There’s a mindset and buoyancy to Barcelona that mark it out as one of the most extraordinary cities in Europe. Its buildings defy architectural norms, its footballers conjure poetry out of sport, and its topography ranges from dizzying hillsides to palm-lined beaches. It’s a deeply cross-cultural city, yet at the same time stands as a fiercely independent emblem of Catalan heritage. Although the warmer months draw the biggest visitor numbers, it’s a spirited place to visit at any time of year. Whether you’re here for the nightlife or the food, the history or the art, the big sights or the backstreets, it’s somewhere that has a special hold.
Summer is when Barcelona shakes its hair out, reclines and makes the most of its location on the Med. Four kilometres’ worth of beaches means plenty in the way of seaside refuge, with the city’s sands watched over by cafés, art sculptures and a typically Barcelonan spread of design-led architecture. The beaches themselves – centrally located Barceloneta being the most popular stretch – are well suited to everything from long siestas to beach football. Summer is also a time for events, with major music and culture festivals like Sónar (June) and Festival del Grec (July) drawing widespread international plaudits.
The city might be big, but Barcelona’s 11-line metro system does a good job of covering almost all of the major points of interest, staying open until at least midnight seven days a week. In the centre of town, navigation is uncomplicated by foot. You may lose your way at times in the medieval web of the Barri Gòtic area but, really, that’s the point. It’s a fantastic city for sauntering. Bus and tram services also cover much of the heart of the city, and there are some 10,000 black-and-yellow taxis prowling the streets – they can be hailed if displaying a green light.
Top cultural sites
The most obvious starting point for any cultural tour of Barcelona – at least certainly in terms of size and impact – is at the trippy facades and spindly spires of La Sagrada Família (Carrer de Mallorca), the huge Gothic church still being built to meet the design of inimitable local architect Antoni Gaudí. His unorthodox creations also dot several other parts of the city. Further cultural highlights include the Museu Picasso (Carrer Montcada 15-23) – the artist, of course, having spent much of his life in Barcelona – and the relatively new Museu del Modernisme Català (Carrer de Balmes 48), which houses absorbing exhibits in a former textile factory.
Best for families
The large garden complex at Parc Güell (Carrer d’Olot 5) is another Barcelona brainchild of Antoni Gaudí, and its playful curves, mosaic dragons and tucked-away grottoes make it an appealing bet for young explorers. Similarly symbolic of the city (and downright inescapable if the kids are football-mad) is Camp Nou (Carrer d’Aristides Maillol), the stadium where Messi, Neymar, Iniesta and friends ply their trade in front of the world’s TV cameras. If you can’t bag match tickets, it’s possible to take a tour of the ground, including the changing rooms and dugouts. Down on the beach, meanwhile, watersports are readily arranged.
Best for couples
It can frequently feel as though the world and his wife have converged on the flower stalls and café terraces of La Rambla, but regardless of the crowds, given the right time and the right balminess, it can make for a romantic place to stroll – there’s certainly never a shortage of sights and sounds to snag the attention. For something more serene, there’s a whole world of atmospheric bars, unhurried restaurants and pretty plazas to enjoy. If you’re in search of a love nest, boutique hotels like El Palauet (Passeig de Gràcia 113) and Hotel Omm (Carrer del Rosselló 265) are seriously stylish prospects.
If you love a thrill
A trip up Montjuïc, the hill which gazes over the Catalan capital, not only gives the chance to get up close to the 1992 Olympic Stadium, but thanks to the cable car that stretches up its length, also serves up some pretty intense views. Elsewhere, Barcelona’s other main peak, the 512m-high Tibidabo, offers thrills of its own in the form of a longstanding amusement park, complete with a roller coaster and sky walk. To really get the pulse skipping, however, there’s not much that comes close to matching the vim of the city’s nightlife, which routinely roars through to dawn.
Best hidden gems
The city’s trendy El Born district isn’t quite the secret that it once was, but as somewhere to shop, eat or people-gaze, it still provides a real antidote to the more visitor-thronged areas elsewhere in town. It’s a sparky, individual neighbourhood with some interesting medieval architecture to complement its avant-garde thrum. For an often overlooked gem, try the Fundació Francisco Godia (Carrer Diputació 250), a private art collection that belonged to a one-time local Formula One driver. Alternatively, for something literally hidden, descend into Refugi 307 (Nou de la Rambla 169), 400m of air-raid tunnel built during the Civil War.