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My favorite city in Spain, Barcelona is always a pleasure to recommend. My love affair with the city began when I was studying architecture, and I made my first Gaudí pilgrimage. I soon discovered a city overflowing with art, creativity, history and color -- with Art Nouveau wrought iron adorning everything from apartment building balconies to subway signs, a bustling bar and nightclub scene attracting revelers from around the world and a Mecca for 20th century and contemporary art and design with dozens of boutique galleries, significant art houses (Picasso and Miró abound) and world class collections.

And I haven't even mentioned the shopping! For those with a penchant for fashion, Barcelona is a breeding ground for young designers and is home to several flagship European clothing chains that will beckon you to burn that plastic. The next ingredient in creating this perfect city is the food -- and Catalan cuisine is delicious, healthy and affordable -- I make it a habit to eat flan twice a day (after lunch and after dinner) while I am there. The upcoming fall season is the perfect to enjoy all this and more, especially as prices come down and crowds thin.

Parties & Tours

If you're planning to visit within the next week or two, you're in luck -- the city's biggest street party, Festes de la Mercè (www.bcn.cat/merce/catala/home.shtml; in Spanish only), is on September 24, 2006, although technically the festivities begin on September 22 and run for three days. Events include the spectacular Parade of the Giants -- street processions made up of giant wooden and papier-maché figures (gegants) and the human towers, where participants congregate in squares around the old city (especially in Placa de Sant Jaume) and climb on top of each other to form human towers up to eight stories high. There are also fireworks displays, sports events, musical performances, and drinking of Cava (Catalonia's version of champagne).

Barcelona is a city best seen on foot, with so many distinctive buildings, architectural masterpieces, stunning parks, windy medieval streets, markets and the colorful port area. Catalonia Tours (www.cataloniatours.com) and Turisme de Barcelona offer daily two-hour guided walking tours of Barcelona with English speaking professional guides. Tours include:

  • The Gothic Quarter Tour: $12 for adults and $4 for children (aged 4 to 12 years); 10am daily
  • Modernism Tour the Quadrat d'Or (Golden Square) in the Eixample district and Catalan art-nouveau buildings by architects like Gaudí, Domènech & Montaner and Puig & Cadafalch: $12 for adults and $4 for children (aged 4 to 12 years); Fridays and Saturdays at 4pm and from June to September at 6pm.
  • Gourmet Tour (tastings included): $14 for adults and $6 for children; Fridays and Saturdays except holidays at 11am.
  • Picasso Tour (includes a visit to the Picasso Museum): $14 for adults and $6 for children -- Tuesday to Sunday at 10.30am.

Tours can be booked online and you can print out the tour voucher. All tours begin at the Turisme de Barcelona Information Office at Plaça de Catalunya. Please arrive at least 10 minutes before the tour begins.

Speaking the Language

With so many Spanish speaking countries on the U.S.'s doorstep, you may never have considered venturing to Spain to study the language, but Barcelona is home to a large number of language schools offering international students the opportunity to master the tongue whilst enjoying all the beauty and splendor that is Barcelona. You can also try your hand at Catalan, the local lingo.

C2 (Communicacion x Cultura) Barcelona (tel. +34/9-3272-1634; www.c2-barcelona.com) is one school that offers a variety of courses to suit all levels of interest. Included in the course price are classes, course books, study materials, Coffee, tea, water and snacks, unlimited Internet access and daily cultural activities. Students under 30 receive a 10% discount off regular prices and payments in cash receive a 5% discount. Intensive Spanish courses run from March to October and are priced at $205 per week for 20 lessons per week (four lessons per day of 45 minutes each) or $308 per week for 30 lessons per week (six lessons per day of 45 minutes each). In low season, from November to February the price comes down to $186 per week for 20 lessons or $282 per week for 30. One-on-one courses in Spanish or Catalan are available throughout the year from $38 an hour or $847 for 30 hours. An enrollment fee of $51 applies for all courses.

The school can arrange very reasonably priced accommodation for people enrolled in its course. In fact, it is probably cheaper to do a course and stay at one of their shared apartments than to stay in a budget hotel. A single room in a shared apartment starts at $192 per week, or $154 in a double room. If you choose to stay with a host family, the price starts at $224 a week in a single room including breakfast or $186 in a double room with breakfast. Add dinner daily and the price is $257 and $218 respectively. Arrival is on the Sunday before the start of the course and departure is on the Saturday after the end of the course. They can also arrange entire apartment rentals and hotel stays for a reservation fee of $64.

Deals to Get you There

For a short stay, Tourcrafters (tel. 800/ 621-2259; www.tourcrafters.com) has a Barcelona package that include round-trip airfare, four-nights' accommodations at either the three-star HCC Open Hotel or the HCC Covadonga Hotel, daily breakfast, and all hotel taxes and service charges. Travel is valid from September 15 to October 31, 2006. Prices start at $799 for Saturday departures from New York, $811 from Boston, $819 from Washington, D.C. and $894 from Chicago. Other departure days cost $70 more.

STI Travel (tel. 800/570-03034; www.sti-travel.com) offers a seven-day "Barcelona and Lisbon Value Vacation" for travel between November, 2006 and March 2007. Priced from $799 (for Saturday departures in January, 2007) per person based on double occupancy, the package includes airfare from New York to Lisbon, Lisbon to Barcelona and Barcelona back to New York, airline fuel surcharges, five-accommodations in your choice of hotels (two at the Sana Executive Hotel in Lisbon and three at the Catalonia Aragon Hotel in Barcelona) and breakfast daily. Travel in November early December, 2006 and February and March 2007 is from $829.

For discounted accommodation, try a website like Barcelona 30 (www.barcelona30.com), which features dozens of hotel, hostel and apartment accommodation options for less than 30€ (approximately $38) per person per night (but also several more expensive alternatives). Most are simple one-star places or bed and breakfasts, but they are usually centrally located (i.e. La Rambla) and more importantly they are affordable.

Farecrawler (www.farecrawler.com) has round-trip airfares to Barcelona this fall ranging from $485 to $560 plus taxes from New York, starting from $480 plus taxes from Boston and $711 plus taxes from Los Angeles. The site cleverly provides you a side-by-side comparison of airlines and taxes (although sometimes the airfares listed are no longer available). Although you'd be inclined to choose the airline with the cheapest listed airfare, when you factor in the taxes, sometimes the second or third cheapest airfare component will give you the best overall deal.

The cheapest fares I found for fall season round-trip flights from the U.S. to Barcelona were through 1800 Fly Europe (tel. 800/ 359-3876; www.1800flyeurope.com). Sample prices for departures in November including all taxes and fuel surcharges are:

  • Non-stop from New York: $578
  • One stop from Chicago: $594
  • One stop from Detroit: $641

Alternatively you can fly via other cities in Europe and take advantage of European low cost carriers like easyJet (www.easyjet.com) that fly to Barcelona from London. I found midweek round-trip airfares in November, 2006 from $69 (that's including all taxes).

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