Loo Zihan's Travel Black Book

Barcelona, city of tapas

A quiet side street in Barcelona (left) and Loo Zihan (below) with his exhibition From The Periphery To The Core at Les Bernardes Casa de Cultura (Salt, Catalonia, Spain).
A quiet side street in Barcelona (above) and Loo Zihan with his exhibition From The Periphery To The Core at Les Bernardes Casa de Cultura (Salt, Catalonia, Spain).PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOO ZIHAN
A quiet side street in Barcelona and Loo Zihan (above) with his exhibition From The Periphery To The Core at Les Bernardes Casa de Cultura (Salt, Catalonia, Spain).
A quiet side street in Barcelona and Loo Zihan (above) with his exhibition From The Periphery To The Core at Les Bernardes Casa de Cultura (Salt, Catalonia, Spain).PHOTO: EUDALD CAMPS

Artist Loo Zihan has developed a deep appreciation of the Spanish city's cultural offerings and splendid cuisine

Who: Loo Zihan, 31, is one of five artists whose works will be shown at the President's Young Talents exhibition, which opens at the Singapore Art Museum on Aug 20.

Favourite destination: Barcelona, Spain

Why: I have been to Barcelona four times in the past three years. My most recent visit, which was earlier this year, was for a six-week artist residency programme hosted by SingCat Linking Cultures and Grey Projects, a platform for arts publication, curation and exchange.

Barcelona and the Catalans (a Romance ethnic group native to northern Spain and the Catalonia province, where the city is located) have left a special place in my heart with their generosity.

The city is constantly evolving and repeated visits make you appreciate the depth and diversity of its culture. I usually travel alone because I enjoy the independence, but I seldom feel lonely when I am there. The Catalans are easy-going and open-minded, and always give strangers a warm welcome.

Favourite place to stay

I enjoy the AirBnB apartment rental experience (www.airbnb.com) so that is often my choice. My favourite area to stay in is the Eixample district, which is located near the city centre and well-linked to various transport networks.

The grid-like structure makes it easy to navigate, and there are plenty of excellent restaurants and shops in the area.

I also recommend the Poblenou district to the north of the city. This used to be a manufacturing and industrial area which is slowly being gentrified. The local city government is taking aggressive steps to renew the district.

A number of creative agencies have converted the old warehouses into studios. One is new media art space Hangar.org, which hosted me for my residency. A design museum (www.museudeldisseny.cat/en) also opened in the area last year.

Favourite restaurant

Visit one of the Adria brothers' five Barcelona establishments. Ferran Adria is the world-famous chef behind the former three-Michelin-star elBulli restaurant and his younger brother Albert is also a renowned chef.

The most popular of the five is the circus-themed tapas bar Tickets (164 Avenue del Paral.lel; tel: +34-9- 3292-4254; www.ticketsbar.es/web/en/), but my favourite is Mexican canteen El Nino Viejo (54 Avinguda de Mistral; tel: +34-9-3348-2194; www.ninoviejo.es/).

The concept is Mexican tapas, so the cost of your meal depends on how many dishes you order. Each dish is priced from €5 to €10 (S$7.50 to S$15). Reservations are essential and you can book ahead through its website.

If you are celebrating a special occasion, Dos Cielos (Hotel Melia Barcelona Sky, 272 - 286 Carrer de Pere IV; tel: +34-9-3367-2070; www.doscielos.com) is an excellent one-Michelin-star restaurant that offers spectacular views of the city and amazing food.

The name of the restaurant means "two skies" in Spanish, referring to the twin brother chefs and also its location on the 24th floor of the hotel Melia Barcelona Sky. A meal here costs €80 to €100 a person.

Must-try food

Barcelona is the city of tapas and Catalan tapas are a must-try. The standards include patatas bravas (potato wedges with garlic aioli sauce), pan con tomato (fresh tomato rubbed on toasted bread with olive oil), Spanish tortilla (a thick omelette with potatoes) and Catalan sausages.

