My first trip to Barcelona, at the age of 18, was a revelation. It was the summer after my freshman year in college, and even though I was living in the East Village in New York City, Barcelona showed me a glimpse of something I hadn’t yet found. There was this vibrant metropolitan city with astounding architecture, and it was right on the beach, filled with beautiful people enjoying a lifestyle that took them from languid days in the sun to all-night revelry, fueled by some of the best food on the planet. I was floored. And my fascination with the city hasn’t waned at all since.
Barcelona was transformed, in many ways reinvented from the ground up, by the investments made into the city for the 1992 Olympics, and that modern kick start has enabled it to continue evolving with great haste. This holds true despite the 141 years and counting of construction on the iconic Sagrada Familia. Optimistic predictions now project the ordeal will be wrapped up in 2026, marking a century since the death of Antoni Gaudí. I’d take the over on that bet, but in either case, the eternal flame of the Olympics enabled Barcelona to rise like a phoenix from its ashes. The city became a tourist hub, idealized further on the backs of its football club while becoming the globe’s avant garde culinary epicenter and then one of its leading cocktail bar cities.
The tapas, Las Ramblas, the as-of-yet unfinished Sagrada Familia — these things aren’t going anywhere and remain a solid foundation for any first-time or returning visitor. But Barcelona has so much more, so much of it intangible. Barcelona, for me, is a feeling. And it’s one I continue to crave.
Getting to Barcelona
Most direct flights from the United States to Spain land in Madrid, whereas Barcelona requires a connection via a European hub. If you have a good direct flight into Madrid though, consider opting for the train between the two Spanish cities, which only takes two and a half hours. If you do end up flying into Barcelona, the airport is about 30 minutes away from the city center via either taxi or train, the latter of which departs every half hour.
Stay: Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. Check into your hotel, right on the swanky shopping corridor of Passeig de Gràcia, entering off the street via a grand ramp into an art-filled inner sanctum that’ll be a retreat from the hubbub beyond for the next few days. One of the reasons you’re there, though, is its positioning across the street from Casa Batlló. There’s no time to waste, so get your Gaudí going right at the start.
Do: Continue onto Casa Mila or La Pedrera, and then head to the main event, the Sagrada Familia. Words don’t do it justice, but be prepared for a breathtaking, fanciful spectacle. It’s colorful, it’s wacky and it’s wild. It’s real, and it’s spectacular.
Recharge the jetlag batteries back at the Mandarin Oriental, perhaps heading to its 12-meter indoor pool for a dip. Start the evening with a cocktail at the hotel’s Banker’s Bar, building on the theme of the building’s past as a bank with a leather bound menu presented as a book of bank bonds in a metal lock box.
Eat: If you feel like going big on night one, the hotel is home to Moments, a two Michelin star restaurant with thematic menus, a recent version of which was a surrealist Dalí menu. Otherwise, more casual eats can be found off the lobby in Blanc, or venture a few blocks away to Los Tortillez. The no-frills eatery specializes in the Spanish tortilla, with more than a dozen flavor combinations in enormous, plate-sized potato omelet portions. Finish the evening with a stop into two of Barcelona’s legendary old school cocktail haunts, Dry Martini and Tandem, the former of which has a digital Martini counter hung on the wall. I was Martini number 1,126,262 on a recent visit. Most of those weren’t even mine.
Pro tip: Buy your entrance ticket to La Sagrada Familia in advance, and keep in mind that different tickets allow assorted levels of access, like being able to climb its towers. Without an advance ticket, you might be able to scramble day-of by finding a group tour operator selling passes in the surrounding plazas. You’ll pay more, but you just may be able to squeeze in even when tickets are no longer directly available online.
Do: You’re not Gaudí’ed out, are you? Good. Because today’s excursion takes you to Park Güell. It’s north of the city center in the Gràcia district, but will take just 20 minutes to get there via cab or metro. It’s here where Gaudí’s free-flowing, organic forms sprawl across an entire landscape, rather than being confined to single structures. There are numerous famed viewpoints, photo spots and constructions, so plan to spend a few hours meandering around and seeing what you discover.
