Barcelona’s sensory-rich food scene, stunning Gaudi-designed architecture and glitzy nightlife lure big crowds in the summer.
Last year over 18 million tourists descended upon the Catalan metropolis of 5.5 million people. If you want Barcelona to yourself and you want to beat the heat, go in the off-season when you can stroll down the Las Ramblas promenade without crowds of tourists, nab a table at popular restaurants and take advantage of low season specials.
ARCHITECTURE: With its Gothic, Romanesque, and contemporary buildings silhouetted against the skyline, Barcelona is undisputedly one of the world’s architecture capitals. Contemporary architects like Frank Gehry (the Walt Disney Concert Center in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain) have left their mark with cutting-edge designs. No one defines Catalan Modernism better than the Spanish Architect Antoni Gaudi whose whimsical and wonderful works dot neighborhoods and parks. The most popular monument in all of Spain, under construction for more than 100 years, is Gaudi’s giant Roman Catholic Basilica, La Sagrada Familia.
My favorite Gaudi structures were two private homes; La Predrera and the remarkable Casa Batillo. Locals nicknamed the Casa Batillo the House of Dragons and it’s easy to see why. The breath-taking façade is studded with bits of emerald, lavender and blue tiles set between dreamy waves of wood and glass windows. The upper balconies resemble the jaws and razor-sharp teeth of mystical beasts.
GASTRONOMY: “Food is at the heart of the Catalonian soul,” our guide Rocio told us. “The culinary scene here is one of the most exciting in Europe,” she added. With more 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, the bar is set high for culinary excellence.
With so many choices and so little time, we decided to start with a food tour. We booked a three-hour, four-restaurant, culinary adventure with a local guide on the free App, EatWith. They also offer cooking classes or a meal in a private home and operate in over 130 countries. Rocio Aguilera met us in the old town and led us down a labyrinth of narrow alleys through three neighborhoods to sample her favorite Catalan recipes in her handpicked restaurants.
I’ll be honest; we never would have found these small places on our own. We sipped several varieties of wine, toasted with cava (the brother to French champagne), and sampled Galician-style octopus (with sweet Spanish paprika and olive oil) served over creamy mashed potatoes, local cheeses; Catalan cured ham, local charcuterie, Padrón peppers, fried sardines, olives, and warm, duck croquettes. Rocio taught us how to rub tomato with salt and olive oil on toasty country-style bread to eat with meats and cheeses. Rocio’s stories gave us a personal look at her city and a delicious introduction to the food scene. Check out the app Eatwith.
ART AND CULTURE: Barcelona was a source of inspiration and home to the great artists Joan Miró, Salvador Dali, Antoni Gaudi and the young Pablo Picasso. The city is bursting with notable museums such as the Fundacio Joan Miró, MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona) and the History Museum in the Royal Palace where Queen Isabel and King Fernando received Columbus upon his return from America. At the Picasso Museum masterpieces are displayed in five contiguous medieval stone mansions. An architectural jewel of Art Nouveau, the city’s concert hall, Palau de la Musica Catalana, is a venue for classical and choral music, as well as jazz, pop and flamenco. One of the nine World Heritage Sites in the city, it flaunts its architectural splendor on the mosaic and sculpture-laden façade. The interior has an inverted dome of stain glass, columns, pillars and statues. At the last minute we booked affordable tickets to a concert by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and spent two hours relishing in the music and grandeur of the concert hall. Or you can book in advance for a guided tour. Another evening we attended a music recital in the 14th century Gothic Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar.
HIP HOTELS: Barcelona’s accommodations cover a broad range from pensions and hostels to apartments and exceptional high-end hotels. A newcomer to the boutique hotel scene is the OD Barcelona Hotel located in one of the city’s trendiest districts, the Eixample. The cutting edge, modern hotel has it’s own distinct personality inspired by light and space. Large rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and rich bamboo floors and walls. Guests unwind in the lobby bar, the outdoor garden or on the rooftop sun deck by the swimming pool. Rise and shine to one of the best breakfasts in town with a selection of Catalonian ham, charcuterie, local cheeses, power smoothies, eggs Benedict and freshly baked croissants. Check for off-season specials at www.od-hotels.com/hotel-od-barcelona/
WINE AND SPIRITS: Barcelona is a nightlife mecca, where the party continues until sunrise and bar hopping is a sport. An extensive range of chic lounges, antique-filled taverns and candlelit wine bars offer any ambience you desire. For wine lovers, Monvinci offers a staggering 3000 varieties of wine and a stellar selection of wine by the glass. El Xampanyet, named after the Catalan word for homemade sparkling wine, is the place to go for a glass, or two. Cocktail enthusiasts are raving about a new bar in town named Dr. Stravinsky. It opened in the March 2017 and quickly won the “Best New European bar” award at the Berlin Bar show. It is not easy to find in the narrow streets of the Borne Area, but it is well worth the search. The cozy ambience lures you through the doors to discover alcoves with bubbling tubes and apparatus used for distilling spirits, and a mixologist that is quite a “scientist.” Cocktails made from their own macerations, fermentations, micro-distillations and cold brewing. Whatever your taste, you’ll find a nightlife scene that suits you in Barcelona. Click here. For more information click here.
The Costa Brava: the essence of the Mediterranean
The Costa Brava has 245 beaches and coves, small charming coastal towns like Cadaques, Begur and Tossa de Mar. It’s easy to take a day trip, by train, from Barcelona to the beach towns or the inland medieval villages such as Pals, and Monells, known for their extremely well-preserved medieval building, artisans and traditional craft shops. The fishing town of Cadaques was home to many artists and a bohemian atmosphere permeates the white walls and narrow cobbled streets, adorned with flowers. It is closely linked to Salvador Dali, who had a home and workshop there. Don’t miss the Dali Triangle , which includes the Theatre-Museum in Figueres, home to numerous works by the artists as well as surreal buildings. Plan ahead, it ranks as the province’s most visited museum complex and the third most visited site in Catalonia. More information.
Girona, a medieval city, sits between Barcelona and Costa Brava. It’s a gorgeous place to visit, with medieval walls, narrow winding city streets, and one of the best preserved Jewish Quarters in Europe. A walking tour of the old town offers insights into the 2000-year history of the town. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, don’t miss the some of Girona’s Game of Thrones filming locations. Click here for more information. More here.