WHY GO NOW?
Spring comes early to this part of the Mediterranean, where the temperatures are already nudging 20C. In the absence of summer crowds and searing heat, the extraordinary architectural creations of Antoní Gaudí, Lluis Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch can be enjoyed at a more leisurely and enjoyable pace.
British Airways and Iberia fly from Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham; easyJet flies from Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol; Jet2 flies from Manchester, Leeds-Bradford and Belfast. From London, fares of £105 return are available through www.opodo.co.uk.
Barcelona's El Prat airport is 13km south-west of the city, and a 15-minute taxi ride to the centre costs €20-€30 (£13.50-£20). Trains leave every 30 minutes; the 25-minute journey to Plaça de Catalunya (1) in the centre costs €2.20 (£1.50). The airport bus goes to the same place every 12-13 minutes and costs €3.45 (£2.30).
The main tourist office is underground at Plaça Catalunya on the Corte Inglés side of the square (open 9am-8pm daily, 00 34 93 285 38 34; www.barcelonaturisme.com).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
From Plaça de Catalunya (1) La Rambla runs towards the sea. The tree-shaded boulevard bisects the lower half of the city, separating the medieval Barri Gòtic from the rougher but fascinating Raval quarter. La Rambla comes to an end at the monument to Columbus (2) beyond which is the old port, Port Vell, next to which you will find Barcelona's main beach at Barceloneta. North of Plaça de Catalunya (1) is the Eixample, a 19th-century extension created in an innovative grid system to relieve some of the squalid overcrowding of the lower town. This is where you will find many of the audacious structures concocted by the Modernistas, including Gaudí's La Pedrera (3) (also known as Casa Milà), his Casa Batlló (4), Domènech i Montaner's Casa Lleó Morera (5) and Puig i Cadafalch's Casa Amatller (6).
The Hotel Casa Fuster (7) at Passeig de Gràcia 132 (00 34 932 553 000; www.hotelcasafuster.com) in the leafy Gràcia area just above the Eixample is a superb example of Domènech i Montaner's Modernisme style. Built in 1908, it was originally the home for the rich Fuster family, then a cinema and, since 2004, a luxury five-star hotel. It has a Gaudi-like bar, rooftop pool and its elegant rooms start at €250 (£168) per night, excluding breakfast.
The cosy Hotel Mesón Castilla (8) at Carrer Valldonzella 5 in Raval (00 34 93 318 2182; www.mesoncastilla.com), is just around the corner from Macba, Barcelona's museum of contemporary art. It's quite ornate for a two-star (reflected in the price), and some rooms come with a terrace. Doubles start at €135 (£91) including breakfast.
A modern, stylish three-star that often has lower prices is NH Les Corts (9) at Travessera de les Corts 292 (00 34 93 322 0811; www.nh-world.com), which has doubles starting at €86 (£61) excluding breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
Find the most sweeping view of Barcelona high above the city on Tibidabo mountain, where Norman Foster's communications tower, the Torre de Collserola (10), sits. The glass lift zooms up 288m in less than two minutes to a360-degree viewing platform. Open Wed-Sun 11am-2.30pm and 3.30-7pm, entry €5 (£3.60). Take the metro from Plaça de Catalunya (1) to Vallvidrera Funicular via Peu del Funicular, then take the 211 bus.
TAKE A RIDE
Catch a lift on the cable car that crosses the harbour from Sant Sebastià (11) tower via Torre Jaume I (12) to Montjuïc (13). It opens noon-5.30pm and 10.30am-8pm from next month. One-way tickets cost €9 (£6), return €12.50 (£8.40).
TAKE A HIKE
A stroll is more in keeping with the atmosphere of the Barri Gòtic, the oldest part of the city where the Romans settled around 27BC. From Plaça de Catalunya (1) head south on Avinguda Portal de l'Angel through the narrow streets and remnants of Roman walls. Soon you come to Barcelona's cathedral (14). On Sunday mornings Catalans slip on their espadrilles to dance their national sardana.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Superior seafood tapas are served in the most unprepossessing setting at El Mundial (15) in Plaça Sant Agustí Vell (00 34 933 199056) in La Ribera, where octopus, squid and razor clams can be had for less than €15 (£10) per head.
Drop into La Boqueria (16), the city's main market on La Rambla Sant Josep 89, or pick up some delicious Iberian ham at La Botifarreria de Santa Maria (17) at Carrer Santa Maria 4 in La Ribera.
There's a distinctively Basque flavour to Golfo de Bizkaia (18) at Carrer Vidreria 12 in El Born (00 34 93 319 2431; www.golfodebizkaia.com), where the hot and cold tapas (or pintxos as they are known, because of the accompanying pintxo or toothpick) hail from the north. Nibbles range from €1.35 (90p) to €2.20 (£1.50), and just tot up the number of toothpicks to pay the bill.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Away from the tourists in the Gràcia area, Sureny (19) in Plaça Revolució de Setembre de 1868 17 (00 34 932 137 556) does wonderful things to tapas including goat's cheese, suckling pig, tuna and ravioli with mushroom and gambas.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
You can join the hordes and coach parties at Gaudí's famously unfinished Sagrada Familia (20) ( www.sagradafamilia.org; open daily 9am-6pm and until 8pm between April-September; €8/£5.70), or you can find peace at the splendid gothic Basilica de Maria del Mar (21) in Carrer Montcada in the Born area. It's Barcelona's only church entirely in the Catalan gothic style - not surprising, as it took only 55 years to build. Open daily 9am-noon and 4.30-8.15pm.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Join the hungover musicians at Dos Trece (22), a lively restaurant at Carrer Carme 40 in Raval (00 34 93 301 7306) where brunch includes pancakes, French toast, omelettes to order or even a fry-up. Main courses from €8 (£5.40).
A WALK IN THE PARK
It's not hard to think that Gaudí went a little mad when he created Park Güell (23) for his patron Eusebi Güell in 1914. It was inspired by English garden cities, but few such places will contain two houses straight out of Hansel and Gretel, a sinuous mosaic bench that slithers along dragon-like for 152m and 100 palm-shaped pillars that form a roof.
Two of the city's famous sons, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, have their own museums. But for a knock-out experience, visit the Palau de la Música Catalana (24) at Carrer de Sant Francesc de Paula 2 (00 34 93 295 7 200; www.palaumusica.org). Europe's only concert hall lit by natural light, it's a marvel of stained glass, tilework and sculpture created by Domènech i Montaner in 1908. Guided visits are held daily from 10am to 3.30pm, cost €9 (£6).
WRITE A POSTCARD
Just east of the old city is Parc de la Ciutadella (25), home to the zoo, Natural History Museum, an enormous statue of a mammoth and an enchanting ornamental fountain called the Cascade. Grab a drink from the little café between the Cascade and the boating lake and enjoy a surprisingly relaxing part of the city.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
If you've had your fill of Catalan architecture, broaden your horizons at Poble Espanyol (26) in Montjuïc (13) (Avinguda Marquès de Comillas 13, 00 34 93 508 6300; www.poble-espanyol.com). This open-air museum, built for the 1929 Exhibition, has examples of architecture from every region in Spain, as well as shops and restaurants. It's very touristy and a bit surreal, but it's beautifully done. Open daily from 9am, adults €7.50 (£5.40).