Barcelona – Spain’s second city – sets the template for urban style, hip design and sheer non-stop energy. Where others tinker at the edges, time and again Barcelona has reinvented itself. And as you'd expect for somewhere this vibrant, there's plenty of choice when deciding where to stay in Barcelona.
The buzzing cultural capital of three million people, a thriving port and prosperous commercial centre, the city is almost impossible to exhaust. Visit for the first time or the fiftieth, Barcelona never fails to surprise, and even a lengthy visit will likely only scrape the surface. You'll find some of the best places to stay in Spain here, too.
The city’s popularity means finding a hotel vacancy at any time of year can be difficult: wherever you stay, it’s always best to book in advance. There’s a wide range of options, though, from youth hostels to glam five-star-plus hotels. You can find accommodation housed in medieval mansions and Modernista masterpieces alike.
Note that while rooms with balconies may be the brightest, traffic can be a constant presence. In a city where people get ready to go out at 10pm, you can expect a fair amount of pedestrian noise. This is particularly the case when staying in the old town.
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No day in the city seems complete without a stroll down the Ramblas. For Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, it was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end”. Lined with cafés, restaurants, souvenir shops and flower stalls, it is at the heart of Barcelona’s life and self-image.
If you hanker after a Ramblas view, you’ll pay for the privilege. Generally speaking, there are much better deals to be had. Try looking either side of the famous boulevard, often just a minute’s walk away.
Spain’s most famous thoroughfare, however, has its attractions. It is sprinkled with cafés and restaurants, thronged by tourists and performance artists, and home to the acclaimed Boqueria food cafés.
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The Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter, which spreads east from the Ramblas, forms the very heart of the old town. You'll find some of the best areas to stay in Barcelona here: with buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries, most of the district is picture-perfect. The area is full of shops, bars, restaurants, museums and galleries. Alongside some classy boutique choices, most of Barcelona’s cheap accommodation is found here.
Note that the south of the Barri Gòtic is rather less gentrified. Be careful (without being paranoid) when coming and going after dark and take care at night in poorly lit streets.
The old-town area west of the Ramblas is known as El Raval (from the Arabic word for “suburb”). El Raval has always formed a world apart from nobler Barri Gòtic. In medieval times, it was the site of hospitals, churches and monasteries. By the 20th century it had acquired a reputation as the city’s main red-light district. Today it is known to all as the Barri Xinès – China Town.
Over the last two decades, however, the district has changed markedly. This is particularly the case in the “upper Raval” around Barcelona’s contemporary art museum, MACBA. Cutting-edge galleries, designer restaurants and fashionable bars are all part of the scene these days.
You’d hesitate to call El Raval gentrified, as it clearly still has its rough edges. Don’t be unduly concerned during the day as you make your way around. It's best to keep your wits about you at night, though, particularly in the southernmost streets.
The two easternmost old-town neighbourhoods of Sant Pere and La Ribera are both medieval in origin. They are often thought of as one district, but each has a distinct character.
Sant Pere, perhaps the least visited part of the old town, has two remarkable buildings: the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Mercat Santa Caterina. By way of contrast, the old artisans’ quarter of La Ribera has always been a big draw. Here you can visit the graceful church of Santa María del Mar and the Museu Picasso.
Both have a number of safely sited budget, mid-range and boutique accommodation options; all are well located and handy for the Born nightlife area.
Fronting the church of Santa María del Mar is the fashionable Passeig del Born, once the site of medieval fairs and entertainments (“born” means tournament) and now an avenue lined with a parade of plane trees shading a host of classy bars, delis and shops.
At night the Born becomes one of Barcelona’s biggest bar zones, as spirited locals frequent a panoply of drinking haunts – from old-style cocktail lounges to thumping music bars. Shoppers and browsers, meanwhile, scour the narrow medieval alleys on either side of the passeig for boutiques and craft workshops – carrers Flassaders, Vidreria and Rec, in particular, are noted for clothes, shoes, jewellery and design galleries.
The huge formal square at the top of the Ramblas stands right at the heart of the city. It’s not only the focal point of events and demonstrations – notably a mass party on New Year’s Eve – but also the site of prominent landmarks like the main city tourist office, the white-faced El Corte Inglés department store and El Triangle shopping centre.
The Ramblas itself actually comprises five separate named sections, starting with the northern stretch, Rambla Canaletes, nearest Plaça de Catalunya, which is marked by an iron fountain – a drink from this supposedly means you’ll never leave Barcelona.
Further down is the sudden profusion of flower stalls on Rambla Sant Josep, near the Boqueria market. The bird market which used to be on Rambla Estudis closed down due to stricter animal protection legislation.
North of Plaça de Catalunya, he Eixample, a vast 19th-century street grid, is the city’s main shopping and business district. It was designed as part of a revolutionary urban plan and is split into Right (Dreta) and Left (Esquerra).
