Barcelona – Spain’s second city, and the self-confident capital of Catalunya – vibrates with life, and there’s certainly not another city in the country to touch it for sheer style, looks or energy. It’s long had the reputation of being the avant-garde capital of Spain, its art museums are world-class, its football team sublime, while its designer restaurants, bars, galleries and shops lead from the front. In terms of things to do in Barcelona, in Antoni Gaudí’s extraordinary church of the Sagrada Família, the winding alleys and ageing mansions of the picture-postcard Gothic Quarter, and the world-famous boulevard that is the Ramblas, you have three sights that are high up any Spanish sightseeing list. As a thriving port, prosperous commercial centre and buzzing cultural capital of three million people, the city is almost impossible to exhaust – even in a lengthy visit you will likely only scrape the surface.
What to see in Barcelona? Everyone starts with the Ramblas, and then dives straight into the medieval nucleus of the city, the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), but there are plenty of other central old-town neighbourhoods to explore, from La Ribera – home to the celebrated Museu Picasso – to funky El Raval, where cool bars, restaurants and boutiques have mushroomed in the wake of the striking contemporary art museum, MACBA. Even if you think you know these heavily touristed neighbourhoods well, there’s always something else to discover – tapas bars hidden down alleys little changed for a century or two, designer boutiques in gentrified old-town quarters, bargain lunches in workers’ taverns, unmarked gourmet restaurants, craft outlets and workshops, fin-de-siècle cafés, restored medieval palaces and neighbourhood markets.
But endlessly fascinating as these districts are, Barcelona is so much more than just its old-town areas. The fortress-topped hill of Montjuïc, for example, contains the Olympic stadium used for the 1992 Games as well as some of the city’s best art museums, notably MNAC, ie the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – note the word “nacional”, which tells you all you need to know about Catalunya’s strong sense of identity. Other museums too explore the work of internationally famous Catalan artists, from Joan Miró to Antoni Tàpies, while in the nineteenth-century, uptown extension of the city – the Eixample – are found most of Barcelona’s celebrated modernista architectural wonders, from private houses to Gaudí’s peerless church.
If Barcelona sounds a bit too much like hard cultural work, then simply look instead for entertainment to the city’s harbour, parks, gardens and beaches. Indeed, it’s remarkably easy to forget you’re in a big city at all some times – just to take one example, walking from the Port Vell harbour takes you along the marina, through the old fishing and restaurant quarter of Barceloneta, past the leafy Parc de la Ciutadella, and out along the beachside promenade to the bar-and-restaurant zone that is the Port Olímpic. Other easy city jaunts include a trip out to the Diagonal Mar conference and exhibition district for the new natural science museum, or up to the distinctive neighbourhood of Gràcia, with its small squares, lively bars and Gaudí’s amazing Parc Güell. If you’re saving yourself for just one aerial view of Barcelona, wait for a clear day and head for Tibidabo, a mountain-top amusement park backed by the Collserola hills, while beyond the city limits the one day-trip everyone should make is to the mountain-top monastery of Montserrat, 40km northwest.