Barca has something for everyone: art, architecture, history, food, shopping, sun and beach. It was the perfect location for Huy's 30th and Tim's 26th birthday, an event a year in the making.
Crepes El Born. The thin wholewheat Jabugo and emmental crepe was delicious on a late Friday night, but even more delicious was the extremely good looking crepe-maker.
Barcentral. Having seen many of Europe's food markets before, for me the most exciting part of La Boqueria were all the bars serving fresh tapas. Majella was in need of her morning coffee and I spied the fresh orange juice machine at this bar, so we settled ourselves on the tall stools and, with the help of our neighbour, enjoyed our breakfast of freshly cooked razor clams, sardines, bread with tomatoes, olives and anchovies, all served with a cheeky grin. It wasn't cheap, but oh so enjoyable and the highlight of my trip.
Hisop. After much research, consultation and numerous dietary-requirement emails, we descended on this classy restaurant en masse for Huy's birthday feast. It was exactly the kind of place he'd love - no 'rustic' food for this style-seeker, but rather a degustation of dishes involving emulsions, foam and molecular trickery, culminating in a dramatically extravagant birthday cake. For the quality of the food and smiling service, it was great value for 65 euros a head (excluding crazy birthday cake).
Bubo. A stylish patisserie filled with imaginatively decorated cakes and desserts. It has a sister cafe/bar a few doors down (with views of the facade of Santa Maria del Mar) where I enjoyed a thick hot chocolate while waiting for the shop to open (after having had two cakes there the day before). When confronted with so many delectable choices, why buy one cake when you can buy them all? So we celebrated Tim's birthday with twelve desserts from Bubo presented in a tower of colourful boxes.
Cafe Viena. Venerated by the New York Times as 'the best ham sandwich ever'. It certainly was good - crispy bread, thinly sliced ultra-expensive Jabugo ham and a smear of tomato.
El Paraigua. This place unaminously wins the award for Worse Tapas Ever. A tourist on Sunday in Barcelona is a captive market, and in need of sustenance we trooped through the mostly-shut Barri Gotic until we came to a series of bars in sunny Pas de l'Ensenyanca. No words can describe the horror that unfolded: watery sangria served in pint glasses, soggy tomato toast, overcooked burnt peppers stuffed with 'monkfish', stewed artichokes covered in slime with minute slivers of ham, canned cockles in brine, insipid razor clams and hyper-salty anchovies. To add insult to injury, it was expensive and the service was awful. It was so terrible that I felt like stoning its windows as I stormed out.
Sant Jaume, To erase the memory of Worse Tapas Ever, we immediately beat a hasty retreat to Sant Jaume. Beginning with a toast 'to better tapas' with our properly made sangria, we enjoyed tapas the way it should be done: nice bread, sliced meats, patatas bravas with spicy sauce and light croquettes.
Be warned: Spain is one of the few Western European cities where you can still smoke indoors. Awful, awful, awful.
Cafe Schilling. A glamorous black marble clad old dame of a bar, right on the edge of the Barri Gotic. It was buzzing on a Friday night, although I suspect many of them were tourists.
La Terrazza. On a cost-benefit analysis, I'm not sure why this nightclub had received such rave reviews. Benefit: The setting was certainly unusual - perched on Montjuic, it was tucked in the corner of a fake Spanish village, a ghost-town reminiscient of Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast. It was a novelty to be able to dance outdoors under palm trees and it was amusing to watch Huy work his moves on the podium. Cost: The decor and clientele was very much of the RE (uni pub in Brisbane) - corrugated iron walls draped with fake greenery, a large contingent of badly dressed guys in polo shirts and skanky girls (although not enough to make the club feel happening) coupled with beepy music with no lyrics. Unless you really like the DJ playing, not worth the 15 euros entry and a 15 euro taxi ride.
