Despite being one of the largest cities on the Mediterranean (population 1.6 million, with a further 3.4 million in its metropolitan area), Barcelona is a pretty easy place to find your way around. In effect, it’s a series of self-contained quarters or neighbourhoods (known as barris) stretching out from the harbour, flanked by parks, hills and woodland.
Many of the best places to visit in Barcelona are in the city centre – the Gothic cathedral, Picasso museum, markets, Gaudí buildings and art galleries – can be reached on foot, while a fast, cheap, integrated public transport system takes you directly to the peripheral attractions and suburbs.
Start, as nearly everyone does, with the Ramblas, a kilometre-long, tree-lined avenue of pavement cafés, performance artists and kiosks that splits the old town in two. On the eastern side of the Ramblas is the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), the medieval nucleus of the city – a labyrinth of twisting streets and historic buildings, including La Seu (the cathedral) and the palaces and museums around Plaça del Rei.
Further east lies Sant Pere, set around its terrific market, which adjoins the fashionable boutique-and-bar quarter of La Ribera to the south, home to the Picasso museum. Over on the western side of the Ramblas is the edgier, artier neighbourhood of El Raval, containing both the flagship museum of contemporary art (MACBA) and the pick of the city’s coolest bars and restaurants.
At the bottom of the Ramblas is the waterfront, whose spruced-up harbour area is known as Port Vell (Old Port). Walking east from here takes you past the aquarium and marina, through the old fishing and restaurant quarter of Barceloneta, past the Parc de la Ciutadella and out along the promenade to the cafés and restaurants of the Port Olímpic. This whole area is where Barcelona is most like a resort, with city beaches all along the waterfront from Barceloneta as far as the conference and leisure zone of Parc del Fòrum.
Art- and garden-lovers, meanwhile, aim for the fortress-topped hill of Montjuïc to the southwest, where Catalunya’s national art gallery (MNAC), the Miró museum, botanic garden and main Olympic stadium are sited, among a host of other cultural attractions.
At the top of the Ramblas, Plaça de Catalunya marks the start of the gridded nineteenth-century extension of the city, known as the Eixample, a symbol of the thrusting expansionism of Barcelona’s early industrial age. This is where some of Europe’s most extraordinary architecture – including Gaudí’s Sagrada Família – is located.
Beyond the Eixample lie the northern suburbs, notably Gràcia, with its small squares and lively bars, and the nearby Parc Güell, while you’ll also come out this way to see the famous Camp Nou FC Barcelona stadium. It’s worth making for the hills, too, where you can join the crowds at Barcelona’s famous Tibidabo amusement park – or escape them with a walk through the woods in the peaceful Parc de Collserola.
The good public transport links also make it easy to head further out of the city. The most obvious place to visit is the mountain-top monastery of Montserrat, not least for the extraordinary ride up to the monastic eyrie by cable car or mountain railway. Sitges is the local beach town par excellence, while with more time you can follow various trails around the local wine country, head south to the Roman town of Tarragona or north to medieval Girona or the Dalí museum in Figueres.