Flower-draped courtyard cafe at Frederic Mares Sculpture Museum. Picture: Richard Pennick

Senor Bayan caught our eye and nodded. We were standing behind customers seated at the counter of the very popular tapas Bar Pinotxo in Barcelona's Mercat de la Boqueria. A couple rose to leave and Senor Bayan gestured for us to replace them, which we did, and ordered his recommendation, pork balls with gravy and fried potatoes.

We had found Bar Pinotxo in the city's marvellous food market - just off La Rambla on the edge of the Gothic Quarter or barrio (neighbourhood) - shortly after arriving in Barcelona. Our hotel was on Duc de la Victoria, a narrow street deep in the barrio, and after settling in, we had ventured out in search of lunch and to stretch our jet-lagged legs.

The barrio has a friendly village feel about it. With small family-run groceries and cafes, it's a quieter place than the busy La Rambla and Placa de la Catalunya nearby. Just steps away from our hotel Portal de l'Angel, the barrio's pedestrian shopping mall leads down to Placa de la Seu, the heart of the barrio. La Seu is a venue for festivals, musical performances and antique market days.

The 15th century Gothic La Catedral de Santa Eulalia overlooks La Seu. Its cool interior is brightened with stained-glass windows. Exquisite artefacts adorn the 16 side chapels. We rested on a stone bench in the cloister where the central leafy courtyard is home to 13 white geese - one goose for each year of Saint Eulalia's short life. A lift to the roof gives a panoramic city view and, at night, the cathedral is beautifully floodlit.

Formidable cathedral gargoyles overlook Carrer del Bispe where the classical chords of a busker's Spanish guitar resonated around high walls. We passed under a masterfully sculptured, neo-Gothic footbridge between the ancient buildings. Also beside the Cathedral at the Frederic Mares Sculpture Museum on Placa Sant Lu, a flower-draped courtyard cafe setting is a delight. We then lost ourselves in the labyrinth of winding streets, squares and sweet fountains.

Like many of Europe's communities, the Gothic Quarter has its Roman origins. Behind our hotel in a small park, Roman sarcophagi are preserved beside a children's playground. Remnants of the old Roman wall are visible and we were awed by the high courtyard columns of Temple Roma d'August - built to honour Caesar Augustus in the 1st century.

At dusk, the barrio becomes tapas bar heaven. That first evening, we dined on the patio of Bilbao Berria, a Basque tapas bar on Placa Nova, and soon learnt what tapas was all about. The selection was varied, the portions small, but always fresh.

After our sightseeing forays, we looked forward to our return to the quieter barrio. It was pleasant to sleep with an open window and wake to silky dawn sunshine with sounds of the barrio coming alive in the street below. Shutters across the street soon opened to allow in the new day.

Early on day two, we left the barrio and walked up to Placa de la Catalunya (Barcelona's transport hub), and hopped on the Hop-on- Hop-off bus for a morning of sightseeing.

We cruised past Antonio Gaudi's inspired, modernist apartment buildings with their gleaming, glazed tile towers and bizarre tortured-iron balcony balustrades. Driving up the slopes of Mt Montjuic, we passed the 1992 Olympic Park and imposing Museu Nacional d'Art building.

We hopped off at the brilliantly white Joan Miro Gallery at the top of Mt Montjuic. After concentrated viewing of the artist's unique and colourful paintings, we visited the roof terrace display of startling Miro sculptures and spectacular views of Barcelona.

We bussed back to Placa de la Catalunya, passing the decommissioned bullring (now an entertainment and exhibition centre), circled the Christopher Columbus column and toured the port.

Back in the barrio, we lunched at Buenas Migas, a tiny focacceria behind the cathedral.

Antonio Gaudi's name and architecture are renowned. Gaudi was at the forefront of Catalan Modernism and his masterpiece - the Sagrada Familia Cathedral - was our next stop. This remarkable building is hard to describe - although it is one of the most recognisable structures in the world. The high tapering needle towers and designs, inside and out, are fantastic. Construction started in 1882 but completion could take another 30 to 80 years. Be sure to book a skip-the-line tour for this must-see.

Gaudi also designed Guell Park, a Disney-like hillside village. It is a place of colour, beauty and charm. We entered between two gingerbread houses at the tile-clad Dragon Fountain. Blue ceramic walls enclosed steps up to the Sala Hipostila, an enormous covered court of mosaic inlaid domes supported by high Doric columns. Above, a terrace is framed by colourful tile-clad seating which snakes around the perimeter. Beyond is another spectacular view over the city to the Mediterranean.

The following morning, on our way to the Picasso Museum, we passed the Santa Maria del Pi church - reputed to be a near- perfect example of Gothic architecture. We walked on to the Museu Picasso in the Aguilar Palace on Carrer de Montcada. Here, we immersed ourselves in the life and art of Pablo Picasso for most of the morning. Another must-see.

Walking back, we sipped cooling citrus sangria outside a cafe in Placa Reial just off La Rambla. Surrounding a central fountain, neo-classical buildings, palm trees and numerous restaurants overlook this engaging spot.

With Picasso still in mind, that evening we dined at Els Quatre Gats. Picasso held his first exhibition here early in his career.

We ended the night with a stroll and a gelato di crema Catalana.

The West Australian

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