Barcelona is blooming into a world-class city. Join us for design tour, brunch with a view, and more!
A cocktail. Lounge music. Tasty Spanish tapas. And a panoramic view of Barcelona’s cityscape, beaches, and the blue-blue Mediterranean Sea. Welcome to Retox (aka #brunchwithaview) on the 26th floor of the W Barcelona.
Our comfy chairs face huge wall-sized windows, and Peter and I are enchanted by the vista before us. Boats sail in the sea, swimmers who look like tiny dolls play in the surf, and below us super yachts bob in the water like bathtub toys.
To the north and west the cityscape spreads out like a patchwork quilt. The spires of Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece still under construction, rise up, like a sandcastle. Mountains in the distance frame a perfect backdrop for this pretty-as-a-postcard view.
Barcelona wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, it was grubby, crime-ridden, and far from inviting. I remember exploring the back streets in my 20s with my schoolteacher friend, Mugsy. Young Spanish men brazenly approached us for a date, and when we said no, they reacted with anger and a few choice words. I remember how hot and humid it was that summer and the unpleasant smells of the city. I was not a fan.
Fast forward 40 years and the city is sparkling, vibrant, and alive with tourists, entrepreneurs, and international companies attracted to its seaside location, mild climate, and friendly vibe. Barcelona is also known as a destination for design aficionados, and we’re here to learn about the city’s iconic architecture and genius designers. Join us as we explore the myriad sights, sounds, tastes, and thankfully pleasant aromas of Spain’s second largest city.
The Hotel Arts in Barcelona
Home Of Enoteca With Two Michelin Stars
We begin our visit touring the Hotel Arts, A Ritz Carlton property on the waterfront. Known for its unique exoskeletal structure, with 44 floors of exposed glass and steel, the hotel was originally built to house the athletes who came to compete in the 1992 Olympics. Known for its art collection, the property features unique art in its public spaces as well as an impressive collection of 20th century Catalan art in the penthouses.
It’s hard to miss the large sculpture which adjoins the property. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Fish looms large over the waterfront. Constructed of intertwining gilded stainless steel strips, it changes colors throughout the day as the angle of daylight shifts—shimmering shades of rose, copper, gold, blue, and gray—like a painting in motion.
Inside the Hotel Arts, Peter and I sit at the bar of Parallel 41, a swanky cocktail bar, and learn about their unique approach to the libations they serve. Each is inspired by a city on the 41st parallel—think Rome, New York, Istanbul, and Porto—allowing you to take a cocktail journey around the world. I try the London Detour, so-named because it’s a bit north of the 41st parallel, a lovely gin cocktail with a splash of sherry and citrus notes.
We dine at Enoteca, the hotel’s 2-Michelin starred restaurant on a selection of tapas prepared by Chef Paco Perez and his team using local ingredients. Highlights include Iberian pork carpaccio with capers—yum—and burrata with tomato chutney sauce and anchovies, each dish artfully presented and bursting with flavor.
As we dine, I think about how design is about much more then objects, art, and buildings. It applies to cocktails and cuisine, where the creator can design ingredients in a balanced, harmonious way. Reflecting, I realize not all design is good. For example, a McDonald’s cheeseburger, which was after all designed by someone, is perhaps not the epitome of gourmet cuisine. Yet in some ways it is artful. Think about Andy Warhol, who turned everyday objects, like soup cans, into icons. Design is a reflection of a culture, and when you consider objects and architecture within the context of their creation, it adds a whole new level of meaning.
Buildings That Speak Design Tour
Plus a Visit to Design Boutiques Like Azul Tierra
We delve deeper into Barcelona’s history of design on a tour called Buildings That Speak with Barcelona Design Tours. Our tour guide, Brian, is an architect from Ireland who has lived in Barcelona for ten years. “You can’t really understand the city unless you know a little bit about design,” Brian says. “You need to walk around with your eyes open.”
Brian explains that the city was laid out in a grid pattern by a visionary architect named Cerdá, who some say invented modern urbanism. His purpose was to unite the old city encased in walls with the outlying villages to create a unified area and to allow easy access for different classes of people to enter and exit the city.
Cerdá’s plan also called for palm-lined promenades and lush gardens in the centers of city blocks so that all buildings (and the residents who live in them) would overlook green spaces. Another innovative idea was to create octagonal blocks, which allowed more light to pour in where streets intersected.
As the tour continues, Brian offers insight into many buildings exhibiting the Catalan modernista style of architecture. One in particular is Casa Punxes designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch. This striking structure, actually three conjoined buildings which spread across a city block, looks almost like a medieval castle from Northern Europe yet displays many of the characteristic decorative arts of the Catalan style, such as ceramic tile, glass, and forged iron.
We also stop in a couple design stores including Santa Eulalia, a men’s and women’s fashion shop known for its bespoke tailoring and shirts. Juan Carlos, former King of Spain, has his suits made here, Brian says. You can also order custom shoes in a variety of colors—real leather, naturally!
I love a shop called Azul Tierra, which means blue earth. A paradise for lovers of interior design, the shop showcases an industrial-style esthetic, yet the overall effect is far from cold and distancing. Instead it’s cozy, almost magical. The website describes the store as a “warehouse of feelings,” which perfectly describes the awe and wonderment it evokes.
Anton Gaudi: The Genius Designer
Explore Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s Masterpiece
Enter Anton Gaudi, a young architect whose career took off after designing Casa Vicens, a summer house, for a local businessman. Built in 1885, today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers the perfect introduction into the fanciful mind of Anton Gaudi. Known for its interplay of light and nature, Casa Vicens has been opened as a museum since 2017. Its colorful woodwork and imaginative art gives visitors the sense of being in an oasis surrounded by beauty.
