Spain's most cosmopolitan city

Set on a plain rising gently from the sea to a range of wooded hills, Barcelona is Spain's most cosmopolitan city and one of the Mediterranean's busiest ports. Restaurants, bars and clubs are always packed, as is the seaside in summer. The city's avant-garde chefs whip up a storm that has even the French reaching for superlatives.

Barcelona has been breaking ground in art, architecture and style since the late 19th century. From the marvels of Modernisme to the modern wonders of today, from Picasso to the likes of Susana Solano, the racing heart of Barcelona has barely skipped a beat. It regards its long past with pride. From Roman town it passed to medieval trade juggernaut, and its old centre constitutes one of the greatest concentrations of Gothic architecture in Europe. Beyond this core are some of the world's more bizarre buildings: surreal spectacles capped by Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família church.

Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Família inspires awe with its sheer verticality and, in the true manner of the great medieval cathedrals it emulates, it’s still not finished after more than 100 years. Work is proceeding apace, however, and it might be done between the 2020s and 2040s. If the work should be carried on is the subject of controversy, but Spain’s most visited monument was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in late 2010.

Parc Güell

Park Güell is where Gaudí turned his hand to landscape gardening and the artificial almost seems more natural than the natural. Park Güell originated in 1900 when Count Eusebi Güell bought a hillside property (then outside Barcelona) and hired Gaudí to create a miniature garden city of houses for the wealthy. The project was abandoned in 1914, but not before Gaudí had created 3km of roads and walks, steps and a plaza in his inimitable manner, plus the two Hansel-and-Gretel-style gatehouses on Carrer d’Olot.

Casa Batlló

If La Sagrada Familia is his master symphony, then Casa Batlló is Gaudí’s whimsical waltz. The facade, sprinkled with bits of blue, mauve and green tiles, and studded with wave-shaped window frames and balconies, rises to an uneven blue-tiled roof with a solitary tower. The roof represents Sant Jordi (St George) and the dragon, and if you stare long enough at the building, it almost seems like a living being.

Plaça Reial

Just south of Carrer de Ferran, near its La Rambla end, Plaça Reial is a traffic-free plaza whose 19th-century neoclassical facades are punctuated by numerous eateries, bars and nightspots.

Monjuïc Castle

The forbidding Castell (castle or fort) de Montjuïc dominates the southeastern heights of Montjuïc and enjoys commanding views over the Mediterranean. It dates, in its present form, to the late 17th and 18th centuries. For most of its dark history, it has been used to watch over the city and as a political prison and killing ground. Anarchists were executed here around the end of the 19th century, fascists during the civil war and Republicans after it – most notoriously Lluís Companys in 1940. The castle is surrounded by a network of ditches and walls (from which its strategic position over the city and port become clear).

La Pedrera (Casa Milà)

Built between 1905 and 1910 as a combined apartment and office block, this is one of Gaudí’s undisputed masterpieces. Formally called the Casa Milà, after the businessman who commissioned it, it’s better known as La Pedrera because of its uneven grey-stone facade, which ripples around the corner of Carrer de Provença. The wave effect is emphasised by elaborate wrought-iron balconies.

Sandy beaches

A series of pleasant beaches stretches northeast from the Port Olímpic marina. They are largely artificial but this doesn’t stop an estimated 7 million bathers from piling in every year! Each autumn, storms wash much of the sand out to sea and the town hall patiently replaces it for the following season. From 2009, a series of underwater barrages in front of some of the beaches should reduce the waves caused by these storms and save a lot of trouble. The southernmost beach, Platja de la Nova Icària, is the busiest. Behind it, across the Avinguda del Litoral highway, is the Plaça dels Champions, site of the rusting three-tiered platform used to honour medallists in the sailing events of the 1992 Games.

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