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Why go now?
Culture, cuisine and conviviality: the Catalan capital is superlative in every dimension. Fares are falling in line with the temperature, though the warm autumn has lingered in Barcelona this week. And the latest addition to the city's spectacular skyline, the W Hotel, opened 10 days ago.
Barcelona airport is on the coast 12km south-west of the city. Most "full-service" airlines, including BA and Iberia from Heathrow, use the brand-new Terminal 1. The easiest way in to the city is on the A1 Aerobus, which leaves about every 10 minutes and costs €5 for the half-hour journey to Plaça Catalunya (1).
Budget airlines, including easyJet from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Bristol and Liverpool, Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, and Monarch and Bmibaby, use the older Terminal 2. The Aerobus A2 from here costs only €4.25. Alternatively, walk to the airport railway station for the half-hourly service to Passeig de Gràcia station (2); while the one-way fare is €2.80, if you invest €7.70 on a 10-trip pass, you can get into town for just 77c, and connect there for any other train, tram, bus or Metro service within 75 minutes. You can also have nine more journeys on public transport when you get there. Ryanair serves Barcelona via both Girona and Reus airports, with connections by bus to the terminal at Estació Nord (3).
The most civilised way to arrive in Barcelona is by the overnight train from Paris (with connections from London St Pancras), terminating at the Estació de França (4).
Get your bearings
Plaça Catalunya (1) is at the heart of Barcelona, a vast square where the Barri Gòtic (Old Town) meets the Eixample (Extension) and Metro, bus and suburban train services converge. The main tourist office is underground on the Corte Inglés side of the square (open 9am-8pm daily, 00 34 93 285 3834; barcelonaturisme.com); other kiosks are dotted around the city.
South from here, the Ramblas weaves towards the Mediterranean, punctuated by the statue of Columbus (5) – where the explorer reputedly landed after his first voyage to the New World.
Other key locations in the centre include the ornate, palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), and the bulky and disjointed Cathedral (7), which squats on the northern edge of the old Roman city of Barcino.
I paid €30 without breakfast at the cheap and central Hostal Galerías Maldà (8), a rambling old mansion tucked inside a shopping arcade at Carrer del Pi. The most stylish property in the centre is the Grand Hotel Central (9) at Vía Laietana 30 (00 34 93 295 7900; grandhotelcentral. com), created in a 1926 building and offering facilities from bike rental to an amazing infinity pool on the roof. Double rooms start at €140, excluding breakfast. The boutique and luxury hotel specialist Mr & Mrs Smith is offering Independent readers 25 per cent off suites; see independent.co.uk/ mrandmrssmith.
The latest addition to the accommodation register is the spectacular W Barcelona (10), (Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 1; 00 34 93 295 2800; starwoodhotels.com/whotels), perched at the end of one arm of the port, jutting into the Mediterranean. A double room costs €270 excluding breakfast.
Take a view
You need not even climb the Monument to Columbus (5) to be bowled over by the dramatic architecture of Barcelona. The column at the southern end of the Ramblas is flanked with elaborate statuary and surrounded by handsome buildings. If you wish to take the lift to the top, it opens 10am-6pm daily and costs €3.
Take a hike
Start at the Columbus Monument (5) and strike inland along the Ramblas, the main tourist avenue, which has a mesmerising range of human statues, flower stalls and pavement cafés. Halfway up, divert through the Galería Bacardi to the palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), about as architecturally uniform as the older parts of Barcelona get. Dive back on to the Ramblas, and call in at Mercat de Sant Josep (11), also known as La Boquería (8am-8.30pm daily except Sunday). It resembles a Victorian railway terminus filled with a colourful feast of fruit, vegetables and cheeses.
Watch out for some spectacular façades, and just before the Plaça Catalunya, refresh yourself from the Font de Canaletes – a ritual supposed to guarantee a return to the city.
Catch your breath at the Plaça, then head east to plunge into the Roman city. Head south on Avinguda Portal de l'Angel, which quickly narrows to funnel you into the ancient heart of the city along its continuation, Carrer dels Arcs. Just before you pass the cathedral (7) to your left, you can see fragments of the Roman walls and a reconstructed section of aqueduct. The cloisters of the cathedral are worth visiting: a haven filled with orange trees and palms, the pool in the centre has its own flock of geese. The cathedral's magnificent nave is also worth seeing (open 10am-2pm on Sundays; 9am-1pm and 5pm-8pm on other days).
