With a cultural heritage that’s nothing short of mind-blowing, Barcelona is perhaps best explored through the eyes of an artist.
The Catalan capital and second largest city in Spain offers much for lovers of art and architecture. Throughout its history Barcelona has attracted and inspired creatives like Gaudi, Dali, Miro and Picasso and, more recently, Australian portrait artist Peter Churcher, who has lived and worked in the city since 2006.
Churcher’s work focusses on everyday subjects; the man in the street. ‘What presses my buttons most about Barcelona is the constant flow of human traffic within the urban context of this beautiful city’, says Churcher. ‘Straight away, Barcelona offered so much inspiration. I felt I had to be working here.’
This Barcelona travel guide is packed with ideas for things to do — including Churcher’s recommendations for must-see museums and galleries.
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Where should you start your journey of discovery in a city that is home to dozens of cultural institutions?
‘While there isn’t a Prado or Reina Sofia here, Barcelona obviously represents itself particularly well in terms of traditional Catalan art’, says Churcher. His top museum recommendation is El Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), which houses the celebrated Romanesque frescoes taken from 11th and 12th century Catalan churches of the valley of Boi Taull in the Pyrenees mountains. ‘The Romanesque period was particularly important for the development of Catalan art and the MNAC is a must-see from that perspective.’
The museum also houses an extensive collection of gothic paintings and sculptures, along with the work of important Modernista artists, including Casas, Rusiñol and Fortuny.
Churcher also recommends the Museu Frederic Marès — one of Barcelona’s hidden cultural gems. Housed in a medieval palace, the museum holds the private collection of the 20th century sculptor Frederic Mares, who collected everything from religious sculptures from the Middle Ages to cigar wrappers. Perhaps most importantly, the collection features Romanesque and early Catalan artworks — many of them saved by Mares himself from country churches prior to the destruction of their contents by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. From there, the displays become more idiosyncratic, and include china dolls, paper fans, cigarette boxes and ancient gardening tools.
‘Understandably,’ says Churcher, ‘most visitors to Barcelona will want to visit the Museu Picasso, which opened in 1963 and has expanded several times.’ The museum focusses on Picasso’s early career and his relationship with the city. The Picasso Museum is spectacularly situated in a series of medieval palaces on the famous Carrer Montcada in the El Born district — the ‘millionaire’s mile’ of medieval Barcelona.
‘However, before you rush around trying to visit every museum in the city, remember that Barcelona’s streets and architecture are its greatest cultural asset’, adds Churcher. ‘There’s no need to step inside a single museum to experience that. It’s all around you.’
Tip: To follow in Picasso’s footsteps, visit the 4 Cats cafe on the northern edge of the Gothic Quarter. It opened back in 1897, and was a favoured meeting point for the artists of the Modernist movement — including Picasso. He staged his first exhibition at the cafe.
Barcelona for history lovers
Human habitation of the area in and around Barcelona dates back to the Neolithic period, and there’s certainly no shortage of historical things to see and do in the city.
‘Being something of a living museum itself, visitors need to know a little of Barcelona’s history to really appreciate the city’, says Churcher. ‘Barcelona was a very powerful city in the medieval period; an important Mediterranean trading port, which connected trade routes all over Europe.’
‘With the discovery of the New World in 1492, attention shifted away from the Mediterranean and across to the Atlantic. Geographically, Barcelona had no role to play and fell into the doldrums for centuries. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that Catalonia’s fortunes changed. The Catalans, always people of commerce and industry, benefitted from the industrialisation of Europe. A huge boom in the textile industry occurred, which saw the opening of many factories.’
‘At the same time many Catalan families who had made their fortunes in the colonies, returned home. For this reason, today we see two distinct sides to the city. First, the amazing Gothic Quarter with its cathedrals, municipal halls, narrow winding streets and squares dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s one of the best preserved gothic precincts in Europe.’
‘The flood of new money towards the end of the 19th century resulted in the construction of the newer section of Barcelona, which reflects the Modernista style. This is where we see the rise of celebrated architect Antoni Gaudí, and buildings and monuments like his famous Basilica de la Sagrada Familia and Park Güell. You must visit both during your stay in the city.’
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Barcelona is all about shared meals with family and friends.
When dining with a group, remember to observe the tradition of sobremesa — which means to linger and socialise after a big meal. Don’t eat and run. It’s considered bad form.
Here are some tips for great places to eat during your stay.
