Spain’s most exciting city is in some ways a victim of its own success. In the 19th century Barcelona was the country’s economic, industrial and cultural powerhouse. It was a legendary bastion of Republican resistance during Spain’s vicious civil war, for which it was punished by the Franco regime that ruled Spain with an iron hand until Franco’s death in 1975.
Catalan first, Spanish second
In keeping with its past, Catalunya – an autonomous region since 1979 – still leans further left than much of Spain. Catalan identity is still a hot issue. Street signage is in Catalan, the Catalan senyera standard with its red and yellow bars takes pride of place over the Spanish flag on public buildings, and you’ll see lots of the senyera estalada, the lone star banner of the radical independence movement. In 2017 the regional government unilaterally declared independence after holding a referendum that was denounced as illegal by the Spanish government, causing some of the independence movement’s leaders to flee abroad.
Even at its height, though, support for full nationhood never reached more than 50 per cent, and by 2022 it was down to around 41 per cent, with 52 per cent against, according to the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies. In July 2023 Spain’s centre-left PSOE party narrowly deprived the rightwing PP party of an outright parliamentary majority, raising the possibility that Catalan separatist parties might leverage support for a PSOE coalition government into concessions on independence.
After decades of neglect, Barcelona used its status as host city for the 1992 Olympic Games as a springboard for rejuvenation, and it has never looked back. Barceloneta, a run-down former docklands area, has become the city’s own beach resort, crammed with bars, clubs and some great seafood restaurants. Parc de Montjuïc, the hilltop green space redesigned to be the key venue for the Olympics, is another legacy. Meanwhile, the medieval labyrinth of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) reinvented itself as a bucket-list destination in its own right, brimming with tapas bars, upscale restaurants and buzzing nightlife.
All this has come at a price, as many locals will tell you. Around 30 million people visit the city each year. Investment by landlords in short-stay tourist rentals has made homes unaffordable for many locals. You’ll see impolite thoughts about tourism sprayed on walls in the Barri Gòtic. La Rambla, the city’s most famous thoroughfare, is crowded with tourists in high season (less so, happily, in November) and is losing some of the quirky edge that gave it much of its appeal.
Yet Barcelona is still a city that is easy to fall at least a little bit in love with, even on a short visit. With fewer ornate medieval palaces and gloomy cathedrals than many Spanish cities, Barcelona has a unique array of exuberant late-19th-century Moderniste architecture to balance the charm of the old quarter, lively markets and a long list of outstanding places to sample Catalunya’s distinctive food and drink. With daytime temperatures reaching a sunny 17°C in November, it’s still plenty warm enough to enjoy a leisurely stroll, an al fresco lunch or afternoon drink.
Finding your way around Barcelona
Montjuïc, rising 700ft above the waterfront, is a key landmark when finding your way around town. Below, La Rambla cuts north–south through the Barri Gòtic between vast Plaça de Catalunya and the harbourfront. East of the old town lie the harbour quarter of Barceloneta and the city centre’s green lung, Parc de la Ciutadella. North of the Barri Gòtic, Eixample is a grid of elegant boulevards laid out in the city’s 19th-century golden era and home to Barcelona’s most famous icon, La Sagrada Família.
Modernist art and architecture
One man put his stamp on Barcelona’s fantastic portfolio of ultra-modernistic architecture: Antoni Gaudí. Begun in 1882, his Sagrada Família is still unfinished, though a 2030 completion date has been mooted. Looking at its fantasia of quasi-organic spires – more like the creation of some mutant coral than the work of human hands – you have to wonder what Gaudí was thinking. There’s more of his visionary work to be seen at La Pedrera, an otherworldly complex crowned by Gaudí’s iconic warrior chimneys, and at Parc Güell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, embellished with Gaudí’s trademark polychrome trencadís mosaics. Designed by Lluís Domènech, the Palau de la Música Catalana is another kaleidoscopically colourful triumph of Modernisme. Make time also to pay homage to two other revolutionary artists closely linked to Barcelona: Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Picasso’s family moved to Barcelona when the artist was just 14, and the Museu Picasso’s collection focuses on Picasso’s early years, with paintings and sketches that display his already precocious talent.
Fundació Joan Miró
Barcelona-born Miró’s primary-coloured abstract works offer a happy contrast with the grim militarism of the Castell de Montjuïc, the 17th-century fortress and symbol of state terror under the decades of the Franco regime, which looms over Montjuïc.
Food and drink
Catalan cuisine burst into the foodie limelight in the early 2000s, when a handful of innovative chefs built on regional produce and culinary traditions to turn Barcelona into a world-class gastronomic capital.
One man put his stamp on Barcelona’s fantastic portfolio of ultra-modernistic architecture: Antoni Gaudí. Begun in 1882, his Sagrada Família is still unfinished, though a 2030 completion date has been mooted.
The city currently boasts more than 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, helmed by star chefs like Jordi Cruz of ABaC, Oriol Castro of Disfrutar, and Martín Berasategui at Lasarte.
