"Barcelona, posa't guapa" — "Doll yourself up!" That's what Barcelona's city hall advised the denizens of this vibrant Mediterranean city to do in the run-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics. Sixteen years later, they're still fervently following that characteristically Catalan directive. A distinct yen for experimentation in design — look no further than Antoni Gaudí’s iconic Sagrada Familia, now expected to be completely roofed by 2010 — coupled with a buoyant civic pride make Barcelona fertile ground for creative types and rewarding terrain for the curious traveler.
Design in its myriad forms is a central thread uniting the fabric of this city, which means that one could see things as opposite as Santiago Calatrava’s ethereal Communications Tower atop Montjuïc hill (built for the 1992 Olympics) and Gaudí’s ebullient Parc Güell garden, with its glorious mosaic work and sweeping coastal views, making more sense here than they might somewhere else. And if the over-the-top Palau de la Musica Catalana concert hall of a century ago is a symbol of Catalan creativity, so too is the soon-to-open Terminal B at Barcelona International Airport, which very nearly replicates the gentle blue waves lapping a few hundred meters away.
Even Barcelona’s food culture is shot through with a design ethos — famously so, in fact. Gaudí's modern-day culinary equivalent may well be star chef Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli restaurant up the coast from Barcelona brings what could only be termed alchemy to the kitchen and is quite possibly the world's most innovative restaurant. If Adria raised the bar of gastronomic invention so high (starting in the '90s) that no one can else can quite reach it, scores of young chefs have followed the trail he blazed.
A major culinary innovator in Barcelona is Espai Sucre, one of the world’s very few all-dessert restaurants and arguably the best. The décor is streamlined and spare — very 21st century Barcelona — and the plates change color and shape with each course, plus the menu is simply outrageous. Where else are you going to find “Marialuisa” cold soup with green apple and spicy yogurt ice cream, or bread pudding with pineapple and—bacon ice cream? Yes, you can order something on the saltier side, such as duck magret with cacao cake and lemon, but you’d be advised to chase it down with ginger ale-cucumber and pineapple-tarragon sherbet. If you really want to dabble on the edge of gastronomic possibility, try the “Empyreumatic:” a mysterious mélange of chicory ice cream, walnut meringue and beer foam. Dessert-wine pairings are doubly decadent, but encouraged. Tasting menus start at 30 euros.
Barcelona bistros Gresca and Inopia (the latter, a tapas bar, was opened by Ferran Adria's brother Albert) have much deserved acclaim, but some newer kids on the block are packing diners in, too. Examples abound of what a prominent Catalan journalist has dubbed "bistronomia" — innovative cooking at down-to-earth prices. But standouts include Cinc Sentits, Embat and Hisop. Hisop is a study in black and red, décor-wise, but the kitchen is all about the culinary chemistry between chef-owners Oriol Ivern and Guillem Pla. They bring a healthy serving of imagination to such mainstays as a side of rice (served with baby squid and truffle) and foie gras (with cherries and licorice added); for dessert, who could resist "strawberries, cocoa and roses"?
Another new Barcelona bistro that should be in your little black book is Embat, a small, hip eatery run by two chefs who met while working at Espai Sucre. Décor is surprisingly simple — think single light bulbs covered in bronzy netting to light up a mere ten tables — and tasting menus which, at 38 euros, are surprisingly affordable. Over in the trendy Eixample district, you’ll want to reserve at Cinc Sentis (Catalan for “five senses”), another shining example of the bistronomia phenomenon. The chef sources all the ingredients from Spain, whether that means veal from green Galicia to spring peas from Llavaneres. Tasting menus are de rigueur and change with the market, but expect the likes of Iberian suckling pig with ratafia-glazed apples and honey reduction. For dessert, there are “textures of lemon”—the citrus fruit as cake, ice cream, foam, curd and vodka ice. What’s Catalan for "yum"?
Well, a Spanish term that's synonymous with delicious is "tapas," and Barcelona has no shortage of hot tapas bars. Try the excellent hole-in-the-wall named Quimet, near Avinguda Paralelo. A trendy but affordable tapas restaurant that invites leisurely ordering and lingering is Celler de Tapas, located on Plaza Universidad on the edge of the Eixample and an easy stroll from Las Ramblas. Their “patatas bravas” — fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce — are addictive. Designer tapas treats are the calling card of Arola, a posh seaside eatery in the Hotel Arts. For classic Catalan seafood, meander around the Barceloneta district, where three top tables are El Lobito, Jaica and El Suquet de l’Amirall.
Now, if you can stop thinking about food for just a minute (a challenge in the Catalan capital), you might get some shopping in. The trendiest stores are in El Born, wedged in between the labyrinthine streets of the El Barri Gòthic (the Gothic quarter) and Barceloneta. Its offerings may be a little too self-consciously chic (and the vibe a bit touristy) for some. In that case, check out the eclectic offerings of stores like Musgo on Rambla de Catalunya (no. 37) or any of the hip little fashion boutiques in the Eixample district (Zona Eleven has cool clothes for men and women; it’s at Muntaner 61).
Of course, you can unite a quest for fine food and shopping by investigating any or all of Barcelona’s magnificent chocolate shops. There's the innovative Cacao Sampaka, the extremely innovative Enric Rovira and the generally irresistible Chocolat Factory — to name just three. For a sweet selection of saltier treats, check out offerings at delishop, one of the locations of which is in the airy L’Illa Diagonal shopping center, and where you can stock up on delicious Catalonian dried strawberries and other gourmet comestibles.
Barcelona can also lay claim to some of the coolest hotels in Europe. If you're talking about a prime location, breezy modern design and a restaurant called Moo, you must be referring to the Hotel Omm. Move past the large, swanky lobby and up to the intentionally dark hallways, then open the door to a large guestroom where natural materials predominate and smooth hardwood floors are a comforting counterpart to the asphalt tangle outside. Up above, from the rooftop pool and chill-out deck there is a direct view over the Paseo de Gracia to Gaudí's Casa Mila, familiarly known as La Pedrera ("the quarry"), with its rooftop "scare-witch" chimney stacks. You can contemplate the architect's vision afterward as you indulge in a spa treatment in the Omm’s fantastic, fragrant spa.
Another design-conscious hotel, off the radar but worth checking into is chic&basic, located in a former townhouse in the Born district. All of the rooms are white, and there’s a hip, all-white bar and contemporary Catalan restaurant on the ground floor called — you guessed it — The White Bar. It's a swish place for a cocktail before hitting glamorous nightclubs like the seaside CDLC Barcelona, Souvenir (where things don’t get going until 6:30 a.m.) and the ballroom-fabulous Luz de Gaz.
From the Joan Miró Foundation to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, designed by Richard Meier, Barcelona’s cultural composition adds up to a series of surprises that demand only a bit of time and an inquisitive mind to savor fully. It won’t take long to see that looking good — or at least different — is one of the things that elevates Barcelona’s star, which is still very much dolled up and on the rise.