01 March 2024

Gaudi's unfinished chruch, The Sagrada Familia
City on the sands is the best of both worlds
Is it a city break or a beach holiday? Barcelona, cultural treasure-house and gourmet paradise, combines the two, to Andrea Catherwood's delight
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here's something about a city on a beach. Just knowing you can take a dip in the Med anytime you like or sip rosé at sunset on the terrace of a seafront restaurant must be like living in a perpetual Mr Benn adventure, where you enter the fancy dress shop, trade your suit for a sundress, and walk through the magic door to a beach party.

I've been to a handful of 'beach at the end of the street' cities but the only one I know where you walk through cobbled lanes and past Gothic palaces to get there is Barcelona. If you can't wangle living there full-time, then Barcelona must surely be a top contender for the best city break destination. There's also the jaw-dropping architecture. No other city has as many buildings on the Unesco world heritage list as Barcelona, from Roman walls to the fantastic creations of Gaudi.
Try a signature cocktail at Frank's Bar
Sunset over Barcelona
At the foot of the hotel is Frank Gehry's huge futuristic sculpture of a golden fish, El Peix d'Or, installed to mark the 1992 Olympics. I've wanted to stay at the Hotel Arts since 1997, when it won its Best Hotel in the World award. I managed to have cocktails there a year later on a hen weekend. In 2012, I tried to book during Chelsea's clash with Barcelona in the semi-final of the Champions League, but it was fully booked. Now, finally, I was here, with no more baggage than a weekend case. The reception from staff was warm and the lobby was cool with flower arrangements like works of art.
There's enough art and culture to keep you busy for a decade of weekend breaks, plus cracking food and plenty of places to party all night. We stayed at the Hotel Arts. It's a glittering 44-storey skyscraper of glass and steel, towering over the beaches and Port Olimpic as well as the nearby old fishermen's quarter of Barceloneta, where narrow streets are festooned with laundry from apartments above the tapas bars.
"No other city has as many buildings on the Unesco world heritage list as Barcelona."
Things were just livening up in Frank's bar (named after the creator of the fish sculpture) where the signature cocktails were delicious. So it was not until the following morning that we could appreciate the views from our room - from one window we could see Port Olimpic and the shining Mediterranean, from another we could make out Gaudi's unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia.

The old city was a 15-minute stroll along the beachfront which was buzzing with volleyball matches, sailing and paddle-boarding. The narrow streets and medieval alleyways of the Gothic quarter opened unexpectedly on to grand squares, so we suddenly found ourselves in front of a cathedral or a gem of a Renaissance palace.
"It's a great city to get lost in and some of the best sights aren't in the tourist guides."
Go for a dip in the pool at The Hotel Arts
The Enotica dining room at The Hotel Arts
Of all the stunning buildings, the one I'm drawn to is Gaudi's Casa Batllo, its curves and flowing lines covered in tiny mosaic and wrought iron balconies. By sunset we'd made it up to the breathtaking National Museum of Art. It'ss modelled on the Basilica in Rome - and inside has some of the most astounding ancient frescos removed from churches in the Pyrenees. You're never far from a bar and the hallmark of every good city break is the large amount of eating and drinking to be had among all that culture.

Bella Rosa is a beachfront favourite - the food is excellent and there's a South Beach Miami feel, even though it's on the fringes of Barceloneta. Near the Sagrada Familia, the Café Sel is worth a visit just for the pastries. My favourite was Mont Bar. It's not much to look at from the outside, but the atmosphere is laidback and bohemian, the chef works magic with whatever has arrived from the market that day and the results are amazing. The food at the Hotel Arts is among Barcelona's finest.

The two Michelin-starred Enoteca is the flagship restaurant - it's stunning but not stuffy, and you fully expect Penelope Cruz to be dining with film director Pedro Almodovar at the next table (Hotel Arts is where she and many Hollywood A-listers stay). We were served Miraval Rosé from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's estate in Provence. The art isn't just in museums. As we wandered down a side street past a small car park, one of the prime spots was taken up by a huge avant-garde sculpture of a bull. It's a great city to get lost in and some of the best sights aren't in the tourist guides. There are not so many 'must sees' that you need to have a precise agenda. Anyway, I'd rather miss out on another art exhibition and linger over lunch, all the time hoping that, unlike in Mr Benn, the shopkeeper doesn't suddenly appear and invite me to go home.

Original article published in May 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
The flowing lines of the Casa Batllo
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