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By Ben Cardew, MSN contributor

Top tips from a local in Barcelona

Journalist Ben Cardew takes us away from La Ramblas and off the beaten track in Barcelona


A staggering 10 million tourists are expected to visit Barcelona in 2012 - an amazing amount of people for a city whose population is only 1.6 million.

It is easy to see why: the Catalan capital combines beautiful Gothic architecture with a vibrant art scene, some of the best nightlife in Europe and a stretch of beach that looks out at the glittering Mediterranean sea. Little wonder that the city has become a byword for a relaxed Mediterranean destination.

Surprisingly, though, amid the tourist hordes it is still relatively easy for the more adventurous explorer to find some undiscovered gems on the Catalan coast.

Shopping

Few tourists, for example, will ever visit the Sant Antoni Market on Sunday mornings. The main market hall may currently be closed for repairs but the street market that surrounds it is well-worth a visit.

It specialises in books and coins but what lies behind this umbrella term is a rambling world of old comic books, posters, stamps and general antiquities, while the locals frantically trade football stickers and playing cards on the surrounding street corners.

Whether you come to buy or just to browse, the market is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the city and a great start to a Sunday.

Sightseeing

From there, it is just a short walk to Refugi 307 (c/ Nou de la Rambla, 169), on the outskirts of Montjuic. The building was one of thousands of bomb shelters built in Barcelona during the Civil War of 1936-39, designed to protect civilians from Franco's bombing raids, but it is the only one open to visit today.

Refugi 307 consists of around 200 metres of dimly-lit but very well-preserved tunnels, including medical quarter, bathrooms, fireplaces, benches and even an original sign, that sprawl underneath the hills of Montjuic. It is an enthralling insight into the hardships of the Civil War period - all the more so when the knowledgeable guides are on hand - and well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Barcelona's beach

Enjoy the city and the beach in Barcelona

After the subterranean murk of the Refugi, a trip to the beach may be in order. In many ways the beach defines Barcelona. It sits in the Barceloneta district about 10 minutes' walk from the Rambla in the centre of the city, which means it is incredibly easily accessible, pretty much wherever you're staying.

A proliferation of sea-front bars, restaurants and night clubs means you could spend the whole day - and a large part of the night - on the beach and many people do.

However, its city location means that it is not the most tranquil of places, with wandering salesmen offering everything from beer to a massage.

Thankfully, for those who are willing to travel a little, a more relaxed atmosphere is no more than a train ride away. Buzzing, gay-friendly seaside town Sitges offers two pristine beaches around 45 minutes train ride down the coast (jump on the local Cercanias Renfe train service at Passeig de Gracia) or if you want something with a little bit more towel room, you can try Castelldefels (on the same train line as Sitges), which has 5 km worth of beach.

Castelldefels also offers an excellent environment for kitesurfing - a growing trend in Catalonia - with a number of schools offering courses for those who want to give it a spin. Check out www.yumping.com/kitesurf/barcelona/castelldefels for more details.

Eating and drinking

If your beach excursion makes you hungry, then you're in luck: to say the Catalans like their food would be a massive understatement. Numerous local events are built around food and barely a day goes by without some kind of massive, all-encompassing feast to test the belt buckle.

The reason for this isn't just gluttony: Barcelona's position on the sea means its gets incredibly fresh seafood straight from the deep and the city has attracted an incredible selection of chefs from all over Europe.

If you liked the look of Mundial in the video, then why not try Ciudad Condal (Rambla de Catalunya, 18), which is worth it for the off-menu but incredibly delicious huevos cabreados (fried egg with spicy sauce on wafer thin chips)alone?

Tapas at Euskal Etxea Taberna

Tapas at Euskal Etxea Taberna

Or, if you fancy seeing what other parts of the Iberian peninsula have to offer, then the Basque speciality of montaditos (tiny dishes that cost €1 to €2 a go) comes highly recommended. Euskal Etxea Taberna (Placeta de Montcada, 1-3) will show you why the Basques are often thought to be the best cooks in the world.

When you've finished there, you can re-align your affiliations with Catalonia by sipping a glass or two of sparkling wine (or Cava) at the nearby El Xampanyet (Montcada 22).

A glass of the delicious local xampanyet - the bar's own kind of sparkling wine - will set you back a criminally low €1.30, although you might have a drink it outside due to the popularity of this tiny local. In a street as beautifully atmospheric as Montcada, though, you won't mind a bit.

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