More than ever, Barcelona seems to be on the tip of every world travelers' tongue. And for good reason: the city that spawned peerless masters including Antoni Gaudí, Joan Miró, and more recently, the superstar chef Ferran Adrià, simply will not rest on its laurels. Like a fine wine, Barça (as residents like to call it) just keeps getting better, its vast collection of historic sights, architectural wonders, world-class restaurants and cultural attractions proving to be a powerful magnet for visitors.
As Wine Enthusiast's lead contributor for Spain, I have been to Barcelona five times since 2000, and each time this city of just under 2 million people strikes me as more evolved, more welcoming and, most important of all, more stimulating. Over the past several years Barcelona's vibe has risen to intensely upbeat and creative; its outward appearance, meanwhile, remains nothing short of captivating; and the overall mood of the city has balanced out at confident and international. In a word, Barcelona has everything, even Europe's reigning professional soccer champ, FC Barcelona.
Realizing that we cannot offer you a complete guidebook on Barcelona, we've elected to highlight what is most important to our readers: namely, where to eat, drink and sleep, and which cultural attractions shouldn't be missed. That includes the wineries that sit just outside the city limits.
Doubtless we'd like to provide more, because for every modernist mansion, museum or shop highlighted, there are another three worth visiting. For every restaurant we do recommend, there are five more that we'd like to tell you about. And in a city that loves its wine, cava and tapas, suffice it to say that the number of known and little-known places worth a look is almost infinite.
That said, what follows is a guide to our favorite tried and true haunts. Use it as a foundation for your next trip, supplement as you like, and you won't go wrong. Buen viaje!
- Casa Camper is located a couple of blocks off the Ramblas, Barcelona's main pedestrian thoroughfare. This 25-room, casually hip hotel created by the Barcelona-based shoe company of the same name scores major points for its look and attitude. Designed by Fernando Amat, founder of the contemporary home store Vinçon, the hotel features a "vertical" plant garden of which each room has a view and a lobby scene welcome to families, scenesters and traveling fútbol fans alike. Well-appointed rooms are highlighted by Tivoli sound systems, funky walk-in showers, and personal across-the-hall reading salons with balconies. Breakfast, and nonalcoholic drinks such as mineral water, juices and sodas, are included in the tariff. Best of all, Casa Camper is quiet at night. It's barely accessible by taxi (the hotel will need to call one for you; they don't drive by). Carrer d'Elisabets, 11; +34 93 34 6280; www.casacamper.com.
- Hotel Neri sits in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, about 100 yards from the city's main cathedral and not much further from City Hall. A highly stylized boutique hotel housed in a former palacito, the Neri has only 22 rooms, including several suites. Because of its petite size, central location and luxurious design, it's frequently sold out. But planning ahead will get you into this lovely lodge, which boasts tours of the city on two-wheel electric Segways, a fine restaurant and a roof deck perfect for taking in the Spanish sunshine. Warning: Hotel Neri's entrance is not accessible by taxi; you must drop off about two blocks away and walk down a couple of narrow streets that are dark at night. The jaunt is safe, but if you feel more comfortable staff will come out to meet you, if you call ahead. St. Sever, 5; +34 93 304 0655; www.hotelneri.com.
- Prestige Paseo de Gracia is situated smack in the middle of Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona's Fifth Avenue. Along this famous thoroughfare, home to several of Gaudí's most important buildings, you'll find a number of older luxury hotels. But the Prestige is more, shall we say, prestigious. Like many newer Barcelona hotels, the Prestige is designed in a modern way, with plenty of exposed metal and stone, and a stylish library and breakfast room one floor up from the entrance. With only 45 rooms, you are assured of top-flight service. A clear bonus is the location: Taxis are easy to hail and the Metro is right there. In addition, it's only a few minutes by foot to Gaudí's Casa Battló and Casa Milà, while the architect's perpetually unfinished Sagrada Família church is but five minutes by taxi. Passeig de Gràcia, 62; +34 93 272 4180; www.prestigehotels.com.
- Ritz-Carlton Hotel Arts is a bit off the beaten path, but on the plus side this modern high-rise by the water offers stellar views of the city and the Mediterranean. Artwork and flora are ubiquitous throughout the lobby and hallways, and the hotel offers easy access to a tony boardwalk, casino, nightclubs and several restaurants. Those accustomed to Ritz-Carlton-type service and amenities will be satisfied and quite possibly impressed by the Hotel Arts. A major attraction for gourmets is the hotel's flagship restaurant, Arola, overseen by star chef Sergi Arola of La Broche in Madrid. Carrer de la Marina, 19; +34 93 221 1000; www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/barcelona.
- Hotel Omm is cool and classy, perfect for business travelers as well as vacationers, and sports an easily accessible location along Passeig de Gràcia. The design is minimalist but comfortable, and things to get jazzed about include the rooftop pool and in-house restaurant Moo, which is run by the Roca brothers of Can Roca, an acclaimed restaurant in the Catalan city of Girona. Rosselló, 265; +34 93 445 4000; www.hotelomm.es.
