Proud capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is a city of dazzling architecture, sandy beaches, superb cuisine, vibrant nightlife and more museums, theatres, festivals and music venues than you could possibly discover on a short European break. This thriving city of 1.6 million people blends an independent spirit with a cosmopolitan, outward-looking culture: friendly locals are fluent in both Catalan and Spanish, and many can welcome you in English too.
Cradle of several world-famous artists and musicians, Barcelona boasts a rich cultural scene which you can admire at galleries like the Picasso Museum (www.museupicasso.bcn.cat) and Joan Miró Foundation (www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org), high on Montjuïc hill. The streets themselves display stunning Modernista (art nouveau) architecture, including Antoni Gaudí's iconic Sagrada Família (www.sagradafamilia.cat), a giant Catholic church that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site despite still being under construction. Wander off the tourist track to MiTO (www.mitobcn.com), an exciting gallery of contemporary art with exhibitions by up-and-coming local and international artists.
Head to Parc Güell (www.casamuseugaudi.org), one of Gaudí's other masterpieces, for a sunset picnic overlooking Barcelona from the marble terraces. You can get your ingredients – 'pan tumaca' (bread with crushed tomatoes), thinly sliced 'pernil' (cured ham), manchego cheese, juicy olives – at the colourful La Boqueria market (www.boqueria.info). Step out and stroll down La Rambla, past street entertainers, cafés, restaurants and bird-sellers, to the maze-like Gothic Quarter. Here, trendy brands like Desigual (www.desigual.com) sit beside tapas bars and irresistible pastry shops including Escribà (www.escriba.es). Wander down to the Old Port and take a break in the rooftop café of Museu d’Història de Catalunya (www.en.mhcat.cat), with marvellous views over the harbour.
On the way back to the centre, pick up unique souvenirs and postcards at WaWas (www.wawasbarcelona.com), by the Santa Caterina market. Nearby is Café de la Princesa (www.cafeprincesa.com), a trendy clothes boutiques and restaurant in a beautifully renovated 14th-century building. Back up at Passeig de Gràcia, stop for a bite to eat and some people-watching in Tapaç24 (www.carlesabellan.com/tapac24/), a popular option among Barcelona's countless tapas bars. For a taste of Barcelona's trendy culinary scene, visit ABaC (www.abacbarcelona.com), up near Tibidabo. A creative twist on traditional Catalan cuisine makes it worthy of its 2 Michelin stars.
Tick off sightseeing, culture and nightlife in one at Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall (www.palaumusica.org), a stunning Modernista building and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The alternative music scene is alive and thumping at Macarena (macarenaclub.com), while party-loving locals head to the giant Razzmatazz (www.salarazzmatazz.com). CDLC Barcelona (www.cdlcbarcelona.com), perched on Barceloneta beach, combines a nightclub with a good restaurant and fantastic views out to sea.
Catalonia's distinctive culture gives Barcelona's festivals a special energy. La Diada de Sant Jordi on 23 April celebrates Catalonia's patron saint with gifts of books and roses. A thrilling celebration of Catalan customs takes place in September during La Mercè (merce.bcn.cat), with street parties, concerts, fireworks and a cracking 'correfoc' (fire run), where a spark-spewing dragon chases through the streets. By comparison Sonar Festival (www.sonar.es) in June, one of Europe's biggest and best music festivals with over 100 concerts and parties, seems almost tame.