L'Estel Ferit art installation by Rebecca Horn on Barceloneta beach
Not for nothing did the art critic and historian Robert Hughes name his 2004 memoir Barcelona the Great Enchantress. One look and you're hooked. Many are the souls who came for a couple of days and ended up staying forever. Why? Because she is everything a city should be. An unapologetic testament to the art of convivial living and sensory pleasures that fuel the heart, mind and stomach, making you glad to be alive. It's a place you'll return to time and again in a futile attempt to fit everything in.
After all, how many other cities are there in the world that can lay claim to more than 7,400 bars and restaurants (23 of which have Michelin stars), more than 40 fresh produce markets and almost five kilometres of sun-licked Mediterranean beach? There are atmospheric neighbourhoods as well as fantastical architecture, museums to rival any in London or Paris, and a public transport system that makes getting around a dream. So having a ball is hardly a challenge, but armed with a few local rituals, trust us, you won't just visit, you'll own this town.
Fashion store Coquette in El Born district
While breakfast at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona is one of the great treats of being in the city (eggs Benedict, tick; Chinese yum cha, tick; miso soup, tick), it is worth letting the belly rumble for a morning to stroll down the elegant main avenue, Passeig de Gràcia (whose floral, emblematic paving stones, named the flor de Barcelona, were designed by prolific Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch), for breakfast at El Quim de la Boqueria in the city's most popular food market. Make like a local and ask for broken eggs tossed through with baby squid (chipirones), or chorizo, and then salute the day with a glass of cava, the locally produced sparkling wine.
The entrance to Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau
Afterwards, a mooch around La Boqueria itself, a cathedral of food, where generations of traders have been hawking their wares since medieval times, is a joy. Piles of fruit and vegetables rise like jewel-encrusted pyramids to the sky, wheels of cheese tempt, and haunches of the country's legendary Iberian ham beckon. There are barrels of salted fish, and buckets of olives, caperberries and pickled baby aubergines, while handmade chocolates, Marcona almonds and glacé fruit all wink seductively from wicker baskets. Stock up on foodie treats to take home, then set out on a combined culture-meets-shopping expedition of your own.
Casa Amatller's stepped rooftop
Start in pursuit of architecture's 'Holy Trinity': Barcelona Cathedral, whose cloisters are home to 13 white geese, each one representing a year in the life of the city's patron saint, Santa Eulalia (who is buried in the crypt); the church of Santa Maria del Mar, featuring a beautiful but austere interior and gravity-defying columns that symbolise the long hike to heaven; and the Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí's extraordinary, sculptural vision of heaven and hell (a description apparent in the church's façades). Gaudí was laid to rest in the crypt after being tragically run over and killed by a tram, and although his building is Barcelona's most popular tourist spot, the mind-boggling majesty of any of these three will leave you awestruck and, one could argue, in need of retail therapy.
A luxury accessories boutique in Barcelona's grande dame of department stores, Santa Eulalia, also on Passeig de Gràcia
Barcelona is a fine shopping destination these days, and to make the most of it the personal shopping service at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona offers a backstage pass to several of the city's most prestigious designer stores, such as Carolina Herrera and Loewe. Those who go it alone can saunter along the Passeig de Gràcia to the reassuringly old-fashioned department store Santa Eulalia, a one-stop shop for the great and the good of international brands. It first opened in 1843 and is now more luxurious than ever thanks to a revamp several years ago by New York-based designer William Sofield, who kept the drama of the sweeping oak staircase and the glittering crystal chandeliers and added Mies van der Rohe's classic 'Barcelona' chairs, but in canary yellow and, for lounging, banquettes in plush gold velvet. The store's decadence extends to a bespoke tailoring service that can turn around a suit within 42 hours and a Champagne Bar with an outdoor terrace.
El Cap de Barcelona sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein, near Port Vell
For a unique shopping experience, local fashion and accessories designers head to El Born, a chic, pedestrianised neighbourhood filled with hole-in-the-wall ateliers and artfully glitzy yet pared-back showrooms. Start on Carrer del Rec, where you'll find stores such as Coquette. Intriguingly decorated with iron columns, exposed brickwork and chalky, bow-beamed ceilings, it stocks python-leather clutches and Sur/Sac backpacks, his and hers Ball Pagès natural hemp espadrilles, and delicate gold jewellery by Sandra Román. Alternatively, get your elbows out for a rummage at Le Swing, whose vintage finds would make Kate Moss swoon. A natty pair of Hermès fingerless gloves, perhaps, or a classically-cut, tweed Chanel jacket or a gold velvet halter-neck Versace cocktail dress. Head back uptown to Luzio, 800 square metres of homeware heaven, where you can pick up anything from Baccarrat pendant lamps to hand-carved wooden stools and embroidered cushion covers. The latest addition to its stable is Iluzione, a plant-filled, Italian-themed trattoria, where you can recover from your big spend with a plate of delicate tramezzini (Venetian tea sandwiches) or buttery pasta flecked with truffles.
