Madrid may have Élan, but Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, has edge. The residents of this Catalan capital relish their independence, even when it comes to such things as language and architecture. Rebelliousness, it seems, is what fuels the passion for the avant-garde.
Not every visitor to the city will appreciate the modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudi, the graphic art of Jordi Labanda, or the street wear of Custo Barcelona, but few can deny the collective spirit that drives such artistry. The creative scene in Barcelona is second to none in Spain and, apart from Berlin, the most exciting in continental Europe.
And although modern in so many ways, the city is still grounded in the past. It’s this duality that makes Barcelona so special—and endlessly surprising. It’s a city where you’ll find hip hotels tucked within historic buildings and bleeding-edge designer boutiques alongside the workshops of old artisans. And although Catalan cuisine is considered sacred by most, traditional tapas bars survive by innovating constantly.
In Barcelona, nothing is untouchable or unchangeable. And nowhere else is this more obvious than in the city’s retail landscape—in our opinion, one of the most exciting in the world.
Luxury boutiques may be everywhere, but it’s the presence of quaint local shops that make shopping in Barcelona worthwhile
The beauty of shopping in Barcelona is in visiting the old, local shops that are undeniably Spanish—the kind that are family-run, situated in gorgeous century-old buildings, and closed for two-hour lunches and siestas. While big luxury fashion houses are a main staple, much like in the Philippines, the uniqueness of Barcelona shopping can be found in its exclusive, bespoke finds.
Gonzalo Comella, Santa Eulalia, and Camiseria Pons first opened up shop in the 1800s as bespoke tailors and pioneers of Spanish haute couture. These shops may have moved on to become the homes of the chicest, most luxurious, and most fashion-forward designer labels in the world, but they continue to be a favorite among Barcelona's fashionable set.
Today, Gonzalo Comella is run by the designer's descendants, but it’s still in the same location it was in 1870, when the shop first opened its doors to the public. In its modern and funky interiors you can find brands like Paul Smith, Daniel Alessandrini, Nicole Fahri, and Halston. True to their custom-made roots, they have an in-house tailor and sewers that will alter your purchases to give you the perfect fit. Scoot over to their sister store E4G for younger and hipper labels such as Isabel Marant, Neil Barrett, and Bellerose.
Santa Eulalia carries posh brands like Balmain, Dior, Proenza Schouler, and Lanvin. It is probably the most prestigious store in Barcelona and has a remarkable history in Spanish haute couture. They still maintain their bespoke tailoring. Entering the store can be intimidating given the store's hotel-lobby-pristine interiors, but the staff is kind enough to let you have a look even when you obviously don't have the budget for a Balenciaga bag.
The shirt shop Camiseria Pons first opened its doors in 1900. Like Gonzalo Comella and Santa Eulalia, Camireria Pons carries other European designer labels, mainly Spanish, for both men and women. They have maintained their tailor-made service for suits and shirts. It still feels like a boutique from another era with their original logo in the storefront signage. The interior is warm and cozy and there's a lovely patio of flowers and plants in the back, a pleasant change from the many stark and minimalist stores today.
Everyone seems to know the legendary hat store called Sombrereria Obach. The storefront is all glass and they have just about every sort of hat imaginable on their window display. Inside, you approach their solid oak counter, get measured, and try on all the hats you desire. Without a doubt, service is personal and unrushed.
Argentine Norman Vilalta was once a practicing lawyer. Now, he is a shoe artisan. Every single pair of his shoes is made by hand, including the treatment of the leather. Each pair involves at least 50 hours of work and could take up to four months to finish. Clients are free to drop by anytime to see the evolution of their shoes or they can get their updates from Norman himself who regularly sends photographs of the work-in-progress. He says he only produces about 100 pairs a year and two are never the same.
Beatriz Furest carries bags for the modern urban woman. All of her bags are made of leather and are far from ordinary. The leather comes in unique combinations of bold colors and soft, buttery textures. They may not be one of a kind, but her designs are so distinct and not easy to come by.
In the Barcelona shopping circuit, stopping by Vincon is a must. Vincon consistently has the most-innovative and probably most-photographed window displays in the city. It is a department store, home store, and art gallery that carries a variety of merchandise such as lighting, furniture, tableware, and linen. Shopping is effortless with the store's well-trained and informed team, which include interior designers and kitchen-renovation specialists. Sala Vincon on the second floor hosts various exhibits.
When it comes to food, there is no better place to go in Barcelona than Mercat de la Boqueria. You get the feeling that you can get anything and everything in this market when you step in, and you most certainly can. Mercat de la Boqueria has the freshest seafood, the rarest spices, and the most exotic fruits—and at premium prices, too. Despite the fact that it is the most expensive market in Barcelona, people from all over the city flock to it.
Walking into Cacao Sampaka is like walking into chocolate heaven. There is chocolate everywhere in all shapes and sizes. It has eight collections of bite-sized chocolates, a wall of chocolate bars, and chocolate sauces and jams. Everything is made from the purest cocoa with no artificial preservatives. At the back is a small café that serves light meals.
One of the best places for artisanal turron is Casa Colomina. The Colomina family has been making turron for over a hundred years. They even pack and mail purchases to anywhere in the world.
