When you think of the “A List” of European cities, London, Paris and Rome immediately come to mind. But like the 45s of yesteryear (yes, I am that old, and I do remember them), western Europe has several “B-side” destinations that become popular favorites as soon as you pay them attention. Barcelona is one of them. Now, with summer airfares to Europe predicted to remain fairly stable, this cosmopolitan Mediterranean capital is a must-see.
My latest trip to Barcelona began with a connection in London — not the most direct itinerary, but the inconvenience was far outweighed by the view I had as we crossed the Pyrenees coming into Spain. As we flew over the clouds, I could barely distinguish the snow-capped mountains from the peaks of the clouds — quite a view, and a hint of the sometimes-surreal experience that Barcelona presents on the ground.
Where to go
Find your way to La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous tree-lined street in the heart of the city. Stretching from the port (Port Vell) to Placa Catalunya, La Rambla serves as the boundary between the neighborhoods of El Ravel to the west and Barre Gotic to the east. Barre Gotic (Gothic Quarter), the medieval section of this ancient seaside town, has many bars, restaurants and historical sites. Watch the many street performers and stroll the open-air markets (the bird market is my favorite). While you may be tempted to check out the ornate Gran Teatre del Liceu, the opera house on La Rambla, keep in mind that it is no historic building; in fact, it was built in the late 1990s.
For the real deal in ornate architecture, head for La Sagrada Família (Holy Family Cathedral), Antoni Gaudi’s astonishing exercise in Gothic surrealism — and Barcelona’s most famous landmark. The foundation stone was set 1882, yet construction continues to this day. Since most of the plans for the cathedral were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, the craftsmen who are completing the work are pretty much guessing as to Gaudi’s vision. Although you can take an elevator to some of the higher reaches, I suggest you climb the stairs if you are able. There are plenty of cutouts from which you can view the city and the construction below. As the spire narrows, so does the diameter of the circular stairway, and if the steps don’t take your breath away, the view certainly will.
For a relaxing afternoon, spend some time in Parc Güell, where you can see more of Gaudi’s art and architecture. For the kids, as well as for a spectacular view of the city and sea, take the Blue Tram to Tibidabo, an amusement park on top of a hill overlooking the city. Check the operating hours first (I learned this the hard way!). Montjuic, a seaside hill overlooking Port Vell, is home to the 1992 Olympic Stadium, several museums and a hilltop fort that protected the city from unfriendly ships in days gone by.
What to eat
There are plenty of restaurants in Barcelona, but one of my favorites is Escriba Xiringuito, which looks out over the beach. The wait for an outside table is worth it — just order an aperitif and hang with the locals until one opens up. The tapas are fantastic and include fried vegetable morsels, croquettes, and sardines. In my opinion, Escriba’s claim to fame is the desserts: The pastries are some of the best I have ever eaten.
I am a firm believer in dining where the locals dine, and the people of Barcelona do not disappoint me. Folquer, a small and intimate place with a big local clientele, is another of my favorites. While it does offer some very chic dishes, it is their traditional Catalan fare, such as scrambled eggs and mushrooms, that sets this restaurant apart. The menu is prix fixe and is very reasonable.
Botafumeiro is a Barcelona institution noted for its fine seafood and fantastic oysters. But like any noted restaurant, it comes with a price, so save it for a special night on the town. The menu is huge and has offerings other than fish. Such a fine seafood restaurant deserves to be on the Mediterranean, but alas, this one is located in the city, on a busy street.
Where to stay
Eurostars Grand Marina has a location worthy of its 5-star rating: It sits at the end of a pier extending out into the Mediterranean at Port Vell. While not inexpensive at $350 a night, it is a good value because the amenities and atmosphere are so superior. The rooms are very modern with hardwood floors and sharp angles. The views from most rooms are spectacular, and the hotel is very convenient to La Rambla, Montjuic, and the waterfront. A cable car stops at the front entrance, or you can take a nice walk to shops and restaurants.
The hotel works equally well for business and leisure travelers. The service is impeccable, and the food at the restaurant Aire de Mar, which seats 120, represents the best dishes of Mediterranean cuisine. The only disappointment is the hotel’s small rooftop pool, which is crowded in summer and typically closed in winter.
Easier on the wallet is the Hotel H10 Catalunya Plaza, on Placa Catalunya. This small hotel has all the amenities you could want, including room service, breakfast buffets and quaint balconies for people watching. It is conveniently located, and the average price for a room is approximately $175 per night.
Just as “Fool on the Hill” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” were both B-side tunes that became No. 1 hits for the Fab Four, Barcelona is an often-overlooked city that will fast become a favorite with anyone who strolls her streets. So take a walk on the flip side. Barcelona might just go to the top of your chart.
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site.