Continue south to the Plaça Sant Jaume (12), where the palaces of the municipal and regional authorities stare at each other, and turn left into the Born quarter – best sampled on Vía Argentería, which stretches down to the beautiful 14th-century church of Santa María del Mar (13). If it is open (hours are erratic) you can walk the length of it, and emerge at the far end on the broad Passeig del Born. Turn right down Carrer Rec, whose colonnades provide shade for a range of arty shops and a flavour of Cuba. The hike concludes at the breathtaking Estació de França (4).
Lunch on the run
If you have picked up a picnic, head a few metres along to the Parc Ciutadella (14). If not, wander a few blocks south to Carrer de Ginebra (15) in Barceloneta, and choose between the adjacent temptations of El Lobito at no 9 and Bar Jai-ca Tapas at no 13.
El Corte Inglés dominates the retail offering, with a huge department store on Plaça Catalunya (1) and another a block south of it on Avinguda Portal de l'Angel – where you will also find plenty of familiar upmarket brands. But for fascinating individual stores offering trinkets, chocolate and art, wander the length of Carrer de Petritxol (16), whose southern entrance is dominated by the retro ironmongers, Josep Roca.
At Taller de Tapas (17) at Argentería 51, a sharp, modern façade conceals old vaults that are ideal for conspiratorial sipping (cava is €11.85 a bottle), and nibbling of tapas: these snacks start at less than €3 a dish. If you are not inclined to fit in with the local habit of dining from around 10pm, you can easily feast here. And on fine evenings, you can sit out on the small square opposite, though you will pay a 10 per cent premium for the privilege.
Dining with the locals
At La Fonda (18) at Passatge Escudellers 1 (00 34 93 301 7515), you can dine splendidly on Catalan dishes (seafood an inevitable speciality) in faux-tropical surroundings for reasonable prices: a filling main course is typically under €20, with cheap but good house wine.
Sunday morning: go to church
Today is partly devoted to the great Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Start at the Sagrada Família (19) (00 34 93 207 3031; sagradafamilia.cat), an "expiatory temple" that has been under construction for over a century. Even as a work in progress, Gaudí's startling nest of soaring steeples is Barcelona's most recognisable symbol. Open 9am-6pm daily; admission €11.
Out to brunch
Close to the city's cathedral, the Basque dishes at the Orio "Euskal Taberna" (20) at the corner of Carrer de Ferran and Passatge del Credit are on offer from 10am to midnight daily; you can choose from cockles, clams and cheeses, or simply €5 pastries (00 34 90 252 0522). If you prefer to lock in to a fixed-price repast, then the White Bar (21) on the corner of Carrer Princesa and Carrer Comerç (00 34 93 295 4652) offers a good solution 7.30-11am daily: an €8.50 buffet breakfast.
Take a ride
The dominant feature of the Barceloneta district is the gaunt skeleton of the Sant Sebastià tower (22), at the eastern end of the Teleférico – an astonishing early 20th-century piece of transport infrastructure that swoops across the harbour, providing the 18 or 19 passengers with superb views as it sweeps via the presently inactive Torre Jaume I (23) to the hillside at Montjuïc (24). The €9 one-way trip (€12.50 return) is very popular, and waiting times can be long.
A walk in the park
Montjuïc (24), the lungs of Barcelona, is worth exploring. Then take the funicular from the upper station down to Paral.lel on Line 3 of the Metro, and hop on the train to Lesseps, about 10 minutes' walk from Parc Güell (25). Entering the park feels like walking into a fairy tale. The park also contains a house once inhabited by Gaudí, which is now a museum that can be visited for €5 (Casa Museu Gaudi, 00 34 93 219 3811), open 10am-8pm daily.
When Gaudí wasn't designing temples and gardens, he was busy creating wonderful apartment blocks on Passeig de Gràcia. Most spectacular is Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (26), "the stone quarry", on the corner of Provença (00 34 93 484 5995, 10am-8pm daily, €10). Just south, another melting Gaudí masterpiece that mocks the area's geometric neatness is Casa Batlló (26), at number 43 (00 93 216 0306; casabatllo.com; 9am-8pm daily, €16.50).
The icing on the cake
Alternatively, look down at Casa Batlló while you sip a cocktail at the 10th-floor open-air bar of the Hotel Majestic (28) at Passeig de Gràcia 68 (00 34 93 487 3939; majestichotelgroup. com). The skyline is serrated by the spectacular structures of a city where the pace of life is matched by the pace of change.