Catalonia's seaside capital is enjoying its reign in Spain. High art, fashion, and high-end hotels add up to one cosmopolitan city.

James Patrick Herman
May 08, 2009

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'sOscar-winning film All About My Mother portrayed the city as a breezy antidote to manic Madrid. In2001, the zeitgeist-defining Madonna kicked off her world tour at the castle-like Sant Jordi arena. Andlast 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 bySean "P. Diddy" Combs, Alicia Keys, and designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. "It reminds usof Italian cities by the sea, like Palermo and Naples," Gabbana says. "But it's extremelycosmopolitan, 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 likeit. 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 itsintimidating tangle of narrow old streets and alleyways, the area resembles Venice without canals. Byday, 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 hismaiden voyage to America. Ironically, the square, filled with towering palm trees and Gaudí-designedlampposts, 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 betweenthe Moulin Rouge and the pre-Giuliani Times Square. Although sanitized in recent years, the streetsaround the port are still frequented by transvestites and pickpockets late at night. But as shops andcafés 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 whichhouse the Museu Picasso. As the impressive residences and their courtyards suggest, La Ribera wasonce—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 urbanoasis, thanks to the grand Parc de la Ciutadella—miles of grassy paths, a lake with rowboats forrental, 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 theMiddle Ages, but the only jousting that occurs here now is between fevered shopaholics who elbow oneanother while combing the racks at the tiny boutiques. Barcelona's answer to SoHo, the ancient city'soriginal marketplace is once again abuzz with art galleries, hair salons, and cool bars. All of theshiny establishments pale in comparison, though, with the stained-glass rose window of the Gothicchurch Santa Maria del Mar.

Barceloneta Formerly a fishermen's village, the area south of El Born was transformed for the 1992Olympics and has become the address of choice, as well as a hub for seafood restaurants.

Diagonal Mar Next summer the city will play host to Forum Barcelona 2004, a gathering of globallyminded architects, politicians, artists, and urban planners. Almost 150 days of events relating tosuch themes as cultural diversity and world peace are scheduled to take place in the northeast end ofthe city near the Besòs River. In the works: an esplanade, a convention center, and additionalbeachfront and parkland, as well as skyscrapers and hotels.

Where to Stay

Top Hotels The only beachfront address in Barcelona—not to mention the first Ritz-Carlton in Europe—theHotel Arts (19-21 Carrer de la Marina; 800/241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $485) is atower of blue glass and steel that rises 44 stories in Vila Olímpica (the Olympic Port). SomeCatalonians find American architect Bruce Graham's ambitious design a bit too, well, American for theirtastes, but visitors will welcome the many amenities, notably the efficient check-in, unparalleled inthis service-challenged city. The lobby affords an always-entertaining scene, as do the pool andalfresco restaurant, which have impressive views of both sea and skyline. There's also a well-equippedgym, a feature that cannot be found in other hotels (perhaps because chain-smoking remains this city'sfavorite form of exercise).

In the posh north end of town is the Hotel Claris (150 Pau Claris; 800/525-4800; www.slh.com; doublesfrom $277). The highlight here is not the service (if you check out during prime time, you may learn afew Catalan obscenities from the harried staff)—rather, inexplicably, it's a second-floor museum ofEgyptian artifacts. A small but sleek rooftop pool proves more popular with guests than does thedownstairs broom-closet-sized "business center." The even smaller, glass-enclosed "gymnasium" issimply a stair-climber and two exercise bikes. On the bright side, the rooms are filled with originalartwork and unexpected accents of rich color, such as deep-purple bedspreads and matching curtains.

The year-old Grand Marina Hotel (Moll de Barcelona; 34-93/603-9000; www.grandmarinahotel.com; doublesfrom $381) is now attracting the business clientele that once favored the Ritz (668 Gran Vía de lesCorts Catalanes; 800/223-6800; www.ritz-barcelona.com; doubles from $416) and Le Méridien (111 LaRambla; 800/543-4300; www.meridienbarcelona.com; doubles from $381), two of the classier, but surprisingly musty, establishments. The 273-room Grand Marina, which from a distance resembles theside view of a yacht, is just one part of a vast complex of multinational office spaces, located onwhat planners hope will become the MVP (most valuable port) of the Mediterranean. Nearby is theworld's widest drawbridge and Barcelona Head, a 64-foot-high concrete-and-ceramic 1992 sculpture byRoy Lichtenstein. In the port, commercial traffic has been replaced by shops, restaurants, and even anIMAX theater.

