Essential guide to Barcelona

Shaney Hudson surveys the colours and flavours of the Catalan capital.

STAY

Budget

Recently refurbished, the Hotel California offers a complimentary buffet breakfast and is a bargain at €55 for a single and €75/double (Rauric 14, 317 7766, hotelcaliforniabcn.com). The small, basic rooms at Hotel el Jardi (Plaz Sant Josep Oriol 1, 301 5900, hoteljardi-barcelona.com) have spectacular views over a small plaza and beautiful cathedral in the Gothic Quarter. Rooms start from €75 a night and there's free Wi-Fi in the lobby. Hostal San Remo has simple, small rooms in a central location near Plaza Catalunya (Ausias Marc 19, 302 1989, hostalsanremo.com), with singles from €38 and €48/double.

Mid-range

Hotel Colon (Avenida Catedral 7, 301 1404, www.hotelcolon.es) and sister Hotel Regencia Colon (Sagristans 13-17, 318 9858, www.hotelregenciacolon.com) give consistently good service and are the pick of the mid-range options. Large rooms include full bathrooms and Wi-Fi. Rooms at the four-star Hotel Colon with cathedral views start from €96, while rooms at the three-star Hotel Regencia Colon start from as low as €64. Boutique-style Hotel Constanza, which has a gorgeous shaded terrace on the first floor and an on-site restaurant, is a steal, with rooms €80/double (Bruc 33, 270 1910, hotelconstanza.com).

Luxe

It's hard to choose which view is best from ME Barcelona — the one over the ocean at sunrise or the view down the tree-lined Avenida Diagonal to the Sagrada Familia. Supreme rooms have Nespresso machines, iPod docking stations and executive-floor access from €260 (Pere IV 272-286, 214 4440, preferredhotels.com). Hotel Omm (Rossello 265, 445 4000, hotelomm.es) is a boutique hotel with a fabulous rooftop pool. An elegant alternative is the newly renovated Majestic Hotel, which has a sophisticated atmosphere and early-bird rates from €187 (Passeig de Gracia 68, 488 1717, preferredhotels.com).

Lash out

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The Mandarin Oriental opened in Barcelona last year and is a stunning reinvention of a former bank in a prize position opposite Gaudi's Casa Batllo. Inside, the designers have created an elegantly understated space that fuses with the vibrancy of the city. The Terrace Suite overlooking the hotel's Mimosa Garden is our pick at a cool €1600 a night (Passeig de Gracia 38-40, 151 8888, mandarinoriental.com), standard rooms from €295. The W hotel's incredible sail-shaped building on the edge of the sea is an iconic part of the Barcelona skyline (Placa de la Rosa dels Vents 1, 295 2800, starwoodhotels.com). The pick of the rooms are the cool corner suites, with separate lounges and views across the ocean, from €476.

SHOP + PLAY

To market

Best accessed by tram, El Encants Vells market (Placa de les Glories Catalanes 8, 246 3030, encantsbcn.com) is a trash-and-treasure paradise that offers a mixed selection of second-hand goods, open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. La Boqueria (pictured, La Rambla 89, 318 2017, boqueria.info, closed Sundays) remains a photogenic favourite for its artistic fruit-and-vegetables displays and tasty gourmet food bars that serve up cheap snacks. Less touristy is the recently refurbished Santa Caterina produce market near the Cathedral, which is worth a peek, with its wavy multicoloured roof (Avinguda de Francesc Cambo 16, 319 5740, mercatsantacaterina.net).

Go shop

Vincon (Passeig de Gracia 96, 215 6050, www.vincon.es), a Spanish homewares store, sells a selection of innovative, functional and stylish homewares you'll push your luggage allowance to the limit for. It is hard to miss the brightly coloured designs of Spanish clothing franchise Desigual but canny penny-pinchers can pick up reduced-price threads at their outlet store on Las Ramblas (Ramblas 140, desigual.com). Vintage-fashion lovers should check out the cluster of second-hand clothing stores on Calle Reira Baixa in Raval, including Smart and Clean (Reira Baixa 7, 411 8764, smartandclean.com), while those who covet a more high-end style should visit Custo (Las Ramblas 120, 301 4495, custo-barcelona.com).

