Barcelona: Inside one of Europe's most brilliant, eccentric cities

Park Guell, by Gaudi. Picture: Shutterstock
Park Guell, by Gaudi. Picture: Shutterstock

They say Barcelona doesn't like tourists. Its citizens have taken to the streets to decry cruise ships and to demand more curbs on foreign visitors.

Yet somehow, when you visit this brilliant, eccentric city of some of Europe's most bizarre artists, you don't get the feeling you are unwelcome.

Barcelona simply bursts with attitude. Its boundless energy is infectious, its uber cool unrivalled, its art mesmerising and its architecture, well, strange.

And that's not all. Barcelona has fabulous Catalan cuisine dishing out some of the best tapas in quirky, cramped and noisy restaurants full of atmosphere. The city is home to 22 Michelin-starred restaurants and avant-garde chefs serving haute cuisine.

You will find yourself stopping in your tracks when you roam the city centre and catch glimpses of the irreverent architect Antoni Gaudi, as his unmistakable creations are dotted everywhere.

Gaudi's wavy architecture style and intricate mosaics are on proud display at his modernist landmark, Casa Batllo, located on the Passeig de Gracia, often described as the Champs-Elysees of Barcelona.

The city has also been made famous by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, whose works can be admired in cutting-edge art museums. The Picasso Museum is housed in a medieval mansion, smack in the midst of the trendy El Born area.

Barcelona's amazing street art has given a new lease of life to the city's lanes and public places and art fans can also choose from a wide plethora of galleries representing emerging Spanish artists.

Getting around Barcelona is so easy - you can pretty much walk the city.

Locals adopt a cool vibe, wearing the latest white trainers and well-worn Loewe Puzzle bags slung casually across the body - an it girl brand popular among young Barcelona women and worn with just the right amount of make-up and red lipstick.

Equally striking are Barcelona guys: slender, toned and uber cool in slim-fitting pants, casual jackets and sporting cross-body man bags.

My journey in Barcelona starts at Passeig de Gracia, home to some of the upmarket international couture houses Prada, Louis Vuitton and Chanel at the Paris end of the boulevard and at the other end, you can't miss megastore Zara, the Spanish brand that put fast fashion on the world map.

We walk across to the famous Las Ramblas, a boulevard lined with tall plane trees that runs from Placa de Catalunya, a lively square and popular meeting place, down to the Columbus Monument at the waterfront.

Las Ramblas is like a nerve centre of the Catalan capital.

At night the boulevard takes on a slightly seedy vibe, teeming with bars, tapas cafes and young people ready to have fun. Just make sure you hold tightly to your handbag or wallet.

We then walk to the oldest district, the Gothic Quarter, to look at Barcelona Cathedral, a fine example of gothic architecture with soaring belltowers and detailed stonework. Built from the 13th to the 15th century, the Cathedral, a popular tourist attraction, is surrounded by a lively, outdoor market filled with art, food and jewellery stalls.

You either love or hate Gaudi, the architect whose singular approach to the Art Nouveau movement generated some of the most creative buildings in Barcelona. Even if you don't know much about the man, his buildings are unmistakable. Seeing is believing.

Start on Passeig de Gracia with Casa Batllo, a conventional house built in 1877 and totally restored in 1904.

The building is so irregular, there are hardly any straight lines in it. Its facade is decorated with broken ceramic tiles, there are oval windows, decorative balconies and the roof is arched and scaled like the back of a dragon. Book ahead to avoid the crowds.

Further down the same boulevard, stop at Casa Mila, the roughly hewn, stone-quarry, modernist building.

Built between 1906 and 1912, this is Gaudi's last residential design and has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facade of undulating stone is decorated with wrought-iron balconies and the building has a spectacular roof terrace with fabulous views of the city. Inside take a look at the decorative skylights and chimneys. Casa Mila is a work of art.

But Gaudi's masterpiece is La Sagrada Familia basilica. Construction of the church started in 1882 and is not expected to be finished until 2026, when it will commemorate the centenary of Gaudi's death. Yep, you read that right!

When Gaudi was run down by a tram and died in 1926, only a quarter of the project was completed. Since his death, construction of the basilica has progressed slowly with 10 more spires still to be built.

A hotel stay fit for Gaudi 

From the moment you walk up the raised walkway into the lobby of Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona, you instinctively know this is not a hotel for the meek and faint-hearted.

Well-heeled international guests who choose to stay here, do so because they want to be seen - it is uber cool.

The former bank in the heart of expensive shopping street Passeig de Gracia is all about contemporary chic and minimalist style.

From its statuesque doormen, clad in dark coats, to its soothing basement spa, this eclectic, luxury hotel is all understated tones of cream and beige with a splash of colour.

We stay in a deluxe suite. At 78 square metres, the stylish, generous-sized room has a modern ambience with light wooden floors, French rugs, a separate lounge/dining, walk-in wardrobe, separate water closet, a bathroom with two wash basins and a freestanding deep Corian bathtub, as well as a terrace overlooking the urban garden.

Additional perks include aromatherapy toiletries, leather-bound notebooks and butler service.

The Banker's Bar serves modern cocktails and there's a stunning rooftop terrace great for sunset drinks. There's also a cutting-edge gym.

We have a late lunch at all-day dining restaurant Blanc, where chef Carme Ruscalleda serves up Catalan tapas and meals.

The joy of staying at the boutique 120-room Mandarin Oriental on Passeig de Gracia is its top-notch service and location. It's a few blocks from the Placa Catalunya and the Old City and you can pretty much walk anywhere. If you are uncertain where to go or what to do, the knowledgeable staff is ever eager to help.

Fly: Singapore Airlines flies return from Sydney to Barcelona via Singapore. Fares from $1503.

Stay: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel has deluxe garden rooms from $859 per night. See: mandarinoriental.com

Explore more: barcelonaturisme.com

While you're here...

...you might also enjoy...

...and have you signed up for our free travel newsletter yet?