La Fira. An unpretentious nightclub decorated with old fairground paraphernalia including dodgem cars, pinball machines and crazy mirrors. When I was there everyone was getting their groove on to pop classics, but I heard later it changed to salsa and merengue. Best of all - free entry!
I didn't see much evidence of stylish Barcelonians around town, so I stuck to food shops.
Escriba. Escriba is buddies with Ferran Adria and makes incredible cakes. The wares inside his shop on La Rambla were quite sedate and I came away with a lovely packaged bar of chocolate.
Sans and Sans. A restful tea shop with a bank of dark blue tins lining the walls and other canisters in lovely packaging.
Xocoa. An upmarket chocolate shop with a tempting chocolate wall and funky pink and brown tins of chocolates.
Demasie. How could I resist a shop with the tagline 'exaggeratedly good cookies'? I wish I'd bought more - try the coffee and basil.
Walk around the Barri Gotic on Sunday, especially around the Cathedral, and soak in the stillness of the medieval architecture, broken only by buskers playing Spanish guitar and opera singers.
If you take the number 24 bus from Placa Catalunya, you get a free tour of many Gaudi-designed buildings en route to Parc Guell. The park is a-swirl with Gaudi's imaginative work. The Hansel and Gretel gingerbread houses unfold a mosaic tiled lizard at the entrance, and then the stairs lead up to a shady columned area and the melting park benches of the viewing platform. Don't bother with the Gaudi Museum in his old house, as it's small and not that interesting.
Hostal Gat Xino. I hesitate to recommend this hostel/hotel as I think the experience varied too wildly between our group (as was also reflected in Tripadvisor reviews). So I'll express my views and let others decide. The place was within convenient walking distance of La Rambla, particularly La Boqueria, but in a sketchy part of town. It wasn't Mugging Central, but my walks were punctuated by stares, shouting, propositioning and a general feeling of disquiet. In my view, the Raval area was more ugly and uninteresting than 'up-and-coming'. The first room Tim and I stayed in was incredibly tiny; two beds couldn't fit side by side so they were in an L-shape, head to toe, and if one person was getting stuff out of the suitcase the other person wasn't able to get past them to get to the bathroom. Furthermore, it was right next to the stairwell and laundry room, which meant a constant stream of people clattering up and down as they came home from partying at 6am or eating breakfast. at 9am, leaving a 3 hour window for cranky sleep, even with earplugs. On the plus side, the service was pleasant, the linen was cool, white and clean, the touches of lime-green made the decor funky, they provide shower gel and shampoo, the showers were fantastically hot and strong and the continental breakfast is ample. I think if you were lucky enough to get the suite on the 5th floor, you would have written a different review, as it was quiet, light and opened out onto the sun-filled roof terrace. In conclusion, I'd say it was an unhappy experience for 100 euros a night and there are many, many places in Barcelona which are better value for money.
Crepes El Born: Passeig El Born
Barcentral: La Boqueria, Puestos no. 494-496, 08002 Barcelona
T: +34 93 301 10 98
Hisop: Ptge Marimon, 9, 08021 Barcelona
T: +34 93 241 32 33
Bubo and Bubo Bar: Caputxes 10 and 6
T: +34 93 268 72 24, +93 310 57 73
Cafe Viena:La Rambla 115
T: +34 93 34 933 171 492
Saint Jaume: Carrer Jaume 8Cafe Schilling: Ferran 23, 08002 Barcelona
T: +34 93 317 67 87
La Terrazza: Poble Espanyol de Montjuïc, Barcelona 08038 ·
T: +34 93-423-1285
La Fira: Carrer Provenca 171
T: + 34 93 650 855 384
Escriba: La Rambla 83, 08002 Barcelona
T: +34 93 301 60 27
Sans and Sans: Argenteria 59, 08003 Barcelona
T: +34 93 319 60 81
Xocoa: Princesa 10 (and other locations)
T: +34 93 301 11 97
Demasie: Princesa 28, 08003 Barcelona
T: +34 93 310 42 95