties – ring the doorbell next to the pipe and head upstairs to its wood-paneled interior. London Bar (C/Nou de La Rambla 34; 093/318-5261) in El Raval is another popular watering hole, around since 1910 with live gigs – from blues to acid-jazz – on most nights. For a late-night drink, we recommend Tinta Roja (C/Creu del Molers 17; www.tintaroja.net) in Poble Sec, a Buenos Aires bordello-inspired bar and performance space where you can catch anything from tango and flamenco to poetry readings. Hang with the city's socialites and enjoy breathtaking city views at Mirablau (Plaça Doctor Andreu 1; 093/418-5879) at the peak of Tibidabo.
In keeping with its reputation for being Europe's capital of cutting-edge urban cool, Barcelona abounds with great shopping opportunities. From chain fashion shops to flea markets and from trendy design stores to offbeat, locally made couture, the Catalan capital is a shoppers' paradise. Tip: Most major stores stay open all day on weekdays and are open Saturday mornings; small independent shops will traditionally close for siesta between 2 and 5pm. Almost all stores are closed on Sunday.
The Gothic Quarter is the place to browse for souvenirs, antiques, and handicrafts in its many specialist shops like Cereria Subirà (Baixada de la Llibreteria 7), a candle store dating back to 1761. Various treasures and knick-knacks are found at the Barri Gòtic Antiques Market in front of La Seu cathedral (Plaça de la Seu; Thursdays 9am-8pm) To pick up colorful fans, mantillas (cloaks), and shawls, go to Almacenes del Pilar (C/Boqueria 43; www.almacenesdelpilar.com). If flea markets are your thing, don't miss a browse around Barcelona's best, Els Encants (Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat 7am-6pm) at Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes in the area of Glòries, where the market is the top draw.
Fans of cool design will appreciate El Born, home to the city's best interior design outlets. At Ici et Là (Plaça Santa Maria 2; www.icietla.com), over 30 international artists sell their one-off or limited-edition wares ranging from furniture to decorative items. Mercado del Born (C/Rec 37-39 & Plaça Comercial 3; www.mercadodelborne.com) is an artist cooperative where unique art and design pieces – from stationery and collectibles to graphic art and house wares – are on display and for sale.
For funky urban couture by homegrown and international designers, stop by On Land (C/Princesa 25; www.on-land.com) in El Born. Back in Barri Gòtic is the flagship store of Catalonia's own Custo Barcelona (C/Ferran 36), famous for its colorful printed shirts. For quirky women's clothes, pop in for a look at vibrantly colored collections at Gimenez y Zuazo (C/Elisabets 20 or C/Rec 42; www.gimenezzuazo.com) in El Raval. Haute designers like Josep Font (C/Provença 304), Lydia Delgado (C/Minerva 21; www.lydiadelgado.es), and Antonio Miró (C/Consell de Cent 349) have stores in L'Eixample and Gràcia.
For one-stop shopping, a visit to the El Corte Ingles department store (Plaça de Catalunya 14; www.elcorteingles.es) is a must. Passeig de Gràcia is the city's mainstream shopping strip, lined with chain stores like Mango (www.mango.com/paises.htm), Zara (www.zara.es) and the trendy Mallorcan shoe outfit, Camper (www.camper.com).
When To Go
With its mild Mediterranean climate, Barcelona is a year-round city. While summer is peak season, we recommend avoiding this hot and humid period, especially August, when tourists storm the city, Catalans escape for cooler climes, and many shops and restaurants close their doors for the month. In-the-know travelers visit in late spring (May-June), when there is plenty of outdoor fun to be had without the soaring temperatures. The best bang for your buck is fall (mid-September to mid-November), when the city is relatively free of crowds. Winter time, especially between January and March, is low season due to colder days; but even then, you can still get lucky and experience some alfresco fun.
Barcelona's annual calendar is chock-full of festivals and events. We particularly recommend being in town for New Year's Eve, when festivities include lots of cava drinking and eating grapes at midnight; Sant Jordi Day on April 23, celebrating Catalonia's patron saint; SONAR, the Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art (www.sonar.es) in June; and Festa Major de Gràcia (www.festamajordegracia.org), a colorful street party in late August with live music, open-air movie screenings, and theater.
Low season: January–March
Best bang for your buck: mid-September–mid-November
All international and domestic flights arrive to El Prat de Llobregat Airport (BCN), seven miles south of the city center. From the US, only Continental (www.continental.com) and Delta (www.delta.com) fly non-stop from New York. Other airlines, such as Spain's national carrier, Iberia (www.iberia.com), American Airlines (www.aa.com), and US Airways (www.usairways.com) connect via Madrid. Direct flights from the east coast take approximately eight hours; from Los Angeles, tack on five hours and a connecting stop somewhere in continental US.
If you're getting in by train from elsewhere in Spain or from another European destination, you'll come to Barcelona Sants Station (Pl. Països Catalans; www.renfe.es) just west of the city center. International trains arrive here from Montpellier, Zurich, Paris, and Milan.
For air and hotel packages, you'll find the best deals through Expedia (www.expedia.com), Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity). Air-land combos can also be booked through Europe-focused providers like Gate1Travel (www.gate1travel), EuropeASAP (www.europeasap.com), and European Destinations (www.europeandestinations.com).
Getting into Barcelona
Getting to the city center from the airport is a breeze. The cheapest way is by passenger train (direction Mataró; www.renfe.es), which runs from the airport station every 30 minutes and costs only 2.60€; the journey takes 23 minutes to Plaça de Catalunya. Slightly pricier is the more frequent Aerobús (every 6-15 minutes from each of the three terminals; see http://www.bcn.es/turisme/english/turisme/mobilitat/ser_tra_hom11.htm) which takes 30 minutes to the center and costs 3.75€ one-way/6.45€ round-trip. A taxi is the easiest option and costs 18€-26€ depending on your final destination.