- Alkimia is where chef Jordi Vilà is turning out some of Barcelona's most ultramodern cuisine. Everything from deconstructed pan amb tomaquet (toasted bread topped with olive oil and fresh-rubbed tomato) to guinea-fowl terrine with pistachio and green-apple guacamole is avant garde and downright delicious. Since Alkimia earned its first Michelin star last year, reservations have become tough to secure; consider lunch as an option. To that end, the restaurant is brighter and more airy during the day, an ambience that best matches Vilà's inspired Bullí-esque food. Located in the residential Eixample neighborhood at Carrer de la Indùstria, 79; +34 93 207 6115.
- Abac has been around since 1999, but over seven years it has not lost a step. It's almost formal, but not quite, meaning diners wearing jeans and untucked button-downs can feel comfortable sitting alongside suited businessmen. Abac boasts one Michelin star, and the overall service, including wine service from a team of well-versed sommeliers, is highly professional. As for the food, chef Xavier Pellicer blends modern and classic Catalan touches, with dynamite results. Located in the old city at Carrer del Rec, 79-89; +34 93 319 6600.
- Suquet de l'Almirall gets its name from a Catalan fish stew (suquet), which you absolutely must order if you go. Other winning dishes at this small but friendly seafood house include sweet and chewy razor clams, plump langoustines and an array of grilled whole fish. In the summer there's a terrace out front, and at all times staff deftly looks after their customers. Located in a gritty neighborhood called Barceloneta, but safely on the main drag at Joan de Borbó, 65; +34 93 221 6233.
Casa Leopoldo in the Raval neighborhood
- Casa Leopoldo is a throwback, as it dates back to 1929. But with its walls covered in Spanish tiles, its tributes to bullfighters of yesteryear, and an overall friendliness that can't be denied, it's the perfect spot for a traditional meal of huevos revueltos con gambas y ajos tiernos (scrambled eggs with shrimp and baby garlic) followed by roasted whole turbot or savory rack of lamb. Owner Rosa Gil is as nice as they come, speaks English well, and her wine list won't disappoint. Located in a not- yet-gentrified section of the Raval neighborhood at Sant Rafael, 24; +34 93 441 3014.
Tapas, Wine Bars and Casual Dining
- Cal Pep is nothing less than a mandatory stop for any food-loving visitor to Barcelona. It's a shoebox of a place that draws big crowds eager to eat at the bar and experiment with sweet grilled shrimp, sautéed baby clams with ham, fried squid, grilled fish and much more. No doubt the tapas are amazing, and due to the quality and freshness they aren't cheap. If you're unsure what to order let the gravel-voiced, bespectacled Pep or his gang make some suggestions. No reservations are accepted, so expect to wait as long as an hour to be seated. Located near Carrer Montcada and the Plaça del Palau at Plaça de les Olles, 8; +34 93 310 7961.
- Inopia, which calls itself a "classic bar," was packed just days after its opening in March. How does word travel so quickly? Because the owner is Albert Adrià, younger brother of Ferran, one of the world's most famous chefs. Vibrant to the point of crazy, and seemingly quite local and neighborhoody, Inopia makes its mark with tender cumin-seasoned lamb skewers, spectacular ensaladilla rusa (potato salad infused with tuna) and divine ham croquettes. Unlike many tapas bars where wine plays second fiddle, Inopia features a very good wine list with selections from Mallorca to Rías Baixas. Located near the Mercat de Sant Antoni at Tamarit, 104; +34 93 424 5231.
- Quimet y Quimet is literally a shop that sells wines, spirits and high-quality canned foods. It doubles as a tapas bar, serving most of what is also sold unopened. Tiny and crowded, but unique and a whole lot of fun, the shop allows you to buy wines by the bottle and drink them on the spot for a nominal surcharge; or just order one of the many by-the-glass selections. Expect to munch on things like pâté, cured beef, ham, olives, marinated anchovies, and stuffed red peppers. They even have a Belgian-style house brew if you're tapped out on wine. Located near the base of Montjuic at Poeta Cabanyés, 25; +34 93 442 3142.
- La Vinya del Senyor anchors the small plaza in front of the church of Santa Maria del Mar. In the summer, tables out front double its seating potential, which means in the winter it can get snug. Choosing the right hour to arrive makes a difference, so try early, which in Spain means about 8:00 p.m. A wide variety of Spain's icon wines are featured, but so are a fair number of affordable up-and-comers. Decent tapas and cheeses. Easy to find at Plaça de Santa Maria, 5; +34 93 310 3379.
- Café Zurich, due to its location on top of the Ramblas (on Plaça Catalunya), is one of the city's best and biggest cafés, and it functions as a prime meeting spot for Barceloneses on their way to whatever the day or evening has in store. Indoors it's all old-world gilt and mirrors, while outdoors it's table upon table of cosmopolitan inhabitants sipping wine, beer, coffee and more. Impossible to miss and open daily at Plaça de Catalunya, 1; +34 93 317 9153.
- Paco Meralgo proclaims itself an "alta taberna," meaning its tapas are more elevated in quality than what you might find at an average establishment. It caters to the "in" crowd with dishes like cod in tomato sauce, tender chunks of grilled sirloin, and good cheeses. A couple of additional benefits are that it's open daily, and that its wines and glassware are equally high in quality. Located at Muntaner, 171; +34 93 430 9027.
