Barcelona mixes old-world charm and new-world vibes. For centuries the city has been known as Spain’s design and architecture hub with its swirls of colorful surrealism. From the prickly spires of the Gothic Quarter to the grandiose whimsy of the buildings of Antoni Gaudí, the godfather of Catalan modernism, the city offers tourists all sort of colorful distractions.
Away from the tourist-centric Las Ramblas, the main esplanade that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, is the Barcelona that many seek but few can find. Here are our favorite off-the-radar spots for those looking to go undercover in this bustling cosmopolitan.
Under lock and key
In contrast to the gothic streets of old Barcelona, Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample neighborhood beams with luxury shopping, trendy restaurants and markets. Taking center stage among all these cultural delights is the Patricia Urquiola-designed Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. Accommodations range from intimate rooms to spacious suites — all with the feel of a pied-à-terre and many with their own balconies.
The big surprise, however, comes from the hotel’s Banker’s Bar. In its former life, the building housed the Hispano Americano bank, a history that the establishment pays homage to with a ceiling and walls fashioned from original safe deposit boxes — 10 of which are still open.
During the chillier months, chef Gaston Acurio serves Peruvian ceviches at the popular bar, like the Nikkei featuring the fish of the day marinated in a rich, citrus-based leche de tigre with avocado, turnip, cucumber, tamarind and sesame, as well as tiraditos and sushi. In the summertime, this delicious fare moves outside to Terrat, the rooftop terrace.
Also in Eixample, go for a libation at Javier de las Muelas’ Dry Martini, open since 1978 and adorned with all the classic touches of a bar from a bygone era, including white-coat-wearing captains.
Behind a set of doors in the main room and down a hidden hallway, those in the know will find themselves in the Dry Martini Speakeasy restaurant. Housed in a former warehouse for the bar, this clandestine eatery can also be accessed with a password from the exterior of the building through an unmarked door. Undercover, indeed.
A hidden hotel
The winding, narrow streets of Barcelona’s old city, known as the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic), transport wandering travelers to another time. Get lost among the buildings so tall and compact that the light of day barely peeks through.
Tucked inside this maze is Mercer Barcelona, a 28-room hotel designed by Pritzker winner Rafael Moneo, who was commissioned to rescue the architectural heritage of the building — the last surviving watchtower of the ancient Roman walled city.
Ensconced among ancient structures dating back to the first century, the three floors of rooms, looking down upon the grand lobby and an orange tree shaded interior patio, have sleek appointments, with oak floors, bright white linens and modernist lines that contrast against interior walls of exposed ruins.
The serene rooftop plunge pool begs for a sunset gin and tonic, while the chic downstairs Cocktail Bar bustles with conversation, flirting and fun on any given night.
In addition to the hotel’s gourmet Mercer Restaurant, the casual tapas bar Le Bouchon is an ideal spot para picar (“to pick” in Spanish), a favorite pastime for tiding oneself over in the hours between the culturally customary 2 p.m. lunch and a 10 p.m. dinner. Traditional seafood tapas such as squid, octopus and cod find themselves alongside a not-so-traditional burger.
Gats got your tongue
Further exploration of the Gothic Quarter inevitably leads to El Raval, the other historic neighborhood in the center of the city known for its nightlife. Walk these streets during the day and you will most certainly pass by hundreds of roller doors locked shut. But at night, it all comes alive; treasures await behind every one.
Spanish restaurant group En Compañía de Lobos, which means “The Company of Wolves,” took up shop here in 2016 with the innovative restaurant concept Gats. While you will find classic dishes on the menu (spicy patatas bravas, a beef tenderloin sandwich with Manchego cheese and a to-die-for sausage paella), modern ingredients, flavors and presentation tell you that this isn’t your typical tapas bar. Influenced by organic forms of flora, fauna and natural materials, Gats is a modern juxtaposition to its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque neighbors.
A culinary mystery
A few blocks over from El Raval, sits the neighborhood of Sant Antoni. It is here that one of Barcelona’s most famous chefs, Albert Adrià (brother of renowned restaurant El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià), has created a culinary amusement park with six restaurants, each in a different location with a unique concept, known collectively as El Barri.
The whimsical, circus-themed Tickets leads the pack as one of the hardest seats to get in town; quaint vermouth bar Bodega 1900 harkens back to turn-of-the-century Barcelona; Pakta introduced Nikkei cuisine — a blend of Japanese and Peruvian — to the city; Hoja Santa and Niño Viejo offer two sides of Mexican cuisine, one haute and one casual; and last but not least is Enigma, the newest on the block with a mysterious mindset.
The dining experience at Enigma takes roughly three hours and only allows for 24 people at a time. Those lucky enough to get a reservation make the rounds to six stations throughout the course of the night. The dramatic room and even-more-intense open kitchen resemble the inside of a glacier or a storm cloud.
At the end of the meal, you are led through a back door and into a secret bar, where you finish out the evening with a nightcap.
A new kind of Opera
Hidden downstairs deep inside Gran Teatre del Liceu on Las Ramblas, Ópera Samfaina is a one-of-a-kind culinary experience boasting a concept dubbed “gastro-mapping,” where a series of projections adds a new dimension to every dish. Imagine a swirling ocean scene on the dining table interacting with your plate during the fish course.
Before sitting down, watch a series of animatronic dioramas telling about the creation of Catalan cuisine with all the major players, including renowned chefs the Roca brothers, who co-created the story along with visual artist Franc Aleu.
The design detail here is over the top with the space divided into four different worlds — choose from the Odyssey, Diva, Vermouth Bar, the Marketplace or a combination of themes for an otherworldly meal.
Unless you are a member or visiting with someone who is, you aren’t getting upstairs, making Soho House Barcelona one of the city’s most exclusive spaces. With 57 rooms, a cinema, a spa and a rooftop deck overlooking Port Vell, this newly opened boutique property — part of the worldwide network of members-only hospitality experiences — makes for a special visit.
A select number of rooms is available to the public via the booking site. But if you can’t snag one, try to pop in just for the ambience. Nosh and drink at the ground-floor restaurant Cecconi’s or visit the Cowshed spa.
The hallmark of any Soho House is the well-layered aesthetic that stacks colors and fabrics into a style that can best be described as bohemian chic. It’s another worthy addition to colorful Barcelona.