A Bitesize Guide to Holidays in Barcelona, Spain

With its ancient heart, superb waterfront area, outrageous Gaudí architecture and thriving cultural scene, Barcelona attracts many visitors. Its world-class museums and monuments provide the perfect place to find the country's best shopping, partying and dining opportunities.

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Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, an important region that spreads inland and south down Spain's northeast coast. Catalonia & Valencia combine great natural beauty with buzzing regional cities and historic towns. The coast is a major draw, with resorts from the Costa Brava in the north to the Costa Blanca in the south attracting families who love camping from all over Europe.

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Visit Barcelona - La Sagrada Familia

Love it or loathe it, you cannot ignore the Sagrada Familia. Its towers and cranes are visible from all over Barcelona and it is the one must-see item on every visitor's itinerary. Work on the Sagrada Família is progressing continually and what you see will depend on when you go. Entry to the interior is at the Passion Façade on Carrer de Sardenya. After passing the gift shop on your left and the lift to the towers on your right, you reach the central nave. The whole area resembles a building site, but the sheer scale of the work will take your breath away.

By the time of Gaudí's death in 1926, only one bell tower had been completed, but there are now four towers above each of the Nativity and Passion façades. The final plans show a total of 18 towers, dedicated to the 12 apostles, the four evangelists (or Gospel writers), Christ and the Virgin Mary. The dramatic spires, which are up to 112m (367ft) your gaze would be drawn upwards to heaven, transmitting the words of the prayer Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Hosanna in Excelsis (Holy, Holy, Holy, Glory to God in the Highest) that is spelled out in broken ceramic tiles at the top. Spiral staircases give access to the towers, and there is also a lift at each end of the building that takes you most of the way. Climbing the towers gives close-up views of the spires and also allows you to look down over the central nave. Another good vantage point is the footbridge linking two towers above the Nativity Façade.

It's one of the great ironies of Barcelona that a building widely perceived as a triumph of Modernism should have been conceived as a way of atoning for the sins of the modern city. The original idea came from Josep Bocabella, a bookseller and conservative Catholic. The first architect, Francesc de Villar, envisaged a conventional Gothic-style church, but when Gaudí took over the project at the age of 31 in 1883 he was given free rein and his fantasies were let loose. It is not always realized that Gaudí, despite the playfulness of his architecture, was a deeply religious man. In his later years he devoted himself totally to the Sagrada Família, living like a recluse in a hut on the site, refusing to draw a salary, wearing simple clothes, eating little food and begging passers-by and rich businessmen for money to allow work on the church to continue. In 1936, 10 years after Gaudí's death, his plans for the Sagrada Família were destroyed in an anarchist riot, so it is impossible to be certain what the finished building would have looked like. Nevertheless, despite widespread opposition, work on the church resumed in 1952 and it has now taken on an unstoppable momentum, driven by massive worldwide interest and financed by public subscription and the money from entrance fees. The current plan is to complete the temple by 2026, in time for the centenary of Gaudí's death.

Before you go in, take a walk around the exterior of the building and cross Carrer de la Marina to reach Plaça Gaudí, as the best views of the Nativity Façade are from this small park and lake. If you decide to use the audioguides, you will be asked to leave some identification (passport, driver's licence etc) as a deposit. If you don't have these on you, you may be asked for a credit card.

Visit Barcelona - Barceloneta

Barceloneta (Little Barcelona) is a working-class area by the sea with a strong maritime history, and is now the city's popular playground. The area was also the location of the Athletes village during the 1992 Olympic games.

The Plaça de la Barceloneta is a focal point in the area, a picturesque square with a central fountain, a couple of café-terrazas and the Iglesia de Sant Miquel del Port, built in 1755. The main boulevard is the Passeig Joan de Borbó, which stretches from the Plaça Palau all the way down to the sea. It's easy to dismiss the street as a tourist trap, but enjoying a paella in the sea air of Barceloneta on Sunday is as traditional as eating monas (a cake) at Easter, and is another culinary experience to add to your list. However, get there either before or after the Catalán lunch hour (2pm to 3.30pm) or you will be in for a wait.

Visit Barcelona - An artist's city

In Barcelona there are a number of excellent museums, but none so extraordinary as the Museu Frederic Mares. The reason it would be on the agenda of art-loving visitors is its unique collection of Romanesque sculptures; austere, monumental, and deeply religious, they seem to sum up what the world regards as core Spanish art.

There is more than that though to the Mares collection. Go upstairs and you will find thousands of decorative paper cigar bands, so arranged in brilliantly coloured abstract patterns. The collocation is quite surreal and also when maturely considered, very Spanish. Or some would say very Catalan.

Like the other major European states, what we now know as Spain, began as a patchwork of small kingdoms, each with their own language that by the 16th century had been brought under one rule. This era of united government tended to suppress expressions of local allegiance but, by the end of the 19th century, these had begun again to emerge particularly in the more liguistically diverse areas, such as in Barcelona. Even so there were nearly four centuries when all communication was in Spanish.

Cervantes may have been born outside Madrid and travelled extensively, but he wrote in Spanish and penned his masterpiece, Don Quixote, while living in Madrid. Likewise Benito Perez Galdos, a novelist, frequently compared with Dickens or Tolstoy, who was born on the Canary Islands but lived in Madrid from the age of 19 and wrote all his books in Spanish. The country’s three greatest dramatists, Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca in the 17th century and Federico Garcia Lorca in the 20th century all wrote for a Spanish-speaking theatre.

In the visual arts, matters of regional or linguistic allegiance are likely to be even less important. One of Spain’s greatest artists. El Greco, was, as his popular name indicates was Greek, though lived in his most productive years in Toledo. In contrast, another leading figure of the 17th century, Jusepe de Ribera, was born in Valencia and lived most of his life in Naples. All the same, they shared with their comtemporaries, Velazquez and Zurbaran and Murillo a dark, austere, even gloomy view of life and the artists obligation to reflect it.

The greatest successor was Francisco de Goya, if anything magnified this reading of the Spanish artistic character they worked in the days of the inquisition, he amid the horrors of the peninsular war.

Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the general view of the Spanish artistic heritage is closer by far to the Mares sculpture collection that to its cigar bands.