Boutique Properties When the Arts gets booked up, its reservations clerk suggests the Hotel Banys Orientals (37 Carrer Argenteria; 34-93/268-8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com; doubles from $93), in anideal Born location. The 43 rooms may not be spacious, but they are spotless and have perfect fengshui—all angular furniture, shapely bathroom fixtures, and Asian-inspired touches. When its spa opensnext year, a massage and facial will make a fitting finale to a shopping spree in the Born.

Farther away from the city center, but worth the pricey taxi ride for its stunning view, is thehillside Relais d'Orsa (35 Carrer Mont d'Orso; 34-93/406-9411; www.relaisdorsa.com; doubles from$234). The turn-of-the-century mansion has been converted into a five-room hotel with perks likeL'Occitane beauty products in the bathrooms and high-thread-count bed linens.

Until recently, picturesque Mount Tibidabo was best known for its Deco-style train station (as glam as a tram gets) and a jaw-dropping view (on a clear day, you can see Majorca). Now the big attraction is the reincarnated Gran Hotel La Florida (www.hotellaflorida.com; doubles from $337), which exudes old-school glamour with latter-day luxuries like a spa, a beauty center, a Turkish bath, and a pool with a retractable roof. Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Stewart checked in during the hotel's heyday (it opened in 1925 but closed down in 1973). La Florida is once again bound to bring in A-listers who would welcome a little privacy up, up, and away from all the nonstop action of downtown.

SHOPPING

Barcelona's ritzy Passeig de Gràcia and Avenida Diagonal may not be on a par with New York's Fifth Avenue (more DKNY than Donna Karan). But the locals' inherently stylish tendencies are evidenced in the innovative furniture and clothes on display in shops around town.

Clothing Label queens unite at Jean-Pierre Bua (469 Avda. Diagonal; 34-93/439-7100), a well-edited boutique for men and women that's stocked with the greatest runway hits from the European brands that Zara (Spain's fashion chain of choice) knocks off so seamlessly. You'll find Dolce & Gabbana, Stella McCartney, and Jean-Paul Gaultier—as well as big-name sunglasses and accessories.

Following the success of his tourist-jammed El Born boutique, designer Custo Dalmau (see his tips, below) opened a second shop, Custo Barcelona (36 Carrer Ferran; 34-93/342-6698), in the Barri Gòtic. Both carry his flamboyant men's and women's lines and, at nearly 100 euros, the most expensive T-shirts in town.

Another local favorite, Antonio Miró (349-351 Carrer Consell de Cent; 34-93/487-0670), may be best known for his luxe treatment of such materials as poplin, rayon, and lightweight wool in impeccably tailored men's suits. This store—which carries his men's, women's, and jeans lines—proves that even denim can be a cut above.

So_da (24 Carrer Avinyó; 34-93/412-2776) might consider changing its name to the more appropriate Te_quila. The shop features an in-store bar (and a DJ booth), but the cute selection of urban gear can give as much of a buzz as downing shots en route to the fitting rooms. At least your hangover will be gone by the time the credit card bill arrives.

To paraphrase U2, Noténom (159 Carrer Pau Claris; 34-93/487-6084) is where the shop has no name (noténom means "no name")—unlike all the edgy designer brands represented here, among them Helmut Lang, D2, and Miriam Ocariz, who hails from Bilbao. The no-attitude store caters to men and women, the street-smart and the sophisticated. Yohji Yamamoto Adidas sneakers are on display alongside seductive stilettos made by Barcelona-based shoe designer Juan Antonio López, who has been hailed as "the new Blahnik."

