48 Hours In: Barcelona

Gaudi's wacky designs, shopping on La Rambla and the fabulous bars of the Barri Gotic add up to the perfect recipe for a short break in the Catalan capital, says Sophie Morris


WHY GO NOW?

Barcelona blooms in spring: the weather is usually fine enough for a beachfront stroll and you can dine in a front-row seat on the bustling Placa Reial (1), a palm-fringed square in the city's medieval heart, the Barri Gotic. If you leave now you'll beat the tourists and increasing numbers of stag and hen parties.

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and its Star Alliance partner Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.es) fly from Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick, Newcastle, Stansted, Liverpool, Luton and Bristol; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) flies from Leeds/ Bradford and Belfast; Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) flies from Manchester.

Barcelona airport is 12km south of the city centre. The Aerobus runs every 12 to 15 minutes between 6am and midnight. The 30-minute journey to Placa Catalunya (2) or the Passeig de Gracia stop (3), a few blocks north, costs €3.60 (£2.60). Trains leave every half-hour for Placa Catalunya, taking 25 minutes and costing €2.50 (£1.80). A taxi will cost at least €20 (£14).

The main tourist office (open 9am-9pm; 00 34 932 853 834; www.barcelona turisme.com) is under Placa Catalunya (2) beside the metro.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Barcelona's main tourist drag, La Rambla, runs south from Placa Catalunya (2) almost to the waterfront, slicing the centre neatly in two: to the east lies the Barri Gotic, a warren of enchanting medieval squares, spires and shops.

To the west is El Raval, an edgier neighbourhood gradually filling with trendy restaurants and bars, La Boqueria (4) food market and Arabic cafés. South of Placa Catalunya is El Eixample, the main business district and high-street shopping area; above the Eixample lies Gracia, which was a bohemian village with cobbled streets before 19th-century expansion swallowed it up.

East of the Barri Gotic is El Born, a fashionable, gentrified district that stretches down to the sea.

CHECK IN

Hotel Omm (5) at Rossello 265 (00 34 93 445 4000; www.hotelomm.es) might well be Barcelona's most chic boutique hotel, with a spa and swimming pool as well as internet in every room. It is ideally situated for shoppers off Passeig de Gracia and doubles start at €225 (£161); breakfast is an extra €21.40 (£15).

Closer to the action, the minimalist rooms and rooftop pool of Hotel Jazz (6) make it seem worthier of more than its three stars (Carrer de Pelai 3; 00 34 93 552 9696; www.nnhotels.es), doubles from €134 (£96), breakfast is €14 (£10).

Hotel Banys Orientals (7) at Argenteria 37 (00 34 93 268 8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com) is equidistant from the beach and the main sights. Doubles from €102 (£73), breakfast is €10.60 (£7.60).

The Raval's Hotel Espanya (8) at Carrer Sant Pau 9-11 (00 34 93 318 1758; www.hotelespanya.com) is a shrine to the Modernista architecture Barcelona is famous for, and a bargain to boot with doubles from €70 (£50) including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

The towering yellow Sagrada Familia (9), Gaudi's monolithic, unfinished cathedral, is Barcelona's most recognisable symbol. Building on the architect's ambitious project has continued since his death in 1926, and the giddy 100m climb up its spires brings unmatched views across the entire city. Open 9am-6pm daily October-March, until 8pm April-September; admission €8 (£5.70); 00 34 93 207 3031; www.sagradafamilia.org.

TAKE A RIDE

Central Barcelona is easy enough to navigate on foot; take the metro for longer journeys. A "T10" ticket, price €6.65 (£4.75), buys you 10 single journeys anywhere on the system, which is open until 11pm from Monday to Friday and to 1am at weekends.

TAKE A HIKE

To take in Barcelona's medieval, Modernista and contemporary histories put aside two to three hours to wander from Gaudi's La Pedrera (10) on Passeig de Gracia, through the Barri Gotic and down to the modern seafront promenade. A couple of blocks down from La Pedrera you'll spot Casa Lleo and Casa Batllo (11) lit up on the opposite side of the road.

Cross Gran Via and walk down the left side of Placa Catalunya (2) to Avenida Portal de l'Angel and you'll arrive at the magnificent Gothic cathedral, La Seu (12), though it's somewhat shrouded in scaffolding at the moment. Follow the passage to the right of the cathedral and you'll come out into Placa Sant Jaume (13), home of the Catalan government.

