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The Lowdown | Barcelona

The Loveable City Words by Paul Richardson

Where Spain

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Best Season Spring / Fall

Thinking of Art, Architecture, Food, Wine

Best Portrayed in All About My MotherVicky Cristina Barcelona

The Olympic Games marked the turning point. Before 1992 Barcelona was a salt-of-the-earth Mediterranean harbor city, demotic, and down-at-heel, and still remarkably little-known outside Spain. A quarter-century has seen it transformed into a sleek, cosmopolitan, and well-connected Euro-town, brimful of fashion and creativity, and a global brand attracting over eight million visitors in 2015. Barcelona sits on a gently sloping plain between the mountains of Collserola and the sea, basking in a near-perfect Mediterranean climate. The historic downtown neighborhoods concentrate almost all the famous sights—the museums, the celebrated Gaudi buildings, the Gothic churches. But these are also the busiest barrios, and clever travelers know to look beyond the centrohistórico towards colorful, bohemian Gràcia, smart Eixample, and uptown charmer Sarrià. The post-Olympic effect has become a permanent process of urban renewal. The Raval, once an inner-city grime zone, is now a vibrant multicultural hub, while Barceloneta, the former fishing quarter, has the welcome addition of a newly pristine urban beach.  The barrio of the moment is Poblenou, a former light-industrial quarter, where hi-tech start-ups cohabit with design studios and food truck vendors.

Where to Stay

Barcelona is a powerhouse when it comes to hotels, with no less than 28 establishments at the five-star-level running the gamut of styles—from classic palace luxe to glam modern design and a new wave of post-hipster hangouts. Set in a converted modernista block in the Eixample, Casa Bonay is a fascinating collision of Mediterranean style, rough-edged hipster aesthetics, and a service ethic predicated on hominess.

“Despite the very real danger of it being loved to death, Barcelona continues to flourish. For quality of life and sheer joie de vivre, this prodigious town is more alluring than ever.”

The striking Cotton House Hotel which was given a funky contemporary overhaul by a star of Spanish interior design, has brought a dose of excitement to the upper echelons of Barcelona’s hotel scene.The first-floor library, one of the city’s loveliest hotel spaces and the place to sip a signature Cotton Fashioned cocktail.Few Barcelona hotels can match the Mandarin Oriental’s judicious combination of comfort, chic, and exclusivity. Factor in the Michelin-starred restaurants, the world-class spa, and the superb mis-en-scène (a former bank HQ with art-deco stylings in a prime spot on the Passeig de Gràcia), and the MO looks nearly irresistible.Hidden at the end of an alley in the depths of the medieval Barrio Gótic, the Wittmore draws on archaic British style (think gentlemen’s clubs, country-house libraries) for a hotel whose personality is bravely distinctive to say the least, and certainly unique in Barcelona. The brilliance of The Brummell starts with its location, on the fringes of Montjuic mountain in the still little-touristed barrio of Poble Sec. Friendly, funky, and enormous fun, with an offbeat chic and a cultivated informality that make it feel more like some stylish friend’s Barcelona loft than just another hip urban hotel. 

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Words by Paul Richardson Barcelona Editor

An acclaimed food and travel writer, Paul Richardson left London for Spain in 1989. He writes for some of the UK’s most prestigious publications, including Condé Nast Traveller and the Financial Times, and is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain (Bloomsbury). Paul and his husband Nacho produce their own olive oil, wine, ham, fruit, and vegetables, on their twelve-acre organic farm in Extremadura. 

Where to Eat

The fallout from El Bulli continues to turn up some wonderful surprises. Disfrutar (it means "enjoy"), the second venture of three ex-Adriá cohorts, combines Bulli-esque pyrotechnics with a keen sense of Catalan terroir, and is now by common consent the best restaurant in Barcelona, bar none. Suculent, a minuscule bar-restaurant with just a handful of tables, specializes in hardcore Catalan-French cooking, with no stinting on premium ingredients like foie gras, truffles, and classy local seafood. Hisop, a minimalist locale on the PassatgeMarimón has been one of the city’s most promising venues for contemporary Catalan cuisine ever since it opened in 2001. La Barraca’s first-floor dining room looks out over Barceloneta beach; its menu majors in well-executed versions of Spanish rice dishes like paella valenciana, arroz a banda, and arrósnegre.The indigenous Catalan aperitiu—often featuring vermouth on the rocks or a glass of cava along with pickled and preserved goods like olives, anchovies, and capers—is best sampled at Quimet&Quimet, a charming hole-in-the-wall bar. Following his long and successful stint at ABaC, chef Xavier Pellicer’s newest venture, Celeri, is a post-industrial dining room below an organic food store, where the cuisine is based on organically grown, seasonal, and local vegetables (but not to the total exclusion of meat and fish, which feature here and there).

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What to See

Musicians love the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a great concert hall, designed in 1905 by Domènechi Muntaner, for its clear and intimate acoustics. Architecture fans, meanwhile, appreciate its seamless fusion of diverse styles and building techniques, the sheer beauty of its colorful stained glass and mosaics. Caixaforum is a grand 1909 brick modernista building, formerly a textile factory, which now houses permanent exhibitions,  and a busy program of cultural events.Sited in a prime spot at the sea end of the Ramblas, The Centre d’art Santa Monica, a self-styled “center of creativity” is worth keeping an eye on for its weighty and sometimes leftfield shows by Spanish creators. Created in 1984 by the great Catalan painters to promote a studious appreciation of contemporary art (including his own), the Fundació Antoni Tàpies basement gallery contains Tàpies’ private collection—an unsuspected haul of Goya, Zurbarán, Duchamp, Arp, Klee, and more.

What to Do

Mercat de la Boqueria, located halfway down the Rambla on the right, is an enormous market (the largest in Spain) and a bastion of peerless quality in everything from fruits and vegetables to fish, cheese, and charcuterie. Go early. Casa Batlló is Gaudí’s sensational overhaul of an existing building on the Passeig de Gràcia, including an undulating roof with iridescent tiles suggesting the scales of some giant lizard, and one of Barcelona’s more astonishing sights.Castell de Montjuïc, crowning the Montjuic hill at 557 feet above sea level (and a fine example of 17th-century military architecture), is a good place to wander, gaze at the amazing views, and maybe pack a picnic. Hip and High-Tech Poblenou is Barcelona's happening hood of the moment. Rebaptized as 22@, the area fairly hums with artsy goings-on, from under-visited art and design spaces(Can Framis, Disseny Hub), contemporary architectural gems (Torre Agbar, Auditori), food trucks, and street markets.The 42 acres of artificial paradise making up the Park Güell, with its stairways, balustrades, benches, and columns coruscated with colored tiles and intermingled with exotic gardens, are a testament to the fecundity of Gaudí´s imagination.

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