Terrat, the rooftop venue at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, comes with views onto Passeig de Gràcia, a dipping pool, bar and Peruvian seafood menu by chef Gastón Acurio
For those who are starting to lag by now, it's the perfect excuse to visit The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. Spend the afternoon indulging in the signature Barcelona Spring treatment, in which local ingredients of olive oil, sea salt and wild mint combine to perk one up in time for drinks and dinner in the sultry cocoon-like Banker's Bar. The ginger-spiked lemon Martini is a legend in its own right, and acclaimed Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, of La Mar at Mandarin Oriental, Miami, has spearheaded an innovative South American snack menu of ceviche, tiradito and Iberian pork burgers laced with hoisin, which can also be enjoyed alfresco at the rooftop Terrat. Elsewhere in the hotel, savour the two-Michelin-starred dining at Moments by mother and son team Carme Ruscalleda and Raül Balam, whose 15-course tasting menu – a round-the-world gastronomic journey called The Trip – is paired with a raft of interesting wines.
A nut stall at La Boqueria
If anything defines the look of Barcelona, it must be its lavish Modernisme (Art Nouveau) architecture. The city has an ever-growing number of historic gems that now welcome the public. Casa Amatller, for example, opened next door to Gaudí's Casa Batlló in early 2016, after a five-year renovation that restored the apartment to its former glory: a slightly eerie, dark yet fabulous 400-square-metre pad. The home of chocolate mogul Antoni Amatller and his daughter Teresa, it was redesigned by Puig i Cadafalch in 1895, with plentiful use of hydraulic (encaustic cement) tiles, hand-painted wallpaper, mosaic in the corridors and marquetry on the floors. Stained glass is dotted with bubbles like a bottle of local cava, doorways are decorated with stone lobsters and crabs (a nod to the fishermen of the Barceloneta district), original art by Barcelonan painter Ramon Casas adorns the walls, and ceiling cornicing is inscribed with the Catalan national anthem.
Mandarin Oriental’s Banker’s Bar
A less ostentatious building, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau was originally built for the poor at the behest of banker Pau Gil in the 15th century. It was redesigned between 1901 and 1930 by the Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner – and recognised as a Modernisme engineering marvel, gaining Unesco world heritage status in 1997. The hospital wards may be no more (rather a shame, as one can easily imagine recovering at speed in a place like this), but this city within a city, connected by means of a series of ceramic-tiled tunnels (revolutionary at the time because they were sterile), which give access to each of the eight pavilions, is the largest Art Nouveau monument in the world. Much of it is now home to institutions that seem worthy of such a location, for instance, the European Forest Institute and a branch of the World Health Organisation, but it's staggering for no other reason than simply trying to comprehend it. Time a visit to coincide with one of the cultural events held on the premises, ranging from talks to classical music concerts.
Furniture store Luzio
Another architectural treasure is Torre Bellesguard, which is privately owned by the Guilera family, who first made their name in pioneering medicine. It was designed by Gaudí as a kind of homage to the medieval castle of the last Catalan king, Martin the Humane, complete with a narrow winding staircase, hooded windows, Gothic turrets and a mighty, mosaic-clad holy cross perched crown-like on top. It has become a summer hotspot for flamenco, jazz and bossa nova concerts in its pleasant gardens, which you can explore – all dressed up in linen suits and floaty dresses – while the cava corks are popped and gourmet tapas handed round.
Lights and Reflections installation by Francesc Rifé in the Design Museum
The perfect partner to this surreal architecture is the similarly outré tasting menu at chef's table La Mesa within restaurant BistrEau at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, created by arguably one of the most radical chefs in the world since Ferran Adrià hit the headlines in the early 1990s: Angel León, who holds two Michelin stars. Born in El Puerto de Santa Maria near Cádiz, where he runs his flagship restaurant, León makes it possible for diners to sample the 'taste of the sea' as he pickles oysters and smokes sardines at the table and turns emerald-green plankton into a sumptuous briny risotto.
If this is too bold, Barcelona's new-wave gourmet tapas bars offer plenty of local ambience as well as gastronomic kicks. At Mont Bar, nibble on the crunchiest Iberian ham croquettes, or squid-ink puffs dotted with smoked sardines and mango, while studying a 250-bottle-strong wine list. Or try rising star Alvar Ayuso Thorell's new venue, Alvart, where he cleverly combines tradition and modernity in dishes such as sheep's milk, razor clams and plankton, or roast turbot with baby carrots and sage gnocci.
Barcelona's residents love to promenade, so set aside time to join them. Walk past the boats and gin palaces of the recently made-over Port Vell in the old fishermen's quarter of Barceloneta to the sea. There is nothing like the feel of sand between your toes and the tang of salt in your nostrils to work up an appetite for lunch. Kaiku does an extraordinary smoked rice paella that you can eat beneath a palm tree gazing out to the water, or on a more blustery day nab a table on the first floor of restaurant Barraca for the best salt cod buñuelos (fritters) in town and the classic Catalan baked fish with potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Both of the dining establishments take pride in using locally sourced seafood, much of which is from Barceloneta itself.
El Born Cultural Centre
Afterwards, follow the boardwalk to Herzog & de Meuron's gleaming blue Forum Building, which houses two permanent exhibitions about the city. Take in the tombstone sculptures of the Poblenou Cemetery, noting its most famous work, the Kiss of Death, sculpted in the 1930s. Then head up to Diagonal Mar (which could be construed as Barcelona's answer to high-rise Gotham City) to the new Design Museum, showcasing Barcelona's enduring relationship with creative innovation, from products and packaging to graphic art and textiles.
The early evening calls for a cocktail at the speakeasy-style El Paradiso. Accessed through a vintage fridge door at the Pastrami Bar, it's the most clandestine spot in town. Inside, a ceiling sculpted like the ribcage of a whale frames a bar serving futuristic drinks that billow smoke from the hand-blown glass pipes they are served in. I'd tell you more, but it would ruin the surprise.