In the 30 years since the Olympics turned Barcelona into a tourist magnet, the pull of the city’s architecture and food culture has only grown stronger. So much so that the Catalan capital has become a key battleground in Europe’s fight against over tourism.
Not all initiatives to lessen the crowds have triumphed: A moratorium on hotel construction survived only a couple of years. But in other areas, the balance has shifted in favour of locals: tighter restrictions regulate Airbnb rentals and the size of groups allowed to visit the Boqueria market. Bike lanes now crisscross the city, and the restored Sant Antoni market is again bustling with fishmongers and butchers. Most strikingly, Barcelona’s “superblock” initiative has turned chunks of the city into car-free, pedestrian playgrounds.
3 pm | Have a late lunch
The best thing about arriving in Spain in mid-afternoon is that you land right in the middle of the Spanish lunch hour. Mantequerías Pirenaicas, in the Sant Gervasi neighbourhood, is an unassuming spot, where the old-school servers still wear white jackets and the tiny kitchen treats the highest quality ingredients — a single artichoke, its leaves perfectly charred, its heart holding a lightly poached quail’s egg, for instance, or a crisp-edged rice savoury with sausage and duck — with delicate creativity. The restaurant is popular with locals; most of them know that if they hope to try the potato omelette — reputedly, the city’s best — they have to call by noon to reserve a slice (lunch for two around 70 euros, or about $69.50).
6 pm | Immerse in Gaudi
With its undulating exterior, Casa Mila — better known as La Pedrera — is one of the city’s most iconic structures. Located in the Eixample district, it also offers a crash course in the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s astonishing design, from the botanically inspired elements he adored to the ingenious physics at play in his work. Recently, the educational aspect was boosted by the addition of a virtual reality tour that allows visitors outfitted with headsets to interact with some of Gaudi’s signature design elements as they roam through a suite of rooms (entrance with virtual reality exhibition, 35 euros).
10 pm | Share your dinner
When it opened in the Eixample in 2006, Gresca was a narrow strip of a restaurant showcasing what was then the latest trend in Barcelona dining: bistronomia, a style of cooking that combined creative ambition with a casual atmosphere (and lower prices). Since then, both the space and the ambition have expanded. Chef Rafael Peña brings depth to an array of sharing plates in this upscale tapas bar, from the thin coins of mackerel marinated in soy and citrus to the glazed eel atop pickled onions and buttery brioche (dinner for two around 100 euros).
1 am | Sip a spicy drink
Especiarium, one of the newest cocktail bars to open in the Born quarter, is spread across two floors, but manages to maintain an atmosphere at once intimate and lightly louche. Its concoctions — all spice-focused — are based on house made syrups and ferments and served in witty vessels, like the Japanese gin-and-matcha blend that comes in a mug shaped like an origami bird, or the dangerously drinkable Tajin, which combines rum, sherry, a date shrub and the Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout. Cocktails are 10 to 14 euros.
8 am | Have an early breakfast
Early risers — or those just winding up the night — can squeeze onto stools at the Boqueria market for a Barcelona ritual: breakfast at Pinotxo. For the breakfast conservatives, there’s coffee and xuixo, the Catalan fried pastry filled with cream. Others may opt for tiny squid with white beans, perhaps some fortifying tripe and a glass of sparkling cava. By the time you’ve finished, the first shoppers will be making their way to the market for the busiest shopping day of the week (breakfast for two, eight to 30 euros).
10 am | Shop with style
Wedged between the Barri Gotic and the Barceloneta neighbourhoods, the Born was, in the Middle Ages, home to the city’s craft workers. There are hints of that artisanal history in the shops that fill its narrow streets. At Madre, Manuel Dreesmann makes bags, laptop sleeves and other locally tanned leather accessories. The designer David Valls crafts women’s garments that manage to be both flowy and modern at once. Après Ski sells whimsical jewellery and fetching jackets made from old tablecloths. Chandal offers an eclectic mix of cunning housewares, artsy magazines and an analog photography section. And El Rei de la Màgia, its treasure chest shelves filled with card tricks and wands, is one of the oldest magic stores in the world.
2 pm | Splurge on seafood
Some of the best seafood in the city emerges from Rafa Zafra’s hands. Uptown, the chef recently opened the posh Amar in El Palace hotel to rave reviews. But his first Barcelona restaurant, the dark and tightly packed Estimar in the Born, makes a homier place to sample his extraordinary way with fins and shells. Start with grilled razor clams in a puckery escabeche, don’t miss the crisp chipirones (baby squid) served with dots of ink-flavoured aioli, and if you’re wondering if the Palamós shrimp, simply grilled on the plancha, are worth the euros, the answer is a resounding yes (120 euros for two).