Turn left and out of the square down Carrer Ferran and cross Via Laietana, taking Argenteria down towards the sea. You'll pass the elegant Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar (14); pop your head round its heavy doors before continuing down Avenida Sant Joan de Borbo to the seafront. From here you'll see Frank Gehry's bronze fish and Barcelona's twin towers: the glamorous Hotel Arts (15) and the Mapfre tower.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Sagardi (16) at Carrer Argenteria 62 (00 34 93 319 9993), a five-minute walk from Jaume I metro station, is one of many Basque restaurants in Barcelona. It opens noon-4pm and 8.30pm-midnight. Don't grab a seat - head straight for the bar and help yourself to some of the many pintxos on offer - bread topped with regional specialities such as Spanish omelette, baked cod or cured ham, held together with a cocktail stick (€1.20/85p). The barman counts your sticks and tots up your bill at the end.

WINDOW SHOPPING

La Boqueria (4) is a huge, colourful food market halfway down La Rambla on the Raval side (8am-9pm Mon-Sat). Shop for cured meats, Manchego cheese and turron.

AN APERITIF

Café Zurich (17) at Carrer de Pelai 39 (00 34 93 31 79 153) overlooks La Rambla from the foot of Placa Catalunya. It's packed with tourists and Barcelona residents all year round and the waiters are uniformly glum, but there's no better spot for watching the city unfold and planning your next move. Hold on to your handbag.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

A new restaurant seems to dawn with each day in Barcelona. Most serve interesting twists on Catalan staples, but the traditional food at Els Quatre Gats (18) at Montsio 3 (00 34 93 302 4140; www.4gats.com), which was a favourite haunt of artists and poets, remains popular; it opens 8am-2am daily. Try the broad beans with bacon and the salt cod.

Les Quinze Nits (00 34 93 317 30 75) on the Placa Reial (1) is recognisable by its huge queue. It is in the most touristy square in town but the extensive menu is great value and the queue moves quickly; get here shortly after it opens at 8.30pm for the minimum wait.

El Xampanyet (19) at Montcada 22 in the Born area is a tiny, tiled bar flowing with bottles of cava for €7 (£5), platters of serrano ham (€14/£10) and arguably the best anchovies, mussels and tomato bread in town. The cramped atmosphere is considerably more pleasant since the city-wide smoking ban came into effect.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The imposing gothic exterior of Barcelona's oldest cathedral, La Seu (12), hides a large courtyard lined with palm trees which is home to a family of attention-loving geese (open 8.30am-2pm and 5pm-8pm). Mass is held almost every hour on a Sunday and several times a day throughout the week in both Spanish and Catalan; tourists are welcome.

OUT TO BRUNCH

If you want more than a croissant and coffee head for Buenas Migas, an independent café that is spinning out into a city-wide chain ( www.buenas migas.com). Choose from slices of focaccia with fresh pizza toppings and homemade cakes, pies, quiches and cereals. The original Buenas Migas (20) is at Placa Bonsuccess 6 in the Raval (00 34 93 318 37 08) and another branch (21) is in the Barri Gotic on Baixada de Santa Clara 2.

A WALK IN THE PARK

When you see the size and the sheer frippery of the design of Parc Guell (22), it is amazing to think that Gaudi designed and built it for just a few private homes. Take the metro to Lesseps and walk to the top of the park for the view before descending through its shady paths and large terraces, stopping for a photo call by the mosaic lizards (10am-dusk, free).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Fundacio Joan Miro (23) is Barcelona's most fun art gallery. The purpose-built building, in the Parc de Montjuic, houses some of Miro's vast tapestries, playful sculptures and many canvasses as well as temporary exhibits. The gallery (00 34 93 44 39 470; www.bcn.fjmiro.es) opens 10am-7pm daily except Mondays from October to June, until 9.30pm Thursdays, 2.30pm Sundays. On other days in summer, it remains open until 8pm. Admission is €7.50 (£5.40).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Or should that be the icing sugar on the churros, those deep-fried spirals of dough that you dunk in thick hot chocolate? The best exponent in Barcelona is the Churreria Carders (24) at Carders 46 (00 34 93 319 8895). After a couple of helpings you won't care if your airline does not provide a meal on the flight home.

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