Sip: Last night you got a taste of the old guard of Barcelona’s bar scene. Tonight, check out the cutting-edge next generation. Head to Galileo, a project from Paradiso alum Andrea Civettini. The bar had the misfortune of opening in February 2020 but made it through to the other side of the pandemic. Galileo is named as a signal of the bar’s pursuit of both art and science in the form of hospitality. Expect inventive, intricate cocktails, but the space is also a full-service restaurant with a high-powered culinary team. It offers a cocktail pairing tasting menu as well.
Head a few blocks away to Sips for a nightcap, which has rapidly risen up the world’s best-of lists and garnered other major accolades. It stands out for its unique setup and elaborate presentations and formulations.
Pro tip: Sips, billed as a Drinkery House, doesn’t take reservations and lacks a traditional bar space or counter top, meaning seating is limited to tables for small parties and several communal tables. Be prepared for a potential wait, and consider trying to time a visit outside the typical nighttime rush.
Stay: Wittmore Hotel. Switch locales by checking into the Wittmore Hotel. The boutique, adults-only hotel in the heart of the Gothic quarter has just 22 rooms. Its style fits the theme — dim and sultry, with red velvet furnishings, while complimentary minibars come stocked with the ingredients and tools to make proper Spanish G&Ts.
Do: From your new digs, you’re minutes away from Mercado de la Boqueria, one of the world’s great food markets and a must for any Barcelona visitor. You can spend hours exploring its many delights, from colorful fruits and juices to all of the jamon you can handle, and stalls serving up dishes with the market’s bountiful fresh seafood. Boqueria is right off Las Ramblas, so after you’re done you can work off some of those eats with a leisurely stroll up and down the busy walking drag.
Eat: A siesta might be in store after the market melee, so head back to the Wittmore, exploring the ins and outs of the Gothic quarter’s alleyways along the way. When it’s dinnertime, head to the hotel’s open air atrium off the lobby for a meal at Contraban. The space brings in live DJs on the weekends and serves creative takes on Spanish flavors and mainstays, with an eclectic wine list worthy of exploration.
Pro tip: La Boqueria is always mobbed, so after a few laps you’ll want to sit down for a proper meal and maybe a few refreshments. Try Ramblero or the acclaimed El Quim de la Boqueria. But really, snag a seat at any stall you can find an opening.
Stay: The Barcelona Edition. A rooftop pool is calling your name, so check into the Barcelona Edition, which opened in 2018. The brand’s signature contemporary, sexy vibe is a great match for the city, and guests can take advantage of several in-house venues.
Do: While cooling off in the plunge pool on the hotel’s small but chic indoor-outdoor rooftop terrace, you may have looked down and seen the colorful rooftop of Mercat de Santa Caterina. Enticed? You should be. It’s less mobbed and more locals-driven than Boqueria, but with all of the excellent eats you can handle. Load up inside or head down the street for lunch at Bar Sanz Bocadillos, a small counter shop serving sandwiches and paninis with cheap, cold draft beer to wash it down.
Eat: Head out for some more sightseeing and walk through Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf en route to the Parc de la Ciutadella, taking a long loop back around. Include a visit to the Cathedral of Barcelona, which is right across the avenue from the hotel.
Veraz, in the Edition’s lobby, is recommended for seasonal Spanish fare, ranging from classic tapas and Catalan staples to fresh interpretations, backed by all the sherry and vermouth you need for the perfect pairings. Retreat to the Punch Room, a trendy speakeasy cocktail bar offering a lineup of a dozen signature punches. The Catalan Summer Punch from a recent visit featured pisco with a house tomato cordial, while another was a riff on a Penicillin cocktail in punch form.
Do: Look at that, oh no — is it raining today? Or maybe a heat wave is bearing down on you. Either way, get out of the elements by making the museum rounds. Start at the Museu Picasso, which houses more than 4,000 of his works in a collection including drawings and sketches, paintings, sculptures and assorted other mediums.
