After spending two action-packed days in Barcelona and staying at an inimitably extravagant hotel, travel writer Ruth Brindle offers her guide on what to do whether there for business, pleasure or with family…
“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” Much like returning from holiday, astronaut Ed White lamented the end of his first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission on 3 June 1965.
Imagine, then, my sorrow on departing from my space-themed hotel in beautiful Barcelona, a place which offers you the best of both city break and beach relaxation.
The four-star Barcelo Sants Hotel is not just modern, it’s futuristic, and you’ll struggle to find a better location to stay. It is above Sants station and just 15 minutes’ warp speed train ride away from the airport. You can also board the metro and local trains here to nearby tourist spots.
If you’re on the hunt for Gaudi’s frequent and far-reaching works you can take a guided tour around the city to marvel at the mind-boggling, nature inspired architecture of Antoni Gaudi. Of course, most of Barcelona’s nine million visitors each year will head for the as-yet-unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica and they are right.
Gaudi died in 1926 before his design was finished and now, 150 years after it was started, work continues with influences from other architects that provide a stark and, some think, controversial contrast with Gaudi’s original designs, many of which were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.
On a very comprehensive and informative Gaudi Emotions trip during several hours we had the chance to look inside the vast, beautiful building set to be finished in 2026 and also visit some of the celebrated man’s other projects in the city, including Park Guell, which was new to me and a complete delight.
It was commissioned in 1900 and originally intended to be a site for 60 private homes on the hill, but when the project failed it became a public park in 1923 and that’s to the advantage of everyone who lives or visits the city.
You can look out over the city from the great balcony with its undulating mosaic bench that Gaudi made sure was comfortable by getting one of his workers to sit in plaster naked in order to get the correct anatomical shape! The shaded walkways and staircases all reflect Gaudi’s use of nature in his designs and make the whole experience delightful.
On top of this no visit to the city is complete without a lingering stroll and shopping trip to La Rambla (Las Ramblas), Barcelona’s gorgeous boulevard that leads down to the port and the cruise terminal. While the outdoor eateries and restaurants are often more expensive than those in the side streets, it is great for people watching.
From Las Ramblas it’s just a short walk to the narrow, ancient streets of the city’s Gothic quarter. It’s a good idea to give yourself several hours to linger here within its historic atmosphere.
For those who don’t mind heights a paid-for trek to the roof of the medieval basilica of Santa Maria del Pi gives a panoramic view of the city below. The square Placa del Pi also often has performances and stalls that add to the experience.
Follow that with a tasty treat in one of the many charming cafes in this area. A favourite are churros - a Spanish version of a doughnut dipped in hot chocolate or horchata, a traditional milk drink made from tigernuts. Delicious.
Gaudi and La Rambla give way to the biggest tourist hotspots, but the Barcelo Sants hotel is an unparalleled attraction in its own right. The hotel creates a cosmic atmosphere with cutting-edge design resembling a space station, allowing guests to imagine themselves on an intergalactic trip.
Immediately as you walk into the lobby you know you’ve arrived at a hotel with a difference as the reception desk is cheekily named the control desk.
Once I had been efficiently assigned my ‘Orbital’ (space talk for room!) I was off past the circular communal working desk area outside the main conference centre that could easily be home to the Jedi High Council.
You should also take a pause to watch the space station astronaut floating about her business in the fascinating film being shown on a large screen in the foyer.
Then it’s up in the lift to a sexily sixties-style landing complete with a round, pod like chair that would not be out of place in the iconic movie Blow Up. There’s a visual delight at every turn here it seems. I hear R2D2 from Star Wars even makes an occasional appearance, when he’s not helping save the universe, of course.
My well-designed room was highly functional and super modern, so much so that it took me a while to figure out that the blinds were remotely controlled. Cool.
I also appreciated the city view, my big HD TV, iPhone docking station, free WiFi and the little touches such as ‘space’ sweets to replenish my energy and even an intergalactic bath bomb that looked like it had come from Mars itself.