SpeakeasyEnter through the Dry Martini Cocktail Bar Calle Aribau 162-166 Telephone +34 93 217 5072
Beyond the smoky cocktail bar and past the clandestine back room, a whole other world emerges with leather chairs, low lighting, and jazz music. The menu offerings are tempting and the extensive selection of wine is inviting.
Cinc SentitsCalle Aribau 58 Telephone +34 93 323 9490 cincsentits.com
Cinc Sentits serves contemporary Catalan cuisine using only the premium ingredients of the region. The serving staff is charming and accommodating, and every dish is cooked and plated to perfection. It is hard to believe that Chef Jordi Artal is entirely self-taught.
Torre de Alta MarPaseo Joan de Borbo 88 Telephone +34 93 331 0007 torredealtamar.com
Perched atop an old watchtower, the spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea will take your breath away. Torre de Alta Mar offers Mediterranean cuisine at its finest. The lobby chairs are chic, the staff is elegant, and from the first to the last bite, it is obvious that only the best ingredients are used in the kitchen.
Chiringuito EscribaRonda Litoral 42 Telephone +34 93 221 0729
Xiringuito Escribà is the place to have paella along the Spanish coast. Other specialties include succulent seafood, big bowls of shellfish, and typical Spanish fritura appetizers. The Bscribas are seasoned dessert chefs and enjoying a cake or pastry from their selection is the perfect way to end a sunny day by the sea.
Mandarin OrientalPasseig de Gracia, 38-40 Telephone +34 93 151 8888 mandarinoriental.com/barcelona
Luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental opened their first Southern European hotel, designed by Patricia Urquiola, in the central Passeig de Gracia area of Barcelona. The intricate ceiling decor, the handwoven rugs, and the custom-made chairs set the tone for graceful luxury that embodies Mandarin Oriental. Rooms start at EUR 325.
Hotel OmmRossello, 265 o8008 Barcelona Telephone +34 93 445 4000 hotelomm.es
Located in the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Eixample, Hotel Omm will make you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped into the pages of Elle Decor. The restaurant Moo is popular for its degustation menus. Its modern rooms are luxurious and comfortable with unobstructed views of the city on the upper floors. Rooms start at EUR 170.
Hotel ArtsMarina, 19-21 Telephone +34 93 221 1000 hotelartsbarcelona.com
Hotel Arts is one of the two iconic buildings along the beach in the Vila Olimpica. The hotel features an ultra-modern glass and steel façade, and provides panoramic views of both the sea and the city. The Arts has it all:—the beach, a pool, a Six Senses spa, and five restaurants (including one of Sergi Arola’s), and Frank Gehry fish sculpture. Rooms start at EUR 220.
Hotel NeriCalle Sant Server, 5 Telephone +34 93 304 0655 hotelneri.com
Hotel Neri is everything you could possibly dream of— amazing architecture, ambient music, and glamorous interiors. This hotel is located in the heart of Barri Gotic, where walking along cobblestone streets can feel like a trip back in time. Rooms start at EUR 225.
H 1898La Rambla, 109 Telephone +34 93 552 9552 nnhotels.com
An architectural gem and former headquarters of the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas along La Rambla, H 1898 is an ultra-chic boutique property. Grand views from the rooftop terrace, a spa, and suites with private pools make this hotel a favorite among luxe travellers, but it's the tasteful reinterpretation of Spain's colonial history in the Philippines that charms visitors the most.
BARCELONA TAPAS BARS
La Vinya del SeñorPlata Santa Maria 5 Telephone +34 933 103 379
Outdoor tables at La Vinya del Señor are in a picturesque plaza fronting the Santa Maria del Mar church. To complete the atmosphere is an extensive wine list and excellent tapas. Each dish is made from quality ingredients that you can savor in each bite.
Alta Taberna Paco MeralgoCalle Muntaner 171 Telephone +34 93 430 9027 pacomeralgo.com
Paco Meralgo’s decor at Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo is minimalist without being contrived. Sitting on stools behind high tables is the perfect way to eat tapas. The scallop baked in its shell is exceptionally juicy and the montadito of foie melts in your mouth.
Tapac 24Calle Diputacio 269 tapac24.com
Tapas 24 exudes contemporary Barcelona with its modern artistic interiors. Their versions of a bikini, a typical Catalan grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and Mc Foie, a small sandwich of grilled foie, are unforgettable in their rich simplicity.
Images courtesy of Bianca Brandon-Cox, Jules Clancy, and Garrett Ziegler
Mercat de la Boqueria
There is always a kilometric line outside Pinotxo Bar. Juanito, the owner, and his bow ties are equally famous. They seem to appear in every travel feature on Barcelona. The master tosses food into pans, and slides dishes onto your table. There is no menu, but at Pinotxo you won't mind at all.
Quimet y QuimetPoeta Cabanyes 25 Telephone +34 53 442 3142
The wine list at Quimet y Quimet isn’t impressive, but the fourth generation restaurateurs who run the place can whip up the most exquisite tapas. Their montaditos are unlike any served in the bars along Rambla de Catalunya. Combinations of boquerones, cheese, caviar, peppers, smoked salmon, and yogurt impart exquisite, creative textures.
This piece originally appeared in Issue 1, 2011 of Vault.