Barcelona is sandwiched between the Collserola hills to the north and the Mediterranean to the south. Avinguda Diagonal splits the city in half. The Zona Alta's smart villas and mansions reflect its lofty position north of the Diagonal, while the city proper is to the south, toward the water. The Barri Gòtic, Europe's best-preserved medieval quarter, is the heart of downtown Barcelona. The Eixample is a gridlike neighborhood built in the 19th century to extend the older city. To the west, beyond Las Ramblas (the world-famous walking street) are the up-and-coming districts of El Raval and Poble Sec. Nearby Montjüic provides some much-needed greenery. To the east of the Barri Gòtic, El Born is a fashionable enclave of bars, restaurants, and galleries; beyond that, the warehouses of once-industrial Poble Nou are being converted into lofts. By the water, the old fishermen's quarter of Barceloneta (now home to yachts and gin palaces) juts like a finger into the sea.
WHEN TO GO
The days when Barcelona was best visited in the summer months are long gone. Today it's a year-round destination, although the most pleasant weather is in May and June, when outdoor festivals herald the arrival of summer. It's often too hot to move in July and August, so just as New Yorkers head for the Hamptons, canny Catalans take to the hills or their homes on the coast. (Many bars, restaurants, and shops close for the entire month of August.) September and October are still warm enough for alfresco dining—although rain is most likely in September (legend has it that during the festival of La Merce, Eulalia, Barcelona's patron saint, rains down her tears on the city). In November, chestnut peddlers arrive on the streets and the city takes on a festive air for the buildup to Christmas. Like many European cities, Barcelona has its fair share of Christmas markets—the one in front of the cathedral is particularly colorful—followed by bargain hunting in January.
HOW TO GET THERE
Barcelona is well connected by land, air, and sea. El Prat airport is the closest to the city, about a 20-minute taxi ride from the center (www.barcelona-airport.com). American Airlines is launching a daily flight there from New York's JFK on April 24, 2008. Some of Europe's cheapest budget airlines, such as Ryanair, fly into Girona (about 60 miles from Barcelona to the north) and Reus (Tarragona—about 60 miles from Barcelona to the south).
RENFE is the fast, reliable national train operator (national connections: 34-90-224-0202; international connections, 34-90-224-3402; www.renfe.es). Trains from Barcelona-Sants station (metro lines 3 [green] and 5 [blue]) connect the city to the rest of Spain (Madrid about seven hours, Granada about 12 hours) and the French border. Local trains are operated by TMB (34-93-402-3663; www.tmb.net). The city is well-served by Metro and FCG trains (those that operate within city limits), which run Monday through Thursday and Sunday from 5 a.m. to midnight, and Friday and Saturday 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. It's worth investing in a T10 ticket (about $9.30), which allows for ten journeys on metro and FCG lines.
Buses are most useful for getting to out-of-the-way places, or for enjoying the above-ground views. Most pass through key points of the city including Plaça Catalunya, Plaça Universitat and Plaça Urquinaona. The 64 goes to the beach, the 24 travels along Passeig de Grácia to Parc Güell and the 50 goes to the Sagrada Familia. To work the shopping mile (Passeig de Gràcia and Avinguda Diagonal), hop aboard the TombBús. It stops regularly in Plaça Catalunya and at various points along the way.
Trasmediterránea ferries (34-90-245-4645; www.trasmediterranea.es) run daily from the port at Moll de Barcelona (bottom of Parallel) to the Balearic Islands. It takes about nine hours. The Buquebús high-speed catamaran (34-90-241-4242; www.buquebus.es) on the other hand, motors between Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca twice daily in just three hours.
Barcelona is a perfect walking city, whether you're exploring the narrow, rambling streets of the Barri Gòtic, or packing in some serious retail therapy on the Passeig de Gràcia and Avinguda Diagonal. The seafront has opened up in recent years and a smart, 8.5-mile-long boardwalk runs from Barceloneta to the Forum site in Sant Adriá de Besòsperfect for in-line skating, cycling or strolling. Public transport is likewise excellent, but driving a car within the city isn't recommended. Parking is nightmarish and expensive, and traffic in peak hours can be hair-raising. It is worth renting a car, however, to explore the rest of Catalonia. International agencies such as Hertz, Avis and Europcar have offices at the airport, Barcelona-Sants Station and around town.
The wasp-colored taxis are cheap, clean and comfortable. Hail one from the street. (A green light on the rooftop signifies it's free). Be warned: When you call for a taxi in Barcelona, the meter starts running the minute you make the call, though the maximum charge should be no more than about $4.00 during the daytime and $5.00 in the evenings. (Barnataxi, 34-93-357-7755, www.barnataxi.com; Fono-Taxi, 34-93-300-1100, www.fonotaxi.net; Servi-Taxi, 34-93-330-0300, www.servitaxi.com).
Tourist offices are conveniently dotted all over the city. The biggest and most central office is a subterranean affair beneath Plaça Catalunya (34-93-285-3834; www.bcn.es/turisme/english/turisme). Other offices can be found in the airport terminals A and B, on the Ramblas and at the Barcelona-Sants train station.View Spain Factsheet