Hub of innovation and hotbed of fashion, Barcelona whips up a heady cocktail of seductive Spanish charms and surreal Catalan Modernisme, whipping you into the vortex of its chimera-like church, Sagrada Familia, and beyond.
Barcelona: Bold & Beautiful
Spain’s second-largest city is a maverick metropolis on the Mediterranean with an insatiable appetite for reinvention hardwired in its DNA. Romanised in the 1st-century and Olympianised in 1992, Barcelona has been slaying it as a relentless ‘work in progress’. Feisty and fiercely independent, the capital of Catalunya continues to thrive by smashing the proverbial mould while clinging to its cultural roots with persistent pride. Addictive nightlife pulsates in bodegas with the flamboyance of the Flamenco and exuberance of the Sardana. New-fangled cosmopolitanism invigorates the culinary scene, even as the revival of the vibrant Catalan cuisine reaches its zenith.
The city’s definitive claim to fame is Modernisme, a quirky take on the French Art Nouveau, which sparked off a cultural renaissance in the early 19th-century and takes credit for Barcelona’s makeover into a vivacious, exuberant, and whimsical urban space. Avant-garde Modernist eccentricity still defines the theme of the city and its streets, showcasing the handiwork of art doyens like Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and visionary urban planners like Cerda. But undeniably, Barcelona is Barcelona because of the legacy of its most famous son, free-spirited Modernist architect-wizard, Antoni Gaudí and his unorthodox creations, especially the most stellar and sublime, Sagrada Familia.
Sagrada Familia: Edifice Extraordinaire
Gaudi was not the first architect of Sagrada Familia. He took over a year after the construction began in 1882, devoting his life to what became his obsessive dream project and a stage for the flawless execution of all his craft. The unfinished 4,500 square metre (48,500 square feet) Neo-Gothic basilica still soaks up 25 million Euros in contribution from its 3 million pilgrims annually, inching towards its grand unveiling in 2026 on the centennial of Gaudi’s death. Barnas will finally bid goodbye to the ugly scaffoldings marking the longest-running active building project on Earth. Sweetness of closure…
There is a whiff of Gothic and a whisper of Art Nouveau, but it is washed in pure Modernism. House of worship, interstellar spacecraft, or Disney castle, you struggle to interpret the vision behind Gaudi’s incomplete masterpiece. Still reeling from the dizzying verticality of the gargantuan monument, you face the inescapable dilemma - gaudily grotesque or Godly genius?
Love it to death or hate with a vengeance, you simply cannot ignore it.
The heavily ornamental facade of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is heavily draped in expressionism. Angular faces and robotic jawlines are sculpted on stone, many made from death masks of deceased locals and workers. Walls are cloaked with scenes from The Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection. Eighteen spires topped by geometrical pinnacles scrape the skies, symbolizing Apostles and Evangelists, the tallest of which will give the church its full height of 171 metres (560 feet). And that is just a curtain-raiser.
Brace for impact as you step into a dazzling interior of exaggerated scale. Interpretative, abstract, and disorienting at first, the ethereal stone forest overwhelms with twisty, knotted columns imitating tree-trunks that branch into a heavenly kaleidoscopic ceiling covered by what seems to be foliage and geometric stars.
The symphony of colourful lights, skylights and hyperboloids creates an unusually electrifying yet meditative ambience. Vine-like friezes, honeycomb gates, snail-inspired spiral staircases, stained-glass windows, seashells, fruits, and flowers - nature inspirations are everywhere. Dig deeper, go beyond the aesthetics.
The structural design draws from the principle of natural weight distribution of trees. Branches transfer lateral loads the nave columns, replacing exterior flying buttresses of a typical Gothic cathedral with parabolic arches to support the roof from within. Pillars use four different kinds of stone, varying in colour and load-bearing strength. The strongest one supports the point where east and west transepts meet the nave. The four columns here also serve as the main support for the projected Christ tower, the tallest of the eighteen towers.
Notch it up with the crypt trip to pore over exhibits of Gaudi’s original designs and drawings. Marvel at his ingenious engineering and remarkable foresight, which helped later architects to continue the construction in stages, adding depth and dimensions with their own style sensibilities. Paying homage at the tomb of ‘God’s architect’ is almost obligatory.
