With one foot in Europe and the other in Spain, Barcelona has always reveled in contradictions: fiercely Catalán-nationalist and defiantly cosmopolitan; stolidly bourgeois yet always rebellious; a city where seny (cool common sense) and rauxa (hedonistic madness) go hand in hand. Clinging to its traditions and language even during Franco’s repression, Barcelona was propelled into modernity by the 1992 Olympics, from which it emerged with a reclaimed waterfront and a reminted sense of civic pride. Today, the irrepressibly buoyant Catalán capital is at its finest.
Even Catalonians’ culinary rivals, the Basques, admit that Barcelona sets the best table in Spain, relying on the Mediterranean bounty in dishes that brazenly juxtapose tradition and innovation (with ample nods to the avant-garde El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià). Hungry?Take a culinary tour with Spanish Journeys (508/ 349-9769; spanishjourneys.com), which offers cooking programs and custom itineraries, with excursions to the nearby Penedès wine region.
Barcelona’s spectacular architecture spans Gothic to Gehry, but the city’s calling card remains its exuberant late-19th-century Modernisme (Art Nouveau) style. Join the Gaudí gawkers in front of the architect’s surreal Casa Batlló (43 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-216-0306) and the unsettling (and unfinished) cathedral La Sagrada Familia (401 Mallorca; 34/93-207-3031; sagradafamilia.org). Gaudí contemporary Lluís Domènech i Montaner, meanwhile, created the outrageous masonry of the 1908 Palau de la Música Catalana (4–6 Palau de la Música; 34/90- 244-2882; palaumusica.org). To take it all in, pick up a Ruta del Modernisme brochure (rutadelmodernisme.com) at Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (167 Sant Antoni Maria Claret; 34/90-207-6621) and amble the Eixample district admiring the mosaics, wrought-iron railings, and grand spiral staircases.
And then there’s the geography. Every city in Spain is jealous of Barcelona’s miles of Mediterranean coastline lined with some of the world’s liveliest city beaches. For swimming, the beaches beyond the Olympic marina are the cleanest. For exploring, join the locals for a waterside paseo or rent a bike from Biciclot Marítim (33 Passeig Marítim Barceloneta; 34/93-221-9778; biciclot.net). Though apartments in the old fishermen’s houses in the raffish Barceloneta neighborhood fetch London prices, the past lives on at historic haunts like Bomba Bar Cova Fumada (56 Baluard; 34/93-221-4061; tapas for two $25), where actual fishermen order up salt-cod croquettes at a tatty old marble counter.
It’s no surprise, then, that Barcelona has become Europe’s favorite weekend playground. Where else can you start the day eating elbow-to-elbow with flinty old-timers and end it with a dinner of deconstructed foie gras at a white-on-white boîte?Followed, of course, by copas (cocktails), lounging, and dancing until la madrugada (dawn). Only in Barcelona, indeed.
When to Go
The city is at its most beautiful in May, September, and October, though June and November are close runners-up. Avoid July and August, when humidity is high, tourists clog the streets, and city natives flee for other shores.
Direct flights to Barcelona are available from various U.S. cities. Many low-cost European airlines also fly into the airport. The Madrid-to-Barcelona line of the high-speed AVE train (renfe.es) opened in late February.
What to Read
Barcelona, by Robert Hughes, is a comprehensive history of the city’s art and architecture since the Roman empire. Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War as it played out in Barcelona and the surrounding hills.