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Insider Guide: What to do in Barcelona
Spain's second-largest city is a sprawling work of art that holds some of Europe's greatest attractions. Here's how to do it right
Spain's second-largest city is not exactly smug, but it is geared up to show itself off, especially for visitors who want to know what to do in Barcelona.
It wants to be acknowledged as more sophisticated than Madrid, more progressive than Paris and a great deal more efficient than Rome.
It does a fine job of it, too.
Architecturally stunning, from the modernist beachfront sculptures to the melted-effect houses of Antoni Gaudi, this is a city that stimulates the first-time visitor, and still excites those who have been coming back for 30 or 40 years.
Veterans will tell you what to do in Barcelona and how much the city has changed in two decades.
The year 2012 marks an important anniversary: 20 years have passed since the Olympic Games spruced up great swathes of the capital of Catalonia, and gave it so much of its self-confidence.
Print and go -- Our traveler-friendly one-page guide here: Best of Barcelona
A beacon on the Barcelona beachfront, the W edifice gazes out into the Mediterranean like an ostentatious, pot-bellied bather preparing for his first summer plunge.
From the outside it’s eye-catching; inside it's roomy, light and does a slick job catering to the guest prepared to spend extra on expansive sea views. There’s a pool, choice of restaurants and, on the 26th floor, the swish Eclipse bar.
For those wanting to know what to do in Barcelona, one of the city’s more popular beaches is at the foot of the tower, and the many restaurants, narrow streets and plazas of the Barceloneta district are a few minutes' walk away.
W Barcelona, Placa de la Rosa dels Vents, 1, 08039 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 295 2800; from €225 per night ($290)
Almost 100 years old, the Majestic peers with a certain gravitas down Paseo de Gracia, Barcelona’s major shopping avenue.
With its grand staircase, marbled pillars and discreetly lit ground-floor bar, there’s a classical feel to the place.
From the rooftop terrace bar you can see how the city grew outward from its neatly gridded center and took over village-y barrios like Gracia, which climbs up the hill behind the hotel.
Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona, Paseo de Gracia 68, 08007 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 488 1717; from €200 per night ($250)
A hotel inspired by a shoe, or at least by and because of the Camper brand.
Like the boots they make, Camper’s first hotel aims to be trendy and functional.
The rooms are unpretentious, and the hotel is well located.
The Camper supplies bicycles for guests who want them, although there’s plenty to see on foot, with a location close to the Museum of Modern Art, the Gothic quarter and the Ramblas.
Casa Camper, Calle Elisabets, 11; +34 93 342 6280; from €149 per night ($192)
Casa Camper Hotel Barcelona, Carrer Elisabets 11, 08001 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 342 6280; from €149 per night ($192)
Chic and Basic Born
A soothing retreat from downtown Barcelona, the Chic and Basic is a study in cool, with clever lighting in the comfortable modern bedrooms and a cream-and-white color scheme.
If you're looking for what to do in Barcelona, the Born area hosts lots of eateries and bars.
The Chic and Basic also puts you very close to the Picasso museum. Unfortunately, it can’t help you jump the often-long queue to get inside.
The "Basic" of the hotel’s name is a bit of misnomer. This hotel is classier than that.
Chic & Basic Born Hotel, Calle Princesa, 50, 08003 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 295 4652; from €80 per night ($103)
Casa Calvet is recommended for two main reasons: first, because of the building. And in a tie for first, because of chef Miquel Alija.
Antoni Gaudi designed the place in the early 19th century for a textile company. Today, you dine under high ceilings and look up at striking stained-glass windows.
That makes for a formal atmosphere, though the staff are warm. They welcome detailed enquiries about the menu.
The poultry dishes are usually excellent -- everything Chef Alija does is superb -- and there’s a good selection of the best local Penedes wines. If you want to know what to do in Barcelona, start with dinner here.
Casa Calvet, Carrer de Casp 48, 08010 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 412 4012; Hours: Mon - Sat 1:00 pm - 3:30 pm, 8:30 pm - 11:00 pm; expensive
This is one of the very best places to go for seafood, and for a wide range of it.
There’s Galician expertise in the kitchen in the form of head chef Moncho Neira from Spain’s northwest. His touch shows in the preparation and selection of shellfish.
Here you can try some of the more unusual Iberian delicacies, like percebes (goose barnacles).
Botafumeiro gets busy in the evenings, so book in advance. Then give yourself half an hour for a glass of Cava at the long bar just inside the main entrance.
Botafumeiro, Gran de Gracia, 81; +34 93 218 4230; expensive
Botafumeiro, Carrer Gran de Gracia, 81, 08012 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 218 4230; expensive
A good venue for the warmer months -- which can often include March and November -- to sit outside and look over the boats in the port and the passing human traffic along the quayside.
La Gavina does paellas well and, even better, the more Catalan version of the dish, fideua, made not with rice but with fine, short noodles.
La Gavina, Plaza Pau Vila, 1, 08039 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 221 0595; Hours: Sun - Sat 12:00 pm - 11:30 pm; mid-range
Elisabet’s is terrific value and worth the short wait for a table at lunchtime. With luck you might be seated in the snug booth in the corner.
The menu del dia is full of Catalan staples: stews with butifarra (blood sausage) and plenty of pulses; hearty seafood soups and simple fresh fish.
It’s just inside the Raval district, so it bustles.
Elisabets, Calle Elisabets, 2-4; +34 93 317 5826; budget
To get known simply by your initials, you usually have to be quite cool. The Carpe Diem Lounge Club, to give it its full title, has become ultra-cool for young and not-quite-so-young residents and regular visitors to Barcelona.