The places that do these items really well are both owned by chef Carles Abellan - Tapas 24 (269 Calle Diputacio; tel: +34-9-3488-0977), which is very popular with tourists, and a new stall called Yango (4-5 Portics de la Boquería; tel: +34-9-3252-8961; www.carlesabellan.es/yango/), which serves a variety of Catalan sausages and salads in the middle of the historical La Boqueria market. Each tapas dish costs €5 to €8.

To avoid crowds, get there as early as possible in the evening before the traditional Catalonian dinnertime of 10pm. Do check the opening hours as most restaurants are closed in the afternoon.

Favourite art museum

The most popular institution for contemporary art is Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, also known as Macba (1 Plaça dels Angels; tel: +34-9-3481-3368; www.macba.cat/en/).

I prefer the smaller and slightly more eclectic CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona) next door (5 Montalegre; tel: +34-9-3306-4100; www.cccb.org/en/) which hosts an excellent experimental film archive open to the public, along with niche, well-curated exhibitions.

I have caught an exhibition on big data and its impact on contemporary art, a 3-D experimental art film and a display of work by 1920s Catalan photographer Arissa.

Another favourite contemporary art space is the Antoni Tapies Foundation (255 Arago; tel: +34 -9-3487-0315; www.fundaciotapies.org), which features a rotating exhibition of works by the late Catalan sculptor, alongside other contemporary art exhibitions.

Favourite tourist site

The must-see sites are the Sagrada Familia cathedral and La Pedrera, which was once a unique private home and is now a cultural centre - both are designed by famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

The recently restored Unesco world heritage site, the Hospital St Pau Art Nouveau Site (167 C. Sant Antoni Maria Claret; tel: +34-9- 3553-7801; www.santpaubarcelona.org/en), which is designed by Montaner, is also worth a visit.

You get to walk through sections of the old operating theatres, with tunnels linking them to the hospital, and the huge wards.

It is interesting to witness how the space was configured to be a sanctuary for recuperation and recovery in the 1930s.

I also highly recommend the El Born Cultural Centre (12 Placa Comercial; tel: +34-9-3256-6851; elborncentrecultural.barcelona.cat/en) on the site of the former El Born market in the heart of the old city. It explains the history of Barcelona through various archaeological and historical displays. The installation also gives an insight into why Catalans see themselves as culturally different from the rest of Spain.

Best place to watch the sunset

The beach near Poblenou to the north of the city is quieter than Barceloneta beach and is a great place to watch the sunset.

Best hidden find

La Patisseria (228 Arago and 166 Via Augusta; tel: +34-9-3451-8401; www.lapastisseriabarcelona.com) serves the best desserts and cakes. The pastry chef Josep Maria Rodriguez Guerola won the Pastry World Champion title in 2011.

Event to bookmark

On April 23, which is the Feast of Saint Jordi (Saint George), a unique Catalonian tradition takes place. A woman gives a book to a man, who in return presents her with a rose. The exchange is among everyone - lovers, sons and mothers, bosses and secretaries and so on.

Bookstores set up temporary shops along the boulevards and authors are present to autograph their books. College students occupy street corners selling roses to raise funds for various causes.

For one day, the entire city becomes a giant bookstore and the streets are lined with rose petals.

It is estimated that almost 20 per cent of annual sales of an average bookstore are made on this day.

Necessary day trips

If you are a fan of Salvador Dali, his house-museum in Port Lligat is a must-see. It is about a two-hour drive north of the city. Access is limited because of the size of the house and timed entries are strictly enforced.

Recommended reading

Irish writer Colm Toibin's Homage To Barcelona (2002) was an essential travelling companion during my time in Catalonia.

Best advice

It is essential to read up and understand the history of Barcelona, Spain and Catalonia to have a deeper appreciation of the city.

The call for Catalan independence has become really aggressive over the past few years and it is difficult to comprehend and appreciate their struggle unless you engage with the chequered history of Barcelona and Catalonia's relationship to the Spanish government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Barcelona, city of tapas'. Print Edition | Subscribe