The bulk of the city’s show-stopping modernista (Catalan Art Nouveau) buildings are also found here. There's also an array of galleries and some of the city’s most fashionable hotels, shops and boutiques.
The Dreta de l’Eixample acts as a sort of open-air museum, featuring extraordinary buildings. The most notable are the work of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
The Esquerra de l’Eixample is one of Barcelona’s hottest night-out destinations. It hosts two Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the best bars and clubs.
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The greatest transformation in Barcelona in recent years has been along the waterfront. Today, harbour and ocean have once again been placed at the heart of the city. Dramatic changes have opened up the old docksides as promenades and entertainment areas, while landscaped beaches can also be found to the north.
Port Vell is the best place for waterfront views. A pleasant walk around the harbour takes you past the marina, where a boat has been converted into a floating bar. The Luz de Gas is a particularly good place for a sundowner.
To the northeast, you will find the 18th-century neighbourhood of Barceloneta, with the harbour on one side and a beach on the other. Exploring tightly packed streets and great seafood restaurants, there’s no finer place for lunch on a sunny day.
Further up the coast you will find the showpiece of Port Olímpic, a huge seafront development constructed for the 1992 Olympics. It’s emblem is a huge copper fish (courtesy of Frank O. Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim).
Four- and five-star accommodation can also be found further out at the Diagonal Mar conference and events site. Here you can take in Jacques Herzog’s dazzling blue biscuit-tin of a building that hovers, seemingly unsupported, above the ground.
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A twenty-minute walk up the beach from Port Olímpic, the Rambla de Poble Nou runs through the most attractive part of Poble Nou (“New Village”). The old industrial neighbourhood is at the heart of a huge city regeneration scheme, but the local avenue remains unchanged – a run of modest shops, cafés and restaurants, including the classic juice and milk bar of El Tio Che.
The waterfront district north of Poble Nou was developed in the wake of the Universal Forum of Cultures Expo (held in 2004). It’s promoted as Diagonal Mar, anchored by the Diagonal Mar shopping mall and with several classy hotels, convention centres and exhibition halls grouped nearby.
The dazzling Edifici Fòrum building is the work of Jacques Herzog (architect of London’s Tate Modern), while the main open space is claimed to be the second-largest square in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
In summer, temporary bars, dancefloors and chill-out zones are established at the Parc del Fòrum. The city authorities have shifted some of the bigger annual music festivals and events down here to inject a bit of life outside convention time. At other times it can be a bit soulless, but it’s definitely worth the metro or tram ride if you’re interested in heroic-scale public projects.
If you prefer neighbourhood living, then the northern district of Gràcia is the best place to stay in Barcelona. It still retains a genuine small-town atmosphere and, unlike some districts in the city, has a real soul.
The area is still very much the liberal, almost bohemian, stronghold it was in the 19th century. You’re only ever a short walk away from its excellent bars, and restaurants.
Plaça del Sol is the beating heart of much of the district’s nightlife. The Plaça Rius i Taulet, the “clock-tower square”, is another popular place to meet for brunch. However, the one unmissable attraction is just on the neighbourhood fringe: be sure to visit the surreal Parc Güell, by architectural genius Antoni Gaudí.
For art and gardens you need to head across the city to the verdant park area of Montjuïc, site of the 1992 Olympics. The hill is topped by a sturdy castle and anchored around the heavyweight art collections in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC).
Two other superb galleries also draw visitors, namely Caixa Forum and the celebrated Fundació Joan Miró, not to mention a whole host of family-oriented attractions, from the open-air Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village) to the cable car ride to the castle.
Meanwhile, the various gardens that spill down the hillsides culminate in Barcelona’s excellent botanical gardens. For Caixa Forum, Poble Espanyol and MNAC use Metro Espanya; the Telefèric del Port (cable car from Barceloneta) and Funicular de Montjuïc (from Metro Paral.lel) drop you near the Fundació Joan Miró.
The Poble Sec neighbourhood provides a complete contrast to the landscaped slopes of Montjuïc. The name (“Dry Village”) is derived from the fact that this working-class neighbourhood originally had no water supply.
Today, the hillside grid of streets is lined with down-toearth grocery stores and good-value restaurants, while Poble Sec is also emerging as an “off-Raval” nightlife destination, with its fashionable bars and music clubs – pedestrianized Carrer de Blai is the epicentre of the scene. It has its own metro station, or it’s an easy walk from El Raval, while the Montjuïc funicular has its lower station at nearby
Also note our list of 9 special places to stay in Andalucía if you are planning your trip to this popular Spanish destination.
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Top Image: View of the city from Park Guell in Barcelona © Georgios Tsichlis / Shutterstock