You can just about feel it in the street, like static in the laundry, only sexier. Spain is busting out all over with creative energy of late, and it's finding expression everywhere from design to clothes to snacks to buildings. Catalonia was one of the regions that was particularly oppressed during the Franco dictatorship and, equal and opposite reactions being what they are, it has sprung back with perhaps more zeal and zest than anywhere else. It is suddenly a global hot spot for high-end restaurants, and leading chefs are flying in droves to Barcelona as they once did to Paris to gain inspiration and get a sense of the way the wind is blowing. But there's plenty more going on in the Catalan capital than food. And even if snacks are your primary motivation for visiting, I'd counsel against getting your knickers in a tangle trying to tick all the dining boxes. Make a couple of reservations at the more sought-after restaurants before you go, but don't kill yourself planning out each day. More than most places, Barcelona is somewhere enjoyed on the hoof. Walking the laneways, streets and plazas (or plaças in Catalá, if you prefer), is chief among its pleasures.
There are some musts to attend to, of course. You'll be wanting some Gaudí. Antoni Gaudí was the genius and near-mystic Art Nouveau architect responsible for buildings with lines so fluid and organic they make Dalí seem like a Johnny-come-lately and Frank Gehry's works seem positively square. The king of the Modernistas, he's a national hero in Catalonia. You need only stroll up the Passeig de Gràcia, one of the city's key arteries, to encounter the rippling form of his Casa Milà, an apartment building which billows out from the block, all curves and eye-bending chimneypots. His bigger hits require special trips in themselves, but they're all on the Metro and not outside cab range, and fit neatly between breakfast and lunch. The Park Güell, a fantasy pleasure garden shot through with colonnades, columns, curves and mosaic-encrusted serpents, is up in Gràcia, to the city's north, and between it and the CBD lies the Sagrada Família, perhaps Barcelona's most famous landmark.
Gaudí is said to have joked "my client is not in a hurry", and he wasn't kidding. The Sagrada Família's construction began in 1882. Gaudí worked on the basilica for 40 years until his death, and is buried on its premises. Today it's still a fair way from finished, with optimistic estimates putting its first mass as a completed building in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death, but even under construction it's a breathtaking sight, and attracts a couple of million visitors a year.
The city's other favourite son wasn't born here and spent most of his life elsewhere, but Barcelona's Museu Picasso is a must. The museu is particularly strong on his early works, and has a bias, unsurprisingly, towards those he created while living in Spain and, more specifically, Barcelona. (Factoid: Picasso's full name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Clito Ruiz y Picasso. Try getting that on the bottom of a canvas.) For an art-hit in a more contemporary vein, you might like to try MACBA, the local museum of modern art. Its architecture and gift shop may be more interesting than its exhibitions at times, but that's the lot of modern art galleries everywhere.
In truth, paying to look at art in galleries in Barcelona seems almost silly when, between buildings Modernist, Modernista and merely lower-case modern, and the kind of graffiti and sticker-art equalled by few places in Europe, it's the streets that have the best shows. There's performance art, too: a stroll down the Passeig de Gracía can reveal everything from a fellow starkers but for the tattoos that cover him neck-to-toe and the heavy metal ring keeping his dangling bits gravity-bound to a toilet-paper castle, its foundations knotted to a Metro vent, its perforated, triple-ply spires flapping metres up in the hot air of an urban thermal.
The Passeig turns into La Rambla as you walk closer to the heart of the old city. A wide street and pedestrian mall running all the way to the water, it's a hustle-filled kilometre of street performers, cafés and book stalls. There's the waft and squawk of outdoor pet shops, the twang of buskers, the grift of the three-card monte guys. And everywhere and in alarming numbers the sweaty, sullen, Goldfinger-esque presence of human statues. It's tempting to theorise that they're all here in the employ of the army of pickpockets alleged to make a ripe living on the Rambla and around the old city, taking a Euro cent here and there kicked-back for every wallet lifted and iPod snatched while their owners were held transfixed by the sight of people who stand in the street dressed as ducks, pirates and Cervantes for 10 hours at a stretch.
