Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Basilica Sagrada Familia – one of Barcelona’s most recognisable landmarks. Featured image by Volkanikz (via Flickr).

What springs to mind when you think of holidays in Spain? Flamenco dancers? Castanets? Lobster-red painters and decorators from Gravesend sleeping off the San Miguel under an imported copy of the Daily Mirror? Hold your straw donkeys, son! Barcelona has about as much in common with those traditional trips to the Costas as New York does to a sweaty fortnight in Grubville, Missouri. It may be beside the sea, but a seaside resort it is not.

Regarded widely as the cultural capital of Spain, Barcelona retains an identity distinct from the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Tellingly, many of the locals don’t consider themselves Spanish but Catalan, with calls for Catalonian independence louder today than ever before. This is, perhaps, unsurprising when you consider the violence with which the local culture was suppressed in the mid 20th century. Under Franco’s fascist regime, Catalan institutions were abolished and use of the Catalan language outlawed. It was not until the Generalissimo’s death in 1975 that Barcelona began to regain its moxy, and before long the 1992 Olympics catapulted it onto the world stage as one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Over 100 years old, the Sagrada Familia is still years from completion

Despite being fiercely protective of their regional identity and traditions, Barcelona’s people are welcoming to outsiders, particularly those helping bolster Spain’s ailing economy with the tourist dollar. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Sagrada Familia, Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s most famous undertaking and a building synonymous with the city itself. A UNESCO World Heritage site, on most days you will find the streets around Gaudí’s many-spired confection thronged with cagoule-wearers and guidebook-riflers. Cameras flash. Tour guides boom. Blank-eyed shopkeepers offload yet another sweatshop-fresh model of the basilica for €95. In Barcelona, Gaudí is big business, with a whole tier of the tourist industry dedicated to helping visitors explore his extraordinary constructions.

To capture the true spirit of Barcelona, though, you need to leave behind the tourist traps of La Rambla and Plaça de Catalunya (Iberian variations on Oxford Street and Leicester Square) and take the plunge into the maze of courts and backstreets that stretch away on either side.

Taking a turn through the Gothic Quarter is like stepping 300 years into the past (providing you can convince yourself the ancient Catalonians had a serious jones for gelato shops). Crooked alleyways follow the same paths they have occupied for hundreds of years, lurching into sun-lit squares where waiters hurry from table to table wearing trousers just the right side of impropriety. The district is a foodie’s paradise, with tapas restaurants every few yards and burly carniceros tempting passers-by with morcels of their famous jamón ibérico (a cured ham, displayed trotters and all), pared straight from the bone while you watch.

Lunches commence with a dish of pan con tomate

Catalans live to lunch, with the main day-time meal stretching gloriously from 2.00 to 4.00pm. Although chain stores remain open throughout the day, smaller, more traditional businesses still shut up shop during the hottest part of the afternoon; a great opportunity to grab a table al fresco and watch the world go by. Start with shaved parmesan and pan con tomate (thick slices of toasted ciabatta, slathered with oil, garlic, and crushed tomatoes), then order at will, from crispy calamari rings soused with lemon juice, to fat, goggle-eyed king prawns, char-grilled and begging to be torn into with sticky fingers. Don’t ask for the bill too quickly after lunch either; an enviable tradition called sobremesa sees diners remain seated at the table, sometimes for hours, chatting with friends over several cups of strong black coffee.

While the locals retire for their post-lunch siesta, what better time for sun-deprived English roses to slap on the factor 45 and head to one of the city’s green spaces? The Parc de la Ciutadella, near the marina, surrounds the Catalan Parliament and is a masterpiece of civic design. All carefully-manicured greens and Moorish pavilions, the grounds contain several museums, as well as the city zoo. Further inland at Gràcia, Park Güell offers Gaudí’s inimitable take on landscaping, a wonderland of alien terraces and serpentine mosaics. Legend has it, to design the curvature of the long benches, the architect took inspiration from the shape left by a naked workman’s buttocks in the wet clay (olé!). You can also stop by Gaudí’s house, a shocking pink mansion that today houses a museum dedicated to his life.

Castell de Montjuic is best reached by cable car

For the best views in the city, however, you’ll need to brave a wobbly cable car to the top of Montjuïc (literally: Jew Mountain), a broad hill that looms over the south of the city centre, and drops off through steep wooded slopes to the sea below. Just how dark a shadow the mountain has cast over the city at times in its history can be explained by visiting the Castell de Montjuïc, a grey-stone fortress dotted with rusting, Franco-era gun turrets. Although parts of the structure date back to the 17th century, the castle’s darkest period came after the Spanish Civil War, when it was used to house political prisoners considered enemies of the Franco regime. It is almost impossible to believe, sitting on the turfed ramparts, watching the sun go down over darkening hills, that the crack of the firing squad once echoed round these stones as the clink of cutlery from the museum café does today.

The sun may have set, and the day’s heat begun to evaporate, but in Barcelona there is no such thing as an early night. Fresh from their siestas, the locals emerge onto the streets in search of dinner, which typically starts any time between 9.00 and 10pm and finishes long after most Brits are dead on their feet. For a more refined dining experience, try one of the up-market eateries on Passeig de Gràcia, a wide avenue lined with brightly-coloured Vespas and fashion boutiques. This is tapas Michelin-style, with gamey meatballs, tender veal steaks falling off the bone and glass after glass of Sangre de Toro (Catalonia’s most popular red wine, produced by the Torres family on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and highly recommended).

Spanish gays dress to impress

And if you have any energy left after all that, party animals should head across to the district of Eixample (known locally as ‘gayxample’ and the setting for a popular online soap opera) and experience Barcelona’s gay village, a cluster of lively bars and restaurants in the shadow of the University. Despite its predominantly Catholic population, in recent years Spain has been at the vanguard of Europe so far as LGBT rights are concerned. Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2005, and Barcelona – the country’s cultural melting pot – is especially accepting of gay visitors. Each June, Pride Barcelona draws in bronzed beauties from across the Mediterranean, while the annual Bearcelona festival finds it impossible to move on La Rambla for handlebar moustaches and tattooed bingo wings.

Bars don’t start to get busy until midnight either, which makes it entirely possible to stagger out of a club at dawn, plonk yourself down outside some pavement café, and order a fresh round of pan con tomate for breakfast. Isn’t that, after all, what siestas are for?