By  on January 20, 2006

The Catalan capital always has been on the edge. Think Gaudi's smashed ceramics and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother. It still marches to its own particular beat, with the multiethnic neighborhoods El Born and Raval blasting out the best sounds.

C/Riera Baixa, a short street in the heart of Raval, is packed with vintage clothing shops. Lailo (number 20), a 300-year-old former cowshed, carries an endless selection of ornate party dresses—they're for rent, too—and Fifties swimsuits. Le Swing (number 13) has dresses, suits, handbags and shoes by international designer names such as Courréges and YSL—Yves, not Tom. La Comercial (Rec 5) is the best multilabel store in El Born, with French brands such as Sonia Rykiel and Isabel Marant, scarves and gloves by Paul Smith and shoes by Spanish maestro Juan Antonio Lopez.

Less conventional is Comité (C/Notariado 8), a joint-venture shop featuring six young designers from Barcelona, Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris and Buenos Aires. Cecilia Sörensen—and her droll separates—is one of its stars.

On C/Aviñyó, a hopping street for jeans and trendy gear, La Manual Alpargatera (number 7) still makes its legendary jute-soled espadrilles by hand—and on the premises. Aficionados include Jack Nicholson and master chef Ferran Adrià.

The hot new eatery Cuines de Santa Caterina is a casual brasserie with Asian and Mediterranean dishes. Another brainchild of the prolific Tragaluz Group (who owns the megacool Hotel Omm and seven Barcelona restaurants), it's an extension of the Gothic Quarter's Mercat Santa Caterina produce market—read fresh ingredients, guaranteed. The day's specials—rice, pasta, seafood and vegetables—are flashed on a Wall Street-like ticker tape over an open kitchen. And surprisingly, in tobacco-addicted Spain, smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.

Apart from being a mythological Greek reveler, Silenus (C/Angels 8) is a multifaceted neighborhood cafe/restaurant/bar, a stone's throw from Richard Meier's Contemporary Art Museum. And it's a total charmer, in a faded Viennese kind of way, with a pretty painted door and requisite marble tables. Plus, the food has flair: butifarra, a Catalan sausage, and white bean mash, for example.Thirty-three-year-old chef Paco Guzmán runs Santa Maria, one of the best tables in town, on El Born's C/Comerç (number 17). The restaurant is a family-style bistro with paper place mats and handwritten menus, and the kitchen features experimental, tapas-sized portions—a variety of chicken wings, for example, and skewered rabbit. Try the tasting menu for $40, a good deal; but it's the whole experience—and Paco's fashionable buddies—that counts.

For late-night copas (or at least until 3:15 a.m.), Shoko (Paseo Maritimo de la Barceloneta 36) is an oceanfront bar/restaurant with a distinct Japanese feel and the cushiest terrace in town.

Sleep cheap-chic and spartan at Hostal Gat Xino (C/Hospital 155), spitting distance from Rambla de Raval, where doubles (note: no phones) start at less than $100 and the rooftop suite, at $145, has its own terrace and 360-degree views. Breakfast is served on a Zen-like interior patio.

Other hotels include the Pulitzer (C/Bergara 8), with a stylish white-leather bar for fashionistas and Wednesday night sushi parties, and Casa Camper (C/Elisabets 11), which is as off-beat as it gets. If schlepping across the hall from bedroom to mini lounge doesn't appeal, go for a suite.

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