Barcelona manages to squeeze a disproportionate number of sights into the strip of land wedged between the Mediterranean and the Collserola mountains. But what this mix of hotels, restaurants, bars, markets and landmarks is missing is a thriving B&B industry. The Catalan capital is a city where your hotel room rate rarely includes breakfast and guesthouses tend to err on the basic side. In recent years, a few hotels with just a handful of rooms have popped up, but not many with that personalised service British travellers are accustomed to.
Step up El Balcon del Born, which opened in 2011 in Barcelona's stylish Born district, just a stone's throw from the Gothic Quarter and the golden sweep of Barceloneta's beaches. It's housed on the first and third floor of a 100-year-old apartment block and the darkened stairway (it does have a lift too) feels like the setting of an eerie Carlos Ruiz Zafon book. But reach the first floor and you emerge into a burst of colour, high ceilings and chandeliers.
Grand, elegant king and queen beds dominate the 10 rooms, split equally between the first and third floors. Each room has a feature wall, either painted a bright colour or left as bare brick, but the real highlight is the grand floor-to-ceiling windows which open out on to little balconies overlooking the plaza below. They are set up with a decorative table and chairs, perfect for morning coffee or an evening cerveza. The rooms open out into a warm communal area, dominated by a big breakfast table. If you're looking for a chilled beer or soft drink, the sleek kitchens operate an honesty bar system too.
Only one room has its own en suite, while the other four share two modern bathrooms between them. During my stay I never had to wait for the bathroom, even though the B&B was fully booked.
There are two or three famous bakeries in Barcelona and the fresh breads served at breakfast come from one nearby. Alongside the brown loaves, there are huge fluffy croissants, granola and muesli, yoghurts and fresh fruit. Italian coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and an assortment of teas complete the selection. The breakfast is eaten around a large pine table with the large windows on to the terrace flung open.
Pablo and Anna are the friends you wish you had in every city you visit. Between them they speak five languages and are hugely passionate about showing visitors the best of their home (Polish Anna's adopted home, actually). On arrival they'll serve you a cold drink and sit you down for an introduction to the city, handing over an annotated map with about 30 points of interest – restaurants, bars and landmarks complete with contact details, prices and any other information you need. If you're looking for local tips they are full of them, from cycle hire to recent restaurant openings and the best place to go shopping.
You can't walk for five minutes in Barcelona without falling over some great artistic triumph, from the spikey towers of the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia, to the swirling Joan Miro mural on the ground about halfway down Las Ramblas boulevard. While the metro is modern and airy, the best way to explore is on foot.
Armed with my annotated map, I stroll for just a few minutes from El Balcon to the tangle of streets that make up the Gothic Quarter. Closer still is the glitzy, restaurant-packed marina, while Casa Batlló (00 34 93 216 03 06; casabatllo.es), Antoni Gaudi's lizard-like building on Passeig de Gràcia, is a 20-minutes walk.
Closer to home, the Born district adds a modern twist to Barcelona's creative character. A former medieval guild district, it is now filled with galleries, artists' studios, one-of-a-kind shops, bohemian bars and restaurants.
The Pit Stop
If you love seafood, Anna and Pablo recommend La Paradeta (00 34 932 681 939; laparadeta.com) at Carrer Comercial 7, in the Born district. The atmosphere is relaxed and authentic. The fish is charged per kilo and an average meal will start at about €18 (£15.50) including a drink.
To dine in grander surroundings, Palau Dalmases (00 34 933 100 673; palaudalmases.com) at Carrer Montcada 20 is just a stone's throw from the Picasso Museum. The 17th-century former palace is ideal for a cocktail and has nightly flamenco shows at 9.30pm.
El Balcon del Born, Carrer de Rera Palau 2, Barcelona, Spain (00 34 634 524 505; facebook.com/ElBalconDelBorn.Barcelona). Doubles start at €75 (£65), including breakfast. A double with its own bathroom costs €120.
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