Mireya Ruiz’s cozy boutique Bad Habits (261 Carrer Valencia; 34-93/487-2259) is certainly not a place where serial spenders can hope to reform their wicked ways. Her tailored separates-sleeveless shirts, miniskirts, and trousers in figure-flattering stripes, her signature motif-may prove irresistible.

Accessories The decidedly funky footwear from Muxart (230 Carrer Rosselló; 34-93/488-1064) and Camper (El Triangle, 13-37 Carrer Pelai; 34-93/302-4124) are not for everyone, but they are sure to stand out on the street.

True shoe fetishists should make a beeline for the high-heel haven Le Shoe (6 Carrer Tenor Viñas; 34-93/241-1012), where stylists seek out designs by such biggies as Alessandro dell’Acqua and Marc Jacobs for fashion-magazine shoots. If that Spanish heat brings out your inner sex kitten, unleash it at Janina (94 Rambla Catalunya; 34-93/215-0421), a boutique filled with frills galore from La Perla and D&G, in addition to the owner's ultra-feminine line of floral-print lingerie, sleepwear, and bikinis. Think of it as Janina's Secret-sorry, Victoria, but we can't keep this one to ourselves.

Zen-like Glamoor (10 Carrer Calders; 34-93/310-3992) serves up more than just glamour. With its marble floors and soothing fountains, the décor provides a peaceful change of pace from the typical Born boutique-not to mention the best selection of Italian and French designer eyewear and handbags.

Interiors What the Virgin Megastore is to music, Vinçon (96 Passeig de Gràcia; 34-93/215-6050) is to the house. Design aficionados act like kids in a two-floor candy store packed with whimsical goodies for every room, except the bedroom-that's around the corner at spin-off shop TinÇon (246 Carrer Rosselló; 34-93/215-6050). The Vinçon store itself is a sight to behold-it's the former apartment of Modernista painter Ramón Casas. Even the bags here are works of art, printed with the slogan I SHOP THEREFORE I AM, courtesy of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger.

Rah, rah, rah for Ras (10 Carrer Doctor Dou; 34-93/412-7199), an experimental bookstore-all polished concrete and cast iron-that looks every bit as slick as the titles it carries. Ras's shelves are lined with the latest coffee-table books from international photographers, as well as tomes on art and architecture. The store doubles as an exhibition space.

Pilé 43 (4 Carrer Aglà; 34-93/317-3902) is the swinging-sixties design equivalent of So_da, down to the cozy bar. Everything in this Austin Powers-esque emporium is up for grabs: the low-hanging steel lamps, the orange plastic cocktail tables, even the groovy wineglasses. To score an outfit to match the retro furnishings, hit Pilé’s vintage clothing store, Recicla Recicla (13 Carrer Riera Baixa; 34-93/443-1815).

SIDE TRIP

The public beaches in Barcelona are cleaner than they used to be, but that's not saying much-there's an ashtray quality to the sand, and although locals pack the shore on weekends, they're reluctant to get their feet wet in the less-than-sparkling sea.

Fortunately, the comparatively pristine resort area of Sitges is a quick cab ride away (less than half an hour by train). Picasso once soaked up the sun in this former fishing village, where winding streets lined with charming shops and cafés lead to a waterfront that attracts a young Euro crowd.

Aside from placid water, other highlights in Sitges include the Hotel Romàntic (33 Carrer Sant Isidre; 34-93/894-8375), a restored 19th-century hacienda, and the Museu Cau Ferrat (Carrer Fonollar; 34-93/894-0364), a must-see for shade-seeking day-trippers. Once the residence of artist Santiago Rusiñol, it's now an intimate museum full of paintings by Rusiñol, El Greco, and Picasso.

