Get into the festive spirit at El Palace, Barcelona
THE WEEKEND: Escape December drudgery and head off for a festive city break to kickstart that long-neglected Christmas spirit. Skip the traditional packed Christmas markets of Northern Europe and look south to Spain instead, where Barcelona piles on dazzling decorations, twinkling city-wide lights and chocolate-box markets to tick off the present shopping. It’s also much easier to take in the big-ticket sights without summer’s crowds and stifling heat, yet days are still mild and you can expect blue skies instead of bone-chilling frost.
WHERE: El Palace Barcelona is the city’s first five-star hotel and was originally the Ritz when it opened its doors near Passeig de Gracia in 1919. Artist Salvador Dali even lived here for a time, once ordering a live horse to be brought up to his room. Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood also set up home here and helped design the suite that now bears his name, choosing his favourite albums for a restored Wurlitzer jukebox and providing his own artwork for the walls. Elsewhere, the hotel’s lavish neo-classical style means wall-to-wall opulence with hand-painted wallpaper, polished marble pillars and glittering chandeliers at every turn. In December, it looks straight out of a Christmas card with classic red, green and gold decorations and a dazzling lobby Christmas tree flanked with Nutcracker soldiers. One lift has even been transformed into the hotel’s very own ‘cable car’ with music from traditional Alphorns.
THE STAY: Rooms are made for hunkering down after long days hitting the sights and shops with a soothing mix of ivory brocade wallpaper, heavy silk drapes, carved wooden furniture and surprise extras such as original fireplaces, Roman baths or views of La Sagrada Familia. If you’re travelling with children, splash out on the gigantic Family Suite, which includes its own entrance corridor, two junior suites and a single room so everyone has their own space and you won’t need to panic about disturbing other guests.
THE FOOD: Even dining comes with a festive twist at El Palace. An all-day menu of tapas, lobster rolls and piled-high burgers are served in the spectacular Great Hall, with music from a live jazz band. But head up to the rooftop garden to feast in the hotel’s very own winter wonderland, where a fairytale ski lodge offers Alpine classics including cheese fondue with truffles, platters of charcuterie and steaming raclette with potatoes and pickles. Afternoon tea is a must too. Book on the weekend and exquisite Mediterranean-inspired pastries and freshly baked scones come with Spanish Cava and a pianist playing classic Christmas songs. Santa himself even pops by to dole out candy canes from his sack for visiting children.
WHAT TO SEE: If you’ve already ticked off Gaudi’s Parc Guell, La Rambla and La Sagrada Familia, take a cable car up the city’s mountain, Montjuïc, for the best views over the city and sea from the castle. Afterwards, stroll the narrow medieval streets of the Old City, where palm tree-lined squares are strung with Christmas lights, tiny independent boutiques make present buying painless and noisy tapas bars make the perfect pit-stop. For wooden decorations, nativity scenes and handmade gifts, head to Avinguda de la Catedral, where a traditional Christmas market has been held in the shadow of Barcelona’s soaring Gothic cathedral since 1786. Don’t miss the stalls selling the Caganer, a traditional Catalan figure defecating with his trousers down that is thought to bring good luck when placed in the nativity. Maybe not one for the mother-in-law though…
AND AFTER THAT: The hotel’s own rooftop is a destination in its own right. There’s a pop-up Christmas market scattered between snow-dusted pine trees for locally-made artisan gifts while an outdoor cinema with 360° views of the city shows festive films including Elf, Home Alone and Miracle on 34th Street. There are just four double cabins available so book in advance then cosy up with tartan blankets, hot water bottles, mulled wine, hot chocolate and popcorn.
NEED TO KNOW: Classic rooms at El Palace Barcelona start from €275 off peak and €575 in peak season. Book at https://www.hotelpalacebarcelona.com/