PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

Since hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona has steadily transformed itself into Spain's hippest city, home to some of Europe's hottest hotels, chicest shoes and that epitome of Mediterranean fashion, Zara.

Wander through the Barri Gotic, the 12th-to-15th century labyrinth of narrow streets surrounding the 13th-century cathedral, to find thoroughly modern foot fashions at La Manual Alpargatera (Avinyo 7,

tel: 34 93 301 0172). Devotees of the espadrille flock here, where walls are lined with the classic Spanish woven sole sandal (from Euro20/$200) in a Technicolor array of styles. More woven wonders can be found in the cheap and cheerful boutiques that line the passageway between Placa de la Cucurulla and Avinguda Portal de l'Angel. You'll be heading this way to pay homage, in euros if not fashion allegiance, at Zara (Avinguda Portal de l'Angel 32, tel: 34 93 317 4452). Raid the recently opened Zara Home floor for trend-setting bedding.

Die-hard fans can cross the grand Placa Catalunya to Passeig de Gracia for more of the same, or open their wallets considerably wider for a buttery bit of luxury leather from Loewe (Passeig de Gracia 35, tel: 34 93 216 0400). Considered Spain's most exclusive brand, it opened here, in the art-nouveau Casa Lleo-Morera, in 1943, although Loewe has been reinventing itself since 1846, most recently thanks to fashion-forward designs from Belgian Jose Enrique Ona Selfa.

Take a culture break at the new Museum of Contemporary Art (Placa dels Angels 1, tel: 34 93 412 0810), a stark architectural statement designed by American Richard Meier, before perusing the equally modern, artful designs nearby at hip shoe boutique Camper (Placa dels Angels 4, tel: 34 90 346 4598), where the left and right shoe may only loosely resemble one another (matching is so last season). At least they offer a comfortable fit, from Euro95.

Passing up a taste of Spanish chocolate would be a mistake. Splurge on custom flavours such as green tea or thyme chocolate bars (Euro3) and homemade raspberry chocolate jam (Euro18) at XOCOA (Carme 3, tel: 34 93 304 2360). Your sugar high should last long enough to lead you back through the Barri Gotic, heading south along the famed pedestrian-filled Las Ramblas and taking a left onto Calle Ferran. Stroll the intimate Calle Flassaders and try on pretty party frocks by Julie Sohn at the deceptively named Cafe de la Princessa (Flassaders 21, tel: 34 93 319 4070). Pick up soft, artisan-made finger puppets and fantasy animals that make sweet souvenirs at Almacen Marabi (Flassaders 30, tel: 34 686 18 76 45; from Euro10). Much more grown up are the gowns, blouses and constructed jackets at Cortana (Flassaders 41, tel: 34 93 310 1255), where local design darling Rosa Cortana shows off her feminine silhouettes in silk tulle and cashmere (from Euro195). Even the owner of the equally chic La Coquette (left; Calle Rec 65, tel: 34 93 319 2976, across Passage del Born) says she dreams of a closet full of Cortana. As it is, this former shoe designer stocks her shop with dainty footwear (from Euro265) by Magrit, a Spaniard who also designs for Chanel, handmade Brazilian bikinis from De Romi (Euro180) and sparkling party clothes (from Euro300) from another Brazilian, Isabela Capeto, a soon-to-be-big fashion name.