Real or imagined, the fingersmiths certainly enliven any visit to the Boquería. The central Barcelona market, its narrow aisles and endless crowds provide ample opportunities for personal property crime, as the proliferating warning notices attest. With your goods appropriately secured, though, it also provides the opportunity to see some of the finest produce in the land. Market junkies rate this as one of the more interesting in Western Europe. Thanks to the quirks of its geography, Spain, apparently, has the broadest range of farm produce in the EU, and pretty much all of it is here under one roof.
Allow me to recommend, in particular, the offal shops, with their lidless, staring wares, and the forager's stall, with its curious contrast of edible wildflowers and net bags of live snails. The seafood section, the market's heart, is testament to the Spanish passion for the fruits of the sea, a fervor surpassed, word would have it, only by that of the Japanese. Anything that can be caught by net, spear or hook is here, and the bounty spread across the carved stone benches - spindly shells, wandering crayfish, chitinous alien-looking gooseneck barnacles, blood-drenched tuna, shiny sardines by the shoal and various other denizens of the deep - have been pulled so freshly from the water they still look cross.
Best of all, there are plenty of places where you can pull up a stool and come to appreciate the quality of the produce in a more hands-on way. El Quim and Bar Pinotxo are foremost among them, both tiny marvels of economical use of space. A couple of guys behind the bar dispense beers (it is breakfast, after all), fried squid, artichokes, fat wedges of tortilla, coffee, grilled razor clams, hot chocolate you can stand a spoon in, cava, sugar-crusted pastries and eggs. All manner of eggs, their yolks spilling like melted Crayola over fried potatoes - such eggs like you've never tasted, and just about the only thing brighter on the palate is fresh Spanish orange juice, which makes you wonder why they ever bothered learning to make wine. (Factoid II: in Spanish supermarkets, cartons of gazpacho sit in the juice fridges next to the orange-mango.)
I don't know that I'd necessarily call Barcelona a retail mecca, but the boutiques that punctuate the avenues and the side-streets conceal all sorts of gems. Rooms full of swords, 19th-century novelty shops, people hawking second-hand Catalan paperbacks (Jay McInerney's Nits de Neó, Robert Graves' Yo, Claudio and Raymond Chandler's La Gran Dormida all caught my eye), you name it. The Born area has plenty in the way of streetwear and design stores, while the Barri Gòtic's narrow, twisty streets behind the Catedral de Barcelona are home to all sorts of great antique shops. (Wandering the Gothic quarter on the Barcelona equivalent of council chuck-out night was eye-popping, incidentally; I'm definitely going back with a ute.) Must-sees include Vinçon, a very designer department store for the Wallpaper set, and Papabubble, a candy store owned by a bunch of Australian expats. Drop by the shop and see them pulling and twisting hot sugar before your very eyes, or buy a lollypop phallus or a limited-edition Commes des Garçons sherbet blister-pack to try to slip past the customs guys at home. Chocolate is a local specialty, and you can indulge your passion everywhere from Xocoa (home of the most wonderful packaging) and Cacao Sampaka (the place to go for black olive, anchovy and balsamic vinegar bonbons) to Oriol Balaguer, perhaps the Catalan chocolatier. It's to my very great regret, meanwhile, that I didn't get to Jamonísimo, a shop dedicated to nothing but the very finest jamón from around Spain, but there are only so many hours in the day. Next time.
For all this talk of art in the streets, the real everyday performance in Barcelona, you quickly surmise, is on the plate, and everyone's an enthusiast. Topping most visitors' hit-lists is Cal Pep. The model for imitators around the world, it's no fine-diner, with most things prepared before you on the plancha (or hotplate), under the grill or in the deep-fryer as you sit at the bar. Tapas aren't central to Catalan food culture, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more celebrated tapas bar than that belonging to the pack-a-day-voiced Pep. Jamón with leeks and baby broad beans, pippies shiny with oil and parsley, surf clams with chickpeas and squid in a warmly spiced tomato sauce, deep-fried Padrón peppers, juicy, incredibly flavoursome bits of beef with the ubiquitous fried potatoes, xipirones, the thumb-sized squid, deep-fried, tender and moreish - all issue from the hands of fellas working before you pretty much at their whim. Go early or be prepared to queue; the seats are few, the food hypnotic.
