Rebellious and Romantic, the Catalan Capital Savors Surprises

Bon dia, Barcelona

On the surface one thing is clear: Barcelona does not play by the rules. You only need to step into the famously unfinished Sagrada Família, a piece of modern architecture so captivating and controversial that Pope Benedict XVI would only consecrate it as a minor basilica. Its visionary, Antoni Gaudí, put his artistic stamp on many sections of the city. And like his iconic mosaic sculptures, Barcelona pieces together an eclectic energy that is both vibrant and unexpected.

The heart of the autonomous community of  Catalonia, the Spanish metro proudly promotes its unique cultural identity and Catalan language. Following years of repression under the Franco regime, Barcelona has enjoyed a recent renaissance since hosting the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. It also distinguished itself as an epicenter for arts and architecture, promoting the talents of some of the city’s most celebrated residents including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and, of course, Gaudí.

Getting There

Norwegian Airlines offers a direct flight to Barcelona on one of their jetlag-friendly Dreamliners. If you’re feeling fancy, you can book a cushy PremiumFlex seat at a reasonable price for the extra amenities. norwegian.com

Where to Stay

Barcelona has numerous vibrant areas to explore, so it’s wise to stay somewhat central. Located steps from the fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, Almanac Barcelona offers a stylish and upscale experience from which to launch your daily adventures. The rooms come spacious and sleek, many with incredible views of the area. From the rooftop pool you can enjoy a 360º view of the city while sipping a cool glass of albariño. The hotel also features Línia, a Mediterranean brasserie serving culinary delights, where locals and travelers intersect from morning to night. almanachotels.com

Where to Eat

Tapas are the favorite edible tradition of the residents of Barcelona. You’ll find plenty of these sharable plates throughout the city. But if you want to merge tapas with the ultimate culinary playground, then you need to reserve a table at Tickets. As the name implies, Chef Albert Adrià’s Michelin-star restaurant seeks to entertain, and it succeeds in that quest.

My meal started with a tomato iced tea served in a porcelain pot, saucer and cup with a savory tea bag garnish. Light, refreshing and smile-inducing, this liquid amuse bouche offered the prelude to an evening filled with bite-size masterpieces, cleverly presented and incredibly tasty. As a bonus, I was handed a special invitation to the separate dessert bar—think Willy Wonka meets Alice in Wonderland—and concluded my meal with a sweet send-off. Some places live up to the hype, and Tickets is one of them. elbarri.com

What to Do

If you find the tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare to be unbearably crowded, as I did, head to the Gothic Quarter—Barcelona’s old city center—for window-shopping and people-watching. If you’re fortunate, antique vendors will set up their wares in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona. Around the evening hours gather with locals as they join hands for traditional Catalan song and dance. This plaza is also a great vantage point to view Picasso’s frieze atop the modern Collegi d’Arquitectes building. His museum is a short walk away, but be sure to reserve your ticket in advance.

Picasso may be one of the art world’s most recognizable artists, but in Barcelona it is Gaudí who is most revered. You can view his art nouveau architecture at Casa Milà—his last private residential design. Though extraordinary from the outside, you can visit the building’s interior—from basement to terrace—through a ticketed tour.

On the outskirts of the city you can meander through Parc Güell, a natural setting intermixed with the artist’s mosaic sculptures, serpentine shapes and colonnades hall. But the must-visit Gaudí attraction is the one he never saw to completion. Don’t let the cranes and construction discourage you from visiting. I’d argue that the ongoing activity only adds to the experience.

The magnificent white columns and contours swim in colored lights from the stained glass windows, and awe-struck visitors try to capture that perfect photo. But take a moment to sit among the devoted at noon. That’s when a chorus of unseen nuns fills the church with their voices. A minor basilica? Hardly.

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