Given the liveliness of Barcelona today, it’s hard to believe that only a quarter of a century ago it was filled with factories and warehouses and scruffy beaches separated by railroad tracks. Visitors looking for the famous Spanish sun-and-sand combination went elsewhere, and few travelers were beguiled by the city’s charms.
That all changed in 1992, when the city remade itself in anticipation of hosting the Summer Olympics. The railroad tracks were removed, opening Barcelona to the Mediterranean. And the tourist infrastructure greatly expanded, leading to new hotels and a renaissance in Catalan cuisine. Visitors again discovered the city’s medieval neighborhoods, museums, modernist buildings and exuberant nightlife.
The Games came and went, but Barcelona kept gaining cachet, and in 2011 a record 7.4 million people visited the city. But it isn’t all sleek and modern; there are still rough edges that speak of a city in flux and a country in financial crisis. Despite these obstacles, Barcelona continues to remake itself, transforming to meet the 21st century. “Our city is very proud of its vast cultural and historical heritage as capital of Catalonia,” says Xavier Trias, the city’s mayor. “But above all, it is our willingness to always move ahead that really describes us. This is what has propelled Barcelona from a gray industrial city into an innovative, creative and talent-driven global metropolis.”
One of the old city’s most beautiful squares, Plaça Reial was built in the mid-1800s just off the pedestrian boulevard La Rambla. The Plaça Reial has towering palm trees, arcades covering its perimeter sidewalks and a fountain at its center. Its famous lampposts were created by Antoni Gaudí, modernist designer of the Sagrada Família (Holy Family) basilica—and the city’s favorite son.
After the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, the Plaça Reial became hip, serving through the ’80s as home to artists, writers, designers, architects and musicians. But as the city at large became more inviting during the ’90s, the area became less so. Most of the creative types moved away, drug dealing abounded and thieves ran rampant.
It’s still a good idea to keep a close watch on your belongings in the Plaça Reial, but these days you can do so in style. Hotel DO: Plaça Reial (rooms, from $370; Plaça Reial 1; 34-93/481-3666; hoteldoreial.com), an 18-room, five-star boutique property with two restaurants and a rooftop bar, opened this February in a completely renovated mid-19th-century building. Great attention has been paid to details, like the art on the walls of the comfortable rooms with clean lines, hardwood floors and high ceilings. A short stroll brings you to the port, and it’s just a minute to La Rambla.
Fifty yards farther along Plaça Reial is Ocaña (Plaça Reial 13–15; 34-93/676-4814; ocana.cat), a café, restaurant, club and cocktail bar in a building that dates from 1856. The current Catalan owner took eight years to create the complex, which she hopes echoes both Paris and Tel Aviv. The café’s kitchen is ensconced in a large area surrounded by glass, its workings visible to diners inside Ocaña and passersby outside. The changing menu features seasonal Catalan food with flavors from around the Mediterranean rim, such as a delicious suquet (fish stew) with a base of fresh green peas rather than the traditional potato. Plans call for a more formal restaurant in the airy upstairs space overlooking Plaça Reial. The place is named for the artist José Pérez Ocaña, who lived next door in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He was Barcelona’s most visible transvestite during those years, and his daily strolls up La Rambla, in colorful, elegant dresses, were enough to remind all he passed that Franco was dead and Barcelona was now a city where anything was possible.
The Avinguda Parallel, once Barcelona’s Times Square, with its burlesque houses, cabarets and theaters, had in recent years grown dingy. But now the bright exterior of Tickets Bar (Avinguda Parallel 164; ticketsbar.es) livens up its surroundings, attracting diners from all over. Catalan restaurants figure prominently in global rankings, thanks primarily to chef Ferran Adrià’s success with his Costa Brava restaurant, El Bulli. It’s currently closed, but in March 2011 his brother, Albert Adrià, opened Tickets, where it’s possible to get a sense of what made El Bulli so great. “We want Tickets to reflect the traditional tapas you find in this neighborhood,” says Albert, who worked with Ferran at El Bulli, “but also something upbeat and very modern.”
Tapas are what Tickets is about, and there are many standouts, including liquid olives; a grilled oyster served with liquefied trumpet-of-the-dead mushrooms; and a grilled razor clam with ginger sauce, cayenne pepper and “lemon air.” Tickets, open only for dinner (and lunch on Saturdays), hosts 110 people a night and has a waiting list of two months for reservations, which must be made online.
