Garish, gregarious Barcelona doesn’t guard its secrets jealously, but the Catalan capital does seem to get a kick from hiding the best of them in plain sight. We sample the city’s lesser-known delights.
The Gaudí-free guide to architecture
The amazing fin-de-siècle structures that define Barcelona are testament to an exhilaratingly peculiar phase of its cultural history, when sober, wing-collared captains of industry happily commissioned buildings inspired by melted wax and skeletons. Beyond the well-chronicled contributions of Antoni Gaudí, a host of less fêted but just as adventurous architects helped shape Barcelona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Take Josep Puig i Cadafalch, the versatile genius with a name like a Welshman talking with his mouth full. A host of madly turretclustered townhouses pay tribute to his belief that a Catalan's home was his castle. And not just his home: Puig i Cadafalch's Casaramona textile plant - now the CaixaForum museum of contemporary art - looks more like some extravagant fortified palace. Walk out onto the rooftop 'modernist terrace' and you'll discover that the whole flamboyant edifice is built from nothing more than house bricks.
Then there's Lluís Domènech i Montaner, whose sprawling Hospital de Sant Pau lies just up the road from Gaudí's La Sagrada Família, and is no less monumentally eccentric. Part Gothic cathedral, part Teutonic fortress, part sultan's palace, its roofline is a riot of spires, beehive water towers and gaudily tiled domes, and its flanks are decorated with heraldic symbols and heroic-scale frescoes of the hospital's benefactors. Since June 2009, the ambulances have pulled up in front of a new hospital that's been tacked on the back, and the majestic old buildings are slowly being transformed into a museum and cultural centre.
As befits a city that hates to go with the flow, Barcelona's take on modernism was the ebullient antithesis of the rigidly functional interpretation that defined it elsewhere. An offshoot of art nouveau, Catalan modernisme was kick-started by the reawakening of the region's art and language during the late 19th century, following 200 years of suppression by their Spanish overlords. Perhaps the movement's most glorious, unshackled expression is Montaner's Palau de la Música Catalana, a glittering confection of polychromatic glass and ceramic flora that could be Europe's most exuberant building.
'Every time I come in here, it's like I forget there is a town outside,' says Mariona Soler, who shows tour groups around the concert hall's auditorium, overseen by a celestial, kaleidoscopic skylight of such disconcerting beauty, it once caused opera singer Montserrat Caballé to forget her lines. 'With the flowers on the walls and the sun above, it's like waking up in the summer countryside.'
- CaixaForum is open Monday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm, and on Saturdays until 10pm (free; de Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8; Metro: Espanya; obrasocial.lacaixa.es).
- Hospital de Sant Pau offers 90-minute tours in English at 10am, 11am, 12am and 1pm, daily (£9; Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167-171; Metro: Hospital de Sant Pau; santpau.es).
- Palau de la Música Catalana has tours hourly in English from 10am to 3pm (£11; Palau de la Música, 4-6; Metro: Urquinaona; palaumusica.cat).
See Barcelona and die
A ride by funicular and cable car up to Montjuïc Castle lays a famously vibrant city out at your feet, and a brisk walk along the hilltop behind delivers its eerie antithesis. Filling a whole flank of mountain, the Cementiri del Sud-Oest is a bona fide necropolis - a perpendicular city of death hewn into the living rock, so vast it has its own bus route. Imposing Cementiri del Sud-Oest covers 56 hectares and is home to a number of deceased writers and artists, including the surrealist Joan Miró barcelona 46 April 2011 Since 1883 Barcelona's bereaved have come here to inter their great and good, along with their bad and ugly: poets, artists and anarcho-syndicalists; industrialists in pocket cathedrals created by Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch; gypsy gangsters beneath life-sized marble depictions of their open-shirted Elvis prime. The tombs once looked out at a silent sea, but today there's a great clanking container port in between, a surreal counterpoint to the whispering relatives come to pay their respects.
