The best things to do in Barcelona
Even if you're not the religious sort, you should visit the magnificent churches of Barcelona purely to appreciate the art and architecture. The Sant Pau del Camp is a rare example of Romanesque architecture, with a fantastical façade and extraordinary cloister. The graceful basilica of the Santa Maria del Mar is perhaps the best surviving example of Catalan Gothic, and makes a great place to go for a classical concert. But the quintessential gothic religious building is the Cathedral, dedicated to the city's patron saint Santa Eulalia. It's Gothic and majestic, with a cloister known for its 13 white geese – one for every year of Eulalia's life before she died a martyr.
And don't miss Sant Pere de les Puel·les, Santa Maria del Pi (declared a Heritage of National Heritage Site in 1931 and also host to classical music concerts) and Sant Felip Neri in the square of the same name, which many consider one of the most beautiful squares in town.
For a taste of modern Catalan cuisine, visit Cinc Sentits, where talented Canadian-Catalan chef Jordi Artal shows respect for local classics (flat 'coca' bread with foie gras and crispy leeks, duck magret with apple), while adding a personal touch in dishes such as a Palamós prawn in 'ajoblanco' (garlic soup) with cherries and an ice cream made from their stones. Cinc Sentits has earned itself a Michelin star, but this is still one of the more affordable of the city's top-end restaurants.
Barcelona's creative cuisine offering is extensive, and though it can mean making more room on your credit card as well as in your stomach, if you dine in Dos Cielos, Moments or Tickets, it'll be an experience well worth it.
Book a table now in a restaurant featuring Catalan cuisine.
Barcelona is the perfect place to indulge in sweet treats. You'll be spoilt for choice with its selection of confectionery shops. For posh chocolates in fancy packaging, head to Escribà; for cooked candy visit Papabubble, where you can see the sweets being rolled in front of your eyes; and Bubó is where every bonbon is a work of art. If you're in town during winter and fancy a hot chocolate, stop by the milk bar La Granja or any of those along C/Petritxol.
Whenever you're in Barcelona, you'll see that window displays of bakeries and bread shops are full of special delights that change with the seasons and holidays. At All Saints (November 1) in Catalonia they eat 'panellets' (small cakes with a marzipan base that are covered with pine nuts, almonds, coconut, or what suits the baker's fancy); Lent is the time for 'buñuelos' (similar to an airy fritter or profiterole); at Sant Joan (June 24) you'll see 'cocas' topped or filled with fruit, cream or nuts; and Easter brings with it 'monas' – child-pleasing, eye-popping displays of chocolate in any form you can imagine.
And the sweet stuff just keeps coming. In summer, when even the Mediterranean isn't cooling you off enough, head down Ronda de Sant Paul to C/Parlament, where you'll find Sirvent, one of the best places for 'horchata' (a sweet drink made from the milk of tiger nut) in the city. Not to mention the abundance of places to get some of the city's best ice cream. Scrumptious.
Barcelona has a little over four kilometres of beaches where you can spread out your towel, stab your umbrella into the sand, smear yourself with sun cream and find a very safe place for your rucksack, from the beach of Sant Sebastià, passing through Barceloneta, to the beaches of Nova Icària or Mar Bella – and each has its own selection of chiringuitos where you can get a refreshing respite from the sun (most also have a bit of nightlife later). And just a few minutes by train or a short drive in the car, you can take in other coastal towns with gorgeous beaches, part of the gift of the Mediterranean that just keeps giving.
Style comes with all kinds of price tags in Barcelona. High street shoppers will easily recognise the Spanish labels Mango and Zara, but fashionistas should not miss a stop in some of the city's independent shops with wares by local designers. For original accessories, step into Colmado in the Born, which is on the same street as a couple of other great spots: La Tercera and Ivori. Not too far from there you'll find more conceptual offerings from Syngman Cucala and irreverent style by Krizia Robustella at KR Store. In the Eixample things get even more tempting at The Avant and Cortana. For a pair of special, handcrafted shoes, the place to go is a Cuervo Cobblerblack Bird in Gràcia.
If Barcelona wanted a gay capital, it would most certainly pick the Eixample, nicknamed Gaixample for the sheer number of shops and clubs that cater to the LGBTI community. Start the night with a drink in Museum or Plata Bar. In summer, a stop at the terrace of the Axel Hotel is a must. If dancing till dawn is your goal, Metro is always a great choice, as is the classic Arena, where both boys and girls are welcome. The city offers excellent monthly parties and plenty more for its gay sisters and brothers as well.
How long can you party non-stop? Several days? Then September is a good time to visit, because the Festes de la Mercè swing into town. The celebration started life as a small religious parade but since then it has snowballed into a party celebrating Catalan culture that lasts four or five days. Performances, dazzling firework displays along the beaches, Catalan folklore (human tower building, fire runs, dances...), exhibitions, children's activities and free concerts (playing everything from sea shanties to hip hop) make this a celebration of Barcelona in all its splendour.
While La Mercè may be the city's biggest party, it's certainly not the only one. Nearly every neighbourhood has its own Festa Major celebration, and one of the biggest and most attended is in Gràcia, where you can celebrate for an entire week in mid-August. One of the main attractions, and what makes the festival special, is the street-decorating contest. Each year the neighbours outdo themselves, and everyone gets the benefit, walking in awe through the depths of the sea made of recycled materials, a sparkling Disney fantasy world, or among giant papier-mâché dinosaurs. There are activities and events all day and night, including meals, family games and late-night outdoor concerts.
And once Gràcia's finished celebrating, it's time for the neighbourhood of Sants to take over. The setup is similar, but on a smaller scale and it's much more a local celebration by and for the residents that doesn't bring in as many tourists or even residents from the rest of Barcelona. Nevertheless, it's another weeklong excuse to have a great time.
The best places to kick back and enjoy a cold beer in Barcelona is among the many outdoor bars and cafés on the city's terraces. The Australian-run Bar Kasparo offers outdoor seating beneath shady arcades overlooking a playground for children. Another option is Bar Calders, a friendly hole-in-the-wall with a terrace. There are also a number of bustling cafés with terraces along La Rambla, such as Quim de la Boqueria, as well as plenty of terraces all around the city where the views are the big draw. And don't worry, the terraces aren't just for summer; most are open all year round.
Many visitors tend to spend their days in Barcelona visiting the most central areas (the Born, the Barri Gòtic and the Eixample), but the city is so much more. Gràcia is full of life at all hours of the day, and among its little streets you'll be able to scratch that consumer itch in its many quality shops. Sarrià, while more on the posh side, still has the charm of the small town it once was; and Montjuïc is full of parks and gardens to take a nature break away from the crowds and stroll or have a picnic. But these days, Poble-sec and Sant Antoni are definitely the places to be, especially for their top cuisine and quality entertainment.
Once you've got to know Barcelona by day, it's time to let it all hang out in the best clubs in town for an unforgettable night. You can't go wrong at Sala Apolo, which turned 75 in 2018, with a differently themed party every day of the week (Nasty Mondays, Nitsa Club, Cupcake...); Razzmatazz has been the temple of nightlife for years, with parties and DJ sessions in its five different rooms; Sidecar is where indie rockers have been going to get their fix for more than three decades; and Magic is the quintessential Barcelona rock club. If funk and hip hop are more your thing, your best bet is Marula.