Since hosting the Olympic Games, the dynamic capital of Catalonia has continued to welcome change, maintaining its position as one of the world’s top ‘City Break’ destinations
Athletic bullfighters, dressed to kill in their elaborate, flamboyant, and heavily embroidered ‘suits of light’ are no longer part of Barcelona’s arts and entertainment; the six hundred year old tradition of fighting bulls is now banned here. Whether for animal welfare or simply as a rejection of Spanish culture is hard to decipher, but either way it is a powerful indication of how Barcelona has a clear sense of identity and is not afraid of change.
This vibrant Mediterranean city leapt onto the world’s stage, full of youthful energy and hope in 1992 with the Olympics, and now twenty years later continues to reinvent itself as a flourishing capital of commerce, fashion and style.
Start a weekend visit with a leisurely few hours exploring the shaded alleyways and streets of Barcelona’s impressive ‘Barri Gotic’ or Gothic Quarter. Bicycles are a great way to get around this cultural and gastronomic hub of the city, as most of the labyrinthine thoroughfares are traffic free, and what’s more one feels less like a tourist and more like a local.
Although a visit to Gaudi’s extraordinary ‘Basilica de la Sagrada Família’ is a must for most visitors, it is the city’s other cathedral ‘Basilica De Santa Maria Del Mar’ here in the Gothic Quarter that is the local’s favourite and well worth a visit. Avoid the temptation to eat on the overtly ‘touristy’ avenue of Las Ramblas and instead enjoy the authentic tastes and smells of the city in this ancient neighbourhood with its great choice of side-street eateries with low cost ‘menu del dia’, as well as of course Spanish tapas and Catalan pintxos.
In this Olympic year of 2012, Barcelona is often cited as the ultimate case study in how a city can maximise the potential benefits of hosting the Games. Before it was an industrial city that had long lost its nineteenth century art nouveau grace and elegance, but Barcelona has since reinvented itself into a self-confident capital, defined by design and cutting edge contemporary fashion and cuisine. Although the transition wasn’t always easy, the past twenty years have been a testament of how a city can create a new positive reality when its people, public institutions, and private sector all pull together.
The city’s passion for creative design and invention is no better illustrated than by the work of Barcelona’s most famous son, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. His world-renowned art nouveau and modernist creations are found in many neighbourhoods and also at the exquisite Park Güell. Yet some of the best are in the elegant and fashionable district of ‘Eixample’. Here amongst the luxury boutiques and swish hotels one finds ‘Casa Milá’. Commonly known as ‘La Pedrera’, this upscale apartment building, with its distinctive undulating facade is instantly recognisable as a Gaudi building. Not only can one view a fully restored apartment and the fascinating museum, but the highlight is the roof terrace, affording an up close view of the unique and inspirational detailing of this UNESCO property.
Close by, a little further down the elegant Passeig de Gràcia avenue is ‘Casa Batll ’, a breathtaking private home that is full of creativity and artistry. It’s described as a Gaudi masterpiece and that’s no cliché; it really is amazing. Once a classic urban property, Gaudi transformed it into a magical house full of surprises and beauty.
Despite the city’s architectural treasures, many people come to Barcelona simply for the luxury hotels and pulsating nightlife. The city is chock-full of ‘Hip’, ‘Boutique’ and ‘Chic’ hotels created for a discerning, design-conscious clientele.
So possibly it is no surprise that Barcelona was chosen for Europe’s very first ‘W’ Hotel. The purpose built property, right on the now super fashionable Barceloneta beach and promenade, is a stunning glass tower, designed by architect Ricardo Bofill, in the shape of a huge sail.
The lofty 473 room hotel has become a tourist attraction in its own right, with the rooftop Eclipse bar attracting a fun loving, young-at-heart crowd. Yet it is the lobby bar and pool terrace which is the place to see and been seen, whilst sipping the latest cocktail creations and chilling to a cool urban soundtrack, created by one of the visiting or resident DJs. For those lucky enough to stay, the luxury guest rooms, complete with all the legendary ‘W’ styling, boast seductive views across the city beaches and the Mediterranean.
As an alternative, for a genuine warm Barcelona welcome and flawless location, then think city centre. The Grand Hotel Central is in the heart of the city, close to the Gothic Quarter’s cathedral and walking distance (or cycling distance if you choose to borrow the hotel’s complementary bikes) to much of what is great to see and enjoy in this dynamic city. Take the designer lift from the lobby and as if by magic, one is swept up to a little piece of urban heaven, the Grand Hotel’s private rooftop terrace and pool.
This is an über cool place to chill out and soak up the city vibe, with a view that takes in the entire city, from the soaring surrealists spires of Gaudi’s ‘Sagrada Família’; to Barcelona’s very own gherkin, the twenty first century glass tower, ‘Torre Agbar’.
Taste for Luxury
Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to a suite at one of Barcelona’s best hotels, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the taste of luxury. Sunday Brunch is an institution in most capital cities and Barcelona is no exception. So head to the Olympic Port, with its stunning Gehry Whale sculpture and enter the striking tower of the Hotel Arts.
Built as the premier accommodation for the games, the hotel still retains its prestige and exclusivity, and offers what many believe is the best brunch in town. The hot & cold, sweet & savoury buffet is full of Catalan and Spanish classics, Asian fusion dishes as well as mouth-watering specialities such as monk fish with carrot puree or black rice with seafood.
If the designer stores of Passeig de Gracia are too pricey, then take the city metro to where the locals shop; the brand new ‘Las Arenas’ shopping centre. This new Barcelona retail, entertainment and leisure complex is housed in one of the city’s former bull rings, recently transformed by Brit architect Richard Rogers, famous for London’s Lloyd’s Building and Paris’ Pompidou Centre. Even if shopping is not on the to-do list, the architecture and the view from the 360 degree rooftop terrace certainly should be. Here, eat Japanese, or snack on Spanish tapas, and look out over the urban landscape.
Las Arenas is one of many examples of how Barcelona is a city that is always embracing change and reinventing itself.