Eixample: Audaciously Alternative, Aesthetic
It is no sacrilege being a Gaudi glutton in Barcelona. The pilgrim path leads to the city’s most emblematic district, Eixample, the brainchild of Cerdà, conceived in the 19th-century as an extension for a congested city bursting at its seams. The model neighbourhood has 520 identical parallel-perpendicular blocks, wide boulevards, and generous green spaces. It was here that Gaudí rose to fame by constructing (or deconstructing) fanciful, statement homes which evoked his favourite inspiration, nature.
Two of the most well-recognized landmarks, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, located on the Passeig de Gracia are unmistakably stamped Gaudi. You will find all the usual suspect - wrought iron elements, mosaic features, trencadís to wavy walls, catenary arches.
Casa Milà delights with its sinuous facade, rooftop chimneys resembling masked soldiers, ribcage-inspired attic and mythologic murals.
Casa Batlló leaves an impression with its mask-studded balconies, bone-like columns, and a mosaic humpback dragon roofline. If the submarine-inspired porthole windows and wave-like doors were not imaginative enough, there are stained glass designs based on coral and marine life. How could symbolism be far behind? A giant garlic-shaped chimney turret with a cross represents the sword of Catalan’s patron saint piercing the dragon’s back.
The recently restored Casa Vicens, the architect’s first residential project surprises with its spectrum of colours and Moorish spirit. Intricate details are striking, from the word go. From the front gate cast-iron leaves and French marigold ceramic tiles on the facade to hand-painted mosaics and papier-mâché tiles creating faux foliage inside, the drama never ceases.
Venture off the tourist track to Palau Güell, an urban palace, which flaunts Gaudi’s mastery of blending ornamentation with functionalism. The central hall with a celestial dome was designed as a musical space for concerts, dances, and mass. The statement roof has twenty chimneys made of brickwork and lathered with trencadís ceramic work, glass, marble, and porcelain.
Another mandatory pitstop is the fairytale garden city of Park Güell. Sprawling over 17 hectares, it boasts of some of Gaudí’s most enigmatic creations, like the dragon on the main staircase, the entrance pavilions, and the serpentine bench of the columned central square.
Expect a profusion of theatrical constructions from elaborate viaducts to grand porticos, each functionally conceptualised and aesthetically integrated with the terrain. A brilliant and bizarre universe created by the man who believed that Gothic architecture was imperfect. Beg to differ.
Barri Gotic: Imperfectly Perfect
Flow with the human stream through the lively Las Ramblas strip, dodging levitating Ganeshas and headless bicycle riders before disappearing into the shaded backstreets that lead to the Gothic Quarter. Medievalism is the magic mantra of Barri Gòtic, a warren of cobbled streets that buzz with mercados, antique shops and vintage bookstores.
The star attraction of the Barrio is the 14th-century Gothic-style Barcelona Cathedral, the city’s official cathedral, where tourists flock to see classic belltowers, pointy spires, detailed stonework, lovely cloisters, and squawking geese. You can feel the whispers of a powerful past in Plaça Reial, power centre of the Catalan monarchs, where Columbus was received by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after his maiden voyage to America. Look out for Gaudí-designed lampposts, one of his earliest works. Under the square lie the remains of the ancient Roman city of Barcino, founded by Augustus in the 1st-century. Then hunt down the gargoyle-speckled Negotische Bridge of Sighs, search for the bullet-battered church in the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri and locate the pillars of the Roman Temple of Augustus.
The underrated Museum of the History of Barcelona is noted for its 370 square metre (4,000 square feet) archaeological site containing original Roman ruins. Dive into the Jewish district of El Call to admire the 5th-century Jewish synagogue and Roman public baths. There is much more to keep the eyeballs hooked all along. Quiet plazas, Moorish fountains, wrought-iron balconies, brick archways, crumbling defence towers and wall sculptures on bar frontages are hidden in plain sight.
Everything Else: Switch Off And Relax
Barcelona is the perfect destination to experiment with gastronomy. Culinary cravings find release in a mind-boggling variety of traditional taverns, lively bars, and modern gourmet restaurants. A tapas crawl is predestined, so reserve an afternoon to sample Catalan staples like pan con tomate, tortilla de patatas, marinated sardines or anchovies, garlic shrimp and patatas bravas. Jostle through legendary food markets like La Boqueria and Santa Catarina for fresh fruit smoothies and Iberian ham bites.
