Cities are a lot like people; some have stronger and more vibrant personalities than others. Barcelona is just such a town. Once you meet her, you’ll never forget her. She’s the arty type, strongly independent, bold and brassy, casually but stylishly dressed, draped in flashy jewellery and sporting a designer scarf or smart hat to bring the whole look together. She’s been around a while and bears the scars of a turbulent past but she’s certain of herself, fearless. And, because she is so fascinating, you should get to know her well.
The best way to get to know this city is to take an apartment for a week or two. As soon as you put that key in the door, you’ll discover your inner European and fit right in. Modish one- and two-bedroom apartments in downtown Barcelona can be surprisingly inexpensive.
As well as being a haven from the city’s energetic street life, an apartment enables you to indulge the notion that you’re just one of the locals.
But there are things in Spain that can be a challenge for us Aussies, such as mealtimes. Dinner is often not taken until 10pm, so cooking at home from time to time is both a pleasure and a relief for the old digestive system.
Set off early on the morning of your first day, shopping basket over your arm, for the city’s renowned food market, La Boqueria. After a breakfast of fried eggs and spicy sausage at one of the cafes inside, stock up on the mouth-watering produce that makes this market one of Europe’s most famous – super-fresh seafood, legs of jamon hanging from hooks, fruit, cheeses and Catalan delicacies. Restore your energy levels with coffee and a xuixo – a gorgeous, flaky pastry tart filled with creamy custard – before taking your hoard home.
La Boqueria is on La Rambla, the famous tree-lined pedestrian street that marches its way more than a kilometre from PlaÇa de Catalunya down to the sea.
On the east side of La Rambla is the Gothic Quarter. There’s something reminiscent of Venice in this area of small squares, ancient buildings and narrow lanes that open out into Placita de la Seu, with the city’s 14th-century cathedral at its heart.
There’s excellent shopping to be had here, from high-end gear on Passeig de Gràcia to boutique stores with fine art, craft, clothes and homewares. It’s busy by day and absolutely hopping at night, when its restaurants, bars and cafes are packed.
The Gothic Quarter is just one of Barcelona’s older districts. Keep wandering and you’ll find yourself in La Ribera and El Born, areas once derelict but now abuzz with life 24 hours a day. Catalan folk love their food and this is a good spot to nibble on tapas washed down with local beer.
With your extended stay, you’ll find time to try the city’s many surprisingly pretty beaches. Head first to El Born’s neighbour, La Barceloneta. From the wide, golden-sand beach, step back to a boardwalk full of eateries and bars (great places for people-watching) and back again to an 18th-century minitown, quite unlike anything else in the city. Another excellent option is to rent a bicycle and explore some of the other lively beaches up and down the coast.
Architecturally, Barcelona really mixes it up: 16th-century houses next to elegant art nouveau apartments next to palaces next to medieval churches next to modernist blocks. It all works because the buildings are fine designs with the right proportions, and because there are lots of parks and quiet squares dotted about. Pick up a map of the city’s major architectural features and score points spotting them as you meander along.
Detail from Casa Batlló, another Gaudí masterpiece in the city centre. Photo: narvikk
Art lovers associate the city with the work of Miró, Picasso and Dalí, but the city’s most famous son is Antoni Gaudí. His masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, under construction for the past 135 years and still unfinished, is unique and visually demanding, so take time to fall in love with it. One viewing won’t be nearly enough. As well, lock in time to roam Parc Güell, Gaudí’s mosaic-rich fantasy playground overlooking the city,
To experience one of the city’s less well-known gems, stroll north from the Sagrada Familia along Avenue de Gaudí to the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. It’s now a museum chronicling its history as a place dedicated to including beauty as an essential part in the care of the sick. The series of lovely, Moorishinfluenced pavilions now showcase a fine and varied collection of applied arts. Set in exquisite gardens, this haven of peace is quite possibly the most perfect space in a city chock-full of lovely spaces.
Pauline Webber travelled to Barcelona at her own expense.
When to go Any time other than high summer is ideal. Winters are cool but often sunny.
What to do For a dose of Catalan identity politics, head to the staggeringly huge Camp Nou stadium and watch FC Barcelona do its stuff. Crazily exciting. Tickets are available online, at tourist offices and at the stadium on the day. Check out fcbarcelona.com/tickets.
What to watch The combination of these three films will give an insight into the city: Cesc Gay’s In the City, Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, and Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.
More information Go to barcelonaturisme.com.