'The people who made Barcelona so beautiful, so special, they also wanted to make a show when they died,' says Josep Diaz, curator of the Museu de Carrosses Fúnebres. It's due to move to Montjuïc in the next few years, but for now the world's only museum of funerary ornamentation lies buried in the basement of the civic morgue. Given the location, it's perhaps not surprising that the authorities seem a little reluctant to promote its existence: ask at a couple of reception desks and you'll eventually be escorted downstairs by a guard, who'll unlock a few doors, turn on a few lights and follow you alone into the shadow of death. The experience justifies this portentous build-up - the museum is an extraordinary insight into Barcelona's baroque way of death, a black-plumed homage to morbid magnificence. The most compelling exhibits are the ornate horsedrawn hearses that ferried 19th-century notables on their final journeys to the dark side of Montjuïc. If the guard hasn't transmogrified or turned to stone, ask them to point out the black-curtained carriage that allowed a mistress to attend a funeral in respectful anonymity.
- Cementiri del Sud-Oest is open from 8am-6pm daily and can be reached by taking the funicular and cable car to Castell de Montjuïc (Carrer Mare de Déu del Port 56-58, Montjuïc).
- Museu de Carrosses Fúnebres is open from 10am-1pm and 4pm-6pm weekdays, and from 10am-1pm weekends (free; 00 34 93 484 1700; Carrer de Sancho d'Àvila, 2; Metro: Marina).
The only way is up
Other than a few glass towers on the reclaimed docklands and a token Gherkin-esque downtown phallus, Barcelona remains a pleasingly low-rise city. This explains why the Grand Hotel Central's ninth-floor roof terrace feels more like a helicopter pad atop Dubai's Burj Al-Arab. Butted up against the cathedral towers and construction cranes, the infinity pool beside the terrace bar exudes all the dizzying wrongness of a Dalí dreamscape.
In general, looking down on Barcelona means going up one of the peaks that girdle the city. The creaky attractions at the amusement park on Mount Tibidabo might seem underwhelming on paper, but even a modest Ferris wheel gets the pulse racing when it's 110 years old and perched on top of a 500-metre-high cliff. 'I've been to modern parks with big rides,' says Carolina Andreu, a student on a history field trip at Tibidabo. 'But this place feels for me more authentic, maybe even more dangerous!' Her favourite ride is El Avión, a giddying spin over the city in a wobbly period replica of the plane that plied Spain's first ever passenger route. The park is another legacy of that turn-of-the-century golden age and comes accessorised with a Gothicrocketship chapel, the Sagrat Cor, as well as a funicular railway that connects with the 'blue tram' into town.
Proud as they are of their hilltop vistas, the locals seem unaware of the unique 360-degree views available from the mid-town summit of the Parc del Guinardó. That might have something to do with access issues, as the park and its nearest Metro station are separated by umpteen flights of stairs. The gardens were laid out in 1913 by Jean-Claude Forestier - who designed the Champs-de-Mars behind the Eiffel Tower - then promptly forgotten. For anyone with the physical wherewithal, the pick of the park's prospects - amongst them the best view by far of the Sagrada Família - is down from the old Civil War-era anti-aircraft batteries atop the highest crest.
- Grand Hotel Central (Via Laietana, 30; Metro: Jaume I; grandhotelcentral.com).
- Tibidabo opens weekends from midday to 9pm. Take the Metro to Av. Tibidabo, then Tramvia Blau (Blue Tram) and Tibidabo Funicular (tibidabo.es).
- Parc del Guinardó's nearest Metro is Guinardó.
Say no to cava and cervesa
There's hardly a shortage of bars in town, and on a warm summer's night it's difficult to resist the lure of the nearest free table and cold bottle. But resist it you should: chances are that one of Barcelona's finest watering holes lies close at hand, hiding its neon light under a bushel.
Take Coctelería Boadas, hard up against La Rambla and right in the eye of the tourist storm, it's dark, anonymous and overlooked. Barcelona's first cocktail bar, it was opened in 1933 by Miguel Boadas, who'd learned his trade mixing up Hemingway's daiquiris at El Floridita in Havana. The louche sophistication he cultivated survives: jaded roués and glam couples, all having a stylish stiffener in a triangle of deco panelling, rich with the patina of rare old nights gone by. There's no menu, each of the bar staff holding the recipe to 680 cocktails in his head.