Live music

The best live music in Barcelona is played at Luz de Gas, an old renovated music hall which shifts from blues to retro to the occasional big-name band every day of the week, playing until the sun rises (Muntaner 246, 209 7711, luzdegas.com). For something more classical and central, it's worth buying a ticket to a Spanish-guitar or opera performance just to see the stunning interior of the Palau de la Musica. Tickets for most concerts can be purchased on the day (Palau de la Musica 4-6, 902 442 882, www.palaumusica.org). Los Tarantos (Placa Reial 17, 319 1789, masimas.com/en/tarantos) has frequent flamenco performances each week at affordable prices. Occasionally, Spanish guitarists can be found playing in the quieter alcoves around Park Guell, where there are good acoustics. Keep an ear out.

Nightclubs

Most clubs cluster around the Barceloneta area on the beach. Nightclub Opium Mar (pictured) has a great outdoor terrace that faces the sea (Paseo Maritimo 34, 90 226 7486, opiummar.com) and was named best club in Barcelona in 2009. Low-key and laid-back, CDLC is a chilled-out club on the beach in Barceloneta, where you can recline on four-poster beds (Passeig Maritim 32, 224 0470, cdlcbarcelona.com). Right next to Hotel Arts, Club Catwalk (Ramon Trias Fargas 2-4, 224 0740, clubcatwalk.net) has two dance spaces and also gets good reviews.

SEE + DO

Icons

Barcelona would not be the city it is without the influence of Antoni Gaudi, whose modern architectural designs form a vital part of its identity. Visitor favourites include Casa Batllo (Passeig de Gracia 43, 216 0306, casabatllo.es), La Pedrera (Passeig de Gracia 92, 90 240 0973, www.fundaciocaixacatalunya.es) and Palau Guell (El Raval area, 317 3974, palauguell.cat) but undoubtedly his most famous work is the La Sagrada Familia (Mallorca 401, 207 3031, sagradafamilia.org), a stunning cathedral built at the exact distance from the mountain to the sea and still under construction after a hundred years. Be sure to pay a little extra and wait in line for the elevator to the top of its towers for a stunning view of the city.

Culture

Make sure you arrive early to visit the popular Museu Picasso (Carrer Montcada 15-23, 256 3000, www.museupicasso.bcn.cat), which has an extensive collection of Picasso's early work in a series of five mansions. There is a fantastic cluster of museums and attractions in Montjuic Park, including the MNAC, the National Museum of Catalan Art (622 0360, mnac.cat) and kids' favourite, the Olympic and Sports Museum (Avinguda de l'Estadi 60, 292 5379, fundaciobarcelonaolimpica.es), which traces the history of the Olympic Games and has great interactive exhibitions. Newly opened, the Museum of Modernisme (Balmes 48, 272 2896, mmcat.cat) specialises in antiques, sculpture and furniture by prominent Catalan artists and designers.

On foot

Barcelona is a great city to explore on foot but don't be deceived: everything is further away than it looks. Most tourists stroll down Las Ramblas past a sentinel of human statues and overpriced restaurants but the beach promenade of Barceloneta and Port Olimpic is a more pleasant pedestrian option, with seaside sculptures and art installations. Montjuic Park is on a hill and is a brilliant outdoor excursion. Cheat by taking the funicular to the top to explore the city's fortified castle (with 360-degree views) before wandering down the hill through the park's museums, playgrounds and sculptures. After dark, stick around to see the Font Magica de Montjuic, a massive water-and-light show set to music that runs every few hours at night.

