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City Break: Barcelona for Beginners

Both modern and Modernist, delight in the kaleidoscopic wonders of Catalonia’s capital

As far as quick escapes from London’s chill go, winter in Barcelona remains relatively mild and sunny. The city’s allure has long laid in its year-round offer of both friendly metropolis and beach, its cultural credentials and proximity to Catalonian vineyards.

So much so that the number of hotel beds here sky-rocketed from 37,000 in 2003 to 69,000 in 2013. In response, the city’s mayor, Ada Colau, imposed a year-long freeze on new developments that ended this summer.

But this brief moratorium didn’t stop Soho House from opening its doors in the Gothic Quarter in August, and has left no shortage of smart establishments scattered throughout the historic centre, along its edgy fringes and right down to the waterfront (see Where to Stay).

An Edition hotel is also on the way next year, courtesy of hotelier du monde Ian Schrager. Colau’s ruling also served as a warning about preserving Barcelona’s rich artistic and architectural integrity. The Picasso Museum and Fundació Joan Miró are just as much for connoisseurs as those less well-versed in Surrealism, but while these two 20th-century masters figure prominently, the city is practically a playground in homage to Antoni Gaudí’s enchanting, colourful Modernist oeuvre.

Art truly is all around: impressive ceramic collages, sweeping façades and bold turrets are revealed at almost every turn. Chief of all Gaudí’s creations, the Sagrada Família is due to be completed in 2026, almost 150 years after work began on the sprawling basilica and its 45-metre vaults. Beautiful modern stained glass panels have now been installed, and for those without fear of heights, ascending the spires to study the awe-inspiring intricacy of its exterior is highly recommended (and booking a timed entry slot is essential).

Barcelona couples cultural history and modern infrastructure in a way rivalled only by its German counterparts. A day spent lounging indoors is surely a day wasted, and neck ache be damned – don’t forget to look up. 

Where to stay

Backing onto Frank Gehry’s supersized fish sculpture, Hotel Arts Barcelona occupies one of two seafront skyscrapers: meaning guaranteed vantage points of the city or the glistening Mediterranean and Port Olímpic marina. On the 33rd floor sits a lounge, and those who stay in Club rooms and suites have private complimentary access. Here a dedicated concierge is on hand, as is a bar and supreme selection of treats throughout the day. Sleek service and design are de rigueur, but it is the hotel’s top standards – and top views – that really allow it to tower above the rest. 

Where to eat

It all starts with a shot of warm maple syrup topped with cream, cava, and a pinch of salt at Cinc Sentits, and this delightful sort of twist makes it easy to understand how the small restaurant earned its Michelin star. Three, four or seven-course menus change according to local supplies and chef Jordi Artal’s inventive whim, but impeccable wine pairing – or indeed vermouth – is a constant. For first-rate snacks, find Galician delicacies at Casa de Tapas Cañota (spicy potatoes and diced calf cheek); or for a rum baba with flair, Petit Comitè holds the key.

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Contrary to popular belief, avoiding the tourist trap of Las Ramblas is exceedingly simple. A fuss-free day can be enjoyed taking a cable car up to Montjuïc Castle and winding downhill on foot, followed by a late-night stroll through Spanish architectural history at Poble Espanyol. Those with an appetite for visual art may prefer a personal tour of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona – past or present, all bases are covered.