It’s on the beachfront and until just after midnight, it's a bar and restaurant. Then it turns into an open space for dancing, sipping drinks and admiring a decor that hints at Asian.
Late at night, this is where to be and what to do in Barcelona.
CDLC, Paseo Maritim, 32; +34 93 224 0470; expensive
CDLC, 32 Passeig Maritim, Barcelona Spain; +34 93 224 0470; expensive
Luz de Gas
Set in an old cabaret theater, and with live music every night, this is where you have the best chance of spotting local celebrities: footballers, actors, models and musicians.
There are halls that cater to most tastes and ages. The clientele tends to be Catalan, rather than one-off visitors to Barcelona.
One piece of advice: don’t dress too scruffy. There can be long queues and nobody wants to be turned away for being too casual after a long wait.
Luz de Gas, Muntaner 246 Eixample, Barcelona Spain; +34 93 209 7711; expensive
The Pipa Club
A sort of cross between a old-fashioned gentleman’s club and the apartment of an eccentric academic, this is a place to gravitate after an evening in the Born or on Las Ramblas.
There’s a low-key Bohemian atmosphere, pool tables for anyone who wants to strike up competitive friendships and comfortable sofas and armchairs for patrons who just want to slump.
It can get crowded around 3 a.m.
Barcelona Pipa Club, Pl. Reial, 3 pral, Barcelona Spain; +34 93 302 4732; budget
Shopping / Attractions
You've had all you can eat and drink -- for a day or two, anyway. Now here's where to go and what to do in Barcelona by day.
Barcelona prides itself on design, and has ever since Gaudi was encouraged to put his ideas into concrete, and surrealism found a base in the city.
Vinçon is an old family firm producing homeware large and small. They see themselves upholding the city's tradition of imaginative forms and uses of space.
Even if you're traveling light, there should be something quirky to take home from its shelves.
Vincon, 96 Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona Spain; +34 93 215 6050; mid-range to expensive
Mercado Santa Caterina
Most of Barcelona's big, warehouse-style markets are a joy, not just for the mix of smells and exotic local delicacies -- there’s barely a part of the pig that does not find its way into Catalan cuisine -- but the vendors. The ways they compete for your business border on the flirtatious.
The Santa Caterina, in the Born, has been remodeled recently, but retains its old stall system and much of its charm.
Mercado Santa Caterina, Avenida de Francesc Cambo, 16; budget to mid-range
Mercat Santa Caterina, Avinguda de Francesc Cambo 16 Ciutat Vella, Parc, 08003 Barcelona Spain; budget to mid-range
Here you'll find a weird, Alice-through-the-looking-glass world created in the early 1920s to delight children and celebrate the chameleon vision of Antoni Gaudi.
Whether it's the tiled, multi-colored lizards that draw your gaze or if you simply want to listen out for the peculiar way the wind whistles through the spooky tunnels, Park Guell is enchanting.
There are superb views of the city from the top of the hill.
Park Guell, Calle Olot; +34 93 413 2400
Park Guell Tour, Mercedes 15, 08024 Barcelona Spain; +34 93 413 2400
Homage to Catalonia
Barcelona regards itself as more than just a provincial capital.
Catalonia aspires to be a nation-state, clear of interference from Spain. Decades of obligatory schooling in Catalan mean the language thrives, even if in the streets of Barcelona you’ll hear as much Spanish spoken as Catalan.
Catalans are proud of their cultural difference from their neighbors. They celebrate the things they think make them unique.
Here’s what to do in Barcelona if you want to see Catalanism as its proudest.
FC Barcelona, Camp Nou
"Catalonia Is Not Spain."
So used to say a huge banner at the Camp Nou stadium, home of a sporting club that, more than any Catalan institution, has come to represent the independent-thinking region’s confidence in itself.
Unusual in elite, professional football, Barcelona fields a team made up mainly of players who were born and grew up locally. Currently, they play the world’s most popular sport better than any other team in the world -- they're the current holders of the UEFA Champions League (Europe's most prestigious club championship) and have never been relegated from Spain's premier league.
Where most teams are happy with a double and dream of a treble, Barca, as they are also known, once won a sextuple -- six titles in one season.
The museum at the stadium is the most visited of all Barcelona’s museums, and though recent success has made tickets for matches harder to come by, it's usually possible to get in to all but the very biggest fixtures.
Camp Nou, Avinguda Aristides Maillol, 12, 08028 Barcelona Spain; +34 902 1899 00; tickets from €40 ($50)
The Miró Foundation
The best works of Joan Miró, artist, sculptor and thinker, are housed in this elegant building close to the top of Montjuic hill.
Miró's style may not be to your taste, but he lived a fascinating and important life in what were turbulent times for his beloved city.
There are several ways to make your way up to Montjuic. There’s the cable car from Barceloneta, the funicular extension to the metro from Parallel station or a pleasant walk from Plaza Espana.
The Miró Foundation, Parc de Montjuic; +34 93 443 9470; admission €10 ($12)
Cava, the sparkling white or pink wine produced in a manner similar to champagne, is Catalonia’s national drink. And proud of it the Catalans are.
The major Cava producers come from the Penedes area, about half an hour outside Barcelona and best accessed by car. Tours and tastings can be arranged by phone at Codorniu, among others.
Alternatively, you can just order a chilled glass somewhere where you can sit outdoors and feel the breeze off the sea.
Cava Country, Cava Codorniu, Autopista AP7, exit 27 Sant Sadurni; +34 93 505 1551