4 pm | Revel in art
The most thrilling gallery in the Picasso Museum contains the cubist artist’s riffs on the baroque painter Diego Velázquez’s revered work, “Las Meninas.” Next door, the newly opened Moco Museum ventures into the present day. What it lacks in depth, the privately owned (if unfortunately named — moco means snot in Spanish) museum makes up for in name recognition with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst, KAWS and Banksy. And in case that’s not crowd-pleasing enough, the museum throws in a cocktail with tickets after 6 pm (14 to 17.50 euros).
6:30 pm | Taste the avant-garde
Most of the restaurants founded by Albert Adrià, formerly of El Bulli, the ground-breaking restaurant 90 minutes north of the city that closed in 2011, did not survive the pandemic. But Enigma, his flagship creation in Poble Sec, has not merely survived but been reborn. Here, amid icily eerie décor, both the hours (Enigma opens at the thoroughly un-Spanish dinner hour of 6.30 pm) and the menu itself, with highlights like an impossibly light “air” waffle flavoured with basil, and a chervil-slicked mushroom carpaccio that recreates an El Bulli classic, allows for early evening grazing — although most diners have a hard time pulling themselves away with anything less than the full gastronomic experience. Most of the individual dishes range from seven to 20 euros.
10 pm | Save room for dinner
Reward yourself for saving room with a stellar example of modern Catalan cooking at Suculent in the Raval district. The chef Antonio Romero also once worked at El Bulli, and its influences occasionally show up in unexpected textures, like the orange gelée that adds a jolt of brightness to a dish of fresh anchovies and olives. But other inspirations, like a grilled maitake mushroom set afloat in a pool of pine-nut sauce or the soulful meatballs with cauliflower purée, are all his own (dinner for two, about 150 euros).
1 am | Dance the night away
Les Enfants Brillants in the Raval is one of the city’s newest clubs, and with space for just 400 people, its red-lit main room (there’s a green cocktail bar as well) is much more intimate than its famous neighbour, Moog. Billing itself as a “high fidelity dance club,” it’s already making a name for itself among Barcelona’s electronica cognoscenti for its state-of-the-art sound system, its emphasis on vinyl and its impressive line-up of DJs (entrance, from five euros).
9 am | Go to church
Every Sunday morning, Mass is held in English at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in the Eixample. It’s first come first served, and the place fills up; but admission is free, and it offers the chance to experience Gaudi’s basilica as the deeply religious architect intended it: as a place of soaring spiritual rejuvenation. But even the secular will find themselves moved by the 360-degree views — up to the mountains and down to the sea — from the towers. As the famously unfinished church nears completion, it has opened the star-capped Virgin Mary tower (this part requires a ticket, 36 euros without a guide).
Noon | Take a bookish stroll
During the pandemic, the restoration of the old Sant Antoni market was finally finished, turning it into a sparkling temple to luscious ingredients. The food stalls are closed on Sundays, but the gorgeous exterior is host to a weekly book market with vendors selling both rare and new volumes in a variety of languages (though Catalan dominates). From there, it’s a short walk to Parlament Street, where you can experience Barcelona’s latest experiment in urban design. As one of the city’s new “superblocks,” most of the street, dotted with convivial cafes, is now a pedestrian zone, complete with ample outdoor seating where you can watch the world go by.
Casa Mila, with a new virtual reality tour, offers a crash course in Antoni Gaudi’s architecture.
Sant Antoni market is a temple to local ingredients, with a weekly book market outside its gorgeous exterior.
Suculent is where to go for some of the city’s best Catalan cooking.
WHERE TO EAT
Mantequerías Pirenaicas is an old-school spot for a long lunch (try the crisp-edged rice with sausage and duck).
Gresca is an upscale tapas bar with a casual atmosphere.
Especiarium, one of the newest bars in the Born quarter, has an intimate, lightly louche atmosphere.
Pinotxo, in the Boqueria market, is a favourite local breakfast spot.
Estimar is a homey restaurant with extraordinary seafood dishes.
Enigma is the flagship creation of the chef Albert Adria, formerly of the experimental fine-dining restaurant El Bulli.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa Sagnier is a 51-room luxury hotel in a building designed by the Catalan architect Enric Sagnier. The rooms combine Catalan and Nordic design, and many overlook the Rambla de Catalunya (doubles start at 200 euros, or about $201).
Hotel Chic & Basic Born has all-white airy rooms with inventive lighting housed in an old palace. The location — across from the Ciutadella park on a lively corner of the Born — can’t be beat (doubles start at around 100 euros).
Hotel One Shot Aragó 257 is the first Barcelona location for a Spanish chain that specializes in comfortable, well-designed rooms that feel posher than their prices. Its location near the Passeig de Grácia is excellent (doubles start at 75 euros).
For short-term rentals, try the lively Gràcia neighbourhood, which is removed enough from the tourist centre but still convenient. To check that an apartment is legally registered, go to the Barcelona City Council’s website.
By Lisa Abend © The New York Times
This article first appeared in The New York Times.