Barcelona is a city unlike any other – it has Gaudi’s modernist masterpieces, vibrant Catalan culture, and even a beach – making it a wonderful place to visit time and again. It also makes a great base for exploring other nearby destinations that complement rather than compete with its charms. Two great add-ons to a stay in Barcelona are Lisbon, Portugal, another intriguing city yet with a very different vibe, and the sunny Spanish island of Mallorca. I recently visited both and here are my recommendations:
LISBON This hill-bisected city on the River Tagus is often described as “melancholy.” Sure, its buildings are a tad weatherworn, a few of its streetcars are certifiable antiques, and its soulful fado singers can make you cry, but Portugal’s capital city is far from a sad place. Rather, it is an inviting collage of lively neighborhoods, each with its own charm and character: Baixa, its central hub, is home to wide, pedestrian-only Rua Augusta stretching from the graceful fountains of Rossio plaza (shown above) to the elegant arch on Praca de Comercio; Bairro Alto, or “high neighborhood,” is a 16th-century maze of narrow cobblestone streets that comes to life at night with its numerous bars; Alfama, a dense warren of steep medieval lanes, leads up to the viewpoints from Castelo de Sao Jorge; and Belem to the west is home to the 16th-century Manueline-style Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belem.
Two other nearby must-sees: Palacio de Queluz, an 18th-century royal summer residence with beautiful gardens, and a bit further afield, the UNESCO World Heritage City of Sintra and its ornate Palacio de Pena. When hunger strikes after a day of sightseeing, reserve a table at Pap’ Acorda in Bairro Alto for simple yet expertly prepared Portuguese dishes served in a fashionable setting.
For a comfortable stay, consider one of these two options: Hotel Bairro Alto is a five-year-old boutique property overlooking Bairro Alto’s main square and offering historic-meets-hip design (shown at right; courtesy of Hotel Bairro Alto) in 55 spacious rooms and suites and a wonderful rooftop bar/lounge. One caveat: The property is grappling with a mysterious and unpredictable odor that seems to coincide with the tides and infiltrates the plumbing on the first and second floors, so ask for a room on a higher floor, from $320/night.
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon is the city’s luxury leader and it maintains its sleek, circa-1959 design aesthetic with the addition of 21st-century touches such as a state-of-the-art rooftop fitness center and a subterranean spa with an indoor pool. The hotel has 282 rooms and suites and does cater to a lot of business travelers, but couples who appreciate Four Seasons’ stellar service and amenities, such as large marble bathrooms (shown at left; courtesy of Four Seasons) will feel the love, from $550/night.
MALLORCA This postcard-perfect Balearic isle with its mild climate and abundant sunshine offers a unique mix of liveliness (in its bustling main city, Palma) and escapist relaxation (in its mountainous interior with picturesque villages like Deia, which dates to prehistoric times, and Valldemossa, where Frederic Chopin and George Sand once lived). Although Mallorca has become almost synonymous with mass tourism (it attracts throngs of Northern Europeans on package tours), there are delightful pockets of authenticity.
The most interesting sights in Palma are found in the Moorish old town and the streets around the golden limestone Gothic-style Palma Cathedral and the tree-lined Passeig des Born. Tip: Don’t visit on a Sunday when most sites are closed. A mere 45-minute drive into the island’s dramatic interior lets you enjoy sweeping vistas of olive groves and oak trees, as well as well-preserved towns populated by artisans.
You’ll experience the true meaning of relaxation at La Residencia, a 68-room Mediterranean-style resort (shown at right; courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels) set amid lush landscaping in the hills above Deia. Everything about it is rustic-luxe Mallorcan and the effect is like a gentle tranquilizer that soothes away the stresses of modern life. Especially enjoyable is El Olivo, the resort’s romantic, candlelit restaurant serving what is certainly the most memorable meal on the island, from $355/night.
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