Bar La Plata has been serving up the same four tapas dishes to locals and tourists alike since 1945. The bar is absolutely famous for its sardines, along with the side of cheeky humour that comes with them.
For the freshest seafood, head up the coast to Badalona and visit Restaurante Donzella Beach. Watch the catch of the day come in from your table on the sand or sip a cocktail in the upstairs bar overlooking the beach. This relaxed eatery/beach club is renowned for its seafood paella.
Mamacafé offers fresh and friendly dining in the popular Raval neighbourhood in town. You can’t go wrong with a lunch menu for less than a tenner. The exhibitions by local artists are an added bonus.
Restaurante Les Caves Rekondo is located just a 15-minute train ride from the city centre. Enjoy a divine Mediterranean menu of lobster soup, goat and truffles — accompanied by your choice from an exceptional range of Spanish wines. They are stored in the historic wine cellars that occupy the cave network below the restaurant.
La Boqueria dates back to the 13th century and is a must for any visitor to the city. Grab a freshly squeezed strawberry juice for a euro, then stock up on cheese, ham and olives and head for a local picnic spot. If you can’t wait that long, pull up a stool for tapas or fresh seafood.
For a special occasion
ABaC Restaurant is one of Barcelona’s most innovative eateries. It has three Michelin stars and offers a set menu of 12-or-so courses of modern Spanish cuisine, served over a leisurely two or three hours. Chef Jordi Cruz is a judge on Spain’s version of Masterchef.
Where to shop in Barcelona
At 1.2 kilometres long, La Rambla offers plenty of shopping options and is popular with tourists.
Just remember that you are likely to pay more than you need to along this strip. Instead, head off through the maze of streets between La Rambla and the seafront. You’ll discover small art galleries, unique and colourful clothing boutiques, and stores selling hand-made jewellery and amazing shoes.
For shopaholics with a budget to burn, Barcelona’s El Corte Inglés department stores are a convenient means to an end. Alternatively, as you wander around the Gothic Quarter, you’ll find all the big name international brands present — including Zara, Mango and H&M. Look out for colourful Custo, chic/cool Massimo Dutti, and world-renowned Catalan fashion designer Sita Murt.
For design-driven shoppers, the concept store Beriestain — by industrial and interior designer Jamie Beriestain — is located in the city’s northwest. It offers everything from restored antique furniture to flowers, perfumes and books, and even doubles as a museum and cafe/restaurant!
Ways to relax in Barcelona
Barcelona’s beaches are great, but be warned: they’re a magnet for hawkers selling ice creams, fake tattoos, foot massages, trinkets and costume jewellery.
If you prefer some solitude, head out of town to the beachfronts of provincial Barcelona — such as the quaint Sant Pol de Mar, between Canet de Mar and Calella. Here you can snack on fresh calamari and a chilled cerveza at any of the quaint beachside cafés.
However, perhaps the best way to while away a couple of hours is to find a comfortable cafe in the old city and get down to some serious people watching. Says Churcher: ‘Standing on the balcony of my Barcelona studio is pure Hitchcock Rear Window, and appeals to the natural voyeur in me as an artist. Total strangers occupy different levels of a shared space and are connected by random shared glances. It’s a theme that I am exploring in my work at present’.
Where to stay in Barcelona
Hotel Mercer Barcelona
Located in the Gothic Quarter, Hotel Mercer Barcelona is consistently rated one of the city’s top boutique accommodation options. There are 28 rooms and suites, set among ancient Roman fortifications and medieval arches. Rooms feature a rain shower, a complimentary minibar and Wi-Fi, and Molton Brown amenities.
Onsite eatery Le Bouchon serves innovative tapas and shared plates. There’s also a fabulous rooftop terrace bar.
ABaC Hotel offers boutique luxury accommodation in the Modernista section of Barcelona — within easy reach of La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell. There are just 15 guest rooms, so you need to book well in advance. The hotel is contemporary in style, and most rooms have stunning garden views.
About Peter Churcher
Peter Churcher’s work is held by many of Australia’s premier cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Australian War Memorial, and Parliament House in Canberra. He has been an official Australian war artist, and a finalist for the prestigious Archibald Prize several times. Churcher is currently working on a series of Barcelona-specific pieces.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture, and food writer based between Europe and Australia, and has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice, and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS, and Screen Australia. Ruby’s books — The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris (White Owl Books) — are available in bookshops and to order online.