Another gem, newly arisen from its ashes in a not-so-great neighborhood close to Avinguda Parallel, is Fábrica Moritz Barcelona (Ronda de Sant Antoni 41; 34-93/426-0050; moritz.cat), a brewery with a beer hall featuring excellent tapas. It was in this building that the Moritz family, immigrants from Alsace, set about brewing beer in 1864 and did so until 1965. In 1978 they left the business but got back into it in 2004, and Moritz is now producing some 30 million bottles annually of its two tasty brews: Moritz, a suave pilsner, and Moritz Epidor, a strong, amber lager.
The brewery was renovated under the guiding hand of Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Architecture Prize, and it has quickly become popular. What’s more, a full-service French brasserie will soon open in the building’s vast basement, with original exposed-brick arches.
Meanwhile, there’s a menu of more than 300 dishes in the colorful, open upstairs. In addition to an excellent selection of local seafood, there is traditional Catalan fare like escalivada, grilled red pepper, onion and eggplant served with an anchovy, and xató de Vilanova, endive with a delicious almond-based sauce; and more Alsatian-influenced tapas like Flammkuchen, a wafer-thin pizza available with a variety of toppings, and Pfaffenhofen, potatoes with bacon, melted cheese and black pepper.
Passeig de Gracia
Barcelona’s more upscale neighborhoods are also continuing to evolve. The wide avenue Passeig de Gràcia boasts world-class shopping and features two of Gaudí’s most remarkable buildings, Casa Milà, popularly known as La Pedrera (Carrer de Provença 261–265; lapedrera.com), and Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia 43; casabatllo.cat), within three blocks of each other.
Great architecture notwithstanding, the area primarily caters to other earthly delights. It’s possible to eat, sleep and shop without ever leaving the premises of one of the Passeig’s newest and most striking additions: the Mandarin Oriental (rooms, from $440; Passeig de Gràcia 38–40; 34-93/151-8888; mandarinoriental.com). Its 88 luxurious rooms overlook either the Passeig or a lovely interior garden, but if expense is no matter, book one of the ten suites. The hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Moments, is helmed by Carme Ruscadella, whose Sant Pau, in Sant Pol de Mar on the Costa Brava, earned three Michelin stars. Moments’ offerings include Catalan-based dishes like Iberian pork with parsnips and raisins, and sea bass in a mild curry.
Three blocks away there’s the Hotel Condes de Barcelona (rooms, from $140; Passeig de Gràcia 73–75; 34-93/445-0000; condesdebarcelona.com), with 235 rooms occupying two 19th-century mansions. Its Restaurante Lasarte (Carrer de Mallorca 259; 34-93/445-3242; restaurantlasarte.com), which was awarded a second Michelin star in 2009, seats just 35 and features such intriguing fare as a rich, delicious mille-feuille pastry filled with layers of smoked eel and foie gras and topped with caramelized green apple.
The Passeig de Gràcia is lined with global brands, from Camper to Cartier, but it also houses high-quality homegrown shopping. Loewe (Passeig de Gràcia 35; loewe.com), across from the Mandarin Oriental, first opened its doors in Barcelona in 1910, and today it continues to offer exquisite leather goods for men and women, ranging from jackets and briefcases to handbags and wallets.
Vinçon (Passeig de Gràcia 96; vincon.com) is perhaps the quintessential Catalan shop on the Passeig. Open since 1941, this modernist store is full of quirky yet functional objects: stools made of woven magazine pages and a $3,080 futbolin (foosball) table. Upstairs, the outside patio is an oasis, a great place to take a breather and admire the wall of La Pedrera next door.
One of the most striking of the Passeig’s many jewelry stores is Bagués-Masriera (Passeig de Gràcia 41; masriera.es), founded by a Catalan family in 1839, offering precious stones and traditional and contemporary enameled jewelry in gold and silver. The family recently collaborated with Derby Hotels on the Hotel Bagués (rooms, from $730; La Rambla 105; 34-93/343-5000; derbyhotels.com) in 2010, a renovated 1850 mansion with sumptuous, ebony furniture. A room with a view of La Rambla offers 24-hour entertainment out of the soundproofed window.
Hotel Arts’ Suite Spot
A 44-story, Bruce Graham–designed structure of exposed glass and steel built on the city’s beachfront, the Hotel Arts Barcelona has become iconic for its architecture, art collection (which includes the trellis-patterned Frank Gehry fish sculpture floating above its courtyard) and celebrity guests (like soccer’s Lionel Messi, who was staying in one of the 28 duplex apartments the weekend we visited). Sure to be its next big thing is the new Arts Suite, with oversized windows spanning the entire length of the 30th floor, offering city and ocean views from three sides. Though modern and sleek, the apartment-like suite had a comfortable warmth that made us feel like moving in permanently. The Arts Suite starts at $8,685; Carrer de la Marina 19–21; 34-93/221-1000; hotelartsbarcelona.com.