Sagrada Familia cathedral will be completed in 2026. Photo: Alamy
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For most tourists – myself included – Barcelona is all about the old town, food, culture and architecture. But, after a single visit of not much more than a week, I now know there is far more to explore and my partner and I agreed a return visit is essential.

If your time is limited there is no better place to get a concentrated dose of history and the good life than a stay within the notional walls (demolished in 1854) of Ciutat Vella ("old city" in Catalan) which is the 500-hectare hub of a much more sprawling city.

Approaching by car along the aptly named Ronda Litoral, there's no mistaking Barcelona's credentials as a modernist metropolis with some serious beachfront real estate.

Placa Reial, perfect for people watching.
Placa Reial, perfect for people watching. Photo: Alamy

But just a few blocks from the glistening waterfront are the narrow lanes of the Gothic Quarter which we found to be not much wider than a suitcase and so walked the last couple of hundred metres to our holiday apartment. Our lodgings typified much of what you find in the old city – an ancient edifice but inside polished sophistication, a perfect blend of the glossy and the gothic. There are beautifully refurbished stone walls with contemporary furniture and fittings and, happily for me, a total absence of chintz.

This is a very "now" city that mixes the modern with the medieval. A fine example is the Picasso Museum which just happened to be within arm's reach of our Juliet balcony. This is one of about 50 museums in the city which showcase everything from erotica to funeral carriages, shoes, hemp, Catalonian history and a lot of art. Indeed apart from architecture and tapas, art and culture are at the heart of Barcelona's allure.

The city's most famous landmark is Sagrada Familia, an unfinished cathedral commenced by Antoni Gaudi in 1882 and scheduled for completion in 2026.

This extraordinary building sits perfectly with the city's ongoing love affair with architects from Mies van der Rohe, whose Barcelona chair is one of the items inside the Barcelona Pavilion which he designed for the 1929 International Exposition, to Herzog and de Meuron (forum building), Frank Gehry (golden fish sculpture), Richard Meier (Museum of Contemporary Art) and Norman Foster (telecommunications tower Torre de Collserola).

The city's other great obsession is food. Whether you're eating out or cooking your own, Catalan gastronomy choices are endless.

One of the world's most renowned markets is La Boqueria, located on Barcelona's famous La Rambla. Built in the mid-19th century, it's the market with the lot. From candied fruit to cured meats to dried herbs and confectionery, butchers and fishmongers rub shoulders and spruik the freshest produce.

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For a smaller, modern version go to Santa Caterina with its distinctive wavy roof. It has equally varied produce but with the added attraction of the Cuines Santa Caterina restaurant. Here you'll find four distinct kitchens within the room, each serving a different style of cuisine: Asian, Mediterranean, vegetarian and Italian. All offer fantastic value.

Eating out is only complicated by making a choice, there are so many bars, restaurants and cafes and equally, so many backdrops, from intimate laneways with family-run establishments to colonnaded placas such as Placa Reial (Royal Plaza). This is home to several famous nightclubs, lamp posts designed by Gaudi and a central fountain surrounded by palm trees and umbrellas shading restaurant tables and chairs – perfect for people watching and a lazy post-lunch glass of Rioja.

While lunch might involve queuing at more popular places, dinner is easy if you're not Spanish. The locals don't appear to contemplate eating before 10pm so rocking up anywhere before then is almost guaranteed to get you a table (even though the place is reputedly overwhelmed by tourists). Try any tapas bar – even the chain versions don't disappoint – and you're in for a treat. Famous tapas dishes include bomba Barcelona, Galician-style octopus, razor clams, ham croquettes and bacalao.

Columbus Monument.
Columbus Monument. Photo: Alamy

Visit Restaurant Mercat Princesa, a hidden gem, for tapas along with a variety of Japanese, Mediterranean and fusion food all set in spacious surroundings within a 14th-century gothic palace. Almost next door is Restaurant Montiel which is a wellregarded (ethical) fine diner – try the acorn-fed duck magret. You'll find both of these eateries in the Born area, behind the Picasso Museum in Carrer dels Flassaders.

In spite of local complaints about too many tourists, Barcelona doesn't appear to be suffering from its many admirers in the same way as, say, Venice does. This town has managed to absorb its visitors with a little more sangfroid than some of its peers on the sightseeing circuit, but get there soon, just in case.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 10.

from traveller.com.au