I’d been to Barcelona a couple of times before, but my latest trip really put shape around the memory of it being a very cool city indeed.

With more of a focus on hanging out with friends than powering through a packed itinerary of sight-seeing, which often happens on a weekend break, I was able to really appreciate what makes it tick and why it ranks as one of my favourite European cities.

Barcelona beach

Barcelona beach

For starters it’s on the coast. I’ve always said if only London was by the sea it would be perfect. Not that I don’t love the Thames, hence I moved from Clapham to a riverside village just outside London, but there’s nothing quite like a walk along a beach front promenade, looking out at deep blue waters that stretch to infinity and beyond.

 One of Barceloneta's narrow streets

One of Barceloneta’s narrow streets

Barcelona has a great seafront with a walk that offers contrasts stretching from the 18th century district of La Barceloneta, where tight streets are lined with windows hung with colourful washing, to Port Olympic, where a multitude of luxury yachts vie for attention with Hotel Arts, the venue where the ‘talent’ stay when the MTV or Loreus Sports Awards are in town. Restaurants, bars and clubs are plentiful all along the seafront and from here the beaches start to look very inviting, despite being largely man made.

Also in La Barceloneta is the cable car terminal that will spirit you high above the city to the top of Montjuic hill, home of many of the 1992 Olympic facilities as well as art and architecture museums and enough parks and greenery to make you forget you’re in a city.

Next door to La Barceloneta, Port Vell – the old port – has a fair bit to offer with an Aquarium, the Museum of Catalonian History and the Maremagnum shopping centre, It’s also the gateway to La Rambla, which is synonymous with Barcelona and the ultimate strolling boulevard.

The Ramblas

The Ramblas

The tree lined central walkway is consistently filled with people ambling along, stopping off for a coffee or a glass of cava, admiring the flower stalls and browsing the kiosks selling newspapers, books, postcards and souvenirs. There used to be stalls selling caged birds, but I didn’t see any in evidence on this trip and although it was an old tradition, I wasn’t sorry to see it had ended.

Not too far up from the seafront a good spot to take a break is the Placa Reial, which has a surprisingly relaxed feel considering its a large square that sees a lot of passing footfall. It’s four sides are lined with restaurants, bars and clubs, making it an ideal stopping off point at any time of day.

Market produce piled high

Market produce piled high

After that, a shopping experience not to be missed on La Rambla is La Boqueria, the oldest market in Barcelona and a melting pot of riotous colour, tantalising smells and tastebud treats. Not surprisingly it’s popular with tourists and some of the narrow aisles can be a squeeze, but its worth it, particularly if you can nab a perch at one of the market’s tapas bars, which are overflowing with the freshest of ingredients.

Across from the market, Carrer de Bouqueria will take you into the Barri Gotic, home of the stunning cathedral complete with geese in the cloister, as well as Gothic mansions and car free streets lined with boutiques, shops and eateries. It’s a very different part of town to the seafront and to Montjuic and that’s the essence of Barcelona – a city of contrast that makes it impossible to get bored. If you’ve seen enough of one type of area just move on to another.

On that note the next district on from the Bari is La Riberia, a rabbit warren of narrow lanes and plazas packed with some of the best restaurants and bars including El Xampanyet, one of the city’s most famous cava bars where a glass will set you back just €2.50 and when you succumb to a second one, the tapas on the bar will be too hard to resist. It’s on Carrer de Montcada, just along from the Picasso Museum, a definite Barcelona highlight that showcases the artist’s early work.

Sagrada on the horizon from the 360 bar

Sagrada on the horizon from the 360 bar

And talking of highlights I can’t finish this without talking a little bit about Gaudi. Actually I could talk a lot about Antoni Gaudi as I love his work and particularly the way it has left its indelible mark on the city. It’s mostly found in the L’Eixample district, again very different to the other areas mentioned, where the unfinished but geometrically perfect Sagrada Familia cathedral sits surrounded by cranes and stunning buildings like La Pedrera and Casa Batllo will make your eyes pop. A little further out is Parc Guell, Gaudi’s outdoor fairytale which also offers views of the city and makes the perfect spot for a picnic.

Most recently opened and more centrally located is Palau Guell which Gaudi was commissioned to create by industrialist Eusebi Guell in the late 19th century. It’s just off La Rambla in Nou de la Rambla and was the private home of the Guell family, something that makes it all the more extraordinary as you walk around – it’s hard to imagine living somewhere so full of Gaudi’s imagination and originality.

Through the window at Palau Guell

Through the window at Palau Guell

The restoration of the palace has taken a number of years but its been beautifully done.  It costs €12 to get in which includes an excellent audio tour and with multiple floors and a roof terrace of colourful tiled chimney pots, it’s well worth the money.

And if you’re this side of the Ramblas you might want to spend a bit of time exploring the El Raval neighbourhood, which despite being just across from the main Bari Gotic area has a very different feel.

It was once home of some of Barcelona’s worst slums and has been slowly becoming more gentrified, to the point where it’s now one of the cooler areas to hang out. It has a more ethnically diverse make up as well as the modern art museum and Spain’s largest cultural centre.

The Barcelo Raval

The Barcelo Raval

It also has a good bar scene, particularly around Rambla del Raval where the uber cool Raval Barcelo hotel is hard to miss and has a 360 degree rooftop bar that circles the top of the hotel and offers great views for the price of a drink. Not the cheapest you’ll find in the city at €5 or €6 for a glass of wine, but the setting and views are worth the premium.

On that note there are so many great places to eat and drink in Barcelona that I’ve written a separate post on that very subject.

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