The former capitol of the Spanish region of Catalonia, Barcelona is famous for its history, architecture, human scale and perhaps surprisingly – it beaches

Barcelona is a favoured port of embarkation for Mediterranean cruises in part because of its modern port facilities; but also because the city is rich in architecture, tourist attractions, shopping and it’s world-famous pedestrian street; La Rambla.

The history of this city of 1.6 million dates back to the Roman Empire. Today Barcelona is the fourth most visited European city after Paris, London and Rome. The city’s tree-lined streets, restaurants, and cafés are an excellent backdrop for the buildings, churches, and museums which form the rich 2,000 year history of her citizens.

As host to the 1992 Olympic Games, elected officials took that opportunity to reclaim large tracts of waterfront land from old industrial buildings and factories. Visitors can enjoy the city’s unique architectural heritage in the morning and then enjoy an afternoon visit to what National Geographic describes as one of the world’s greatest beaches, stretching for 5 km along Barcelona’s Mediterranean coast.

Barcelona is famous for its architecture, from the Gothic Cathedral to the fascinating Modernism style; the most famous architect being Antoni Gaudi. His buildings include: The Opera House, Casa Battlo, Casa Mila, and his most famous – Cathedral Familia. Gaudi worked on his masterpiece during a forty year period, even living in the building for extended periods while it was under construction. Almost one hundred years later, construction cranes are still being used to complete the cathedral. Gaudi’s buildings flow, rather than stand, and his use of brilliantly coloured ceramic tiles and even glass (he believed using in recycled materials – 100 years ago) for exterior ornamentation create an irresistible whimsical quality.

Barcelona has a Picasso museum with more than 3,600 of the artist’s works on permanent display. They include many of his early work as an emerging artist, plus examples from his blue period and also his time in Paris. The Catalonia National Museum of Art (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) exhibits 1,000 years of art; Romanesque, Gothic, Modernism, and Avant-Garde.

The city administrators used the 1992 Olympics as an occasion to completely re-structure the waterfront. Abandoned and underused factories, warehouses and petroleum refineries were razed to make way for Olympic facilities and to re-claim and restore the Mediterranean seaside beaches.

The result has created an outstanding area of Barcelona for tourism, with several large new hotels, including the Arts Hotel designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. Now an American citizen, Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The adjacent neighbourhood of Barcelonetta has been transformed into a trendy and popular residential area, whose restaurants reportedly offer the best Paella in Spain!

Visitors to Barcelona can easily spend a day visiting the waterfront attractions which include: The Aquarium, IMAX Theatre, the Museum of Natural History, the Olympic Park Casino, numerous restaurants for a leisurely lunch, the yacht club and a variety of interesting boutiques.

La Rambla is a unique pedestrian walkway that stretches from mid-town Barcelona for several kilometers down to the popular waterfront. It’s a wide tree-lined pedestrian mall with enough space for restaurants to provide full service outdoor coffee shops and restaurants that immensely popular with the locals.

La Rambla and surrounding streets are a shopper’s paradise, with every brand name ever seen in fashion magazines with their own stores. Referring to our hop-on-hop-off bus tour map, I counted 10 Starbucks locations on and nearby La Rambla.

There are two principal tour companies operating hop-on, hop-off bus tours.

The coaches are clean, with the option of riding on the open-air upper level. Each seat is equipped with a headphone with multiple language settings. The concept is very popular, enabling visitors to spend as much time as they choose visiting a location, knowing that your “ride” will be along to pick you up almost at your convenience.

One of the most popular attractions is the Gaudi Museum and Park, on a hillside overlooking the city. Visitors may visit Gaudi’s home (for a small fee), stroll the grounds and read up on Gaudi’s life and tragic accidental death on 1920, run over by a streetcar.

We stayed at Hotel HCC Regente, directly on La Rambla de Catalunya, a pleasant and centrally located historic neighbourhood. This boutique hotel has a roof-top terrace and pool (more for cooling off than swimming) and offers guests a generous hot and cold breakfast buffet to fortify you for a day’s sightseeing. The HCC chain has six hotels throughout central Barcelona.

If you’re taking a cruise, we recommend that you arrange for a pre or post cruise stay in Barcelona. Alternately, it’s a city that can be considered as a destination with its combination of sightseeing and recreational offerings. There are few places where travelers can combine sightseeing, world-class shopping, and sunny afternoons at the beach.

TRAVEL PLANNER

Most people working in the tourism business speak English, so communication was reasonably easy.

Air Transat Vacations has direct flights to Barcelona and the company offers a good selection of hotels. Transat also is a major wholesaler of cruise vacations, including the new and highly popular Norwegian EPIC. For more Barcelona information: www.transatholidays.com or visit your favourite travel agent.