The Ciutat Vella (Old City) is where the top attractions are, and if you are short of precious time, this is where you should spend most of it. The Gothic cathedral, the Roman foundations, and the earthy Raval and funky Ribera districts are all located within this large chunk of the city's landscape, which, due to its one-way and pedestrianized streets, is best visited on foot. It seems daunting at first, but striking landmarks such as the cathedral, the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art), and the Plaça del Rei will help you navigate around the maze. To make it easier, I have divided the attractions up into three sub-areas: The Barri Gòtic (east of La Rambla), El Raval (west of La Rambla), and La Ribera (west of Vía Laietana).
Barcelona's Patron Saint: Santa Eulàlia -- Barcelona's revered patron saint, Santa Eulàlia, was 13 years old when she died a virgin, having enraged the ruling Roman authorities by throwing sand at the altar of the Temple of Augustus after being ordered to honor it by ruthless local ruler Dacian. At the time the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians, so Eulàlia's act was insanely provocative. Dacian accused her parents, rich Sarrià merchants, of building up a fortune through the "sorcery" of their religion, so this was his chance to take revenge on their daughter. Her parents tried to protect Eulàlia from Dacian's wrath by retreating to their country home, but she bravely ran away to confront him in Barcelona, berating him in public for his cruelty to Christians. Her horrifically sadistic punishments included whippings; burnings with hot oil, lead, and braziers; burial in quicklime; and tearing of her flesh by hooks. After all these ordeals, which failed to shake her faith, she was paraded around the city three times on a cart. She died on the cross at Plaça San Pedro, where a monument records her martyrdom; her remains are buried in the crypt of the cathedral.
The old original Gothic quarter is Barcelona's greatest urban attraction. Most of it has survived intact from the Middle Ages. Spend at least 2 or 3 hours exploring its narrow streets and squares, which continue to form a vibrant, lively neighborhood. A nighttime stroll, when lanes and squares are atmospherically lit, takes on added drama. The buildings are austere and sober for the most part, the cathedral being the crowning achievement. Roman ruins and the vestiges of 3rd-century walls add further interest. This area is intricately detailed and filled with many attractions that are easy to miss.
El Call: The Jewish Quarter
Before the "Catholic Kings" Ferdinand and Isabella systematically set about persecuting Jewish communities in Iberia in the late 15th century, Barcelona's Jews had lived for centuries alongside Christians and enjoyed special status under the city's autonomous rule. Barcelona's Sephardic Jews flourished in the Middle Ages, reaching a population of four million people in the 13th century, 15% of the total population of the city. They were respected for their financial expertise, understanding of the law, and learned figures, including poet Ben Ruben Izahac and astronomer Abraham Xija. The community resided in the city neighborhood El Call (pronounced "kye"), reputedly from the Hebrew word kahal, which means "community" or "congregation." The area was bordered by old walls to the west and east, and its entrance was through the Plaça Sant Jaume. Today this tiny, ancient neighborhood is marked by atmospheric, narrow streets lined with 14th- to 16th-century buildings, some with vestiges of their former residents. The largest and most complete is the main synagogue in Calle Marlet, no. 5. Consisting of two cellar-like rooms below street level, the space was virtually unknown, serving as a warehouse until 1995 when the building with its four floors added on top was put up for sale. It was acquired by the Asociación Call de Barcelona, which embarked on a meticulous renovation.
On the same street, in the direction of the Arc de Sant Ramón, is a wall plaque dating from 1314 bearing the inscription (in Hebrew) "Holy Foundation of Rabbi Samuel Hassardi, whose life is never ending." The remains of the female Jewish public baths can be seen nearby in the basement of the pleasant Cafe Caleum at the intersection of the streets Banys Nous (which means "New Baths") and Palla. The men's baths are hidden in the rear of the furniture shop S'Olivier (Banys Nous 10); ask permission from the owner to take a peek.
Smaller than the Barri Gòtic, the La Ribera district boasts two major attractions: The Museu Picasso and the soaring Gothic church of Santa María del Mar. Additional smaller treasures abound in its atmospheric streets in the form of cafes, artisan workshops, and intimate boutiques. It's a wonderful place to stroll, window-shop, and grab a bite in its many outdoor cafes, and compact enough to cover in an afternoon. At night the bars and coctelerías open their doors and crowds roll in.
El Raval is a neighborhood of contrasts. Here, imaginative new buildings and urban projects are continuously being created in the streets of the city's largest inner-city neighborhood. Historically working-class, the district is clearly being gentrified in many areas, while other neglected corners retain a markedly downtrodden air. For many, El Raval symbolizes progressive 21st-century Barcelona with a new multicultural blend of Catalan, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and South American cultures evident at every turn.
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