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Best of Barcelona

It's peak tanning hour on a typical weekend: the public beach is lined with outstretched locals, and in between the sandy towels, a statuesque drag queen is strutting as if on a runway. Like Barcelona itself, she is determined and fearless, sexy and mysterious, a constant work in progress. But nobody pays any attention to her. This city has always had a taste for the sublime and the surreal—inspiring such artists as Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and architect Antoni Gaudí, whose work still endows the place with a fairy-tale enchantment even as a gridlock of lost tourists, puttering Vespas, and honking taxis clogs La Rambla, the Broadway of Barcelona.

Although it has an enviable Mediterranean climate and seaside setting, Barcelona was for decades a faded port town that better served as a backdrop to a Jean Genet novel than a holiday destination. Apart from the design cognoscenti, who braved the seedy streets in search of decorating treasures, many viewed the city as a mere pit stop en route to Ibiza. Then the 1992 Olympic games came to town, bringing worldwide exposure and setting off a chain reaction that transformed Barcelona and continues to reverberate: witness the recent explosion of fashionable hotels, bold fusion restaurants, and cutting-edge boutiques and furniture shops. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—all the modernization, natives proudly cling to their traditional Catalan tongue rather than speaking Spanish, while rebellious youths just want to learn the hip-hop lingo of Eminem.

Not surprisingly, these changes have lured a new generation of artists. Director Pedro Almodóvar's Oscar-winning film All About My Mother portrayed the city as a breezy antidote to manic Madrid. In 2001, the zeitgeist-defining Madonna kicked off her world tour at the castle-like Sant Jordi arena. And last fall, the MTV Europe Music Awards (a music-industry Olympics with more-stylish competitors) endorsed the city's position as a global style capital. The event was capped with parties attended by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Alicia Keys, and designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. "It reminds us of Italian cities by the sea, like Palermo and Naples," Gabbana says. "But it's extremely cosmopolitan, with a sensibility for the arts—and the people have fabulous taste in fashion." An inspired Catalan poet characterized Barcelona as "the great enchantress." Seductress is more like it. To quote P. Diddy: "I don't think it gets sexier than this."

Happening Neighborhoods

Barri Gòtic A Roman wall once protected this quarter, the hexagon-shaped heart of Barcelona. With its intimidating tangle of narrow old streets and alleyways, the area resembles Venice without canals. By day, the looming 14th-century Gothic cathedral lures a steady stream of visitors, but come sundown, they head for Plaça Reial, where, it is believed, Ferdinand and Isabella greeted Columbus after his maiden voyage to America. Ironically, the square, filled with towering palm trees and Gaudí-designed lampposts, is often the first place that visiting Americans discover. Gold-painted human "statues" provide free dinner theater at the countless outdoor restaurants.

El Raval In the 1930's, a considerably less wholesome type of entertainment drew crowds to El Raval, west of the Barri Gòtic. The place for petty crime, brothels, and drag clubs, it was a cross between the Moulin Rouge and the pre-Giuliani Times Square. Although sanitized in recent years, the streets around the port are still frequented by transvestites and pickpockets late at night. But as shops and cafés continue to open, El Raval seems poised to become the city's hottest district.

La Ribera In the area north of the Barri Gòtic there's an array of medieval palaces, five of which house the Museu Picasso. As the impressive residences and their courtyards suggest, La Ribera was once—during its golden age in the 12th century—considered an A-list address. Ribera means "waterfront," and although the actual shoreline has long since disappeared, the area is still an urban oasis, thanks to the grand Parc de la Ciutadella—miles of grassy paths, a lake with rowboats for rental, and a zoo inhabited by Snowflake, a rare albino gorilla.

El Born The name of Barcelona's liveliest neighborhood, east of La Ribera, meant "joust" back in the Middle Ages, but the only jousting that occurs here now is between fevered shopaholics who elbow one another while combing the racks at the tiny boutiques. Barcelona's answer to SoHo, the ancient city's original marketplace is once again abuzz with art galleries, hair salons, and cool bars. All of the shiny establishments pale in comparison, though, with the stained-glass rose window of the Gothic church Santa Maria del Mar.

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