Fifteen years ago, even after it hosted the Summer Olympics, Barcelona was over-hyped and one-dimensional, with few outstanding features beyond the sticky tourist trap of Las Ramblas. Now the Catalan capital is a much more international, 24-hour place, a fact that seems to be bolstered rather than precluded by its Catalan identity.
Despite Spain having an unemployment rate of 25 per cent, the economic situation isn't really evident to visitors, although the city is affordable by European standards. The fact that some parts of the city still feel slightly trashy probably owes as much to the fact that the city is overrun with tourists than anything else.
The summer crowds can make visiting some sights feel like a chore, diluting its wonderful avant-garde charms with fast food and souvenirs. But get off of the main drags and into the medieval heart of the Old City and you'll find enchanting squares and streets, some pleasantly untouched by gentrification, others studded by striking modern architecture. From visiting museums and sights to strolling through the almost-Neapolitan parts of the old town, to shopping, eating and visiting the beach, you could easily fill a week. It's also a great base for exploring the surrounding coast.
A comfortable bed
For those who like to be beside the sea, the Hotel Arts (www.hotelartsbarcelona.com; 00 34 93 221 1000) has everything - a great location beside the beach, views of the city and sea, a selection of good restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Enoteca, overseen by Catalan chef Paco Perez, and the Six Senses Spa on the 42nd and 43rd floors. The spa makes a great retreat from the whirlwind of the city, so make time for a treatment so that you can also use its wet-room-with-a-view. A 25 minute back, neck and shoulder massage costs €75 (Dh340). Double rooms from €270 (Dh1,222) per night including taxes.
Further along the beach is the W hotel (www.w-barcelona.com; 0034 93 295 2800), which is where you should stay if you're missing a bit of Dubai-style bling. The view of the city from the high rooms at the back of the hotel is excellent. Double rooms from €286 (Dh1,295) per night including taxes. If you would prefer to be in the centre of town, Casa Camper (www.casacamper.com; 0034 93 342 6280) is a stylish boutique hotel in an attractive part of Raval in the old city. Double rooms from €219 (Dh990) per night including taxes and breakfast.
Find your feet
Barcelona has a lot of different districts, each with their own character and attractions, but getting your head around them can be difficult. One of the easiest and most relaxing ways of introducing yourself to the city is by taking a guided walking tour of a particular area, or on a particular theme, such as art or architecture. There are dozens to choose from and several different providers, including the official ones at www.barcelonatourisme.com or free tours such as those at www.runnerbeantours.com. A good way of getting a sense of the scale of the city is to walk or take the funicular up the hill in Montjuic park. From the castle at the top you can see right across the city and port.
Meet the locals
Probably one in every two people you meet here will actually be from the city, but residents from elsewhere in Spain and abroad are usually just as open and worth getting to know. It's easy to strike up conversations anywhere, from the metro to the packed beaches and cafes of Barceloneta and the museums, where many locals give guided tours in English. If you're a football fan, book a ticket to a game at Camp Nou (www.fcbarcelona.com); the next match against Real Madrid is on August 23rd. You also can visit the stadium and museum, €23 (Dh104) per person.
Book a table
El Bulli may have closed, but fans of Ferran Adrià can visit his much cheaper tapas bar, Tickets (www.tickets.es) at 164 Avenguda del Paral-lel. Think cones of tomato tartare for €3.90 (Dh17), or razor clams in fish sauce and saffron for €12.5 (Dh56.50). Next door, Ferran's brother Albert runs 41 Degrees (www.41grados.es) which offers a 41-course tasting menu for €200 (Dh905) per person. Booking is essential. For a more leisurely meal in a lovely setting, Can Cortada (Avinguda de l' Estatut de Catalunya, 003 493 427 2315) sits in an 11th-century country house and serves rustic food such as cod salad with tomato and lamb shank. Prices average about €40 (Dh180) for two courses. In town, the newly re-opened Fabrica Moritz (39 Ronda de St Antoni; 003 493 426 0050) is open all day and offers reasonably priced and fresh tapas, from patatas bravas to a seafood platter, front popular mariscada (€15 ([Dh68]). If you're on a budget, Gusto Del Born at Passeig del Born has delicious slices of thin-crust pizza from €1.30 (Dh6).
Barcelona is full of shops, but the main shopping street, Passeig de Gracia, runs north of Placa Catalunya and contains all the big department stores and brands. Vincon, at 96 Passeig de Gracia, is the ultimate gadget design store. El Born, the trendy part of the Gothic quarter, has lots of small designer boutiques, mostly selling clothes: there are also some newly restored Arab bathhouses (www.airedebarcelona.com). If you want a shopping mall, head to L'illa Diagonal (www.lilla.com).
What to avoid
Pickpockets. Even Barcelona natives warn visitors to leave all of their belongings - and their handbags and rucksacks - behind when they go out for the day. If you must carry a bag, take out only what you need and carry it in front of you.
Don't leave without exploring the Gothic quarter, including El Born, and El Raval, a hip, Arab-influenced area. If you're into art, the Picasso Museum (www.museupicasso.bcn.cat) and the Joan Miró Foundation (www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org) do a good job of showcasing these Barcelona-influenced artists.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) offers return direct flights from Dubai to Barcelona from Dh3,540 return including taxes.