CULTURE

Barcelona's attractions come in all shapes and volume levels, and their appeal largely depends on your age and eardrum sensitivity. • In June, the city welcomes the Sónar music festival (www.sonar.es), where top DJ's and musicians play for thousands of Catalan club kids. • Even louder is the all-ages Festival of Sant Joan on June 23—the most explosive night of the year. Locals set off handmade fireworks in the streets. • For those who prefer their culture on the calm side, there's the Museu Picasso (15-23 Carrer Montcada; 34-93/319-6310), filled with portraits by the artist as a young man; it's worth the long wait to get in. • Since last year was the 150th anniversary of Gaudí's birth, the lines have been just as long at La Sagrada Familia, his unfinished symphony of Modernista high notes. • On the hill of Montjuïc is the minimalist Fundació Joan Miró (Parc de Montjuïc; 34-93/329-1908), the design of which the artist personally oversaw. • Raval's futuristic, all-white Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (1 Plaça dels Angels; 34-93/412-0810), created by Richard Meier, looks like something out of The Jetsons and contains a world-class collection of art created in the past 50 years. • The Grand Teatre del Liceu (51-59 La Rambla; 34-93/485-9900), the principal theater for opera, concerts, and dance, reopened in 1999 after a major fire. • A more low-brow spectacle awaits at the Font Màgica de Montjuïc (Plaça d'Espanya), a rainbow-hued dancing fountain that spritzes to the beat of cheesy pop songs. • Fans of fragrance will want to get a whiff of the Museu del Perfum (39 Passeig de Gràcia; 34-93/215-7238), which holds hundreds of antique perfume bottles, including one designed by Salvador Dalí. • To see other works by Dalí, take a train two hours from Barcelona to Teatre-Museu Dalí (Plaça Gala Salvador Dalí; 34-972/677-500) in his birthplace of Figueres. The egg-shaped monument atop Torre Galatea, his Surrealist house next door, suggests that Dalí was sniffing something stronger than perfume.

NIGHTLIFE

In this city, there's no shortage of clubs, and even restaurants and boutiques feel the need to multitask. Come the midnight hour, a mirror ball descends from the ceiling, a DJ starts spinning, and—faster than you can say, "Hey, it's gettin' hot in herre"—the place has been transformed into a disco inferno. • The club of the moment is Danzatoria (61 Avda. Tibidabo, Torre 1; 34-93/268-7430), a sprawling hacienda overflowing with pretty young things—and the people who buy them drinks. Like all of the señoritas in attendance, the grounds are flawlessly manicured. • Stefano Gabbana celebrated his birthday at the glass-walled bar Mirabé (Carrer Manel Arnœs; 34-93/418-5667), with a crowd that included Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys, who later skipped out and danced the night away in the mountaintop "Gypsy caves" with flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortés. • At the century-old dance hall La Paloma (27 Carrer Tigre; 34-93/301-6897), you almost expect to see Nicole Kidman doing the cancan under the massive wooden chandelier (especially since lines snake around the block). • On the other end of Barcelona's nightlife spectrum, Lupino (33 Carrer Carme; 34-93/412-3697) is a one-stop fiesta: a bar-lounge (with dancing on weekends) and fusion restaurant. Lights on the wall panels, reminiscent of an airport runway, shift in skin-flattering hues, from soft white to just peachy.

FASHIONISTA’S HIT LIST

"Barcelona is a city where people enjoy life," says designer Custo Dalmau. Here, he shares his favorite places, which are as vibrant as his wildly patterned clothing line, Custo Barcelona.
SHOPS "I buy techno and house music at Discos Castelló [7 Carrer Tallers; 34-93/302-5946], which I first visited when I was sixteen. Gotham [7 Carrer Cervantes; 34-93/412-4647] carries vintage furniture from the thirties, fifties, and sixties."
HOTELS "The nicest hotel is the Arts, but I like the Majestic [68 Passeig de Gràcia; 34-93/488-1717]. The exterior is classic but the décor and service are very modern."
NIGHTLIFE "The Café Royale [3 Carrer Nou de Zurbano; 34-93/317-6124] bar doesn't get busy till two a.m., and even later on weekends. During the week, I go to La Reina [3 Carrer Sant Antoni dels Sombrerers; 34-93/319-5371], a small French-Catalan restaurant next to Santa Maria church. After dinner, it becomes a dance bar that plays house music."

Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona

The Neoclassical Hotel Majestic is located at the center of Barcelona amidst the city’s most popular Modernista architecture: the Sagrada Família, La Pedrera, and Casa Batlló. Built in 1918 and renovated in 2011, this Eixample district property is decorated in 1920’s Vanguardista art and features 275 rooms with neutral tones and marble bathrooms with rain-effect showerheads. Entertaining evenings may be spent at Las Ramblas, a 10-minute walk away, or at the hotel’s rooftop bar—the Antonio Obrador -designed La Dolce Vitae—where guests sip cocktails and DJs spin bossa nova tunes. The hotel’s El Patio del Majestic restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine.

Hotel Arts

Stay in this tower of blue glass and steel that rises 44 stories in Port Olímpic (the Olympic Port) with stunning views of the city, water, and Frank Gehry's Fish sculpture. Some Catalonians find American architect Bruce Graham's ambitious design a bit too, well, American for their tastes, but visitors will welcome the many amenities, notably the efficient check-in, unparalleled Ritz-Carlton in this service-challenged city. The lobby affords an always-entertaining scene, as do the pool and alfresco restaurant, which have impressive views of both sea and skyline. There's also a well-equipped gym, a feature that cannot be found in other hotels (perhaps because chain-smoking remains this city's favorite form of exercise).

Hotel Romàntic

Gran Hotel La Florida

It takes some effort to get to this property located on the outskirts of the city: guests must first take a taxi or bus, and then funicular and train trek. This 70-room hotel is situated atop a hill next to an amusement park in the Mount Tibidabo area. Guest rooms have with oakwood floors, marble bathrooms, and in-floor heating. The infinity pool extends to the edge of a cliff overlooking the city, and L’Orangerie restaurant serves Catalan, Spanish, and Mediterranean cuisine. During the summer months, there is a shuttle bus that operates from Gran Hotel La Florida to Barcelona.

Relais d'Orsa

Le Méridien, Barcelona

Location is the major draw at this La Rambla property. The hotel has easy access to the city’s harbor, the Gothic Quarter, and Plaza Cataluña, among other top tourist destinations. Each of Le Méridien's contemporary rooms is outfitted with soundproof windows (key in such a lively neighborhood) and spacious bathrooms with etched glass details. Guests can dine at Cent Onze, which serves French and Catalan cuisine, and sample the hotel's new signature breakfast developed by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Other hotel amenities include Discovery Spa and Sunbathing Terrace and 24-hour concierge service.

Ritz Barcelona

This venue is closed.

Grand Marina Hotel

A quick five minute walk to Las Ramblas, this hotel is a favorite among business travelers. Design is somewhat quirky – the eight-story property was built in the shape of a cruise ship. Décor is maritime meets Avant-garde with butter yellow and cobalt blue hues, countered by warm hardwood floors. Tables on the orange trees terrace are prized at Aire de Mar, especially during its breakfast buffet, where the crowd is decided of a see and be seen mindset. The property also features an outdoor pool with views of the city and a piano bar.

Hotel Claris

The highlight here is not the service (if you check out during prime time, you may learn a few Catalan obscenities from the harried staff)—rather, inexplicably, it's a second-floor museum of Egyptian artifacts and the Andy Warhol portraits in the East 47 restaurant. A small but sleek rooftop pool accessible by futuristic glass elevators proves more popular with guests than does the downstairs broom-closet-sized "business center." The even smaller, glass-enclosed "gymnasium" is simply a stair-climber and two exercise bikes. On the bright side, the rooms are filled with original artwork and unexpected accents of rich color, such as deep-purple bedspreads and matching curtains. Located one block from the bustling Passeig de Gràcia, the late-night traffic can be noisy; book a room on the fifth or sixth floor for a quieter stay.

Hotel Banys Orientals

Hotel Banys Orientals Location is this hip boutique hotel's trump card—you're right on the edge of El Born, Barcelona's trendiest neighborhood, and within walking distance of dozens of fantastic bars, shops, and restaurants as well as the Museu Picasso and the Catedral de la Seu. The 43 rooms may not be spacious, but they are spotless and have perfect feng shui—all angular furniture, shapely bathroom fixtures, and Asian-inspired touches.

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