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."
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.
Barceloneta Formerly a fishermen's village, the area south of El Born was transformed for the 1992 Olympics 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 globally minded architects, politicians, artists, and urban planners. Almost 150 days of events relating to such themes as cultural diversity and world peace are scheduled to take place in the northeast end of the city near the Besòs River. In the works: an esplanade, a convention center, and additional beachfront and parkland, as well as skyscrapers and hotels.
Top Hotels The only beachfront address in Barcelona—not to mention the first Ritz-Carlton in Europe—the Hotel Arts (19-21 Carrer de la Marina; 800/241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $485) is a tower of blue glass and steel that rises 44 stories in Vila Olímpica (the Olympic Port). 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 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).
In the posh north end of town is the Hotel Claris (150 Pau Claris; 800/525-4800; www.slh.com; doubles from $277). 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. A small but sleek rooftop pool 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.
The year-old Grand Marina Hotel (Moll de Barcelona; 34-93/603-9000; www.grandmarinahotel.com; doubles from $381) is now attracting the business clientele that once favored the Ritz (668 Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes; 800/223-6800; www.ritz-barcelona.com; doubles from $416) and Le Méridien (111 La Rambla; 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 the side view of a yacht, is just one part of a vast complex of multinational office spaces, located on what planners hope will become the MVP (most valuable port) of the Mediterranean. Nearby is the world's widest drawbridge and Barcelona Head, a 64-foot-high concrete-and-ceramic 1992 sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein. In the port, commercial traffic has been replaced by shops, restaurants, and even an IMAX 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 an ideal Born location. 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. When its spa opens next 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 the hillside 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 like L'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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Arns; 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.
"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."