Freeze dried food might be a step too far on my Barcelona mission, although I didn’t have to worry as the vast array of dishes and snacks served in the hotel’s two restaurants, aptly named Hydrogen and Oxygen, is excellent and of a high standard.
One evening my trusty time traveller colleagues and I even enjoyed a beautifully presented meal with its own space theme. Delicious. Also don’t miss an after dinner cocktail made by the hotel’s trained mixologist.
If you want to get back to the meagre 21st century for food, head to the world-famous Boqueria market which has a dazzling array of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. If only we had markets like this in the UK! Try some tapas or take samples of any food you fancy to eat later. It’s fascinating.
Or you can spend an enchanting evening over a leisurely meal at the restaurant Ocana in Placa Rejal before heading downstairs with all the Barcelona beautiful people for cocktails.
Whether for food or a quick coffee in the midst of exploration, visit 4Gats. It is one of the most iconic cafes in the city; it opened in 1897 and soon became a bohemian hotspot.
Two years after opening Picasso was visiting often; he carried out his first exhibition in the big room and made the poster that was used as a title page of the menu of the house.
Musicians such as Isaac Albéniz and his friends Enric Granados and Lluís Millet also visited the 4 Gats, as well as architects like Gaudí and draughtsmen like Ricard Opisso. You can feel this history as soon as you enter, and with a wonderful food offering from breakfast until dinner, you can happily stay and soak it in.
For early eating try another Barcelo hotel – Raval – that offers a truly yummy Sunday brunch. Traditional Spanish treats and pastries will set you up for a busy day of sightseeing. This modern hotel right in the heart of the city has a plunge pool on the roof and a balcony with a panoramic view of Barcelona.
However if you’re after a beautiful view interlaced with added exploit climb Montjuïc, it is a hill that overlooks the harbour. Once a point of protection for the city, it is now brimming with activities.
At its peak – which you can take a funicular or cable car to – is the castle which offers unparalleled 360 degree views. It is also home to the Olympic pools, on Miramar Avenue, which was also the set for Kylie Minogue’s music video of Slow.
For those on foot you can wander through Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer Gardens, next to the funicular, or the Grec Theather Gardens with its infamous amphitheatre which continues to host shows.
For a far more decadent view, you could even take to the air during an exciting helicopter ride from the port area that gives an ideal opportunity to see the city laid out in all its glory. You can spot all Barcelona’s landmarks as well as enjoying the sheer thrill of flying.
Barcelona as a city break also has the great advantage of offering the delights of the seaside too. Strolling along the seafront and the harbour, an area transformed during the 1992 Olympics, is a great way to spend a few hours.
Sit on Barceloneta beach or enjoy a leisurely lunch in any of the many seafront restaurants in the area. But one other really exhilarating way to enjoy the coast is to take a sailing boat ride along the coast. Taking a dip in the sea from the boat finishing with a welcome glass of wine made me feel very privileged.
If you have young children it may well be the beach side of things which appeal to you, and while the Barcelo Sant hotel attracts a lot of business travellers, you’d be missing a trick not to book in here, even with the family.
I loved the hotel for its sense of fun that you can enjoy without feeling overwhelmed by the theme and all the out-of-this-world touches, not least the life-size astronaut in the conference area. An ideal selfie spot!
The larger Orbital suites would be ideal for a family, and youngsters or the young at heart can try out how they’d look in a space suit by lying underneath the specially designed single duvet and pillow case.
These are available on request and I just couldn’t resist. But while I realise some people might not want to go overboard for the space theme I wanted more. Bring on my Captain Kirk robe and slippers!
Rates at Barceló Sants start from €120 (£103) per night based on two sharing a room on a B&B basis. For more information or to book visit www.barcelosants.com or call +34 93 503 53 00
Vueling Airlines operates year-round flights to Barcelona from London Gatwick, London Heathrow and London Luton with fares, including taxes, starting from €49.99 (£43) one way. For further information or to book please visit www.vueling.com