Go on, indulge a passion for food, fashion, shopping and design with a city break in the Catalan Capital
The views from the open air terrace of the ‘Restaurante Dos Cielos’ are breath-taking, especially if one is a little wary of heights. On the 24th floor of the Hotel Meliá Barcelona Sky, this Michelin starred restaurant by the acclaimed Torres Brothers of Sergio and Javier is the height of fashion in Barcelona. It offers two ‘sky’ views; from the terrace an expansive vista of the Olympic Port, the city’s shoreline and the sparkling Mediterranean beyond. Whilst from the restaurant one can take in the cityscape including the colourful Torre Agbar office tower and the iconic spires of Gaudí’s Basilica La Sagrada Família.
Yet visitors make this high altitude pilgrimage not for the privileged views but for the Brothers’ signature dishes of heavenly Mediterranean cuisine which are strikingly visual and playful with flavours. Diners experiencing the multi-course, gastronomic menu are given a set of tasting cards, one for each dish, detailing the name and ingredients; after all, the style maybe colourful but this is serious cuisine. Javier and Sergio continue to reach for the sky and are even developing a vegetable garden on the 29th floor that will supply their kitchen with organic produce.
It’s this commitment to innovation and quality that has arguably made the Catalan kitchen the major driver in Spain’s modern culinary success. Ferran Adrià, of ‘ElBulli’ Restaurant fame, inspired a generation of chefs, cementing Catalonia and Barcelona as a benchmark for gastronomy, creating culinary approaches that are now found across the world.
This inventiveness defines the city. Since the Summer Olympic Games of 1992, Barcelona has continued its transformation from industrial centre to a creative driven metropolis, a hub for architecture, design and gastronomy. That’s a heady mix for a city break.
So with my feet firmly back on the ground I wanted to get a better understanding of Barcelona. To explore off the beaten tourist trail I needed the help of a guide, so I turned to Marta Roigé of ‘Kalipolis’ walking tours. Marta designs personalised routes that give an insight into the Catalan capital that probably only a resident can offer. Like many visitors I was already familiar with the tourist-friendly Barcelona of Gaudí and had visited many of his extraordinary buildings, so I was fascinated to learn more about established city districts where people live, work and play.
We strolled through El Raval, an edgy neighbourhood that’s eclectic, multicultural and full of surprises. As we turn a corner we come upon a small square. Marta tells me to look up; there in the modern glass upper storey of the ‘Barcelona Centre of Contemporary Culture’ building I see the city’s shoreline reflected, the tower acting like a giant periscope seeing over the urban landscape to the sea. This neighbourhood is certainly has a vibrant, artistic feel. It is one of the best districts to get a taste of Catalan art and design as it is home to a number of cultural institutions including the ‘Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art’.
Skateboarders practice their tricks and techniques in the plazas, and walls feature street art from newcomers to old timers like Keith Harding. Trendy bars contrast with old-school venues like ‘Granja Viader’. This is one of the oldest cafés in Barcelona, and it is where we take a breather and enjoy a rich cup of hot chocolate smothered in fresh whipped cream. We may be close to the suffocating and touristy La Rambla and the over-visited La Boqueria market, but this part of the Raval feels worlds away.
Then the walking tour takes me into El Born, the historic district with shaded, narrow streets that is now one of the most hip shopping destinations in the city. If you are looking for indie boutiques selling unusual clothes, shoes, jewellery and accessories from both established and up-and-coming designers then this is your neighbourhood. Shopping is an obsession in Barcelona, and the city has distinct zones for different types and styles of retail.
For upscale designer swag then it has to be Passeig de Gràcia. Just walking along this broad tree-lined avenue, punctuated by elegant art nouveau street lamps, and paved with distinctive hexagonal stones, one can’t help but feel like a million dollars, or should I say euro. It’s probably a cliché but this boulevard is the epitome of style and class. It’s also the place to dine and stay too, not just shop. If you want a 5 star hotel to call your home-from-home then the chances are it is on or close to the Passeig de Gràcia.
One of the most sophisticated properties is the ‘Mandarin Oriental Barcelona’. Bringing its flawless Asian-inspired service and impeccable aesthetic, paired with Spanish and Catalan design, this hotel, in a former bank building, is jaw-droppingly cool. From the moment you walk up its elevated cat walk to the entrance, you know you’ve arrived!
Guest suites are designed by Patricia Urquiola using European designer furniture and oriental flourishes. There is a glitzy watering hole, the ‘Banker’s Bar’ with original safety deposit boxes decorating the walls.
The Mandarin Oriental is also home to some of the city’s best restaurants including the new ‘BistrEau’, by Ángel León, the two Michelin star Andalusian chef who made a name for himself through is passion for the sea, as well as cooking with plankton. Yet there is no pretention here; the menu is witty and relaxed and the restaurant is relatively informal.
To be honest, eating has to be the other great pastime in Barcelona. One can’t walk a city block without finding a notable place to indulge. Take the fun and lively ‘Fàbrica Moritz’. It is a multi-level microbrewery where you can enjoy artisan beer, fresh tapas and sharing plates, or sip a glass of Catalan cava in the wine bar. It’s a place not just for visitors but for locals too, with a regular crowd that gives the place a sense of provenance and authenticity.
For creative tapas but still with affordable prices, put on your glad rags and head to the super stylish Omm Hotel. This stunning contemporary property is a magnet for the in-vogue crowd. You can get a flavour of this cosmopolitan Barcelona in the lobby ‘Roca Bar’. Serving affordable small dishes from the in-house Michelin starred Roca Brothers kitchen, this is a great place to enjoy a fashionable meal without needing to reach for the credit card.
The same good value can also be found with city accommodation. Barcelona may be chock full of 5 star deluxe hotels, but it is also the capital of design, so expect to find interesting, unique hotels with ambitious style yet with modest prices.
The ‘Hotel Praktik Bakery’ is just a block or so from Passeig de Gràcia. As the name implies, the hotel is also a working bakery! An original and fun idea that also means you wake to the comforting smell of freshly baked bread in the mornings. The lobby is shared with the bakery, so expect beautifully presented cakes, breads and treats beside the front desk, whilst behind glass walls you can watch the bakers at work as you tuck into your buffet breakfast.
It’s a simple hotel that focuses on the things that matter. Smart, all white, super clean rooms are minimalist, but furnished with the things that count, like the very comfortable, large king-sized beds. The bathroom has a cavernous shower decorated with compelling, bespoke tiles that add a touch of warmth.
Whether luxury or budget, this is a city of style, design and innovation; it truly takes a city break to new heights.