Unassailable proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Barcelona over the centuries has been buffeted by invading forces, fleeced by trade restrictions and strangled by autocratic central governments – and every time has bounced back prouder and more audacious.

After the ‘grey years’, the interminable period between the end of the civil war and Franco’s dying breath, there was a huge zest for change, to move on to a new era. It stoked the desire to transform the city itself, while the bid for the 1992 Olympics and then the Games themselves provided extra incentive, not to mention cash. The finest architects and urban planners were persuaded to take part in this vision.

The axis upon which the project spun was the idea to ‘turn Barcelona around’ to face the sea, creating whole swathes of beach from what was virtual wasteland. Ugly high-rises flung up during the Franco regime were pulled down, derelict blocks razed to provide open spaces and parkland, and world-class artists and sculptors – Roy Lichtenstein, James Turrell, Claes Oldenburg and Rebecca Horn among them – commissioned to brighten up street corners.

Along with the creation of the new Barcelona in bricks and mortar went the promotion of Barcelona’s concept, a seductive cocktail of architecture, imagination, tradition, style, nightlife and primary colours. Helped, in large part, by the legacy of Gaudí and his Modernista contemporaries, which provided the city with a unique foundation both architecturally and in spirit, this was perhaps the most spectacular, and certainly the most deliberate, of Barcelona’s reinventions. It succeeded in large part because this image of creativity and vivacity – what writer Rose Macaulay described as its ‘tempestuous, surging, irrepressible life and brio’ – simply fitted well with an idea of the city already held by many of its citizens. Thrown into the mix were the core values of nationalist pride and a delight in traditional ways, from dancing the sardana in front of the cathedral, to wheeling out papier-mâché giants and fire-breathing pantomime dragons at the first hint of a celebration.

Barcelona’s love of eccentricity had already brought about a wealth of quirky museums (such as those devoted to shoes, perfume, sewers, funeral carriages and mechanical toys), to which more were added. Its handsome but grimy façades were buffed up, its streets renamed and its churches restored. The glittering, buoyant result make the drab decades seem nothing but a collective bad dream.

Getting there
Emirates flies to Barcelona via London from about Dhs8,275 return (including taxes).

Where to stay
The Market Hotel (+34 933 251 205; www.markethotel.com.es)

City talk
‘I love Barcelona for the sea and the mountains; for its sunny squares and markets; for its people – so warm and welcoming, yet hardworking and responsible; for its nightlife. Above all, I love it for all the rest, for all those indefinable qualities that make a city the perfect place to live.’ Ferran Adrià, head chef at El Bulli.

Instant passport
3,900,000 (core city 1,454,000)


803sq km

Where is it?

North-east Spain, between the Mediterranean and the Collserola hills.


Temperate, but hot and humid in summer.

Ethnic mix

European, Latin American, Pakistani, North African.

Major sights

Sagrada Família, Museu Picasso, Casa Batlló, Catedral, Palau de la Música, MACBA, Fundació Joan Miró, MNAC, La Pedrera, Park Güell, Camp Nou.

Insiders’ tips

Museu Frederic Marès, CaixaFòrum exhibition space, old-fashioned tapas bars of Carrer Mercè, Hospital de Sant Pau, Els Encants flea market.

Where’s the buzz?

Late-night bars of the multicultural Raval, designer boutiques in the medieval streets of El Born.

Percentage of Catalan speakers

74.6 per cent

Number of parks and gardens


Number of registered architects


Number of members of
FC Barcelona

Number of bar terraces


Number of fountains


Number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nine (seven by Antoni Gaudí, two by Lluís Domènech i Montaner).

Year the building of the Sagrada Família began


Projected year of completion

2026, the 100th anniversary of its architect Gaudí’s death.

Immortalised in

Private Life, The City of Marvels, The Time of the Doves, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, The Best of Worlds, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whit Stillman’s Barcelona.

The scores

Arts & culture




Food & drink


Quality of life


World status