Creative cuisine and sublime architecture define this high-energy Spanish city.
My Kind of Place: Barcelona's innovative edge
Plenty of cities with two millennia of rich cultural heritage behind them would be content to trade on past glories. Not Barcelona. The capital of Catalonia, in north-east Spain, always seems to be finding new and exciting ways of expressing its unique character. This is, after all, the city that allowed Anton Gaudí to turn his wild architectural dreams into solid reality, that nurtured the artistic talents of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, and which pushes the boundaries today in fields as diverse as design and experimental cuisine - and on the playing field, with the best football team the world has ever seen.
Not to say that Barcelona has forgotten about its past. The heart of the city is the atmospheric Barri Gòtic with narrow streets, medieval squares and the magnificent 14th-century Cathedral of Santa Eulalia (its cloisters have housed white geese for 500 years). Eccentrics have been adding colour to La Rambla, the central avenue, for centuries, and the city's awe-inspiring food market, La Boqueria, has been going since the 13th century.
Barcelona thrums with creative energy, but you can relax, too: the beach and a dip in the Mediterranean are only a short stroll away.
A comfortable bed
The most desirable place to stay in Barcelona right now is extremely hard to miss. Rising 26 floors over the port area and looking like an enormous metallic sail blown in from the sea, the W Hotel (www.w-barcelona.com; 00 34 93 2952 800) dominates the city's skyline and has perplexed some local residents. Still, if you're looking for unparalleled views and luxury, this is the place for you. Double rooms start at €220 (Dh1,102), including taxes.
A more discreet option would be Hotel Omm (www.hotelomm.es; 00 34 93 4454 0 00) in Eixample, with views of Gaudí's Casa Milà from the roof terrace. This 91-room boutique hotel is all about understated style. It boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant called Moo where health-conscious cuisine attracts Barcelona's beautiful people. Double rooms start at €215 (Dh1,076), including taxes.
Find your feet
Barcelona's metro system is the most efficient way of getting around. A 10-trip travel card costs from €8.25 (Dh41) and the metro runs all night on Saturdays. To plan a journey, visit www.tmb.cat.
One of the great virtues of Barcelona, however, is that so much is within walking distance. A good starting point is the Plaça de Catalunya at the top of La Rambla. Follow the city's promenade until the heave of tourists gets too much, then dip into Barri Gòtic on the left, where even seasoned Barcelona hands get lost in the maze of streets. Cross the Via Laietana into St Pere and El Born, two of the city's most interesting neighbourhoods and home to the Palau de la Música Catalana, which must be seen for its stupendous Catalan Modernist ceiling, and the excellent Picasso Museum.
A reasonably priced taxi will whisk you up to the more refined Eixample district, where the order of wide, criss-crossing streets contrasts with the wildness of Gaudí's Sagrada Família cathedral. Across town in Montjuïc; it's worth taking a cable car up to the old military fort on the hilltop for great views of the harbour. A return ticket costs €9 (Dh45).
The best guides are published by Time Out (www.timeout.com/barcelona) and its weekly magazine keeps abreast of what's going on around town.
Meet the locals
Barcelona is a beach city - the best in the world, according to National Geographic - and all segments of society come together on the city's seven strands, stretching over 4.5km of coastline. Barceloneta beach, a short walk or metro ride from the centre, is perhaps the most popular.
Intimate encounters can be had at one of the city's tapas bars, such as the excellent Jai Ca (00 34 93 2683 265). Catalans are proud of their regional identity and consider themselves separate from the rest of Spain (street signs are in Spanish and Catalan). Steer clear of politics and you'll find them friendly and easy-going.
Book a table
Catalonia is at the centre of a revolution in modern dining - it's hard to create a buzz in Barcelona right now if your restaurant doesn't serve experimental cuisine involving gels, foams and esoteric concepts. This is not always a good thing, but when it works it can be unforgettable. A must-try is Alkimia (www.alkimia.cat; 00 34 93 2076 115; closed on Saturday and Sunday), a minimalist restaurant near the Sagrada Família. The young chef, Jordi Vilà, creates dazzlingly innovative versions of traditional favourites such as squid in its own ink. Push the boat out with the €84 (Dh421) tasting menu.
You can't leave Barcelona without trying tapas. The most celebrated spot is Cal Pep (www.calpep.com; 00 34 93 3107 961) in El Born. Get here early for a seat at the bar where all the action happens, and Pep himself will guide you through the selections of meat, vegetables and incredibly fresh seafood. Try the exquisite tallarines (wedge clams). There is no menu but the price of an average meal is €50 (Dh250).
For upmarket shopping options such as Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Hermès, head to Passeig de Gràcia and its surrounding streets. Design enthusiasts will love Vinçon, which has been selling household products and graphic works since 1934. The best department store in the city centre is El Corte Ingles on Plaça de Catalunya. Trendy fashionistas flock to Raval, the grungy district to the west of La Rambla. Don't miss Nunita on Carrer del Rec, the Camper shoe store on Carrer Valencia, and the vintage shops on Carrer De La Riera Baixa.
For food lovers, the first stop is the Boqueria market in Raval, which offers fresh produce every day but Sunday. A more refined option is the venerable Colmado Quiles food shop on Rambla de Catalunya.
What to avoid
Barcelona is notorious for its pickpockets. A safe bet is to carry cash in small amounts in a money belt.
You can't visit Barcelona without paying homage to Gaudí. The Sagrada Família is the most spectacular example of the famed architect's work, but the cathedral is best appreciated from the outside. Save admission money for his smaller buildings - Casa Battlo and Casa Milà in Eixample, and Palau Güell in El Raval. Complete the Gaudí tour with a visit to Park Güell in the Gràcia district. Entrance is free, it's great fun and there are excellent views over the city.