With its lively tapas bars that spill into narrow ancient alleyways and a late-night dinner scene that often doesn't get going until after 10 pm, Barcelona seems like place for a grownups-only, food- and wine-fuelled getaway.
But this seaside Spanish city makes for a surprisingly family-friendly trip, thanks to an abundance of laid-back dining options that guarantee you won't have to sacrifice authenticity to keep picky eaters happy.
Start with La Boqueria, one of the largest and most famous markets in Europe. Located on bustling La Ramblas, the pedestrian walkway that forms the city's heart, grazing through La Boqueria is one of Barcelona's oldest culinary traditions. While it officially opened in 1836, vendors began selling food on the site hundreds of years before.
Today, behind the market's grand iron gates, you'll find Spanish specialties and more common fare. A sampling stroll through the 200-plus stalls should please almost every tastebud. Try the buttery manchego cheese and jamon Iberico, salty, melt-in-your-mouth aged ham that will appeal to cold-cut lovers. More adventurous eaters might taste boquerones, anchovies marinated in vinegar (unlike their cured cousins, these taste more fresh than fishy), while croquetas — a dish that's basically deep-fried mashed potato sticks, spiked with ingredients such as cheese, ham or mushrooms — are universally likable. Fruit stalls sell a rainbow of freshly-made juices. Tables overflow with candy and other sweet treats. And familiar meal options, such as fresh-baked pizzas and ready-to-go sandwiches.
Time for tapas
Next, take a tapas tour. Legend has it that Spain's small-plate style of eating dates back to King Alfonso X of Castille, who had an ailment that only allowed him to digest small portions of food and wine.
Today, those royal restrictions have become a lifestyle, with hundreds of bars and restaurants offering smaller plates that can serve as a snack or add up to a meal. For travelling families, small portions offer a mix of simple and sophisticated dishes without blowing the bank. For older children who balk at a kids' menu, with tapas, everyone gets the small size.
At La Vinya del Senyor on the Plaza Santa Maria in the Ribera district, you can sample local cheese and olives and classic dishes such as pan con tomate (also called pa amb tomàquet), slices of toast rubbed with garlic and tomato pulp and drizzled with salt and olive oil. Situated in the shadow of Santa Maria del Mar, a church that's considered one of the most perfect examples of Catalan Gothic architecture, the patio of this tiny wine bar often acts as a performance space for strolling musicians. It's also close to numerous artist studios and the Picasso Museum (tip: it's free the first Sunday of every month), making for an ideal location for refueling and soaking up some atmosphere.
Another local favourite is Tapas 24, a perennially packed, boisterous basement bar by Carles Abellán, one of Spain's most talented chefs. Re-envisioned basics such as a bikini sandwich, local slang for a pressed ham and cheese, get an upgrade with buffalo mozzarella, Iberico ham and black truffle. Smaller portions mean that despite the high-end ingredients, it's still an accessible splurge. Pescaíto frito — sweet, tiny, deep-fried anchovies — and patatas bravas — fried potatos drizzled with zingy tomato sauce and garlic aioli — are a particularly delicious local answer to fish and chips.
Pair your meal with a tour of Casa Batllo around the corner. Inspired by Jules Verne's classic book, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," the apartment house was designed by Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan architect whose wonderously imaginative buildings are another of Barcelona's top draws. Though you could join the crowds who gather across the street to marvel at the colourful tiles of the building's roof, designed to look like the scales and spine of a dragon, it's worth booking an audio tour. Reserve your tickets online to avoid the lineups.
Hit the beach
Don't even think about going home without Sunday afternoon paella on the beach. It used to be common for families to hit up shacks along the seashore that serve the rice and seafood casserole. Today, the wide walkway that lines the shore boasts numerous full-service restaurants. Baracca offers memorable dishes with a carefully chosen, and reasonably priced, Spanish wine list.
And don't fear Barcelona's infamously late dinner hour, as locals usually dine around 9 or 10 pm. Jet lag can work in your favour with the kids — the time difference from North America makes it akin to an early dinner or late lunch back home.
Abide by those local dinner hours and you might even score yourself a sleep-in.