Follow the leader

Camp Nou is Europe's largest soccer stadium and home to one of its most popular teams, FC Barcelona. If you can't make it to a game, there is the Camp Nou Experience, a daily tour of the on-site museum and the stadium from €19 (Avinguda Aristides Maillol, 496 3600, fcbarcelona.com). Run by two expat Brits, Antiques and Boutiques runs customised shopping tours of Barcelona, to the best vintage, indie fashion and interior-design boutiques from €150 for three to four hours (671 234 800, antiquesandboutiques.com). GoCar offers unique tours of the city in its bright yellow, three-wheel convertible cars. The self-drive tour uses GPS with themed commentaries narrated by locals to explore different parts of the city. Just try to avoid rush hour, or rain (from €29, Freixures 23 Bis Bajo, 90 230 1333, gocartours.es).

EAT + DRINK

Tapas time

Tapas 24 (Diputacio 269, 488 0977, tapas24.net) is just around the corner from Gaudi's Casa Batllo and offers a tasty tapas alternative to the overpriced tourist menus on offer along Passeig de Gracia. Recommended is the keres — tasty lamb skewers and lentils with chorizo. You'd be mad not to try the slow-roasted Pyrenees lamb with thyme and rosemary at Taller de Tapas (Argenteria 51, 268 8559, tallerdetapas.com). With five branches across town and an English menu, it is an easy pick for its incredible Catalan tapas. Orio Euskal Taverna (corner of Carrer de Ferran and Passatge del Credit, 252 0522) is a busy restaurant serving pintxos (the Basque equivalent of tapas) and freshly shucked oysters. The service is friendly, the dining communal and it's a chance to sample a different kind of Spanish cuisine.

Snack attack

There are a number of inexpensive snack options in the La Boqueria markets (La Rambla 89, closed Sundays) including fresh-cut fruit salads, juices and salads. Not to be missed are the excellent snack bars including Bar Pinotxo and El Quim de la Boqueria, which both serve quality Catalan food and get rave reviews. Blink and you'll miss the plain-looking Xurreria on Carrer dels Banys Nous but be sure to stop and buy a paper bag full of churros (deep-fried pastries similar to doughnuts), before ordering a hot chocolate at cafe La Granja (Banys Nous 4, 302 6975). Those wanting a sweet treat or bakery basics should step into 200-year-old Sant Jordi (Llibreteria 8, 310 7273) and jostle with the locals to try their coconut tart.

Top of the town

With one Michelin star, Cinc Sentits is this writer's choice for an incredible Catalan dining experience. Service is attentive, not intrusive, the atmosphere intimate and the food exceptional, with its eight-course tasting menu focusing on evoking the five senses (Aribau 58, 323 9490, cincsentits.com). Dos Cielos (Pere IV 272-286, 367 2070, doscielos.com) was named best restaurant of the year 2010 by the Catalan Academy of Gastronomy. Try to nab a seat at the chef's table but, if not, console yourself with views of the Sagrada Familia from its 24th-floor location. Owned and operated by the same family for 130 years, Restaurant Gaig offers sophisticated modern Catalan cuisine (Arago 214, 429 1017, www.restaurantgaig.com).

By the glass

Tucked in the tourist district off Las Ramblas is Boadas (Tallers 1, 318 9592), a classic cocktail bar that hasn't changed since it was opened in the 1930s. Lost down the dark streets of the Barri Gotic, La Vinateria del Call is worth tracking down for its selection of cava, cheese platters and electric atmosphere (Sant Domenec del Call 9, 302 6092, lavinateriadelcall.com). Innovative wine bar Monvinic offers tablet computers so guests can search grape, soil and region for their drop and a wine library, and serves up their chilled bottles in fish tanks (Diputacio 249, 272 6187, www.monvinic.com).

Hot tip

The Barcelona Card is available for two to five calendar days and includes free public transport, a guide and discounts at more than 80 attractions, from €27 for two days. barcelonaturisme.com.

Getting there

Qantas flies from Sydney to Barcelona (via London), code-sharing with British Airways, from $1895. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.

Visa and currency

The currency is the euro (€1 = $1.30) A 90-day visa is available for Australians upon entry.

Calling Barcelona

Spain's country code is +34 and 93 for Barcelona. To call Barcelona, add +3493 to the numbers listed.

More information

spain.info, barcelonaturisme.com.

The writer was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental and Preferred Hotels.

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