These days, the supervisory presence is Miguel's daughter Maria Dolores, who, at 75, is an immaculately turned-out fixture. 'What we do here is like an art,' she says. 'I once heard my father say to an actor, "What you do on the stage, I do at this bar."'
A couple of left turns away is a rather more wholesome time warp - Granja M Viader, a family-run milk bar that's been lining local stomachs since 1870. Spain's leading brand of sickly-sweet chocolate milk was concocted here, but the current Viader signature drink is a Llet Mallorquin, an improbably successful blend of cinnamon, lemon juice, sugar and milk.
Just up the road lies the splendidly dishevelled Bar Marsella, late-night hangout of choice for the city's bohemians and, um, colourful street characters since 1820. As befits the ambience - cobwebbed bottles, peeling varnish, chairs that Picasso and Miró might have wielded in a bar brawl - the house speciality is absinthe. A glass of green death, a sugar cube and a box of matches: if you don't know how to combine these ingredients, you've most probably come to the wrong place.
Towards the docks, Barcelona's neat grid of boulevards fractures into a crazy-paved compaction of ancient alleys. Bar-crawling around here after dark is a navigational challenge: the key is to find the Carrer de la Mercè, and then stay on it. This tight cleft through the steepling old warehouses is clustered with bars that date back to the drunken sailor's heyday. La Sucarrena is a hole-in-the-wall sidrería whose USP remains as it ever was: drink anything you like, as long it's a large bottle of Asturian cider. The fizz-free scrumpy is a neat fit with the barrel-vaulted interior, and with the hearty tapas on offer, flambéed at your table with pyromaniacal relish. l Boadas Coctelería is open from 12pm-2am, Monday to Saturday (00 34 93 318 9592; Carrer dels Tallers, 1; Metro: Catalunya). l Bar Marsella is open from 10pm-2.30am daily (Carrer de Sant Pau, 65; Metro: Liceu). l Granja M Viader is open from 9am-1.30pm and 5pm-8.30pm Tue-Sat, 5pm-8.30pm Mon (Carrer d'en Xucla, 4-6; Metro: Liceu; granjaviader.cat). l La Sucarrena is open until 2am daily (Carrer de la Mercè, 21; Metro: Jaume 1).
- Boadas Coctelería is open from 12pm-2am, Monday to Saturday (00 34 93 318 9592; Carrer dels Tallers, 1; Metro: Catalunya).
- Bar Marsella is open from 10pm-2.30am daily (Carrer de Sant Pau, 65; Metro: Liceu).
- Granja M Viader is open from 9am-1.30pm and 5pm-8.30pm Tue-Sat, 5pm-8.30pm Mon (Carrer d'en Xucla, 4-6; Metro: Liceu; granjaviader.cat).
- La Sucarrena is open until 2am daily (Carrer de la Mercè, 21; Metro: Jaume 1).
Feast your eyes and fill your belly
A city studded with a whole constellation of Michelin stars, Barcelona is also home to some delicious restaurant interiors. Being hidden away down a side street probably helped 1960s throwback Flash Flash survive intact through the decades when aloof minimalism dictated restaurant design, and resembling an orbiting tortilleria from Kubrick's 2001 wasn't a bankable look. Now its time has come again, with a new generation of native hipsters marvelling at the monochrome majesty of a restaurant unchanged since fashion photographer Leopoldo Pomés opened it in 1970 - that Catalan Twiggy strutting her stuff on the walls was his wife. The staff - and most of the diners - are dressed in black-and-white in sympathy, and it's probably no accident that by far the most popular of the 80 immaculately presented tortillas on the menu is the colour-coded morcilla de arroz de Burgos: black sausage and white rice.
- Flash Flash is open daily from 1pm-1.30am (00 34 93 237 0990; Carrer de la Granada del Penedès, 25; Metro: Gràcia).
The article 'Barcelona: More than meets the eye' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.