Tower and arch ... the sculpture Homentage a la Barceloneta, by Rebecca Horn, on the foreshore. Tower and arch ... the sculpture Homentage a la Barceloneta, by Rebecca Horn, on the foreshore. Photo: Getty Images
The best of Barcelona is revealed when Liz Porter indulges her passion for swimming and architecture.

Late on a Friday afternoon, I'm swimming slowly beside Barceloneta, the main beach of Barcelona, looking back at cafes filling with locals making a start on their weekend. But my eyes are drawn to the golden shimmering scales of a giant fish, just above the shoreline, a few hundred metres further along the beach. This 35-metre by 54-metre fantasy in steel lattice and copper is the work of the celebrated American architect Frank Gehry, creator of Bilbao's famous Guggenheim. One of a clutch of artworks and buildings commissioned from foreign architects and artists in preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games, it stands in front of the Port Olimpic skyscraper, Hotel Arts, designed as the flagship hotel for the Games - and now famous for its luxurious 43rd-floor spa.

I'm not just swimming. Rather, I'm doing the aquatic version of a sightseeing promenade. A "swimenade"? It works well, even if it means doing the ungainly head-out-of-water breaststroke favoured by women who want to swim without getting their hair wet.

Mies van der Rohe's showpiece pavilion. Mies van der Rohe's showpiece pavilion. Photo: AFP
But what kind of lunatic, some might wonder, would visit Barcelona - city of magnificent contemporary art galleries, phantasmagorical Gaudi architecture, uber-cool bars in mediaeval alleyways - and then go to the beach?

Finding a place to swim, no matter where I go, is my personal eccentricity but I recommend it to anyone. Breaking a culture-rich city holiday with a dip is a guaranteed delight, even for tourists who are neither lap counters nor ocean racers at home. Swimming soothes feet that are tired from shuffling through churches and it calms brains that are overloaded with snippets of cultural information from gallery walls and audio guides- or overheard when eavesdropping at the back of tour groups with their own gallery guide.

Swimming offers the privilege of mixing with a city's inhabitants on equal terms. It's also an opportunity to examine the cultural differences expressed in national swimming habits. In German pools, for example, swimming without a bathing cap is "strengst verboten". Berlin's pool culture permits people to swim two abreast, paddling a slow breaststroke while talking - a lack of respect for the concept of "lanes" that is, well, un-Australian.

One day, we take the funicular railway, part of the city's metro system, to Montjuic, a flat-topped hill that is the site of an Olympic stadium and of a clutch of extraordinary galleries. These include the grand Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, or National Art Museum of Catalonia (known as MNAC) and architect Mies van der Rohe's pavilion, an achingly elegant symphony of light, air, marble and glass that he built as Germany's showpiece for the 1929 World Exhibition.

Dismantled afterwards, it was rebuilt in 1986 and is a compulsory stop on every architect's European pilgrimage (Avenue Francesc Ferrer i Guardia 7;

There's also the Fundacio Joan Miro, housing the huge collection of work given by the artist to his home town. Today, its temporary exhibition is Dawn Chorus, a video installation by eccentric English artist Marcus Coates, for which he has recorded birdsong, slowed it down so professional singers could learn the component notes, filmed them singing it and then sped up the film again, with hilarious and intriguing results.
Afterwards, the lush greenery of Montjuic's gardens is a tonic for gallery-tired eyes - perhaps the tulips and water lilies of the Jardins de Mossen Cinto de Verdaguer, specialising in bulbs and water plants, or the collection of plants from around the world at the Jardi Botanic.

Predictably, I opt to swim. The city's diving pool is closed; with its panoramic views of the city, it was admired by a global television audience in 1992 and featured in the video for Kylie Minogue's 2003 hit Slow. So we walk instead to Montjuic's Piscines Bernat Picornell, built in 1970, renovated for the Olympics and featuring interesting cultural differences: a Saturday-night session, topless sunbathing beside the outdoor pool and horizontally strung lanes in the indoor Olympic pool (Avinguda Estadi, 30-38).

On our itinerary is the 18th-century convent that houses Museu Picasso, with its collection of the early representational work created before the artist became a cubist (Carrer Montcada 15-23; I'm thrilled to find Picasso's Barceloneta Beach, painted in 1896, showing my new favourite beach with donkeys on the sand, fishermen's cottages where the cafes now stand and smoking chimney stacks of factories of the neighbouring suburb of Poblenou in the background. At five in the afternoon, I'm back there for a late dip.

We're renting a renovated, shuttered studio apartment in a picturesquely narrow street in the Gothic El Born area, one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods. The 14th-century Santa Maria del Mar cathedral is less than 100 metres away and we're eating the best tapas we've ever had at Bubo, on the edge of its square (Caputxes 10; We later discover that The New York Times was talking up Bubo's grilled eggplant and fetta - and its exquisite jewel-like cakes - in 2007. But so what? We stumble across it on our first night, after a week in Britain with its chain-run eateries, and we're thrilled.

It's a residential area so we can buy good bread and the finest jamon iberico at shops around the corner. We can stroll to the markets of La Boqueria on La Rambla and the Santa Caterina market, with its wavy multicoloured roof and chic tapas bar. But, best of all, Barceloneta is only 10 minutes' walk from our apartment.