- Ciudad Condal is a convivial if sprawling tapas restaurant located on the corner of Gran Via and Rambla de Catalunya. It's more simple and straightforward than Cal Pep and Inopia, but there's a wide variety of tasty tapas to choose from, including sautéed mushroom buttons, skewers of grilled shrimp, and little slabs of grilled meat served open-face on slices of bread. And it's open daily. Located a stone's throw from the Plaça de Catalunya at Rambla de Catalunya, 18; +34 93 318 1997.
One of many tantalizing food stands in the Boqueria Market
- Pinotxo is everyone's favorite breakfast and lunch counter in the Boqueria Market. An early or late breakfast might include pastries, a vegetable or seafood omelet, and a well-made café con leche, while lunch could revolve around stewed chicken or chorizo with garbanzos and spinach. The friendly owner looks a bit like Pinocchio, and thus the name. It's amazing how good the food tastes seeing that it's whipped up in what can best be described as spartan conditions. Of note: Quim de la Boqueria, another lunch counter in the market, is favored by some because it is less touristy. El Mercat de la Boqueria sits just off the heart of the Ramblas.
Gaudi Works, Museums, Shopping and Other Sites
Visitors to Barcelona are sure to be swept up by the whimsical buildings and public spaces designed by the modernist architect Antoni Gaudí, who died in 1926 after being struck by a street car. Those who watched the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 may recall how the spires of Gaudí's church of La Sagrada Família formed an almost surreal backdrop to the image of divers leaping from the platforms atop Montjuic. Today that church remains nearly as unfinished as it was when Gaudí perished, although approved works projects call for it to be completed by 2026 so that the centennial of Gaudí's death can be properly celebrated.
Other mind-boggling Gaudí buildings include Casa Battló and Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera), both located on Passeig de Gràcia. Battló, completed in 1907 and located at No. 43, has a façade like no other. The exterior colors, balconies and curvatures reflect Gaudí at his most creative, while the interior seems almost serene by comparison. Up the street at No. 92 you'll find La Pedrera, a hollow-in-the-middle apartment building where Gaudí lived with his wife. Curvy and undulating on the outside, it was detested by many when finished in 1910 but today it's accepted as a feast for the eyes. And the chimneys on the rooftop, where you can have a drink during the warm months, are downright scary in the way they look like witches and monsters. Both Battló and La Pedrera can be toured.
In the hills on the western edge of the city lies Parc Güell, built by Gaudí for benefactor Eusebi Güell between 1900 and 1914. A UNESCO heritage sight, this 50-acre park features numerous sculptures and benches embedded with ceramic and glass mosaics, as well as statues of frogs and lizards. With a panoramic view of the city and the sea, Parc Güell ranks as a must-see.
Barcelona was and still is the home of a number of great artists, including Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Ramon Casas and Antoni Tàpies. (Another Catalonian star, Salvador Dalí, came from nearby Figueres.) Today all of these legends have their own Barcelona museums, highlighted by the Fundació Miró on Montjuic and the Museu Picasso on bustling Carrer Montcada (No. 15). In the case of the Miró museum, take the funicular, bus or a taxi up to Montjuic to enjoy the contents of this wide-open, bleach-white building that also happens to offer excellent views of the city. While there, also check out the Olympic Stadium, now used by the Espanyol soccer team, powerful FC Barcelona's in-town rival. As for the Picasso museum, it is housed in a trio of regal palacitos located in El Born, one of the city's oldest but most exciting neighborhoods. Before or after your visit try to grab a snack and a glass of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) or cider at the nearby El Xampanyet (Carrer Montcada, 22). And you can take in a private collection of spectacular Dalí works at the Real Círculo Artístco, a small but charming museum near the cathedral (Carrer dels Arcs, 5).
During the spring, summer and early fall, a nice place to spend some time is down by the waterfront, where you can do some sunning and enjoy a lunch of seafood paella or a similar Catalan dish called fideuà, for which the base is rice vermicelli. At the bottom of the Ramblas is the old port, called Port Vell. Here on a number of piers you'll encounter an IMAX theater, an aquarium and a shopping mall called Maremagnum. Heading north toward the Mafre tower and Hotel Arts is Port Olímpic, anchored by Frank Gehry's titanium goldfish sculpture. This area really booms on the weekends as people take to boardwalks and the countless restaurants and bars, of which Tingado Moncho's (Moll de Gregal) is a cut above most.
Regardless of what they say in Madrid, Barcelona is Spain's leading city when it comes to design and fashion, and one of the best stores for plates and glasses, silverware, lighting fixtures, furniture and just about anything else you'd put in your home is Vinçon (Passeig de Gràcia, 96).
Among the many great food shops spread throughout the city, a detour to Cacao Sampaka (Carrer del Consell de Cent, 292) is advised. Here you'll learn about the history of chocolate, taste chocolates infused with all sorts of fruits and nuts, and sip the smoothest, most flavorful hot chocolate you ever dreamed about.