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City Guide: Barcelona
City guide: Barcelona
Barcelona, famed for its narrow streets abuzz with nightlife, is an old city. But there are new thrills for those willing to look.
What to do
A nice place to take in the city is from about 50 metres out to sea from the sands of Barceloneta beach, a pile of hefty concrete slabs forms a man-made reef, clattered together like broken Lego. From there, looking back toward the city, the marina is visible behind the beach, set against the dust-grey skyline of the Old Town and, further to the south-west, the flat, green expanses of Montjiuc.
Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s teeming central boardwalk that accentuates the city’s characteristically chaotic atmosphere. In the evening, it is almost unbearable for the foot traffic but, at an earlier hour, is more sedate: café workers slowly clearing tables, human statues stretching, tarot card readers shuffling their decks, sketch artists setting up easels, early-rising tourists making idle inquiries.
Other not-to-be-missed favourites include Port Olimpic, where you’ll find architect Frank Geary’s golden fish; symbolic of the 1992 Olympic renovations that launched a revitalised Barcelona on to the tourist stage.
Northwards, there’s the long-unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral. If builders do finish local legend Antoni Gaudi’s basilica in 2026, residents are in for a shock. Someone is sure to relate the sad tale of Gaudi’s death – killed in 1926 by a tram, stepping backwards to assess the labour of love he started way back in 1883.
Still with unrequited Gaudi, his Parc Güell was going to be a self-contained aristocratic gated-community, “but it was too far from town”.
Visit the MNAC, a huge palace that is now the national art museum, then wind your way up the steep hill to Montjuic castle.
All in all, Barcelona is a whirlwind of surprises. It is a city of narrow streets and winding passages, the most drab, innocuous alleys unfolding spectacularly into elegant squares and secluded gardens. It is, above all, a city that demands to be explored.
Take coffee at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s epic food market, at the top end of Las Ramblas, lauded as one of the finest in Europe. It positively overflows with produce – spices fill the air with a heady cocktail of aromas and the fruit stands give it all a technicolour undercoat. The meats, piled high and hung from wooden slats in every second stall, range far beyond the standard steaks and sausages – it’s bulls’ tails and black eels for the adventurous epicure.
From the market, pick your way through the lascivious Barrio Chino, El Raval – where, even in early afternoon, the area’s prostitutes are working their corners – and then on towards the Old Town, with its straight, dim corridors and the dinky pinxto bars of uber-trendy Born, which recedes, finally, into the soft sands of Barceloneta.
In the evening, take in a flamenco performance at the renowned El Tablao de Carmen, a dance theatre in Poble Espanyol, an arts and entertainment precinct in the city’s north. Flamenco is the music of Spanish Gypsies – the Romani people of Andalusia – and the dancing is an energetically frenzied, almost formless affair.
Eating and drinking
Euskal Etxea is one of the city’s best-known pinxto bars. You basically help yourself to small servings of various dishes, hang on to the skewers holding your food together and then use them to tally up your bill at the end.
Check out Big Fish in Born for some great seafood.
To dine in style, check out Lasarte, known for traditional Basque cooking; expensive but worth it.
All the chiringuitos along Barceloneta beach provide a similarly laidback, authentic spot for a drink, but Vai Moana is one of the best-known for putting away a few Estrellas or mojitos
If you explore Barcelona’s Barrio Gothic, you’ll stumble across heaps of quirky bars but Margarita Blue may be the pick of the bunch.
Going upmarket for the city’s eclectic, old-school ambience, try Marmalade which was a furniture store for 50 years and, happily, appears to have kept most of the coolest pieces.
Where to party
Like everything else about the Catalan city, Barcelona’s clubbing scene is proud of doing things its own way. Oh, and going to bed late. Really late. Venues vary from Balearic-style beach clubs to basement caverns more humid than the Amazon.
Top picks include the industrial-style warehouse Razzmatazz, open-air glamour at La Terrrazza and underground sweatbox the Macarena Club. Be prepared to only get started around 2am. Prepare like a local and get your siesta in.
Where to stay
If you’re after a fun, affordable hostel that’s going to enable you to make the most of your stay, it’s worth checking out Barcelona Mar, not far from the heart of the city.
Within five minutes’ walk of Las Ramblas, Hotel Mimic is a snazzy, convenient base for your adventures in Barcelona.
For a little luxury, the rooms at Hotel Condes de Barcelona are comfortable and airy and the high-ceiling foyer is awash with low-key opulence. The terrace, on the top floor, provides some of the best views in the city.
If Barcelona doesn’t satisfy your appetite for the arty, take a day trip to discover the Salvador Dali Museum at Figueres.
For a breath of air, get away to the Montserrat mountains where you can visit the Royal Basilica of Montserrat with its 12th-century carving of the Black Virgin and maybe partake of a cog-wheel train ride from Monistrol to the royal basilica.