If you are artistically oriented, you must not pass up the opportunity to sign up for a trencadís mosaic workshop to create your own mosaics, in the style of Gaudí. Study over 4,000 works by artist Pablo Picasso at the Museu Picasso or ride the Montjuic cable car to see Fundació Joan Miró museum, dedicated to the works of Joan Miró. Get your culture fix with a concert at Palau Música Catalana.
If you are hankering after indulgence, hire a yacht to sail the 4.5 kilometres (three miles) of coastline and seven beaches of golden sand and clear water. Extravagant instincts find an ideal outlet at Avinguda Diagonal, the city’s premium luxury street.
Lastly - sports fan or not, no trip to Barcelona is complete without entering the hallowed grounds of the largest soccer stadium in Europe and home stadium of the legendary FC Barcelona. Think sneak peek into changing rooms, player tunnel, press area and museum.
Venture out: Cava, Costa Brava And More ...
Barcelona is perfectly positioned for a wide variety of side trips appealing to different types of travellers. Consider exploring vast vineyards and family-run wineries in the ‘Cava Country’ of Penedès, known for its red and white wines since the 4th-century. Art lovers can take a short train ride of two hours to Figueres, the birthplace of Surrealist art master, Salvador Dali. For the more adventurous-minded, there’s hot air ballooning over the peaks of Montserrat, before visiting the famous Benedictine Monastery and witnessing the choir singing of the famous “Escolania de Montserrat”. Another fabulous option is to drive along 580 kilometres of coastline marked by the dramatic rocky cliffs of Costa Brava, dotted with secluded beaches, hidden coves, sleepy fishing villages and historic seaside towns like Girona and Sitges.
Barcelona’s Culinary Scene
There is a plethora of Michelin starred restaurants in the city but only two that have and held three stars – AbaC and Lasarte.
ABaC is technically a restaurant with rooms (albeit luxurious rooms) and its Chef Patron Jordi Cruz is famed for producing cuisine rich in taste and invention. His signature “pigeon served with a carrot romesco (a rich garlicky almond and pepper sauce)” is sensational.
Under the watchful eyes of masterchef Martín Berasategui, Lasarte has climbed to the peak of the international haute cuisine ladder. His use of everyday ingredients to create fantastic dishes is both surprising and comforting. The peanut, tamarind, banana on buttered toast dessert is sublime.
Tickets is famous for tapas that challenge the imagination. Classics include the air baguette, a puffy hollow breadstick wrapped with umami-rich Ibérico ham. The circus-themed space with open kitchens creates a playful theme. The Adrià brothers have been rewarded for their culinary toil and Tickets has been voted one of World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Molecular gastronomy is at its best in Disfrutar, where food is designed to thrill and amaze, with dishes like Gazpacho Sandwich served with Almond and Elderflower, Rabbit with Foie Gras and Cocoa and Mint Cotton served on an actual tree.
Contemporary haute cuisine is credited to one Catalan restaurant – El Bulli. Sadly, this three Michelin star restaurant no longer exists but its curator Ferran Adrià and brother Albert still have a huge influence on the world of gastronomy. Tickets is their new baby and the chefs of Disfrutar are graduates from the school of El Bulli.
Catalonia is famed for numerous specialty dishes including Botifarra or Catalan sausage and mandonguilles amb sípia i pèsols - meatballs swimming in a rich stew with melt-in-the-mouth strips of cuttlefish and peas, seasoned with picada sauce. These can be enjoyed at any number of excellent restaurants and family eateries around the city.
During the summer months, Barcelona fizzes and bubbles. The nightclubs are packed every night – and the bars team with excitable locals and visitors. Of all the locations to enjoy an evening drink, Eclipse Sky Lounge & Cocktail Bar at the beachfront W Hotel is a must. There is dancing to dawn, there are cocktails to suit every taste and the finest views that the city has to offer … a heady mix.
Historic Hotels & Hip Hotels
Visitors to Barcelona are spoilt for choice as the city is home to many of Spain’s finest luxury hotels. The magnificent The Arts (Ritz-Carlton) – located by the beach - and city-centre Mandarin Oriental hotels sit comfortably with a new breed of design boutique properties.
In the centre, most distances are walkable, but you can also cycle - Barcelona is an extremely bike-friendly city. The bus and metro networks are an efficient way of covering longer distances.
Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport is just 12 kilometres from the city centre. It is modern, efficient and its easily accessible by taxi from your hotel.
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