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Barcelona really has got it all. Just for starters, there’s the location: the city dips its toes in the Mediterranean, leans back against the Pyrenees and basks in year-round sunshine. Then there is the skyline: this is Gaudí’s city after all, and his buildings seem to have erupted magically between Gothic spires and glassy 21st-century design. Add to that a fantastic and varied nightlife, a discerning cuisine and a nose for the latest and best in fashion and design, and it’s hardly surprising that Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in Europe.
But underneath the flirty, glamorous exterior lies a city that had to work to get attention. By the 1980s, parts of the city were too dangerous to walk through at any time of day and the spectacular legacy of the Modernistas was slowly disintegrating. The 1992 Olympics changed all that; with breathtaking energy the city reinvented itself, demolishing and reconstructing great swathes of land, and unfurling itself along the long-ignored Mediterranean. Since then, Barcelona hasn’t looked back. Capital of the proud province of Catalunya, it is the focus for resurgent Catalan nationalism, energetically celebrated through football and food, as well as politics.
Finding your way around Barcelona isn’t difficult; a glance at any map shows the crooked oval of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), the heart of the city for more than 2000 years. This is one of the best preserved Gothic quarters in Europe, a dizzy maze of palaces, squares and churches piled on top of the original Roman settlement. It is divided from the hip and multi-cultural Raval area by the famous Rambla, a mile-long promenade shaded with plane trees that stretches from the city centre down to the sea. Spreading inland from the old city is the elegant and precise grid of the Eixample, where the Modernistas left their fanciful mark, most spectacularly at La Pedrera and in the soaring towers of the Sagrada Família.
Beyond the city centre, seek out Gaudí’s magical Park Güell, take a cable car to the hill of Montjüic for its parks and museums, or catch the vintage tram to the funfair on the peak of Tibidabo, from where the whole city is spread out at your feet. And, when you tire of sightseeing, head to the seafront, where 7 km of sandy beach, stretching from busy Port Vell to the Port Olímpic, is lined with seafood restaurants and bars.