Many snooty bloggers deride this beach and all the others in the immediate area, from Port Olimpic to Bogatell and Mar Bella, insisting that the closest beach worth visiting is at Sitges, a charming resort 40 kilometres south-west of Barcelona, with whitewashed houses, steep winding alleys and a baroque church overlooking the water. We dutifully take the 45-minute train trip to Sitges, arriving on the last day of its annual October film festival (and we discover that film-festival queues look the same as they do in Australia). In fact, the Australian thriller-western Red Hill is screening when we arrive but we choose to stroll along the waterfront instead - and, of course, to swim.

So I remain faithful to Barceloneta. It's a city beach, to be judged by city-beach standards. The clarity of its 21-degree water in late summer is no worse than Melbourne's Brighton beach or Sydney's Redleaf. Better than that, Barceloneta is a beach with a story: a key chapter in the dramatic transformation of the city for the 1992 Olympics.

Another giant beachside sculpture draws me into this narrative. Homenatge a la Barceloneta is a leaning tower of steel boxes with glass windows erected on the sand at Barceloneta, just a stone's throw from a seafood restaurant called Can Majo, which we later visit after reading a foodie website's recommendation that it has the best paella in the city (Almiral Aixada 23;

The work of the German sculptor Rebecca Horn, Homenatge is a tribute to the ramshackle beach bars and cafes swept away when the beach area was redeveloped for the Games. The choice of subject matter might suggest a critical attitude by the artist but Barcelona residents appear to have been thrilled by an urban transformation that turned the city's face to the water and gave them somewhere to sail, windsurf and swim.
Before the Games, Barcelona had sea but no "beach" in the sense that other Mediterranean cities understand it. Before 1992, Barceloneta was regarded as edgy and slightly dangerous. Gypsies camped on the beach at night and locals came only for the boxy little beach bars set up on the sand. A railway line ran close by, cutting off the adjacent area of Poblenou, then full of disused factories and derelict housing, from the rest of the city. It also cut the city off from the beach.

The Olympic Games makeover, masterminded by socialist mayor Pasqual Maragall, brought marinas, new housing, luxury restaurants with suede couches on their beachside terraces and a bayside promenade, ideal for cycling and new housing. Sand was trucked in to build up a planned three kilometres of beach, which increased to five. The railway line was torn up and the tracks moved underground.

Now, the southern end of Poblenou, once the site of the Olympic village, is the residential area of Port Olimpic. Like the rest of the city, it's dotted with the work of the world's most fashionable architects, including French architect Jean Nouvel's 38-storey Torre Agbar, headquarters of the local water supply company and nicknamed the "Gherkin".

Like most visitors, we spend hours absorbing the whimsy of Barcelona's genius son, Antoni Gaudi, visiting his technicoloured Park Guell and touring his Casa Batllo and La Pedrera apartment blocks. But we are also captivated by the work of his fellow modernista (or Catalan art nouveau) architects such as Josep Puig i Cadalfalch, creator of such urban Gothic fantasies as the Casa de les Punxes (1903-5), a turreted castle that occupies a whole block and now houses offices; and Lluis Domenech i Montaner.

There are daily tours of Montaner's Palau de la Music Catalana, with its fevered interior of flying horses and sculpted roses (Carrer del Palau de la Musica 4, El Born; But we take it in at leisure, listening to a Bulgarian symphony orchestra concert here. We walk past the gorgeous Gran Teatre del Liceu, destroyed by fire in 1994 and rebuilt in 1999 to the 1861 plans, with the addition of such new technology as an electronic libretto system offering most seats a choice of English, Spanish and Catalan surtitles on small screens. Bizet's Carmen is playing and for an eye-watering €184 ($244) each we buy seats - in a burgundy velvet-lined box - for enfant terrible director Calixto Bieito's radical staging of the opera, with 1980s costumes and male nude scene.

We also visit i Montaner's Casa Fuster, the luxury hotel featured in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and have a drink in a foyer bar that preserves the original 1908 decor (Passeig de Gracia 132).
Like most tourists, we're besotted by the city's historic buildings. But the locals are more inclined to line up to see modern architect-designed interiors.

On Sunday afternoon, as we dawdle along Passeig de Gracia, on our way to Gaudi's Casa Batllo, we spot what looks like a queue of film-festival types outside the Mandarin Hotel. It's an open day to inspect the interior, the work of Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola. Later the same day, we pass a similar queue of interior-architecture fans outside Casa Camper, a boutique hotel near the university and designed by the company behind the well-known shoes.

I decide to do what the Barcelonans do. I take a personal tour of the 42nd and 43rd floor of the Hotel Arts, visiting the Six Senses spa for a massage and a dip in its warm plunge pool-with-a-view (Marina 19-21; Afterwards I sit in my pristine white hotel dressing gown, sipping a cup of ginger tea, served with one shiny date and one dried fig, and stare down at sailboats skimming across the glittering blue of the Mediterranean. Far below me a solitary swimmer paddles along the shoreline. Someone else on a "swimenade", perhaps.

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Barcelona for about $1980 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly to Singapore (8hr), then Barcelona (13hr 35min there and 12hr 50min return).