Eat: The Picasso Museum is right in the thick of the action when it comes to the city’s restaurant and bar scene in El Born. Stop for lunch at somewhere such as El Chigre 1769, and take notes on where you may want to return later. Then, if you’re still feeling inspired, pop into the Banksy Museum, a permanent exhibition featuring about 130 of his offerings. Two museum visits have earned you a drink, so make a beeline for Boadas, another of Barcelona’s vintage cocktail spots that has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Pass by the always bustling Plaça de Catalunya along the way.
Eat: Now it’s back to El Born. Head to Tapeo or Eldiset for dinner, or grab a few bites at each. Continue onto Bar Brutal / Can Cisa, a multi-room wine bar, shop and restaurant. The buzzy space attracts locals and tourists alike for its natural wines, but the Italian-Catalan eats, and a healthy selection of mezcal, are welcome as well. Perhaps a cocktail is calling once more, so head over to the low-key, well-run Marlowe Bar, and maybe Dr. Stravinsky. And if you’ve made it this far, then you might as well visit Creps Al Born, too.
Stay: Rectify a startling lack of beach time by snagging a room at Hotel Arts Barcelona, which is under The Ritz-Carlton banner, which puts you in prime beachfront territory amid Port Olimpic. The whole area, including the sandy beaches themselves, are some of the notable fruits of that Olympic rejuvenation project.
Though a sea view room is tempting, Hotel Arts can do you one better: a Sagrada view. Its rooms facing the city have a direct sight line to the Sagrada Familia up the Carrer de la Marina. The 44-story tower is one of the tallest structures in the city, so it’s not hyperbole to say it offers an unmatched glimpse of Barcelona’s star attraction.
Do: Today’s plan: fun in the sun. Stroll up and down the promenade, take a few dips into the sea, R&R as you please. But avoid the tourist trap restaurants that line the beach and seek out La Cova Fumada, a storied tapas joint in Barceloneta known as the birthplace of the bomba, a ground beef-stuffed, fried potato croquette.
Back at the hotel, continue today’s treat yourself theme with a visit to the spa. It’s in the 43rd story of the building, and you can reserve a private sauna and jacuzzi room looking down on the beaches before enjoying a massage.
Eat: Ah, that’s more like it. Sunkissed, massaged, your body is a temple. Welcome to the #wellness clan! Now it’s time to eat more jamon and pan con tomate. Again. For another splurge, head to the hotel’s two Michelin-starred Enoteca Paco Perez. Or opt instead for a visit to its Pantry. The gourmet storefront is stocked with wines, cheeses and other Spanish treats and features a hidden door entrance that’ll take you to The Secret Pantry, where those delights and others are served up in a small dining room.
Pro tip: Hotel Arts has a tiered outdoor deck with multiple pools and seating areas. The trick is securing a coveted spot at the adults-only infinity pool, with a straight shot of Frank Gehry’s famed Golden Fish, or El Peix. On a nice day, those loungers remain full for the day. Be the early bird, and take a nap from your hard-earned perch.
Do: The main must-see you haven’t yet visited is the hilltop Montjuïc, which includes a number of attractions like the Montjuïc castle, the National Museum of Catalan Art at The Palau Nacional, the Joan Miro Foundation and the Olympics & Sports Museum that’s part of a complex on the grounds including the Olympic torch tower.
Sip: It’s your last night in town, so you gotta do it right. Make your first stop at Paradiso, which took home the number one spot in the 2022 World’s 50 Best Bars ranking. The bar is now a veritable tourist attraction in its own right, so you’ll likely need to join a digital queue via a QR code at the door.
If there’s no wait ,then by all means go on in. But if it’s looking lengthy, head around the corner to bide your time at Floreria Atlántico BCN, the newly opened outpost from one of the best cocktail bars in the Americas, Floreria Atlántico in Buenos Aires. You can snack at the bars along the way, but you need some proper tapas, too. So head over to El Xampanyet for a fitting closing meal. Stay out as long as you can and savor every last drop.
Pro tip: Getting to Montjuïc is part of the fun, too, and while it seems like you’re a ways off, departing from the beach sets you up for an interesting journey. One option is to take the Port cable car to the Montjuïc funicular to the Montjuïc cable car, and then viola, you’re there. Easy as 1-2-3.
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