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Take a bite out of Spain's hippest seaside city
Forget Gaudí's outlandish architecture, the city's world-class museums, or those mountaintop views — the most spectacular thing about Barcelona is its food. The bilingual province of Catalunya (which speaks Catalán and Spanish) is the centre of Spain's most recent foodie revolution, and the home of Ferran Adrià, the star chef who developed molecular gastronomy at the now-defunct El Bullí.
That level of inventiveness and obsession with food has definitely trickled down. From highly crafted fare to homestyle dishes, there is plenty here to keep you happy — like Comerç 24 (24 Carrer Comerç; comerc24.com.mialias.net). That's where chef Carles Abellán is getting all the buzz these days for his forward-thinking and exotic tapas.
Not surprisingly, small plates have made it big in tapas-crazy Barcelona. One of the best tasting menus in town is at the much-hyped Coure (20 Passatge Marimón) in the Gracia district. Their seasonal menu with inventive flavour combinations is a steal at €35.
In the trendy Born area, another restaurant getting raves is Big Fish (9 Carrer Comercial; bigfish.cat), which offers great seafood and a raw bar in a hip retro setting.
Long pegged as a favourite, Cal Pep (8 Plaça des les Olles; calpep.com) is a tiny bar near the port that offers traditional dishes done to a very high standard. Go early or expect long lines.
Enjoying a paella on the beach is a classic Barcelona moment. A favourite with locals is the laidback Can Majó (23 Almirall Aixada; canmajo.es), right on the seafront .You can also try the regional variation, a fideuà made with noodles instead of rice.
Don't leave town without at least trying churros con chocolate. These curlicues of fried dough dipped in thick hot chocolate are a traditional Sunday breakfast (or morning-after) treat. Pop in to La Granja Dulcinea (2 Carrer de Petritxol; granjadulcinea.com), a café in a Victorian space which offers a large choice of hot chocolates.
Bear in mind that restaurants typically open between 1:30 PM and 3:30PM for lunch, then reopen at 8:30PM for supper.
If it's your first visit to Barcelona, architect Antoni Gaudí's wild late-Victorian buildings are an irresistible draw, as is the Picasso Museum, which showcases the artist's more accessible early works.
But Catalunya's other artistic heavyweight deserves a look, too. Tucked away on Montjuïc hill with wonderful views of the port, the Fundació Joan Miró (Parc de Montjuïc; fundaciomiro-bcn.org; €10) showcases pieces by the Surrealist sculptor and painter.
While you're enjoying the park, walk down hill to CaixaForum (13 Avinguda Marquès de Comillas; obrasocial.lacaixa.es; free admission), a contemporary art space set in an Art Nouveau factory. The exhibitions are diverse, from cutting-edge European artists to old-school masters like Rodin, Goya or Turner.
From there, architecture buffs can pop across the road to the Pavello Mies Van der Rohe (7 Avinguda Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia; miesbcn.com; €4.75), designed by the ground-breaking modernist architect behind the Seagrams Building in New York. Mies's fluid use of space and focus on "pure" materials is the closest you'll get to seeing architecture as sculpture.
If you're curious about the city's history, don't miss the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat de Barcelona (Plaça del Rei; www.bcn.cat; €7). Partially housed in a Gothic mansion, it hides an underground world where visitors peer from walkways over the excavated homes and squares of the old Roman city of Barcino. Next door, the 10th-century royal palace was once home to the kings of Aragón. Its sweeping stairs are said to be where Queen Isabella received Columbus.
Across Las Ramblas in the edgy El Raval district is the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) (1 Plaça dels Àngels; macba.cat; €8), the city's answer to Paris' Pompidou Centre. Set on a lively square, it has one of the best collections of modern art in Spain as well as a library, bookshop and café.
Relaxation and rhythm
Barcelona doesn't have as large a flamenco community as Madrid or Seville, but if it's your only stop in Spain, take in a show at Tablao Cordobés (35 Las Ramblas; tablaocordobes.com) which features top-rated performers from across the country. Shows start at 8PM (€39 with a drink). Some nights, classical guitar concerts are offered at 7PM (€25 with drink). Do yourself a favour and skip the overpriced meal.
In such a sprawling urban centre, it can be hard to remember that you are in fact right on Spain's coveted Costa Brava, so spend a day exploring Tossa de Mar (infotossa.com). This quintessential resort town has a well-preserved old quarter with winding streets, a medieval castle as well as a pine-fringed beach surrounded by rocky cliffs. And it's just an hour and 20 minute by bus from Barcelona's Estació del Nord bus station (www.sarfa.com).
Or you can escape the bustle in one of Barcelona's sprawling green spaces. Ciutadella (Passeig de Picasso) is a grand old park that's popular with locals of all ages. It has formal gardens and shaded lawns, botanical gardens, a quiet lake where you can row, and a compact zoo. Hill-top Montjuïc Park is popular for its views and hiking paths. You can even take a cable car, the Telefèric, from Paral.lel Metro station in Poble Sec up to the castle in the park for €6.30. And vast Park Güell (13 Carrer d'Olot) offers the whimsey of Gaudí's mosaic snake bench and Middle Earth passages. But it's also worth wandering around to see the giant tropical plants that could be out of a Dr Seuss book.
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