If your budget – or your waistline – won’t stretch to such upscale indulgence, you’ll find dozens of tapas (small dishes) bars all over town. The city’s cavernous produce market, La Boqueria, is a must-see attraction in its own right. Purists say it has surrendered to what locals call parquetematicazión (‘theme parking’) with many of its old-school produce stalls replaced by tourist-friendly artisan outlets, but there’s no denying the charms of its bevy of tapas joints. You’re by the sea, so expect a portfolio of seafood treats – anchovies in multiple ways, prawns, baby squid, red mullet and shellfish such as razor clams and cockles – along with artichokes, red peppers and aubergines. Thrifty Catalan chefs are also traditionally fond of ingredients like tripe and sweetbreads, and you can expect surprising offal and seafood combinations.
And to drink? You’ll find all of Spain’s robust reds and dry whites on every wine list, along with ebullient cavas from the nearby Penedès vineyards.
Vermut (vermouth) became a favourite local tipple in the 19th century and has become hip again as an accompaniment to trendy conservas: upscale canned seafood, served in the tin with artisan coca bread.
El Quim de la Boqueria
The queen of La Boqueria’s tapas eateries (and the costliest). No reservations accepted, so you may have to wait a while for a table, but it’s worth lingering for signature dishes like xipirons amb mongetes de Santa Pau (baby squid with white beans) and Wagyu beef tartare.
If the line at El Quim is too long, head to Bar Pinotxo, another Boqueria old-timer, to perch on rickety stools at the bar and feast on a menu of meaty treats like cap i pota (lamb’s head and shank) and callos (tripe). Catalans like offal, but you can also sample caracoles (snails) Catalan-style, mussels, razor clams and cockles.
Els Quatre Gats
Picasso, Gaudí and other luminaries were habitués of this local legend, founded in 1897. Expect artisanal vermouths, cava by the glass or bottle, and a long list of traditional tapas.
Quimet y Quimet
Four generations of the Quimet family have curated the tapas menu and wine list since this wine bar/restaurant opened in 1914. It’s famed for its savoury montaditos: slices of crusty Catalan coca bread topped with savouries like razor clams, anchovies, sea urchins, caviar and foie gras.
Take a seat on the terrace or book a table in the dining room to avoid a long wait for a seat at the bar at this ever-popular joint, famed for its chorizo-topped tortilla and seafood dishes such as whole grilled squid.
City-centre Passeig Sant Joan is a go-to street for foodies and the area is home to some of Barcelona’s most cutting-edge eateries. Teòric, bossed by highly rated restaurant impresario Teo Rubio, is noted for its use of carefully sourced local produce and hearty dishes such as ox cheek cannelloni and turbot with lemon and fennel.
Out on the town
Saying Barcelona is famed for its nightlife is like saying it’s cold at the North Pole. That nightlife, though, tends to leave anyone over 30 feeling a bit elderly. The city centre is replete with ersatz Irish sports bars and raucous dance clubs. That said, there are still a few quieter small bars patronised by locals in the Barri Gòtic (though its back alleys can be a little spooky after dark). More sophisticated cafes and bars can be found in El Born, where the Passeig del Born is lined with upscale nightspots.
Out of town
If you think Gaudí’s architecture is all Catalunya has to offer in the way of surrealism, head to Figueres, a couple of hours north of Barcelona, to pay homage to the high priest of the surreal. It’s hard to be sure how seriously Salvador Dalí really took himself, but the moustachioed artist’s birthplace celebrates his stark raving brilliance at the Teatre-Museu Dalí (www.salvador-dali.org). Serious Dalí fans can even follow in his footsteps across the border to Perpignan, the otherwise humdrum French train station that Dalí declared was the centre of the universe. A better bet is to stop for lunch on the way back to Barcelona at Girona, where tall, ochre-painted houses rise above the riverbank. Graze on tapas at El Museu del Vi or linger over lunch at Michelin-starred L’Aliança d’Anglès (www.restaurantaliance.com). Try the pig’s trotters in sweet garlic and honey sauce, or the chicken with golden chanterelles.
Saying Barcelona is famed for its nightlife is like saying it’s cold at the North Pole. That nightlife, though, tends to leave anyone over 30 feeling a bit elderly.
Around 60–90 minutes from Barcelona, Montserrat’s big ticket is its Black Virgin, said by the credulous to have been brought here by Saint Peter but in reality more likely to have been carved in the 12th century. ‘La Moreneta’ awaits the faithful in a chapel at the heart of a monastery complex beneath overhanging cliffs, and the whole place can be solemn to the point of grimness. It has drawn pilgrims since the 11th century, among them Ignacio de Loyola, who trekked all the way across Spain to get here, then spent a year meditating in a cave at Manresa, beneath Montserrat, before going on to found the Jesuit Order.
Cava makes Barcelona sparkle. Add fizz to your stay with a day trip to the Penedès region and a tour of one of its famed wineries, where macabeo, parellada and xarello grapes are transformed by the magic of the méthode champenoise (the traditional method of making champagne) into palate-pleasing bubbles. With 19 miles of cellars, Codorníu’s palatial Modernista winery is the top pick, with Freixenet a close second.
Yellow-and-black liveried taxis can be found at taxi ranks at the airport, rail and bus stations and at 300 strategic locations around the city, flagged down on the street and booked using a free app available at www.taxi.amb.cat.
Tickets on the city’s integrated metro, bus, tram and suburban rail network cost €2.40 for a single trip or €11.35 for a 10-journey T-casual card.
Barcelona’s international airport is 7.5 miles southwest of the city, linked to the city centre by train (17 minutes), bus (35 minutes) and metro (32 minutes).