Given Spain’s reputation for partying into the wee hours of the morning, an ebullient street festival filled with paradegoers, music and dancing comes as no shock. But what does surprise is the pop of firecrackers punctuating the roar of the afternoon crowd in Barcelona, which is just as spirited when celebrating its patron St. Eulàlia as it is reveling after midnight. As confetti tumbles amid dozen of gegants—papier-mâché figures that look like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe puppets grown to 10 feet tall—locals shrug and advise that festivals like these are par for the course on most weekends in Catalonia’s capital; arriving with a bang is almost a guarantee.
There’s much to celebrate besides saints. This is the perfect place to spend a week strolling ancient streets and savoring good eats, even for non-Spanish speakers; the city is easy to navigate, and many people prefer English over the tongue of their 18th-century conquerors. It’s clear there is a unique culture here that feels far removed from the bullfighting and flamenco of the south.
What most of Spain does have in common, however, is that zest for noisy nightlife, making K+K Hotel Picasso in the quieter El Born neighborhood ideal for those seeking some R&R. It’s easy to roll out of bed and admire the golden-horse-flanked fountains of Ciutadella Park and the city zoo across the street, the fascinating medieval ruins at El Born Cultural Centre around the block, and the array of boutiques, coffee shops and charming restaurants within walking distance. Among the best is Saboc, a restaurant serving modern small plates at four temperatures—raw, low temperature, stovetop-cooked and griddled. “It’s really about sharing and about textures,” says director Jorge Sanchez, whose CV includes a stint at Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute. Between bites of cod with eggplant hummus and ginger chutney, sea bass ceviche with coriander and Santa Pau beans with pickled onion (and excellent glasses of $3 Catalan cava to boot), it’s easy to admire not only the textures of the food but those of the space: geometric flooring, exposed brick, warm woods and mustard and robin’s-egg accents.
The quintessential tapas experience, however, leans more toward the diner stool at Cal Pep, where locals and visitors alike sidle up to the counter for a chef’s choice lunch that typically includes such dishes as tuna tartare, fried artichokes and tortilla de patata, a potato omelet with chorizo and garlic aioli. You’ll find that tortilla here in countless pincho bars, tiny pubs dedicated to even tinier nibbles of seafood,
cheeses and thinly shaved jamon resting artfully on tiny toasts secured by toothpicks. At roughly $1.50 per skewer, it’s not only an inexpensive bridge between lunch at 1 pm and dinner at 9, but enough fuel for afternoon explorations.
One to check out is Barcelona Street Style, a free walking tour highlighting the fact that the city’s thriving arts scene isn’t only behind gallery doors—it’s often on them, thanks to graffiti artists who add splashes of color in unexpected places with tags, murals and stencils. Young guides lead the way down glittering alleyways and lend a local’s perspective that’ll have you hunting the rest of the week for signs of these midnight marauders, who’ve been embraced by cool Catalans as modern descendants of native sons Miró, Picasso and Gaudí.
It’s best to plan a day each to meander in these artists’ footsteps, reserving advance tickets for the Picasso Museum’s extensive lines and Gaudí’s iconic Sagrada Familia cathedral (don’t pass up lift tickets to the awesome towers soaring 65 meters above the city). You’ll save several hours that can be used for window shopping on Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s version of Newbury Street, or for heading over to Gaudí’s unforgettable Casa Batlló. The architect’s genius is further brought to life in a handheld video guide that helps visitors explore the home’s azure central hall and gracefully curving arches, animating different architectural details and revealing how the rooms looked back in Gaudí’s day.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is what waits underground at Barcelona’s City History Museum, which houses the most extensive subterranean Roman ruins in the world. These stone chambers and streets once comprised the thriving city of Barcino, but lay hidden for centuries until being unearthed during a construction project in the 1930s. Add in that the medieval courtyard built on top is believed to be where Columbus was greeted by the king and queen upon his return from the New World, and it’s a history geek’s Shangri-La.
After several hours marveling, let your eyes readjust to the light and get ready to be born again. Remnants of colorful confetti lining the cobblestoned sidewalks will lead the way.
-Shop till you drop: Mid-January through the end of February is when many Spanish stores have annual winter sales.
-Take a hike: An hour’s ride from the Plaça d’Espanya train station will transport you to the mountain and monastery of Montserrat, well worth a day trip for hiking or admiring the view from the funicular.
Barcelona’s City History Museum, museuhistoria.bcn.cat; Barcelona Street Style, barcelonastreetstyletour.com; Cal Pep, calpep.com; Casa Batlló, casabatllo.es; K+K Hotel Picasso, kkhotels.com/en/barcelona/hotel-picasso; Picasso Museum, museupicasso.bcn.cat; Saboc, saboc.com; Sagrada Familia, sagradafamilia.org