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Tips from a local in Barcelona
With its privileged location facing the Mediterranean sea, Barcelona has long been a place for different communities to gather, boasting a history that can be traced back more than 4,000 years.
Skip the crowds of La Ramblas
Nowadays, while the city might be known for its beaches and football, for the connoisseur whose tastes go a little bit wider Barcelona offers a wealth of riches. Indeed, a visit to the History Museum in the Plaça del Rei should be an essential stop for any discerning visitor who wants to get under the city's skin.
The museum traces the history of the various people who have inhabited Barcelona since the Romans embarked at the end of the 1st Century BC, founding Barcino around the Mont Tàber hill.
Exploring the museum's different floors, the visitor moves through the historical remains of different periods of Barcelona's history in a way that is guaranteed to make you look at the surrounding streets with a different eye.
Eating and drinking
Of course, Barcelona also has a rich gastronomical history. Spend a few days in the city and you'll soon see why. You can even watch the video above to see some of the places I recommend to try some of Barcelona's tastiest morsels.
Bar Tomas (Major de Sarria 49) might be slightly out of town in the posh Sarrià district, but its patatas bravas - considered by locals to be the best in town - will give you a good idea why the Catalans love to eat. Particularly recommended is the "plato combinado", which adds the simple, yet delicious, combination of meat and eggs to the dish.
If you are a fish lover, then the old fisherman's district of Barceloneta should be a definite port of call. Avoid the overpriced beach-front restaurants and instead try Maians (Sant Carles, 28), a cosy bar/restaurant whose prawns are a personal favourite.
Equally, you can't leave Barcelona without enjoying a tasty vermut (vermouth) accompanied by stuffed olives. There are plenty of bars that serve this classic drink, typically drunk on Sunday morning, but I would recommend two places that are situated on the same pedestrianised street in Paral-lel.
Enjoy the unique atmosphere of Gran Bodega Saltó
The first is Lia d'en Vicius (Blai, 28) where a vermut is best enjoyed with a plate of their delicious homemade meat or cheese croquetes (croquettes). The second, Gran Bodega Saltó (Blai, 36), is a riot of kitsch, decorated with cartoon tigers, musicians and even a hybrid shark-carrot.
The atmosphere is joyful, full of families and young people dancing along to the local rumba catalana and other live music that will make your vermut all the more delicious.
From there, it is a short walk to the Passeig del Born in the heart of the Ciutat Vella ("old city"). The Passeig itself is full of terraces to enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine in the sun.
Just a step away, however, is one of the most important monuments to Catalan history: El Fossar de les Moreres. The square marks the exact spot where many of the defenders of Catalonia fell on September 11 1714, during the War of the Spanish Succession, although most tourists will never realise it. The square consists of an ever-burning torch and accompanying inscriptions, a monument as discrete as Catalans themselves are said to be. September 11 is now the National Day of Catalonia.
Next to El Fossar is the church of Santa Maria del Mar (Pl. Santa Maria, 1). It is known as one of the most perfect examples of Gothic architecture, as well as for the harmony of its proportions. But what makes Santa Maria so unique is how such a massive church can be tucked away in the tightly-packed street of Ciutat Vella, where even the buildings seem to run the risk of stepping on each others' toes.
Santa Maria might not look like much from the outside but that's part of its incredible, illusory charm, like discovering Westminster Cathedral packed into the backstreets of Soho.
If you want to do some shopping, then Carrer de la Palla and Carrer dels Banys, which run from the Cathedral square into the Gothic neighbourhood, are a must. In these narrow streets (in reality, more like one street) you can find everything from vintage postcards to 100-year-old dolls, from local designer fashion to handmade earrings, made in the workshop next door. It's enough to make you forget the commercial horror of La Rambla instantly.
When to go
The very mild Barcelona weather means it is worth a visit year round, although the August heat may be too much for some (including many locals, who abandon the city for the whole month). February is the coldest month, while April is rainy.
Indulge in a Catalan tradition with a calçotada
However, should you come at the start of the year (roughly January to April) you will have the added advantage of catching the calçot season. The calçot - essentially a large green onion - is probably the most Catalan of foods and locals need no excuse for a calçotada when the season is open, gorging themselves on calçots and romesco sauce in bibs and gloves to avoid the inevitable mess.
Valls - an hour-long train ride away from Barcelona - is the home of the calçotada and Casa Felix (on the edge of town at Ctra Tarragona Km.17) is always packed with locals. But if that's a bit far then L'Antic Forn (just off La Rambla at Pintor Fortuny, 28) offers a generous calçotada menu in refreshingly humble surroundings. After all, it would be a crying shame to miss out on this incredible Catalan ritual.