“Nature has always been [Gaudi’s] main source of inspiration,” says Laura, who guides us through the building. My favorite space is the covered porch, where playfully designed shutters with geometric motifs provide shade and a calming fountain adds tranquility. Its exterior is blanketed with green-and-white checkered tiles, some of which are decorated with bright yellow marigolds.
“Gaudi believed the house was an extension of the garden,” Laura says. From floor to ceiling, references to nature abound. Gaudi designed several other buildings in Barcelona, as well as a park called Parc Güell. Overlooking the city, it sparkles with a mosaic of colorful ceramic shards in varying shapes and textures decorating towers, curving benches, and a dragon that greets visitors at the entrance.
Of course, Gaudi’s most dramatic building is his masterpiece, Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, which he worked on for 43 years, from age 31 until a few days before he died. Some describe it as a Bible in stone since its facades and spires and architectural details all symbolize characters and stories from liturgy. Inside tree-like columns support soaring ceilings, and when light pours through the stained glass windows, it feels as if you’re in a kaleidoscope of color—like walking in a dream.
Another dreamlike building Gaudi designed is the apartment building Casa Mila also known as La Pedrera. The building’s wave-like exterior exhibits undulating curves. Strange structures decorate the top of the building, almost like chimneys, but on closer inspection, they resemble creatures, maybe even guardians designed to protect the building’s inhabitants.
Don’t Miss the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion
Modern Design started in Barcelona
In the early 1900s a group of influential residents decided to organize Barcelona’s second world expo. Delayed due to WWI, the Barcelona International Exhibition finally opened in 1929 in an area of the city called Montjuic Hill. A celebration of culture and various architectural styles, the Exhibition brought Barcelona worldwide attention. One of the event’s most popular pavilions wasn’t Spanish, however. In fact, it was quite a contrast to the Catalan modernista style.
The German Pavilion designed by rationalist architect Mies van der Rohe exhibited a lean, modern style that would have a major influence on 20th-century architecture around the world. Simple rectangular planes interact in this one-story structure in a way that accentuates the flowing space. Two reflecting pools add to the feeling of calmness and serenity the building evokes. The pavilion we visit is not the original, which was dismantled after the expo. Fortunately, a Catalan architect named Oriol Bohigas proposed rebuilding the iconic pavilion, which was completed in 1986, since it played such an important role in the history of architecture.
Not far from the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion is the Royale Palace, which sits atop a hill and offers sweeping views of the city. Here you’ll also find the Magic Fountains, where you can enjoy evening shows of cascading water set to classical music. Unfortunately, Peter and I aren’t able to see the fountains in action, but we do get to enjoy a cold beer at a huge Oktoberfest tent set up nearby. It feels funny to hear oompah music in the middle of Barcelona, but the beer tastes great!
Classic Luxury at The One Barcelona
Oozing With Art + A Fabulous Design Aesthetic
We are staying at an amazing property called Barcelona The One, designed by Jaime Beriestain, just a couple blocks from Casa Mila. It’s a five-star hotel and a Conde Nast Gold winner for best urban hotel in Spain. We love the elegant design aesthetic both in the lobby and in the guest rooms. Marble, wood, and natural light create a zen-like mood. Add in stellar service and a luxury vibe, and I can’t think of a better place to stay in Barcelona. And if you love art, you’ll want to explore the hotel’s art collection. Even the rooms display original artworks from Chilean artist Fernando Prats.
Dining in Barcelona is an experience in itself. One day Peter and I discover a fabulous restaurant called El Mirall Dels Encants. We sample delicious tapas (potatoes brava and grilled peppers), fried fish, and flan for dessert. It’s a locals’ joint with hardly a tourist to be found—except us, of course. Besides the food, we love the old-school vibe—think chandeliers and aproned servers—and enjoy our meal so much we come back the next day for more.
Barcelona was once my least favorite European city, and now? It’s moving up the ranks, for sure. I can’t wait to return.
Design Your Stay in Barcelona
All The Resources You Need For A Fabulous Stay
Barcelona’s Official Website for Tourists
Get an overall feel for the city by checking out their official tourist website. It’s informative and even has a special section on art and culture. Plus you’ll find useful information about getting around Barcelona. It’s all here.
The One Barcelona: Centrally Located Luxury Hotel
Stay where all the fashionistas stay when they’re in town at The One Barcelona. Visit their website for the best rates and directions to its central location: www.hotelstheone.com/en/barcelona
Explore Barcelona’s Design Scene
Get the inside scoop on Barcelona’s design scene on a custom tor with Barcelona Design Tours. You can learn about the city’s incredible architectural highlights, discover the best places to shop for the latest in fashion and design. Or explore the artsy scene with guides who know their stuff. Start planning your custom tour at www.barcelonadesigntours.com
Gaudi’s Masterpiece: Basilica of the Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia is one of Barcelona’s most popular attraction. Find out the best time to visit and how to purchase tickets at this official website: www.sagradafamilia.org
Try Barcelona’s Best Brunch at the W
Cool, hip, and trendy, the W Barcelona is where people go to see and be seen. Its cocktail lounge rocks out at night, but on weekends, it serves up a fabulous lunch: all you can eat tapas and cocktails. Oh my! Make your reservations here for #brunchwithaview: www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/bcnwh-w-barcelona/
The Arts Hotel, a Ritz-Carlton Property
You’ll love its location right beside the beach and close to Barcelona’s nightclubs and discos. Don’t miss a cocktail in Parallel 41 and dinner at the elegant and delicious Enoteca. Find out about rates, availability, event space, and more at www.hotelartsbarcelona.com