The seductive seaside capital of Barcelona is a hard-working city with a strong hedonistic streak. The story of two thousand years is etched into its Roman remains, Gothic churches and Modernista mansions (especially the dreamlike landmark buildings of Antoni Gaudí). The assault on the senses intensifies in Barcelona’s restaurants, boisterous bars and clubs. In summer, beaches in and outside the city are a magnet for sun-worshippers.
Get a base in the old city centre at such budget options as Pensió 2000 (Carrer de Sant Pere més Alt 6) or Hostal Chic & Basic (Carrer dels Tallers 82). For greater elegance and a touch of luxury, try Hotel Neri (Carrer de Sant Sever 5; www.hotelneri.com) in the Barri Gòtic or Hotel 1898 (La Rambla 109) on La Rambla.
Start the day early with a cafè amb llet (coffee and milk) and pastry on Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol, a charming old town square in the heart of the Barri Gòtic.
Suitably energised, it is time to explore the labyrinth of twisting lanes around about. You could spend hours simply losing yourself in streets lined by an endless variety of shops, eateries and little bars. Although much regenerated in recent decades, the 'Gothic Quarter' still exudes a lived-in atmosphere that makes it anything but an outdoor museum.
Museums there are, however, and the most intriguing is the Museu d'Història de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum; Carrer del Veguer), in which you are led underground and two millennia back in time to an excavated chunk of Roman Barcino. Once you resurface, the museum includes the Saló del Tinell, a grand Gothic hall.
A few steps away looms the Gothic Cathedral (Plaça de la Seu). The rooftop views and the leafy cloister with its gaggle of geese should not be missed. The open air café at the nearby Museu Frederic Marès (Plaça de Sant Iu 5-6; www.museumares.bcn.es) is the ideal spot for a rest, whether the zany collection is open or not.
From the Cathedral, stroll to what was once the Roman Forum, now Plaça de Sant Jaume, which is flanked by the Ajuntament (town hall) and Generalitat (regional government of Catalonia).
Across the thundering boulevard of Via Laietana, search out the city's most beautiful Gothic building, the Església de Santa Maria del Mar (Plaça de Santa Maria), raised in a record 59 years in the 14th century. Behind it, Carrer de Montcada leads to a series of centuries-old townhouses that together house the Museu Picasso (Carrer de Montcada 15-23; www.museupicasso.bcn.es). The collection provides a fascinating insight into the master's early years.
A short walk from the Museu Picasso is the colourful Mercat de Santa Caterina, a modern market that is home to several tempting eateries. At the very simple Bar Joan you can get a tasty set lunch for €11. The star attraction is the Tuesday special, arròs negre (cuttle fish ink rice). The dynamic Cuines de Santa Caterina serves anything from classic Mediterranean cooking to sushi.
Otherwise, walk about 15-20 minutes from the Museu Picasso to the waterfront La Barceloneta district, peppered with seafood eateries, among them the Suquet de l'Almirall (Passeig de Joan de Borbó 65).
After a stroll along the beach, it is time to cram in some of Barcelona's icons. Take the metro from La Barceloneta to Passeig de Gràcia and wander past two classics of Gaudí archictecture, Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia 43; www.casabatllo.es) and La Pedrera (Carrer de Provença 261-265; www.fundaciocaixacatalunya.es).
Of the two, La Pedrera is the most rewarding to visit, especially its sci-fi roof with chimney pots that look more like Star Wars troopers. An afternoon of Gaudí would not be complete without taking in the mighty work-in-progress that is the basilica of La Sagrada Família. With soaring pillars that look more like trees, this is Gaudí at his imaginative best, a festival of twists and curves that is still some way off completion. Head up the towers for an angel's eye view of the city below.
As locals don't bother with dinner before 9pm, you could tide yourself over with tapas at De Tapa Madre (Carrer de Mallorca 301, www.detapamadre.com) or the designer Tapaç 24 (Carrer de la Diputació 269; closed Sunday). Save space for a slap-up meal of largely Catalan dishes at Casa Calvet (Carrer de Casp 48; www.casacalvet.es; closed Sunday), itself one of Gaudí's early projects.
Still full of beans? The beautiful people tend to hit the bars above Avinguda Diagonal. Start in Berlin (Carrer de Muntaner 240), with footpath seating for the warmer months. It happens to be virtually next door to one of the city's more popular clubs, Luz de Gas (Carrer de Muntaner 244-246; www.luzdegas.com). For drinks with views and then dancing downstairs, grab a cab for Mirablau (Plaça del Doctor Andreu), halfway up Tibidado mountain. The vistas across the bright city lights and out to sea are second to none.
Barcelona's El Prat airport lies 12km southwest of the city at El Prat de Llobregat and is Spain’s busiest international hub after Madrid. Direct flights link Barcelona with destinations all over Europe. There are also several direct intercontinental connections.
This article was originally published in September 2010. This article was refreshed in August 2012.
For many more things to do on your perfect trip to Barcelona use Lonely Planet's Barcelona Pocket guide