At the other end of the scale, Barcelona's other big name is that of Carles Abellan, a one-time El Bulli chef who has made his name over recent years with his restaurant Comerç 24 (that's ko-merse veyn-te ee kwa-tro, for the benefit of the cab driver). While the moody room with its ceiling-suspended cymbals can feel a little dated, there's no doubting Abellan's culinary chops as you cruise through the likes of duck and foie gras rice, or the ethereal, slightly breakfasty pre-dessert of yoghurt, puffed rice and pomegranate, and no question of his understanding of hospitality or the role of the chef. For all his play, he makes sure you have a plate of snacks on the go pretty much as soon as you've taken your seat - towering bread sticks, gold dust-covered macadamias, vast anchovy-stuffed olives in a Comerç 24-branded tin, pork crackling chips.
This sense of fun is given full reign at Tapaç 24, a recent spin-off of the Passeig de Gracía. Here Abellan's tapas bar offers a truffled version of the bikini ham and cheese sandwich (so named for its shape), alongside everything from calçots, the celebrated local leek-like long onions, simply deep-fried (the preferred Catalan treatment for vegetables large and small), to the McFoie, a tiny beef burger served with a small tumbler of foie gras mayo that might just be God's gift to beer drinkers.
Then there's Inopia, the tapas bar opened by Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran and co-owner of El Bulli. Inopia has a glossy, forward-looking fit-out and largely old-school food. Tuna simply grilled, lamb skewers called pincho morunos, artichokes halved and deep-fried, mayonnaise-heavy Russian salad stuck with breadsticks, tinned sardines and clams, bags of chips (or xips) even. It's deceptively simple, but concertedly good. Before you get off your tapas jag, check out Bar Mut, a marble and timber shrine to high-tone drinking, specialising in big-ticket items such as foie gras and jamón de bellota and, on the other side of town in a much humbler but no less appealing setting, Quimet y Quimet. The latter is reportedly one of Ferran Adrià's favourite places to eat in Barcelona. That recommendation doesn't really prepare you for what is essentially a small bottle shop, little wider than it is tall, stocked with an incredible range of spirits and wines, and capable of producing the most wonderful displays of preserved vegetables, seafood and charcuterie (the terrines and foie gras are great) from a counter barely metres wide.
Hit Alkimia for a dose of what the city's up-and-comers are up to. It's sited on an unprepossessing street only blocks from the Sagrada Família, and is just the spot for a bit of post-visit secular pleasure, with a menu that's all flowers and foam-borne lightness. It also does a cute take on the classic Catalan pan amb tomaquet, bread rubbed with olive oil and squishy fresh tomato, here rendered in liquid form. If you prefer your dining in larger-than-tapas serves, make a bee-line for Botafumeiro. A local landmark, it's a favourite of the king of Spain and, a waiter tells me, also of Morgan Freeman and Eva Longoria. Owned by a Galician, the restaurant is considered by many to be Barcelona's seafood standard-bearer. It's just the place to try all the freaky fish and barnacles you've seen down at the markets with complete confidence. They do a nice line in fabada (white bean and pork soup), and waiters assuredly silver-serving the shells off huge prawns is something you're not often going to see elsewhere.
There's no shortage of explosively decorated hotels in and around the city. The Soho doesn't take itself too seriously, and matches a good location with nice detail in the form of Starck bathroom fittings and easy-to-master programmed lighting. Deep in the Barri Gótic, the Neri Hotel is so thoroughly immersed in the quarter's labyrinthine laneways that even taxi drivers can struggle to find it. Persist, though, and you'll find a converted former palace, replete with library, chandeliers and stunningly outfitted rooms with perhaps the nicest bathrooms the city has to offer. It's quiet, secluded and totally romantic. Striking a balance between designer-slick and comfortingly approachable, the Hotel 1898 is my pick of the bunch. It's right on the Rambla, but is insulated in such a way that it doesn't feel like the passing parade is also trooping through the lobby.
The former headquarters of the Philippine Tobacco Company, it's a grand 19th-century building that has been given a sympathetic refit, replete with black-and-white graphics - details of the more rustic side of the tobacco biz - playing to its history. There's a killer roof bar and pool (a few suites have their own), while the vaulted stone basement houses still another.
A city with a pulse, a city on the move but protective and proud of its heritage, Barcelona has made an art of living and living an art. Now's the time to tap into the city's energy and enrol in some lessons yourself.